Reclaiming My Inner Brooklyn
By Richard Carreño
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
PHILADELPHIA — Every city kid who has moved away has an “old neighborhood.”
Mine is Flatbush, a vibrant ribbon of racial and ethnic diversity that cuts through the heartland of Brooklyn. Until recently, it was also a place and a bit of personal history that I long ignored, or, maybe, even longed to forget.
Increasingly, over the past few years, all that turned around, and in one of those marvelous contradictions that accompany age, reconnecting with Brooklyn now became a kind of longing. And that recently resulted — after 55 years! — in my first return to the old ’hood, East 22nd Street between Newkirk and Foster avenues. A change of heart? Certainly. An old man’s sentimentality, surely.
More important, after years of living elsewhere — the Bahamas, France, England, and, now, Philadelphia — I was finally ready to join the ranks of countless others who realized that the roots of their identity (however shaped, massaged and contrived in subsequent years) were born in the hardscrabble of their past. My denial, while lodged in the more polished social and educational perches of my later years, where the fast-talking, wise-guy personae of a Jackie Gleason or a William Bendix character were hardly ideal — slipped away as I grappled with my newfound identity as a Brooklynite.
Thanks to Bob Oppedisano behind the wheel, my old Brooklyn almost immediately came into focus. We circled the imposing victory arch in Grand Army Plaza, which had been my first taste of martial triumphalism. Nearby was the Brooklyn Museum, the place of my first up-close-and -personal arts exposure, and where I also heard full-orchestrated concert music for the first time. (My, my, to be able to play the kettle drum, I mused then.).
Bob was in his element. He, too, was a Brooklynite, having grown up in Carroll Gardens, and he tooled the streets with savvy aplomb. As we approached magnificent Ocean Parkway, the years were flipping back like one of those flashback calendar scenes in a 1940s movie. The gritty, cinder bridle path that once spoke of the elegance of the parkway was now paved. “Long gone,” said Bob.
When Bob and I first met in the 60s as journalism undergraduates at New York University, I was fashioning myself as a sort of ex-Parisian from Michigan. (This odd contortion of identity reflected the fact that I had been living with my parents in France before a job transfer required my father to move to the Midwest). At that point, Brooklyn still had no attraction. Given my journalism proclivity, why I had never thought to align myself with the legendary historic spirit of Brooklyn Eagle reporter Walt Whitman or then-raging histrionic spirit of Norman Mailer mystifies me.
Flatbush was in sight as he turned onto Foster Avenue, heading east to Ocean Avenue and East 22nd Street. I was struck that everything was “smaller.” The distances, not as great. The buildings, not as towering.
Otherwise, the infrastructure was frozen in time.
My time was an almost 11-year span from my birth in 1946 to 1957. During that period, we Carreños lived in a rambling three-story, barn-like structure (3,110 square feet) at 593 East 22nd St. It was one of five single-family houses on the east side of the street built just after the turn of the 20th century. Low-lying apartment houses lined the rest of the street.
Our family was overseen by the family patriarch, my paternal grandfather, Toribio, a tyrannical overlord of Spanish extraction who had immigrated from Cuba to New York in the 1920s. In sharp contrast to the taciturn Toribio, a tobacco-chewing ex-house painter and building super, was his younger wife, my grandmother, Maria Elena, who remains among the kindest, most forgiving and compassionate individuals I have ever met.
Then there was the rest of us, and what a mixture! My father, Ralph (born Rafael), the youngest of three brothers. My mother Marion; my sister Roberta, born in 1956; and our dog Zippy, a black-and-white mutt. We inhabited No. 593’s first floor. On the second floor, and later in a renovated attic, lived my Uncle Andy (the middle brother), his wife Eda and my cousin James, known as J.J. I think my cousin Anita was born about then as well. In the attic’s rear were my grandparents. Toribio and Elena’s eldest son, Charles, or Charlie, was next door in another single-family house with his wife Thelma and my cousins Bernie and Mark. It would not be an over-statement to note that we were a tight family.
In many ways, we also mirrored the ethnic mix of Flatbush, then a largely working-class neighborhood that harbored, harmoniously, a ethnic diversity that ranged from Irish and Italian Catholics to Eastern European Jews. (Flatbush Avenue at the time was a corridor of kosher delis, where my fondness for knish and pastrami was born). My mother was Jewish, and so was my aunt Thelma. My aunt Eda was of Italian heritage, from upstate New York. My grandmother was a devout Catholic, and it was thanks to her that I received my religious training at Our Lady of Refuge, a stone, neo-Norman-like structure at the corner of Ocean and Foster avenues. (Elena converted her bedroom into a kind of chapel. I seem to remember that a dressing table doubled as an altar. In other words, it was scary).
Our Lady of Refuge was where I was baptized, confirmed, celebrated my First Communion, and also developed my first anti-clerical animus. The church basement, where the nuns would berate us if we did not leave room when seated for our guardian angels, doubled as my Boy Scout meeting place. Upstairs, in the “telephone” booths of the sanctuary, the priests would berate us for any hiatus in their system. (Woe to he who professed, “Oh my father, my last confession was three weeks ago....” “What!” ... After the requisite tongue-lashing, being assigned to recite about five Hail Marys was getting off light.)
