Brooklyn, My Brooklyn
In the summer of 1953, my tenth summer, if you must know, life got really interesting. It was okay before that. We did stuff, good stuff and fun stuff mostly. But that summer, well, things got a lot better.
My name is Alan, and I had spent the last ten years in The Projects, as we called them, but it was really the Red Hook Housing Projects – that’s in Brooklyn, South Brooklyn. Don’t ask me why it’s called South Brooklyn when there are parts of Brooklyn farther south. It just is. The folks who lived there were not very rich; poor was closer to the truth, but we didn’t know it then. We would find out later once we moved away. You see, sometimes being poor is okay, especially when you don’t know it and you got enough to eat or when you got used to eating the food you have. If everyone is in the same boat it helps too. When you find out about the others, the people who are not poor, and how they live, well then that’s when a little bit of envy slips in.
Anyway, I had just been promoted from the fourth grade to the fifth grade into Mr. Kay’s class. My grades were pretty good so my folks were happy. Somehow school was easy for me and I’ll admit it was fun too. Public School 30, we called it P.S. 30, was only a few blocks away from my street, Lorraine Street. So it was an easy walk most days, depending on the weather. I suppose the worst days were those cold, windy wintry days when we had to bundle up with sweater, coat, scarf, boots and gloves, or worse–mittens and an ugly hat–always an ugly hat.
Thanks for the summer though. It was always hot; right on cue the heat and humidity would come around the Fourth of July and stay through the rest of the summer, until school started and sometimes after the beginning days of school.
It’s funny how the weather changed the look and spirit of the Projects. I mean when it was cold and wintry people stayed indoors and visited one another after dinner. Our apartment was warm and cozy when everybody was together in one place. Sometimes we’d visit the Cassesse’s who lived in Apartment 6-F. The Cassesse apartment greeted visitors with the luxuriant aroma of pasta sauce – they called it gravy – filling the apartment from the dinner they’d eaten that night. Johnny Boy and I would play in the room he shared with his older sister Vita. She stayed with the adults – she was nice about that – when the adults were around. In the summer we were usually outdoors playing, fighting and exploring. Exploring was the most fun, but it also got us into trouble a lot; not real trouble, but then we thought it was real.
One time in the summer of 1952, right after Richie Boles had moved into the Projects, and after we met and became friends, we decided to take a walk around. I was kind of the ambassador for Richie who had just arrived from Africa he said. He had talked about the wild animals he had seen. I suppose he was convincing, but I always had an inkling that he was just telling stories–not real events–but stories he made up. I didn’t mind, because they were interesting and he was a good kid, like me.
Richie’s family moved into the first floor of our building Apartment 1-F, we were on the fifth floor, Apartment 5-A. One day we were sitting on the front stoop to the building doing nothing in particular when Richie suddenly got up and announced. “Let’s go exploring.”
Since I had no better idea, I said, “Sure.”
Now if you walked out of the building to Lorraine Street and turned right you were headed toward the school and farther down toward the docks. If you went left you were headed south toward the small strip of stores and farther down toward the community pool. The pool was always packed with people during the hottest days of the summer, so since this was a not-so-hot day we went right toward the school, P.S. 30.
The patch of streets between the school and the Projects were lined with semi-attached houses and some unattached, single houses. All of the houses were small and modest, but they were considered a step up from the Projects since they didn’t pay rent–they owned the house, along with a bank.
Owning a house was a really big deal to the people in the Projects. I heard my parents talk about the time, “…when we have enough money and get a house, we’ll be okay.” So we had a certain reverence for the people who owned their house on those compact little streets.
Anyway, we turned right and walked along the narrow streets, crossing Otsego Street and then Dwight Street on beyond Richards and Van Brunt Street, where I got my hair cut, up to the school and turned back around Conover Street toward the Projects and eventually to Coffey Park.
Coffey Park was the place of firsts: first time I roller skated, first time I rode a two wheeler bike, and the first time I got mugged by three older kids on the way back from getting a hair cut.
“Wow! What’s that over there?” Richie exclaimed.
“That’s Coffey Park,” I said as tour guide, “come on.” We ran for no good reason but to run. Richie was really fast and he pushed me, I was very fast–just lucky I guess. The race ended in a step for me. But, I guess I should tell you, I was pretty tall for my age and I had longer legs and I was pretty strong for a kid of nine years. So beating Richie, who was about four fingers shorter, was no great shakes.
His eyes lit up his round, brown face and a big smile cracked his face in half. “Wow!” he exclaimed again. “Look at this place. We had some places like this in Africa too.”
“Really? Tell me about them.” I always did that as a way of challenging him. ‘Tell me about it,’ I would say and he would. He never flinched or stopped to think, he always went on to tell me strange and interesting things.
“We didn’t need parks like this where I was born because we had all the world to discover, but when we moved to a large community, bigger than a village, there were swings, and climbing things…”
“Monkey bars?” I asked.
“Yes, yes, monkey bars–I thought we were the only ones who called them that,” he mused.
“Were they like these, the monkey bars?” I was hooked. The Coffey Park monkey bars were very tall; over ten feet tall and made of polished steel to protect the little kids.
“Actually, these are a little smaller, but much nicer, more complicated to climb around.” Richie climbed like a real champ. I mean he moved through the bars going up and down and sideways faster than I ever could. I guess his small stature made the difference and helped him. I was awkward getting around the monkey bars. Where I did shine however was on the swings.
We left the monkey bars and no sooner than we did the monkey bars were crawling with little kids. They had watched us, waiting for the chance to try out the tricks and moves that Richie and I, mostly Richie, had done on the bars. I watched them for a bit. Little kids learned by copying everything bigger kids do. I learned that from my two little brothers. If I did something, they would soon enough try to do it too. Sometimes when they did it, it was dangerous, like trying to close the bedroom window that opened out. You had to reach out to grab the handle and pull the window closed. I could do it easily these days, but my brothers were too small and reaching out was very dangerous, especially when you’re five stories from the ground.
“Race you!” I challenged and beat him to the swings. The swings were the kind with a big wooden board for a seat. Surrounding the swings was sand. We pumped and pumped on the swings until we couldn’t go any higher and then I jumped off. It wasn’t the first time that I jumped from the swing but it was the first time that I jumped in front of Richie. When I landed and rolled to see his reaction he had already left his swing and soared right toward me. He landed next to me and scampered back to the swing beckoning me.
“Come on,” and he started to pump his legs on the swing furiously.
I watched him for a split second to catch the joy in his face but I soon took my swing and I was soaring next to him. We played like that for a long time, swinging, pumping and flying with a feeling of weightlessness and stomach butterflies–only for a split second–but we wanted to stretch out that feeling. So each time we’d take off from the swing we’d try a new trick to last longer in the air, so we could fly.
Some mothers and their very young kids came and ended our adventure. We let the little kids have the swings for a while.
We sat in the grass picking out four leaf clovers as the sky raced by and the sun made us feel good all over.
That night I had dreams about flying off the swing and sailing through the air for a very long time.
Anyway that was last summer, my tenth as I said. For the rest of the year Johnny Boy, Richie Boles and I became really good friends. We got older and braver and that’s when the interesting stuff began to happen.
Whistling Joe, other folks and the Brooklyn Dodgers
The Projects were like a little city. There were thousands of people living in these six story buildings that were connected in twos and threes. Our building was connected to two other buildings. If you think of the letter L lying on its side, my building was the flat part on the bottom of the L. There were a couple of Sycamore trees out front (the kind that drop “itchy balls” that we’d throw at each other or stuff down the back of someone’s shirt — harmless, really, but fun to watch the people squirm around) and a fenced playground for the kids and old folks. The kids played and the old folks sat and watched. Everybody else worked. Men and women returned home from work almost all day long. Some worked nights, some worked early shifts and some came and went at all hours, probably working two jobs; but the kids played and the old folks watched.
Most nights a stillness blanketed the Projects. My brothers and I would fall into a deep and rejuvenating sleep that awakened us to a new and wondrous day.
Many kinds of exotic and interesting people lived in our little city. One such person was Whistling Joe. He was both talented and very interesting. Whistling Joe lost his legs in the war, World War II that sent a lot of men home with physical and mental ailments. Whistling Joe had a physical ailment-rumor was that he lost his legs when he stepped on a land mine that blew up and almost killed him. But, it didn’t kill him and he was able to return home to Brooklyn.
Whistling Joe loved music. He was an artist of sorts; he could whistle any tune ever composed. Not only could he whistle he could stop you dead in your tracks and mesmerize you with his sweet lamentations of popular songs and improvisational whistling.
