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Flatbush Flashback

Church Avenue Stories

 

"Then [my father] had to return to those grueling 12-hour shifts, the ones that began in the predawn Church Avenue gloom, when the drunks came staggering out of Byrne's 'gin mill' across the street and made their way to the candy store's front window to croak, 'Bromo Seltzer.' And my father would serve it to them, one foaming glassful of stomach-settling swill after another, 12 cents a pop, thereby earning his first dollar of the day." —from Bobby in Naziland

 

The awning in the above photo is the entrance to Byrne's bar or "gin mill," if you prefer that term. It's one of the places from which the intoxicated multitudes emerged around four in the morning when the bars closed. They then stumbled across the street to order a Bromo Seltzer from my father's candy store. The glasses he used to serve the Bromo were the same glasses he'd use later in the day to serve his famous egg creams, which were the same price, 12 cents, and were said to taste like chocolate ambrosia.

 

I didn't remember the name of the bar until I came across the photo. I rarely walked on that side of Church Avenue—I wasn't allowed to cross the street by myself until I was eight. Byrne's didn't hold the same fascination for me as the Maple Court Tavern, on my side of the avenue. Even after it had gone to seed, the Maple Court seemed like a more interesting place, and I'd always stop to look inside as I walked past on warm days, when they'd leave the door open. Byrne's just seemed dark and unappealing—the diviest of the local dive bars.

 

The character I call Aileen Murphy—the girl who prowled Church Avenue with a vicious dog after she was released from reform school—lived above Byrne's. Even after I was allowed to cross the street, I usually kept to my own side to avoid running into her and her provocatively named mutt. (See Bobby in Naziland, Chapter 1.)

 

Three stores to the left of Byrne's was the Savoy. Though I didn't write about it in Bobby in Naziland, this greasy spoon was a place my father often sent me to retrieve a cup of coffee when he was working in the candy store. Sometimes my family ate dinner there; I always ordered the hot open roast beef sandwich and, when permitted, the marshmallow sundae for dessert. (Neighborhood denizens will recall Matty the waiter.)

 

One afternoon when I was in the third grade, I walked into the Savoy and saw a bunch of teachers from my school, PS 249, sitting at a table in the back, eating lunch. They were so out of context I didn't know how to process this vision. I'd never seen any of them, including my own teacher, Mrs. Fletcher, outside the confines of the school. Mrs. Fletcher waved to me. I stood there dumbfounded, before finally deciding that I should wave back. But I was afraid I'd done something wrong and would be in trouble the next time I showed up for class. In those days I lived in a perpetual state of thinking I'd done something wrong.

 

Which isn't all that different from how I feel today.

________

Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you'll hopefully be able to buy it again someday soon.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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The Emotional Resonance of Common Household Objects

 

The Kelvinator in the above photo is identical to the refrigerator we had for the 12 years we lived on East 17th Street. The landlord must have given my parents a slightly used model when they moved in, in 1953, because the refrigerator always looked little dilapidated, with ice building up in the freezer until there was barely enough room for an ice cube tray. Defrosting it was a tri-monthly ordeal. My mother first had to remove everything in the refrigerator, then chip away with an ice pick until there was enough room in the freezer to fit a pot of boiling water, and then another and another, until enormous chunks of ice began crashing to the floor. Then she'd mop the floor since it was already wet. My mother despised that refrigerator and longed for the day she could have a new one, preferably frost free, with a separate freezer compartment.

 

Like the Lewyt vacuum cleaner I wrote about in April, the Kelvinator is one of the numerous household objects I searched for on the Internet to jog my memory as I was writing Bobby in Naziland. It always surprised me how much emotional resonance certain common objects held, and how many memories they evoked, especially if I hadn't seen them in more than a half century, and especially if in the ensuing years they'd taken on the appearance of antiques. Looking at such objects underscored how much time had passed since I'd last seen them for real.

 

Memory itself is one of the subjects I explore in the book, and I noted in a chapter called "Speak, Memory" that if you grew up anytime after the late 1940s, it's possible to piece together the lost world of your childhood from fragments found on the Internet. It's all there: the antique photos of the street where you lived; the videos of the decades-ago-canceled TV shows you watched; the advertisements for the toys you once owned or coveted; the vacuum cleaners your mother used, and the refrigerators she defrosted.

 

After spending several years seeking out and finding such things, it occurred to me that organic memory and digital archives can become so intertwined, sometimes you can't tell where one ends and the other begins, though these days it hardly seems to matter.

