CITY AS PILGRIMAGE (continued…)
East: Sunrise, the highway to the book
I would set out, down the four steps cement steps of Mrs. Shevlin’s house where we rented our apartment, cross the little cement patio, turn left. Pass the stoop where Loretta sometimes stood, the Polish girl next door, innocent slinky and pretty and sad with acne. Pass the ever-open Italian social and athletic club where old men, never young, sat with their black cigars all day long, outside on folding chairs in clement weather, smell of the black Parodi tobacco free for me passing. They sat inside at night in the smoky storefront, Italians don’t stay outside at night no matter how hot, I learned that early. Pass the old drug store with the new facade, cross Crescent street catercorner to the vacant lot on the northeast corner, walk up to Pitkin Avenue, the big brick public elementary school I went to for a year or two, and where my mother taught for thirty years, always second and third grade, I was there for fourth and fifth. Its only distinguished graduate was the great comedian Danny Kaye, whose verbal antics and narcissist’s face seemed the essence of growing up poor, you’ve got to love yourself since nobody else will, you’ve got to have a lot of words in your mouth, talk is free and it’s the only tool you have. Words are the cheapest art material, cheapest weapons. I don’t remember the inside of the school much, you got out as fast as you can, I remember the bulk of the building, the standard four-square architecture that the New York City Board of Education used all over the city, boxy, dull red, with Mannerist fiddlings round the windows and doors in pale cement. Danny’s red crisp curly hair, red brick in autumn light, all right, I was on my way to the library.
This school was on Pitkin Avenue – if you went further out west along that avenue, and we will, you would come to the great cultural zone running for several miles through Brownsville into the center of the borough, but that comes later in this story. Right now I trudge north along Crescent Street. A long block to Glenmore, where Nisselson’s pharmacy stands, my family trusts Mr Nisselson, because he’s Jewish and gentle and old – we always go there, never to the brash nice Italian pharmacist practically next door to our house. Then a short block to the great diagon, Sunrise Highway, near its beginning here in Brooklyn, about to set out east on its endless journey through Queens and Nassau and beyond; in my childhood it was still the major artery of traffic from the city to the whole south shore of Long Island, though it had been dealt a mortal wound by the great Belt Parkway, the circumferential or ring road not quite finished just before the war. Cross Sunrise Highway – skill needed, traffic here came faster, and of course nobody, at least no child, no me, ever waited for the green light. I couldn’t see very well but I could hear like a dream, and I passed through traffic by sheer listening.
But there wasn’t so much traffic then, fast as it moved when it did come. A huge intersection this was, always bleak and pale and gasping in the sun. It never rained on that corner. A huge stretch of empty roads crisscrossing. Years later I stood at daybreak once on the shores of the Persian Gulf, the horizon vague from the smoke of oil refineries, the heat already close to 100 degrees before the sun had fully risen. The emptiness of that sea, that desert shore, reminded me of something, and this intersection in old Brooklyn rose to mind – a bleakness that traffic makes, a peculiar uncomfortable but picturesque emptiness that speed makes all by itself, space left gasping in the airless aftermath of money passing. A hard street for a little kid to cross.
Then one block more, no building, just scrappy vacant lots, so many vacant lots in my childhood, tell about them later, you’ll see.
A short block more to Liberty Avenue. The Law-Ran Diner on the SW corner, under the Fulton Street el station. Real diner – I sat at the counter, ate grilled cheese sandwiches; every Saturday the German cook made sauerbraten – my father’s favorite meal of all the few he cared for, a simple man. I judged the sauerbratens of Brooklyn by the kartoffelklöse, the big baseball-sized potato dumplings that had to be served with the dish – did they have the crisp crouton buried at the very heart of the soft steamed dumpling? Had they put enough black pepper in the batter? Was the gravy vivid, as well as thick enough to coat every morsel the fork would wedge away from the ball? The Law-Ran did well on this, not the best, but good enough for a Saturday in November.
But here we are, I mean I was, under the Crescent Street station on the old elevated BMT. Here I turned right, east, and followed Liberty Avenue, past dirty windows with the scary pictures of psoriasis victims above dusty pots of ointments for sale to cure such conditions, maladies of the skin I had never (have never) seen on any living person. But the pictures taught me, beside the sphincter squeeze of horror as you gazed at the frightful images or turned away, taught me that if you look close enough at anything you will see the horror and the ugliness. Stare closely at your sweet skin with a magnifying glass and you’ll see leprosy and fear. Melville said it long ago: This visible world seems formed in love, but secretly is formed in fright.
