Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Old Crank

Life changes you. I used to be a lot more fun, but now I’m a cranky old man, just like the ones who used to yell at us when we were kids, and who we taunted in return by ringing their doorbells and running like hell. Sometimes, we might even wedge in a small stick to hold the bell button down so that it rang continuously. We never knew what made these old farts so mean, only that they wouldn’t let us come into their yards to retrieve the balls that someone hit in there during a friendly stickball game. There was one real hard case…a nasty, Irish ex-cop…he would take the ball and puncture it with an ice pick before tossing it back with a sneer.

At some point this guy became such an object of hatred that we decided he needed to be taught a lesson. One of the old man’s passions was raising pigeons. This was a big hobby in Brooklyn for reasons I could never understand. Pigeons to me are like flying rats, but many people kept pigeon coops on their roofs. A cousin on my father’s side had a roomful of trophies he’d won racing pigeons. Personally I found this cousin to be loud and obnoxious, but he became a different man around his birds.

Anyhow our vindictive little brains worked overtime trying to hatch a plot to hit this old crank where it would really hurt…by doing something to his precious pigeons. We thought about poisoning them, but in the end that was ruled out as too drastic. Instead we decided to try to get to the roof where the coops were kept and let the birds out. The job was delegated to an older guy I'll call Joey. Joey was in his late teens, but not quite right in the head; mentally he acted about eight years old. We knew he would do anything we asked of him to win our approval. Kids can be really mean when they put their minds to it.

We waited until our victim left the house to shop. Getting to the roof was no problem. We just sent Joey up onto my roof and waved him down the row of attached houses until he reached the crank’s roof half-way down the block. The coops were closed but not locked. Joey opened one and started waving his arms around to get the birds to fly out. They just stared at him showing no inclination to move. Poor Joey stared down at us not knowing what to do. Meanwhile the lookout we had posted yelled out that the birds’ owner had just turned the corner with his groceries and was heading home!

We motioned excitedly to Joey to get out of there, but the poor soul thought we were urging him to work harder,so he just stood there waving energetically as the confused pigeons looked on. It was like the scene in the movie “Rear Window” when Grace Kelly had crossed the courtyard and was in villain Raymond Burr’s apartment searching for evidence that he had killed his wife. Just then Burr returns home and is mounting the stairs to the apartment while Jimmy Stewart in the apartment across the way is frantically trying to warn Grace of the danger. We were scared like only kids can be, not knowing what the crank would do to Joey if he ever caught him.

Luckily Joey got tired of trying to free the birds and soon came back down. We were disappointed that our little revenge plot didn’t work out, but also very relieved that Eddie’s guardian angel was on duty that day. We stayed clear of the crank’s house for a while after that. Maybe a year later the old man died. I can't say many tears were shed in our crowd. Looking back, I can only wonder (and sympathize a little) what life had done to this man to make him so mean. It kind of sneaks up on you, and before you know it, POW, you're a crank. (Kids should be ringing my bell and running any time now.)


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

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Do Your Legs Work At All?

Jerry Seinfeld once commented about the 'people mover conveyors' found at some airports and how folks are content to just allow the mechanism to carry them to their destination. "Do your legs work at all", he wondered. That pretty much sums up how disinclined people are to walk anywhere nowadays. They drive everywhere, no matter how close, to get what they need. Furthermore, they will park in handicapped spaces to avoid walking an extra 50 yards from the regular parking spaces. They will get back in the car and drive to another store in the same strip mall rather than walk the short distance. This unwillingness to walk anywhere is one of the reasons for the alarming obesity trend in this country. 

As kids, we walked everywhere. The walk to school every day was maybe 15 minutes; the playground the same. We ran errands for our parents that involved walking to neighborhood stores anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes from home. Longer walks were not uncommon, for example, Highland Park was in Jamaica, maybe a 30 minute walk from home. They had the best baseball fields with real grass and base paths, so we carried our bats and gloves to Jamaica, played a nine-inning game, and then walked home again. The two neighborhood movie theaters were maybe 15 and 20 minute walks from home. There were certainly trains and buses that ran to these destinations, but the nickel fare would also buy any candy bar on the shelf, so we walked.

