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Far From Flatbush

I Didn't Go Home Again

 

A few weeks ago, I went back to Flatbush with my personal paparazzo, Mary Lyn Maiscott, to photograph some of the locations I wrote about in Bobby in Naziland, which Headpress will publish August 1. One of the places I visited was Brighton Hall, the apartment building on East 17th Street, between Church and Caton Avenues, where I lived from 1953–65.

 

Much of the book is set in the building or on the street in front of it. Though parts of East 17th Street have become almost unrecognizable in the decades since I moved away, the interior of my old building—the banisters, the stairs, the tiles on the hallway floor—are unchanged. They are the original fixtures from when Brighton Hall was built, almost 90 years ago.

 

The stairs I'm sitting on, in the above photo, are right outside my old apartment, on the third floor. When I lived there, on days I didn't feel like going home, and it was too cold or wet to be outside, I sat on those steps biding my time, wondering if my mother was wondering where I was.

 

As I was sitting there, in 2019, a young man speaking Spanish on his cell phone came up the stairs and opened the door to my old apartment. I was tempted to ask him, in my fractured Spanish, if I could look inside. I hadn't seen the apartment in 54 years. But to ask such a question seemed rude and intrusive, to say the least. I couldn't bring myself to do it, and the door closed behind him.

 

So I didn't go home again. Maybe because you can't.

 

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The Past Came Calling

My father, Irwin Rosen, circa 1942.

Soon after the Brooklyn-based news site BK Reader published an article titled "New Book 'Bobby in Naziland' Tells a Different Tale of Flatbush," the past came calling—in the form of a tweet.

 

Somebody whose name I didn't recognize said he saw the article and thought we might be related. In the tweet, he asked about my father, Irwin Rosen, his candy store on Church Avenue, and two of my uncles, all of which I wrote about in the book.

 

My new Twitter follower is my father's first cousin—my first cousin once removed. And the likely reason I'd never heard of him is because of an ancient family feud of obscure origins that rendered a significant portion of my father's relatives persona non grata, at least as far as my parents were concerned. There are numerous people in my family whom my parents never told me about and whom I first learned about as an adult. Some of them are still alive; others share my last name and lived nearby when I was a kid.

 

In Bobby in Naziland, to be published in August, I write about the shock of these discoveries.

 

My cousin then sent me some family photos, including the one of my father, above.

 

As William Faulkner so aptly put it, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."

 

Imagine if he had social media.

 

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Adventures in Fact Checking

 

I've been proofreading the galleys for Bobby in Naziland: A Tale of Flatbush, which Headpress will publish in the coming months. Part of the proofreading process involves fact checking—veryifying every name and date that it's possible to verify.

 

Mostly it's straightforward; a Google search provides the answer. But Bobby in Naziland, set in Flatbush in the 1950s and 60s, often defies Google. Checking the weather for a particular day in 1952, for example, involves digging through newspaper archives. And many of the Brooklyn places I wrote about are long gone—like N.E. Tell's bakery on Church Avenue. Was I spelling it correctly? Were there periods after the "N" and "E"? Was there a space between the two letters? Was there an apostrophe before the "s"?

 

The New York City Municipal Archives recently digitized their tax-photo collection, which they describe as follows:

 

Between 1939 and 1941, the Works Progress Administration, in conjunction with the New York City Department of Taxation, organized teams of photographers to shoot pictures of every building in the five boroughs of New York City.

 

I found the answers to my spelling questions there—and it was a eureka moment of genuine excitement. Then I enlarged the photo, which you can do on the site, and saw the apostrophe "s" on the side of the truck. I felt as if I'd discovered a time machine.

 

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Naziland in 3-D

This computer-generated image of my forthcoming book, Bobby in Naziland: A Tale of Flatbush, creates the illusion that the book exists, in three dimensions. It does not... yet. But this is what it will look like when it's published later this year, publication date soon to be announced.

 

 

A recent tweet from Headpress notes that Bobby in Naziland "touches on topics as wide ranging as the trial of Adolf Eichnmann, goyim, Jews, money, sex, class, racism, the Rosenbergs, the space race, UFOs, Eva Perón, President Kennedy, the Three Stooges, the New York Yankees, literature, language, and memory itself."

 

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Coverboy

The cover photo on my new book, Bobby in Naziland: A Tale of Flatbush, to be published in the coming months by Headpress, was taken by my mother, in my grandmother's house, in 1956, with a Brownie Hawkeye camera.

