Sunday, May 31, 2020

"The Brooklyn I Remember” by Stephanie Brown - 2019 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist

The Brooklyn I Remember


Stephanie Brown

Being Brooklyn borne has always been a source of pride for me.  I wore my birthplace as a badge of honor.  Even though only a small part of my life was spent within the borough, the memories of that time have comforted me like a warm, fuzzy blanket.

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s was a daily adventure for this little girl who wanted to break out of the confines of Weirfield Street.  My family lived in the Bushwick section of town.  It was always a joy to go out with my mother and take in the sights and sounds of the street known as Broadway, with all of its retail stores.  My absolute favorite store to go to was John’s Bargain Store.  It was a chain of stores, much like the 99-cent stores of today.  I don’t remember if this store was on Broadway, but it had the best toy section. I always got to pick out one toy to take home.

I attended P.S. 299, where my classmates and I learned the importance of hiding under our desks.  In case the Russians decided to drop bombs on the United States, we would be protected from the blast.  Looking back, I have to laugh at the illogical logic of the adults who thought this up.  Those wooden desks would not have shielded us; they would have caused us to burn faster.  During the 1960s, the “red scare” was alive and well.  Luckily, we never had to put our “safety” drills to the test.

My two brothers were a few years older than me, and they attended different schools from the one that I went to.  One brother attended P.S. 45.  This was a new public school that had no windows visible from the street.  The reason for this architectural decision was always a mystery to me.  Some people said that it resembled a prison.  My brother graduated and went on to attend Halsey Junior High School.  When he joined the school band, my mother and I got to hear him and his fellow band members play the music scores of the school’s production of ‘Guys and Dolls’.  I loved every minute of it. 

My father worked a lot of hours to support his wife and three children.  He wasn’t able to attend school functions; this was left up to my mother.  One of my fondest memories of Brooklyn life was when my father took all of us out to dinner at White Castle.  I think this was the one on Atlantic Avenue.  At that time, they had the waitresses bring your food out to your car in the parking lot.  Can you imagine getting that kind of service at White Castle in the 21st century?  Nope.  I’m picturing the food thrown into your open car window.  Let’s hope that your car window was open before the food was hurled at you.

As if going to White Castle wasn’t a big enough treat, after dinner, we went to Carvel for dessert, which was right next door to each other.  Hamburgers, fries, orange drinks, and ice cream were the best menu items any kid could ask for.  Sometimes, my parents would order food from Chicken Delight and have it delivered to the house.  Chicken Delight was a fried chicken franchise that existed before Kentucky Fried Chicken.  To this day, my brother still remembers their radio commercials with the catchy jingle.

I have an enormous sweet tooth and preferred homemade desserts.  Still, I simply could not get enough of the miniature Shabazz Bean Pies that my father had purchased from the neighborhood Muslim establishment.  These pies were popular when Malcolm X and his followers were out in full force.  I wish I could find a recipe for those delicious bean pies.

As a child under the age of 10, everything I saw was a new experience for me.  I remember going on family outings to Prospect Park.  Absorbing the warm sunshine and breezes of the day added to the fun as my father tried to teach me how to fly a kite.  I never did get that right.

Next to Prospect Park was the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  I was lucky enough to visit there during a class trip.  I believe that seeing hundreds of incredibly beautiful plants and flowers helped to instill my everlasting love for Mother Nature’s colorful bounty.  I have tried to recreate some of those plants in my backyard but to no avail.  I, unfortunately, have a “brown thumb.”  I have even managed to kill a cactus.

As mentioned earlier, my family lived on Weirfield Street between Bushwick and Evergreen Avenues.  Some of the one-family houses had wrought-iron fences in front of them, while others had the chain link fences in front.  My best friend, Theresa, lived around the corner on Halsey Street.  A few years ago, I found out that Jackie Gleason grew up in Bushwick.  His ‘Honeymooners’ television character, Ralph Kramden, also lived on Halsey Street but a few miles north of Evergreen Avenue.

