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Posts Tagged ‘Brooklyn’

     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.      

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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.

         

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          “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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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.

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