2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist
My Most Joyous Self
So many things I’ve forgotten—who gave me my first kiss, which year I graduated from which school, what my children said at various ages —but the address of the Brooklyn apartment house where I lived from birth until age 8 is always right there. Twelve-forty-five-fiftieth-street.Twelve-forty-five-fiftieth-street. Saying it makes my mouth relax into a smile. Saying it calms me down and picks me up and gently places me back in front of a red-brick apartment house, where I was my most joyous self. Twelve-forty-five-fiftieth-street may seem like just a string of numbers, but it works on me like an incantation: all of your worries are useless: don’t you remember, the world is a magical place filled with promise. Just come on back …
I did go back, once; a sentimental journey I took in 1992 with my third husband, who was also born in Brooklyn. By then, I hadn’t set foot on 50th Street, or in Brooklyn, in over 40 years. But the red-brick apartment house was still there. It was still six stories high, still shaped like a squat, sideways “U”, its three sides still surrounding a courtyard that was still paved in large brick-red hexagons.
Standing on the sidewalk in front of 1245 50th Street, I felt I was visiting a dream. It made sense that the building was less grand, the courtyard’s red stone more faded, than I recalled. What shocked me was only the modest size of the courtyard. I remembered it as a rich expanse, large enough for girls to play potsy over here, boys telling secrets over there, a game of Simon Says in the middle and still enticing stretches of red stone in between.
The courtyard was where the world began, where the children of the building gathered each day. We called it simply, “out front.” Starting from when I was 5, I was allowed to “go out front” by myself. So was everyone else, because the building’s three-sided arrangement made it possible for all the mothers to see, just by looking out their window, what their kids were doing. We knew it was lunchtime when one mother, then another, poked her head out and called, “Come on up, Burt (or Carol or Susie); it’s time to eat.”
Sometimes a parent would yell down for kids to stop fighting, or shout that a certain child was “too near the street.” But usually no one wandered off; there was sufficient excitement right where we were. We played innocent games like London Bridges and Giant Steps but as we performed the ritual steps, we were also acting out our own personal dramas and shifting alliances.
I loved being part of the drama, loved it swirling around me, but I felt anchored in the sweetest way: I had one best friend. Judy Rosenthal was shy, dark-eyed and sweet-faced. I’d known her for as long as I could remember. Our mothers told the story of how Judy and I smiled at each other when they wheeled us side by side in our baby carriages.
I went to Judy’s first-floor apartment for dinner sometimes. Afterwards, her mother, Laura, would play us the record of Peter and the Wolf. The music made my mouth open in happy astonishment. When the dark sound of the horns announced the wolf, I felt a thrill of real fear. But then I’d open my eyes, and I see how safe we were. I saw how Laura looked at Judy, with love in her eyes, and I felt that some of that love light spilled onto me.
In fact, I felt safer with Judy and Laura, than I did with my own parents. My mother, blonde and vivacious, was distracted; she craved the attention of my imperious grandmother, who lived next door to us in 4G. Since my grandfather died, my grandma liked to visit our apartment first thing in the morning. My mother would agree; yes, I could go out front right after breakfast.
“Go ahead, have fun,” she’d say, intent on measuring coffee or cutting a pineapple.
Skipping down one flight of stairs, I’d stop at 3F, to see if my friend Burt wanted to come out. Then I’d fly down two more flights to 1A and knock. Laura would open the door. “Well, surprise,” she’d say, her dark eyes kind on my face. I’d sit at their table while Judy finished breakfast. Then Judy and I would head straight for the circular apron of red stone right outside the front door. This was the “stoop,” and we liked to sit there, watching people come and go.
One hot summer morning, we decided to watch ants. For a good long while, we silently concentrated on a long black line of ants as they crawled intently across the red stone.
“I want to feel what it’s like to be an ant,” I said suddenly.
“How can we do that?” Judy asked.
“We have to get close to them,” I said.
Ants liked sugar, we decided, so Judy went home to get some. Then we rubbed the sticky grains onto our arms, from shoulder to wrist, put our hands flat on the hot cement surface and willed the ants to climb on. Soon they did. We stretched our arms out in front of us and closed our eyes to better feel the sensation. When a neighbor approached the front door, on her way back from shopping, she saw us sitting close together, faces ecstatic, all four arms crawling with ants.
“Oh my God whaddaya doin’?” the woman shrieked and began to paw the ants off our shoulders. Kids and parents sidled over to see what the fuss was about. Mothers began poking their heads out of windows. I saw my mother’s blonde head leaning out our fourth-floor window. “What’s wrong?” she shouted.
“We know what it feels like to be an ant,” I yelled up, and heard the grown-ups standing near us chuckle. “Carol, you always have these ideas,” said one woman affectionately. I looked up and saw Burt’s mother, Mrs. Conway. She knew me.
I wouldn’t hear the word “community” for many years. But that’s what 1245 50th Street was: a community that let me know who I was. I was Judy Rosenthal’s best friend. I was the girl with ideas. I was the girl who sang.
Later on, I would be known as extremely shy — unable to speak, much less sing, in front of a group. But in Brooklyn, at every birthday party, I stood on a chair and sang. Once in a while I chose “I’m Looking Over, a Four Leaf Clover.” But usually I sang the song I loved most: “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
“Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack …. I don’t care if I never get back,” I roared, rocking back and forth in my yellow dotted-Swiss dress.