Onward. Many storefronts empty. This is not a prosperous time, my childhood, the war had unhinged more than values; nobody knew where to stand, or how to walk. I felt like a stranger on every street in my own neighborhood. And looking back, I think the people I took as natives, who were natives just like me, thought of themselves as strangers too. Onward, three more blocks and I pass the Earl movie theater, cheapest of the four movie houses in our district; here a child’s admission in daytime (the afternoon, called the matinee to confuse us) was twelve cents (where the Gem was fourteen, and the upscale Embassy where the first run movies showed, a full quarter). Here I saw the revivals from the 30s and the scratched, last-ditch prints of current films. Here I saw with excitement the old chestnut The Sign of the Cross with Frederic March and Claudette Colbert at about the same time our age’s real signs were rising, smoke over Auschwitz, smoke over Nagasaki.
The movies drew me often. They changed their shows though (two features, newsreel, cartoon) only twice a week, so only two days brought me there. More often, I kept going. A few blocks onward I’d come to Elderts Lane. This broad, emptyish street with a grassy meridian marked the actual border between Brooklyn and Queens. Right on the corner on our side was a fish market; every Friday huge cauldrons of oil were kept boiling; sweating men would slip in and skim out of them the fried seafood of the day or the season – fried flounder, fried sole all year round, fried cod roe that my mother loved, fried soft shell crabs in summer. We would walk up and carry home a big greasy bag of fried flounder, usually, sometimes with a newspaper stuffed with French fries.
But that was only Friday. If I were lucky, some summer night we’d turn right and saunter a ways down Elderts Lane to where Simonetti’s tavern and beer garden hummed in twilight, and where the best pizza I or anybody else – there were always dozens of big black cars parked nearby, from which stepped down the broad jacketed mysterious cognoscenti who ate quietly at tables apart – can remember.
And that was even rarer than fish. What mostly happened at Elderts Lane is crossing it, and wandering on into the suddenly wider, fresher air of Queens. The el ended, the cavernous sun-striped darkness of Liberty Avenue gave way to sunlight. Where two streets converged, a small branch of the Bank of the Manhattan Company (oldest bank in New York, paid the lowest interest of all on savings) pointed its prow towards Brooklyn and approaching me. If I kept left, to its starboard side, I’d pass the bank and come, next door, to the smallest, remotest branch of the Queensboro Public Library – some of its books were still stamped Queensborough – and this, most beloved place, was my library. Here everything began, and I dragged home big bags of books every week, from the era when I wanted to read Sherlock Holmes and Robert Hugh Benson (not that I’ve forgotten them) on through the discovery of Proust and Mann and Joyce. But all I have to tell here is that I had found my way at last to the book.
West: Anokhi Yehudi
When I leave my house and turn left, past Loretta on her steps, pass the social club, and turn left again at the Italian drugstore my mother doesn’t like, though the pharmacist is pleasant and I still wonder why, I’m on Belmont Avenue, and stand in front of the Italian grocery where every day we buy our bread: Jewish sour rye with gleaming brown crust, short crisp bayonets of Italian bread. Cheese. In front of the store the B-14 bus idles. It is labeled Pitkin Avenue, and here it starts its long run into the heart of Brooklyn.
This bus will take me. I wait near the grocery, still in Italy, still near the vacant lot, the bare fence through which I can see the yards, including the yard of the house I live in, the yards, long, scattered here and there with grape vines on rickety ramadas, or clumps of that sickly green that grows the ripe sweet tomatoes every Italian family plants behind the house. The bus comes and leaves every quarter hour or so. This is the end of the line. The end is the beginning. I live at the end of the line. I live at the beginning.
When the bus folds its doors closed and lurches into motion, it almost immediately turns right, down Crescent Street, and at once passes the social club, Loretta’s house, my house. My parents are off at work, my mother at her school, my father at the bank on Madison Square from which he’ll come home so tired every night at seven. No one will be at our windows. My little sister will be playing at my aunt’s house two blocks away. The bus shudders past and I am gone from the home world into the world I want, the desire world waiting all along the line. One block and the bus turns right again, down Sutter Avenue, which it will follow deep into Brownsville several miles before turning right yet again, on Stone Avenue, and go one block north to Pitkin, where it finally makes a left turn onto the street that gives it its name, the high street of Brownsville.
