Posts Tagged ‘coney island’

Bye Bye Brooklyn – Part 3

January 20, 2010

It’s hard to leave your friends.

My dad was an amateur photographer and shot this picture of me and my friends in front of 893 Schenck Ave. I was three years old when it was taken.

I’m fourth from the left in the bottom row — the girl with the precision-cut bangs (my mom must have used a slide caliper) and Hopalong Cassidy wristwatch, a gift from my parents after I’d learned how to tell time.

For those next couple of years, if someone were to ask: “Do you have the time?” I could answer, “Yes.” Life was good.

But not long after I turned five, my dad announced that he was set to join the diaspora of Brooklynites fleeing to the suburbs. That our neighborhood was changing (How so? From worse to worser?). Every weekend, we began taking family car rides to Long Island just to look around.

Over my mom’s protests, my dad put a downpayment on a house in Hicksville. Before we knew it, moving day was scheduled for early March, right smack in the middle of kindergarten.

Admittedly, there were some things about Brooklyn I didn’t mind leaving behind. For example:

1) PS 137.

In my kindergarten class, when it was your birthday, you had to lie face down over the teacher Mrs. Gosden’s lap in front of the whole class. First, they’d sing “Happy Birthday.” Then she would lift up your dress and slap you on the tush, tallying her slap-count to match your years of age.

That wasn’t all. The next words out of her mouth were: “and a pinch to grow an inch…” — after which she’d make good her promise by targeting the same anatomical area.

Ever since I had entered kindergarten, I’d dreaded the arrival of my birthday but was too ashamed to tell my parents.

But fate, as it would turn out, was on my side. To my enormous relief, I would be spared the mortification of having my underpants exposed to everyone in my class because my birthday fell on a national holiday. On Lincoln’s birthday, school was closed.

2) The scary smoke stacks across the street from where I lived.

At last, I could release my fear of being stuffed into the smokestacks by a “stranger.”

3) Polio shots or shots of any kind in the school cafeteria.

I was not going to miss the gun-metal, prison-issue cafeteria tables and benches — which folded out of the walls like Murphy Beds and provided seating for the tear-stained throng of wailing, drooling, post-vacinated kids and our respective collection of sticky lollipops matted with hair.

4) Sandy, the scourge of  kindergarten, who insisted on throwing my coat on the floor every single day so he could hang his own on hook #1.

Hooks were assigned alphabetically. I didn’t care where I hung my coat, but Sandy did, and, apparently, so did my perverted teacher, who insisted on punishing him daily — thereby prolonging our vicious little cycle of misery.

5) Peeing contests staged by boys who lived in my building.

They’d line up at the curb, unzip their flies and enthusiastically expel golden arcs of urine into the air just to see whose would splash down the farthermost.

But other things, irreplaceable things, would be lost in the move, and that made me sad:

1) My vibrant network of friends.

2) Our neighbors (and honorary godparents), Aunt Eva and Uncle Hal.

Eva was drop dead glamorous and smoked her Pall Malls in a cigarette holder. Hal was a mensch who worked as a sales manager for Mattel. The night before they would hit the toy stores, my sister and I each received a pair of Mickey Mouse ears from Hal — not the cheap, plastic headband-style ears, but the genuine article:  black felt cap with Mouse Club insignia and ears sewn on, just like the Mouseketeers wore on T.V. Talk about bliss.

3) Knish runs to Pitkin Ave.

Every type of knish you could imagine was sold on Pitkin Ave. My mom’s favorite was the cabbage knish. My sister and I liked potato. My dad, not a knish man, would always go for a Hebrew National hot dog smothered in sauerkraut and mustard.

4) The carousel at Coney Island.

My sister, Connie, riding the carousel

This carousel had a brass ring you could grab for — which is something of a rarity as far as carousels go. My arms were too short to reach the brass ring, but I loved wrapping them around the horse’s neck and running my fingers inside its flaring nostrils. I also liked sitting on the benches because that’s what the adults did.

In the picture above, I’m standing on the carousel platform next to my sister. I’m holding onto a pole. Check out the guy in the fedora behind her. He looks like he hangs out around smokestacks.

Which is probably why I was not in the saddle. I wanted to keep an eye on him.

5) The subway.

When we weren’t on foot, and for lack of a better choice (i.e., being chauffeured around by my dad), we rode the subway. We were always able to get where we wanted to go with a token.

The subway cars were not silver then, but black. The seats were actually caned. Yellow in color, they looked just like corn on the cob. And the fare was only 15 cents.

Although my mom had never learned how to drive a car, she’d always loved riding in one. For another type of person, moving to the suburbs sans drivers license — where subways were non-existent — might have proven to be an insurmountable obstacle. But not for her.

Yes, she would deign to ride buses, when necessary, but her preferred mode of transportation was the automobile. This inclination of hers would lead her in pursuit of a rather unconventional means — at least, when it came to most mothers of the 1960s — for getting around town.

