The Brooklyn Hood

Passing our childhood home in Brooklyn, I resist the urge to bound the stoop, knock on the door, ring the bell and listen for Dad's Florsheim's, pounding the floor and rattling the lamps. "How about a cup of tea?" he'd ask. "A cup of tea" was code for conversation... 

Looking at what's changed, the hedges are gone, and there's brick in the small patch of garden, but I can still bring up old memories, like the sound of the back doorbell when a childhood friend came to call, or the humid fish-scent that sometimes rolled in from the ocean on a hot summer evening. The beach wasn't far off; it was a long, but doable walk along Flatbush Avenue, past Floyd Bennett Field and over the bridge. Without major department stores or malls in the 1960s, Old Mill Basin in Brooklyn felt quaint, though scandal and gossipers kept life from getting predictable. Vehicles were few, so there wasn't a double yellow line scarring the street. After all, families were fortunate to have a car. 

My brother, Pat, recalls an even earlier time, when he and my brother Steve and sister Dottie Anne lived with Mom and Dad in "the projects". It was before bunk beds and communal sock drawers, boot boxes and cereal boxes lined up like the Great Wall of China on the kitchen table. There was a photo taken back then of the five of them and the rest of us little urchins later said the older kids would have liked for the family to stop there. But we kept on-a-coming, necessitating a wider lens.

I asked Pat if I could share the story he wrote about an experience that he and Steve had back in the early days. So sip "a cup of tea" and enjoy...

The Boys in the Hood
by Patrick King

We lived on the sixth, and highest floor in a new housing project on Glenwood Road in Brooklyn. I remember the bird's eye view of the edge of civilization across Ralph Avenue, where beyond Krasne's Supermarket and the odd selection of shops that lined the avenue there stretched out weedy green vacant lots, and more lots as far as I could see. My young imagination was captured by the striking brown scar in the green as though blasted, an irregular round shape with a neck of road going into it, perhaps an old parking lot or something. 

I wasn't yet five. Life was good, and I had mixed feelings about the cheerful little brother and the sunny little sister in the carriage. Mom and Dad would take us down to the playground. They would try to teach us which buttons to push on the elevator. My little brother Steve picked up on the lessons,  took over as the button pusher for our trips.  

The red brick project was a solid place. The sound of the steel apartment door would echo off the block walls by the elevator and down staircases.   

Dad sometimes seemed to wonder what kind of stuff his two little boys had. One fine day, as winter was passing, he told us to go down the elevator by ourselves and go play on the swings. He assured Mom that we'd be fine, like in the 1930's, I guess. Steve was intrigued by the idea, the opportunity for adventure, with his elevator skills.

I did not really want to go, and felt some panic fear. Winter hats and snowsuits and gloves. Thedoor banged behind us, and we were breathing the odd air as Steve waddled confidently to the elevator in snow pants. He figured out the right button - of course I knew that - though the markings on the buttons meant nothing to either of us. The door opened at the bottom, but for me things did not seem to be getting any better. Steve was only a little delayed by my looking for Indian sign. There were swings outside, great stuff, the day for playing. No rush to get back.

While we were walking tentatively around the little play spot with the swings, it seemed to me like we were being eyed by potential trouble in the form of a bunch of guys roughly our size who were dressed different and seemed accustomed to the scene.  In a moment,  a big kid came over to us, said his name was Glen, and seemed to want to get us into the group. Kind of a loudmouth, and the biggest guy there.  I took it as a threat, but Steve did the talking, accepting the handshake.  He seemed to size up the entire situation with a smile. 

The other kids were moving around at random at first, and then I noticed they gravitated to one of those turntable things, which kids can turn and jump on to ride. Soon big Glen was peeved with me, as he was shepherding us toward the turntable, and I told him I just wanted to play with my brother, choking up with confused terror. Steve was already a little wry about that, but soon we were trying to play on the swings or the green wooden see saw, not big enough to get on either one. So there I was sitting on the low end of the seesaw by myself. 

Mom, Dad, Steve (left), Dottie Anne, Patrick (author)

Mom, Dad, Steve (left), Dottie Anne, Patrick (author)

Glen kept telling people to let me sit there and be miserable, probably keeping hostiles occupied. So later I did get up and went to scowl at the turntable where Steve was cavorting. Glen offered to put me on it, warning me I was too small to push the thing, so I tried to join in and push it. After a turn or two I fell down hard, got stepped on by pairs of galoshes, and was soon pretty much convulsing with strange heat inside my snowsuit as the tears started.

Sensing the mood, Steve was ready to go back up by then. I choked, trying not to sob, though it was Steve who wiped his runny nose on his mitten, as he sometimes did. Heat pulsated in my snowsuit as managed the top button on the elevator, and burst in the door with our tale.