I remember the first time I heard him. My father and I were coming home from the bakery on an early summer’s evening. He heard Whistling Joe first. My father was a singer himself and he had a good ear for music. “Hear that?” he asked.
“What? What should I hear?”
“Listen,” he said softly. “The whistling, do you hear it?” I watched my Dad’s face broaden into a smile as he listened and walked home. That night was a special time for me as we listened to Whistling Joe while walking together on a summer’s evening. The sight of Whistling Joe seated and leg-less, on a small wheeled, two by two crate cover with his hands wrapped in heavy cloth to protect them as he propelled himself along the street whistling and never missing a note was a defining moment for me. I mean I saw the spirit of the man rise and soar above his leg-less body and capture every ear and transport everyone to a better place and time. Here was Whistling Joe leading a growing crowd of listeners who swayed and kept time with bobbing heads. Here was earthbound, leg-less Whistling Joe soaring and swirling above us and we were envious of his journey, his private reverie and his internal song.
That night I learned about my internal song. Well, maybe not that night, but it began to hum somewhere deep inside. I would learn–later in life–that there was a place for personal reveries and songs of freedom, liberty and sheer delicious joy within each of us. I would also learn that you couldn’t hear the song unless you listened very, very closely.
So Richie and I and Johnny Boy had become good friends. One day, Richie and Johnny Boy came knocking at my apartment door.
“Ya gotta see this,” Johnny Boy blurted out when I opened the door.
“Come on,” Richie said dancing excitedly behind him, “Let’s go.”
My mother had left me in charge. “Watch your brothers. I have to go to the store,” she said and kissed me on the forehead.
“Why?” the two chorused.
“I’m supposed to watch my brothers,” I said.
The anxious duo circled each other seeking an answer that was obviously not forthcoming while I watched. My brothers peeked around the door to see the cause of the commotion.
“Listen, guys, I can’t go. Okay?” I began to close the door and shoo my brothers back inside.
“No, no. You gotta see this,” Johnny Boy pleaded. “Tell him.”
“There’s a dead guy on the street,” Richie said.
“Hit by a car,” Johnny Boy added.
“We saw it happen,” Richie exploded.
“You saw it happen?”
“Yeah,” they answered solemnly in unison.
Well, my mind struggled with anticipation and uncertainty. I wanted to see the dead body; but I had to watch my two brothers. Johnny Boy and Richie danced with anticipation to leave and run back to the dead guy. I put a plan into action.
“Now listen carefully.” This I directed to my pals and my two younger brothers. “We’re gonna go downstairs, take a look and come right back up here.” Each head bobbed an affirmative response. I grabbed my middle brother’s hand and said, “Johnny Boy, you and Richie hold onto Danny. Don’t let go of his hand no matter what. Got it?”
“Sure Alan, we got him, right Richie?”
“You bet.” And they each grabbed a hand to show their point.
“Okay, Lenny will be with me. You hold on to me, okay.” Lenny nodded and put his hand into mine. I grabbed the house key, closed the door and we were down in the elevator in a flash. By the time we reached the dead guy at the corner a crowd had gathered and the police were in charge.
In the middle of the street there lay an old black man. Nearby was a bag of groceries that had spilled out onto the street. Traffic was stopped and the police were directing cars to turn around and try another street. One door of a police car was opened and I could see a young girl sitting inside. She was crying. She looked familiar, about my age but I couldn’t see her face. A policeman was kneeling down talking to her.
“Alan, what’s the matter with Lenny?” Johnny Boy asked.
Lenny was sobbing, tears rolling down his face formed rivulets that stained his skin.
Money was hard to come by for most people in our community. I mean we weren’t the best educated, nor smartest of folks by and large so we got the jobs no one else wanted to do, but we were very resourceful — we had to be. If you wanted to go to the movies you had to work or scrape together the twenty-five cents to get to see the two pictures, five cartoons and a series that brought you back the next week for the next part of the series. We saw Flash Gordon fight Ming the Merciless and other evil characters.
So, most days we were vigilant about collecting returnable bottles for a few pennies. After a bunch of bottles were collected we had a nice tidy sum, maybe a quarter or more after several days of careful scouting and hunting for bottles. Since everyone was in the same boat, you had to be very sharp about getting bottles before the other kids got your share. We would do a tour of the loading docks from the local manufacturers around lunch time and wait for the men to finish their lunch, smoke their cigarettes, laugh and complain about the job and then we’d move in for the bottles. Most men didn’t even notice us, some did and were okay with us taking their bottles, but some were not. One guy, a mean guy with a bad temper always took his bottle of beer or soda — depending on his mood — and walk it over to a metal garbage barrel and break the bottle’s neck and drop into the barrel; all the while looking right at us, never smiling, never sneering, just looking very hard for our expression each time he broke a bottle costing us a few pennies. We gave him a wide birth always.
Anyway, as I was saying, money was hard to come by, but when we had saved enough there was only one thing we wanted to spend our money on – and that was baseball. Oh sure, sometimes we’d buy three pretzels and an egg cream at Sammie’s Luncheonette, but mostly we’d go see the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field.
In 1953, the Brooklyn Dodgers were all we thought about. Jackie Robinson, the first Negro to play in the Major Leagues had come up in 1947 and by 1953 he was a real hero. I mean everyone loved Jackie, and Duke Snider and Roy Campanella and Carl Furillo — well, all the Dodgers.
One day, Richie said, “Let’s go see the Dodgers.” Just like that, “Let’s go see the Dodgers,” became our mission, our reason to redouble our efforts at scouting up bottles to return for the money that would allow us to “… go see the Dodgers.” We were like adventurers on a quest, like Flash Gordon who wanted to save the Earth from Ming the Merciless. So, in early July we began our quest for more bottles. That meant that we had to widen our area of reconnaissance and go farther from the Projects.
“Okay we gotta get more money than ever before. The tickets are a buck for the cheap seats,” declared Johnny Boy. “And that don’t include getting there and stuff.”
The stuff would have included a hot dog and drink, maybe even a magazine about the team with score cards and all. Of course we’d all need our own scorecards and magazine — that was a given.
“How much did you get?” I asked Richie.
He had dumped his money, all pennies, out onto the concrete steps where we sat and he was counting the pennies. “Thirty-two cents,” he said proudly.
Thirty-two cents was okay, but Johnny boy, who knew the neighborhood better than Richie and therefore he knew more places to go for bottles, had seventy-nine cents. Seventy-nine cents was a very good haul for a day’s bottle collection.
“How about you Alan?” Johnny-Boy asked.
“Yeah, how much?” Richie chimed in too.
I dug into my pockets and dumped out a pile of change which included a quarter, and two dimes and three nickels and a load of pennies. Richie’s and Johnny Boy’s eyes almost popped out of their heads.
“Wow! How’d you get so much?” asked Richie.
“Ah, his father brings home bottles from work, he can get a million of them,” Johnny Boy bragged on my behalf.
“Really?” Richie asked.
“Nah, not a million, but he does bring home bottles when I ask him. He works in a restaurant in a factory on the pier. When the men come in for lunch they buy stuff to eat. Sometimes only drinks to go along with their own sandwiches, so they buy drinks to wash down the food and they leave the bottles. My father will bring some home if I ask him,” I said matter-of-factly.
Both boys nodded approval of this windfall of bottle money.
Each of us grabbed a pile of coins and began counting. When we were finished counting I had 83 pennies, 25 cents for the quarter, 20 cents in dimes and 15 cents in nickels for a total of one dollar and forty-three cents. Add that to the money from Richie and Johnny Boy and we had two dollars and fifty-four cents. We sat back and stared at the money. It seemed like a fortune – it was a fortune for us. When we looked at the money we saw what it could do for us. It could almost put us into Ebbets Field watching Jackie and Duke and the rest of the Dodgers. For a moment or two we felt as though we were already there, the three pals together in the best place in the world on the sunniest day of the summer watching the best team in baseball.
“Excuse me please,” said Mrs. Olsen as she lumbered up the two steps of the housing project’s entrance allowing us a split second to move out of her way and pull the money aside.
Johnny Boy jumped to his feet and began to dance and sing. “We’re gonna see the Dodgers, see the Dodgers.” Never-shy Richie joined in and they danced in a little circle of happiness. I just watched them have fun and I probably smiled too because we were gonna see the Dodgers. But first we had to collect more money.
Making money is not so easy.
