Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Brooklyn Childhood 1958-1965

It was my fate to be born into a Brooklyn facing its first spring without the Dodgers. I always felt a little cheated. I never experienced the rush of green on emerging from the dark corridors of Ebbets Field into the stands. I never heard the wild rooting of Hilda Chester or the joyful, dissonant sounds of the Dodgers Sym-Phony Band, and by the time I was aware of the Giants, they were just a team on a faraway coast, not the hated rivals from across the river. I left Brooklyn early (I was only seven), but to me the experience was a profound one, as my earliest impressions of the world were formed while I was there. If my readers will indulge me, I would like to share a few of those moments here – fragmentary and incomplete as they are.

Demolition of Ebbets Field in 1960, less than a mile from where I lived on Lincoln Place. In what today seems a perverse and needlessly cruel gesture, the wrecking ball was painted to look like a baseball, and Dodger players were invited to witness the desecration.

My world as a child was limited to the block of Lincoln Place between Rochester and Buffalo Avenues in the Crown Heights neighborhood, where our four-story brick apartment building was. The block was bookended by two synagogues: a simple brick one on our end of the street (which became a Baptist church by the time we left) and a grand one at the other end and around the corner, where we would go for the High Holy Days (now also a church). The next street over was St. John’s Place, the nearest commercial artery. This was where most of the shopping got done, where one got a haircut, shopped for groceries, or had one’s shoes repaired. There was bookstore next to the Key Foods where my mother brought me after shopping. I was encouraged to pick out one book. I usually chose a Dr. Seuss, “The Cat In The Hat”, “Green Eggs and Ham”. There was also a fabulous knish restaurant whose name I regretfully cannot remember.

When I started going to school, my world expanded several blocks to take in the walk to P.S. 191 on Park Place. This took me past the magnificent Congress Theater on St. John’s Place, designed by noted theater architect Charles Sanblom. It was there that I saw films like "101 Dalmatians" and "The Ten Commandments". While I loved the movies we saw there, of course, it was the building itself that fascinated me: the brightly lit marquee at night, the grand lobby. Once, on my way to school, I noticed that the side door on Buffalo Avenue had been left open. I walked in and just stood there in the darkened theater among the plush red seats. It was a strangely delicious feeling.

The Congress Theater in 1958, the year I was born. I do not know the gentleman in the photograph.

Ethnically, ours was what was euphemistically called by some a "neighborhood in transition”. Our block had secular Jews and a few Hasidic Jews (though the Hasidim mostly lived farther down Eastern Parkway), African-Americans, and people we called “Spanish”, though if you called them that they would explain that they were from a place called “Puerto Rico". Our best friends were a black family who lived at the other end of the block. The father was a New York City policeman, and a rather exotic creature – an African-American who had converted to Judaism (the rest of his family had not joined him on his quixotic spiritual path).

It is amazing to me today, in the world of “play dates”, bicycle helmets, and highly supervised activities just how free a child’s world was back then. As long as you stayed within the geographic bounds of the terrain, stayed out of trouble, and were home for supper, you could pretty much do as you pleased. This was particularly true in the summer, when school was out and the nights were long. People came out on the stoops and brought cold drinks and transistor radios. They watched each others kids. This freedom allowed us to create a world in which adults mostly did not intrude. We could ride our bikes and play in the narrow alley next to our building as long as we didn't make too much noise (there was a lady on the fourth floor who would threaten to pour boiling water on us if we got too loud). I was also warned to stay out of the subterranean passage where someone called “the Super” lived. That wasn't much of a problem because it always smelled funny down there. (This smell was later explained to me as something called “whiskey”).

The Dodgers were gone, but there was baseball everywhere. Nearby Lincoln Terrace Park had a grass field where Police Athletic League games were held, and there was a blacktop softball diamond with painted baselines where local teams played. (These were serious games played for money – the blacktop did not stop players from sliding). For the older kids there was stickball, of course. And the Mets, in the early thralls of their ineptitude, and newly installed in the Polo Grounds, were being watched on black and white rabbit-eared TV sets by former Dodger fans like my father. It was in trying to fathom my father’s world while he watched these games that my education on baseball, and more importantly – baseball history – began.

Other fragmentary memories: Playing checkers and hearing the strange sounds of Yiddish at my grandparents' apartment on Park Place; Memorial Day parades on Eastern Parkway my father chasing a mugger through the alley; taking a subway car with cane seats to the Botanic Garden; the grandeur of the war memorial, library and Brooklyn Museum; the six-sided cobblestones of Prospect Park; hearing something strange on the bakelite radio in the kitchen and telling my mother that I think someone just shot the president.

The doors of P.S. 191 were formidable indeed to this six-year-old.

Brooklyn was also the beginning of the other fascination of my life: popular music. My best friend on the block, Tommy Newsome, was obsessed about a group of singers from England called the Beatles. He harangued me until I listened to them on the radio, and I quickly agreed that it was the greatest thing I had ever heard. Tommy and I would stand around the front stoop of one of the two-family houses next to my building and mime the drums and guitars while we shouted out the words. Soon after that my father came home from work and casually gave me a package: a shiny new copy of “Meet The Beatles”.

In April 1965, there was really exciting news. The mother of one of my friends agreed to take a group of us to one of Murray The K’s rock & roll shows at the Fox Theater in downtown Brooklyn. Murray Kaufman was a colorful radio personality who immodestly referred to himself as "the Fifth Beatle". The headliner was Gerry & The Pacemakers, another Liverpool group. It wasn’t the Beatles, but it was close. But as we approached the Fox in the car there was a scene of chaos, with girls screaming hysterically and running through the streets. My friend’s mother panicked, turned the car around, and took us back to the apartment building where she lived to wait it out until she could take us home. The girls played with dolls. I sulked. It would be many more years before my first rock concert. The apartment building? Ebbets Field Houses, the projects built on the hollowed ground where the Boys of Summer had once roamed.

Things were changing fast. There was the Blackout. John Lindsay was elected mayor. Tommy Newsome’s family was moving to someplace called “Long Island”. And soon it was announced that we were planning on going to New Jersey, which the other kids called “the country”. I'll cover that next month…

The sign on the marquee tried to put the best face on things by saying only "Temporarily Closed". But the Brooklyn Fox closed in 1966 and was demolished in 1971.

Our flannel special this month is the 1915 Federal League Brooklyn Tip-Tops road jersey. It is available for $99 for a limited time.