Brownsville. There’s one in Texas, on the Mexican border. But this one is not Mexican, not Spanish of any kind yet. Now, 1940, 1950, 1960, it is purely Jewish. Who was Brown? Who knows. But this is the Brooklyn ghetto, the money-poor and culture-rich ghetto I grew up on the doorstep of. This was my real home.
On Sutter Avenue, soon, after the last few Italian shops, the vacant lots interspersed with low houses, houses with porches where, in the autumn, here and there already you’d see a sukkah built for the harvest festival, and know that the interdigitating of the Jews and the Italians had begun. At the corner of Fountain Avenue you’d sometimes see a herd of cows shambling down the asphalt street, coming from the vacant lots and fields (this was after all the region called New Lots) where they grazed all day – right up into the 1960s. Cows who moved along among the dark cars and walked unguided, by habit, into an ordinary storefront where, in the old garage, they had their barn. After the cows, after the occasional nanny goats some Italian family kept for milk, browsing on weeds and jetsam, the bus moved, all in a couple of blocks, into the Jewish neighborhood. Suddenly I felt excited and weirdly at home. Here on the first corner came the shabby dark blue offices and meeting room of the Arbeyter Ferayn, the left-wing worker’s group, whose name, part veiled from me in the Hebrew letters I would soon learn to spell out one by one, stood on a cardboard sign propped in the window. This was the left wing of America now: here’s the territory of liberals and leftists, far from the America-Firsters of right-wing Woodhaven, the sentimental Mussolini admirers of the Old Mill – still only a few blocks behind me on the sputtering smelly bus. This bus was carrying me on my pilgrimage into politics, into social awareness, into the shimmer of Marxism that made glorious all these ratty storefronts with their worker’s circles and discussion groups and Hashomer Hatzair where all the cute girls were, cute, serious, dark-browed, even their bodies looked intelligent.
Now this Sutter Avenue the bus was smoking and grunting down, it was a narrowish east-west street, low class, though not as low as Blake Avenue one block south, which was the street market – the pushcarts, we called them, where everything from oranges to chinaware to cotton shirts for children to hot knishes were sold from laggard rickety carts on two big wheels that men pushed along the street and stopped to sell, or else moored a while on Sunday mornings and most afternoons and let the buyers come to them.
No, Sutter was a bit above that on the socio-economic scale, grim stores and storefront synagogues and meeting places, vegetable sellers and kosher butcher shops every few blocks, with not much hanging in the window, a scrawny chicken or two gibbeted for the crimes, featherless, yellow, or a lump of nameless holy meat on glazed white metal trays. Mostly I would study the language in the window, not the meat. Sometimes the signs would be in English I could read, read but not understand, times and seasons, and specials for one or another festival – as if the people who bought the meat and cooked the ritual dishes were slowly losing touch with the Yiddish or sometimes Hebrew in which their minds were shaped, gradually learning from the street itself, the buses, the cigarette butts strewn along the gutter, their daughters sporting lewd blue jeans or peasant blouses that showed too much, somehow the look of those pants, the cars parked in between the pushcarts, the shiny Plymouths and Buicks men polished in the lonely afternoons, as if all these things were the words of the English language on the march against them, so even in their own windows a sign would go up, chulent it would say in American letters, or challah. Where does language go? Even then I worried about it; I didn’t want to see English words – I was fleeing from my corner into all the streets, from my house into no houses, just people, the milling, moiling, tumult of ordinary other people. The foods of the other. The words of the other. Only those could nourish me.
On Sutter Avenue plenty of such nutrition was ready to be found: the noisy greasy corner printing shops, Drukerey I could make out in the window, working from the German I was beginning to know in school, ‘printer,’ where men in undervests read clean paper with their inky hands, men with hats on always, printing the curvy thick Jewish letters that seemed as rich as foods, as deeply familiar as the veins that twisted down my wrist. Hebrew letters: I was amazed that I couldn’t read them, because they seemed to familiar, as if they were modeled on the inside of my own body, of every human body, organ and tube and channel and drop of seed.
