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Saturday, July 8, 2023

"Brooklyn Memories" by Elana Dorfman - 2021 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize


"Brooklyn Memories"

By Elana Dorfman


I stand on the subway platform at the Cortelyou Road station,holding my sister’s hand.  It is 1965, she is six and I am nine.We have recently moved to Brooklyn, and we are not yet comfortable in these surroundings. However, today we are feeling especially fearful because of the older boys at the end of the platform. A few minutes earlier, they said rude things as they came down the stairs and passed us. One even shoved me, his chest butting into my shoulder. There is no one else on the platform on this side of the tracks.My sister squeezes my hand and I pray that the train gets to the station fast.

“Don’t be scared,” I said to her, “I’ll tell you a story.”

The subway platform was not well lit. The benches looked so dirty we didn’t dare sit down.  The tracks stretched out forever into the dark tunnel from which the trains would emerge.  The screeching sound the train made when slowing down at the station drowned out all other noise, including the loud voices of the boys at the end of the platform. Its arrival finally brought some relief to my sister and me.

Telling stories to my sister helped her to feel safe, so I began to collect fairy tales.  Every week I would go to the public library and read about princes and princesses, witches and warlocks, beasts and heroes, so that I would have stories to amuse my sister when we traveled to Hebrew school.

My mother didn’t have a car to take us and even if she did have a car, she went to college and didn’t have the time.  Maybe she sent us by ourselves on the subway because we were poor, and she felt she didn’t have a choice, and maybe it was that she trusted us and expected us to be self-sufficient and independent like she had been at our age, after her mother had died.

We lived on east 19thStreet between Albemarle and Beverly Roads. The East Midwood Jewish center was about two miles from our house on Avenue K. My aunt was a revered teacher there some years ago.  This may have helped my mom get us scholarships.  But even without connections, my mom got us scholarships: for violin lessons at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for my older sister, and dance lessons for all three of us at the church down the street. She got discounts from the optometrist, all her daughters wore glasses, the dentist and the orthodontist.  She would simply say: “I am a widow, and I don’t have the funds, could you please give me a discount?”I think when they were confronted with someone who just stated the facts without asking for pity, people were moved to help.

We lived in a large, brick building on the second floor.  All of our windows looked out to the back over a concrete yard and right into the windows of other apartments in the buildings across from us.  In the summer, when all the windows were open, we could hear our neighbors. Someone was very sick and we heard him groaning and coughing every evening around six.  When our friends came over, we used to tell them the house was haunted.  At the appointed hour when they would hear the groaning they would be really scared and we would just laugh.

It was an old building, with high ceilings, large rooms and long hallways, which in our apartment were dark since the apartment never got any direct sunlight.At that time, buildings in New York had an incinerator for burning garbage.As a result, the city was covered in grime and we had soot on every windowsill. We had very little furniture, no rugs, or curtains to cushion sound. My mother was always telling us that we were too loud. She used to say:“Keep it down, your voices are reverberating off the walls,”My mother used words like that, reverberating.

Most of the afternoons and evenings we all gathered in the kitchen. Coming home from school in the late afternoon, I would find Aviva, my younger sister, sitting at the kitchen table, doing her homework,my mother preparing dinner,while listening to the news on CBS radio. I remember in 1968, during the riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination, my mother out of sheer frustration, argued with the broadcaster, saying “But you have to see it from their point of view.”  I used to join them in the kitchen, spread my books all over the floor, call my friend from school, and do my homework while chatting incessantly on the phone.  When Naomi, my older sister, came home she went to practice the violin. She started out in her bedroom but after a few minutes she called out "I'm lonely." She would pickup her music stand and violin, come to the entrance of the kitchen and play in the hall.  The scraping, squeaking and occasional notes of the violin provided the background music while each of us continued our business:  My mother listening to the radio, Aviva doing her homework and I talking on the phone. 

In the evenings, we sat around the kitchen-table long after we finished eating.  Aviva would go sit on Naomi’s lap. We talked and told, jokes but mostly we tried to make our mother laugh, which wasn’t hard.  All we had to do was to find something to tease her about and she would generously laugh at herself.  Seconds later, the three of us would be laughing right along with her. My mother would sigh, wipe the tears from her eyes and clean the lenses of her glasses. Then she’d remind us that there was homework to do and dishes to be washed, at which point Naomi and I would start arguing about whose turn it was to do the dishes. Exasperated, my mom would say, “Just one of you do them already!” 

              My mother loved to walk,and walking became an integral part of our lives.  On Sunday mornings, Aviva and I often walked the two miles home from Hebrew school.  Even in the winter when it was cold. On bright sunny days when the weather was clear and fresh as only winter sunny days can be, we would walk down Ocean Avenue, which was lined with big oak trees.  We liked to jump into the piles of leaves and kick them around.  I remember the sky a bright blue and the clouds almost blinding in their whiteness.  We came home to the smell of hot chocolate, our cheeks red, noses running,and our glasses fogging up as soon as we walked in the door. Sunday lunches were always lox and bagels with cream cheese. Lox was expensive but my mother liked to treat us after making us get up in the morning on a non-school day and schlepping to Hebrew school.

