Big brother and I decided to take a road trip yesterday into the old neighborhoods we grew up in. His memories go back a bit further than mine since there’s sixteen years between us so he has a bit more detail and a few more landmarks than mine to be interested in.
It was more than an hour’s drive to get there so we caught up a bit on family stories, politics, the state of religion. But when we came to the Pennsylvania Avenue exit on the Belt Parkway, we fell into a bit of a thoughtful silence. For one, he didn’t recognize the massive apartment buildings that had been erected in the fields that he once walked thru while I was lost on Google maps trying to make it back to the block where we were both born. I didn’t have the same mental maps my brother did since my borders were closer when I was growing up – I lived in this first neighborhood until I was seven while he lived in the apartment with us until he married at twenty. So although the street names were more recognizable to him, my world only extended to street corners and the public school on the other side of the asphalt.
Linden Boulevard was more familiar – a massive road of eight lanes dividing the industrial neighborhood on one side from the residential on the other. The Coca-Cola bottling plant was still there although I didn’t see the iron yard with its familiar overhead crane. Somewhere, a block or two further was the Brownsville Boys Club where I went when the after-school center was closed and I was forced into one-on-one ping-pong games instead of dodge ball and nok-hockey. When we finally turned into the side streets from the boulevard, the two-story buildings of yellow and red brick held our attention until we saw the overhead el in the distance. On the other side was home.
When we crossed that border, the landmarks disappeared. The apartment buildings that once stood shoulder to shoulder were gone and replaced with two-story connected housing that seemed to be an attempt at building a suburban environment in an urban block. The schoolyard across the street where I learned to ride my two-wheeler stood empty and ringed by high fencing and locked gates. Even the greenhouse that stood atop one of the lower roofs at the back of the school was gone, the high glass dome and steamed glass torn down and replaced by rolled wire. We drove a few more blocks down to my brother’s high school where he met the woman he would marry – but as we rolled past, his “that must be it ” was more of a question than a sound of recognition.
We circled back to where my father’s Gulf station was but it had been turned into a truck yard, partially hidden by corrugated sheet metal, its pumps and service bays long gone. The housing diagonally across the street was scattered with some buildings torn down and some left standing in a gap-toothed formation. Nothing much was said.
We continued the drive thru to Brownsville, to the apartment building on Rockaway Parkway where he lived when he was first married. We both recognized the front of the building and were almost relieved to see it still standing. But as we drove further on, we saw the unique round structure of the East New York Savings bank was gone, replaced by a strip of storefronts that included a Subway, Domino’s and Dunkin’ Donuts.
Goldring Motors, where I would run to every September to see the newly released models of Plymouth, Dodge, and Buick cars was also gone replaced by a gray walled Rite-Aid pharmacy – fastbacks and convertibles replaced by aspirin and greeting cards.
One more turn to see my old junior high that was still there but the candy store and barber shop across the street in the triangular block were long gone. So was Ike’s Toyland on Clarkson Avenue where I bought spaldeens and stick bats and Revell model kits to build jets, battleships, and race cars. Torn down and replaced was the small luncheonette next to the public school that was once crowded on our lunch hours with grade schoolers buying pretzels with mustard and Blackjack gum.
We ended the day having pastrami and corned beef on rye, with cream sodas on the side, at a deli in Mill Basin filled with people who, dressed differently, were copied out of my book of memories. The plate of salty potato fries, although not crinkly like the ones we used to have at Ben’s on East 98th Street, were just as sweet.
A quick stop in Sheepshead Bay at Lundy’s, once the mecca of seafood dining in Brooklyn, now a Russian gourmet market. The blocks opposite the docks filled with charter boats, once housing Italian restaurants and clam bars, were now populated by Russian nightclubs and cafés.
We had gone to the old neighborhoods to make some sense of the present by looking into the past. But the memories didn’t jive with the signposts and what was left was neither gesture nor promise.
Yet, as we drove away, I could hear the sounds of children in the streets, voices and rubber balls echoing off the wooden bats, buildings and sidewalks, what was and still is, never ever to be changed…to be able to come home again…
Photo © Arthur Leipzig