During the 1960s, my oldest brother attended Boys High School.  This is where he joined the fencing team.  My father also attended Boys High School (not at the same time as my brother).  As coincidence would have it, the lead singer of the 1950s/1960s R&B group, Little Anthony and The Imperials, Anthony Gourdine, also attended Boys High School.  These noteworthy alumni graduated from this historic school before its name changed to Boys and Girls High School.  To this day, I still can’t get used to the name change.

My mother attended Franklin K. Lane High School.  She would tell me stories of her attending classes while looking out the window, watching funeral processions at Cypress Hills Cemetary, which was right next door.  That visual image always gave me the creeps.  Who wants to see people being buried on an almost daily basis?  Crime boss, John Gotti, also attended Franklin K. Lane.  I was shocked and saddened to learn that this high school has since closed down.

Ever since I was a little girl, I have loved old buildings.  Whenever my mother and I took the bus from Bushwick into downtown Brooklyn, I would look forward to seeing the Williamsburg Savings Bank building.  I adored the clock at the top of the building.  One of our favorite stops on Fulton Street was McCrory’s 5 and 10-cent store.  They had the best chop suey and hot dogs.  Our next stop was usually the Abraham & Straus Department Store.  This store had an exquisite architecture that would take your breath away.  During the Christmas holidays, this place was magical.   They spared no expense decorating the store with every holiday ornament known to man.  Their store windows would be filled with Christmas decorations, lights, puppets, and other toys.  Any child would be held spellbound by this vivid vision like I was.

I had forgotten how many movie theaters there were downtown.  There was the Loew’s Metropolitan, the RKO Albee, and the Duffield.  Years later, it was at the Loew’s Metropolitan where my brother and I saw the movie, Mommy Dearest, with Faye Dunaway.  This movie was not supposed to be a comedy, but the theater audience occasionally roared with laughter, as did my brother and myself.  Before switching to showing films, these theaters had live entertainment on a nightly basis.

Also located downtown, was the Paramount Theater. I never got to see the inside of the Paramount, but I read somewhere that the interior was like a palace.  The architecture of these old movie theaters represented a bygone era.  It’s too bad that most of these old buildings were not maintained in their original style.  I have a framed Paramount Theater concert poster promoting a July 4th, 1963 show with Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Lloyd Price, Wilson Pickett, and the All-Star Rhythm Revue.  The admission was $5.00. FIVE DOLLARS.  Concert tickets have certainly come a long way.

Back in Bushwick, our movie theaters were the Loew’s Gates and the RKO Bushwick.  Despite the movie theater’s darkness, I could see that these places had that old-world architecture.  Both of these theaters eventually closed down.  This was one of those times where I wished that time could have stood still and kept these places intact.  Once our history is torn down or redesigned, it’s pretty much gone forever, which is quite sad.

Aside from the movie theaters, I remember the supermarkets in the area.  We had a few stores to choose from.  There was Key Food, Waldbaum’s, and A&P.  When you shopped at A&P, you got something called ‘Plaid Stamps’.  You licked the back of the stamps and placed them in a booklet that was also supplied by A&P.  After the booklet was filled with stamps, you returned it to the store and exchanged it for items.  It was like a point system.  The more food you bought, the more stamps you got.  The more stamps you redeemed, the more expensive was the item that you could get.  My mother put me to work licking stamps and putting them in the A&P booklets.  It didn’t take long for me to hate the sight of those red Plaid Stamps.  The glue on those stamps tasted terrible.

Neglecting the appearance of things isn’t always a bad thing.  There were streets in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn that weren’t properly maintained.  You could see the cobblestone street underneath the asphalt along with the metal streetcar tracks.  If you closed your eyes for a moment, you could almost hear the clippity-clop of the horses’ hooves on the cobblestone, right along with the sound of the streetcar’s bell.