              On one of our family walks, we turned west and just a few blocks from our house we entered a completely different world.  All around us were beautiful and what seemed to us, gigantic, one-family, Victorian houses set back from the sidewalk with lovely, manicured lawns in between. It was early spring and there were white blossoms on the dogwood trees and red rhododendrons lined the walkways to the houses. At one house, a kid’s bike was carelessly left lying sideways on the lawn. I thought if I had a bike, I would never leave it outside like that.  We crossed an overpass above the tracks of the B train on our way home. My mom laughed and said “we really live on the wrong side of the tracks.”  It was the first time I had heard that expression.

              Prospect Park was about a fifteen-minute walk from our house.  My family spent many weekend days in that park.  We went boating in the spring,attended free outdoor concerts in the summer and went ice-skating in the winter.  My mother told me that when my feet stopped growing, she would buy me my own skates. When I turned thirteen,I strutted past the old brownstones to the park, my very own pair of skates slung over my shoulder.

              On our walks, my sisters and I would compete to see who could identify the cars parked along the sidewalk and we would shout out “Chevrolet, Buick, Ford or Oldsmobile.” But in the park my mother taught us the names of the trees. Oaks were the tall ones with the elongated leaves, five points meant maples, slender white trunks were birch, and those majestic trees with the spotted bark were sycamores, my mother's favorite. She would always find a great sycamore tree under which we would spread a blanket.  Sometimes we brought a ball and when we got up to play catch, we asked my mom what she was going to do and she said, “Oh you know. I’m content just sitting here looking at the trees and listening to the birds.” It used to make us laugh when she said that, but she meant it, it made her happy to sit under a tree and see green all around.

              We had a local library about two blocks from my house, but my sisters and I preferred to walk 50 minutes through the park to get to Grand Army Plaza where the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library was.   You walked into a majestic hall that had a balcony overlooking it and you could see stack and stacks of books. The whole world could be found here in the pages of these books.  It is here that I read stories to later tell Aviva on the subway.  As I got older my mother would guide me to books about Eugene V. Debs, Sacco and Vanzetti,and  Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.  After she gave me Spartacus to read, I read every book I could find by Howard Fast. Later, For Whom the Bell Tolls got me reading Hemingway, and while the Vietnam war was raging, I dove into anti-war novels like All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. The greatest thing about this library was that you could rent music albums too.  When my mother finally scraped the money together to buy a small stereo set, we could take out albums of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Donovan, and Peter, Paul and Mary.

Church Avenue was where we did most of our shopping. On Rosh Hashanah we bought Tayglach at Entenmann’s bakery, a holiday pastry made from balls of dough, nuts and dried fruit boiled in honey and spices and then piled high like a pyramid in a sticky mass. They would put it in a box and then tie it with a string from a dispenser hung from the ceiling. 

Across the street was the laundromat where I, who was in charge of the family laundry, would wash and neatly fold our clothes.  Often, I would meet a friend there, who had also lost her father and did her family laundry as well.We would leave the clothes in the dryer and walk down the street to the Carvel’s to share a banana split.

              In the summer when I turned 14, I fell in love with a boy at camp.  On the last night of camp, we went to the empty barn and climbed up to the loft and I experienced my first kiss.  The next day we boarded the buses for New York City and he went home to Queens and I to Brooklyn. That year we talked on the phone for hours, but by the next summer my family would leave New York.

              My mother would often take us to the Brooklyn Museum. There I saw sketches for the Guernica by Picasso and Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh. The paintings intrigued me and instilled within me a curiosity about art and expression that has lasted me a lifetime.  It was in Brooklyn, during those heady times of unrest, the war in Vietnam, the civil rights struggle and the budding movement of women’s liberation that I forged my political voice. At 13,I stood on the corner across the street from the Church Avenue station, handing out pamphlets campaigning for democrat Paul O’Dwyer for Senator.  Fifty years later I am still an activist. Amidst the brick, concrete and asphalt of Brooklyn, I learned to appreciate nature in Prospect Park, at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, and on Brooklyn’s tree lined streets filled with color in the fall, bare in winter, pink and white in the spring and dark green in summer. In the Brooklyn Public Library, my love for words was kindled, and on the subway I learned how powerful a good story could be. 

We stayed in Brooklyn only six years, long enough for my mother to graduate from Brooklyn College with honors and get a full scholarship to study Library Science at Columbia University.  Master’s degree in hand,she got a job as a librarian at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at the start of the summer of 1970, she moved us to Israel where I still live today. But whenever I am asked where I am from, I always answer Brooklyn.

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