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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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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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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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Last Event Before the Apocalypse

 

A hard rain was falling in Miami the night I read from Bobby in Naziland at Books & Books in Coral Gables. It was Saturday, February 1, and the town, overrun with fans of the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs, was in the mood for football, not literature. The Super Bowl was the next day, up the road in Hard Rock Stadium, and a couple of hours before I showed up at Miami's greatest bookstore, Jerry Rice, the 49ers' Hall of Fame wide receiver, had presented his book, America's Game. Such was the competition.

 

Compared to events I'd done in New York, St. Louis, and Philadelphia, the turnout for my event was modest. But many in the crowd were originally from New York, including two people I hadn't seen since high school, one of whom, Lee Klein, now a Miami chef and food writer, was in the midst of finishing his own novel. So the enthusiasm level for my tale of Flatbush was running high.

 

To set the moment in a historical perspective, the disastrous Iowa caucus would take place in two days. And yes, I was aware that something called the coronavirus had infected tens of thousands of people in China and that New York City had just reported its first case. But these things were not foremost in my mind.

 

After the reading, I was looking forward to a good dinner and then enjoying a couple of vacation days in Miami Beach with my wife before returning to New York to begin planning the European leg of my book tour. London, Paris, and Madrid awaited.

 

Well, forget about that. Along with my public and social life, any thoughts of a European tour have been cancelled. And as I look back at the Books & Books event from my perch here, above the deserted streets of downtown Manhattan, it now seems like that night in Coral Gables was the final moment of what passed for normalcy in Trump America, a time of ignorant bliss before the onset of the Apocalypse and the Season of the Plague.

 

Still, there is a certain nostalgic pleasure in looking back at pre-plague life. So, in the above video clip from the Q&A portion of that last presentation, which I can now file under ancient history, I answer two questions about Bobby in Naziland:

 

How did your father end up with a candy store instead of a butcher shop?

 

Were there counters and stools and teenagers hanging out in the candy store after school?

 

Someday in the not-too-distant future, perhaps I'll again be able to go out in public and read from my books and answer more questions about them. In the meantime, like the rest of humanity, I'll just keep sheltering in place. 'Cause there's not much else to do here except work on another book and maybe some laundry.

________

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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