Thursday, March 22, 2012

Up on the Roof

"When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face. 
I climb way up to the top of the stairs, 
And all my cares just drift right into space."

So sang The Drifters in 1962, and in so doing let the world know what every Brooklyn kid already knew: high above the streets it's another world up on the roof. Our family, like many in Brooklyn, lived in a brick, row house with a tiny back yard. I played a lot in my back yard where there really wasn't that much to do, but my imagination made up the difference. I thought I had found my ideal hideaway until one day my father asked me to help with some work he was doing on the roof of our house. I was surprised for two reasons: 1) my father wasn't the handiest guy around; and 2) he had never asked for my help to do anything.

Tony Boots had decided to re-tar the roof, a smelly, messy business. There were sheets of tar paper and five-gallon drums of sticky black tar that had to be applied with a long, broom-like brush. Dad had trouble getting me to focus on the work because I had never been on our roof before and I was mesmerized by the view. When he took a beer or smoke break, which was often, I would go to the edge of the roof, holler out to my friends, and then duck out of sight while they tried to locate the sound of my voice. I also lobbed small pebbles at them to add to their irritation. My father finally got tired of keeping me from falling, and released me from my roofer's apprenticeship. This was the beginning of my fascination with life up on the roof.

"On the roof, it's peaceful as can be.
And there the world below can't bother me.
Uh oh, up on the roof."

Getting to our roof was impossible; the ladder that led up to the trap door entrance was in the top floor apartment of my house which was occupied by our tenants and cousins, the Carusos. Instead, I would hang out on the apartment house roof where my pal Johnny lived. Access was through a regular door, and open to anyone with the stamina to climb the stairs. Since all the building roofs on the block were adjoining, we could travel the length of the block without setting foot on the sidewalk below. The rooftops were a treasure trove of lost, pink Spaldeen balls hit up there during stickball games in the street. They were a great place to play hide-and-seek too because of the many chimneys and clotheslines up there to hide behind.

In Brooklyn they used to refer to the roof as "tar beach" because people without the time or carfare to go to Coney Island would spread out a blanket on the tar-covered roof to sunbathe. Seeking to avoid contact with the hot, sticky tar, we would "borrow" the beach chairs that people stowed in their hallways because there was no room for them in the small apartments, and take them up to the roof. It was our penthouse club where we drank ice-cold Mission sodas while playing cards and passing around frayed girlie magazines. Urban living doesn't really afford much privacy to kids living in cramped spaced, so the roof became our sanctuary, a private place away from the prying eyes of adults.

"When I come home feelin' tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet (up on the roof)
I get away from the hustling crowd
And all that rat-race noise down in the street (up on the roof)
On the roof, the only place I know
Where you just have to wish to make it so
Let's go, up on the roof (up on the roof)"

When you're poor you draw on your wits to create some semblance of the things you can't afford. The old joke about an Italian's idea of a vacation is  sitting on someone else's stoop is funny, but also not so far from the truth.


Children's Craniofacial Association

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