Friday Prose: The Brooklyn I Knew

dear friends, i thought i might use Friday to revive some of the stories i wrote in prose, before embarking on this poetic journey of mine. my eyes have difficulty reading prose these days, my own included and i find myself curiously detached from these stories i once felt so invested in. (i’m not sure why that is )

i wrote these to to be read concurrently, each story informs the next, and the events seem unrelated until the end. it’s how it unfolded, as i lived it back in the 60′ and 70′ in Bushwick, Brooklyn. two of these are very early reposts, the last story was never posted and is quite long so it will be posted in two parts.

please don’t feel compelled to read these on your busy Friday morning, feel free to if you want to read them at all to take them into the weekend. thank you and i hope you enjoy them.
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I Was a Poor, Pimpled, Uncool Sulker.
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My new neighborhood bore no resemblance to the manicured fenceless grassed yards, single family house 2 cars in every driveway, ethnicity free Long Island town where I spent the first 12 years of my life. There were languages here and English spoken thick with Italian and German accents by old, crabby grey haired woman in black mourning dresses and rolled down black stockings who promptly at 7am bent at the hip, were scrubbing their stoops and sidewalks in front of their buildings.

Everyday and all day delivery trucks roared down the narrow one way, steamy asphalt streets blaring their big horns, belching exhaust and rustling litter along the curbs, barely missing kids darting between parked cars chasing balls and playing tag. Young mothers pushed big wheeled baby carriages and old ladies lugged shopping carts, choking the already narrow sidewalks. Heavy doors slammed behind people slithering past other people bunched on stairways listening to songs scratched out on small transistor radios.

Like a gargoyle I watched all the comings and goings, the backwards and forwards of incessant car and human traffic, scared of everything that moved. Unfortunately for me, absolutely nothing stood still on this unfamiliar Brooklyn street, this continuous canyon wall of four story buildings that swallowed whatever thankful breeze there might have been, choking everything but the noise, the noise that never stopped.

This was not a particularly human friendly environment, there were no trees along the straight line of streets that you could view for miles.

Not a single one.

The small concrete ‘yards’ that fronted the four story, continously connected buildings on either side of the stoop were just wide enough for four steel garbage cans, the other side was empty. That empty space was handy when it snowed but not for much else except wind blown leaves and garbage, it was walled off from the sidewalk by thick, foreboding wrought iron black painted fencing. Each building had their own scrolled designs, each topped by tri corner spears that if you accidently rubbed the palm of your hand against a tip you’d get a nasty scrape for your stupidity, as intended. The stoops were lined on either side by wrought iron railings, uncomfortably wide for a kids hand.
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My tomboy sister found this out the hard way, slipping off one the railings monkey climbing, losing her balance she was impaled on one of the spears. Folded and in shocked silence she lay there motionless as adults came to help but the aid proved difficult, the fences were over four feet high and it was impossible to remove her without causing further damage. Some wooden milk crates were found, placed front and back to gain leverage and she was eventually lifted off.

She was lucky, she needed only a few stitches to repair the three inch tear in her belly.

I was a poor pimpled uncool sulker at 13, an emotionally mixed up mess of a kid spending the first weeks after school ended that year in ’68, sitting alone on the top step of the 10 foot high stoop to my building at 232 Jefferson Street scrunched in the shadowed corner of the doorway, day after airless day. I sat in the same spot and in the same position, long arms looped around my legs, acned face resting between my knees just hoping that no one would notice and praying hard to be ignored.

I sat, shaken to the core scared; yeah, divorce does that to a kid.

From my perspective the best place to take all this in was from my third floor window. It felt safe there hidden behind the flimsy white curtains and the view from that vantage point allowed me to eventually recognize daily patterns, things people did each day. I was thankful perched there, thankful that at least something began to make some sense because so much had changed so quickly for this kid.

