Posts Tagged ‘the old neighborhood’

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.

The Streets Where I Lived – Part 2

January 14, 2010

339 (not 334) Bainbridge St., Brooklyn, NY

Departing the site of the former St. Peter’s Hospital in Cobble Hill — edifice of my birth — we headed for East New York. I think we were driving down Fulton St. The massive steel structure of an elevated train (could be the C train) loomed above, dividing the road down the middle — as in the film The French Connection — remember the famous car chase beneath the El ?

Anyway, we made a left on Utica and drove to Bainbridge St.

Turning the corner, we noticed at once that the odd-numbered houses were on the right side of the street — but that the even numbered houses were gone!

Directly across the street — where number 334 should have been — loomed  a vast complex of brick apartment buildings that are generally referred to as “The Projects.”

Therefore, I had to assume that: A) the insurance company must have made a typo when it recorded the address on my dad’s old policy or; B) the houses across the street had been demolished to make room for “The Projects.”

I went ahead and shot a photo of number 339 Bainbridge St. My reasoning was that the number 9 sometimes can be mistaken for the number 4. Case in point, please indulge me as I flashback to grade school:

Scene: Kitchen table in my parents’ home, circa the 1960s. Under the overhead light of our wagon wheel chandelier, a frustrated young student (me) is struggling with her math homework. Her father is hovering beside her in the guise of “helping.”

Father (growing more impatient by the minute): “Is that a nine or a four?”

Daughter: “A four.”

Father: “Then why can’t you make it look like a goddam four!”

(What can I say? Even back then, I was arty. I drew elaborate fours.)

Anyway, here’s proof that we did, in fact, live on Bainbridge St. — me and my mom, home from the hospital, hanging out in the kitchen of the phantom apartment.

Our next stop was 893 Schenck Ave. — “The Projects” in the East New York section of Brooklyn, lying midway between Flatlands Ave. and Linden Blvd. We moved there a couple of years later, either before or right after the birth of my sister, Connie.

When we drove up to the front of the building, J.C. took one look at the old homestead and remarked, with a touch of alarm in his voice, “I didn’t know you grew up in such a poor area.”

Neither did I.  At the time, Apt. 1E had seemed palatial. I must admit, though, that living on a street whose name sounds like “skank” tends to conjure up all kinds of nasty images…

Still, I was so happy there. I had a new little sister, lots of friends and all of them lived in my building. Visiting them was effortless and merely required a push of the elevator button.

I’m on the trike.

Our playground, the scene of one of the most dramatic events of my Brooklyn childhood, was located in the back of the building. On that day, my mom’s friend and her daughter were visiting us. Her daughter and I went out back to play on the monkey bars. Mid-twirl, she suddenly lost her footing and smashed her face against the steel. She literally screamed bloody murder. I helped her up, quickly grabbed her hand and we raced back to my apartment as a crimson river gushed from her mouth.

Her mom freaked out when she saw her daughter, so my mom took over, immediately going into Red Cross mode. She moistened a towel with warm water and began to clean the whimpering girl’s wound, which wasn’t as bad as it had looked once the blood was washed away.

“I’m now going to apply a butterfly bandage,” my mom announced, pausing for effect. “That way, she won’t have a scar.”

Always one step ahead of potential danger, my mom was prepared for anything. She wanted us to be, too. Which, at times, was rather a double-edge sword.

For instance, her all too frequent references to those scary smoke stacks right across the street from our apartment building.

“Never, ever talk to strangers!” my mom would continually warn my sister and me. Then, one day, she added, “If you talk to strangers, they’ll kidnap you and take you away from me and throw you in those smoke stacks.”
“How?” I asked. “They’re too tall.”
“They have very big ladders,” she said.
Aren’t mothers smart?

The Streets Where I Lived – Part 1

January 9, 2010

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…

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.