The train leaves the tunnel in New York City, travels beneath the East River, and slowly creeps into the daylight, up the elevated track and the train stops of the F line above McDonald Avenue in Brooklyn. The F train travels north and south through the borough. There is a trolley route below with its overhead electric cable wheel creating a spark as it rolls along the wire generating the electric charge needed to power the trolley along its route; bi-level mass transportation, high and low, carrying people between work, play and home. Passengers on the train view the sky, occasionally white clouds dotted with shapes, the designs of roofs, church spires, treetops, telephone poles with wires stretching through the borough. Trolley travellers view the steel supports for the elevated system, two-family homes, mostly rowhouses made of brick, some businesses and the occasional car and truck.
The elevated train tracks long links of steel rest on wood beams that darken the streets below with shadows. Small slivers of daylight peek through between the railroad ties, little flickers of light that sparkle a dance on the street below as the train cars move over the tracks. The street drenched in darkness; morning, noon, dusk, evening, a cloak of night, save for the slice of daylight between the beams or the reflection of the lighted train cars, on-off, on-off, an eerie dance of time in motion, as the trolley wheel illuminates a hint of light, disappears, sparkles, fades.
Each train station platform along the F train's route is the same stock green that may well be the color used to paint army equipment and park benches. Each surface repeatedly covered in uneven layers, showing all the years and strokes from brushes, heavy coats of liquid green drying to a wall of the past, present and future. The same strokes applied year after year, a coating of history, drab green layers, hit with rain, wind, snow and sleet; the breath of the world whose lips kiss every stroke of green, carrying along the dirt of the day, marking its place in time. A passenger walks by the un-noticed barrier to the elements. Walls, built long ago, leaned on by thousands that never pay attention to the history, the stories etched by the days. The wall remembers, records, caresses: changes in hairdos worn by both men and women, lapels on men's suits, the length of women's dresses, dates on the daily newspapers, headline events of the day with the languages voiced by the latest wave of immigrants arriving on its shores. Generations, moving along the platforms, stations in time, visited and ignored. The floors of the platforms dotted with bits of discarded gum, blackened by the thousands of footsteps, never removed by washing, never scraped away when the platform is cleaned, a mark in time with no description, only the memory of being chewed. Signs on the walls note the intersecting streets that bisect McDonald Avenue; the solitary difference between every identical stop, the way one knows the train has arrived somewhere.
Some signs on the southbound train stops are the same, they tell you where the trains were coming from, to remind you where you were, in case you have forgotten: 'FROM CITY'. The signs tend to evoke images of days long gone, when the cars of the train were solid steel and seats covered with rattan webbing. Days when neither the cars nor the passengers would bounce up and down as they rode the tracks, when women wore long dresses with skirts to the ankles, high collars and long sleeves, large hats to protect the skin from the sun, gloves - women never ventured outside the home without gloves instructed to touch nothing. The women were grasping the arms of gentlemen dressed in suits, with shoes topped in spats, canes on their arms, a glance at pocket watches, anticipating their holiday at the seaside. It is a quiet time with no radios interrupting the silence, no crowds of standing room only passengers pressed together. A leisurely trip to the seaside for the wealthy elite. A time when leaving the city meant an adventure across the water into the wilderness, leaving behind the pavement and bricks. East side platforms northbound route signs tell you where you are going, 'TO CITY', a reminder of the days when Brooklyn was wilderness, farmland, country; wide open spaces with nothing but the aroma of the salt air.
The building entrance to the train repair yard is across from the Avenue X station, a three story facade with the entrance parallel to the corner where the sidewalks meet. The facade has more than two dozen small windows which seem to have never been washed. They are darker than the dull green paint of the frames holding them steadfast, fading into the shadow of the elevated train station and nearby structures, it blends into oblivion, almost unseen. The building so well camouflaged, shaded by the elevated station, darkened by the dirt of time with the tiniest of light spots seen through the dirty windows; the largest structure in the area, unseen, a science fiction wall disappearing.
