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Flatbush Flashback

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.

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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 should (and probably can) buy it again.

 

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