Divorce is a tragically shared family trauma and my mom, desperate for some privacy of her own in our cramped railroad style apartment filled with cheap mismatched Salvation Army furniture, decided that I needed to be outside, you know to soak up some sun and meet some other nice kids my age.

So of course I sat there on the stoop alone for weeks.
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Written April 2012, edited March 2013

The Farm: Silver Quarters

The Farm will be an ongoing and occasional series of stories, an attempt to journal the oral history of my wife’s rich family history. Since i’ve met and married into this family, stories have been told at every dinner, family gathering and vacation campfire and this is my small attempt and contribution to preserve these stories for next and future generations.

My wife, her brother and myself have been gifted this wonderful farm though the incredible generosity and committment of her parents. Of all the many siblings, only us three had very much interest in maintaining the farm or keeping it in the family, a family farming heritage that dates back almost a hundred years.

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There is a quiet and humble history on this property, in the trees that were climbed by the children who grew up on this farm, in the still visible foundation outline of the once huge barn, in every dented and gouged pine door casing, the ancestry of my wife’s family is explained in these details and always further illuminated in our post dinner conversations. Country folk love telling stories and with very little fanfare and a matter of fact manner that belies the profound humanity, the empathy like a ribbon that runs through this family, tales were told tonight too.

My wife and her younger brother spent their summers on this farm, it was a working farm then with a huge pasture for the steer that Pap butchered, chickens and horses, the crops were soybeans, corn, hay and peony plants. The multistory post and beam constructed barn was enormous by all accounts, the heart of any farm and this barn served as the center of activity and endless hours of discovery for the kids too. The horses and ponies were a favorite, my wife spent her time learning to care, feed, walk and eventually ride these horses so much so that Gram ordered Pap to build her a racetrack behind the barn.

This was no small affair, the size of this track would take out a significant portion of the pasture and there were ‘conversations’ between Gram and Pap about the wisdom of this idea but as so many of the stories are indicative of the strength and conviction of the women in this family, Gram prevailed.

She always did.

Gram and Pap grew up during the Great Depression and talked often about being ‘dirt poor’, their families barely survived, scratching out a living however they could in this farming town in southern Indiana just outside Evansville and it’s doubtful that they would have described this same piece of land as a slice of the universe then, as we do now. She learned to cook at a very early age, her scribbled recipes, a shaky penciled script written on stained and wrinkled, blue lined loose leaf pages are coveted by the women in this family, every family had but a few until my wife compiled them into a book and each family then received their own copy one Christmas.

Gram set aside her Avon side business in 1970, took her cooking talents and became the head lunchroom cook at the local elementary school, always adding an extra helping of whatever was on the menu that day to the plates of the very poor among the students. There were four kids in particular, 2 brothers and 2 sisters whose family was considered ‘dirt poor’ even then, lunch was their only nutritious meal of the day. Gram invited these children to the farm every day on the pretense of playing in the barn with my wife and her brother and play they did. The boys built an enclosed fort from the hay bales behind the barn and when they all felt very adventurous and were sure no adults were looking, climbed to the second story rafters of the barn and jumped, one by one into the huge 12’ high pile of shelled feed corn below.

Actually, this story was just revealed to my wife’s parents tonight, to their rolled eyes and ‘Oh, no you didn’ts!’, and we all had a great big laugh at the secrets kids can keep.

But the real reason Gram brought those 4 hungry kids to their farm after school was to feed them, they all shared dinner together and whenever she could, unbeknownst to Pap or anyone else, she would slip them each a silver quarter and send them back home.

Decades later when Gram died, the 4 grown adults who all still lived in the area, all successful now, came to Gram’s funeral and told the whole family this story, the story the they were all learning about as they listened, the tale of a woman quietly sharing what she had with those less fortunate. The 2 sisters and 2 brothers then asked if they could place a small suede pouch they had brought with them into Grams’ casket to honor her memory.

The small, hand stitched suede pouch cinched tight with thin leather roping the family learned, was filled with silver quarters.