Many Americans of the era remained in their neighborhoods, where the few shops nearby were owned and managed by the neighbor who lived close enough to walk to work and all the goods the community needed could be acquired within walking distance of their homes. The automobile was a novelty. The population of these communities were kept busy with the chores of living. The few modern conveniences were electricity, indoor plumbing and heat from coal. Many of the useful kitchen tools were worked by hand. Those who had meat grinders would turn a crank to force the meats through the machine to be chopped for sausage. Toasters were gadgets propped on the gas burner to toast bread, the bread was propped teepee style and turned by hand to brown the other side. Dishwashers were the children old enough to be trusted not to break any of the utensils. Laundry was always dried outside on a clothesline after being passed through a hand-cranked spinner-ringer on the washer to press out as much of the moisture as possible.
For amusement many of the residents played musical instruments, such as banjo, accordion, harmonica, and sang the songs of their heritage. Radio was a novelty. At night there were programs with stories read by actors, painting pictures of suspense, the nourishment for the imagination complete with sound effects like lightning, rain and gunshots. A trip to the movies was a special event for the whole family, an outing they could occasionally afford. The movie houses, to attract attendance, offered dishes, each week a different item, cup, saucer, soup tureen, at reduced prices; a bonus for going to the movies. Inside, the theatre always had a baroque decor, heavy velvet covered chairs, gargoyles on the woodwork, an enormous set of heavy curtains opened to expose the giant movie screen. One price of admittance gave a movie, with a travelogue, newsreel and cartoon, or two complete movies. You could walk into the theater, in the middle of the movie and stay all day.
In the 1930s, construction of the Belt System, a series of four parkways circling two boroughs of New York began. Three of those parkways are called the Belt Parkway. Part of this construction included filling in the swamp that separated Coney Island from Brooklyn. Before the construction of the parkway, young people from Brooklyn who attended Abraham Lincoln High School on Coney Island took a raft traversing the swamp to get to school. And now this peninsular is still called Coney Island, though it is part of the borough of Brooklyn.
Ocean Parkway runs parallel to McDonald Avenue, another north to south route in Brooklyn beginning at the southernmost tip of Prospect Park. A roadway fashioned after the Champs Elysees in Paris, a tree lined road interrupted by pedestrian areas dotted with benches and a dirt road for horseback-riding. Across the road are more trees that shade the whole area, benches, and a separate path for bicycles. A luxurious road in Brooklyn, where leisurely crowds could stroll on Sundays, gather to chat while sitting in the shade of the trees that line the road, or sit and watch the few automobiles that passed by on the road, no truck traffic permitted. Others watch children at play, read a newspaper, book, or simply observe the goings-on around them. The autos were heavy black steel machines, traveling eleven miles for every gallon of gasoline. Once in awhile an expensive luxury car could be seen that did sport a different color, like grey. They all had bits of chrome and hood ornaments. Mercury was the largest or longest, a sleek lady with a long gown, leading the way down the road as she sat atop the hood of the vehicle.
Gravesend, a section of Brooklyn is a parcel of land given to Lady Moody in the 1600's as a haven for persecuted Puritans. Across from her home is a graveyard, said to have an underground tunnel from one grave to her home, an escape route. The young boys of the postwar era challenged each other to venture into the cemetery in search of the underground passage, especially at Halloween. During the 1950s there were still areas with dirt roads and farms in Gravesend.
Those who had telephones shared party lines, telephone numbers used by more than one household at different locations. If you picked up the phone in your home to make a call and heard someone speaking you hung up, allowing them their privacy, you tried again later to make a call. The American Telephone and Telegraph Company owned and operated the telephone system from coast to coast, the company was affectionately known as Ma Bell, and was considered part of the United States national security system. In those days you could call the operator to ask for the time to set your clocks or you would wait until the church bells chimed on the hour half and quarter past.
When some of the dirt roads were paved, as water and sewer-lines under cement sidewalks were installed, the children, who then scraped their knees on the unforgiving cement, objected, seeing no need to replace the dirt with cement, wishing the dirt back where they played.