 

"Smile naturally!" my mother demanded as she snapped the picture. Her direction made me so nervous, I couldn't smile at all. I could only stare into the camera in a state of deer-in-the-headlights shock.

 

The photo sits atop the piano in my house. And though I've been living with it for more than 60 years, it never occurred to me it could be a book cover. In fact, I couldn't think of any single image that would capture the essence of Bobby in Naziland.

 

"What about this?" my wife asked, showing me the photo.

 

It was perfect, I realized: the expression, the position of my hands, the saddle shoes, high-waisted pants, and 50s-style shirt.

 

Headpress thought so, too, and added the frame, wallpaper, and map of Flatbush.

 

"Good work," I told my mother. "Did you know you were shooting a book cover that day?"

 

She thought that was funny. I thought it was funny that my unsmiling four-year-old self had become a coverboy.

 

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A Film We Made in 1971


In the spring of 1971, when I was a freshman at City College, my friend Jayson Wechter asked me if I'd like to play the lead role in a film he was making. He called it When Ya Gotta Go…, and it was about a guy who was trying to go to the bathroom but was constantly interrupted.

It sounded like fun and I agreed to do it.

Financed by a film cooperative, Jayson shot the movie at my house, in Brooklyn, where I was living with my parents, and cast it with an assortment of our friends and neighbors.

It’s a silent film, as sound syncing, in 1971, was a technological hurdle not easily overcome on a low budget. I’d also like to point out that I didn’t do nudity at the time, even if it was crucial to the plot, and that very brief glimpse of tuchas you’ll see was provided by a stand-in.

Over the ensuing decades, Jayson and I fell out of touch, and I pretty much forgot about the film. Then, through Facebook (naturally), I reconnected with Neil Zusman, the longhaired hippie on the left, in the above thumbnail. He had a digital copy of When Ya Gotta Go… and sent it to me.

How amazing it was to see myself in this time capsule, in my old apartment, with old friends and acquaintances, all of whom I’d lost touch with. If any of you happen to be reading this, here’s what I remember about you then and know about you now:

Jayson, who once made the news for pieing Watergate conspirator Charles Colson, is a private detective living in San Francisco.

The late Arthur Kirson, who plays the insurance salesman, was an English teacher at Erasmus Hall High School, in Brooklyn, and also faculty advisor to the student newspaper, The Dutchman.

Ethel Goodstein, the piano player, was my classmate at the City College of New York School of Architecture.

Neil, a classmate at Erasmus, is a Web designer, filmmaker, and teacher living in Ithica, New York.

Carey Silverstein, the other longhaired hippie, was a classmate at Erasmus and is now a rock musician living in Toronto.

Brian Rooney, the plainclothes narc, was my down-the-hall neighbor in Brooklyn.

Abby Bogomolny, who provided the music, was a classmate at Erasmus.

I don’t know who Mike Cramer (music) or S.K. Schwartzman (actor) are.

Perhaps some of you will now emerge from the mists of time to fill me in on what’s been happening for the past 40-plus years. I’m all ears. Read More 
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'Twas the Day After Christmas

I'm not in the habit of discussing here, at least on a daily basis, the book I'm currently working on. But there are references to Bobby in Naziland on this blog dating back to October 2011, so it's hardly a secret that I've been writing a novel. And if you were one of the people who attended Bloomsday on Beaver Street II, in 2013, then you heard me read the opening pages of the book and have a sense of what it's about: a child's view of Brooklyn in the 1950s and '60s.

I haven’t posted here in nearly four weeks because I’ve been working on revisions for Bobby in Naziland, and it’s taken up what little free time I’ve had. Also, in the middle of doing those revisions, the British government passed a new censorship law, and The Independent, apparently fans of Beaver Street, asked me to write about it. The piece I wrote, “No Female Ejaculation, Please, We’re British,” went viral and was then picked up by Dagospia, an Italian political-gossip site. This was one of my two major-media highlights of 2014. (The other was an appearance on the John Lennon episode of Hollywood Scandals, which ran multiple times on the Reelz Channel.)

So, here it is, Boxing Day, Henry Miller’s birthday, and the day after Christmas—the traditional time to reflect on the year gone by. Judging by the horror that smacks me in the face every morning when I foolishly pick up the newspaper because it’s lying outside my door, 2014 seems to have been little more than a series of catastrophies. No need to innumerate them here; we both know what they are. Which is why I’m going to take a moment to feel especially grateful that I’ve gotten through this year relatively unscathed. Also, I’m going to put aside my cynicism for a day or two and look to 2015 with a sense of hope.