It rained all day the next day, and most of the day after that. Then it rained on and off for the next week mostly around noon time. So what, you ask? Well, if it rains then the men at the loading docks stay inside the plant and eat lunch. If they stay inside the plant and eat lunch, then their bottles stay inside the plant and we can’t get at them and then no money … that’s what.
So we had to think really hard about where we could get bottles or find another source of money. Being nine and ten years old wasn’t easy to find a job, but we tried. Johnny Boy went to the Italian bakery and asked if he could do something for them – for money. At first the baker laughed, but he saw that Johnny was serious so he said.
“You know we open the bakery at four in the morning. We bake all morning and sell all day. We got people who sell the cakes and breads, you know? You gonna be here at four in the morning to help clean up after we bake and sweep the floors and take out the garbage? Can you do this? Will your momma let you do this?” With a dismissive wave of his hand he turned toward the back of the bakery.
“Yeah,” Johnny Boy said.
The baker stopped. “Yeah? You can do this? You sure?” The baker looked at Johnny Boy more carefully, scrutinizing his size and maturity. “What’s your name?”
“Johnny.” Johnny Boy said, dropping off the Boy that everyone else used when we spoke about him or talked to him directly.
The baker cocked his head to one side and asked, “What’s your last name?”
“Cassesse,” Johnny answered.
The baker moved from side to side as though he was evaluating something. “You Italian? Your momma, she buys bread here?”
“Yeah, so?” Johnny Boy was suspicious.
“So, you ask her. If she say ‘Yes’ you can work. Okay?”
“Okay, yes, sure.”
And Johnny Boy was gone from the bakery without so much as a ‘thank you’ which he remembered on the way up in the elevator. “I gotta remember to be nicer next time; say thank you Mister…Mister what? I don’t know his name.”
Meanwhile Richie was working on a scheme closer to home.
“Ma?” Richie asked.
“Yes?” she responded never missing a stitch on her sewing machine. It clicked and clacked all day and sometimes into the night as she made clothes from cloth always following the patterns she made or bought. She made dresses for little girls, dresses for women and shirts for men and boys. Sometimes she would get special orders, because she was very good at what she did and word got around, and she’d have to get special cloth and buttons and stuff like that to make a very special party dress. She even had work from some rich people for whom some of the people in the Projects worked. That was the best money, but also the most difficult and complicated clothes to make.
“Ma?” Richie insisted.
Mrs. Boles turned to look squarely at her beloved son Richard. Their family included one boy and one mother. She worked very hard for her family of two. Her house was always clean and nice smelling, even though the clicking of the sewing machine rarely ceased.
“Come here,” she said.
Richard obeyed his mother and she tucked in his shirt, took his hands and said, “What? What is it baby?”
“I need money.” There it was – it just popped out.
Mrs. Boles looked at her son for a very short second and burst into laughter. She pulled him close and hugged him and swayed back and forth, kissed him on the forehead and said, “Ain’t that the truth?”
But Richard was serious and she saw it in his eyes, so she stopped laughing and looked at him with a question in her eyes.
“Momma, I want to go see Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers,” he said. “We’ve been collecting money…”
“Collecting empty deposit bottles and returning them for money.”
“Oh, I see.” She looked at her son with some pride. “Who is we?”
“You know, Johnny Boy and Alan and me too.”
“Really?” with a touch of pride in her voice. “How’s it going?”
Richie got excited here, “It was going very good until this rain. Hard to find the bottles because people don’t come outside when it rains.”
“You noticed that did you?” she joked. She always joked like that. She was very nice to us kids and she always had something funny to say so it was part of who she was. Richie knew this too and he just went on like nothing was said, because he was serious.
“We almost have enough for admission to Ebbets Field, you know, where the Dodgers play.”
“Yes, I know.” And then she said something that would change Richie’s understanding of his mother forever. “I’ve been there. When you were living, for a time, with grandma Pearl, I went to a game or two. I liked it too.”
Richie couldn’t believe his ears.
“So you boys are planning to go see the Dodgers?” she asked.
“Yes. I mean if it’s okay with you, but I still need to make some more money.”
Now Mrs. Boles scrutinized her son the way the baker scrutinized Johnny Boy. Her eyes blinked in thought several times and then she said. “All right, you can work for me.”
“Huh? Really, what can I do?” Richie was excited at the possibilities.
“Well, you know how the folks whose clothes I make stop by here to pick them and pay me and all?” She asked.
“Sure, I see them come and talk to you and they are always very happy with the clothes,” he said.
“Exactly, and I take the time to be friendly and visit with them, sometimes making coffee or tea and listening to them gossip.” Richie smiled because he heard some of the stories people told his mother. She was a good and polite listener and people liked her company. “Well if I could cut down on the talking and visiting I could spend more time making the clothes and maybe more time with you reading books and talking at night. Would you like that?”
“Yes, momma, I’d like that a lot.” Richie loved to sit with his mother and hear about their family in North Carolina and Georgia; but, mostly he just liked to spend time with his mother.
“Okay, if you can deliver the clothes and collect the money and come right back home, I mean I wouldn’t send you far, just to people here in the Projects who I know are nice and all, then I’d be able to pay you, probably enough to go to Ebbets Field and maybe buy something to eat.”
“And a program? You think there’d be enough for a program and a score card, too?” He gushed.
With that she pulled him close. If he could have seen her face he would have been able to see how sadness and pride can mix together.
Hard work does pay.
Johnny Boy was successful in his new job. Getting up at five in the morning wasn’t so easy the first time he tried. He got himself dressed and had something to eat, tiptoed into his parents bedroom and said, “I’m going to work.”
Mrs. Cassesse asked her son, “You gonna be okay Johnny boy?”
“Yeah momma, I’m gonna be fine.”
Johnny’s mom smiled at her son proudly and beckoned him to come and give her a kiss. He bent down close to his mother so she could hold his head in her hands and she gave him a kiss on the forehead, “You be a good boy and work hard. We’re gonna be proud of you.”
“Thanks momma. I gotta go now.” Johnny left his parents’ bedroom and exited his apartment. He pushed the elevator button and waited impatiently for the elevator to arrive. When it did arrive he jumped into the elevator even before the doors were fully opened and pushed the button for the first floor. Johnny traveled down in the elevator thinking about watching the Dodgers play baseball. He had a vision of Jackie Robinson running from third base and stealing home plate to win the game. This private reverie made Johnny smile.
Walking down the streets in Brooklyn on an early summer morning was a new experience for Johnny. The only people out at five in the morning were people walking to work. The men were dressed in blue and brown coveralls, and most men carried a lunch pail or lunch bag of some kind. These were the workingman of the community, the men who made things go, the men who cleaned the streets and ran the subways and buses. Johnny Boy was one of the workingman this morning. He walked with the same manly pride this morning; this July summer morning that was already warm and somewhat humid.
Johnny reached the bakery on time. The front door was still locked so he knocked on the door. No one came to the door. Johnny knocked again, harder this time. Still no one came to the door. Johnny knocked harder and more insistently, but no one came to the door. Finally, he decided to go around the back of the store. Johnny walked along the side of the building and when he reached the back of the building he could hear the sound of mixing machines making the dough for bread and cakes and cookies and pastries that everyone in the neighborhood loved so much.
The back door was opened, only a screen door guarded the interior from the bugs. Johnny called out, “Hello, it’s me, Johnny. I’ve come to work.”
A man in his 20s came to the door and opened it for Johnny. “Come in.” The man waved to Johnny to follow him. Johnny was now in the back of the bakery. All the breads, cakes, cookies, and pastries were made back here. Johnny saw the baker who was supervising two young bakers as they prepared two cakes.
“Here’s the new kid boss.” The young man then turned away and went back to kneading the dough to make bread. The baker stopped for a moment and turned to Johnny. He pointed to a broom and said, “Keep the floor clean.” The baker then turned back to work.
Johnny eagerly picked up a broom and began sweeping the flour into little piles. When he had enough flour and piles he looked for a shovel or something to pick up the flour from the floor. The baker saw him and knew what he was looking for and he said, “Use the shovel near the door.” Johnny picked up a small shovel and scooped the flour onto the shovel’s face and dumped the flour into a large round container. The baker nodded a private approval to himself and went back to work again.
Johnny worked all morning, sweeping and cleaning the mixing bowls and cleaning them again after they had been used to make new dough. The work was tedious but Johnny liked it. He wanted to show the baker that he could do the job well.
