Hemingway did come to Brooklyn.

     The date might have been Thursday, April 5, 1934 as described in a disturbing and wonderful new book by Paul Hendrickson called Hemingway’s Boat about Hemingway’s motor cruiser Pilar built for him in Coney Island.

     Hemingway was just back that year from safari in Africa with his second wife Pauline (the rich wife his hero railed about in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”—Hemingway’s wives fared about as well as Henry the VIII’s) and the great man was already becoming a hirsute caricature of himself. He brought back vast quantities of slaughtered game for the taxidermist and he talked big when the press met him after his ship docked.

     The lion, he pontificated in perfect Hemingway telegraphese to the scrum of reporters and photographers, with Pauline standing beside him wearing some sort of mod-30s zebra creation and squinting patiently in the sun, “is not afraid or stupid. He does not want to fight, but sometimes man makes him, and then it is up to the man to shoot his way out of what he has got himself into.”

     Hemingway was already becoming cranky at reviewers and former friends (he left several in his wake) including Max Eastman, who wrote that year in The New Republic a review of Death in the Afternoon called “Bull in the Afternoon” (Hemingway later tried to deck him): “The swine aren’t worth writing for,” he wrote to his long-suffering editor about his public and about the whole book trade. “I swear to Christ they’re not.”

     But there were some things worth the troubles of his fishbowl stay in New York that spring of ’34 before he headed down to Florida to write his next book. That something was picking up the boat he had ordered from the Wheeler Shipyard at the foot of Cropsey Avenue in Brooklyn—whose listed address was “Foot of Cropsey Avenue, Brooklyn, NY.”

     Wheeler had mailed a fold-over pamphlet the summer before to Hemingway’s Key West address (with a cent and a half stamp on it) written out in the penmanship-perfect handwriting of Howard E. Wheeler himself, he of the pork-chop sideburns and wild mustache and five sons working at the shipyard with him (not to mention his wife Mother Wheeler, who wouldn’t stand for smoking or drinking in her presence—even from those shapely little bottles of Coca-Cola pulled straight out of bucket of ice).

Boats were big in the ‘30s and the Wheeler Shipyard catered to the rich who liked to outdo each other with cabin cruisers, and yachts, and motor sailers (both motor and sail). Its signature model was the Playmate, which could be outfitted to every taste, and Hemingway had to write fast and think fast to get the money out of his editors and make sure he got a Wheeler cruiser (at a princely sum of over $7,000).

The shipyard in those days was a “jerry-built” city of wooden building berths and tin-roof assembly sheds, hanging ramshackle over the creek not far from the drawbridge with the fancy iron scrollwork (where the Pathmark now sits and the scrapyard now sits across the street) and where rides in Coney Island in those days cost five cents and were called Thunderbolt and Loop-O-Plane and the new-thrill-for-the-ages Cyclone.

Boats were launched in the creek and had to be moved fast because, “If you left them there a week or ten days, the hulls would starts to turn purple.” When Hendrickson went to visit the site to research his book, he says, “I stood at the edge of the supermarket’s parking lot and stared at the water, trying to see a just-wet Pilar bobbing in it, seven decades past, Coney Island Creek had a grocery cart without wheels washed up on its trash-strewn banks. The water looked swollen, pea green.”

There was a furniture shop in the shipyard in its glory, a machine shop, an upholstery shop, a sawmill, and a four-room hospital with a full-time doctor and a nurse. During World War II it even had its own fifty-six-piece marching band, made up of employees decked out in uniforms with the corporate logo. “A day or two a week, the band would saw away on a stage in the middle of the yard while the rest of the workforce—in metal hats and coveralls with ‘Wheeler’ stenciled on the back—ate lunch out of black pails.”

Wheeler Shipyard even broadcast the program over its own broadcasting network.

While Mother Wheeler tended the office and the books, Pop Wheeler did the selling and cajoling and handed out watches to the boys going to fight overseas. He was a dynamo who got started building homes in Bay Ridge, graduated to gas stations, and got lured into boats and built a shipyard on Twenty-third Avenue in Gravesend where he outfitted submarine chasers during World War I. After his sons graduated Erasmus Hall, they all came to work at the shipyard with the old man. “By 1928, the yard at the foot of Cropsey was producing and selling between fifty and sixty pleasures boats a year…By 1938, Wheeler was producing the fattest sales catalogue in the national boating industry.”

And that’s when Hemingway came to Brooklyn to inspect his boat, the hull painted black just for him.

He might have visited Scribner’s that morning to get his money from Max Perkins, then nagged Pauline back at the hotel, pacing while she put on her makeup and pinned her hat to her page boy just so.

“For Christ sakes—we’re only going to see a boat!” he might have said from the corner of his mouth like some cartoon villain, which might have been a snarl, except it was tempered  by that dimpled Hemingway grin and eager boyish look that took the edge away.

So she probably snapped her clutch shut without a word (Better not to rile the old bear, anyway) and allowed herself to be hurried to the door by the elbow, and out the door and down the hallway to the elevator, where he poked the wire-rimmed glasses to his nose and tried to study the navigation maps to Brooklyn while his nostrils flared and he huffed like a bull.

“Do we know how to get there?” she inquired with the eternal diplomacy of women trying to coax men to ask directions.

“We just grab a cab…” he growled.   

So they went out into the snarl of New York traffic, maybe not far from the gold-filigreed windows of Scribner’s, and they hailed a cab, maybe one of those Checker cabs with the throne-like seats and square roofs and a cabbie who wore a hat like a Bowery Boy and called everybody “Mac.”

     “Where to, Mac?” he asked Hemingway, and studied Pauline in the rearview mirror.

     “You know the way to Brooklyn?” Hemingway told him in his precise Midwestern twang.

     “Whereabouts, fella?”

     “How about the Wheeler Shipyard in Coney Island?”

     “Oh, yeah?” Cabbies were nosey in those days. “You picking up your boat?”

     “Yes, sir,” Hemingway said triumphantly, and settled Pauline like a doll beside him, and then took out his Wheeler brochure and tapped it on his leg as the cab sped away and crossed the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn. “It’s one hell of a sight,” Hemingway told Pauline with his dimpled lopsided grin.

     He stared down at the water from the bridge, snarled at the traffic on Flatbush Avenue, but loved the arch at Prospect Park (“Like the Triomphe–” he nodded at Pauline), and snickered as they sailed down Ocean Parkway with its stately homes and lawns (“Like goddamn Oak Park”), until the cab finally bumbled into streets more his speed: the industrial tangle of Cropsey Avenue and the noise of saws and hammers in the air that told him he was getting close to his dream.

     Maybe Pop Wheeler came out to meet him in the yard.

     “Well, hello, Mr. Hemingway, sir! Hello, sir!”

     Hemingway got Pauline out of the cab first, and she said a demure hello to Pop, before Hemingway clapped Pop’s hand and shook it and Pop laughed and tried to keep his glasses on as Hemingway pumped his hand hard.

     But then let it go. “So let’s go see my boat,” he said.

     “Yes, sir!” said Pop, leading the way. “And my name is Ernest, too!” he wheeled and said to Pauline, who smiled politely, but was mostly trying to make sure she didn’t turn her ankle in the rubble (pieces of sawed-off wood) or she didn’t get run over by some of the men in the company overalls shoving at wheelbarrows or gunning trucks like the spanking-new Ford Stake Delivery Truck with the wood-paneled bed.

     “Isn’t she lovely?” Hemingway said when they finally got to his boat still hiked up on wood blocks. “Isn’t she a regular black beauty?” he said mostly to himself.

     “She’s a regular black beauty, sir!” Pop Wheeler agreed, nearly losing his glasses as he nodded for emphasis. “She’ll give you, sir, a whole lifetime of boating pleasure!”

     “She better give me a whole boatload of fish,” Hemingway said, with his lopsided grin, not even looking at Pauline now, but looking only at his boat, and climbing down to stand under her and stroke her gleaming black belly.      


Lady smiling

She had the sleepy smile of a cat and blue eyes and a flat Midwestern drawl that recounted the escapades of her life in Brooklyn like they were the harmless musings of some matron in her slippers on her back porch in Pennsylvania—except they were about her encounter with Ted Bundy (that Ted Bundy, the serial killer), and the guy in the street who put a knife to her throat, and the bodies in the morgue of the hospital where she worked and where she liked to have her lunch.

Just an ordinary day in Brooklyn.

She came from Pennsylvania somewhere—Scranton? Lancaster? Mifflin? Wilkes-Barre? She still had her family living there and she would visit them for the holidays and they’d have drag-out fights over George W. Bush (she loathed him, they loved him), before they kissed and made up apparently and she took the bus or the train back to Brooklyn.

She always came back to Brooklyn.

For most of her years here she lived across the street from the hospital where she worked as a nurse. Her apartment building had an air of faded elegance and she may have been one of the last remaining white tenants living there: she was the white lady with the cats (she had a menagerie of them and was fierce about them). Her apartment was not far from the park which in the summer became a jamming place and had West Indian bands playing airs on steel drums that sounded like a celestial band.

She liked the vibe of the neighborhood, or didn’t have the energy to move, or maybe she liked to trade patois with her West Indian neighbors, like the lady with the rainbow kerchief who wore her husband’s brown vinyl sandals when she took out the garbage on collection days.

          How you doing, Miss Cat Lady, how you doing, baby?

          I’m good. How’s the aches and pains today?

          Old bones don’t lie, darling. They got me down today.

          You did the bone density scan like I told you?

          Gonna do it real soon.

          You gonna do it real soon?

          Gonna do it real soon.

          Like when? Let me know. I’ll walk you through it.

          She might dispense free medical advice for a good guava bread recipe, or banter with the super from Barbados who thought he was the rooster of the street, but she had no love for the churchgoing guy with the tie clip who stored all his junk in the garage across the street: he had once chased her cats away with a broom when they were rooting around the junk in his garage for a place to have their litter.

          You got rats in there, man! They’re doing you a favor!

          It’s my rats and my property!

          It’s nothing but junk!

          My junk!

          You’re a fool!

          You’re a fool woman! You got no husband!

          I hate all men.

          Fool woman!

          Fool man!

          I poison them cats, too!

          I will shoot you.

          They’ll charge you with murder!

          At least you’ll be dead.

          I can imagine her smiling when she said that, her sleepy smile turning sinister, and after her confrontation with the guy she would deliberately walk her cats across the street and deliberately encourage them to nose around the garage and spray it, while he was smart enough to stay indoors, but mutter out the window about that crazy white cat lady who was crazy enough to live in Brooklyn and stand out rather than live with her folks back in Pennsylvania and fit in.

Little did he know her. Apparently, she had shown her independence early on—graduating nursing school back home and immediately leaving and moving to New York to get a job while barely out of her teens. She found it in Brooklyn and lived in the early days off Ocean Avenue near Tennis Court (named after the tennis courts that once lined the street in the area’s gentry years) and she worked the night shift and had to wait at the bus stop in the dark.

          Me, she says, all of ninety pounds.

She hadn’t been bothered, until one night a man came muttering out of the shadows and put a knife to her throat. He muttered something, but she couldn’t hear it. He sounded like one those crazy raccoons that come snuffling and stumbling out of the dark. He smelled bad, too.

She tried to keep calm and tried to ask him what he wanted. She tried to use her professional manner.

But he kept muttering and snuffling in her ear.

         You want money?  she told him. I don’t have money. Just my car fare. I guess I’ll just have to walk to work tonight. She smiled at him even then.

But he got rough and jerked her backwards off her feet.

        I tried to keep my neck clear of that knife. The blade felt cold—it felt like ice–or maybe my neck was burning hot. And I could smell his breath: he had tortillas for dinner.

          What do you want? she told him. You have to let me go.

He snuffled some more.

         You have to let me go so I can go to work. I’m a nurse. I help people. You want to come in for a checkup? You sound out of breath.

          She tried to smile at him over her shoulder. He wasn’t buying. He was going to cut her. He kept yanking her off her feet. She could hear herself squealing like a mouse. She could feel her feet kicking as he dragged her back into the shadows of the apartment buildings.

And then miracle of miracles—the bus came!

With all its lighted windows lighting up the street.

        And all these people in the windows just staring at us. And the guy got stage fright. Imagine a rapist getting stage fright? He saw all those people staring at us and he dropped me like a hot potato and took off. I could still smell him, but I couldn’t see him anymore.

          She got on the bus. Nobody said a word to her—everybody keeping their New York cool—but she felt her neck, and she felt the slit of the knife across her throat.

She feels for it now, but her neck has gone to fat. She smiles at the story, though, as she smiles at everything else. You know what, she says, that almost bummed me out about New York for a while.

But not enough for her to leave Brooklyn. She moved up in the ranks at the hospital, one of those mountain range of buildings combining the old and the new (old buildings looking like relics from the Civil War with their turrets and eggplant-colored brownstone walls alongside new pastel extensions sparkling with glass and laced with catwalks spanning whole lobbies) and she sometimes unwound by taking breaks in the morgue with a colleague.

        And there wasn’t a dull moment, she says.

She had no conversation with the stiffs, but she and her friend had lively conversations among the stiffs and tossed back some brews and when the booze went to their heads they might even slide one of the corpses out of the drawer and have them comment on the action.

        But they had very little to say, she says. And they never cracked a smile.

Nothing like the guy with the winning smile she met one day. His name was Ted. She never explained how he got to Brooklyn, but somehow he did and apparently they met.

        He was charming, she says, and considered quite a catch.

          And one night he was hell-bent on driving her home.

          Wow, she thought. This guy moves fast.

          But he was clean-cut. And so square—he was going to be a lawyer. And he dressed like a lawyer in the casual blazer of a lawyer dressing down. And he had nice features–except the skin around his head sometimes got taut.

          You could practically see the track of his veins on his head, she says. They were like a hairnet.

Or maybe she was exaggerating in hindsight?

Anyway, he helped her on with her sweater that night, because it was

chilly, and when she cinched her waist with a belt,  he stopped and stared at her.

What? she said.

He kept staring—and apparently the veins were pulsing in his head.

        What? she said.

         How much do you weigh? he said.

        What’s it to you? she said.

        What is your waist size? he demanded—the veins standing out on his forehead like the interchanges on a freeway, she remembers. Is that the sweater or is that you?

       I told him to you know what and that was it, she says. He turned around and walked out on me. And I was royally pissed. I was expecting a ride home. Now I had to take the bus home!

And possibly run into her friend the rapist from Tennis Court.

Enough action to last any girl a lifetime, but not enough to scare away the girl from Pennsylvania, who liked Brooklyn for the action (where else could you meet Ted Bundy and discover he hated fat girls and live to tell about it), who liked to trade patois and guava bread recipes with her neighbors, and collect endless stray cats, and greet each new encounter in her Brooklyn day with the patented smile of the Cheshire Cat.


PS 104

         It all started on Facebook.

          My wife was teasing me one day that I had a Facebook page without a face and nothing on my “wall” (she had picked up the lingo from my daughters and was showing off) and so we sat down that day and dusted off my page, with nothing on it except the outline of my face, and we typed in some names to see if we could drum up some friends for me.

          Nobody came up—my crowd was way pre-Facebook.

          And then I took one more stab and typed in the name from the distant past that still resonated—a crush I had in grammar school at PS 104. It was one of those star-crossed romances that lasted until graduation and then faded into the mist of memories—until I typed in the name now—and suddenly the name came up! It was Virginia—the same Virginia—it was Ginny herself! With the flaming-red hair! And it was flaming-red still! And she was now on Facebook!

           I nervously typed out a message: Are you the girl from PS 104? (I knew very well she was, but would she remember me? Or care to?)

          Yep, came the reply. You the guy who wanted to be a lawyer?

          (Who me? That’s how distant the memory was.)

          And then she introduced me through Facebook to Jane, the girl who was everybody’s friend at 104. And who now lived in Long Island—and still remembered my birthday! And everybody’s birthday! And the names of all the kids in the class photo! She practically tagged them all!

          Helen was on Facebook, too, she now lived in Connecticut and she got into the spirit and posted the class photo after scanning it. She was one of the smart girls in class who sat near the teacher, which means she didn’t remember me much—I sat in the back row among the hooligans. (Near Steve with the blond mullet and striped sailor pants and white Converse sneakers who got bored and played Wipe Out on his desk all the time and laughed a horse laugh, and was a nice kid.)

          Jane was also in touch with the formidable twins who ruled the school and were the “big men” in our world at PS 104: Randy and Robby. Randy was in my class and had a high voice and called me Mick. He taught me much and was a buddy and I felt like a big man, too, when I walked in the halls with Randy. Robby was in another class and was one of the cool kids in school. He had this swipe of hair that fell across his eyes and he would toss back with a jerk of his head that made him very cool and I remember having this long conversation with him once in the gym about UFOs. “They’re all over, Mick,” he said (with a toss and swipe of his hair). “They probably landed in Brooklyn already.” And I didn’t know if he was kidding or he was for real—with Robby you never knew. “Yeah, sure, Robby,” I said to be on the safe side.

          Jane also knew about Chris, who sat in the class near the window and wore Hush Puppies and had freckles on his nose and buck teeth that made him look like one of those Norman Rockwell kids running away from the swimming hole; she said he had made a career in the Coast Guard.

          And also on Facebook was Arlette (amazing that Facebook), another of the smart girls, who got into writing, too, and wrote me a snappy message back (Were you one of the tall kids? Did you have dark hair?) and who was now living in California and was a doting mom.

          And there was Joyce, yet another of the smart girls, who looked just the same in her profile picture, and wanted to have a reunion.

          And Lesley, who was now a teacher, and in those days had a mane of hair and wore sweaters a lot that seemed to be fuzzy in the winter and always form-fitting (at least in my imagination).

          And there was Greg, a fellow Greek, who lived in California now and raced cars and rode motorcycles, but in those days was an altar boy with me, and came to my house for lunch on Parrot Place, and we played touch football together outside Tubby’s house off Fourth Avenue on the street in the shadow of the school. Alfred and Tubby usually came together (Alfred small and nervous but talking with a surprisingly deep voice, and Tubby, or Robert, who barely squeezed into his pants and had a rolling walk—hence, the name).

          Alfred walked on the balls of his feet, and had freckles, and rubbed his hands together and talked from the side of his mouth. I used to go his house after school and race his slot cars. He lived in a huge fortress of an apartment building where the elevator doors slammed shut like bank vaults. His brother called me the kid with the ears, because my ears stuck out then and were the bane of my childhood existence.

          I was playing football with Greg and Alfred and Tubby one day on Fourth Avenue when we saw helicopters flying overhead and cop cars and black cars racing up and down the avenue and we wondered what was up —until we saw the presidential limo with the little flags snapping on the hood as it glided down the avenue and made the left turn at the White Castle on 92nd Street and we saw Lyndon Johnson himself, the president of the United States, hunkered down by the window and crushed by the Secret Service but still waving his politician’s wave.

          “Hey, wasn’t that—?” said Tubby, doing his patented double-take.

          “Some guy who wants to blow all the lights,” said Alfred from the side of his mouth, rubbing his hands together.

          “Look at the guns!” said Greg, pointing to the sharpshooters on all the roofs.

          “Don’t shoot me—holy cow, Batman!” Tubby shouted (Yes, Batman was big on TV around then).

          So we jumped Tubby and held him down for the sharpshooters, but he squealed and ran away to the safety of his backyard with the genteel white fence that seemed so out of place for a cutup like Tubby and so out of place for our little neck of Brooklyn.

           Miss McShane was my homeroom teacher in both 7th and 8th grades, with her Prince Valiant haircut, blouses with ivory brooches, long maroon skirt and seamed stockings, and the wristwatch with the plain black band. She had wonderful cold blue eyes that stared you down when you were bad, and sparkled when you amused her, and she could be amused and then had a little girl laugh. I brought in some pebbles one day that I had collected on the beach in Greece and showed them around and I was very serious and she was amused that I was very serious. She gave us an assignment to do a book report in the coming weeks and I read a bio on Peter the Great that night and brought her the report the next day and she was amused. “You read the book already?” she said.

          “Sure,” I said.

          “Well…” she said, amused again, and she tilted her head at me with new appreciation, and suddenly I realized, maybe I had found my calling. I could be a reader! I could read a biography of Peter the Great in one night! Maybe I should write, too, because much as I wanted to, I was nothing like the artist Bobby was. Bobby sat in front of me in class with a happy smile on his face and a sketchpad on his desk and he sketched beautiful dragsters and racing cars mostly freehand and he always got them just right. He was one of the base kids: the kids who came from nearby Fort Hamilton and stayed a couple of years at school before their parents were transferred somewhere else again. I went to his house once and it was draped in the family’s artwork (they were all talented)—but it was only temporary housing and I could imagine the family packing up everything when they had to move away and going to yet another nondescript sun-baked base to hang up their artwork in yet another nondescript base housing apartment.

          One day Bobby came over to my family’s restaurant to eat dinner (alone, like a little man) and he brought his sketchpad with him, of course, and he did a sketch of the dishwasher that was uncanny. And that’s when I gave up my dream of drawing the rooster in the back of TV Guide and wowing them at the Famous Artists School and I decided to become a writer.

          Only English was my second language. We spoke mostly Greek at home, and all my older relatives spoke Greek, and all my young cousins spoke Greek or English with an accent, and I wondered if what I said I pronounced right half the time.

          And I wasn’t much of an American sportsman, either. I stunk pretty much in all “American” sports: what good was a mitt for, anyway? And I couldn’t throw a spiral in football despite patient coaching (“Mick, you gotta put your fingers on the seams!” said Randy), and I was only marginal in basketball: I did set a record once for the most consecutive free throws after school. But forget about dodgeball in the gym–that ultimate test of schoolboy manhood—I was the kid in the back row doing a lot of running and yelling and hoping fervently that the ball never got to me through all those bodies.

          But, believe it or not, it was through athletics (sort of) that I finally found my place.

          She was the girl with the red hair who stood in the back row of the volleyball game we played after school. She was almost as tall as me. She wore very clean white sneakers and had showgirl legs and very nimble feet. She was a star at the school—the girl who played all sports and was friends with boys and girls—and she had freckles and flashing blue eyes: she was an All-American beauty.

          And I remember slamming the volleyball at her once in the back row during a game and seeing how she got flustered and blushed and snapped those flashing blue eyes at me reproachfully. I felt bad. But I did it again.

          And then I would see her in the hallway between classes, like a proper princess surrounded by her retinue of friends while hugging her books to her white blouse during Assembly days, and glancing at me, too, with her flashing blue eyes, that were sometimes soft now, while she whispered to her friends (about me?) through her coral-white teeth.

          I couldn’t wait for volleyball now after school. For once I was a champ. Especially when one of the girls showed me the notebook of the red-haired girl and it had my nickname scrawled all over it with a ballpoint.

          Me? Really? The Greek kid with the ears who couldn’t play sports? Who wore that funny jacket to school that nobody else wore? The All-American girl with the clean white sneakers who threw a softball better than me, and talked English in a whisper through pouting lips, and had flashing blue eyes that she flashed at me through the glorious mane of all that red hair—she actually liked me?

          It was my validation. I had arrived at PS 104. The princess and me even went to the White Castle and had fries and held hands.

          And now a lifetime later when Ginny with the red hair accepted my friend request on Facebook—and all the other friends joined in from the days at PS 104—Jane, Arlette, Helen, Joyce, Lesley, Greg—by the modern miracle of social networking we had all become “friends” again.

          (Miss McShane still lives in Brooklyn and retired in 2000 after 50 years of teaching at PS 104.)

Gates Avenue

          We drove through Bedford-Stuyvesant the other day where my wife’s family lived when they first came to America from Italy, both her mother’s and her father’s. Her memories of her father’s family are vague (her grandfather drove a vegetable wagon, he made his own wine, he hunted rabbits with his son in Long Island—and made fun of his son because he was squeamish about it–he had thirteen children with his wife, a formidable woman who lived to old age, and he moved the family from Bed-Stuy to Canarsie and back to Bed-Stuy again, to Greene Avenue).

          My wife’s memories of her mother’s family are more personal and vivid. Her grandfather Alfred came to Brooklyn from Cassino around the turn of the century and worked as a shoemaker in Bed-Stuy, then an ethnic enclave. In the old studio portraits of the time he wears a gold chain in his jacket pocket (his boys wear them, too) and a mustache that had a dandy’s wings when he was young and got respectably clipped as he became a paterfamilias. Most of the surviving photos show him with the family he brought over to America around 1919: his wife Marietta, his boys Tony and Mario, his daughter Lena, and the later ones born here: Emma and Joey, but none with my mother-in-law Josephine, who was the second youngest. (There was also a rumored Michael, who died as an infant.)

          The early studio photos must have been both an occasion and an ordeal for the family: getting suited up in stiff clothes that were pressed that day and still smelled of the hot iron when you wore them, making sure you didn’t get dirty as you took the trolley or traveled on foot over streets and alleys that might still have the lingering odor of horse manure, walking into a studio where the walls were hung like a portrait gallery with all the photos of past clients, finally entering the inner sanctum to take your place in the glare of lights and before the curtain with a changing background of blue skies, or green meadows, or Greek columns in the middle of green meadows, all to give the illusion that you weren’t in Brooklyn. Then standing forever in front of the giant breadbox of a camera aimed squarely at your head and waiting for the photographer to finish burrowing under the black cloth like a priest under a shroud and finish mumbling his sacred photographic mysteries: “Stand still now…Don’t move…Hold it…Don’t smile…Say cheese!”—always “say cheese” and then the flash. And you better stand still because the session had cost Alfred months of wages in patched soles and cobbled baby booties and orthopedic shoes for footsore immigrant laborers and this family photo would take its rightful place in the “parlor” of the apartment and forever mark the family as respectable.

          Though my mother-in-law is in none of the existing studio photos of the family, she was the “Dolly” of the clan (christened when they first saw her as a baby) and there are separate studio portraits of her alone at her communion earnestly holding her bible and flowers and wearing a veil and thinly suppressed Dolly smile; and there are informal photos of her with friends and cousins in the street locking arms and peeking at the camera through her tomboy shag; and at the park with her arm thrown around Joey (nearby Tompkin’s Park?); and at the beach in a one-piece nestled between her older sisters who are wearing their maidenly one-pieces but with flashy waist sashes. There are no photos of my mother-in-law with her own mother, however, the sainted figure in her life whose memory would haunt her forever.  

          Alfred eventually opened up a shoe store on Marcy and Kosciusko that he ran for nearly fifty years with his brother-in-law, Alexander, and they also bought a house together where they lived with their families just a few blocks away on Gates Avenue. (Alexander with his own brood of six and his wife Antoinette, the equally stern matron of her stern sister, Marietta, and later also with Antoinette’s married daughter in the third apartment.) There is a photograph that shows the corner of Marcy and Kosciusko circa 1931, around the time that Alfred was cobbling shoes there with Alexander, and looking out his window he would have seen Weinreb’s Pharmacy on the corner, with its tumbledown display of goods in the window, and its candy dispenser by the door, and its banner display of various signs advertising Hydrox Ice Cream, Notary Public, SODA, and the bell symbol of a public phone. Adjoining is a store advertising simply RADIO, and another G. HYMES LOCKSMITH-ROOFER, and next it the TOMPKIN’S PARK GARAGE, featuring Socony gas, which presumably fueled the Model T-looking car or truck parked outside that certainly didn’t belong to Alfred.

          He saved all his money for the house and the kids and the store, where he spent most of his waking hours, like a miner in a cave, drenched in the smell of leather and shoe polish, and where he might look up now and then and light a cigar and spy on Weinreb’s and all who went there, and then report back to the family, who spread the news throughout the house. Or maybe Alexander might, who was more gregarious than Alfred, and less stern, and who the kids from both families might hit up for pennies for the candy machine, and who smelled of hair tonic, and cigars, and had a gold tooth that flashed when he laughed and he said was given to him in service to his country by King Victor Emmanuel III. So what’d you do? the kids would want to know. And Zio Alexander would brush the question aside imperiously, but then wink at them through the glint of his wire spectacles and put a brown finger to his lips. “Shhh,” he would say, “I was a general.” And he’d start laughing until the big vein stood out on his neck, and his neck got pink and spilled out over his starched collar, and his laugh would turn into a cough, and his cough would turn into a wheeze, and his tongue would stick out and curl over when he wheezed.

          There was Tompkin’s Park nearby for the boys to chase squirrels and girls in the summer and for the girls to pick flowers and put them in their hair, and in the winter for the boys to make ice balls to throw at the girls and the girls to make snow angels and both of them together to chase their own breath in the cold. There were trolleys to hitch a ride on, and the radio serials to listen to at night booming from somebody’s window, while the boys played stickball in the street and you heard the whack! of the ball but you couldn’t see it in the dark, and the girls would whisper in a huddle on the stoops or behind the garbage cans, and the men would sit on chairs and argue politics and war and blow smoke rings in the air, which made the sky smell like wood smoke, and the women would sit on the steps with the babies on their laps and their aprons off and dispense food, and scolding, and comfort.

          Marietta was a big woman, more imposing than her husband, with the brawny arms of a matron of the time, but with fine features, short hair fashionably combed and hair-clipped, with plucked eyebrows and eyes that had a cool aristocratic squint. My mother-in-law revered her memory and told the story of her mother brushing her hair during their daily beauty regimen together and my mother-in-law complaining that it hurt. “You have to suffer to be beautiful,” her mother told her with the stoicism of women through the ages.

          You can imagine Marietta, brought to the New World with three kids and no English, to a husband who was always at work and gruff when he was at home, to an unchanging landscape of brown tenements and rattletrap trolleys and the occasional knife sharpener or vegetable vendor singing his sad song, to the endless child births and confinements in those dark rooms that forever smelled of kids and laundry and yesterday’s food and buzzed with everybody’s business, and to a lifetime that would only be more of the same.

          Marietta died of cancer when my mother-in-law was only eight years old and there is a last sad photograph of the once-buxom woman reduced to a wasted figure with lanky hair and dark, haunted eyes. The bodies of the dead were put on view in those days in the family’s home and I can imagine my mother-in-law, with her famous smile now dampened, sitting for days in those claustrophobic rooms full of relatives and strangers parading through the family’s rooms and gossiping and eating and smiling in the midst of death, while she stared by the hour at the figure holding the rosary, and wearing her good jewels, and the wistful smile that seemed to be fading by the minute.

          There are later photos of my mother-in-law standing on Gates Avenue, well until she became a teenager. One of them shows her wearing a white dress with a flower (graduation day?) as she stands in the street both alone and with a friend wearing the same outfit. That same day and in the same dress she’s sitting on the stoop of the house and smiling her mother’s wistful smile for the camera as the black girl next door with the white bow in her hair climbs over the fence to stare at the camera, too.

          And there are later photos of my mother-in-law as a single girl having fun and flashing her famous Dolly smile on Gates Avenue and beyond as her world expanded and her life moved away from Bedford-Stuyvesant forever.

           When my wife and I drove through the area recently we tried to find the old house on Gates Avenue, but we never did (it might now be a parking garage), and Alfred’s old shoe store is long gone. Few of the old brownstones remain, too, though we did get glimpses of some, and they offer a haunting reminder of the lost world of Alfred, and Marietta, and Zio Alexander with his famous gold tooth, and of Dolly with her girlish smile and tomboy cut and eyes full of life’s promises and hurt.

          On most nights when the traffic subsides on Flatlands Avenue and the buses float down the street mostly empty, you might look up in the sky over the little storefront church with the white walls and maroon awning with the cross on it, and if you let your imagination run riot, you might see the ghosts of all those wise guys who were murdered there and chopped up in what used to be a bar called the Gemini Lounge that also doubled as a killing factory for a local mobster named Roy DeMeo and his crew.

          Roy was a homegrown boy who was born in Flatlands but sowed his wild oats not far from the bar just fifteen minutes down the road in Canarsie, a reputed stronghold of the Lucchese crime family and home of the Bamboo Lounge that was featured in the movie Goodfellas. Canarsie doesn’t look much different now than it did when Roy hung out there: Holy Family is still the anchor of the Catholics in the community and it still rings its bell on Sundays, though the parishioners who now flock there are mostly West Indian.

           But there’ s still a pocket of Canarsie’s old Italian stock living around the main drag on Rockaway Parkway near the fire station, and according to at least one account, they still have clout. The woman with the flaming red hair who was once a bartender at the Bamboo Lounge lived in Canarsie up until a few years ago and she had stories to tell. (One was that she was offered a mink coat by one of the henchmen in the Lufthansa airport heist portrayed in the movie, which she refused: good thing, because he was later bumped off for being too ostentatious with his end of the loot and so were the wives and girlfriends.) She told a more recent story that her West Indian neighbors were partying a little too hard once and tossing their beer bottles and cans over the fence into her yard and terrorizing her elderly mother. So she told them nice, she said, but they wouldn’t stop; so she told them nice again, and now they cursed her out. So she did what she had to do. And one day an armada of mobster battle wagons, Denalis and Escalades with butterscotch leather seats blaring their battle cry of Sinatra and Bon Jovi, climbed the sidewalk and crashed right through the neighbor’s fence and pinned the revelers who couldn’t run fast enough against the walls of the house. And that’s how the partying stopped, and her neighbors moved out in a hurry, and the neighborhood got as quiet as before and became, she says, a “family” kind of place again.    

          According to the Philip Carlo book about prolific gangland hitman Richard Kuklinski, The Ice Man, Roy aspired to run with the fast crowd in Canarsie, but he was a portly kid who always got picked on, particularly after his older brother and protector went off to Vietnam and got killed. So Roy had to man-up for himself, and he started working as a butcher at the local supermarket to build beef, while he lifted weights with a vengeance to build muscle, which he started throwing around plenty. He also started lending out the money he made at the supermarket, no doubt at usurious rates, and when his customers didn’t pay him back fast enough, he was only too glad to beat them up. Roy was out of Central Casting for a mobster: loud and swaggering and lethal.

          Maybe too loud. The conservative men who ran the family (through “legitimate” businesses in Canarsie like the local junkyards and chop shops) thought he was too loud and took the longest time to finally induct him. But he made them money all along, and he made himself very useful when he used his skills as a supermarket butcher to dispose of the bodies.

          He had a system he called “disassembling.” You cut the body into six pieces—the head, the arms, the legs, the torso—and then you dumped it in various places: the head in a garbage bin (to shock some poor garbage man for life–or maybe not if they worked in Brooklyn), the arms in the Atlantic Ocean just off the Belt Parkway in one direction, and the legs just off the Belt Parkway in the other direction, most often at the mountainous garbage dump just across the highway from the housing complex in Starrett City.

          And Roy did his job so well that he formed his own “disassembly” line of butchers, one of whom was a cousin and was known as Dracula. They would lure the unsuspecting victim (or suspecting, who wouldn’t dare say no to the summons) to the Gemini Lounge and maybe wine and dine him before they delivered the fatal blow. And then they would put the poor schmo through the assembly line, and he would come out the other end neatly bundled in brown butcher paper and stocked in garbage bags that would leave the bar like clockwork. A neighborhood kid who once lived nearby remembers seeing garbage bags leaving the bar all the time. Reportedly, hundreds of wise guys never left the bar at all, unless you count the garbage pickup.

          One visitor to the Gemini in its heyday was Richard Kuklinski, the contract killer, who became a close working associate of Roy—that’s after DeMeo almost killed him.

          Kuklinski was behind on some payments of his own and DeMeo came to collect. Kuklinski told him he’d get his money soon.

          “Yeah, and when’s that?” Roy demanded.

          “Hard to say,” said Kuklinski. “You know how it is.”

          “You think you’re cute?” said Roy.

          “I think I don’t like you coming around and trying to put the squeeze on me.”

          “We’ll see,” said Roy.

          “Yeah, we’ll see,” said Kuklinkski.

          Kuklinski had already killed plenty, and he didn’t think much of Roy DeMeo: because he didn’t know him yet. He was rudely informed around the time that DeMeo came storming back with his murderous crew in tow and they put an arsenal of guns to Kuklinski’s head.

          “So, tough guy, you wanna die?” said Roy.

          Kuklinski knew better and played possum and they beat him up so bad he could barely recognize himself in the mirror afterwards. He had to go to sleep that night at his mother-in-law’s so he didn’t go home and shock his wife and kids (yes, he was a wonderful family man). And then he took stock of the situation and decided as a practical businessman in murder he better make peace with Roy DeMeo before Roy DeMeo murdered him (and he could plot his own murder of DeMeo later).

          So he drove to Brooklyn to the Gemini to make peace with the fat man.

          “I tell you, big guy, you got balls,” DeMeo told him admiringly and  initiating Kuklinski by driving him to the city and asking him to pop the nearest bystander in cold blood—which Kuklinski did, some poor guy walking his dog. “You play straight with me and we’ll make money—a lotta money.”

          Roy then drove Kuklinski to the local Italian salumeria and loaded him up on Italian cheese and salami.

          “They make the mozzarella fresh,” he told Kuklinski. “You bring this stuff home to your wife.”

          “Thanks, Roy,” said Kuklinski, goombas in life, and now in the business of death.

          The two became so tight (after many subsequent contract killings), that Kuklinski was even trusted to come over to the bar for supper. And once he had to use the john, so he walked into the bathroom, where he wondered about the smell. So he looked behind the shower curtain “…and there, hanging over the tub, was a dead man. His throat had been cut and there was a black-handled butcher knife sticking out of his chest. His blood, rubbery and thick, was slowly draining into the tub. They were bleeding him.

          “You see the guy taking a shower,” Roy laughed with the boys when Kuklinski emerged from the bathroom.

          And then they sat down and had a wonderful meal.

          It was a marriage made in heaven, or hell, and the wise guys who went to hell through the Gemini became a steady stream over the years.

          Until that cold morning in January.

          A maroon Cadillac was found in the parking lot of the Varnas Boat Club in Sheepshead Bay just ten minutes from the Gemini. According to Katherine Ramsland in the truTV Crime Library, the car had been sitting there for over a week and the cops had checked it out already once, but decided it wasn’t stolen. Now they came back again to investigate a missing person report filed by a wife on her husband. This time they peeked into the car and found dark stains on the seat. And one of the cops jumped on the bumper and decided there was something in the trunk. So they towed the car to the police garage and they popped the trunk.

          They found a chandelier inside. And under the chandelier they found a body. It belonged to a heavyset man frozen in rigor mortis around the spare tire in a pool of his own frozen blood and he wore a leather jacket wrapped around his head like a turban. He had a bullet hole through one hand and a bullet hole behind each ear: execution gangland-style. He was identified as Roy DeMeo and his wife had reported him missing after he failed to show up for his daughter’s birthday party. He never missed such things, because he was a dutiful father, and his son was upset at the pathetic indignity of his father’s demise.

          The man who later claimed to have executed Roy DeMeo was Richard Kuklinski, hired by the Mob to get rid of a liability (Roy had been murdering wise guys too indiscriminately) and Kuklinksi was glad to do the job, despite Roy loading him up once with all that salami and cheese he took home to his wife and with all those good meals he had savored at the Gemini, despite the smell in the bathroom.

          Roy’s old bar and “disassembly” plant eventually became a church, with whitewashed walls, and now every Sunday it hosts the spectacular parade of church ladies in their Sunday hats and gentlemen clutching their hymn books. It even hosts occasional revival meetings and sets up speakers in the street to broadcast to the faithful and offer a free concert of spirituals by the choir.

          It’s a far cry from the bad old days at the old bar. But when the street gets quiet again at night and the buses loaf on their run, and when the sky gets hazy from all those streetlights, you might look up and see the ghosts of all those wise guys floating over the site of their old bar, because they have nothing better to do now, and because Roy’s place was always a cozy retreat and he served up plenty of laughs and good food and booze, unless he was murdering you.

Brooklyn Madonna


         She was the girl at the window in English class at Brooklyn College.

          She had her notebook open on her desk, and her pen lying on it, and she sat with her arms folded and her foot twisting and her wire-rimmed glasses perched on her nose, as she listened with the frowning smile of a Renaissance Madonna (she later said I had the profile on a Roman coin) to Professor Perluck talking about Faulkner and As I Lay Dying as we lay dying trying to make sense of it all.

          Don’t forget your paper is due on Monday, Perluck said, debonair as usual in his tweed blazer, but cutthroat as always, choosing to tell the class that a paper was due in days just when I finally showed up in class after weeks of doing more important things like roaming Manhattan to see the latest Bergman film (Scenes from a Marriage—as boring as the marriage) and spook the snobs at Gucci by strolling through their chrome-and-plate glass showroom on Fifth Avenue in my yellow earth shoes and bookcase from my father’s parochial school in Brooklyn. Your paper, Perluck added, twisting in the knife, is worth half your final grade (or some other obscene amount).

          And now even I, the non-conformist, was worried, and even I, the free-spirit, felt oppressed. I liked Brooklyn College too much (I liked the view from the library of the leaves in the fall and the world moving silently outside the window), but now I had to graduate, I couldn’t stay at Brooklyn College forever, and English was the subject that had to pull me through.

         Perluck, you did it again: What the hell paper were you talking about?

          I wasn’t sitting in my usual seat (against the wall in the back with the other deadheads—the guys who carried cigarettes to class rather than books and all the geeks with Brillo hair who read science fiction). Today, I was sitting somewhere in the middle row, near the window and the sunshine, with students who actually studied, and actually took notes, like the girl beside me with her notepad open, and wire-rim glasses on her nose, and the pout of a Renaissance Madonna.

          I leaned over and whispered to her, through the side of my mouth, I guess, because I imagined she took me for a bum from the back row: So what paper is he talking about?   

          And she turned on me the full effect of her Madonna scorn (and cheeks like ripe baking apples). And where have you been?

          Boy, did she know how to scorn.

          And, boy, did she have lovely eyes, like black plums in brandy.

          You got the notes? I rasped to her in my Bowery Boys voice.

          And she had lovely fingers, too, which she spread over the page of her notebook, as she shoved it towards me, and she wore a very sweet ring that girls sometimes wear, and her penmanship flowed over the page and stayed right on the line.

          I leaned over to read the notes, while Perluck droned and elegantly tapped out one of his many cigarettes, and the sun was shining in the window, and the leaves were waving in the trees like gestures in a modern dance, and it was a beautiful moment, and I couldn’t help myself and looked up at my Brooklyn Madonna and said, We can stay like this forever.

          And she looked down at me from the heights of her scorn (and beautiful cheekbones) and said in a quick riposte that would become her trademark (she had to get in the last word), Well, maybe for this period, but certainly not forever.

          But little do we know what life has in store while we’re busy making other plans, to paraphrase the late, great song.

          I had the impertinence to cut the class after that, she says, and then show up without a word of explanation and have the nerve, she says, to ask her to have coffee with me.

          And she agreed.

          And we went to SUBO (the Student Union building), and sat on the blue vinyl couches, and I told her the whole story of my life (she says in one breath), while Rodrigo’s Concerto De Aranjuez played on the PA, and we liked it so much I went back to the guy at the desk and kept adding it to the play list, and I probably drove the guy nuts (but he was one those anal audiovisual guys, anyway).

          And we hung out in the library and read the Greek American writer Harry Mark Petrakis to get into the mood and she ate my mother’s Greek butter cookies wrapped in tinfoil.

          And we hung out at Kosher King and she dipped her knish in ketchup with her elegant fingers like a Renaissance queen.

          And I went to her film studies class and saw Fantasia with her and teased her girlfriend Grace with the red fingernails, who made faces at me and raked her red fingernails at me menacingly. 

          And I convinced my Madonna to take an astronomy class with me because, I said, famously, The teacher just gives you the answers. But the teacher who gave you the answers didn’t teach the class that semester, and in his place in front of the class stood a robotic little man with a trim beard and glasses that glinted who droned out his lecture notes like the man from space and like all men from space had only one name: Cromy. Nobody in Cromy’s class had any clue what he said about the hot gases of stars (which he apparently brought with him from space), so my Brooklyn Madonna and I spent most of the class doodling in our binders and she did a wonderful caricature of the student nearby with several chins dribbling down his chest. She also took a memorable stab at one of the questions on a Cromy multiple choice: What happens if you fall into a black hole? I had no clue, but she was a Brooklyn Madonna who cut to the chase. Your eyes turn blue, she chose, in one of Cromy’s rare forays into whimsy and grading on a curve. Hey, she shrugged afterwards, it was so dumb I thought it might be true.

          She also joined me in my writing class, where the teacher, Mr. Goodman, regularly trashed out his students (You have no talent. Why are you taking my class?). She even took one of his classes herself and she couldn’t write a scene for a playwriting assignment one night so I wrote it for her and Goodman said to her in class the next day, You didn’t write this. It’s too good. He wrote it for you, he said, pointing at me. She feigned mock outrage and got the whole class on her side and Mr. Goodman—unheard of—to back down a little. She was good.

           She also visited my poetry class, where Mr. Merrick walked in with his plant and deposited it on his desk before class, as usual, and then he called on her with a question and she ignored him, so he pointed to her again. Who me? she said finally. Yes, you, he said. I was looking at you. And she riposted smartly, I didn’t see your eyeballs move.

          She came with me to Boylan for a special ceremony to honor student journalists and I got honorable mention and the Samuel J. Casten memorial award. But I was a proud genius and pissed it was only honorable mention and I wouldn’t be consoled, but I enjoyed that she tried to console me as we strolled the pond with the scum-green water behind the library, where  her French teacher, Monsieur Travers, being a Frenchman, had once offered her a dry leaf.

          That’s near where we sat on a bench one day and I dared her to hurdle the nearby hedge, and to my astonishment she got up and hurdled it in perfect form, with one leg sticking out and her ponytail flying, and now I think I was in love.    

          I even convinced the good girl to cut class and go with me to the city where we sat at the Met and stared at the Rembrandts, and the guard came over and said, No making love.

           We were?

          And we were sitting outside the conference room at Brooklyn College when the president of the college came out of a meeting and saw us and he came over and said, And I thought love was dead.

          It was?

          She invited me over to her house for some hoops and we took the bus down Flatbush Avenue and strolled along her street on a beautiful sunny day. We shot hoops in her backyard and she drilled them, while I missed most of mine. She made hot chocolate afterwards at the kitchen counter in her blue jeans and maroon top, and when her mother came in with the groceries she greeted me in the trilly voice she normally reserved for guests, but I felt right at home.

          So you want to get married? I said to her one day as we sat in SUBO, probably listening to Rodrigo and hoping we had ditched Paul, the Jewish guy who called himself Pablo and thought we should double-date.

          But, it seems, we were past that.

          Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

          The Brooklyn Madonna and I got married after college and she was the loveliest of brides and we have a picture of her lifting her veil in the limo and sipping a Carvel shake through a straw on her way to church.

          And one morning after we got married, we chased down the Nostrand Avenue bus we took to work, and when we got on we recognized the tweed blazer and saw, of all people, Professor Perluck heading off to Brooklyn College to torture more students with Faulkner.

          He acknowledged us surprisingly (our courtship in his class had given him some grief), and surprisingly he was pretty affable and pleasant, at least without a book in his hand.

          So how are you guys doing? he said to us finally.

          And I think we both grinned, and we might have nodded happily, me with my Roman coin profile standing next to my Brooklyn Madonna.


          “Hey, Illinoisss!”

          The kids playing in the street bellowed at our Land of Lincoln license plates as we drove through Brooklyn that summer in our 1960 white Impala with the red stripe and headed up Third Avenue to stay with my uncle for the summer at his house in Bay Ridge.

          My parents had lived in Brooklyn before we moved to Chicago, right above the store on 44th Street and Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park, during the heyday of the Eisenhower administration, when my father was studying at Columbia, and my mother was working at the doll factory, and my sister went to P.S. 169 and jingled as she walked from the bells sewn into her skirt.

I had never lived in Brooklyn, except for passing through around 1960 on my way from Greece to join my parents then living in Montreal, and stayed for a while across the street from my uncle’s at the corner house on Colonial Avenue belonging to Aunt Eleni. She took in all wayfarers, and I remember in wonder that she had a piano in the living room, and when I wasn’t staring out her window from the second floor at America, I was playing with a red toy gun that somebody gave me and shot yellow ducks circling in a row.   

That summer when we drove down from Chicago, I remember “Speedy Gonzalez” was the hottest song in the land, and the jingle for Hammer sodas kept playing on the Impala’s radio as we drove through Brooklyn. And as we approached 69th Street, I remember how traffic became a virtual gridlock and all we saw were cars sparkling like jewels in the sun (and people roasting inside) and all we heard were car horns blaring in frustration.       

            This Brooklyn is crazy, I thought, as we parked who knows how many blocks away and lugged our suitcases into my uncle’s stairwell right next to the candy store belonging to Americo and Ann and tramped up the cool stairs and smelled what everybody had been cooking that day.

          My Uncle Stelio had only a one-bedroom apartment, and my Aunt Mary was pregnant that summer, so I don’t know where we slept; it must have been in their “dining room”—the room with the table where everybody ate and talked and peeled fruit and cracked nuts well into the night–and maybe we slept on the couch next to the black-and-white TV with the rabbit ears. I do remember going to sleep by that TV watching the endless reprise of the “Million Dollar Movie” with its Gone with the Wind theme, and waking up to Sandy Becker doing silly faces and silly voices, and introducing Diver Dan swimming with his puppet fish, including a snaggle-toothed barracuda. Sandy Becker also did the commercial for Tropicana orange juice, which my aunt poured in the morning in her little kitchen overlooking the black fire escape, and which turned my stomach because I was used to the sugary-high of that space-age wonder drink, Tang (“The drink the astronauts drink!”).

          Mostly that summer I remember hanging out my uncle’s second-floor window and staring down at the world: which was mostly the endless traffic jam of cars gleaming like mirrors in the sun, and forever blowing their horns and never getting anywhere.  

          Where they going? I asked my sister, who told me they were waiting for the ferry. What ferry?  I said. But she ignored me, because she was a teenager, and it was one question too many, and I was her kid brother, and being locked up in this walk-up apartment in Brooklyn for the whole summer with her kid brother was no fun.

          I do remember one day I became a thief, by taking some change I found lying around in an ashtray, and clutching it guiltily as I tramped down the stairs (those damn stairs made so much noise when you were being a thief). And I popped into the street, and stared at all those poor people forever stuck in traffic with their arms hanging out the window, and  ducked into the candy store, past all the shiny stools, and burrowed into the aisle with the German luger water pistols hanging in plastic, and tried to ignore the woman in the garter belt on the cover of True Detective, while my heart pounded at my true love: the latest issue of Fantastic Four and Spider Man, and my personal favorite, Daredevil, who walked with a cane by day, but soared through the air by night.

          There was also the day I was sent across the street to the Norwegian deli (it had a little red ceramic flag in the window) to get a six-pack of beer; I don’t know who sent me, but maybe my uncle did to put hair on my chest. I had to weave through the maze of panting cars in the shimmering haze of their exhaust and summer heat, before I finally stepped into the cool of the Norwegian deli, with its white tiles, and Scandinavian ladies, and the wall of refrigerators packed with bloodless hams and cheeses. “Ballantine,” I piped to the clerk coolly, and he leaned an arm over the chrome counter and stared down at me with his blue eyes. “So where you from?” he said to me in his perfect Brooklynese. “You’re not from around here. You can’t buy beer if you’re a minor.”

          And the Scandinavian ladies stared down at me, and the clerk stared down at me, and my ears burned in shame as I plunged back into the sea of cars, and ducked into the cool of the stairway, and pounded up the stairs, slammed the door behind me, and perched myself at the window, where I glared at the deli and fantasized I was the Incredible Hulk and tearing up the place apart tile by white tile.

          You’ll get it, I snarled like Bruce Banner just before he turns into the Hulk. You’ll get it real soon.

          And I stared at the cars, which never seemed to move, except by inches, and tried to imagine what this ferry looked like that they were all waiting for, but never getting to.

Until one day an older cousin came to visit us and decided to take me on an outing to nearby Owl’s Head Park, where we sat on the grass on the hill by the field house and we stared down at the harbor and watched the cars that were stuck in traffic finally reach the 69th Street pier at the foot of the street and dutifully mount the ferry like bugs marching into a bug trap.  

          So you want a hamburger?  my cousin blurted to me suddenly, and he was famous for blurting out things which confused everybody, so now I was confused.

          Okay, I said uncertainly.

          Come on, he said, we have to run before the ferry leaves!

          What ferry? I said.

          But he got up and his ankles flashed as he raced down the hill.

          Where we going?! I said as I ran after him.

          I thought I was going to tumble down that hill, it was so steep, and I was running so fast just to keep up with him, chasing the sight of his ankle socks and bare ankles, all the way down the hill until our feet slapped the street, and then we reached the pier, where we snaked around the cars, and pounded on the boards of the pier, and I stopped short when I glanced down and noticed the green water sloshing against the metal sides of the ferry.

          Come on, said my cousin, after paying the nickel fare for each of us, and we boarded the ferry, with its wet puddles on the floor, and I followed him up the stairs into a room with benches, where we sat, and panted, and my shirt stuck to my back, and it smelled like fried fish as we stared at the world through gray windows smeared with salt spray.

          We sat for hours, it seems, until the ferry suddenly began to lurch and the floor to throb beneath us, and the pier got smaller, and the cars on the Belt Parkway began to race like midget cars, and soon we had nothing but black water between us and the pier, because it was becoming night.

          Come on, my cousin blurted, and I dutifully followed him out to the deck, where the wind howled ferociously and peeled back our hair and our clothes, and my sweaty shirt got stuck to my back like cold plaster. But I stood my ground, beside my cousin, and we hunched over the railing and stared down at the water chopping at the sides of the ferry, and at the darkness just beyond, broken only by the lights of New York City sparkling on the waves like fairy dust.

There she is, said my cousin, and he pointed to the Statue of Liberty for me, which he thought might be a thrill, but I noticed from up close wore a pout like some bored teenager (like my sister, only green) though she did look impressive in her oversize graduation gown green dress and her swanky tiara.

When we get to Staten Island we’ll have a hamburger and French fries and we’ll have a soda, my cousin blurted.

And we did; the most delicious hamburger I ever ate, with fries and ketchup, and a Coke with ice, in the coffee shop at the pier on Staten Island, before we paid our nickel and took the ferry back, across the black water, to the little pier with the blinking light that was Brooklyn and home.

Where’d you people go? my mother demanded when we got back to my uncle’s apartment hours after we had left.

And my cousin blurted coolly: We went to get a hamburger.

Oleg and friends

          Meet my friend Oleg. He’s just inside the gate on Pine and Tulip and he wears an uncertain smile. And a suit. And a tie with a big knot. He has bushy sideburns that may have been in vogue back then. It’s uncertain with Oleg. He was a big man, but he was uncertain. Nice guy, they said about him, uncertainly. The picture may have been taken at a wedding or other social event and Oleg might be sitting in the middle of the group photo that they all took together. He looks very upright, perhaps the biggest man in the group, but with his hands on the table before him, while the others wrap their arms around him. The women like Oleg because he’s big and gentle and listens. But they don’t like his wife, who is hard and blonde and keeps an eye on him. She wears too much jewelry and has nervous hands that fidget with the cigarette she’s either putting out or lighting up. She carries her own lighter. Oleg doesn’t smoke. What did she say to you? his wife always wants to know about any of the women he was talking to. She’s jealous, but also likes gossip. He has a cold glass of milk before he goes to bed, while she has a last cigarette. She puts away her jewelry carefully in the black lacquered box on their bureau in the bedroom, while he drinks his milk at the kitchen table and reads the last of the newspaper. They got married late in life and they went on their honeymoon to Europe. She shopped de rigueur at the Paris shops, while he fed the pigeons at the park near their hotel. On their return to Moscow, she decided they had to move to America. What are we going to do here, anyway? she told Oleg, while she undressed in front of the TV that was showing a program on penguins that he was watching. They came to America and he worked in real estate with some friends he had served with in Afghanistan. They would go for drinks after hours. But he always went home early enough to cook for his wife when she was taking her night courses at Brooklyn College. They ate at the table and she told him all about her day, and then she went to their bedroom and put on her pajamas and she underlined her textbooks with a yellow marker for the next day’s classes, while he tried to read his Lermontov on the sofa from a boyhood habit, but usually fell asleep in front of the History Channel. Sometimes in his dreams he saw visions of his life back in the Ural Mountains where he grew up and where the cold wind whistled through the pines.

          Next to him is Fira, elegant and pleasantly smiling. She always wore nice jewelry and had a wardrobe that the other women envied. How much money did he leave her? they said of her husband, who was only a college professor, but had written a few textbooks that a Russian publishing company had reissued in the United States. Fira had several children, mostly boys, and several grandchildren spread all over Vermont and New Jersey and Connecticut, and even South Carolina. But they always came to visit for the holidays and she always greeted them at the door with an impeccable white apron over her silk dress and her hair freshly done at the beauty parlor on Eighteenth Avenue that she always talked about to amuse them. I don’t like them and they don’t like me—‘Where do you get your money? Why do you live alone? Who pays your mortgage? Who do you see now?’ What’s it to them? she would tell her children with a shrug and her charming smile, and then hug her grandchildren individually, and they would smell her perfumed hair, and wait for her to produce a treat for each of them from her apron: a brooch for the girls, a twenty-dollar bill in a plastic Easter egg for the boys, or from her bedroom closet an endless supply of children’s textbooks in Russian with florid illustrations (she was a former primary school teacher herself), or one of the many cookies she had just baked for their visit and had arranged on the table. There were jam cookies, and sugar cookies, and cookies that looked like little balls of dough, and even cookies wrapped in boxes with pictures of St. Petersburg winter scenes. And after dinner she might collect all the children at the table and tell them stories as she peeled the cellophane off the cookies again. I was a singer once, she would tell them solemnly, while they would listen solemnly, and watch her peel the cellophane. I was even going to run away with the gypsies and sing, but my mother and father said no. One night, though, the gypsies climbed a ladder and came into my room. She takes a jam cookie and munches it. And what are you doing here? I say to the gypsies. You don’t belong in my room! But the leader of the gypsies, who was very young and very handsome, he said to me: ‘Come with us, Fira, you don’t belong in here. You belong out there under the moon and the stars.’  And she points to the window and the children look at the window. And there was a moon outside my window that night and there were so many stars. It was so beautiful. I was tempted. She munches the last of her cookie and wipes the table with the back of her hand. But I didn’t go; I was afraid. And then I used to hear the song of the gypsies in the night and I was very jealous. But I know I did the right thing. Because I had my children, and now I have my grandchildren, and maybe I will sing for you? And she would sing to her grandchildren softly, almost a whisper, and look at them with her smiling eyes, and they would look at her, too, and maybe glance at their father sitting in the recliner by the television set, who always pretended to blow his nose, but always wiped his eyes when his mother sang.

          Oleg lived nearby and sometimes came over. She served him kvass and her cookies and they talked about the old country and about the mountains where he grew up. Fira’s father had once been a government official and she sometimes accompanied him on his rounds. They stayed once at a mountain hunting lodge and she remembers looking out the window and seeing eagles soaring in the clouds below them. Oleg usually left Fira to go home before his wife arrived. But his wife knew he had been over. Why do you go there and listen to that old woman? she would say.

          Near Oleg and Fira on Pine is Gregory. And Moshe and Kkayka. And Itshok, who is smiling. And Aleksandr, who is only thirty and wears his Nehru jacket proudly in the photograph. And there is Zemfira with her ponytail. You’d think that she and Aleksandr had once met, and maybe they had. It’s a small community of Russian Jews in Brooklyn and they all know each other.

          There is Mikhail, of course, who has a loosened tie and slack, sideways look. And there is Dr. Irna, who is just the opposite: all symmetrical glasses and with a friendly, but professional, stare.

          There is Tatyana, who is skinny and pretty and everyone says has very nice hair. There is Mikhail and Machai and Yuriy and Nisson and Semyon and Lidiya. And then there is Marla, who was plump and sensual and a real beauty. There was reason for Tatyana to hate her, but they were very good friends.

          There is poor Alex, who was less than thirty, and wore a jacket for his photograph, but with a black tee-shirt, and who liked to have fun and cruise the streets of Brooklyn with his car, a renovated Audi 5000 Turbo Quattro with heated leather seats he was very proud of and with a stereo system he had installed himself.

          There is that fun couple: Igor and Rita. There is Alexei, who loved everyone, and everyone loved him. He and Oleg would sometimes have coffee together (because they both couldn’t drink much, anymore) and they would spend time walking the Coney Island boardwalk on the weekends, right after their bathing session at the spa in Brighton Beach. That’s when Oleg’s wife was taking her weekend classes at Baruch. And Peter joined them, too. He was a joiner.

          And sometimes they would wind up at the home of Lorina, who lived with her parents, Olga and Khamza, and could have married many times. She had many proposals, but never did marry. She said she had to take care of her parents, and they said they had to take care of her. Who needs anybody else? her father would say with a shrug. But her mother knew better.  Her mother often said–Lorina could have had anyone–anyone! And she said that for many years, until she finally stopped. Lorina had a good job as an office manager for a lawyer, and she traveled back home and to Europe often, both alone, and with friends, and they said she had so many men still interested in her. She often liked to drink with the men, Oleg and company, and she sometimes brought them home to her parents’ and they all drank together and sang Russian songs and she danced with the men right there in the living room, because she couldn’t help herself. It was a very sentimental evening, and great fun, and Lorina would then see the men to the door. They hated to leave, but she shooed them away brusquely, like a man, and then closed the door on them without ceremony. Alexei had once proposed to her, though he was a lifelong bachelor, and she had refused him. So what are you waiting for? he said to her in his frustration, which he later repented, because he hoped to try again.

          She never did say what she was waiting for. Perhaps she was waiting for Andri, the bad boy with the earring, who sometimes met her at the airport and boarded the same flight with her. He often rode with her at night in the cab from the airport back to her house, and then sat in the car waiting for her to walk in the door, before he tapped on the glass for the driver. She never once looked back at him. She walked into the house and it smelled of the cabbage her parents had cooked that day. Of course they were awake when she arrived. But they never asked her about the man waiting in the car outside and she never once mentioned him.

          There are plastic flowers everywhere on Pine and Tulip and Ash. And black plastic bags from convenience stores tumbling around in the wind and rustling and getting stuck on all the headstones with the many photographs at the Jewish cemetery on Twentieth Avenue. The kids from the local high school march past the gates like a vast migratory herd, the mothers from Borough Park resolutely shove their strollers and snap their black skirts as they walk, the rabbis with their ancient beards pause to check their voice mail on the modern wonder of their cell phones.

          It’s winter and cold and my own cell phone rings. I have work to do and I turn and walk back down Ash and Pine and Tulip, while I glance around at all the faces I’ve met and the company I’ve kept. And I pause by Fira near the gate, who always smiles hospitably, and by my friend, Oleg, with the bushy sideburns, who always looks a little startled to see me, and smiles uncertainly to see me go.