The Streets Where I Lived – Part 1

The former St. Peter’s Hospital in Brooklyn, NY (aka Cobble Hill Nursing Home)

The real reason behind our convoluted drive to Trader Joe’s in Rego Park, Queens the other day was, first, to do a little sightseeing in Brooklyn — but also to visit my place of birth and the apartments in which I spent my first six-plus years of life.

Since relocating here from L.A., memories of my old NY haunts have been continually tugging at my emotions.

I think it’s because the experience of NY feels different to me now. With my father gone almost ten years (he was alive when I moved to L.A.) and my mother — still here, physically, but far from 100% mentally, and living in PA — it’s as if the ship of my past has pulled up anchor and been set adrift out to sea.

My maternal grandparents died when my mother was in her 40s — shockingly, each, one day after the other. First, my grandfather, 87, in surgery; then, my grandmother, 80, in her sleep. I recall my mother’s dazed expression upon hearing the news of her mother’s death. She said: “I’m an orphan.” My good friend Barbara uttered the exact same thing not long ago in response to the passing of her mom.

It just goes to show that you’re never too old to feel like a child again. I suppose I’ve never truly understood the heft of the words “I am an orphan” until now. Although my mom is still alive, she is most assuredly losing touch with so much of her former self as time goes by. And the day will come when she will forget me — and herself — completely. I just don’t know when that will be. Most likely, it will happen before she physically dies.

Visiting these Brooklyn locations and reliving the memories attached to them — many were shared with me over the years by my parents or aunts and uncles; others I remember directly — reinforces for me the feeling, as my 87 year old Uncle Vinny aptly put it in a Christmas card recently, of being “back in my homeland.”

With such rememberances fresh in mind, the first stop on my Brooklyn sojourn was St. Peter’s Hospital on Henry St. in Cobble Hill (or, in its new incarnation since 1993, the Cobble Hill Nursing Home). Built in 1889 and run by the Sisters of St. Francis, St. Peter’s had only 126 beds. My mom and I occupied one of those beds for ten whole days ( ! ) after my birth.

Back then, hospitals were not the assembly lines they are today. Everything wasn’t about the bottom line. New mothers were given the chance to get acquainted with their new role and received valuable training on how to care for their infant.

That’s the good news about the days of yore. The bad news — it was a decrepit hospital. Newly born, I had somehow contracted trench mouth (yech – how that could’ve happened in a hospital I don’t even want to know). According to my mom, they painted my mouth with some purplish antiseptic solution and kept us around for a while for observation.

Which gave my mom a chance to get to know some of the nuns. Upon learning that she planned to name me Susan Madeline, one of the nuns said, “Why don’t you name her Mary Madeline?”

In her usual no-nonsense way, my mother told her, “I hate the name Mary.”

The next stop on the mini-tour was Bainbridge St., in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. That was where I lived after St. Peter’s. The photo above shows the corner of Ralph and Bainbridge. My maternal grandparents lived in a cold-water flat on Ralph Ave. We’re talking about Ralph Cramden territory here (remember The Honeymooners?) Ralph Ave., Chauncey St., Herkimer St…

A coal stove in the kitchen (which also contained the bathtub) heated their railroad style apartment. The further you got from the kitchen, the more frigid the apartment would become. At the very end was the “front room” and it was as cold as a refrigerator. Bundled up in blankets, I’ve got fond memories of my grandfather and me watching the Saturday Night prize fights on his tiny b/w T.V. in that room.

The tank to their toilet was mounted high overhead on the wall in their chilly bathroom. To flush it, you had to tug on a long chain. I was terrified of that tank. I’d always pull the chain and run, scared it would come crashing down on my head.

A few blocks from Ralph Ave. down Bainbridge St. was where I lived with my parents. Because I couldn’t remember the exact house number (how could I possibly, I was an infant), I emailed my cousin Moe to ask if she knew. She would dig out her parent’s wedding album, she said, thinking the address might have been recorded in there.

Moe’s parents– my Aunt Claire and Uncle Artie — lived in the same two-family house (or maybe it was three-?) on Bainbridge St. as my parents (a house my mother called “Mouse Manor” – guess why). Mouse Manor was where their lifelong friendship began.

You see, we’re not blood-related cousins, but we’ve always felt as if we were. Because that’s how long we’ve known each other and that’s how close we have always been. Spending many Thanksgivings together as kids, we’d lie sprawled out on the living room carpet watching “The March of the Wooden Soldiers” or “The Crawling Eye” on Million Dollar Movie while dinner simmered on the stove.

To make a long story short, when I happened to mention my unsuccessful quest for the correct address on Bainbridge St. to my brother, Frank, he responded in his usual nonchalant manner by saying,”I have the address.”

It seems that my paternal grandmother had taken out a life insurance policy on my dad when he was a boy. Years later, my dad, coincidentally, had filed a change of address with the same life insurance company where my brother works today. Frank had come across the policy in a random perusal of the company’s data base.

The address was 334 Bainbridge St.

Or was it?

Stay tuned for Part 2…

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2 Responses to “The Streets Where I Lived – Part 1”

  1. Robert A. Waters Says:

    Hi: I write a true crime blog and am publishing an article about a kidnapping that happened in St. Peter’s Hospital in 1959. I wondered if I could get permission to publish your nice photo of the hospital. In return, I’ll link your blog to my article. Thanks for your consideration.

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