Growing up, my Brooklyn was spiced with the different ethnicities of New York City. The Irish, the Italians, the Jews and the native New Yorkers. It wasn’t a clean city nor a safe one – but there was an unmistakable identity about being a New Yorker.
The subways were dirty, the roads were littered with potholes and garbage and the streets were infested with smut and stray dogs.
I remember the graffiti on the walls, the people sitting on stoops drinking beer and listening to transistor radios.
The gangs of Italians and the Irish each occupying their respective corners. The Italians had East 2nd St and Kings Highway – while the Irish stood on McDonald Ave and Kings Highway.
In between there were shops; a corner diner by the Irish, owned and run by a fat Greek man and his family, John’s Pizza owned and run by John and his family, Joe’s Variety Store run by Joe, an Orthodox Jew who would follow you around the store as you shopped. There was Jerry’s Auction outlet run by Big Jerry who chain smoked and had a perpetual cup of black coffee at his side by the register (Along with a wooden bat behind him). We would buy our wiffle balls and baseball cards there. There was Robert Hall clothing store on the corner of East 2nd and Kings Highway – perpendicular to the Italians across the way.
On Halloween storefronts would be painted with eggs thrown by the gangs at each other or just towards the stores itself. It wasn’t pretty – but there was a uniqueness about my Brooklyn.
This was the Brooklyn where I grew up – where each store owner worked their businesses as if they owned the land and would do anything to protect what was theirs.
Each person and business were guided by a familial sense and an understanding that success was not an entitlement but came as a result of hard work and solid ethics.
The Jewish Dinette Store owner with the Yiddish accent and quick smile despite having been put through hell by the Nazi’s. The delicatessen with the over sized sandwiches and hot dogs; the owner always making sure you could eat off the floor if need be. The travel agency with the older man with the younger wife working around the clock with a constant sense of urgency but always with a smile and an open hand. The Middle Eastern grocery stores across the way run by, whom else? An Egyptian Jew who put quantity above cleanliness but who’s food tasted delicious. The hardware store run by another Yid named Sol and later on by his son, Howie. The Middle Eastern Bakery run by the husband, wife and children – you could gain weight just by inhaling the aroma which they inherited from generations before them. Nat’s diner on the corner of East 3rd where buttered rolls and coffee were served for a dollar and Nat and his wife worked the counter all day long.
Brooklyn was spiced up with the different cultures all living together in a compressed setting. The Italians, Irish, Jews from the Middle East and from Europe, the native Brooklynites and the older generation nodding their heads in constant disapproval at the crazy kids running around all day long making too much noise.
The streets where we played two hand touch football, the cars waiting as we finished a play in progress, never once putting their hand on the horn.
The sidewalks where the chalk was used to draw a hop-scotch diagram, the stoops where dreams of pitching and catching could be played over and over again by a cute little Met’s fan who dreamed of being Tom Seaver.
The schoolyard on east 2nd and 3rd where stick-ball, softball, basketball (two courts) football and cheer leading could be practiced yet never perfected. We would play our sports and the girls would be walking by smiling – we would play and act just like the players on TV, not an HD 60 inch TV but a small black n white tv screen (Smaller than a laptop moniter!) which sat atop the old Zenith Color furniture tv which stopped working years ago and would never be fixed.
The schoolyard was filled with Syrian Jews, Italian and Irish Catholics; we would fight for the field by playing a short game with whoever won getting to play a full game with their own friends.
These were intense games, don’t get the wrong idea, most of the time a fight or two would break out – but in the end whoever won would play and whomever lost would go and get some pizza and come back to play once that game was over.
As the days ended we would start the teasing as each mother would come looking for their kids to come home; I remember hearing my mother’s voice calling me so many times from our home four houses away.
Today when you walk around the neighborhood you can see the watered down version of what Brooklyn used to be – my Brooklyn at least.
The schoolyard is usually empty when the school is closed, the corners are unoccupied and Robert Hall was torn down over twenty years ago. The businesses are run by mostly non-owners with personalities that are sweet and accommodating as opposed to moody immigrantian attitude. The streets are clean and there are no kids playing in them, just impatient drivers with blaring horns.
The Italians have moved to Staten Island and then to Long Island; the Irish have disbursed to different sections of this borough with the Middle Easter Jews being the leftovers from an era lost.
I walk by the schoolyard and I can still remember the sounds of the softballs being hit, I can see the spalding or the blue ball soaring through the sky, I can still hear the arguments and the cursing and my mother telling me its time to come home.
One time I was even tempted to buy a spalding from some store and to play stoop ball pretending to be that kid again who dreamed of being Tom Seaver. That kid who’s dreams have all escaped his grasp but who has caught and held onto so many more. You cant go back in time – hell there aren’t even stoops anymore – just fancy stairs with no flavor.
When I walk around I always seem to time travel to other spaces in time. I remember how my Brooklyn once was – it was never the optimal place to want to be but in my memories it was the optimal place to grow up. A place where mix of spices from around the world created a taste that will never be savored again.