By 10:00 A.M. all the baking was finished. Johnny was tired and sweaty. The baker directed him to the bathroom to wash his hands and face. Johnny looked into the mirror and saw flour on his face. He turned the faucet on, cupped his hands and splashed water over his face. He picked up a bar of soap and scrubbed his hands and face. When he left the bathroom the baker was standing with a package.
“This is bread for your mother.” The baker smiled and handed Johnny paper wrapped around a loaf of fresh baked bread. The paper was warm, the fresh bread smelled good to Johnny. The morning had been a success. Johnny worked hard and was rewarded with money and a loaf of bread for his mother.
Meanwhile Richie was just getting out of the house with the morning’s first delivery. His mother said, “Here’s the address,” and she handed him a piece of paper, “take this package and be careful and be pleasant when you meet the woman. She’s an old lady and she likes company and she will probably invite you to have a cookie but this time you must come home right away because I have another package that has to be delivered early today. Okay? Make Momma proud.”
Richie smiled and said, “I will Momma.”
Mrs. Boles was right about the old woman, she did have a plate of cookies sitting on the kitchen table. She greeted Richie with a smile, “Come in young man. Your momma said you comin’ this morning. Aren’t you a handsome young man!”
The old woman ushered Richie into the apartment and closed the door behind him. She took the package from his hand and carried it to the kitchen table and opened it. She took out the dress and held it in front of her. She looked at the dress and then looked at Richie and said, “Now isn’t this a fine dress your momma made for me? I’m going to wear this to church this Sunday.” Then the old woman looked at the boy and the cookies on the table and said, “Would you care for a cookie?”
“No ma’am, I mean I can’t.”
“You can’t?” said the old lady.
“My momma said I must come right back home, she has more deliveries this morning.”
The old woman smiled and said, “Then you can take the cookie with you.” And she handed him a large cookie from the plate on top of the table. “Tell momma that I like the dress very much and I will be proud to wear it to church on Sunday.”
So by mid-morning Johnny and Richie were working men. Both boys were paid and given something to eat. Each boy thought, in his own private reverie, that working was okay.
Alan works for his father.
Alan sat in the big front seat of the white car his father had just bought. It was huge, like sitting on a couch. His father drove easily, without rush. The radio played softly and warm morning air along the docks rushed in from the open car window over Alan. He liked it. Alan noticed how his father drove using his right hand while the left arm rested on the window ledge, so he sat as tall as he could and propped his right elbow on the window ledge like his Dad. The motion was not wasted on his father who smiled.
“So, are you ready for a day’s wage and a day’s work?” Alan’s father asked.
“Yep,” Alan blurted.
“Okay!” His father smiled broadly this time.
Alan smiled too as he scooched down for comfort into the big front seat.
The restaurant his father managed was in a factory near the Brooklyn Navy Yard about fifteen minutes from their building. As they drove along the streets to the six story factory, Alan watched the morning people emerge from buildings, drive in cars and walk briskly, while some ran to catch a bus; all manner of men and women, all colors, all races with one goal in mind – work today.
“When we get to the restaurant, we can have breakfast. Okay?” Dad said.
“Sure,” Alan was happy.
They would usually eat and look out at the river behind the factory and talk about the boats. Alan’s father had driven a landing boat with soldiers on it during World War II (he called it an LST) in the South Pacific so he knew a little bit about boats and some of the ships too. His father never talked about the war – never.
Once, when he was rummaging through a family closet-closet space was meager-Alan had found a scrap book, an album of photos from World War II and before he was born. His father was in many photos, some with his friends. In one photo he was dressed in a Zoot suit, wide jacket lapels and slacks worn tight around the ankles, a fancy tie with designs, his black wavy hair slicked back while standing next to his friend. The hand written caption read, Bennie (my Dad) and Paulie. They were standing in front of the stoop to a brownstone building in the City, New York City – probably Brooklyn, which is where we lived and where both parents were born and raised.
There was a far more serious looking photo of Bennie showing rows and rows of military camp tents in the background, men in military uniforms, some in tee-shirts and pants, relaxing. The caption read Okinawa. Bennie, in a tee-shirt and fatigue pants and boots was holding a cigarette in his hand. He was taller than the men near him and very wiry-you know, slim with muscles.
But, aside from those few photos and some other stuff, well, he never talked about the war.
Alan’s father parked the car around the side of the large factory which bordered the docks in South Brooklyn near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. There was a small Saturday shift that worked making tin cans for Fine’s Tin Can Company. The building was very large, six stories high so they took a freight elevator in the rear where deliveries were made. The salty air wafted around the back mixing with the foul smells of engine oil and fish.
Bennie pulled the heavy metal gate up to access the long cloth strap which, when pulled, opened the elevator doors giving access to the loading platform. Father and son entered, closed the gate and the doors and pushed the button to move the elevator. It began to rise and soon was buzzed on another floor, so Benny stopped the elevator. When the door opened a man was standing there with a large box in his arms.
“Thanks,” with a nod from the man.
“Sure,” said Bennie.
Bennie started the elevator. The man looked at Alan and Bennie and shook his head. “I guess the old Kike has you and your kid working Saturday’s too,” and laughed derisively.
“What?” Bennie barked.
“Huh?” the man said.
“Kike? Did you say ‘Kike’,” Bennie snarled?
“Yeah, the old Jew who owns this building. So what?”
The man saw that Bennie was angry and put down the box. “What’s the problem?”
Bennie didn’t answer with words he just punched the guy in the nose. The man went down and Bennie stood over him. The man looked up at Bennie, blood dripping slowly through his fingers as they covered his nose. “Hey, I didn’t mean you.”
“I know,” Bennie said.
Bennie stopped the elevator at the sixth floor, pulled the gate up and opened the doors while the man sat holding his nose. He ushered Alan out, turned to the man and said, “Stop by the cafeteria and I’ll give you some ice.”
The man never stopped for ice.
They ate breakfast in silence, pancakes and sausages with juice for Alan, coffee for Bennie and long moments of silence.
“Dad,” Alan began. Bennie’s mind was off somewhere, someplace other than the cafeteria in Fine’s Tin Can Company. “Dad?”
Bennie came back from his private reverie. He smiled at Alan. “More pancakes?”
“No, these are plenty. Ah, I have a question.”
“Okay?” Bennie answered.
“What’s a Kike?”
Bennie winced at Alan’s use of the word ‘Kike.’
Alan waited while his father took a moment to answer. “Well, we are Kikes, you and me – and all our family and ancestors – we’re Kikes, Jews to some ignorant people.”
“Is it bad? I mean being called a Kike?”
“It’s a stupid word. It means ‘X’ in German. That’s what many of the immigrants signed as their name when they came to this country, those that couldn’t write were told to mark an ‘X’ and they became known as Kikes,” Bennie explained.
“So, it’s not a bad word?” he asked.
Bennie smiled, mussed his son’s hair and said, “I guess it depends what meaning you give it.”
Alan worked all day cleaning tables, sweeping behind the counter and in the kitchen. Washing dishes came after breakfast and lunch using a high powered hose and scrub brush to clean plates, pans and utensils. Alan was soaked with soap and plenty of water, but he liked it. He liked being part of his father’s world. It made him feel proud to work hard and to be Bennie’s son.
There was always time for fun and competition
The surfaces of the streets surrounding our Projects were made from old European cobblestones shipped to the United States from Europe. The cobblestones, as much as 200 years old, were used as ballast to help steady the ships on the rough seas crossing over the Atlantic Ocean. They were nice to look at but impossible to roller skate on, so we went to Coffey Park where there was a wide, smooth swath of blacktop centering the Park and bordered by tall Sycamore trees, that was perfect for walking, bike riding and roller skating.
On days when we didn’t have to work and when it didn’t rain or was just too hot to do stuff, we went roller skating at Coffey Park. Our adjustable metal skates with leather straps easily fit anyone’s foot as long as we didn’t forget to bring a skate key to adjust the length and width of the skates. Most often, we hung the skate key on a shoe lace around our neck so it would be handy when the skates needed adjustment.
Now Richie was not a very good skater, “We didn’t have skating parks in Africa,” he would say as justification for his difficulty with roller skates.
Johnny would roll his eyes incredulously at me, but I’d always say to Richie, “Keep trying, you’re doing fine.”
“Yeah?” Richie would ask, and skate-stumble away as fast as he could. What he lacked in style, he made up in effort.
Johnny and I were very competitive on the skates. I have to admit that I was a very competitive type with all sports. I didn’t mind losing once in a while, but I loved the competition when we were playing, racing, jumping and just trying to out-do each other. That was what made it fun – the competition with friends.
