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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.


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.


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 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.


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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