Saturday, May 30, 2009

Is That the Doorbell?

In the old neighborhood, before malls and supermarkets the size of Rhode Island covered the landscape, there were neighborhood vendors who peddled their wares in the street. They were a fixture on the block and came around as often as they felt their services were needed. Some made daily deliveries, some sold seasonal products like ice cream or shaved ices flavored with sweet syrups, while some just showed up once in a while and left as mysteriously as they had come. Here are a few I remember:

For many years we got our milk delivered fresh every day by the milkman. He drove a panel truck and, if you were up at five in the morning when he delivered, you could hear the rattling sound of empty bottles announcing his arrival. The milk came in glass bottles and was placed in the milk box kept just outside the door. You put your empty bottles in the box to be reused. In the winter, the cream in the milk would rise to the top of the bottle due to the cold, and sometimes freeze if it was not taken in soon enough. It's probably me remembering things through my rose colored prism, but that milk tasted incredibly rich and delicious, especially when I drank it out of the bottle when my mother wasn't looking.

My Uncle Joe delivered coal for "Burns Brothers", a major coal distributor of the day. We had a furnace a bit like the temperamental beast that Darren McGavin cursed in the great holiday movie: "Christmas Story". I was fascinated as Uncle Joe would set up the long coal chute from his truck in the street to our coal bin in the basement, and then release the door on the side of the truck that sent coal cascading down the chute. (Knowing my uncle, he probably delivered twice what my father paid for.) We would shovel coal into the furnace to burn for heat, and then cart out the ashes to be placed in heavy metal pails for the sanitation men to pick up. (They really earned their money in those days.) Ashes were also scattered on the snow to improve footing in the days before rock salt and calcium chloride became popular.

Most people know what potato knishes are. They can be bought in Jewish delis or even in supermarkets. On our block we had a little old man who pushed a silver-painted wagon with a hand-lettered sign that said: "Mom's Knishes." These were different from the ones we're familiar with today. They were round about the size of hockey pucks, darker in color than the deli variety, and kept warm by charcoals in the bottom of the wagon. For a nickel, the old man would put one of these belly bombs in a sheet of wax paper, add salt, and voila...a party in your mouth! They also sold roasted chestnuts from the same type of cart.

Who rings a bell but doesn't sell ice cream? The scissors sharpening man. He would show up in a truck and announce his presence by ringing a bell. If you had knives, tools or scissors you wanted sharpened, you ran out (no, wait, never run with scissors) and he would use one of his sharpening stones or wheels to put a nice edge on your cutlery. On a busy day the sparks would fly off the wheel as he did his work. Remember, this was in the day when many women still sewed, and sharp scissors were important to a seamstress. I recall strips of cloth hanging off the side of the truck that one could use to test the sharpened scissors. People knew how to hustle a buck back then.

While fruit and vegetable stores dotted the neighborhood, some enterprising old men would use a horse-drawn wagon to bring fresh produce to your door. "Fresh" is an understatement; typically the wagoners would buy ripe fruit and rapidly maturing veggies from the fruit stores at reduced prices and then sell them fast before they spoiled. The clip clopping of horses hooves was not an uncommon sound on the block. It was not unusual for the fruit man to be the ice man in winter. There were still homes without electric refrigerators, and strong men hauled big blocks of ice up flights of stairs to be placed in an ice box like the one in Ralph Kramden's famous Brooklyn kitchen, or as Alice described it: "Frontierland". Many old timers, even after they got their fancy electric refrigerator, referred to it as "the ice box."

We had doctors who made house calls, insurance agents who came to your door to pick up life-insurance premiums of 25 cents a week, and bakeries who would bring you fresh bread or cakes. Door-to-door salesmen were commonplace selling stuff like Fuller Brushes (made famous in the Red Skeleton movie, "The Fuller Brush Man"), vacuum cleaners, encyclopedias, pots and pans, local soda delivered by the case, cosmetics and dozens of other products. People were more trusting then and were not afraid to open their doors when somebody rang; the only people who ring my bell these days are the nicely dressed and always polite Jehovah's Witnesses, and I do the same thing today as we did back then...HIDE.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Monday, May 18, 2009

Neighborhood Character: S

Every Brooklyn neighborhood had at least one woman who was the model for the stereotypical Italian grandmother: dressed all in black, salt and pepper hair pulled back into a bun (knitting needles sticking out of the bun optional), corrective stockings, facial mole, and a budding moustache. Our neighborhood was no exception; we will call her S; it will soon become apparent why I can't use her real name. I seem to recall that this woman was related to our family somehow, but the connection escapes me. Most of these women were harmless, but S was the incarnation of evil. She had been widowed early in life, and devoted her remaining years to making trouble.