I adored singing but it was the song itself that made me belt out the lyrics with such happiness. I loved how it began with a harmless, lilting invitation, “Take me out to the ballgame, take me out to the crowd…” and then, a few lines later, my heart would lift as those same notes passionately insisted: “For it’s root, root, root for the Dodgers—if they don’t win it’s a shame—”
Years later, I learned that the real words were, “… root, root, root for the home team.” But back when I sang it all the time, the phrase “home team” would have sounded pale and ridiculous. The Dodgers were what those passionate notes were all about.
I wasn’t much interested in baseball, but even I was familiar with many of the ballplayers on the Dodgers team. Roy Campanella. Pee Wee Reese. Gil Hodges. Jackie Robinson. Their names were in the air like a benevolent blessing. We all knew without saying that if one of us met Gild Hodges or Pee Wee Reese on the street, they would smile and stop to talk. They’d probably tip their hat, even. Because the Brooklyn Dodgers were different from other famous people. They were connected to us. They had a special something that made them ours.
We loved them so much, but not because they won all the time. To the contrary, they regularly lost games, even big ones. My father called them “the bums,” but talking about them, a rare affection would light his face. “Ah, the bums gave it a good shot today,” he’d say, shaking his head.
My father wanted them to win. All of us did. But what we loved about the Dodgers is that they never stopped trying. They never gave up, because we were united behind them—and because they had heart. That’s what the special thing was about them, and us, too: people in Brooklyn knew how to have heart.
It was a given that we’d be loyal Dodgers fans forever. I felt, in some way, that I was part of that spirit when I climbed on a chair and belted, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Sometimes, at the end, when I counted on my fingers and sang, “For it’s one! two! three! strikes you’re out …” people would sing along with me and then I felt included in a perfect circle of happiness.
In Brooklyn, I had no doubt that I belonged.
Because I belonged to this world, I was free to appreciate its wonders. One of them was a Charlotte Russe: a paper cup filled with cake and whipped cream, with a cherry on top. You got it at the soda fountain around the corner. It was the prettiest, fanciest food I ever saw. First, I’d hold it in my hands, savoring its beauty. Then I’d eat the cherry, then nibble away at the luscious cake and cream. The magical part was as the cake got smaller, you pushed up the bottom part of the cup to get at the rest.
Down the block from the drugstore was the Famous Restaurant. I ordered potato pancakes since that was my favorite, but I’d never tasted such good ones. “The Famous,” as everyone called it, knew just how to make these delicacies so they turned out fat and golden-brown and delicious. I got so excited about the pancakes, my father laughed. “You stay that excited,” he said, amused affection lighting his brown eyes.
From then on, whenever we went to The Famous, I ordered potato pancakes. As many times as I ate them, I never stopped being amazed at how delicious they were. As many times as someone bought me a Charlotte Russe, I never got over how perfect it was. As many times as I ate dinner over Judy’s, I never felt less than thrilled when Laura played Peter and the Wolf. I loved the freedom of closing my eyes, the music soaring around me, and picturing Peter walking into the forest, not knowing the wolf was right there.
Often I didn’t feel like returning to my own apartment. I never knew if my parents would be fighting, their voices harsh and angry. But I never wondered what my mother would be like. She never changed. She never looked at me with love in her eyes, the way Laura looked at Judy. She looked at me with hard blue eyes that noticed all the things I did wrong.
I did my best to avoid those eyes. There were other mothers around, and knowing they were there seemed to dilute the meanness that my own mother, for her own mysterious reasons, directed only toward me.
For a long time, I had a sort of primitive creation myth going inside my head: everyone in the world came from Brooklyn. Anyone I ever knew was born there. And even when I got old enough to know this wasn’t possible, the idea still felt right.
I’d hear about a world famous performer like Danny Kaye or Beverly Sills—I’d see mention of accomplished producers, directors, comedians—and reading a little further, discover: yup, born in Brooklyn. All these people with warmth and heart and twinkling eyes, with that special touch of living life to the fullest: they first started out in Brooklyn.
They’d all moved away, though, to fancier places. Brooklyn, it turned out, was a place you left, once you had enough money. The people in our building all wanted big houses and back yards, and the fathers in the building started making enough money to buy them. Someone else now lived in 3F, because Burt had moved to New Jersey. Even my best friend Judy was moving, to a town on Long Island “where the schools are better,” Laura said.
And now we were moving, too.
I sat on my knees in the back seat of our car, looking out the rear window, as we drove away. When we turned the corner, I saw the white and red sign that said “Famous Restaurant,” and suddenly, a horrible premonition washed over me. It was wrong to leave Brooklyn! We were making a terrible mistake. This was the only place I should ever live. I felt all this so strongly but I didn’t have words to say it with. So I kept silent.
But I was right, it turned out. After we moved to the big house in the suburbs, my parents fought all the time, and louder, since no neighbors could hear. My mother got meaner to me, and no other mothers were around to poke their heads out and see it. My father didn’t get home until late, and when he was home, the affection in his brown eyes appeared less often.
Worst of all, I felt, increasingly, that I didn’t belong anywhere. Nothing ever felt like home as much as my apartment house and courtyard. I never had a friend I loved as much as I loved Judy Rosenthal. The more alone I felt, the shyer I got. I never sang in front of people ever again.
It may be that there were lots of reasons I felt I belonged in Brooklyn but not after, why my father got so distant, why I became so shy. It may be that our family falling apart had nothing to do with where we lived. But I believe that if we’d stayed in Brooklyn, the human warmth that imbued everything there would have protected us. It protected me, as long as I lived there.