Even though the streets were paved, there were still vendors with horse drawn vehicles selling their wares. One vendor was the grinder. When homemakers heard the familiar sound his bell made it meant he was getting closer to their home. They would stop what they were doing, go outside with their knives and scissors and wait their turn to have their tools sharpened. His wagon had a grinding wheel that he moved by pressing his feet up and down on a lever that turned the stone.
Ice-boxes were the refrigerators of the day, fueled by blocks of ice delivered to the home. The ice-man with his pick in hand would pick away at a large chunk of ice to chop off a piece perhaps eighteen inches by twelve inches, he would grip the picked off chunk with a large pair of tongs, hurl the cold ice wedge up onto a piece of cloth draped at his shoulder and carry it into the customer's home into the icebox. He was usually missing a few fingers caused either by frostbite or accident while chipping.
Coal used to fuel the home heating systems was delivered by a motorized truck, a flatbed with wooden walls. The coal was shovelled into barrels; the barrel then, continuously rolled on it's bottom rim made its way to the back of the residence where the barrel was tilted downward to pour the coal through a small window-like opening at the base of the building. The coal would roll out of the barrel onto a chute, then pulled by gravity onto the existing pile of coal already on the floor in the basement. The coal deliveryman was monochrome, covered from head to toe with coal dust, cap to shoes, shoulders to fingertips. He had no discernable features but the white of his eyes; he was a phantom shadow, the coal-man, an apt name for a person covered in bits of coal, made his delivery and was gone.
The littlest girl was always the one chosen to go through the opening to the chute and into the coal bin, to open the basement door when her sister would lose the door key. She was small enough to fit through the opening and tall enough to reach the lock on the door. Her blue uniform jumper did not show the black but her white underwear did. There was never any mention, she thought no one noticed. Early in the morning you would hear the milkman with his glass bottles clanging in their wire carry case, six bottles tapping each other slightly. He would place the day's delivery on the stoop by the door and pick up the empty bottles left outside the night before. An occasional note to leave more milk was rolled and placed in the bottle opening. The horses pulling another wagon had fruits and vegetables neatly stacked along the sides of the wagon. No bell was heard, yet the women knew when he arrived.
The bread-man, the ice-cream man, the baker, all drove the streets with their goods. Even the insurance man came to the home with his book of clients accounts, pages in his ledger were so dense that the leather covers with their handles were a foot apart. He would come to the house to collect the monthly pennies for the insurance policies. He would be invited into the home where he would open his book to the page with the client's name and write the entry in its correct column.
The logic after WWII: If you unwrapped a piece of gum while you were walking down the street or finished a pack of cigarettes, discard the wrapper or package on the street, it creates jobs. A man in a green uniform, with a green metal barrel mounted on wheels and a large push broom and shovel, would walk along the curb sweeping the debris into a pile, picking up the trash with the shovel, and depositing it into the barrel. A man with a job that the whole community contributed to keeping employed.
The nights were quiet, most residents resting in the evening. One could hear the train wheels screeching to a halt at the station, stopping even if there was no one entering or leaving the cars, the bellows from the fog horns of ships and boats traversing the Verazzano Narrows. The fog horns beckoned those not yet a slumber, to dream of being aboard ship, on deck in fog, listening to the waves, feeling the mist of salt in the air, gazing forward at nothing, seeing a faraway place, a sun drenched island with clear blue water washing upon white sands shaded by palm trees; a visit to warm climes to remove the chill of eve.
Back in the real world, a home away from home was the local public school, P.S. 216. It was a big brick building prominent in the community with a yard for assembly, basketball or other childhood challenges, all enclosed within a tall cyclone fence. Beyond the fence the sidewalk perimeter was dotted with sycamore trees, the few trees in the neighborhood. Inside the building, besides attending classes, children practiced for fire drills and civil defense; getting out of their seats and moving under their desks, with their hands crossed behind the neck, their protection in case of a nuclear attack. After the three o'clock hour struck and the end of formal classes, children played in the schoolyard in warm weather, played shuffleboard, ping pong, basketball, and an endless variety of entertaining, engrossing activities indoors until their parents returned home from work or mothers finished their chores at home. It was a young person's world, with minimal supervision and maximum intellectual stimulation, a safe world for children (those were the days when kids were called children) to discover their ability to coordinate their bodies and brains, a fun place to socialize with several ages of young people and observe the young people's world. It was a welcomed space to visit, not a place to run away from. Some of the teachers stayed after class to supervise the children. But mostly they watched children amuse and enjoy themselves. It was a familiar environment, a place where the children knew what was around every corner in the building, where the stairs led, and what the classrooms were like, with their dark green shades that lowered from the top and rose from the bottom, black chalk boards, wooden desks and chairs.