Thumbing her nose at convention, and in the interest of expedience, she would take up hitchhiking.

Nine Years Later

July 30, 2009


July 24th was the nine-year anniversary of my father’s death.

Where did the time go?

The photo above (I’m on the left, my younger sister is on the right) was taken, possibly by my mother, at the beach in Coney Island, Brooklyn:


Some of our best times as kids were spent at the beach.

My dad was one of the few senior citizens who, when visiting the casinos in Atlantic City, brought along his swim trunks. He liked to take a restorative dip in the gray waters of the Atlantic before heading back home to Long Island. Beached hypodermic needles and used condoms notwithstanding, he swore by the magical healing properties he’d attributed to the sea.

One of his favorite poems was Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Maybe that’s part of the reason he revered salt water. On any given hot summer’s day during my childhood, or if he was particularly thirsty, he might spontaneously recite a few lines from it (which, long ago, he had memorized in grade school):

All in a hot and copper sky,

The bloody Sun, at noon,

Right up above the mast did stand,

No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,

We struck, nor breath nor motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.

Those were the salad days for our family. Days of reciting poetry, of weekends at the beach, dancing in the kitchen or committing our imagination to a good book. Both of my parents were big readers back then. A few years after this picture was taken, I would also share in their passion.

Perhaps, to guide us through the troubled times that would eventually overtake our family, the bedtime stories he told us each night changed from tales of chocolate soda fountains and enchanted forests to poetry recitations. Invictus (Henley) was one of his favorite poems. These last two lines have stayed with me all my life:

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

In raising us, he did his best with what he had to work with, which wasn’t a lot. His own father was a brute. So, for that, I thank him.

Right before he died, he was diligently at work, emailing Italy and Canada and copying us kids, as he cobbled together his family tree. He never was able to finish it. Death would claim him rapidly and unexpectedly, in just three months’ time.

While wading through the things he left behind, I came across an essay he had written in his forties, around the time he’d returned to school to get his bachelors degree. He had saved the essay for thirty years.

It’s a wonderful glimpse into the past, particularly, as it relates to the Italian immigrant experience in Brooklyn, N.Y. For me, it’s another piece to the puzzle that was my father.

The Old Neighborhood

by Frank Ambrico


When I think of the old neighborhood, I feel as though I were raised in Italy.

Most of the people in our neighborhood were Italian either by birth of descent. When you heard two people speaking to each other, it was almost always in Italian. As a child, it was a wonder to me that they could understand each other’s rapid conversation. The dialects were so different. As I grew older, however, I too learned to understand most dialects, Northern Italian and Sicilian being the most difficult to learn. The other dialects that were spoken by most of the other neighbors were only slight variations form the Neapolitan my parents spoke.

The music that was heard in our neighborhood, as would be expected, was Italian, too. Radios were always turned to stations VOV, WLIB or WEVD. Tulio Carmanarde, Nino Martino and Carol Butti were the favorite singers.

In the summer, all the religious societies held “feasts” in honor of their patron saint. There, you would find all kinds of favorite foods sold at stands where they were cooked or baked.

The “feast” that was held in honor of Saint Rocco seemed to be everyone’s favorite. This celebration always included a grease pole. This pole was as tall and round as a lamppost. At the top of the pole was a crosspiece loaded with fine foods and a ten-dollar bill. The pole was then covered with a thick layer of grease. Whoever could reach the top would take all that was there. Long lines of young boys would form to get a chance to climb the pole, some, as two-man teams, some as singles using a rope with a slipknot. This sport would go on for hours attracting hundreds of people.

There were many summer evenings that I enjoyed in a neighbor’s front yard singing Italian folksongs or just listening to the conversation of the adults. The singing would usually begin when some of the musicians from our block brought their instruments over and played a few tunes. All of the would-be “Caruso’s” would immediately join in and so the sing-along began.

There never was a shortage of singers; the problem was to get some of them to stop singing. Absolute quiet and undivided attention was expected when someone performed individually, even if he was unpopular. The custom was to show enthusiastic applause, and a spokesman would beg the performer to honor the group with another song even if the first one was terrible. Sometimes when the music went on past midnight and the children were in their homes asleep, the celebration would take on a quieter air.

At this point, the enthusiasm for music would taper off and the neighborhood comedians would take center stage. An Italian, it seems, cannot tell a joke the way an American does, with just a few lines. A three-line American joke becomes no less than a fifteen-minute production. The gestures and pantomime intermingled with the story make for an incredibly funny performance.

The comedy would eventually give way to the more serious or sentimental talk by the old folks about Italy or their youth. Occasionally, I was able to escape my mother’s eye and sit there with my eyelids at half-mast trying to fight off sleep so that I could listen to the stories the old folks would tell. They always enchanted us youngsters.

Whenever I happen to overhear a familiar Italian dialect or detect an aroma of Italian cooking, I can’t help but think of the old neighborhood.