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Flatbush Flashback

I Was an Eight-Year-Old Soda Jerk

 

"If you read comic books, then you may remember that Pop Tate's Chock'lit Shoppe was the Riverdale institution where Archie, Betty, Veronica, and Jughead whiled away idyllic afternoons sipping malteds at the gleaming, chrome-trimmed counter. It occurred to me one not-so-bad Flatbush afternoon, as I was perusing the latest editions of Archie, Richie Rich, Sad Sack, Superman, The Flash, Fantastic Four, and Mad, which I'd spread out on top of the ice cream freezer in the back of the store, that if Pop Tate's were in Bizarro World, the cube-shaped planet from Superman where everything is the opposite of the way it is on Earth, then it might look something like the Goodrose Cigar Store." —from Bobby in Naziland

 

One night in Provincetown, in the summer of 1996, Mary Lyn Maiscott and I went to see the band Betty at a local club. Named after Betty Cooper in Archie comics, the group, known for tight harmonies, catchy melodies, and clever lyrics, still consists of Alyson Palmer, Amy Ziff, and Elizabeth Ziff. Midway through the show they asked the audience an Archie-related trivia question and offered a prize to the first person to answer it correctly.

 

The question was: "Who is the principal of Riverdale High?"

 

I was the only one who raised my hand, so they called on me.

 

"Mister Weatherbee," I answered.

 

"That's correct," one of them said and then asked me my name.

 

Not only did Betty give me some Betty CDs and a T-shirt, they sang my name in three-part harmony, which left such an impression on the audience that after the concert, as Mary Lyn and I wandered around Provincetown, some people, who'd obviously seen the show, called out, "Hey, Bob Rosen!"

 

It was my finest Archie moment, and it wouldn't have happened had I not spent all those hours reading comic books in my father's candy store.

 

The above cover of Pep (Archie Series), from January 1961, is typical of what I was reading in the prime of my comic-enthusiast days. And though I'm sure I understood the difference between fact and fiction, the idealized image of the candy-store proprietor, his employee, and his customer must have filled me with confusion and longing.

 

For one thing, portly Pop Tate, with his bowtie and lavender shirt, was a far cry from the candy-store owner I knew: my father, whom I describe in Bobby in Naziland as looking "dangerous, in that irresistible James Dean kind of way, all slicked-back hair, cool aviator shades, and ever-present cigarette dangling from his lips."

 

And I, the employee, was an eight-year-old soda jerk who could barely imagine what it would be like to serve somebody as pretty as Veronica (or Betty) an egg cream, not to mention make out with her between sips (though I could never understand what either of them saw in Archie).

 

Most confusing of all was the contrast between the cramped, dingy candy store, where every surface "appeared to be coated with a half-century of accumulated dust and grime," and brightly lit, sparkling clean, mirrored, expansive Tate's, with its chrome-trimmed seats at the counter. (SRO for the candy store's cigarette-smoking and dirty-book-reading clientele.)

 

Why couldn't my father's candy store be more like Pop Tate's? I wondered, as if the fictions of Riverdale could somehow be made real in Flatbush's grubby commercial grottos. In Provincetown, 35 years later, had Betty, the band, followed up their Mister Weatherbee question with this more existential inquiry, I'd still have been stumped.

________

Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you should (and probably can) buy it again.

 

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

 

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Brighton Express Memoirs

 

I'm a New Yorker and I've been riding the subway pretty much from the day I was born. That's why I have no memory of my first subway ride. It happened when I was too young to form long-term memories. That's one difference between native New Yorkers and people who move here as adults: new arrivals always remember their first ride.

 

In the 1970s, when the subways were in decrepit condition, muggings were routine, and the fare kept rising, from 20 cents to 30 cents to 35 cents, I was living in Brooklyn and going to school in uptown Manhattan. My commute took well over an hour each way, not counting the walks to and from the stations. In my freshman year at City College, before I found a quicker route that involved fewer trains and more walking, I took the F train from Fort Hamilton Parkway to Jay Street/Borough Hall; then the A train to 59th Street/Columbus Circle; and finally the No. 1 train to 137th Street/City College—and I somehow made it to an eight o'clock History of Architecture class on time.

 

I spent so much time on the subway, it felt like my second home, though not as much of a second home as it was for a guy sitting next to me on the A train one morning, on his way to school. He had a portable typewriter in his lap and was tapping out a term paper due that day, as he told me when I asked.

