Monday, April 28, 2014

The Stoop

Technically, a “stoop” is a set of stone or brick steps that leads to the upper entrances of the two or three storey row houses that were so typical in the Brooklyn of my youth, but it was so much more to us. It was the place where people sat on hot summer nights in the days before air-conditioning. Kids were allowed to stay out late in the summer playing great games like hide and seek, Johnny-on-the-pony, red light-green light and ring-a-levio. God help you if you didn’t come running when your mother hollered for you.

Neighborhood families gathered on their stoops to gossip about the news of the day. (I love the old joke about an Italian’s idea of a summer vacation: sitting on someone else’s stoop.) The stoop was where we played stoop ball with the versatile “Spaldeen” high-bounce ball. You could play by yourself or against other kids. The stoop was where you sat reading comics while waiting for the ice cream man…in my neighborhood it was “Bungalow Bar”. Their truck is pictured at left, and just looking at it, I still get a craving for my favorite ice cream bar.…toasted coconut.

I'm not sure if stoop-sitting was a New York City phenomenon, but I don't get a sense that people around the country did it. New York's crowded neighborhoods favored multi-storied row houses to maximize space for residential dwellings, and since people needed a way to reach apartments on upper floors, the stoop was just a natural way to do that. There were short stoops of just a few steps to reach first floor apartments, and longer versions of maybe 15 steps like ours on Somers Street. Stoops were natural perches for the many sets of eyes that watched the neighborhood. If you did something wrong in the street, the news of your indiscretion would reach home before you did.

Television was just getting off the ground in the 1950s, and few people in poor neighborhoods had phones. People would get messages at the corner candy store and an enterprising kid would deliver them to the house for a small tip. General news traveled from stoop to stoop...who won a hundred bucks in the Irish Sweepstakes, who was having a fling with the insurance man when he came around to collect the 25 cent premium on her husband's policy, and who had kissed who while playing spin-the-bottle at Joanne DiFazio's birthday party. Stoop sitters would greet neighbors as they walked down the street after returning from work. A few pleasantries were exchanged about Grandma's health, the changing character of the block, little Nicky's upcoming Confirmation...small stuff, but friendly.

The idea of a neighborhood has changed much from when I was a kid in Brooklyn. While it still refers to a geographical place, at also used to mean a community where people knew and looked out for each other. And the stoop was the vantage point from where we looked on the world, but knew our hearts would always belong to that special place where we grew up.

(Originally published 8/14/2008)



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