________

Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you'll hopefully be able to buy it again someday soon.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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Flatbush Is My Dublin

 

Next Tuesday, June 16, is Bloomsday, the day that Ulysses, by James Joyce, takes place—in Dublin, in 1904. Joyce picked that day to commemorate his first date with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle. During their outing, while walking along the banks of the River Liffey, Barnacle put her hand into Joyce's trousers and masturbated him. It left an impression.

 

Ulysses is one of those novels that everybody knows about but few people have read. Its fame rests on the book's frank portrayals of sexuality. In one scene, the main character, Leopold Bloom (hence "Bloomsday") masturbates in public—probably the most poetic description of public masturbation in literature. Published in Paris in 1922, Ulysses was banned in the USA.

 

Despite its sex scenes, the book—an experimental stream-of-consciousness narrative, full of puns, parodies, and obscure allusions—is, to say the least, a challenging read.

 

I read Ulysses in 1977—simultaneously with a dictionary. On some pages I had to look up, literally, every other word, some of which were not in the dictionary. It's the kind of book that requires a sherpa to guide you through. But I stuck with it because it's considered one of the greatest novels in the English language, and in those early years of my career, I thought Ulysses was a book every writer should read.

 

I can't say I enjoyed it or understood all of it, but I did admire what Joyce accomplished. Writing in self-imposed exile in Trieste, Paris, and Zurich, he brought to life, in granular detail, the streets, alleys, pubs, bedrooms, and people of his native Dublin. Joyce transformed an ordinary day in the life of an ordinary man into a universal story. Dublin was the world.

 

Though Bobby in Naziland is neither stream-of-consciousness nor experimental and does not require a dictionary or sherpa to understand, I did try to do with Flatbush what Joyce did with Dublin: bring to life in gritty, visceral detail its streets, alleys, ball fields, bedrooms, candy stores, and people, and make it a universal story told through the consciousness of an ordinary boy. Flatbush was the world.

 

Though sheltering in place and curfews have at times made my life in Manhattan seem like one of exile, it's not. But when I started writing Bobby in Naziland, I probably hadn't set foot in Flatbush in more than a decade, and I only went back to explore my old haunts after I'd finished a first draft.

 

So yes, Flatbush is my Dublin, and I'd suggest a good way to celebrate Bloomsday next week (since it's not a great idea to hit the Irish bars yet, in the traditional, Guinness-fueled manner of celebration) is to pick up a book that you will read and that tells a universal tale of the place I left behind 55 years ago. It just might be a place that you left behind, too, even if you lived in Dublin.

________

Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you'll hopefully be able to buy it again someday soon.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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The Street Where I Lived

 

The above stretch of East 17th Street, between Church and Caton Avenues, is one of Bobby in Naziland's main settings. I lived in Brighton Hall, the building in the middle, from 1953 to 1965. The expanse of sidewalk in front is where I hung out, had almost daily fistfights, played Chinese handball, and knew every crack in the cement. It's a street I thought I'd never leave, and in a manner of speaking, I never did. I've carried East 17th Street with me all these years. The street never left me.

 

East 17th Street looks a lot different today than it did 55 years ago, but in the municipal archives photo, taken in 1939 or 1940, it's very much as I remember it. The first-floor triple-window, to the right of the entrance, is the apartment of the character I call Alan Feldman. It was below that window that "Feldman" flung me to the ground and sat on me one afternoon, in front of his jeering friends, when I told him, incorrectly, "You're too fat to take me." (Lesson learned.)

 

Two details in the photo indicate that the squalor I describe in the book—the result of a quarter-century of landlord neglect—had not yet descended on East 17th Street. Generic lighting fixtures replaced the two stylish globes on either side of the entrance, and the canopy leading to the entranceway of the marginally more upscale building next door, at the right edge of the photo, was gone by the 1950s. (Click here for a better shot of the canopy.)

 

The character I call Jeffrey Abromovitz lived in that house. His real name was Marc Barshatzky—I changed many names throughout the book—and though I hadn't seen him since high school, we remained friends into our mid-teens.

 

Several weeks ago, his sister, Susan Barrett, called to deliver the shocking news that Marc had died suddenly. A professional actress, Susan had participated in the New York launch of Bobby in Naziland, reading one of the sections about her brother. Marc's obituary paints a very different picture from the disreputable child I describe in the book.

 

His death and my serendipitous reconnection with Susan have rekindled a number of emotions that I thought I'd laid to rest when I was writing Bobby in Naziland. It's also made East 17th Street more poignant in a way I hadn't anticipated.

 

Ironic how death can make the past come alive.

________

Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you'll hopefully be able to buy it again someday soon.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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