 

Because of the pandemic, I stopped taking the subway for more than four months, from late February into early July, even for trips to distant neighborhoods. Despite what I'd read about the relative safety of New York's mass transit system, and the fact that ridership had declined by as much as 80 percent, the subway still seemed like a place worth avoiding. I walked everywhere.

 

Then, on two brutally hot July days, I broke down and took the subway. It was an exercise in underground anxiety. Too many people on the platform weren't wearing masks, and though there were never more than a dozen people in the car, there was always at least one maskless rider.

 

I again stopped taking the subway.

 

My lack of subway riding had me thinking about the long-ago days when riding the subway was an adventure, and on Saturdays my mother would take me to Manhattan, on the Brighton Express from Church Avenue, usually to visit a museum.

 

I described those trips in Bobby in Naziland, and so clear was my vision of late-1950s and early-1960s subway cars, some of which remained in service until 1970, it never occurred to me to check the accuracy of my memory against a photograph. Then the other day, I came across the above photo and was pleased to discover that everything I wrote about the subway cars of my childhood is accurate.

 

The car in the photo appears to be from an exhibit at the New York Transit Museum. You can see the padded wicker seats, the white enamel poles and handgrips, the exposed ceiling fans, the bare light bulbs, and the period advertisements. Though Lux soap and Heinz mayonnaise are well represented, there are no ads for cigarettes, nor are there any Miss Subways posters.

 

My nostalgic subway reverie has since ceased, and I again find myself longing for pandemic-free days when taking the A train uptown to Harlem is routine, and a pleasure trip to Brooklyn, across the Manhattan Bridge via what used to be called the Brighton Express, doesn't seem like a reckless act of life-risking insanity.

 

Maybe someday.

________

Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you should (and probably can) buy it again.

 

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

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Maris in the Fall

 

In "Maris in the Fall," a chapter in Bobby in Naziland about Roger Maris's quest, in 1961, to break Babe Ruth's "unbreakable" home run record, I referenced four parody poems that ran in the April 8, 1962, edition of the New York Times Magazine. The poems were part of a feature, "Maris in the Spring, Tra-la, Tra-la," comprised of 19 poems by Milton Bracker, the Times Rome bureau chief.

 

The poems, published to coincide with opening day of the baseball season, are a classic example of doggerel. But when I read them at age nine, I thought they were fantastic—even the footnotes rhymed! They were better than any poem Edgar Allan Poe ever wrote, and I used to think nothing could beat "The Raven."

 

I memorized most of Bracker's poems, recited them to anybody willing to listen, and hoped that someday I, too, would be able to write such extraordinary poetry.

 

I wanted to quote some of the poems at length in Bobby in Naziland, but when I contacted the Times to get the rights to approximately 50 words, the non-negotiable price they stated was outrageous. You'd think they were selling me an original handwritten manuscript by Shakespeare.

 

So I did what I've often done in similar situations: sliced and diced a total of 16 words—enough to communicate the poems' flavor while staying well within the bounds of "fair use."

 

Since this Website is both "educational" and not for profit, in celebration of this weird season of pandemic baseball (and the normalcy of seasons past), I will now quote the four poems in full (and still remain within the bounds of fair use).

 

I Love Maris

I love Maris in the springtime,

I love Maris in the fall;

I love Maris

Nearly-as-much-as-I-love-Paris,

If he just h-i-t-s that ball.

 

The Electronic Age

Transistor Sets

Why do so many people go

To ball games with a radio

That tells each hapless nearby being

Exactly what his eyes are seeing?

(But since, at short, he was a whiz

  With every drive and bouncer,

No wonder Phil Rizzuto is

  My favorite announcer.)

 

Historic Utterance

Near Coogan's Bluff

(Oct. 3, 1951—Giants win playoff on sensational home run in 9th, 5–4)

Bobby Thomson took a bat,

Knocked the Brooklyn Dodgers flat,

Said, aware he was much richer,

"Glad I wasn't born a pitcher*."

___

  *Pity, indeed, Ralph Branca's plight:

Pitched that day. Tossed all night.

 

The Last Time I Saw Maris

The first time I saw Maris,

His bat was coming round;

I loved the way it smote the ball,

I loved the shot-like sound.

 

The next time I saw Maris,

He loped from base to base;

He didn't have to run at all,

He set a hero's pace.