My great-grandparents lived in Bed-Stuy on Willoughby Avenue, between Tompkins and Marcy Avenues, not far from the landmark Cook Mansion that stands on the corner of Bushwick and Willoughby Avenues.  They also weren’t far from the brownstone that F. W. Woolworth lived in on Jefferson Avenue, between Marcy and Nostrand Avenues, at the turn of the 20th century.  It was during one of my visits to their neighborhood that I noticed the cobblestone streets and streetcar tracks.  Another landmark was the castle-looking building known as the Bedford Armory.  This building is on the corner of Bedford and Atlantic Avenues.  While driving home, I would pass this structure.  I never got the chance to go inside, but I wish that I had.  As you may have guessed, I love old historic buildings.

As much as I enjoyed Brooklyn life, it would last for very long.  At least, I was able to continue mingling with royalty.  My family moved from the borough of Kings to the borough of Queens.  I spent the next three decades in Queens.  The allure of Brooklyn would pull me back from time to time.  When I wasn’t in Brooklyn to go shopping, I was there visiting my relatives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, and Williamsburg.  I also attended college downtown at New York City Technical College.

This college has gone through several name changes.  I believe that they started out as Vorhees College.  During my attendance there, the name was New York City Community College.  Before I graduated two years later, they changed the name to New York City Technical College.  When I had to get a copy of my college transcript from them, I found out that they had changed their name, yet again, to New York City College of Technology.  I have never known a college or person to undertake so many name changes.  I’m sure that there is another name change in the future.

When school was out for the summer, I got a job working for a children’s day camp.  One day, we took the kids to the New York Transit Museum.  This delightful step into the past is located in downtown Brooklyn on Schermerhorn Street.  I thoroughly enjoyed seeing all those subway trains from yesteryear.  I think that I had a better time at the museum than the kids did.  Recently, I saw a picture of a train car from the 1940s.  I instantly recognized that car as one of the trains that I had traveled on during the mid-1960s.

Seeing that picture brought back memory flashes.    I remembered that the train had tiny fans that barely worked, except to make a horrible grinding sound.  I also remember the constant smell of burning wires, as well as the “cushion” seats that had wires sticking out of them.  Now, I know that we were traveling in subway cars that were over 20 years old.  I’m so glad that those trains are gone.

It’s been over a decade since I’ve seen Brooklyn; or any other part of New York.  I returned to attend my father’s funeral at Bethany Baptist Church on Marcus Garvey Blvd.  After the service, my brothers and I jumped into our rental car and drove around Brooklyn.  We reminisced about our youth as we passed by the schools, supermarkets, residences, and restaurants that helped shape who we are today.  We made a point of visiting the White Castle on Atlantic Avenue and Highland Place.  White Castle’s menu has expanded, and their food is just as good as it has ever been.  We knew that this would probably be the last time that all three of us would be in New York at the same time.

Going through the old neighborhoods brought back so many memories.  We saw how much Bushwick and Bed-Stuy had changed since we left.  The friends and relatives we visited in Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Williamsburg, and East New York are all gone now.  I can still hear their voices in my head like it was yesterday.  Those magnificent brownstone buildings are a testament to Brooklyn’s rich heritage.  As a child, I didn’t appreciate the architecture of these significant structures.  Seeing them again, in person, has deepened my love and respect for this incredible borough.

I still remember seeing the World Trade Center standing tall in the distance, as I gazed out of my grandmother’s sixth floor Brownsville apartment.  The horrific events of 9/11 and its aftermath are etched in my mind and heart forever.  Though I live on the other side of the country now, I try to keep up with the goings-on in New York through online newspapers like the New York Daily News and the New York Post.  Seems like the older I get, the more of a
Brooklyn resident I become.  You can take the girl out of New York, but you can’t take New York out of the girl.

Memories, whether good or bad, give us a point of reference for present and future endeavors.  I’m happy to say that my good Brooklyn memories outweigh my bad Brooklyn memories.  When anyone asks where I’m from, I can say with pride that I’m from Brooklyn, New York.  I can also give anyone the “stink-eye” if they dare diss the borough of my birth.  It’s the least that this adorable little girl born in St. John’s Hospital can do.

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