Since Richie couldn’t skate very fast, he was the official starter for each skating race between Johnny and me.
We’d carefully line up the toes of our skates at an imaginary starting line, get down into a starting pose and look at Richie. Very seriously, Richie would visually check our feet to ensure that no one had an advantage. When he was satisfied, he’d stand with his legs apart, hand in the air and say slowly and rhythmically, “Ready, set, go…” dropping his hand quickly below his knees and we’d be off.
Johnny was very competitive too. He however, really hated to lose so he always gave it all he had to win. Half the time he’d win and half the time he’d lose and Johnny would either be petulant or argumentative after the results were made official by Richie who always ran alongside of us as we raced to a point ahead.
“Are you crazy?” Johnny, red-faced, and angry yelled at Richie one time as Richie ignored him and drank deeply from the water fountain nestled under a huge Sycamore. “My hand was in front of Alan,” Johnny sputtered, and drank deeply too from the water fountain.
Richie, remained calm and said, “Yes, but Alan’s body was ahead of yours, and that’s what counts, not your hand. And that’s official.”
Everyone laughed then, but Johnny still didn’t like the results. “I don’t know, a hand in the lead has got to count for something,” while shaking his head for emphasis.
But as fierce and unyielding as a competitor as was Johnny, he was a team player all the way. Johnny on the Pony was a favorite team game that we played. We’d have two teams of three or four guys and a pillow. The pillow, usually the biggest kid, stood with his back braced against the building or a wall while the other guys on the team would bend from the waist forming a bridge like structure holding on to each other. The first guy in the bridge would hold on to the pillow. We usually played using Carlos as the pillow. He was the strongest kid in our area and he would support the first guy on the bridge with all his might. Now the tricky part, the other team would try to crash the bridge by having each guy run and jump as though he was jumping on the back of a horse like they did in the movies. Usually, they’d try to get on top of one guy to make him buckle and fall to his knees. Carlos would help the first guy always, but the number two guy was always the target for a gang jump.
Johnny never buckled and we never lost, not because he was so strong, but because he was so proud and hated to lose. He would never give up.
In the summer, the Duncan Yo-Yo man would come to the statue of the soldiers that centered Coffey Park. Kids would gather around the Yo-Yo Man, as he was called, and learn the newest yo-yo tricks. The yo-yos cost twenty-five cents and were always better and more necessary than last year’s model which inevitably got lost or broken during the year.
It was here that three of us excelled equally. While the other kids, especially the younger, newer yo-yo kids tried to Walk the Dog, or Rock the Cradle, we three veterans easily moved through the newest stunts often adding personal embellishments to the tricks like Walking the Dog over a stick or gliding above a puddle of water.
We shared our tricks, our skills and – most of all — we shared our friendship like brothers.
So, you can see that there was always competition for our few meager pennies. We had to make allowances for the movies, the yo-yo man and a new and improved yo-yo, a pretzel or two at the Sam’s Luncheonette and of course the Brooklyn Dodgers.
We loved “dem bums”
The Brooklyn Dodgers were referred to as the Bums, or dem Bums in Brooklyn lingo. But we never saw our guys as bums. They were our champs, our heroes and our role models. We all wanted to be fast and smart like Jackie Robinson; we wanted to hit them out of the ball park like Duke Snider, and everyone, I mean everyone, loved Roy Campanella. You see we were Brooklyn Dodger fans. It was that simple.
So when we realized that we had enough money for tickets and stuff, well we were ready to fly.
“How much we got?” Johnny Boy asked, “Come on, how much?”
We sat around a pile of money, quarters, nickels, dimes and pennies – lots of pennies. The pennies took the longest to count because there were so many.
I had a piece of paper and a pencil. On the paper I wrote down five columns; quarters, dimes, nickels, pennies, total.
Everyone was antsy, that means jumpy if you were a city kid. It wasn’t so easy to count out a mountain of money in coins and get an accurate accounting of the total. We double checked each total and came up with a different number three times. Once we were off by twenty-five cents and then seventeen cents.
Unfortunately, we were short by more than two dollars no matter how we figured the total.
“Johnny Boy, you count the pennies this time,” I said. Johnny Boy frowned but began counting in little piles of ten.
“Richie, let’s you and me count the other coins together. Okay?” I said, not wanting to sound too bossy.
“Okay,” Richard answered in his always good natured way.
We counted this way three times until we reached a decision and a total.
“Still one dollar seventy-eight cents short,” I said. Silence surrounded us.
“Hey, what are you boys doing? No gambling here,” from the booming voice of Officer Hadley that broke our gloomy silence.
“Huh?” I looked up, confusion written all over my face.
“You heard me, no gambling, clean that money up and get going.” Officer Hadley pulled the day time shift and was always around when things were okay, but never around when there was trouble.
“No, no Sir, we’re not gambling,” I said.
“We’re gonna see the Dodgers,” said Richie with all his innocence and charm.
“The Dodgers?” Officer Hadley smiled and eyed each of us carefully. “Yeah, how many homers does the Duke have so far this season?”
“Fifteen,” was our chorused reply.
“Nah ah,” smiled Officer Hadley. “He just hit another one.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yep, just heard the game at Sam’s Luncheonette,” he said proudly. Then, after a long minute of silence where we savored the news, “How much you got?”
Johnny Boy, “Not enough…”
“But we gonna get more,” Richie chimed in.
And then a funny thing happened, Officer Hadley looked at each of us for a very long time. We were a little scared. He stuck his oversized hand into his front right pants pocket and pulled out a handful of coins. The officer picked out some, put the rest back into his pocket and flipped three quarters, one to each of us, “Have fun boys.” He turned and walked a few paces, then turned to face us again, “No gambling, you hear me?”
“No,” from Johnny Boy.
“Never,” with emphasis from Richie.
All I could say was, “Thanks, thanks a lot Officer Hadley.”
He turned, then, nodded his head and strolled away. And so we were closer to our goal by seventy-five cents.
Once the elation of the newly found money had faded, we realized that we were still short of the money needed.
“A dollar and three cents to go,” I said.
“Yeah, I can count too,” said Johnny Boy testily.
“Only a dollar and three cents to go,” smiled Richie, always the optimist.
“He’s right,” I said.
Richie began his little dance, Johnny Boy and I joined him and we danced with dreams of seeing Jackie stealing home and the Duke smacking another home run.
By noon on the following day we had made our one dollar and three cents and twenty-seven cents more.
We were going to see the Dodgers.
Ebbets Field, Home of the Brooklyn Dodgers
“Look at this subway! Boy we had nothing like this in Africa when I was little,” Richie said to the amusement of an elderly woman seated nearby in the subway car that was taking us to Ebbets Field. She eyed him up and down and smiled a grandmother’s smile and shook her head from side to side ever so slightly.
“Look at the tunnels all around going in different directions,” Richie continued.
Just then a train roared past. You could see people sitting and standing in the cars as they raced by and then nothing but tunnel again click-clacking behind the windows.
Richie stood in the center of the subway car holding onto a pole, turning this way and that trying to see everything at once. This was his first trip on the subway without his mother. She had always made him sit next to her, away from the strangers and the view of the tunnels outside the racing subway car. Now he stood tall, leaned into the direction of the train and marveled at the grandeur of the New York City subway tunnels.
“I can’t believe it. We’re gonna see the Dodgers today,” exclaimed Johnny boy incredulously.
We were excited. That morning we each had serious instructions from our families.
“Stay together. If one has to go to the bathroom, everyone goes, you hear?” Richie’s mother said with a serious look in her eyes.
“Okay,” we echoed and nodded for confirmation.
Johnny Boy added, “All together – all for one and one for all like the Three Musketeers. Right guys?”
Mrs. Boles smiled.
It was the same with my mother and Johnny Boy’s mother too. Watch your money, don’t eat too much, and most of all don’t talk to strangers. To which we agreed on every count to each mother until, at last, we were set free.
The late morning heat had begun, but we didn’t notice. It just felt good to be together and to be going to Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Seven years earlier Jackie Robinson had become the first Negro to play in Major League Baseball. It was a big deal then, but it was normal now in 1953 – and we were glad. Even though the stadium was a little old and rickety – it was built in 1913 — it was beautiful to us.
The train emptied us onto the Prospect Park exit and we walked the rest of the way to Ebbets Field. We bought the tickets and held onto them tightly, as we were told by our mothers. Once in a while we fingered the money in our pockets to make sure it was still there.
