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. 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 "Jeffrey" 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. "Jeffrey'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.