Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Neighborhood Tour Now Departing

Brooklyn of the 1950's, like today, was a collection of neighborhoods. When people asked where you were from, you never said Brooklyn, but rather Flatbush, Brighton, Brownsville, or my neighborhood, East New York. There was a certain character associated with each neighborhood; often they were divided along ethnic or racial lines. Flatbush was heavily Jewish, Bedford Stuyvesant was "colored" (the accepted term for African-Americans in those days), Bay Ridge was Irish and German, and East New York was largely working-class Italian, with some Irish and English left over from earlier immigration waves, and a few African-Americans and Spanish mixed in. During the 1960's, as whites in large numbers moved to the suburbs, and blacks began moving in, racial tensions grew, and sadly, violence became too commonplace. But that is a subject for a more serious post; let me take you on a little tour of the old neighborhood as I remember it.

I lived on Somers Street, between Rockaway and Stone Avenues. In the days before the big box stores drove all the little guys out of business, every neighborhood had its local merchants who knew you on sight. For us the main strip of local stores was along Rockaway Avenue between MacDougal Street and Pacific Street. Further down Rockaway Avenue there was a main source of shopping along Pitkin Avenue that we reached by trolley car.
But for everyday needs, we shopped in the neighborhood. Here are some of the establishments that stick out in my memory.

Spinner's Super Market - On Fulton Street just off Rockaway Avenue, Spinner's was a forerunner of the modern day super market. Bigger than a deli, but nowhere near the acre-sized places like Stop and Shop that I get lost in today. The men who worked in the store were fixtures, like the counters and the lights...they never had an employee turnover problem. Many kids in the neighborhood started their working careers as "bag boys" in Spinner's. One of the head cashiers, whose name was Blackie, taught them how to efficiently pack a brown paper bag with groceries so that it could be carried without tearing. No price scanners existed then; most small purchases were totaled up manually in pencil on the side of the brown bag.

Cactus Pool Room - On the floor above Spinner's was the Cactus Pool Room. Unlike today's unisex pool parlors with multi-colored felt-top tables and espresso bars, Cactus was a man's place. (Okay, it was a dive.) Dark, smoky, dirty, and filled with characters your mother always warned you about. Money games could always be had with the local sharks who carried their own custom-made pool cues. It was a haven for mobster wanna-be's, although I'm sure there were some genuine bad asses who frequented the place. As kids we hung around the entrance hoping to score a dime tip for running errands like buying cigarettes or beer. In those days there were no age restrictions on kids buying stuff like that; if you had the money they sold it to you.

Benny the Barber - There were two barber shops on Rockaway Avenue, Pete's where you could place a bet while getting a haircut or shave, and Benny's, a block down. I went to Benny's, mainly because he had a stack of comics that kids could read while waiting. I remember the place as having three chairs, but I don't recall any barber other than the owner, Benny. On the counter was a glass container filled with blue fluid and combs that I guess were being disinfected or something. There was a line of bottles containing hair creams and shaving lotions. I loved the feel of the hot shaving lather on the back of my neck at the end of every haircut. Benny was very democratic; everybody, man and boy, got the same exact haircut, period.

Crachi's Pharmacy - On the corner of Hull and Rockaway was a drug store run by my godfather, Gaspar Crachi and his brothers. They had a second store further down on Rockaway around Dean Street. In those days drug stores were kind of creepy places. There were bottles of colored fluid in beaker-like containers behind the counter, I guess to convey the impression that the pharmacist was some kind of chemical-mixing genius. The wide variety of over-the-counter drugs and convenience items didn't exist back then; the place was dingy looking and had an antiseptic smell. My godfather retired to Northport in Long Island, and became a minor celebrity/eccentric who displayed his charming paintings at the local library.

Our bread store was Bilello's, on Rockaway between Somers and Hull Streets. The bread was baked on Pacific Street, near the house I was born in, but it was sold in the store. They had a beautiful array of different kinds of bread, all so good that you were lucky to get the bag home without breaking off the heel and eating in enroute. I think the man behind the counter's name was Mike, a stocky guy who walked with a limp. They also sold Italian cookies there. My mother could never get me to eat escarole or spinach until she came up with the devious trick of hollowing out half a loaf of Bilello's bread and stuffing it with the hated greens. It is a treat I enjoy to this day,

I try to recall those times as best I can so that my children might come to know what my life was like in the days when I was young, oh so many years ago. I find it difficult to describe exactly the forces that shaped us, mainly our families and our neighborhood. We never consciously thought about these things, in fact as I look back, we probably just took them for granted. I like to think that the reason I can remember so much of my childhood is because it was such a happy time for me. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

(Originally published 1/28/09)


Children's Craniofacial Association


Joseph Del Broccolo said...

Benny gave me my first haircut, then gave me a toy airplane for not crying! I think Dad was proud that I didn't cry!

The drug store was where you got those little capsules you could fill for a geography project. You filled them with sugar or coffee, or whatever fit to indicate a raw product from a geographical area of the world.


Jim Pantaleno said...

I don't remember the capsule idea but if you were in that drugstore you may have dealt with my godfather or one of his brothers. It's amazing to me that you remember your first haircut! Its so true that somehow our memories can recall things from 50 years ago better than more recent ones.