This week I snagged an article in the Styles Section of the New York Times about Pete Hamill, a huge hero of mine, and a now 84 year old somewhat disabled former hot stuff newspaper columnist, feature writer, editor and author of 21 masterful works of both fiction and non fiction in which New York is a prominent backdrop. Currently, he is nostalgically existing back in time and presence in his home town of Brooklyn , while writing his next epoch, “Back To The Old Country”- (of his youth) .
This is an unapologetically long introduction to a segue into my own nostalgic memories of the same “old country” of MY youth, and our several residences in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. In the early depression days, desperate landlords were giving “concessions” — a first month’s free rent . I remember moving three times in three months – and most probably breaking leases — but who had the money for a lawyer ? — – always in the same neighborhood, so that my younger sister and I would not have to change schools — when my father was unemployed and could not afford the $50. a month rent. He finally straightened out his finances and risked borrowing $500. to invest in a run-down local property which he fixed and flipped and reinvested the profits in a domino roll of good fortune, lucky that he had tenants who — mostly — paid rent, though not without a struggle.
One of our domiciles was located a block from Ebbets Field, the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, where Friday was Ladies Day — discounted admission, which made me and “my gang” avid baseball fans- until of course, the team was lured to Los Angeles– and baseball was never again the same for me.
I rode my bike in Prospect Park, and when I was cursed one day with a flat tire, I had no cell phone to call my mother, but rang the doorbell of what turned out to be a kind stranger who allowed me to make the call. Mom came 45 minutes later — by trolley car. She did not know how to drive, American Yankee though she was. Women just didn’t drive in those days, when we were lucky to have one car, which of course, belonged to Dad. She helped me lug the bike onto the trolley car, where she paid the dime that I didn’t have with me, and she helped me steer it home from the trolley stop.
Coney Island, the beach and the rides were often our weekend teen age destinations, and Frank Sinatra at the Paramount Theater on Broadway was worth the subway ride on days we played hooky to stand on line and scream when the skinny kid made virtual love to his microphone.
Christmas was not much of a holiday in our almost exclusively Jewish-immigrant neighborhood. But the family across the street, although Jewish, had a magically trimmed Christmas tree defiantly placed prominently at their window, so the world could see it. And much as we pleaded to our parents to have one, we were told, regretfully, that since Jews did not celebrate Christmas, she could not understand what was wrong with the family across the street, but they had evidently done something very bad.
Many a year has passed and many a Christmas Tree have I admired in homes of people of all faiths. I never really believed that the people across the street had done something bad, but belief systems are hard to figure out and almost impossible to change and most of all, need to be respected, even in the face of extreme disagreement. May that be one of the most important messages of this holiday season — and a Merry Christmas to all.