One of the benefits of walking the neighborhood was that you got to know people. I could start on Rockaway Avenue and walk down Somers Street and tell you who lived in every house all the way down to Stone Avenue. People would greet you as you walked by....How's your mother; don't let me see you again with a cigarette in that mouth; can you go to Louie's and get me a Daily Mirror? These were the exchanges between you and the folks sitting out on their front stoops. Walking also taught you the local streets and how to get around. You knew which block that cute girl lived on, and sometimes walked by just on the chance she'd glance your way. You also knew which blocks it was best to avoid after dark.

In my mind's eye, I can still walk the route to school and church; we must have walked to Callahan and Kelly Park a thousand times to visit the playground, play handball against the wall, or sit on the benches and smoke cigarettes lifted from our fathers' packs. I can see all the mom and pop stores along Pitkin Avenue, our modest shopping mecca. My Dad worked there in the A.S. Beck shoe store and I would sometimes pass and wave hello. There was little turnover in those stores; they stayed in the family for generations. We got to know the proprietors, not because we always shopped there but because on our walks we would see them proudly sweeping the street in front of their stores. 

I know people who go on vacation and spend all their time at the hotel pool. I am so glad we are still in the habit of walking. When we visit new cities, we are hardly checked into the hotel before we hit the streets for a walk around town. Thankfully our legs do still work and we are happy to have them take us where we want to go.



Children's Craniofacial Association

Monday, August 11, 2014

Who Needs Rodeo Drive

Rodeo Drive, the renowned shopping mecca in Beverly Hills has nothing on Brooklyn's Pitkin Avenue in the 1950s. Between Rockaway and Saratoga Avenues along Pitkin stood retail shops, restaurants and was the place to shop, eat and be entertained. I remember lots of shoe stores like Thom McCan, Florshiem, and A.S. Beck where my father worked part time. It was always a treat to visit dad at the shoe store. There was a salesgirl named Lilly who always made a big fuss over me. As the rednecks say, "she smelled as purty as the inside of my mamma's purse".

There were many men's clothing shops including Moe Ginsberg and Abe Stark. As a promotion, Abe put up a sign at Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Any batter who hit the sign won a free suit of clothes. Back in the day when baseball players earned less than the Gross National Product of Nicaragua, that was a significant perk. I also recall a men's shop, I think it was called Jack Diamond, next to the Pitkin Theater that was the place to shop for the very latest fashions.

A popular Pitkin Avenue destination was Woolworth's or the "five and ten" as we called it. The store had a unique smell, and sold everything from clothes, housewares, toys, beauty products...they even had a snack counter which, as I consider it, is probably where the unique smell came from.

Then there was the Chinese Restaurant, the Wuhan Tea Garden, at Pitkin and Saratoga Avenues, which is the only restaurant I can ever remember going to as a kid. We would get on the Rockaway Avenue trolley, get off at Pitkin Avenue, and meet my father for "Chow Mein". In retrospect, the place was a dump, but at the time, eating out anywhere was a treat.

For entertainment we had the Loew's Pitkin. This was a typical old movie house, not as opulent as the Paramount or the Fox theaters in downtown Brooklyn, but compared to the featureless, cinder-block multiplexes of today, it looked like the La Scala opera house. Big screen, carpeted staircase, crystal chandeliers, and plush velvet seats.

Pushcart food vendors were common along the avenue selling wonderful treats like candy apples, knishes, shaved ices flavored with sweet syrups and a concoction called a Charlotte Russe, the Brooklyn version of a classic French dessert. It consisted of a round piece of sponge cake topped with gobs of whipped cream and a cherry. It was served in a cardboard container that you ate it out of. To me, it always looked better than it tasted.

Thinking back, these seem like such simple things, but they were the stuff of my childhood. It never ceases to amaze me that the Internet contains so many images and recollections of this time and these places. (You didn't think I actually remembered the name of the Wuhan Tea Garden, did you?)

I'm glad others remembered for me.


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

Originally published 10/20/08