 

The last time I saw Maris,

He wore a handsome tux;

He wasn't making runs at all—

But he was making bucks!

________

Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you should (and probably can) buy it again.

 

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

 

 

 

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Living on Flatbush Time

 

There are only two pictures of my father's candy store that I'm aware of. One was taken the afternoon of October 15, 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy, who was running for the U.S. Senate, rode down Church Avenue, in Flatbush, in an open limousine. As the car passed the candy store, a photographer snapped a photo of thousands of ecstatic Brooklynites surrounding the limo. If you look closely at the background, you'll see my father, Irwin Rosen, leaning out the candy store window, another face in the crowd. I'd been scrutinizing the photo for a year before I noticed him.

 

The other photo is the one above, taken around 1940, eight years before my father bought the store. This stretch of Church Avenue, between East 17th and East 18th Streets, is one of the main settings of Bobby in Naziland. This is how it looked in the decade that Flatbush Standard Time came to a standstill and construction began on a psychic wall that would surround the neighborhood and hold a changing world at bay for the better part of 23 years.

 

Then two events—the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the arrival of the Beatles—crashed through the wall, and the 1960s came flooding in, changing black-and-white 1940s Flatbush to the full-color spectacle on display in the LBJ-RFK photo.

 

Frozen-in-time Flatbush of the 1950s and early 60s—a neighborhood where World War II "lingered like a mass hallucination"—is the subject of Bobby in Naziland. Though the Municipal Archives photo was taken more than a dozen years before I was born, it's more in sync with my earliest memories of the block than the color photo of those famous politicians rolling down Church Avenue, making for a day so vivid, it's seared into the memory of every Flatbushian alive at the time.

 

Let's deconstruct the photo, beginning with my father's arch-competitor, the hated corner candy store, on the right—the place that made inferior egg creams with chocolate syrup I described in the book as "cheap slop." Though some local denizens will tell you that the corner store actually served superior egg creams, in my household it was a matter of religious faith that my father's egg creams were the best on the avenue if not in all of Brooklyn. I never set foot in the corner store and never tried one of their egg creams, so I can't settle this ancient argument. If anybody reading this can offer an objective opinion, please post a comment below.

 

The store that my father would buy, in 1948, is to the left of the entrance to the Church Avenue subway station. The photo isn't sharp enough to make out the lettering on the sign or any other details. But it does capture the ramshackle dinginess of the place. In 1965, two monopolistically inclined brothers bought my father's store and then bought the corner candy store, too, thereby establishing themselves as the undisputed egg cream kings of Church Avenue.

 

But the Metropolitan Transit Authority held the leases to both stores and, in the late 1970s, chose not to renew them. Instead, they tore down the two candy stores and expanded and modernized the subway station. Click here to see how it looks now. The tile wall between Feel Beauty (formerly Lamston's) and the entrance to the station is where my father's store used to be.

 

October 31, 1956, was the last time the Church Avenue Trolley—one of the last trolleys to run in New York—passed over the trolley tracks that span the length of the photo. I'm old enough to remember both riding on that trolley and the Brooklyn Dodgers, named for trolley-dodging Brooklynites.

 

Note the M.H. Lamston sign on the side of the building above my father's store. There's also a sign in front of Lamston's that says "5 and 10," which, I assume, is what most things in the store cost in 1940. That sign was long gone by the 1960s, but everybody continued to call the store "the five and ten," though there was almost nothing for sale that cost so little as that. On February 10, 1964, I'd buy Meet the Beatles there for three dollars.

 

To the left of Lamston's is Wallhide Hardware, which I don't remember, and to the left of Wallhide's is N.E. Tell's bakery. (You can see both signs more clearly in this Municipal Archives shot.)

 

One of the key scenes, from which I drew the title Bobby in Naziland, takes place in N.E. Tell's, in 1956, the year the trolley stopped running. I've always imagined it as a scene from a black-and-white movie, a film noir in which a young child sees a number tattooed on the forearm of a woman who works in the bakery. He asks his mother what the tattoo is and she tells him—but she doesn't have to say much. The child watches TV, and images of extermination camps are already embedded in his mind. He understands too well what the tattoo means.

 

That's just the way it was when you were living on Flatbush Standard Time, and the past often seemed more real than the present.

________

Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you should (and probably can) buy it again.

 

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

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