08-09-1987 Brooklyn, NY
The streets in the early morning are still. Cobblestones breathe slowly after a long, hot summer. Their sighs form a layer of dust that hover just above the hubcaps. It smells like history – a mix of dust, crumbling concrete, and slowly corroding metal. Off in the distance, sirens come and go. A shortwave radio rests on the third floor window sill, serenading the alleyways with macabre tales from the night before.
New York was on a positive path in the early 60’s, but by the end of the decade the city began a slow decline that lasted for over 30 years. For the most part, drug epidemics were to blame. Heroin struck in the 70’s, cocaine and crack took the 80’s and early 90’s. The Bronx burned. People in Bed-Stuy looted their own stores when the lights went out. Runners in Central Park were raped. In Crown Heights, long heated feuds between Hasidic Jews and Blacks erupted. It wasn’t uncommon to hear about muggings, rapes, shootings and stabbings during that era. Violence was part of life, almost an expected thing. There were always wild tales floating through the papers and people’s conversations.
There was an overall feeling of danger and grittiness present in the city back then. So many memories linger, but like pictures, become yellow and fade with time. This post is an attempt to preserve a few of them:
Coming into school that morning, there was a feeling of excitement knowing that this day was different from all others. It was an all-day gym session whose only intermission was a brief stint in the odd-smelling cafeteria. Before we began the relays, one of the fourth grade classes began to taunt us, implying we weren’t nearly as athletic as they were. Instead of proving my worth on the field of battle, I stood up and shouted something at the group. While the teachers didn’t notice, one of the larger members of the class did. I can see his face now – fat jowls with a large afro flaring out behind his ears. He approached me fast, and before I knew it hand were thrusted into my back and I went barreling to the floor. The skin on my knees peeled back and the tears immediately began to well up. Despite the pain racking my legs, I staggered to my feet and faced my foe who, to my surprise, was standing there completely unguarded. Almost without thinking, I threw out my right leg with every inch of power into his groin. He dropped right away and the kids started screaming with jeers and laughter. While sitting in the principal’s office, the smell of pencil lead and stale wood hung heavy in the air. I felt small streams of blood trickling down from the saturated band aids, rolling gently down my shins and spreading horizontally across my white socks. My mother would be upset, but it didn’t seem to matter. The first battle of field day had been decided. 3rd grade – 1; 4th grade – 0.
George Carlin said in one of his routines that “Life is a series of dogs.” Such was true during my childhood, but hamsters were the constant instead. After the “DJ” era had ended, another hamster was ushered in to take his place, Peibald. I remember him being a spritely little fellow with golden hair and black beady eyes. He adhered to a hamster’s usual nocturnal routine of spinning endlessly on the metal wheel during the evening hours. As soon as the lights went out, you would hear the tat-tat-tat of little feet on the metal bars as he ran in vain through the black night. Peibald had so much energy, that he would sometimes spin during the day as well. To give him some space outside of the cage, my mother bought him a plastic ball that we could enclose him in. He ended up loving this thing, it enabled him to see different parts of the apartment and give him the assurance that his physical efforts were getting him somewhere in this world. What we didn’t know was that our dog at the time, Barney, had been staking this ball out the whole time. He would watch the rodent roll around the house with impunity, waiting for the day where he could strike at the little beast. Just three weeks after we got Peibald, Barney enacted his plan. There wasn’t even a squeak, just the sound of the plastic ball’s lid rolling around the floor as Barney vigorously shook the poor creature. It was over in seconds.
I lined an empty lightbulb box with tissue and dropped Peibald in. His golden fur was matted, his once nimble body was stiff after the rigour mortis set in, his eyes looked like two black pinheads. I went across the street to the park and toiled over digging a grave in the frozen earth. After the makeshift coffin was placed in the shallow hole, I swept some dust onto it and covered what I could. The Peibald era was short-lived, but his tragic end ensured that he wouldn’t be forgotten. When I got back to the apartment, Barney licked the tears off my face, as if he was somewhat sorry for what he’d done.
The Bowels of 151
My family’s restaurant, Woerner’s, moved from Livingston St. to 151 Remsen St. in 1971. It was an old building that reeked of history whenever you walked through the doors. As a child, I would work there for a few weeks, helping clean tables, make deliveries and help with odds and ends around the restaurant. In the early morning, I was usually sent downstairs to make fresh orange juice. There was only one other person who spent time working down in the basement, Big Tom. He was one hulking beast of a man who stood at 6’5 and was easily 300 lbs. Tom had big thick glasses and (maybe) ten teeth. His voice sounded like a tuba – Deep, gruffy and somewhat melodic. All day long, he sat in the basement and peeled potatoes, stocked the freezers and shelves, and washed the dishes. Big Tom loved his jazz music and Lucky Strike cigarettes, too. All day long he would work methodically, washing dish after dish as smoky-soft saxophone notes drifted around the basement.
Instead of taking the steps, I would often take the old dumb-waiter down into the depths. Big Tom would inevitably be waiting for a load of dishes and would always let out a bellowing yell when he saw a small six year-old crawling out instead. “I tol’ ya to take dem damn steahs, boy! You gon’ give big old Tom a heart attacks doin’ dat!”. The joke never got old. To return the favor, Tom would ask me to get something out of the freezer every so often. When I went in, the door would shut and the lights would go out. He would always leave me in there for a good ten minutes, letting me bang and scream, before letting me out. I can still hear his deep-bellied laugh echoing around the dark recesses.
Making the orange juice was always a painful chore. This old electric juicer would catch the rind as soon as the orange was cashed. All of a sudden, there would be no orange and nothing between the spinning metal blade and your fingers. Before you felt the dull pain, there was the tinkling sound of bone against blade, it was NOT fun. Even so, bringing a full pitcher of fresh orange juice back upstairs to my father was always a rewarding experience…
I often think of going back into the restaurant, but freeze before going through the doors. I wonder if the basement still looks the same, if it still smells like dish soap, wet rags, pipe tobacco and ginger snaps? I suppose it will just have to remain a mystery, lingering with the ghosts of the past, mingling with the old New York that lives on only in memory.