Memories of Brooklyn and the Bottle
My journey in life begins in Kings County Hospital, Brooklyn, New York, in February 1955. My parents emigrated in 1954 from Belfast, Northern Ireland to Brooklyn in hopes of a better life. I was the first son and child. My parents joined my mother’s sister, Aunt Terry, a war bride and her husband, Uncle Mike. My parents added my two sisters, Lynn and Maggie soon thereafter. We lived in the first-floor apartment of a three-story brownstone on Lynch Street. The apartment was spacious, two bedrooms, kitchen, living and a bathroom and during the summer heat, a sauna. My parents had the front bedroom which overlooked Lynch Street and was closed off at night by two frosted glass doors. My sisters and I had the back bedroom with a double bed which we all slept in. Sandwiched in between the two bedrooms was the living room and kitchen. The living room had no natural light which always made it cool, dark and gloomy. In contrast, the kitchen, with its yellow-topped Formica table and four chairs sitting in the center, was always bright because of the natural light streaming in the two large windows with a view of the back yard. The back yard was the width of the brownstone and bordered by a fence at the back. It was filled with fruit trees, a vegetable garden and grape vines, which we were forbidden to touch or play near.
The early memories of Brooklyn were the happy days of my childhood and begin at age four. I have a collage of pictures/images in my head of some experiences and memories but no real details about them. I was taken to Ebbets Field by my parents as an infant to watch their beloved Dodgers play, led by The Duke, Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
When I started kindergarten, it was for a half-day and my mom would drop me off and pick me up at the school which was two blocks away. We would walk towards Marcy Avenue and the huge red brick armory which looked to my young eyes like a medieval castle surrounded by a big black wrought iron fence with cannons out front. On the way back from school, every Friday for lunch my mom would buy us a knish from the “Knish man” on Marcy and for her “treat” she would pick up an Egg Cream at the corner candy store. There was the anticipation while sitting on the stoop at night waiting for the roasted peanut man or the Mr. Softee ice cream truck to turn into the street so that we could hound our parents for a treat.
On the hot sweltering days and nights one of the “big guys” who lived on the street would open the fire hydrant or the “Johnny pump” as it was known to us, with a monkey wrench and spray us kids down with water through a tin can with both ends cut out. Dozens of kids would be on the street getting sprayed, shrieking with delight, splashing around in puddles until the cry went up “Police” or “Fire Department.” Instantaneously there would be a scattering of half-naked kids back to the safety of their stoops and vigilant parents. We would watch dejectedly while the firemen closed the pump – at least for the moment.
The landlords of our building were Mr. & Mrs. Capella, who lived on the second floor in an apartment that was like ours. The Capella’s were a friendly and loving Italian couple with a “straight off the boat Italian accent” and treated us like their own family. They were always smiling or tugging on our cheeks. My mother loved Mrs. Capella who treated my mother like her own daughter and was there for her when my mom got homesick for her own mother and family. Sundays were the day for the Capella clan to show up at the apartment to eat, drink and be merry. When Mrs. Capella started to prepare the food for the weekend the smell of Italian cooking wafted throughout the building and drove my senses wild. I knew sooner or later there would be a couple of thumps on our ceiling for us kids to go upstairs to her apartment for some bread and red meat sauce or she would bring us down a big dish of spaghetti and meatballs for our family supper. When Maggie realized what was going on, she would jump up and down with joy shouting “Begetti, Begetti.” The Capella extended family and friends started to arrive sometime during the morning, and most didn’t leave until late afternoon or nightfall. On warm summer evenings, the party would eventually spill out onto the stoop and front yard where the adults sat around smoking cigarettes and drinking wine. They were friendly, animated and always seemed to be laughing. The sound of their native tongue echoed up and down the brownstone’s dark cavernous hallway and stairs due to the constant motion of kids and adults between the apartment, stoop and street.
While the adults were entertaining themselves, the kids filtered out onto the street for a game of stick ball with the local kids. My happiest memory of this time was playing in one of these games of stickball. It was on a warm sunny afternoon with some kids out on the street fielding the “outfield” and bases and other kids standing behind me shouting and laughing as they waited their turn to bat. My dad and Uncle Mike were off to the side shouting words of encouragement as I stepped up to the plate. I remember hitting the ball hard down the street and took off charging around the bases as fast as my legs would carry me. There was a play at the plate, but I slid into home safely and into the arms of my smiling father who scooped me up and swung me around shouting “home run”. My Uncle Mike carried me over to the stoop where the Capella clan where all gathered, and I was passed around for a round of hugs and cheek tugging.
On the weekends, my parents would occasionally frequent a bar on Marcy that we knew as Benny’s, run by a friendly Italian man named Cuz. Upon entering, the shuffle board game was off to the left and the bar, where the red Rheingold Beer sign hung, was on the right where the men sat and drank, smoked and argued about who was the best center fielder in New York: Willie, The Mick or the hometown favorite The Duke. Us kids would be herded by our mothers into the back room along with my cousins and the other kids from the neighborhood. It was always a fun-filled afternoon which often stretched into the dark of the night. As the night progressed and the beer flowed freely, the singing would start. A soloist would burst into song from their “old country,” an Irish ballad of freedom or a song in Italian, words I did not understand but knew was sung from the heart. Before the night was over, the soloists had been replaced by the patrons of the bar in a community sing along. Two communities from distant shores, united in song, under one roof in Brooklyn. It felt like magic. It was here on these nights that my love for music was born.
