From my vantage point on the bench, I watched the neighborhood beehive. An enormous heavy guy wearing a Yankees t-shirt double parked his battleship-sized SUV to run in and pick up a pizza. Across Third Avenue, two women in their fifties, who looked like they stepped off the set of Jersey Housewives, chatted outside the salon spa they had just exited. Both were deeply tanned the color of an old baseball glove, and wearing earrings the size of hubcaps, I imagine they were discussing the latest sensational tidbit passed along by Gina, the nail girl. Next door a chunky, Italian looking kid was pulling down the metal grate in front of a neighborhood hardware store that Home Depot hadn't yet bankrupted. I watched him unlock the chain securing assorted step ladders to the metal arm of the store awning and bring them inside. Tomorrow morning he would reverse the process and hope that somebody bought one.
At the bus stop in front of the Greenhouse Cafe, an elegant looking man stood waiting for the bus. He was tall and bronzed, well-dressed with impeccably combed silver hair...a Cesar Romero look-alike. If a couple of muscle bound goons knelt in front of him and kissed his hand, I wouldn't have blinked an eye. I couldn't help wonder why such a distinguished gentleman would be waiting for the bus. I half expected a black Mercedes driven by a trophy wife to pull up and whisk him away, but no...as soon as the bus arrived, he boarded and went on his way. Young working people walking home from the subway stop on Fourth Avenue strolled past me, nearly all chatting intently on their cell phones, oblivious to the world around them. Mothers with baby carriages running errands, delivery boys on bicycles bringing delicious take out to neighborhood customers, and waiters from the Greenhouse having a cigarette outside before the evening rush.
A heavy-set woman pushing one of those chairs that double as walkers wheezed to a stop and sat down next to me on the bench. She told me she had asthma and a bad back and needed to sit for a while to get her breath back. She started to complain that there were too many Arabs moving into the neighborhood, but abruptly changed the subject after looking at me and realizing I could be one of the hated Arab invaders. She asked me if it was raining or whether it might be the spray from the window air conditioners in the apartments above the restaurant. After a few minutes she struggled to her feet, bid me good evening, and walked off toward 86th Street where all the neighborhood shops. Other than a large Century 21 discount outlet, all the businesses are storefront, Mom and Pop operations. Double-parked cars line the street as Brooklynites exercise what they believe is their God-given right to flout all parking regulations.
A few doors down, dark-skinned Arab-looking men who drive for a local car service sat at a card table playing dominoes, while sneaking peeks at the young women passing by. Up the street is Skinflints Restaurant, a neighborhood institution that's been there forever. On Thanksgiving Day they invite local senior citizens who may be alone for the day to come in for a free dinner with all the trimmings. A few avenues up is Hinch's Ice Cream Parlor, a landmark soda fountain recently sold by the original owners to people who promised to keep it like it always was. Neighborhood people don't love change. Churches, delis, bakeries, laundromats, gift shops, pizzerias, beauty salons, even a shoemaker who still repairs shoes...all part of the hustle and bustle that is the neighborhood.
I sat there taking it all in, and for a moment drifted back to Somers Street off Rockaway Avenue in Brooklyn where I grew up. A lot of who I am is bound up with that neighborhood. It's a funny thing, I hung around with guys from different ethnic groups, religions and races, and although prejudice was alive and well, we pretty much got along. Our allegiance was to our neighborhood and those living in it. Guys from another neighborhood were the enemy. I enjoy living in the suburbs; I have my little garden and we are blessed with wonderful neighborhoods, but it's not a neighborhood, and that's what I miss.
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