Saturday, April 11, 2009

Gangster Heights

Most of these posts are about my life as a kid in the East New York section of Brooklyn, now proudly proclaimed by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce as "the handgun capital of the world". When we first got married back in 1966, we lived in the Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn, or as the Italian-baiters referred to it: "Gangster Heights". Our little apartment was on 81st Street between 15th and 16th Avenues. For ninety bucks a month we had three nice rooms and, thanks to our landlords, Lilly and Tony, we had the use of the back yard. The elevated train station was a few blocks away near New Utrecht High school, and all-in-all, it was a perfect little nest for a young couple starting out in life.

Although the term "Gangster Heights" was used in jest, it was never mentioned in the presence of the residents, who were in fact, gangsters. I exaggerate of course, but it would be silly to deny that that particular section of Brooklyn spawned more than its share of made guys. It might lay claim to the title: "pinky ring capital of the world". One of the more famous residents was the actor Tony Siricco who played Paulie Walnuts in "The Sopranos". Tony hung around the corner of 86th Street and 13th Avenue, across from the Funeral Home, (whose rooms the Goodfellas help populate) and the local real estate office whose owners were alleged to have mob connections. We never thought much about having these guys living around us; our next-door neighbor was reputed to be connected, but he was just a nice guy in velour sweatsuits who never bothered us.

We attended St. Bernadette's Church a few blocks away, and thanks to my wife who has taken personal responsibility for my soul, went to Mass faithfully every Sunday. People dressed a little nicer for church in those days, especially under the watchful gaze of our pastor, Monsignor Barilla, who enforced the policy of: "No shirts, no shoes, no blessings". He was succeeded by Monsignor Santi Privitera, a tough old Italian who could have stared down the meanest wiseguy in the neighborhood. It was fun to watch the old Italian ladies waving their arms around to get the attention of an usher, and then with great fuss and ceremony, hand over a five-dollar bill, with the denomination showing of course, to demonstrate their worthiness to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Lilly and Tony were an older, childless couple who lived with Lilly's brother in the upstairs apartment, while we lived in what was called the "walk-in" apartment downstairs. Lilly was brash and loud, but nice underneath, and Tony struck me as a guy just looking to keep the peace and stay out of Lilly's way. One day Lilly called me all excited screaming: "You won the lottery, you won the's in the Daily News." After I got my pulse under 200. we checked the paper and my name was there alright, but only as someone chosen for some kind of "second chance" drawing, not a lottery winner. The dreams of a mansion on Shore Road, a red Maserati and, in the famous words of Ed Norton, "a string of poloponies" evaporated as fast as they had come.

Dyker Heights was predominantly an Italian neighborhood. As you walked down the block on Sunday mornings, the smell of frying meatballs was mouthwatering. Men in "pizza-man" undershirts and sandals sat on the stoops reading the Daily News or hosing the life out of their sidewalks. (What is it with Italian men and hoses? I know what Freud would say.) The women on the block were beating rugs, hanging laundry on clotheslines, or tending the postage-sized gardens that added a touch of green to an otherwise concrete landscape. Kids played in the schoolyard on the corner, riding bikes, jumping rope, or a variation of stickball where home plate was painted on a brick wall. It was a peaceful street where you felt safe. Police rarely were called since anybody contemplating a crime in Gangster Heights usually thought twice about the consequences of crossing the locals.

We lived very happily in our three rooms until 1971, when our daughter Laura was about four, and her brother Michael was on the way. We would have loved to stay in the neighborhood, but the price of homes was out of reach for our growing, single income family. (This was in the days when you had to actually have more than a pulse to be granted a mortgage.) We eventually found a home we could barely afford in the "wilds" of Staten Island, and we are still here after 38 years. I had never set foot on Staten Island before; although it is a borough within the City of New York, for a Brooklyn kid it was like moving to Alaska. It has proven to be a wonderful place to raise a family, and I am happy despite the over development that continues to take place.

Although we are on Staten Island so long, I still think of myself as a Brooklyn boy. A few years ago I took a ride past our old house in East New York; it was a mistake. It looked small and shabby. The past, as we want it to remain, is best kept alive in our memories.


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

No comments: