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Posts Tagged ‘’60s’

 

          “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.

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