Call me crazy.

In the meantime, happy holidays to all, and I’ll see you next year, if not sooner! Read More 
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An American in Copenhagen; A Dane in New York

Last night, for an infusion of inspiration, I went to a reading at 192 Books, a little gem of an independent store, about the size of my living room, in Chelsea. The event couldn't have been more different than what we have planned for Bloomsday on Beaver Street II, on Sunday.

The readers were Thomas E. Kennedy, an American novelist, originally from Queens, who's lived in Copenhagen for the past 30 years, and Naja Marie Aidt, a Danish writer, born in Greenland, who's lived in Brooklyn for the past five years.

While everything about Bloomsday cries “underground”—Porn Stars! Banned Books!—the sedate and respectful scene at 192 was more mainstream and literary establishment. Kennedy, probably best known for his Copenhagen Quartet, a series of novels set in that city, has published 27 books, and has been compared to James Joyce.

Aidt, whose novels, short stories, and poetry, are now being translated into English, was awarded what Kennedy described as “the Little Nobel,” the 2008 Nordic Council’s Literature Prize, for her novel Bavian, or Baboon, in English.

But the readings themselves, delivered to a crowd of about 30 people gathered around a table, were not sedate, and the availability of free Tuborg Danish beer, both light and dark, only enhanced the literary atmosphere.

Kennedy read from the opening pages his latest novel, Kerrigan in Copenhagen, a poetically rendered travelogue of a middle-aged writer’s efforts to “research” all 1,500 “serving houses,” or pubs, in the Danish capital, and he served up a good 20 minutes of irony, drinking, sex, and humor.

And though Aidt’s a short story, “Blackcurrant,” might have been a little on the sedate side, her poem, whose title I didn’t catch, contained a line about getting “fucked” against a wall, and held my attention throughout.

As Kennedy went to high school in Brooklyn, and Aidt now lives there, the readings were followed by a discussion about the enormous size and geographical complexity of New York’s trendiest borough. Aidt said that she’d like to get to know Brooklyn better, but no longer tries, because it’s too big and confusing. Kennedy then cited the Thomas Wolfe story, “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” reading the last line, “It’d take a guy a lifetime to know Brooklyn t’roo an’ t’roo. An’ even den, yuh wouldn’t know it all.”

The two writers both seemed like the sort of people who might enjoy what we have on tap for Bloomsday on Beaver Street. Kennedy, unfortunately, was leaving for Boston. But when I told Aidt that I’d be doing my first public reading of Bobby in Naziland, which is set in Brooklyn in the 1950s and ’60s, she asked, “What neighborhood?”

“Flatbush,” I told her, and handed her an invitation.

We’ll see if the Danish poet ventures across the East River for a taste of the New York underground, and to hear about a time when Brooklyn was a provincial burb and a place to escape from. Read More 

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The Writer's Dilemma

The main setting of Bobby in Naziland, East 17th Street, in Flatbush, as it looks today.
One of the things I'm going to do at Bloomsday on Beaver Street is read from Bobby in Naziland, the novel I'm in the process of fine-tuning. It's going to be a short reading, about 1600 words that will include the opening pages of the first chapter--just enough to give people a sense of the book's flavor and the voice I've used to portray "an adult consciousness channeling the thoughts and emotions of a seven year old," as I describe it in the prologue.

The book, I'm sure, will be of particular interest to anybody who's familiar with Flatbush, the Brooklyn neighborhood that Bobby in Naziland is set in, especially if they happened to have lived there in the 1950s and '60s, and think they might "know" some of the characters. And I'm sure that readers will derive a great deal of pleasure from my vision of a Brooklyn that no longer exists, a provincial burb filled with goyim and Jews, Auschwitz survivors and army veterans who fought the Nazis, a place where "World War II lingered like a mass hallucination on East 17th Street and large swaths of the surrounding borough."

What I’m not sure of is what I’m going to do with the book when I’m completely finished with it. The publishing industry, which never has functioned in a rational way, has changed so much in the past decade, that I don’t know if it makes sense to go with a traditional publisher (assuming I can find one) or to self-publish. The Internet is full of stories by and about authors, many of whom have successfully published with traditional publishers, who are now struggling with this same question. There are as many self-publishing success stories as there are stories of failure and unmitigated despair. For a writer like me, who’s had some success with traditional publishing but has not produced the blockbuster that publishers demand, there are no easy answers. The more I read, the more confused I get.

