Monday, March 28, 2011

Waste Not, Want Not

I like my coffee in a cardboard container instead of a cup. I guess it was all those years of going to the coffee cart at work and drinking coffee out of a container that created this odd habit. When I go to Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks for a coffee to take home, I like to rinse out the container and re-use it once or twice before throwing it away. This not only allows me to drink coffee I brew at home out of a cardboard container, but also gives me a chance to re-use something that is still perfectly usable before throwing it away. My youngest son was recently startled to find that I did this. He wonders why I just don't buy a package of cardboard containers and use a new one when I have coffee at home.

Where am I going with this? Well, I want you (and him) to understand where this habit of thrift developed. I don't think of myself as cheap. The smoke coming off my American Express card should be proof of that. Also, thanks to my wife's love affair with Costco, I have a closet full of cardboard containers, and can well afford to use a new one every time I want a cup of coffee. Its just that my upbringing won't let me. I remember as a kid, nothing in our house was wasted. That wasn't just a quirky habit, that arose from need. My parents could not afford even small extravagances, and never owned a credit card, so the money my father brought home each week had to pay all our expenses. As a result, my mother found ingenious ways to stretch a dollar.

We ate a lot of dinners made with some kind of pasta cooked with other simple ingredients like beans, lentils, peas, escarole and potatoes. (By the way, please don't feel sorry for us...I still enjoy these delicious and nutritious 'paisano' dishes today.) Our dinner glasses were provided courtesy of Welch's Jelly, and our dinnerware was supplemented with china handed out at the local movie house to boost attendance. We couldn't afford soda, so Mom bought little cans of flavored syrup made by Snowcrop. One can of this sugary stuff made two quarts of imitation soda, and started lots of cavities in our unsuspecting teeth. Tupperware was out of our reach, but every empty ricotta container found its way into the cupboard to be reused for storing leftovers. Balls of bakery string, used rubber bands, and pieces of used aluminum foil were in the "junk" drawer for when they were needed.

A lot of our clothes came from Cousins Hand-Me Downs, Inc. That's not a store, but a way for poor families to recycle clothes as the older kids outgrew them. I'd go to a birthday party and see my cousin Sal wearing a favorite old shirt of mine. When crew neck sweaters came into style, I just took my v-neck vest and wore it backwards under my jacket. School lunches came from home...there were no school cafeterias with healthy menus served by ladies in hair nets. Our brown bags dripped oil and reeked of Italian tuna fish, peppers and eggs, potatoes and eggs, onions and eggs, or on a good day, a veal cutlet hero. Spending money came from picking up empty soda bottles and taking them to the candy store, where we always had to argue with the proprietor to convince him we had bought the bottles there before he would cash them in.

I remember my Dad straightening out nails that had bent when he tried to pound them in. He put the straightened nails into his "toolbox", really an old shoebox, to be used again. Mom collected Green Stamps which were given out by certain participating merchants and pasted into books. Books of stamps could be redeemed for nifty items like toasters and beach chairs. The Green Stamp redemption center was on Pitkin Avenue, and I remember how excited Mom would get when we walked down there to get some simple household item she could otherwise not afford. Televisions had vacuum tubes, and when a TV set went "on the fritz" we would go to Louie's candy store where a TV tube testing machine was set up. You pulled the tube out of your television that you thought was burned out and plugged it into the tube tester. If the needle on the machine went into the red zone, it meant the tube had to be replaced. Louie sold replacement tubes and for a couple of bucks, you were back watching Howdy Doody again.

As much as this sounds like a chapter out of Charles Dickens, this is how we were raised. Appliances were fixed, socks were darned, shoes were resoled, and nothing went into the garbage until all the useful life had been squeezed out of it. And so my son, there you have it, the reason your old man re-uses his coffee cups. Mom would have been so proud.


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

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Atlantic Avenue

It starts down near the docks in Brooklyn and snakes its way eastward through preppy Clinton Hill, Downtown Brooklyn, Bed Stuy, East New York (keep your car doors locked for those last two stretches), Woodhaven, and finally stops abruptly at the dreaded Van Wyck Expressway in Ozone Park, Queens, where traffic goes to die. I'm talking of course about the street that is so bound up with my youth...Atlantic Avenue. Back in the day, before shopping malls began sprouting everywhere, people flocked to neighborhood stores strung out along Brooklyn boulevards like Atlantic Avenue, Rockaway Avenue, Fulton Street, and further down, Pitkin Avenue, and Sutter Avenue, the latter two streets referred to casually by the locals as "Jewtown".