My father, on the other hand, was an atheist. So were Toribio and his other sons, as far as I could tell.
Parking nearby, Bob and I found our way to the church’s office. “Sorry, the sanctuary is closed,” we were politely, but firmly, told by the sexton, a middle-aged woman who spoke with a Caribbean lilt.
Like the church congregation, the neighborhood itself now seemed mainly made up of folk of Jamaican descent. In other nearby parts of Ocean Avenue were Indian and Pakistani immigrants. As Bob and I later descended onto Flatbush Avenue, we discovered the vibrancy of island culture, with its open-air markets, spotless streets and jostling crowds.
Some old shops still soldiered on with white owners. Others were converted to new uses. The old A&P, which Elena persisted in calling the “Altantico y Pacifico,” is now the Homeplace Furniture store. An ice cream parlor at the corner of Newkirk and Flatbush was just a memory.
The neighborhood seemed stable, approaching a middle-class status. Single-family houses go for almost $500,000.
East 22nd Street was how I remembered it. How could this be? Yet, there was the same alley (albeit narrower) where we used to play stickball. (I was always “called” last, unless my cousin Bernie had a say.) There was the corner where I scarred my right knee when I tripped on glass in a small dirt patch. (The scar is still there, and so, I noticed, are some new shards of glass in the same dirt patch.) The driveway, where my dad’s DeSoto was parked. I looked up to the window of the apartment where a friend’s mother offered me a cream cheese sandwich with olive bits. How exotic, I thought. Not far away were the bushes where I was thrown when I was thrashed by some boys after school. My first schoolboy fight. I lost.
There was, of course, the street itself, which we would commandeer for ball games, and its inner sinews where, behind garbage cans and such, we’d duck out of sight for hide-and-seek. I could still hear Mrs. Kroberger calling from her apartment house window for our friend (her son) Buster to return home.
And, finally, there was the Ostrow house, next door to ours.
Mr. Ostrow was an officer in the Fire Department, and, to me, a kind of vague figure, because he spent so many nights away. He also seemed menacing — this despite our family being friendly with his, and his son, Jacky, being my best friend. When I broke a window in Mr. Ostrow’s garage door with an arrow, flung innocently from my bow, I trembled in fear for what would happen when our neighbor returned. Nothing did.
The Ostrow house also housed our family GP, Dr. Landesberg. He also scared the bejesus out of me.
Still, for the most part, this was a place of joy. On summer nights we’d assemble on the front porch, the men drinking beer and we, way past our bedtimes, listening to the youthful happiness of our elders. The bounty of Christmas, again surrounded by family and extended family. Huge feasts prepared by Toribio, who fancied himself a chef extraordinaire. And Lionel trains — the big ones. In the winter, laughter emanated from a sitting room, where adults by night would surround a newfangled black-and-white television to tune in to I Love Lucy. In the front parlor were my dad’s books, a hi-fi and a party-line telephone (GE-8-6524), where we’d receive the rare call when Ralph was travelling in South America on business.
My old elementary school, P.S. 152, housed in a French chateau-like structure on Glenwood Road, had been converted into P.S. 315, the School of the Performing Arts. It was there, when as P.S. 152, that my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Eleanor Gochman, arranged that I’d be appointed a AAA monitor when I had been originally passed over. That was important. Very important. My cousin Bernie was AAA, you see. P.S. 152 itself, I discovered, has been relocated nearby to a spiffy new, purpose-built building and dubbed as the School of Science and Technology.
In addition, I detected an eerie silence. I remember constant shouting on our street, the rah-rah of ball playing, open fire hydrants, the roar of traffic, all interspersed with cars honking as we hogged and clogged the street with bikes and scooters. There was none of that now, even though it was well into the afternoon and well after school being let out. I saw no one playing stoop ball or punch ball. No one “digging to China,” an engineering feat Bernie, Jacky and I once undertook in our backyard behind the neighboring Flatbush Church of Redeemer.
No one was trading baseball cards. No one was snapping Pez containers. Off Flatbush Avenue, the streets were nearly deserted.
What had happened to the cacophony of Hit Parade music that used to waft from windows and car radios, or the orphan sound of classical orchestral music that would drift down the street from time to time?
Of course, I knew my family was unlike others. I had been to the city many times. I had visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. My clothes were purchased at Brooks Brothers. My toys came from F.A.O. Schwarz. But I really didn’t know how different until one afternoon when I heard the classical music and I walked by two men who were shaking their heads in disbelief. “Who’s that jerk playing that longhair music?” one man said to the other. Yes, in those days they actually said “longhair.” And, yes, the man they were talking about was my father.
Soon after, we moved. That was more than five decades ago. I now returned to reclaim my inner Brooklyn. Funny, I realized, I had never really lost it.
Carreño is a partner in the Philadelphia-based online bookshop @philabooks|booksellers (www.philabooks.webs.com), a former lecturer at the American University in London, and the author of Lord of Hosts: The Life of Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon.