The reflection of what I did in June of 1948 frightens me today, as it should have back then. It started when, out of the blue, my father said, “Tomorrow, when I come home from work, I’m going to bring you a surprise.” It was such an uncommon statement coming from this British disciplinarian that I fantasized all night and most of the next day about what kind of surprise would accompany my father.
Around 4 o’clock the next day, I decided that, under the circumstances, it was inappropriate to sit around waiting for “it” to come to me; I would have to meet “it” half way. Perhaps it would be too large for Dad to carry alone. Like clockwork, Dad arrived every day at ten to six with meticulous precision, meaning that his train pulled into the elevated line station at 5:35. An inescapable impulse came over me to meet him on the station platform when the subway car doors opened. But the el (as we called the Culver Line subway when it came to our elevated Avenue N station) was unattended at that time of day making it impossible to slither through the turnstile under the cloak of innocence. A ten-year-old, caught by the attendant sneaking through in those days, would be punished with merely a cluck of the tongue. I could handle that. However, with the station deserted and gated, that was not a choice.
Knowing that an unattended station was impenetrable, I lackadaisically stood at the bottom of the stairs that climbed two stories to the fortress-like turnstile that we called the Iron Lady and then up another story to the platform. Hanging on the outside edge of the steps, I thoughtlessly ascended step-by-step, hanging onto the outside of the banister railing, until I reached the first landing. An alert mind would have been terrified; I was ten feet above the sidewalk. I hung there for a bit and swung around the outside of the landing and slowly and aimlessly kept ascending like a monkey on a jungle-gym. Steel bars and a cyclone-type fence blocked access to the platform. I was 20 feet above ground and just hanging around. I noticed a 15-inch gap in the fencing to the side, about four feet away; there was no foothold below that point and a long way down. I knew that I was doing something dreadfully wrong, but somehow that made it right and pulled me farther. How else could I express my appreciation for Dad’s exciting generosity?
Clinging to the bars with my shoes barely penetrating through the fencing, I migrated slowly to the gap, crawled through finally plopping onto a steel beam. I had to slither through another gap amidst skuzzy left-over cables, souvenirs of pigeons and scattered metal debris invisible to public view. Every few minutes an arriving train shook the members that I clung to as I looked for any possible move forward. There was no possibility of going backwards; what flops safely in doesn’t always plop safely out. My childhood sense of invulnerability was quickly eroding as I examined the abandoned detritus and realized that no one would ever find me here. This could have been a lonely and horror-filled dead end, but luckily I noticed a stretch of cyclone fence that shook loosely with each passing train. I was able to slip through the loose flap in the fence to the stairs that ascended to the platform. I was streaked with an oily grime.
I waited on the platform for Dad to emerge with each arriving swarm that spewed from the train. The fourth train brought Dad and I rushed to meet him and see what surprise he brought with him. Knowing that I didn’t have the nickel to enter the platform legally, and realizing that I had climbed three stories to the platform, Dad looked red with fury. He grabbed me by the back of my dirty shirt and with a muted roaring anger, dragged me down the platform and down to the street. Meekly, I asked, “Did you bring something for me?” Without looking at me, he rumbled, “Forget about that,” and kept dragging me home. The worst punishment was that he had forgotten.
Thankfully, Dad never told Mom, which averted a week of Yiddish epithets preceded with the whimpering, “Oy,” followed by the usual predictions of how her life would fall apart. The next day, Dad came home and presented me with a small potted petunia, accompanied by a quiet, “Surprise.” I set it on the fire escape and tried to stop thinking about the potential catastrophe to which I exposed myself. But, when you are ten years old, youthful immortality trumps physical vulnerability. While I remember the incident with amazing detail, I cannot imagine having the courage to do what I did. But, on second thought, if the consequences were unimaginable, I guess it wasn’t courage at all.
