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Thursday, 8 March 2012

You Have a Problem With That?

Reclaiming My Inner Brooklyn
By Richard Carreño
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
New York
Every city kid, who has moved away, has an 'the old neighbourhood.'

Mine is Flatbush, a now vibrant ribbon of racial and ethnic diversity that cuts through the heartland of New York's most populous borough, Brooklyn. Until recently, it was also 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 marvellous contradictions that accompany age, reconnecting with Brooklyn now became a kind of longing. And that recently resulted -- after fifty-five years! -- in my first return to the old hood, centred around a patch just off Flatbush Avenue, 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 -- from the Bahamas, France, England, and, now, Philadelphia -- I was finally ready to join the ranks of countless others (many I had come to know in those other countries, as well) who realised that the roots of their identity (however shaped, massaged, and contrived in subsequent years) were born in the hardscrabble of their past. My denial, lodged on 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 was hardly a beau ideal, slipped away as I grappled with my new-found 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. (And, maybe, just maybe, apart from the the Paris version -- and, certainly, those others from Marseille to Philly -- still my favourite). Nearby was the Brooklyn Museum, the place of my first up-close and personal arts exposure, and where, as well, I heard full-orchestrated concert music for the first time. (My, my, to be able the play the kettle drum, I mused then. Never, ever in later years forgetting that lingering, fond notion).

Bob was in his element. He, too, was a Brooklynite, growing 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 flash-back calendar scenes in a 40s movie. The gritty, cinder bridle path that once spoke of the elegance of the Parkway, a promenade that extended in its grandeur to Coney Island, was now paved. 'Long gone,' said Bob.

When Bob and I first met in in the 60s (both journalism undergraduates at New York University's Washington Square campus), I was then fashioning myself as a sort of ex-Parisian from Michigan. (This odd contortion of identity was dissembled from the tenuous trope that I had been living with my parents in France before a job transfer required my father to move to the Mid-West). 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 eleven-year span from my birth in 1946 (at New York Hospital in the 'city,' as Manhattan was known then as well as now) to 1957. During that period, we Carreños lived en famille, in a rambling three-story, barn-like structure (3,110 square feet) at 593 East 22nd Street. 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.

One man's 'famille' is another man's 'clan.' Ours, by whatever rubric, 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 an admixture! 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 by 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 then-Flatbush, a largely working-class neighbourhood that harboured, harmoniously, a ethnic diversity that ranged from Roman Catholic Italians and Irish, to 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 on her father's side. My Aunt Thelma, born in South Africa, was née Feinstein. My Aunt Eda was of Italian heritage, from upstate New York. My grandmother was a devout -- nay, slavish -- 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. (My grandmother converted her bedroom into a kind of chapel/shrine. I seem to remember that a dressing table also doubled as an alter. In other words, it was kind of scary).

Our Lady of Refuge was where I was also baptised, confirmed, celebrated my First Communion, and also where I developed my first anti-clerical animus. The church basement doubled as my Boy Scout meeting place and the venue where resident nuns would berate us if we did not leave room when seated for our guardian angels. Upstairs, in the 'telephone' booths of the sanctuary, the priests would berate us for any hiatus in their official mind-control 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 was an atheist. So was 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 neighbourhood itself now seemed mainly made up of coloured 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, here in the heart of the neighbourhood, the vibrancy of island culture. This, amid the hub-bub open-air markets, spotless streets, and jostling crowds. Some shops 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. (My friends and I used to, in the old A&P, return bottles we collected in alleys and byways in exchange for deposits). An ice-cream parlour at the corner of Newkirk and Flatbush was just a memory.

If anything, and to my astonishment, the neighbourhood seemed stable and 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, as I noticed, are some new shards of glass in the same dirt patch). The driveway, where my dad's DeSoto (boy, I loved that exterior spotlight) 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.

Wearing short pants. Lending libraries. The BMT over the Brooklyn Bridge.

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 -- more cackling -- from her apartment house window for our friend (her son) Buster to return home.

And, finally, the Ostrow house, next door to ours.

Mr. Ostrow was an officer in the Fire Department, and, to me, apparently because he served many nights away, a kind of vague figure. And 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 a arrow, flung innocently from my bow, I trembled in fear for what would happen when our neighbour 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 bed-times, listening to the youthful happiness of our elders. The bounty of Christmas, again surrounded by family and extended family like the Salleses. 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 weekly surround a new-fangled black-and-white television to tune to I Love Lucy. In front parlour was my dad's library, a hi-fi, and a party-line telephone (GE8-6524), where we'd receive the rare call when Ralph was travelling in South America on business.

Still, change was equally palpable.

My old elementary school, P.S. 152, housed in a French château-like structure on Glenwood Road, then, as now, akin to a suburban oasis, had been converted into P.S. 315, the School of the Performing Arts. It was there, when as P.S. 152, that my 4th 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 & Technology.')

In addition, I detected an eerie silence. I remember constant shouting on our street, the rah-rah of ball-playing, opened fire hydrants, the roar of traffic, 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 schools being let out. I saw no one playing stoop ball, as I had once long ago. There was no one playing punch ball. No one 'digging to China,' an engineering feat Bernie, Jacky, and and I once undertook in our backyard behind the neighbouring the Flatbush Church of Redeemer. (In the Lutheran church's basement I saw my first magic show).

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? Even, 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. How exactly, I wasn't sure. Other than I had been to the the city many times. I had visited Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. My clothes were purchased at Brooks Brothers, where the salesmen in the Madison Avenue shop knew my father by name. My toys came from F.A.O. Schwarz, the old one across from the Plaza. Small things. But I really didn't know how different until an afternoon when I heard the classical music and as I walked by two men who were shaking their heads in disbelief. 'Who's that jerk playing that long-hair music?' one man said to other. Yes, in those days they actually said 'long hair.' And, yes, the 'jerk' they were talking about my father.

Soon after, we moved. That was more than five decades years ago. I now returned to reclaim my inner-Brooklyn. Funny, I realised, I had never really lost it.

Not long after my family, including Zippy, moved to Nassau, the brothers sold No. 593, and Uncle Andy, Aunt Eda, J.J., and Anita moved to New Jersey. Toribio and Maria Elena moved with them. Uncle Charlie, Aunt Thelma, Bernie, and Mark moved, first, to an apartment on Ocean Parkway (with the slowest two-person elevator in the history of mankind, I remember) and later to an apartment on 15th Street, near Fifth Avenue, in the city; then to Long Island; and, finally, to Mexico City. After Toribio died in New Jersey, Maria Elena moved to Mexico, though she undertook extended trips to Europe to visit my parents from time to time. She died in Mexico City.

Charlie, Thelma, Ralph, and Marion have since died.

Andy and Eda now live near Atlanta, with their youngest, Andrea. Anita lives in New Jersey. J.J., in Washington state.

Bernie lives in Austin, Texas. Mark, in Los Angeles.

The Ostrow family moved to Florida, where Jacky still lives. (He's a Facebook friend).

I have no idea where Buster might be.

Zippy died in Nassau.