Thursday, November 5, 2015

Brooklyn on My Mind and Everyone Else's

Brooklyn is enjoying another moment in the sun, not that it was ever truly dark. Lately, however, the cognoscente have seemingly rediscovered my native borough, driving up real estate prices, populating the byways with flavorful, exotic fare, building skyscraper apartment houses, even turning the once tallest structure in the county—the Williamsburg Savings Bank on Flatbush Avenue—into a co-op with multi-million dollar penthouse units.   

The latest enchantment to illuminate Brooklyn is a film adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn. The movie opened Wednesday (; the book was published in 2009. I didn’t read the book, haven’t yet seen the film. But I did grow up in the time and place the heroine of Tóibín’s tale emigrated to from Ireland in the 1950s.

There’s a lot of nostalgia surrounding Brooklyn these days, an emotion that has engulfed me as well. Perhaps it is pushed forward by Bernie Sanders’ quixotic campaign for the presidency as evidenced by an article a few months ago chronicling his Kings County roots (

A few weeks earlier The New York Times ran a story about ex- Brooklynites returning to live in, or at least visit, the borough ( 

Truth be told, the parts of Brooklyn mostly and longingly portrayed in film and print—areas such as Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Fort Greene, Brooklyn Heights—are far removed from the Brooklyn of my childhood, the northern part of Sheepshead Bay along Avenue W between East 18th and East 19th Streets, a block west of Ocean Avenue. It was on the southern side of this treelined street of attached single-family row houses with the occasional (to my knowledge, illegal) ground floor tenant where I enjoyed a pleasant, if not idyllic, upbringing.

Small things now evoke long-cached memories. 

The other day I spotted a tennis ball atop a grated storm sewer cover. I was transported back to the street stickball games I played. The leafy maple and sycamore trees along Avenue W posed one type of hazard to be overcome—if you caught a ball on its way down from a tree you recorded an out, but if it fell to the ground you would call “hindoo,” and a do-over was in order. 

The trees, however, were not the biggest obstacle. Balls, usually pink Spaldeens, falling into storm drains could wash out any game. Unless, unless you had a wire clothes hanger you could stretch out and, lowering the hook end into the sewer basin, fish the ball up from the murky bottom.  

Our grandson Finley loves playing with toy trucks, usually in his home’s carpeted basement or living room. I, on the other hand, played “dump truck” outside, on the dirt edge of the grass of our front lawn. 

As we got older, my friends and I shifted our play spot to the dirt under the trees between the street and the sidewalk. Our choice of “toy” also “matured” into pen knives. We’d play a game called “Territory.” You would start off with equal plots of land. By throwing your knife into your adversary’s dirt adjacent to your plot, you could claim more territory, but only if the blade stood the knife upright with at least two fingers’ worth of clearance from the ground. 

Oh, I neglected to mention an important part of the game. When your foe threw his knife you were required to stand astride your territory, an act of courage made all the more challenging as your territory diminished in size. I don’t recall any foot injuries, though I would not be surprised to know I am repressing memories of mishaps. 

One doesn’t see any yellow Checker cabs anymore, but they were the preferred and common conveyance when our mother took us to the beach back in the 1950s. Their back seats were deep enough to accommodate two round jump seats that folded into the floorboard when not used. We’d go to Brighton Beach, eat cold meatloaf or hamburger sandwiches our mother made and buy cool orange drinks in short, cardboard containers from vendors who pushed through the sand with hot ice boxes slung over their shoulders while wearing safari hats to shield the burning rays of the sun. 

Sometimes, Saturday nights during the summer, our whole family would go to Coney Island. My favorite ride was a train ride on a track that circumvented the entire kiddie park. When darkness veiled the night, we would sit on the sand and take in the weekly fireworks display. Afterward we’d bundle back into the car and as we approached home our father would sing one of the few American western songs he knew, “Home, home on the range/ where the deer and the antelope play/ where seldom is heard, a discouraging word/ and the sky is not cloudy all day.”