After buying tickets, and passing through the turnstiles, and buying an Official Brooklyn Dodger roster and scorebook we were seated in the lower deck looking out at the green ball field below us.
There was an almost endless supply of people arriving until the game began. We sang the National Anthem and the stadium erupted into loud hollering and cheering as the Dodgers took the field against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Duke Snider ran to center field and began throwing the ball around to Carl “Skonj” Furillo in right field while catcher Roy “Campy” Campanella chatted with the umpire. Jackie Robinson fielded a couple of balls with such fluid motion that it looked very easy to play baseball.
“Peanuts, peanuts here,” barked a vendor. People called to him and he threw, with superb accuracy, a paper bag filled with warm peanuts while people passed the money back and forth to the vendor.
I bought a bag of peanuts for us to share since my father had given me an extra two dollars for you and the guys. He was good that way.
Second baseman, Jim Junior Gilliam, was a rookie who was doing very well so far. Slugger Duke Snider was having a great season at bats and the Dodgers were winning game after game in the summer of 1953 so we expected a win.
Carl Erskine took the mound for the Dodgers and struck out the first Philly batter. Cheers all around, congratulations and friendly slaps on the back.
Some young men in their early twenties sitting in front of us stood up a lot to cheer for our team so at times it was difficult for us to see the field. Richie stood on the seat, being the littlest and that caused some grief with the folks behind him.
“Hey kid, you can’t stand there for the whole game,” came an angry shout from an old, very fat man sitting behind Richie.
“Frank, give the kid a break. He can’t see over those guys in front of him,” said the fat man’s buddy.
Richie looked around at the two men with puppy eyes. They laughed and the fat man said, “Okay kid, you go right and I’ll go left.” Richie agreed and moved to the right side of the seat and the old man leaned left as Jackie lined one to deep center left field and stretched a single to a double.
“Did you see that?” asked the fat man to his buddy.
Richie thought the old man was talking to him so he said, “Yeah that was great.”
And it was great, one of the all time great days that summer. The Dodgers went on to win four to nothing with one solo homer from Duke Snider.
We ate peanuts, hot dogs, and kept score for each play and built memories that we relived all summer long.
Johnny boy choked a lot on the peanuts that day, but we didn’t pay much attention until weeks later when the family doctor diagnosed him with a disease in his throat. Everyone was scared for him.
Johnny Boy is very sick and everyone is scared.
My mother always said that we have to take the bad with the good. Bad times would come and we’d have to be strong and see the times through until things changed or we learned to accept the new ways. But, when Johnny Boy got sick it was very difficult to accept the bad things that were happening.
About one week after the baseball game at Ebbets Field Johnny began to change.
“Mrs. Cassesse, is Johnny coming out today?” I asked.
“Oh, Alan, he is very tired still. He has a sore throat too. Not today, maybe after the doctor comes later we will see. Okay? I’ll tell him you came by,” Mrs. Cassesse said just before she gently closed the door.
“She looked scared,” observed Richie.
When she said that, I too realized that she was not her usual self. She was a very strong person and she seemed different. She did look scared.
“Ma, Johnny is sick. The doctor’s coming later,” I said.
“What’s the problem?” she asked in her motherly way.
“Sore throat and he’s very tired too,” I answered.
She looked at me for a moment and felt my forehead with the back of her hand. “How do you feel?”
“Me? I’m fine? Why?” I asked.
“Just checking is all. You guys are together all the time you know. If one of you gets sick, well then it’s possible that it can spread.” She smiled, patted me on the head and proceeded to cut an orange into smiley faces and offered them to me. “Here eat these, they’re good for you.”
I took the oranges and sucked out the juice and ate the rest but left in the orange and smiled at my mother leaving the orange to cover my teeth.
“Very funny,” she laughed and returned to clean the kitchen stove.
It’s funny how friends are as a group. I mean when we three were together, we had a way of doing things and stuff. With Johnny Boy out of the group for awhile we were a different group. Richie was the innocent one always seeing the possibilities and expressing his awe at new things and unusual things. I brought the time to think things through and figure out what was the best way to do stuff. Without Johnny Boy around on a daily basis adding his spicy passion for all things whether he liked something or hated it we always knew where Johnny stood. Things had changed.
Richie and I sat on the steps leading up to our building most mornings. We played marbles in the dirt when Barry Yessner joined us from the adjoining building. Barry was a good kid, not too much fun and terrible at marbles. We won a lot of good marbles from him. I offered to give back his most precious marbles, but he said, “No, you won fair and square.” I did win fair and square but it didn’t feel good taking his marbles for some reason.
Once when Richie and I were just sitting, doing nothing in particular he said, “Is Johnny Boy going to be all right?”
There it was out. The thing we were both thinking deep down inside somewhere in our minds had come up from Richie’s mind and out into the open.
“Well, what daya think?” he pressed with seriousness written all over his face.
I turned to look him straight in the face and said, “I don’t know.” I didn’t know. It had been a week since we went to the game and he was still inside and the doctor had come but there was no news about Johnny Boy. News travelled fast in the six story building with six apartments on each floor so it was unusual that we hadn’t heard anything about how he was feeling. Nothing.
“Richie?” I started.
“Your mother hear anything about him?” Hoping he’d have some small bit of information.
“No, she never said anything about him being sick.”
We were silent for a very long time.
Finally, I said, “Let’s ask.”
“Who? Ask who?” he wanted to know.
I balanced this question for a few seconds. “His mother.”
As usual, Richie was up on his feet. “Okay, let’s go.”
We took the elevator up to the sixth floor and when it emptied us onto the floor we walked right up to apartment 6F and knocked without thinking about what we’d ask.
Johnny Boy’s sister, Vita, answered the door. She looked tired and upset.
“Hey,” was all that I could get out at first.
“Alan, Richie – Johnny can’t come out today. Okay?” She was about to close the door.
“Is he going to be all right?” Richie blurted out.
With that Vita’s eyes began to fill with water. She didn’t answer, only stared for a moment.
“Is he?” Richie asked again with his own concern showing openly.
Vita looked down at Richie. “He’s in the hospital for tests. The doctor sent him there from his office a few days ago.”
“The hospital?” Richie exclaimed with deep concern and reverence.
“Come back tomorrow or the next day and I’ll tell you what I know.” She began to close the door.
“But…” and the door was closed.
“Sorry,” Vita said as the lock clicked shut inside the apartment.
Richie and I didn’t move for a whole minute; then we walked up the stairs to the doorway leading to the roof where we could be alone. We sat on a cropping of concrete for a long time without talking. The roof was hot but quiet. We could hear the noises from the six floors below. Somehow they sounded very far away.
“Johnny Boy is in the hospital?” Richie said as though questioning the very idea itself.
It didn’t make any sense to me too. He was fine at the Dodger game. Even better than fine. He was excited, happy and yelling all the time. “Dodgers, Dodgers, Dodgers.” He did leave with a sore throat from yelling so much ….
That night I spoke to my mother about Johnny Boy.
“Ma? What’s wrong with Johnny Boy? Vita said that he was in the hospital”
She looked very serious and she took my hand and we sat on the couch. She sat forward and looked at me squarely.
“I spoke to Johnny’s mother Louise.” My mother took a deep breath. “He was sent to the hospital by his doctor. He wanted some medical tests to be performed. Tests that the doctor couldn’t do in his office.”
“Like what?” I blurted out.
Mom shook her head, “I don’t know.”
“It’s serious?” I asked.
“But he was fine at the game ….” I said letting it trail off.
Mom sat up straight, “Listen, I want you to tell me if you feel any aches or pains or anything unusual, scratchy throat, like that. Okay?”
“Ma, can I get sick too? Is what he has catching?”
“Probably not, but Louise was very scared. She said they were testing for Polio which is very dangerous.”
I interrupted my mother, “Can you catch Polio?”
“Not sure, maybe, yes-I think so. Don’t worry just be extra mindful of any aches and such. Okay?”
We sat for a minute or so and she said. “I’m sure he’ll be okay. I know you’re worried, but everything will be okay.”
I wasn’t so sure.
Later that night I heard my mother crying softly while speaking to my father.
“I think I scared him. I didn’t mean too, but he asked about Johnny and I had to tell him the truth. Right?” she asked my father for his approval.
“Babe, I feel so bad for Louise, for Johnny too, he must be afraid.”
Johnny afraid? Yeah, he must be. I didn’t like hospitals having had my tonsils removed when I was five. I remembered how scared I was.