Outside the school, at the corner to act as crossing guard, was the 'cop on the beat', a patrolman everyone knew by name; a tall lean fellow with fine features,slight build and a big smile, he greeted hello to all. His slight build was accented with hat, white gloves, notepad, billy club, flashlight, gun, bullets and heavy shoes, which all seemed to keep him weighed down so as not to blow away in the west wind that always roared on Avenue X. He smiled in the winter ,summer, spring and fall. He walked door to door checking into the shops along his beat and he knew the shop owners by name. The street was his office, he patrolled his route inspecting everything.
Saturday mornings saw the elementary school boys sitting in the barber chairs for their weekly haircuts including trimming sideburns and neck for fifty cents. One barber was a retired seaman who had a large parrot who sat in a cage by the shop window. The parrot was always heard cursing in Italian.
In the mid 1950's officers in patrol cars replaced the 'beat cop', policemen drove up and down the avenue, two to a car. They seldom left their vehicles, never saying hello, never acknowledging pedestrians. They became isolated behind closed doors moving down the streets, transient motorists separated from the community, not hearing the sounds around them or visiting with the people they protected. A separation between people and their protectors, a severed link within the community, a lost relationship with children and shop owners. The bond was gone, the police no longer knew the community and the community only saw patrol cars drive by.
Besides the police as the arm of the law in the community, the church set rules for women and children to follow, promising them eternal happiness. Women performed social works, assisted in keeping the church clean and the children in order, made things which were sold for the benefit of the church, such as clothing, linens, food stuffs. Organized crime (aka the Mafia) the men's rule-maker controlled every aspect of living within the geographic area, threatening physical harm, pain and death. They dominated the men who worked on the docks, choosing which crates were to 'fall' off the trucks and break open during loading. They fought amongst themselves for the lucrative black market goods, especially cigarettes and alcohol. They also ran the 'numbers' racket, getting many shop owners to take bets on the last three numbers posted in the daily newspapers of the total mutual handled at the horse racing tracks. Whether or not the total monies handled at any track was the actual number that appeared in the newspaper the next morning was questionable, still, everyone checked to see what the numbers were, and listened to hear if anyone they knew had won. In the Gravesend section there was seldom any crime. Though some nights, lying in bed, one would hear gunshots break the silence, while the front page of the next morning edition of the Daily News would show a photo of someone from the neighborhood shot dead in a car. There were places the children were ordered, in no uncertain terms, to stay out of, and persons whom to avoid, "cross the street if you see this person", "do not speak to them".
Many of the men in the neighborhood had nicknames, Johnny Nose had a beak like a parrot, Fishy worked at the Fulton Fish Market and always smelled of fish, Brillo had hair on top of his head that looked like the scouring pads by that name. Juney, short for junior, Chick, Blackie, Iggy, to name a few. The kids knew the names of all the men who were always outside, socializing, tanned by the sun. Yet the women, mothers, were invisible, indoors, not seen speaking with other women, always inside unheard and unseen.
In springtime, the church would run one of their two annual fundraising events, a parade around the streets of the parish. The parade was lead by altar boys dressed in the garb they wore during Mass, each carrying candles, with one altar boy out front, carrying a pole with a cross atop it. There was a float, pulled by some adult men, with a white cloth draped over it and atop, a statue of their Blessed Mother. There were dollar bills and an occasional five dollar bill pinned to the cloth, collected block by block, door to door from the devout in the community. Trailing behind the 'float' was the local school band or Boy Scout Band playing music. During one spring parade a particularly mischievous neighborhood boy ran to the back of his house and out again. The other children thought he went to get money to pin on the float. Instead, he sat on the curb sucking a lemon in the hopes the boys in the band who were playing horns would blow sour notes. The other church fundraiser was a bazaar held in the church basement. Vendors were hired to operate games of chance, played for prizes donated by local businesses and church goers; carnival glass, toys, household items and clothing. It was the only time the children were allowed out on a school night.