The occasional visit to the bar on the weekends started to turn into an all weekend event for my dad. He started to come home from work late at night, after supper, “walking funny” to us kids and instead of singing, he would be mumbling. Eventually, my mom would be giving us our bath and putting us into bed before he came home and when he did there was usually a lot of shouting and crying with the occasional plate being shattered. The laughter and the songs from the “old country” stopped and were replaced by yelling and arguments. The nights of laughter on the stoop, the happiness of stickball and the treats of Mr. Softee and the peanut man gradually disappeared into the darkness of the bottle.
My earliest memory of the “change” involves a beating, but I cannot say this was the first incident, simply the earliest one I remember and might be out of sequence of changes that occurred during this time. It was a regular day in the apartment and my sister Lynn and I were chasing each other through the apartment playing a game of tag. As I came running up from my parents’ bedroom into the living room headed for the kitchen, I passed my mom and dad who were sitting on the couch talking. I heard my dad shout and simultaneously rise from the couch to grab me. I tried to avoid him but as I put on the brakes my stocking feet slipped on the linoleum and I skidded into a light stand which crashed to the ground bringing the light down to the floor and smashing it. He picked me up by the scruff of my neck/collar and proceeded to whack me across my behind and back of the head then flung me up towards the kitchen and my bedroom. I slid along the floor and crashed face first into the leg of the kitchen table. While this was all happening, I could hear my mom screaming in the background but the two things that stick out in my mind is, a single can of beer sitting on the floor where my dad had been sitting and how dark the living room was. I ended up with a black eye which was explained by my parents as an accident because I slipped and fell into the night stand.
The most vivid memory of these dark days is hiding frequently under my bed listening to my father coming from the living room towards the bedroom looking to punish me for some long-forgotten infraction. He would fold the belt in half and then push the belt open until it formed a near circle then pull it together tightly to make a slapping sound. That sound would continue,as he slowly made his way up the kitchen to our bedroom, almost as if he was prolonging the anticipation of the beating. I would be hiding, heart pounding and trembling listening to the slap of his belt as he approached the bedroom and watched as his black polished shoes entered the room, stop, as though he was scanning the room trying to determine my location under the bed. As the shoes moved, I moved, as quietly and as far away as I could from them, but somehow, he always managed to grab me out from under the bed for a beating with that belt. There was a visit in the wee hours of the morning to the emergency room for six stitches above my eye of which I have no recollection of but was also described as an accident. I remember the fights and the screaming and witnessing my dad kneeling on the floor over the toilet vomiting “red stuff” and not understanding why he couldn’t speak to me. It was during one of these all to numerous nightly bouts that I first heard the word “drunk.”
July 17th, 1961 began as just another regular day in my 6-year-old life. My mom and us kids were in the kitchen when my dad walked in from work unexpectedly. He sat down at the table and my mom made him a sandwich which he did not eat. That haunting image of that lonely sandwich sitting on a white plate, uneaten, is seared into my memory. Later that afternoon my mom cooked supper and as we were getting ready to sit down, she sent my younger sister Lynn into the bedroom to wake dad. After a minute or two my sister appeared at the bedroom door, she looked so tiny with her page boy bangs and whispered, “Mommy, daddy won’t wake up.” My mom called out “Jimmy, your supper is on the table.” No answer. She got up from the table and made her way into the bedroom. Suddenly, there was this banshee like shriek and my mother came wide eyed and stumbling out of the bedroom screaming. She rushed by me and made it out to the door still shrieking. I could hear the thumps of the Capella’s up the stairs running, alarmed no doubt, by my mom’s shrieking. I made my way into the bedroom and my dad was on lying on the bed curled up “sleeping” as my sister Lynn crawled on top of him repeating the words “daddy daddy.” I crawled up on to the bed and started to climb over him too thinking that this was game he was playing with us. Mr. Capella burst into the bedroom and picked us off my dad and gently passed us to someone, another man, whom I do not know. As I was carried out, I could see my mom standing by the stove sobbing uncontrollably in Mrs. Capella’s arms. Fear, confusion and chaos assaulted my frightened mind. The wail of sirens, flashing lights and the crackle of radio transmissions invaded the street and soon the apartment overflowed with strangers. Policemen, firemen, men with notebooks asking questions, people in white coats all crammed into the apartment. Eventually members of the Capella clan arrived and removed us from the chaos up to the Capella apartment. The dark unlit hallway which only days ago had reverberated with laughter and joy had been replaced by the wail of sirens and men in uniform barking orders.
I woke up on the Capella couch with a big heavy blanket on me with Lynn and Maggie also sleeping on the couch. My Aunt Terry was sitting with Mrs. Capella. When she saw me awake, she came over and gave me a big hug and brought me over to the table. I asked where my mom and dad where and she answered that “Your mom is with Uncle Mike and “your daddy is with the angels.”
My father died in Brooklyn, an alcoholic, at age thirty-one. The remaining days in Brooklyn are a blur. Suitcases packed, tears and hugs, car rides with strangers, strange beds in strange houses and last, but not least, passport photos for my mother’s return to the land of her birth with her children and our future home. That Brooklynese sense of community, that sense of belonging to somewhere special is ingrained in me and has followed me as I traveled around the world. More than once, I have proudly stated, “I was born in Brooklyn.” I left Brooklyn but Brooklyn has never left me.