It took me a while to get to sleep that night. My thoughts were troubled. What was it like for Johnny to be in a hospital bed away from home? Was he alone or with other kids in a room? When is he coming home?
Johnny Boy survives, but he talks funny
And we explore the old warehouse.
It was weeks later when we finally got to see Johnny Boy. He was released from the hospital but he had to stay in bed for a while.
Johnny Boy was sitting on the couch in his living room when Richie and I were ushered in to see him.
“Go inside, he’s on the couch. Go ahead, I’ll bring in some cookies,” Johnny Boy’s mother said.
Johnny looked the same but different too. He was a little skinnier although his face seemed puffier.
“Hey guys, where you been?” Chuckling like good old Johnny Boy.
“Waiting to get to see you,” said Richie seriously.
“Doing stuff,” I said trying to deflect the awkward moment.
“Yeah?” Johnny Boy responded to my answer. “What stuff?”
“The usual, you know?” I said.
“Yeah, that’s good.”
Silence defined the uncomfortable moment as we stood over Johnny Boy dressed in his light blue pajamas with drawings of cowboys and Indians on horseback.
“Here they are,” said Johnny Boy’s mother.
“Huh?” Johnny Boy wondered aloud.
“Fresh baked cookies.”
We laughed and we were back to the old group just like that. Cookie power I guess. We ate cookies and drank cold milk to wash them down and we laughed a lot and once milk went shooting out of Johnny Boy’s nose. I thought he was going to bust a gut as we used to say.
Johnny Boy recovered, that is he was no longer in danger from the Polio. I got to tell you, we were relieved, probably not as much as Johnny Boy but we were happy to have him back.
However, he did have one lingering problem. His voice had changed. It had become raspy and he sounded like he was talking through water sometimes. Aside from that he was the same old Johnny Boy who made us do new and sometimes crazy things. Like the day we went to the docks to explore.
Just north of the projects, beyond our school, there were several shipping piers that were perfect for exploring. We walked up Lorraine Street past the small private homes that we coveted and past P.S. 30 and up Wolcott Street to the edge of the pier to the water’s edge. It wasn’t the ocean, that was further along the bay and out to sea, but the water was deep enough for ships carrying exotic cargo that arrived in Manhattan. From the pier we could see the Statue of Liberty too. She always stood tall out there in the harbor as though she were watching over Brooklyn. At least that’s what I thought. Not far from the fair lady is Governor’s Island and behind that is world famous Ellis Island the first stop for hundreds of thousands of immigrants from all over Europe. Further up the river is Manhattan, New York. We just called it the City. Red Hook was certainly a special place to live.
Empty warehouses sat in lonely abandonment alongside piers begging for exploration. And we obliged them. There was a warehouse not far from the end of Wolcott Street where it halted a hundred yards from the water. Broken windows pockmarked the face of the brick building so you could see the high ceilings on sunny days through the broken windows.
The enormity of the building seemed intimidating. Even so we found a way inside. A door on the water’s side of the building was partially opened. Someone had forced the lock and the door could no longer be closed. Johnny Boy grabbed the handle and pulled. The metal door scraped noisily breaking away from the frame which made a screeching sound that caused Richie to back away from the building.
We three stood in the opened doorway and looked into the cavernous warehouse. You could fit the whole community pool and all the building around it into the warehouse with extra room. I mean it was probably a couple of hundred feet wide and twice that long. Water puddles dotted the floor from rain which had entered the broken windows on rainy days. In the winter snow would blow in and form white mounds all around making it perfect for indoor snowball fights.
Richie ran inside and cupped his hands around his mouth, “Hello,” he shouted three times. No hint of an echo could be heard. “Come on,” he shouted and ran off at full speed.
It didn’t take us more than one second to run after him. We ran around and through some puddles of water splashing greasy, oil oaked water into the air and onto our clothes and shoes. Richie was running right at a large fork-lift that sat against the farthest wall, partially covered by a large black tarpaulin.
Richie tugged at the heavy tarpaulin and we joined him as it fell away uncovering a rusty, red painted forklift. The twin blades of the forklift were gone as was the seat. The large steering wheel was rusted in place and didn’t move even when all three of us tried together. The tires, all flat, had started to rot. Where the seat had been were remnants of a bird’s nest with small twigs and dried out plant particles.
“Wow! Look at this place.” Richie spun around with his head tossed upright looking at the decayed iron ceiling beams. “What do you think they had in here?”
“Dunno,” I answered. “Maybe stuff for the War you know. They sent a lot of stuff to the soldiers during the war.”
My father fought in the War, World War II, in the South Pacific. He drove the landing boats that deposited troops on the beachfront during a battle. Must have been scary. He never talked about the War though. I did some studying at the library when my Mom told me he had been overseas as she called it and learned about the War and she told me some stuff too. But he never talked about it to me or anyone else Mom said.
Normalcy returned and we were glad for that. You see exciting times are great to experience; baseball games, Johnny’s Polio and recovery, exploring the piers and much more, but normalcy had its place too.
We turned our attentions back to having fun each day. Johnny Boy still worked at the bakery – he liked it a lot. Richie’s mom was pleased to be able to make more money and spend more time with Richie in the evenings since he began delivering the packages to customers.
As the summer’s heat surrounded us we began regular visits to the community pool to swim and horse around.
Time marches on and a first for me.
Feelings of loss swept through us as we listened to Richie tell that he was moving away. The loss was compounded because he was happy about it. We didn’t want him to be sad after all he and his Mom were getting back with his father but our gang of three was ending and that made us feel an emptiness that had been filled by our friendships.
“Yeah, my Mom just told me we are moving to Georgia to be with my Dad. He started a business, building things for folks and he is making money and he has a house with a back yard and a peach tree in the front yard.”
Richie’s face nearly exploded with joy as he told his news. I knew that he missed his father because he often told stories about how big and strong he was. Sometimes he looked sad when I was with my Dad but never jealous, nah ah.
“When are you moving?” Johnny Boy asked cautiously as though the question alone would break us apart.
“I think at the end of summer. My Mom said we have lots of things to finish up here and my Dad,” this he said with glowing pride, “will come get us when he finishes fixing up the house he bought.”
“That’s great,” I said because it was. Richie was going to live a house with a yard and his own peach tree. I mean, he could walk outside when the peaches were ready and just pick one and eat it.
“My Dad is fixing up a room for me, just me,” he stood shaking his head incredulously.
A bit of envy snuck in about here because I shared a room with my two brothers. It was fine most of the time, fun many times but sometimes I wanted a bit of alone time. I was getting older.
“So I guess it’s gonna be soon?” I asked
“Not sure, they want me to start school there so it’s gonna be before school.” Richie looked at us and I think he saw our sadness that peeked momentarily.
Johnny Boy and I noticed and we put on our best faces for our best friend.
“Let’s celebrate!” Johnny Boy announced.
“Yeah, celebrate.” He did his celebratory dance and we joined with as much gusto as we could muster under the circumstances.
The sun had warmed the day to a hot summery haze.
“The pool!” I heard myself shout.
Ten minutes later we met at the steps with bathing suits and a towel over the shoulder. We ran all the way to the pool with our towels furled like flags trailing over our heads.
The pool was packed with people. Hot hazy days force those who can get out of their apartments into the coolest places and none was cooler than the Red Hook Pool in its own Recreation Area run by New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. It had ball fields, grassy areas and places for folks to run, play and just relax.
Way back in 1636 the Dutch steeled the area calling it Roode Hoek because of the reddish color of the soil and the unique shape of the land-like a hook. The soil now covered by concrete, gobble stones and plenty of people had grown to become a place to live a simple but difficult life.
We had to get in line to enter the pool because so many people had the same idea at the same time. But it was worth it.
The pool is gigantic, Olympic size surrounded by brick walls with an arched entrance opening to the pool. At one end are the diving boards above deep waters. At the farthest end away is the wading pool where young parents tend to their little kids with watchful eyes always.
Most of the divers went to the very edge and jumped in feet first, some did a cannonball but the bravest climbed to the highest perch, held their nose closed and stepped into space. A very few actually dove with arms outstretched like a bird tucking heads down into the water. Those who watched held a high level of respect for the diver who could overcome fear of the height and make it look easy.
We stashed our stuff and jumped into the pool. A whistle sounded and a lifeguard pointed a finger at us shaking it side to side. “No jumping from the sides.”
We knew it before we jumped but we didn’t care.
“You gonna jump from the board?” Johnny Boy challenged Richie.
Richie turned to see the diving boards and the people who jumped from the low boards and paused for just a moment.