They stood in doorways and looked at the sheets fresh-printed. Little boys with velvet yarmulkes and velvety eyes and dangling peyos would carry big loads of fresh print along the street to the binder, another shop not far away, and there’d be the books and pamphlets piled high in the reading rooms, overflowing the doorways of what I took to be synagogues, what did I know, men in big black hats, and every now and then an elder great one wearing a big shtreiml, a fur-trimmed hat and long black shiny coat and high white stockings. A stick he’d carry, and walk like a man from our own history, as if Benjamin Franklin had come alive as a rabbi now, and all our American sagacity were just one gesture of the timeless wisdom of these strange Jews.
And the news stands full of papers and magazines, current, in Russian and Polish and even German, the Aufbau I too was reading, the paper of the exiled German Jewish community, and there were papers in English, of course, and not just the leftwing press – Daily Worker, PM, The Compass, The Post, depending on the left-ness or the year, but all the presses, even the hated jingo red-baiting Hearst rags The Mirror, and the Urinal American as we learned to call it, though secretly I loved it for its comic strips, Jiggs and Maggie, Prince Valiant. Because these people read everything. That is the first thing I learned about the Jews: they read and read. On the bus I’d often sit near clusters of yeshiva students who would be arguing over the bibles in their hands, pages ecstatic with commentaries in all sizes and styles of print, seas of text surrounding the great island of the Text itself, God’s word – and all the words we could ever speak would only serve to comment on the least of it. Their pale fingers pointed to the text. These were my kin, my only brothers, even though I couldn’t understand a word they said, or read.
Maybe that’s why there were no bookstores I ever saw, I who lived for books. These people had a book. Libraries here and there, especially the Sterling branch at the end of the line, the real reason I’m on this bus, that’s the end and goal of the ride. No bookstores because all the urgent reading in the neighborhood was of the most current, the endless arguments of politics and what we used to call Current Events, current as in running, and we had to run to keep up with them, talking all the while in restaurants and bars and cafeterias and on park benches, and jabbering on buses and schoolyards. That’s what they read, that and the opposite, the Eternal Word that needed every man’s devout and sustained attention, so that the old men, and men not so old too, would spend, I could see them there on summer days as I walked past their stifling hot storefronts, spend hours bent over the law and the commentaries, so that another name for the House of Prayer was the House of Study, and these men prayed with their eyes.
For Language itself was holy. And into language I was trying to make my pilgrimage. As I’ve grown older, I have come to understand that it is only into language that we travel, the names of the places into which we go, streets, cities, cathedrals, islands, Arabias, yes, but also into the using of language, the naming of things, and not just far things, but the things close at hand. And that is what a city is, a place where everything is at hand, and where a child can journey into language and discover the secret messages his own skin is getting from the world around him, the messages from breath and smell and moving particles of unknown matter, soft, pervasive, everlasting against his only skin: name these.
So it was into naming the bus crawled down Sutter, holding me a rapt and virtuous prisoner of the way.
Presently the bus turned right, onto Stone Avenue, a wide, wide street and full of traffic, and wide sidewalks too, on which merchandise was often piled, heaped up for sale or just for storage in front of hardware stores that sold more china plates than hammers, in front of clothing stores, readymade uniforms and wedding gowns and religious raiment and other signs of service or servitude. Talliths in the window. Great purple velvet Torah scrolls displayed. And Stone was more upscale yet than Sutter, we were rising towards the high street, the main street of Brownsville, the celebrated Pitkin Avenue where the finest shops were open till nine every night – fine not by the standards of Manhattan of course, just fine enough to boast glitzy neon instead of the naked lightbulbs of the poor Blake and Sutter stores.
Here was Geyer the tobacconist, fascinating old man hunched over his showcase full of polished briars, pale beaky face living up to his name, geier means vulture, and from him I bought my first pipe, long stemmed straight briar, tall bowl lined with meerschaum, only a kid would buy a pipe like that, I still have it, its mouth piece long gone, the wooden shaft itself long enough to bite on if I still smoked. And here, in contradiction, was Davega, the big sporting goods store, one of a small chain of them in those days. The double windows between which we filed to enter the recessed doorway, they were full of dazzling and often mysterious sporting things. Handballs bouncy pink (spaldeens) and hard black rubber, pink for the boxball every kid played, taking as our micro-tennis court the six-foot-squares marked out in every sidewalk, bounce on the crack to score, or lose, depending on the rules of the game, black for the wall ball, always called handball, slamming the dense hard ball against a tall concrete wall – the city park department built them here and there, schoolyards or tiny parks or as they called them playgrounds – a team game, for older, tougher, faster boys. It hurt the hand. The hurt, as in all sports, is part of the fun. And those curious ovate pigskin footballs, how strange to find a piggish thing here in so Jewish a place, didn’t it defile the fingers? I never understood football, what kind of ball is it that you couldn’t roll, couldn’t bounce up and down, couldn’t hit with a stick, what was the point of that? Yet that game won out in America, alas.