For more honest memories of mid-century Brooklyn seen through the eyes of a 10-12 year old (that would be me), go to http://www.ArthurJLevy.com
Posted in Fun reading, memoir
Tagged Brooklyn, courage, Culver, Dad, el, elevated line, Father, Flatbush, subway, Trouble in Flatbush
Breaking away from Flatbush, Brooklyn to attend high school in Manhattan was an amazing event. It marked the transition from child to, well, not yet man, but something in-between. Sex was often on my mind and references and innuendos slipped into every encounter. I had graduated from TROUBLE IN FLATBUSH to a whole new venue of dilemmas. It’s important to remember that this was the early 50s, when strangers were generally trusted. I was a beginning high-school freshman.
It wasn’t long before I had a strange confrontation that introduced me to the rich variety of strangers that I would meet on the subway of New York. My ride home was long and I was generally tired from a busy day at school. Getting a seat was an imperative and a window seat that enabled a restful snooze was a luxury. Coming home at roughly the same time every day allowed me to get familiar with the faces in the crowd. Knowing their stops enabled me to frequently snag a window seat. It wasn’t long before I daydreamed my way to a restful snooze.
One day while I was deep in daydream at a window seat, the seat next to me became empty. It was quickly taken by a good-looking man in a stylish suit. He fiddled with his New York Times opening the large sheets and starting to read. In a semi-daze, my eyes opened and closed, sometimes reading, sometimes just staring at his newspaper. It was hard to avoid since the newspaper was so large it covered part of my lap like a tent.
That’s when it started. My thigh nearest the stranger started to feel warm. It took me a few seconds to realize that he was only holding the paper with one hand. The other hard was exploring new territory; mine. My first instinct was to pretend that I was sleeping with my mind in a different place. Perhaps my mind was, but my thigh was right there, trapped under the New York Times. As his leg pressed against mine, I shrunk closer to the window. The car was packed tight with a rush-hour crowd and under cover of the New York Times I was being groped.
My first sensation was an uncertain fear, followed by excitement of the stimulation, but followed again by a chill that curled my toes and made my hair tingle. Afraid of insulting the well-dressed man, I tucked my books under my arm and excused myself. As I glanced back, he winked with a friendly smile. In a pretense of nonchalance, I got off the train. I could still feel an impression of a strange hand moving inward from my thigh. That feeling doesn’t go away so easily.
Before I tell you what happened, you have to know how the subway in my section of Brooklyn works. When my line made its way well into Brooklyn, it crept out from the dark tunnels into the daylight and slowly climbed to be an elevated line. After riding home from high school in upper Manhattan in the dank bowels of the subterranean city for the better part of an hour, seeing the daylight was a catharsis. Relieved from the tedium of flashing bare light bulbs in black tunnels, it was a relief to study the landscape while the train was at surface level.
In the 50s, there was a pickle “farm” in close vicinity to where the train emerged. This was the landmark that I waited for. The farm consisted of enormous vats of floating cucumbers on their journey to becoming dill pickles. Although the vats appeared to be no more than two feet deep, they each seemed to be about forty yards in diameter. They didn’t need to be deep; pickles float. With the exception of a deep freeze in winter, there was always a man in hip boots skimming a rake over the surface. I later learned that he was nudging the saddest cucs to the edge of the pond to be dropouts and turn to pickle relish. The sight of pickles and the hunger of late afternoon gave me a prescient desire for a savory dill. I often stopped at the local grocery store, Cornick’s, to buy a couple to have with dinner.
But, I digress. It eventually became a challenge to spot the pickle farmer trudging through one of the vats in the 20 seconds when the train was close. Like Pavlov’s dogs, I eventually got the urge to splurge for some half-sour pickles even before daylight struck my window. One day, the whole affair ended. As my train entered the fading daylight, I spotted the pickle farmer in his hip boots at the center of the closest vat. While I was taming my urge to splurge, the farmer was giving in to the urge to purge. The setting sun sparkled through the graceful stream like the Fountains of Rome. He was peeing in a graceful arc out into the air and down into the pickles. Admittedly, trudging through 20 yards of knee-high liquid to answer a call from Mother Nature was a bummer. But on the other hand, the joy of salivating at the thought of a delicious half-sour kosher dill plucked straight from the vat was blunted forever.
Visit my web-site for the book, TROUBLE IN FLATBUSH., to learn more about Brooklyn in the early 50s. You’ll love it. At Amazon.com.