S enjoyed the swirl of controversy around her. She lived for spreading malicious gossip, and when her sources dried up, she simply invented tales to get the pot boiling. I was too young to understand her meddling, but I heard the adults in our family discussing S and her nasty little plots. She would set people against each other, pretend to be sympathetic to both sides, and then innocently step back to watch the action unfold. People feared her and what stories she would spread about them. They tried being nice to her, never understanding that a pat on the back from her only meant she was looking for a soft spot to insert the knife.

Women like S were sad but dangerous. Its was as if, having sustained loss and pain themselves, they were determined to inflict it on others. Italians tend to be emotional and dramatic in temperament, and where others might have just ignored S's dirty little rumors, in our neighborhood they blossomed into street corner operas. In Italy, the second most popular sport after soccer is plotting vendettas, and S relied on this tendency in Italians to believe the worst of others, especially if they themselves felt insulted or disparaged in any way. S would plant her poison pills and they would fester; soon her victims, having been warned by S of someone's bad intentions toward them would actually begin to see their adversaries behaving badly...the self-fulfilling prophecy.

When things finally came to a head, S would be the first to cluck and shake her head over the breakup of a marriage or a fistfight between friends who she had turned into rivals with her forked tongue. The amazing thing is that even though people knew her reputation for causing trouble, instead of ignoring her, they let their Italian tempers get the better of them and allowed themselves to be manipulated by S to her great delight. One of her tricks for gathering bits of gossip was to visit people's homes in the guise of a healer. She performed these Italian folk rituals and employed ages old remedies for common ailments like fevers and colds.

Italians are prone to superstitions like the "evil eye" (Malocchio) and the ritual for cleansing someone so afflicted. Some Italian men wear the devil's horn amulet around their necks to ward off curses on their "manliness". An old superstition is that a loaf of bread must always be placed face up or bad luck will come. Italian immigrants, before moving into new homes would always sweep the place clean with a new broom to remove evil spirits, and sprinkle salt in the corners of the house to purify it. Modern medicines were not always available in rural Italy, and many folk medicines and ancient techniques bordering on witchcraft took their place. S capitalized on these superstitions and her supposed knowledge of these remedies. On the pretext of helping people, she would gain their confidence, get them to confide in her, and then, like the wicked witch in Snow White, go off to do her damage.

I recall once S coming to see me when I had injured my leg. The "cure" she used involved taking a coin and wrapping it in a cloth that had been soaked in olive oil. A flame was then touched to the cloth and extinguished. The smoking cloth containing the hot coin was then applied to my leg and a glass inverted over it. The theory was that the pain was supposed to be carried out of my leg by the smoke and into the glass. Besides smelling up the kitchen and scaring the hell out of me, I don't think it did much. Turns out I had cartilage on my knee, ending what was a promising baseball career.

I don't know what makes people want to go through life doing evil. Father Gonzalez from my old church would argue that it is the devil. When I think of all the harm S did in her life, I can only hope that in the afterlife she got to face some of the people whose lives she tampered with. Maybe they crossed paths in Heaven's lobby as she caught the elevator down to meet her master.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Friday, May 15, 2009

Rites of Passage

Growing up in Brooklyn during the 1950s had its rites of passage. They were different than today to be sure because the world was different. International terrorism was way off in the future, women and minorities were just starting to demand their rights, and the electronic age had yet to descend on an unsuspecting mankind. The view of life from the streets of East New York was decidedly local. Our world was bounded by the streets that defined our neighborhood: Atlantic Avenue to the South, Bushwick Avenue to the North, Pennsylvania Avenue to the East, and Saratoga Avenue to the West. It was a real mix of Irish, Italians, and Germans who had first come over in the great European immigration around the turn of the century, with a few African Americans and Hispanics mixed in.