“Sure,” he said, and he started to move to the pool’s edge. He stopped turned around, “Come on.” He climbed out of the pool and marched resolutely to the line formed behind each low board.
I have to confess that I never jumped from the board. We all have fears. Mine was that diving board. I was a decent swimmer, not great but I knew I wouldn’t drown or anything but I was scared.
“You coming?” was challenge enough for Johnny Boy to join Richie at the end of the line but not enough for me.
“Alan, come on don’t be chicken,” Johnny Boy taunted.
That was all it took for my competitive nature to respond. I climbed out of the pool and joined them in line after cutting a guy who was behind Johnny Boy.
“I’m with them,” I said and he just shrugged.
For some reason it was important to be next to my friends when I climbed the two steps to the board and walked to the edge to look down into the water.
Richie’s turn came shortly. He climbed the steps, turned towards us and ran to the edge and jumped into space doing a half turn smiling at us as he hit the water and descended from view. In a moment he rose flapping his arms with mouth agape sucking down all the air he could breathe.
Johnny Boy climbed the ladder, took two steps to the middle of the board, turned to look at me and I saw a minor sign of hesitation. Johnny Boy’s all-or-nothing attitude took charge and he ran right off the board with his legs churning all the way into the water. When he bobbed to the surface he waved at me to jump.
I climbed the ladder with my heart pounding. The board swayed up and down making me nervous. Each step to the edge bobbled the board. I stood a foot from the edge and peered into the water. I could see the drain at the bottom of the pool, it seemed very far away. Then I heard the chant from my friends and some others too.
“Jump! Jump! Jump!” My worst fears arose. People were watching me, waiting to get on the board and I was frozen. Too late to retreat so I stepped off the board feet first. The drop to the water although a few feet seemed endless. Water filled my nose as I sank. I gulped a mouthful of water and flapped my arms to reach the surface. I arose choking but alive. Richie and Johnny Boy, treading water nearby, were splashing water at me and for some strange, comfortable reason I loved it.
Sometimes when you face your fears with friends and overcome the mystery of what might happen you find nothing bad will happen – not always, but sometimes – so it’s worth the risk. At least it was for me that very fine day with my buddies.
School begins and Richie is gone.
Johnny Boy and I helped Richie move out of his apartment. We carried some light weight boxes to his Dad’s small truck parked on the street not very nearby.
“Thanks for helping fellas,” his Dad said. His father was indeed a strong man. He seemed friendly too but we felt he was taking our friend away and we held back just a little.
“Dad,” Richie said Dad as often as he could those days, “they are my best friends.”
The big man looked at us and nodded. “You invite them to stop by whenever they’re in Georgia.”
Richie looked at us and knew that we’d never be able to get to Georgia. This was the last time our trio would be united. We all knew it and didn’t like it.
Once the small truck was fully loaded his Dad called for Richie. His Mom whispered to him and he turned to look at us and said, “Take your time, I gotta check stuff before we leave anyways.” But he watched us huddle together and tell each other lies.
“Listen, I will write you two and give you my address so you can write to me too. Okay” he lied.
“Sure,” I said knowing that would never happen.
“Yeah okay,” from Johnny Boy very half heartedly.
“Well, I better get going.” He tried to smile but couldn’t.
Richie climbed into the packed truck. He sat in the back seat, head out the window waving goodbye with all the exuberance that he could muster. We waved, jumping up and down, “Have a good trip.”
And just like that Richie was gone in the flow of traffic bumping along the cobblestone road eventually being out of sight forever.
Johnny Boy and I stood on the curb magically thinking that his Dad’s truck would appear and all would once again be right with the world because our world had changed and we weren’t sure how to react. What next without Richie’s innocent exuberance?
We did know, however, how we felt and it wasn’t good. Sadness bit at my stomach and by the look on Johnny Boy’s face he felt the same. Finally, I worked up the strength to move. Johnny Boy stood still looking and hoping I guess.
“Come on,” I said barely audible against the noise of passing cars.
Johnny Boy turned and gave me a very confused look.
“Johnny Boy, we should go. You know?”
After one final look along the street, he turned shoulders heavy and hurried past me as though to run away from his feelings.
I followed Johnny Boy wondering what other changes were coming.
“Alan, your Grandma Sophie is coming to live with us,” my mother announced one Tuesday evening just before the start of the Milton Berle television show.
During the summer I was allowed to watch television with my parents and sit, eyes glued to the tiny television screen that we had way before other folks in the building. I felt kinda like a grownup – you know, accepted into their world. My brothers slept and I sat ready for Uncle Milty and his funny but very corny jokes and slapstick skits.
“Really? That’s great.” I loved my grandmother very much. She was a very doting grandmother and a great cook.
“Yes, your Dad and I will both be working from now on and we’ll need someone here to look after you three.”
“Yes, I took a job doing the books for a small company near Dad’s restaurant.” She looked long and very hard at me and then she burst into a huge smile.
I looked at my Dad and he was smiling too.
“Alan, we’re going to buy a house as soon as we get enough money together. We need room for you three boys, a place where you can have your own bedroom.”
He watched my face seeking a sign of joy at the news.
“My own room. Yes that’s very good. Where? Near my school where all those houses are?”
They looked at each other for a moment conspiratorially deciding the answer to my question. My father leaned towards me as though to let me in on the secret.
“We are hoping to buy a house on Long Island with a backyard and three bedrooms, maybe a basement too.” He sat back with such a look of satisfaction that I couldn’t tell him how disappointed I really felt.
I’d be moving away from Johnny Boy. Richie is gone and now I’d be moving to Long Island. My folks always spoke longingly about the time we’d have a house of our own but it scared me a little. A new house was great. I wasn’t so sure about a new school, new friends and a new neighborhood. Long Island seemed so alien to me.
My Dad rose, turned on the tiny television and we settled in to watch Milton Berle tell jokes, dress in crazy outfits and attempt to make me laugh, but it didn’t work.
Our small apartment had two bedrooms. My parents shared one and my two brothers and I shared the other. So where was Grandma going to sleep I asked my mother the next morning over a bowl of hot cereal.
“With your brothers,” she said as her eyes searched my face.
“Where do I sleep?”
“You’re gonna have to sleep on the living room couch for a while until we move. Is that okay?”
“Yes,” I said my mind racing through the possibilities. “It will be fun.”
Things were changing rapidly now. Richie left and the trio was now a duo. I mean that was fine. Johnny Boy and I were very close buddies. He would do anything for me and I would definitely do anything for him too; but, it was different without Richie. Oh well.
I love my grandmother very much. She was a doting grandma and we all loved that very much. She made special meals for us when she came to visit – exotic stuff from Austria, the old country.
Sleeping on the couch would be no problem for me since I always slept soundly. And if I couldn’t sleep I could look out of the living room window and see the Statue of Liberty if the night was clear and cloudless.
But, moving to Long Island was another thing all together. You know when you have all your stuff figured out – your friends, your school, the teachers, places to play and all – and then all that stuff is about to get replaced well it makes you think about the future.
Johnny Boy and I sat on the stoop of our building deciding what to do one day.
“You know I like working at the bakery,” he laughed.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Yeah, I like the dough,” and he guffawed like a mule.
“Yeah, yeah, I get it you like the money…” but I wasn’t amused.
“What’s a matter with you?”
“Me? Nothing,” I looked away.
“Come on. Tell me. You never get grouchy and now you’re grouchy. Is it because Richie left us?”
“I don’t know, yeah, nah.”
“My parents want to move,” I turned to Johnny Boy to see his reaction.
His expression was not what I thought it would be. He was thinking.
“Yeah? A house?”
“Yeah, a house with maybe three bedrooms, a yard and a basement they said.”
“That’s good for you. Where you moving to?”
I looked at him for a few, very long seconds before I worked up the courage to say, “Long Island.”
“Me too!” he jumped up and did his dance of joy.
“Yeah, so we can still be buddies. Maybe they’re gonna move to the same town,” he fantasized.
“I don’t know Long Island is pretty big you know.”
“Loong Island – yeah that’s what they call it. But it can’t be bigger than Brooklyn. Can it?”
We had no idea.
“My parents bought a house in Farmingdale, I think that’s what they said.” Johnny Boy thought for a moment. “Yeah, that’s it Farmingdale.”
His parents already bought a house on Long Island in some place called Farmingdale. He was definitely leaving and my move was only a maybe, some day, indefinite. I had a funny feeling rise in my gut; maybe envy, definitely not jealousy. But I didn’t like the feeling at all.