"My Brooklyn Bubbe"
We never thought of ourselves as underprivileged living in Brooklyn in the 1950’s. Few had a car so we never travelled to other places or classy towns like Great Neck where my father’s brother, the lawyer, lived with his family, a maid and a tiny black poodle.
We lived in East New York on Eastern Parkway and Saratoga Ave. My grandma Schwartz, who was called Bubbe (Yiddish for grandma), was a feisty, funny lady from Romania who sold home-made knishes on Pitkin Avenue and, in a millinery store, hats to homely ladies, unlike her—a real beauty. She would tell them how much a certain hat made them look like a movie-star (and she would name one of them) to which they would glow, eventually agreeing to buy. She was one of those people who could probably sell you the Brooklyn Bridge. I adored her, so unlike my own, mother, her eldest daughter, who was morose and never cracked a joke or did anything unusual or lively. I was told she used to play the piano but when she married my father they couldn’t afford one and so her desire for music waned with her love of life as well.
But it was my Bubbe through whose eyes I saw Brooklyn. We walked to the Orthodox temple around the corner from my apartment building, she in her Sabbath finery, black lacy gloves and a veiled hat to give her a regal appearance, me in my special dress for that day. We would pass the closed door of the Super’s apartment where he, a white man, lived with his black woman. They hardly ever came out because the neighbors would gasp, pointing their fingers and shaking their heads. But it was the 1950’s and something you rarely saw. It made me feel sort of sad to see how they would have to hide from the world and I wanted to knock on the door and just say hello.
Bubbe and I sat upstairs in the section reserved for the women as we had to be segregated from the men, who in their skull caps and prayer shawls stomped their feet on the floor below, waving their arms and singing in Yiddish. The cantor’s voice was like a beautiful bird’s and each man had a chance to kiss his finger then press it to the velvet cased torah (the Scriptures of Moses). We couldn’t understand the service as the females had never learned Hebrew. It was reserved for the scholarly boys who went to Hebrew school and got bar mitzvahed when they were thirteen.
Her apartment, which was five flights up on the same block was like a fairy land. It was filled with knick knacks or tchotchkes and family photos on the walls, her mirrored closet packed with beautiful dresses, fancy shoes and outrageous hats, all of which she never really wore, spending most of her time in the kitchen baking challeh bread, potato kugel and stuffed cabbage for the Sabbath. I would stand in front of that mirror and make-believe I too was a movie star and with a straw, pretend I was smoking and sipping from an empty wine glass that only on the high holy days would be filled with Manischewitz wine.
In my own home, my mother and father would be silently eating. The air was stagnant and oppressive. I never heard my mother sing though my aunt told me she had a beautiful voice. We were on the 1st floor, my aunt Bea on the second. This gave me the advantage of crawling out the window and on hot summer days sitting on the fire escape that faced Eastern Parkway with the steady flow of traffic or people walking their dogs. Blowing bubbles and chewing bazooka gum was my favorite pastime and sketching which I took to naturally. I remember fearing the swarm of black flies would somehow fly into my mouth or ears so I stuffed them with cotton balls and tried to chew with my lips closed.
We didn’t live far from the market place (in lieu of supermarkets) where everyone went shopping for food and clothing. There were pushcarts and stands for everything you needed, especially fresh fruit and vegetables. When I went with my mother she would haggle with the peddlers for a better price, even if it was two cents less. When we went to the butcher to get a chicken, she would pick the one she wanted and the butcher, with his machete, would slice its neck, letting the blood drip onto the sawdust floor. That night I wouldn’t eat it, which really made my mother furious. Of course I was told again and again about the starving children in Europe.
When it was terribly hot my family and neighbors gathered under the large Oak on the corner, fanning ourselves with newspaper and consuming tons of lemonade. When the ice man came with his lemon ice and chocolate popsicles our mothers dared not refuse us a dime for one or the other. We would listen to Bubbe’s stories over and over; no one ever got tired of them. Soon the flies became too bothersome and we eventually retreated to our hot, steamy apartments until evening when we would come out again and sit on the stoop while the men talked baseball and we kids played hopscotch, hit the penny, red light green light. Later on we retreated to our sweaty beds where the fan was the only breeze we could count on.
But there was one majestic place I would never forget—the Pitkin theatre, where the ceiling was a velvety blue sky with stars, a moon and a chandelier of all crystal so large if it ever fell, hundreds would be killed. It was where I first saw The Wizard of Oz and ran out crying because of the wicked green witch who wanted to kill Dorothy and, I thought, me.
One day at Bubbe’s, after helping her roll the dough for the matzoth balls, I went into the bedroom to ‘dress up’ and saw teeth floating in a cloudy glass of water. I asked her whose they were and she laughed, saying it was her teeth. I had always thought they stayed in her mouth. When I questioned why they weren’t in there, she said lots of people had no money for dentists and ended up losing their teeth and she had to keep them it in salt water to cleanse them. Right then and there I swore I would never have false teeth. Eventually I did end up with braces that damaged my teeth to the extent where I now have a mouth fill of caps, but in my mouth, not in a glass.
She often told me weird but funny stories— how she had been stolen by gypsies when she was only ten. Having been orphaned early, she was living with two aunts. A neighbor saw them trying to pull her into a caravan and screamed so loud they ran off, leaving her to grow up, marry my grandpa and come to America in 1912.
We finally left Brownsville when my sister was 3. Three rooms could hardly house four people. My aunt by then had bought a house in Sheepshead Bay. Leaving Bubbe was one of the most difficult things I ever had to do and I wrapped my arms around her stomach, clinging with the tightest grip my skinny arms could muster, tasting my tears and not being able to stop.
We were moving to a middle income project in Canarsie. Yes, it was a real place. We always thought when people said to someone who annoyed them—“Oh go to Carnarsie!” that it was just a figure of speech. But it was more than that—a large apartment complex facing the pier, that offered us a cool, but fishy breeze.
We had four small rooms and two bedrooms, one of which my sister and I shared. We were on the 3rd floor and because I was claustrophobic I would walk up instead of taking the elevator. Luckily we didn’t get anything higher up than that. You couldn’t be choosy when you were on a waiting list for affordable housing. Each floor had a community terrace where the tenants would come out and kibitz. Only my mother remained inside. Inside had become a place she always wanted to be now, missing my aunt and Bubbe, growing further apart from my father and the world outside.
Since I was thirteen by then I discovered boys, and we teens hung out at the local candystore, where you could get an egg cream for a quarter and there is nothing today that can ever compare to a Brooklyn egg cream. The teens were divided into 2 groups, the collegiates who wore white bucks and knit sweaters with neatly brushed hair or the rockers— (of which I became one) guys in motorcycle jackets, cigarettes tucked under the cuff of a tee shirt, girls in pegged pants and blood red lipstick. Rock and roll had become the new mantra and we sang it out loud and in our heads all day. It had become an era of rebellion and Brooklyn its sanctuary. We hung out at the pier, making out under the trees and foliage, cracking ourselves up with imitations of Elvis and Little Richard, throwing half eaten sandwiches to the seagulls. We could see the Belt parkway— the long stretch of traffic between Queens and Sheepshead bay. The honking of horns was continuous until evening when it would finally quiet down.
I was old enough to take a bus so sometimes I took it to travel back to see Bubbe. She always looked the same; at least I never saw her aging. I would curl into her arms again, feel her large, warm body, one breast smaller than the other from surgery she’d had many years ago. I’d look into her face and see my own—how much I looked like her. How much Brooklyn had stayed in our blood so that in the future wherever we would end up some one would say—Boy, you sound like you came from Brooklyn and I’d smile and say—is there any other place?
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