I guess one of the first steps toward growing up in the neighborhood was the changeover from tricycles to "two-wheelers" as we called them. I have already described how my Dad taught me to ride a two-wheeler. (See 3/29/09 post: "Tony Boots, Chapter II" View) I used to ride a unique looking tricycle that was longer than a standard tricycle with a step on the back that easily carried a standing passenger. It was powder blue and cream colored, with handle bars that were much larger than normal. This thing was a tank! I loved riding it, but my friends were stepping up to bigger bikes and it would be unthinkable for me to lag behind.

Another ritual was lighting up your first cigarette. I get a kick out of the way smokers are demonized these days. They have to skulk into dark alleys for a few puffs knowing full well that they are the scourge of decent society. In the 50s, smoking was still cool. All the movie stars, business moguls, athletes, anybody who wanted to look sophisticated was a smoker. I was probably around 11 or 12 when I had my first cigarette. By then my father had switched from unfiltered Lucky Strikes to L&Ms, which were the initials of tobacco manufacturer Liggett & Meyers. Pop used to keep his butts as he called them in his suit jacket pocket, so it was an easy matter to snitch one. We would go to Callahan-Kelly park near the handball courts to light up. I remember feeling a little woozy, but dared not show it in front of my friends. At first we just puffed, not yet having mastered the deadly trick of inhaling. I smoked for about 15 years, and stopped when my daughter Laura was born. Thanks Laura.

A big step toward manhood involved scaling the fence behind Spinners, a small supermarket on Fulton Street. Spinners loading dock was in the rear of the store on my block, Somers Street, and was protected by a fifteen foot wrought iron fence. The fence was a formidable affair, anchored on either side to solid brick columns the same height as the fence, and topped by "Stalag 17" quality barbed wire. During our stickball or punchball games, our pink Spaldeen balls would fly over the fence. The iron fence had sharp points at the top and was clearly unclimbable. The only way to retrieve the balls was to climb one of the brick towers, throw a jacket over the barbed wire, and gingerly step over and down the other side. This was a feat greatly admired by kids on my block. I made the climb many times, and owing to my extreme caution, was able to get out with everything I went in with.

Cypress Pool was a shimmering oasis just below the Cypress Hills elevated train station on the Jamaica line. For kids used to swimming in public pools like Betsy Head and Red Hook, this was "movin' on up". Cypress Pool charged 25 cents to keep the riff-raff out. They had three diving boards, a two foot, ten foot and twenty foot. Until you dove off the twenty-foot board, you were nothing in the eyes of my crowd. You'd never know it by looking at how timid I've become, but back then no challenge went unanswered. As I climbed that ladder for the first time, waving to the guys below, I felt cocky. When I reached the top platform, second thoughts crept in, but of course I couldn't punk out with everyone looking. I executed a swan dive that saw me enter the water, not vertically, but almost horizontally! Fortunately my friends did not award style points, so I passed the test, with the only consequence being a slightly higher voice for the next half hour or so.

The next rite of passage is one of which I'm not proud. We hung out in Louie's Candy Store under the el on Fulton Street across from the Sportsman's Cafe. Louie and his wife Esther were good to us, letting us sit for hours nursing an egg cream or cherry coke while we played the baseball Home Run machine in back of the store. Some of the kids would dare each other to steal candy from the racks in front of the store. Having never met a dare I didn't like, I accepted. The gang's M.O. was to get Louie to the back of the store while the thief did his dirty work. I'm ashamed to say I pulled many candy jobs at Louie's. I got an adrenaline rush eating the chocolate covered jelly rolls or marshmallow twists I boosted. I wish I could make restitution, but poor trusting Louie is long gone.

I've talked before about how the mind can see clearly events that happened so long ago, while struggling to remember the name of someone you met last week. It's almost as if I can transport myself back to the time when the things I've written about happened. To Richie, Phil, Johnny, Vinny, Lefty, Joe and Tommy...thanks for the dares and for being such a big part of my life.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association