I can tell you this much: For the past two years I’ve worked as hard at promoting Beaver Street as I’ve ever worked at anything. I’ve gotten the consistently excellent reviews and the high profile mentions that theoretically sell books. But until I can get those Harry Potter-like sales, it’s unlikely that a traditional publisher will send a bushel (or even a cupful) of cash my way.

So, all I can do for now is spend this Memorial Day weekend putting the finishing touches on Bobby in Naziland, and banish from my mind all that other stuff. The correct answer to my question will present itself when it’s good and ready to do so. As it always does. Read More 
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Reading Out Loud

I began working seriously on the novel I now call Bobby in Naziland in May 2008. I had little idea of what, exactly, I was writing. All I knew was that it was time to begin another book, and there was something about the Brooklyn neighborhood of Flatbush, in the mid-20th century, that was worth exploring.

I'd touched on it in the opening pages of Beaver Street, the book I'd recently finished writing (though had not yet sold), describing the goings-on in my father's candy store, on Church Avenue, in 1961. Also, I'd just finished reading The Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem, a novel that takes place in an adjacent Brooklyn neighborhood, about ten years later. It gave me ideas.

So, I began the agonizing process of figuring out what my new book was going to be, and I saw it evolve from hundreds of pages of notes, fragments, anecdotes, and ideas, to a possible memoir, to the novel that it finally became, and that I think I’m now in the process of fine-tuning.

Over the past five years, I’ve shown what I’m working on to nobody, not even to my wife, the Mistress of Syntax, who’s also my editor. Because I read the book out loud as I’m working on it (I need to hear in my ear what it sounds like), and have spoken about it to people who’ve asked, my editor had some idea of the wide-ranging subject matter. But she’d never overheard more than a sentence or two at any one time, because I tend to work only when I’m alone.

With the second annual Bloomsday on Beaver Street looming, on June 16, I knew it was time to pick the selection I’m going to read that night, and to finally read it out loud to my editor. That’s what I did this weekend; I read to her the opening pages of chapter one, “The Goyim and the Jews.” I’m pleased to report that she laughed twice, and said, when I finished reading, “It’s good, but I thought it was going to be more solemn.”

Bobby in Naziland is not a solemn book. And if you think the Mistress of Syntax goes easy on me because I happen to be married to her, you’re sadly mistaken. Quite the opposite, actually. Her editing process is uncompromising, her demands for factual accuracy unrelenting, and the proof is in the quality of my previous two books. The Mistress of Syntax is not a title the wife wears lightly. Her “It’s good” is a five-star rave.

To say that Mary Lyn’s reaction filled me with a sense of profound relief would be a gross understatement. But if the pages passed muster with her, it gives me enough confidence to go forward and read Bobby in Naziland (along with a selction from Beaver Street) to a larger audience on Bloomsday.

I hope you’ll be there to listen. Read More 
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There's Something About Brooklyn


I'm not going to say that New York is the only city on the planet where the following encounter could have taken place. But because it's a city swarming with talent, where the streets are always teeming with people (unlike, say, L.A.), it's a city built for chance meetings.

This is what happened to me about a month ago: I was on Houston Street, waiting for the light to change, when this black dude comes up to me and starts telling me about his CD. Stuff like that happens here all the time. The downtown streets are full of musicians hawking their work, and for the most part, I pay no attention to them. I told the fellow that my wife writes about music and consequently, there are more CDs flooding into our apartment than we can possibly listen to.

But the guy had an intriguing vibe, just the right blend of friendly and aggressive, and I found myself telling him that I was a writer, that I’d written books about John Lennon and pornography, and that I was originally from Brooklyn, Flatbush to be exact.

He was from Brooklyn, too, he said, not far from Flatbush. “That’s where all the best poets are from… Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “there’s something about Brooklyn.”

He gave me a copy of his CD, Sav Killz: Bangers & B-Sides. I told him I’d listen to it. So, I listened to it. And here’s the surprising part: It’s really good. The guy—I think his name is Jamal Rockwell—is a poet.

The above video, Look What I Become, is my favorite cut on the album. If I’m understanding the lyrics correctly, it’s about a crack dealer whose soul is saved by hip-hop. Check it out, brother. Read More 
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