Shopping density along Atlantic Avenue waxed and waned, with the heaviest concentration of "name" stores in Downtown Brooklyn, and clusters of local stores strung out all the way to Queens. Back in the 1950s, cars were not as plentiful as they are today, and one of the reasons Atlantic Avenue thrived was great public transportation, All of the city's subway lines had stops along Atlantic Avenue, and many bus lines brought shoppers from outlying areas to spend their money. There was even a Long Island Railroad stop (East New York station) that has since been abandoned and closed down . Back then, the train would leave the gloomy East New York station, re-enter the tunnel under Atlantic Avenue and continue east in practically a straight shot to Jamaica. There was even a trolley that ran along Rockaway Avenue where you could transfer at Atlantic Avenue for eastbound or westbound buses.

There were many prominent landmarks along Atlantic Avenue like the distinctive red brick building known as The 23rd Regiment Armory, at 1322 Bedford Avenue, that was built from 1891-1895 and takes up most of the square block bounded by Atlantic Avenue, Pacific Street, Franklin and Bedford Avenues. The regiment was organized during the Civil War and was housed in a nearby armory on Clermont Avenue from 1873-1895. Another is the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, which stands at the crossroads of Flatbush Avenue and Atlantic Avenues in Fort Greene, where it rises majestically into the Brooklyn sky. At 512 feet, the building's tower is the tallest structure in the borough, and its gilded copper dome and clock have been a familiar sight to Brooklyn residents since 1929.

There was also a mysterious building complex called the House of the Good Shepherd, just off Atlantic Avenue at Hopkinson and Pacific. The Home, whose stated objective was "the reformation of women and the preservation of young girls", became the standard repository for women mostly in trouble with the law. In those days that could include disobeying a husband, drunkeness, failure to pay a debt, etc. It was also a home for wayward girls. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who ran the home, did an excellent job of keeping the girls protected by building a ten foot high brick wall topped with barbed wire around the complex. Altar boys from the local churches were recruited to help say Mass in the home, and the tales of wild doings behind those walls ran around the neighborhood like wildfire.

Around Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues stood Bickford's Restaurant, a popular spot that stayed open late and was a favorite stop after a movie date Downtown at the Fox or Albee Theaters. Another restaurant we hung out in was the White Castle on Atlantic Avenue and Highland Place. This was the scene of our infamous arrest for murder as told in an earlier post: View "The Lords of Flatbush". In Queens, further out on Atlantic Avenue, was a joint called Maybe's that served burgers in plastic baskets covered in a mountain of french fries. And of course anytime a birthday rolled around, we would head to a bakery on Atlantic and Vermont called Mrs. Maxwell's. The old owners would decorate cakes in the window so people could watch. It's still at the same location but under new management. I have souvenir plaque in my arteries as a grim reminder of Mrs. Maxwell's.

As you drive along Atlantic Avenue today, there are remnants of the old street, but it has changed greatly. You can still see the Williamsburg Savings Bank tower, but I believe it has been converted to condos. The Armory is still there looking much like it did in the 1950s, but its really not safe to walk there any more. The House of the Good Shepherd is a housing project. In the past five years, Atlantic Avenue has undergone a renaissance, with big box stores like Target and Best Buy coming into the old downtown area. There is also the Atlantic Yards project, under which, after much misguided resistance on the part of local residents, the new Barclay's Center Arena and shopping complex will be constructed. It will serve as the new home for the New York Nets basketball team, and will revitalize an area that had fallen on very hard times.

If I close my eyes and think back, I can picture the walk from my old street corner down Rockaway Avenue to Atlantic Avenue. I would pass Louie's Candy Store, the cigar stand under the el at Fulton Street, Crachi's Drug Store presided over by my godfather Gabriel, my grandfather's hat blocking shop, and across the street, Ariola's Pastry, a neighborhood treasure where they made the best sfogliatelle pastries in the world. This link will give you a virtual tour of the Atlantic Avenue I knew.


Craniofacial Association