Most of the homes were two family, detached brick buildings. The backyards, little pieces of land often relegated to 'Victory Gardens', foods planted to support the war effort, remnants of the individual contribution to the effort to win the war. One house had an ancient apple tree with a bark split into three separate shoots; the triplets were the perfect base to hold the plank of wood that served as 'treehouse' to the children who were able to maneuver the three foot height to independence. Although the tree would soon be removed, it was the tallest structure in all the yards as far as they could see. Except for the trees dotting the school perimeter and those in the new park a block away, trees were not seen in the neighborhood, just cement sidewalks, and brick buildings. There was plenty of sunshine on the streets, labeled East and West ,First ,Second, and so on. The Avenues were noted as alphabetic, Avenues A through Z. In the mornings, these avenues sported a westerly wind that cut through cloth, its pins and needles striking the face of anyone who braved the gale forces to reach the train station;cartoon characters being blown back into their own footsteps before they could advance. It was a solitary struggle to reach the station in time and find a bit of shelter to restore feeling to the face. Extra time was always allotted to battle the wind and all the step-backs enroute, as one held onto a hat or handbag, the climb up to the platform was almost a reward for the struggle; the first stop was the station attendant in his little cage, bundled with scarf, gloves, heavy coat, wool hat, prepared to make change for anyone wishing to buy a token to gain entrance to the platform. Then the next staircase, to stand on the platform to wait in the cold and wind for the train.
Down near the end of the alphabet, halfway between Avenues Y and Z, the city built a cement park. The curbsides were dotted with Sycamore trees, and the park proper was surrounded by a two-story Cyclone fence. Fortunately for the little people, someone cut a hole in the fence its bottom near the baseball diamond ( because that gate was always locked) for the tiniest to fit through, so they could make a straight line to the swings instead of a u-turn to the entrance at Avenue Y which was so far away and they would tire halfway there. The park was a foundation of cement built over with metal swings, monkey bars, seesaws, slide, handball courts with two-sided cement walls, chess and checker cement tables and benches, a cement water pond that sprinkled water into a pool about eight inches deep, a sand lot surrounded by iron railing to keep animals out, and a building with separate men's and women's rooms as well as a storeroom where the chess and checkers were handed out by the park attendant. There was a shorter Cyclone fence around the swings, so the children who were watching could not get close enough to get their teeth knocked out by the children who were brave enough to sit on the metal seats and burn bare legs in the the summer heat as they tried to swing high enough to have their seats parallel with the pipe atop the contraption that held the swings. It was a challenge, as much as climbing the stairs on the slide to reach the top. Even though the slide was metal and also burned bare skin on the way down, it was not the slide that was important, it was reaching the top of the stairs that counted.
Once the park was built, Sunday mornings from early spring to fall would never be the same, no one was able to sleep past eight a.m. The young men from the neighborhood and surrounding areas would gather for the local baseball game, with their bats, gloves and catchers mitts. The roar from the crowd, an enormous wave breaking, bellowed for every run, hit and save, the echo broke the morning silence, checked by a baritone vibration of spontaneous appreciation.
And as the men enjoyed playing the game, the women enjoyed listening to the radio broadcasts of the Brooklyn Dodgers games as they stood ironing the day's laundry; listening to the game more important than what they were ironing. It seemed all of Brooklyn was baseball focused and when the Brooklyn Dodgers won the pennant, the excitement in the streets was like nothing else;fireworks, car horns beeping,and flag waving residents of the borough had their New Year's, Fourth of July, and Christmas celebrations all together, in a last happy summer in Brooklyn before the Dodgers moved to L.A..