Oh the games were different in those days. Baseball was the king of games, so the window was full of official baseballs in their boxes, American League or National League, America is all about choice, about buying a sense of identity from acts of choosing. Cheaper balls heaped up in pyramids big and little, and costly supple leather gloves to catch them and ashwood bats to hit them. And equivalent gear for playing baseball’s awkward but simpler cousin softball. Basketballs were there, of course, but inoffensive, not much glamour in the game yet, it was just what kids played in high school, demotic, dumb. No squash, no nautilus machines, no jogging togs. Only criminals ran, and famous Finns in the Olympics, and portly gentlemen running for the bus, or kids running away from other gangs. Why else would a man run? No sense of body worship in those windows, in those days, though tucked away at the back of the window might be a barbell and a stack of weights, and little dumbbells you could use to strengthen your pitching arm or make your swing more potent at the plate. And even a home plate would be there, leaning modestly against the rear wall, in case you wanted to set up a real baseball diamond in some vacant lot.
For there were vacant lots in those days: the city had not yet filled up every single space, or sometimes it had but then a building burned down or crumbled, or something was planned but never built. So there were lots, and we played in them. Parks as such were rare, but vacant lots were many. That’s where kids sledded in the winter, played ball, shot arrows, beat one another up all summer long. The lots were full of weeds and dog shit, garbage, mosquitoes in all the greenery, lost things, old cardboard boxes that propped up made good targets for an arrow or crushed flat good bases for a game of stickball, poorest of all the baseball relatives: a broomstick to slap a pink spaldeen far – a ball could travel a full block if hit straight on, so the house walls on either side of the vacant lot would be bouncing surfaces for our evening game.
Past Davega’s sporting goods the shops were adult, offered clothing and jewelry, the stuff I noticed as they say with half an eye, knowing it was not for me, and not being greedy enough yet for alternative identities to imagine putting those square squat diamond rings on my own ring finger like the tough old guys – Jewish and Italian both, curious—in the neighborhood. No, these stores were for grown-ups and their boring clothes, boring decorations, furniture: clothing is so silent. It maddened me, the wordlessness of clothing stories, for all the practiced salesman patter that was scripted, not spoken. How boring adults are.
Then after both the boring and exciting storefronts came the best thing of all: turn left at Hopkinson Avenue and there was the Hopkinson movie theater. This was the one place in Brooklyn where you could see what used to be called ‘art films,’ by which people meant anything made in France or Italy or England. Or Russia. Russia, at a time when the very name was scary. But here I saw Eisenstein for the first time, the gorgeous tuneful patriotism of Alexander Nevsky, with that Prokofiev movie score I had an LP of and played a million times, dreaming of the Saxon knights swallowed up by the icefields, the pale beauty of the blonde American girl Hilary Brooke – who actually had once lived next door to us, years before, in another part of Brooklyn. So there it was, the girl next door in a movie made in the middle ages on a country further than the moon, by the greatest film maker of them all, the gay Jew who made all Russia beautiful. What else did I see here? Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion, the sublime and the frivolous, Lady Paname with the gorgeous long-forgotten Suzy Delair, Panic, that paranoid masterpiece with Michel Simon, and Boudu sauvé des eaux. But it was the Russian movies that were so important – the current ones, preposterously blurry SovColor where true colors became pastel and vice versa, stilted, boring, but wonderfully strange. Anthology movies showing chunks of famous singers and instrumentalists, Oistrakh playing Tchaikovsky, or that loveliest of all tenors, Ivan Kozlofsky, like a Ukrainian John Mac Cormack, breaking the heart with Lensky’s aria – Kuda, kuda, that Nabokov made such mean fun of, Where, o where, have those years gone?
(to be continued)