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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.

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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.

 

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Summer of ’61

 

Let's return to the Maple Court Cafe, or "Tavern" as I called it in Bobby in Naziland—because that's what everybody called it, except for those who, like my father, called it a "gin mill," which is a pretty good synonym for "dive bar."

 

I blogged about the Maple Court's interior this past August, when I found a postcard from its glory days. Back then it was a quasi-classy joint, with potted plants and palm trees painted on the walls—the kind of establishment that gave away souvenir postcards.

 

The Maple Court was one of the places where Stingo, the narrator of William Styron's Sophie's Choice, hung out with Sophie, in 1947, when he lived in a rooming house in Flatbush. It was also the first bar I ever walked into. A shot from New York City's Municipal Archives, taken from the corner of East 16th Street, shows what the block looked like back in Stingo's day. You can see the Maple Court behind the "Furs" sign.

 

The above photo, courtesy of the Brooklyn Historical Society, was taken in June 1961, when I was eight and one of the set pieces in Bobby in Naziland was taking place: Roger Maris was in the midst of his record-breaking home run streak, hitting number 13 on June 2 and number 27 on June 22. This is how I remember the Maple Court. (The taller buildings on the right are the backs of apartment houses that faced East 17th Street.)

 

The Maple Court sign indicates "dining" and "entertainment" were on tap, but by the summer of 1961, no food was served there and the only entertainment was watching the locals get hammered. The Maple Court was dim, dingy, and uninviting, and it's long gone, the building torn down, replaced by Bobby's Dept. Store. In 1961, I might have found that more intriguing than a dive bar.

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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 Sawdust-Strewn Aisles of the A&P

 

In the 1950s and 60s, The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, better known as the A&P, was a chain of grocery stores that were ubiquitous in New York City. There was one in Flatbush, on Church Avenue between East 18th Street and St. Paul's Place. My mother did most of her food shopping there before Waldbaum's opened a block closer to our house.

 

In Bobby in Naziland, I discuss two books about Nazis that influenced my own writing. One was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer. The other was Sophie's Choice, by William Styron, which was set in postwar Flatbush, with many of the book's locations only a block or two from where I lived.

 

This blog, in part, is a photographic addendum to Bobby in Naziland. My intention has been to add greater detail about any number of people, places, and things that I touched on in the book. In this Season of the Plague, I've found that losing myself in mid-20th-century Flatbush, despite some of the darkness of that time, has been especially pleasurable.

 

This week, I return to the "sawdust-strewn aisles of the A&P," which Styron and I both wrote about. And I wonder if any stores, at least in New York City, still strew sawdust on the floor to absorb moisture. At a time when the very notion of walking into a supermarket can be terrifying, the idea of floors covered in sawdust seems so, to say the least, unsanitary.

 

The above photograph of the A&P on Church Avenue, taken in 1940, is from the New York City Municipal Archives. You can see the other half of the storefront here. (The same car appears in both shots.) Though The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company ceased to exist after filing for bankruptcy, in 2015, the current Google maps shot shows the store that was once the A&P remains a supermarket, though its aisles, I'd imagine, are sawdust free.

 

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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.

 

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Last Event Before the Apocalypse II: The Numbers on Their Arms

 

It's just the three of us here in our cozy, quiet apartment—me, my wife, our cat. Above the empty streets of Manhattan Island, one week melts into the next. 

 

We're in a perpetual state of waiting for supplies. When's the next food delivery? Did we order milk? Will the masks ever arrive?

 

Mary Lyn is strumming her guitar, working on a new plague-inspired song, "I Can't Touch You." I'm lost in a nostalgic reverie of pre-plague life, still looking through the video she shot February 1 at my Bobby in Naziland presentation at Books & Books, in Coral Gables. In my previous post, I described that reading, hyperbolically, as the "Last Event Before the Apocalypse."

 

The hyperbolic "Apocalypse" is planet Earth on lockdown during these early months of the coronavirus pandemic. Here then is another short video clip from the Q&A portion of that Books & Books event, in which I answer the question, "Was anybody in your family in a concentration camp during the war?"

 

The short answer is "No." But my more elaborate response, which should serve as a reminder that once upon a time, things were even more horrible than they are now, includes the following information:

 

·        My father liberated a concentration camp.

·        The first time I saw an Auschwitz number was on the forearm of a woman who worked in a bakery on Church Avenue in Flatbush.

·        Those tattoos were a common sight in the neighborhood.

·        I knew what Auschwitz was for as long as I understood language.

 

I provide even more detail on all the above throughout Bobby in Naziland, which I'd suggest is a book worth reading as we shelter in place. There are, after all, a lot of hours to fill, and reading books is a good way to distract yourself while waiting for armies of essential workers to deliver your food and other necessary supplies. At 7 P.M., the hour of the vuvuzela, we will salute them and all the others who are doing their best in impossible circumstance to keep us alive.

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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.

 

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Against the Wall, Circa 1956

 

Even when she was young, my mother, Eleanor Rosen, a major character in Bobby in Naziland, didn't like being photographed. So I don't have many photographs of her. But I have this one, probably taken in the early winter of 1956. I was 4½, she was 30, and her nail polish was red. You may have seen this photo several years ago when it ran with an interview published on Huffpost. It's one of the few photos from that era I have in my possession.

 

The wall we're posing in front of is on East 17th Street, near Church Avenue, down the block from where we lived and around the corner from my father's candy store. (Here's a 1940s municipal archives shot of the wall as seen from the corner of Church Avenue, and here's a recent Google-maps shot; rotate it to the left to see the wall.)

 

I don't know why we're posing there or who took the photo, but it's a wall I knew well. It's one of the walls where we used to play Chinese handball and when we were older, regular handball.

 

My expression, too, seems familiar—certainly more familiar than my expression in some of the photos that show me smiling that I ran in earlier blog posts. I didn't like being photographed, either, because it generally involved my mother yelling at me to "Smile naturally!"

 

This, then, is my more natural expression—more or less that of a hostage under duress. As I said in the book, "My mother, in particular, doled out her affections—the occasional hug and kiss, or the sentence spoken in a pleasant and non-accusatory tone—only on those rare days when I obeyed her without question or brought home sterling marks on my report card. And whatever emotion I felt in return was probably more akin to Stockholm syndrome than love, and was grounded in the fear that if my parents didn't stop smoking cigarettes, then I'd end up an orphan like the Rosenberg kids."

 

These days I get along well with my mother, who now resides in an assisted-living facility in West Palm Beach. Though she's not read Bobby in Naziland—eye problems—she's proud of having taken the cover photo.

 

Click on the links below to see other Flatbush photos from the Bobby in Naziland era.

Prospect Park, 1959.

East 17th Street and Caton Avenue, circa 1954.

Church Avenue, 1956.

East 17th Street, April 1955.

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

 

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Church Avenue, 1956

 

Here's another photo from a recently unearthed series of photos that show what Brooklyn, Flatbush, members of my family, and I looked like during the period that Bobby in Naziland takes place.

 

In this photo, taken in 1956 or early 1957, I'm about four years old. The cars all appear to be early 1950s models; the one where you can see the grille and license plate is probably a 1952 Oldsmobile. I don't know who took the picture. It could have been my mother, the official family photographer, or it could have been our downstairs neighbor Fred, the owner of the dog, Boxer. That's my father, Irwin Rosen, 33 or 34 at the time, standing behind me.

 

The location is Church Avenue, between East 17th and East 18th Streets. (East 18th Street is in the background.) One of the main settings of Bobby in Naziland, my father's candy store, which he opened in 1948, is down the block, to the left, directly across the street from World Liquors, which in a few years would become Deal Town. Above the liquor store, the sign obscured, is a bowling alley and pool hall. I don't remember Ray's or Bob's. (Click here and here to see photos of this stretch of Church Avenue, taken from different angles, in 1940.)

 

My father and I are standing in front of N.E. Tell's bakery, which isn't visible. It was around this time that I first saw the Auschwitz tattoo on the forearm of a woman who worked in Tell's. I describe that moment in a key scene in the book.

 

I'll post more photos in the coming weeks.

________

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

 

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

 

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The Gin Mills of Church Avenue

 

I never heard anybody call it the "Maple Court Cafe," but that's its official name, at least according to the above postcard. Everybody called it the "Maple Court Tavern," because that's what it was—a tavern, a bar, or as my father called every low-rent dive on Church Avenue, a "gin mill."

 

And though the postcard makes it look like a classy joint—it was once the conveniently located bar of choice for the wealthy denizens of Prospect Park South—by the time I came to know it, it was a dim, dank, dingy place. There were no potted plants or souvenir postcards or palm trees painted on the walls. According to my parents, it was where the "goyim" did their drinking. In my mind's eye, the bar was horseshoe shaped. But it was, in fact, a rectangle with curved corners. Because I sat at the far end, I can see how I misremembered that.

 

The Stingo I refer to in the quote under the postcard is the narrator of William Styron's Holocaust novel, Sophie's Choice. It's one of the many places in Flatbush that appear in his book as well as mine, and in Bobby in Naziland, I spend a couple of pages contrasting my own impressions of the neighborhood with Stingo's.

 

Every store, bar, and restaurant on Church Avenue's commercial strip has since been replaced by some other kind of store or restaurant (though no bars). A laundry has become a health food store. Two candy stores, including my father's, have become part of a subway station.

 

And the Maple Court Tavern (or cafe) is a pharmacy. Choose your poison, though now you need a prescription.

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Headpress will publish Bobby in Naziland September 1; it's now available for pre-order on Amazon and all other online booksellers.

 

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10/15/64

 

My father's candy store was torn down in the 1980s. The spot where it once stood is now part of the Church Avenue subway station. For myriad reasons that I examine in Bobby in Naziland, there are no candy store pictures in our family photo album. I am, however, aware of two pictures of the store. One can be found here, among the collection of Brooklyn tax photos shot in 1940.

 

The other one is above, taken on the afternoon of October 15, 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson was campaigning in Brooklyn along with Robert Kennedy, who was running for the senate.

 

To me, the most remarkable thing about this photo is not that the president and a Kennedy are riding in an open limousine less than a year after Dallas. It's that it's the best picture I have of the candy store. You can see it on the left, in the middle of the block, next to the entrance to the BMT subway station, and the photo is clear enough to make out individual magazines and newspapers hanging above the store's windows.

 

I found the photo on Reddit some time ago but have been unable to track down the photographer. I'd like to see what else he (or she) shot that day.

 

I was standing outside the frame, a half-block away, on the corner of East 17th Street. Another photo, taken there moments later, ran in Look magazine. I can't find it online—Look, apparently, has yet to be digitized. It shows LBJ lifting into the limo a woman holding a sign that says, "We Love You. We Need You."

 

Flatbush was indeed a Democratic stronghold, and even my law-and-order Republican father was so caught up in the Johnson-Kennedy mania unfolding outside his store that he felt it was his patriotic duty to offer the president one of his famous egg creams.

 

There's one more thing about the photo I should point out: There's not one black or brown face in the crowd. Flatbush, in 1964, remained segregated; racism ran rampant; and in certain quarters the "N-word" was tossed around with impunity.

 

This, too, is a tragedy that Bobby in Naziland explores viscerally and in depth.

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Headpress will publish Bobby in Naziland September 1; it's now available for pre-order on Amazon and all other online booksellers.

 

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A Faded Relic

 

Each apartment in Brighton Hall had a sealed-off fireplace in the living room, and I felt a pang of regret every time I looked at the outline on the wall in my apartment where the fireplace used to be. It would have been so cool to have a working fireplace, and so warm to sit by the hearth on the frequent frigid winter days when the boiler was broken and there was no heat or hot water. Having earned a camping merit badge in the Boy Scouts, I was good at building fires.

 

The fireplace in the above photo was the only one in the building that was not completely hidden. It was located in a common room off to the side of the first-floor entrance hall. When I lived there, the room served no purpose (as is still the case); sometimes people chained up their bikes there. But the architectural detail that went into that room is indicative of the building's luxurious origins. Note the heads carved into the pseudo-Ionic columns above the mantle, framing a frieze; the combination Ionic-Corinthian marble column in the foreground (a counterpoint to the Doric columns outside); the marble panel next to the column; and the elaborate moldings on the ceiling and walls.

 

Because Brighton Hall would be located close to the Parade Grounds and Prospect Park, and around the corner from a subway that would put you in Manhattan in 20 minutes, the builders thought East 17th Street was a perfect spot for a luxury apartment house. But their timing was off. The Great Depression hit as the building was being completed, and neglect set in immediately. By the time my parents signed a lease for a two-bedroom apartment, in 1953, Brighton Hall was a faded relic. But the rent was a reasonable $36 per month and my father could walk to work. His candy store on Church Avenue was 174 steps from the front door.

 

Even today, as Brooklyn becomes as gentrified as Manhattan, somehow the odd-numbered side of East 17th Street between Church and Caton Avenues remains the block that gentrification forgot.

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Headpress will publish Bobby in Naziland September 1; it's now available for pre-order on Amazon and all other online booksellers.

 

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Chvrch Avenve

 

The above caption is from chapter 1, "The Goyim and the Jews," of Bobby in Naziland, which Headpress will publish September 1. It describes the gateway to an opulent mini-neighborhood, within Flatbush, that stood in mind-boggling contrast to the shabbiness of East 17th Street, where I lived. The photo was taken recently, on the corner of Church Avenue and Marlboro Road. Though many things about the neighborhood have changed since 1965, when I moved away, some, like the red brick monoliths, are exactly the same.

 

"You don't have to be Jewish—or a Brooklynite—to be enchanted by this book."

 

As Bobby in Naziland's publication date inches closer, in addition to brief excerpts from the book and accompanying photos, I'll be posting links to reviews. In the first one, which ran in The Jewish Voice, a Brooklyn newspaper, the critic said, "You don't have to be Jewish—or a Brooklynite—to be enchanted by this book."

 

And I'll post information about media mentions, like the one you'll find in the coming attractions in the summer issue of Vanity Fair, on newsstands now. (Look for the Star Wars covers.)

 

Bobby in Naziland is available for pre-order on Amazon.

 

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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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