Growing Up Brooklyn
“Never buy a bridge while you’re in Brooklyn”
(From the song: “Never Buy Texas from a Cowboy” by The Brides of Funkenstein)
Crown Heights: That Kid’s Got Pipes!
After living in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey we moved to Hempstead, Long Island, around 1965 we moved to Brooklyn, New York. We lived at 1325 Eastern Parkway; this part of Brooklyn would become my stomping ground. Eastern Parkway is a main thoroughfare that crosses many famous streets like Nostrand Ave and is home to the Brooklyn Museum. There were tree-lined mediums that were cobble stoned and had benches for people to rest, watch the traffic of cars and other people, or meet up with friends. When I lived there, elderly people of Italian and Jewish descent mostly occupied the benches. Our apartment was alive with music, everybody from: Tito Puente, Willie Bobo, Peggy Lee, Miles Davis, Monk, Perry Como, Sinatra, Cal Tjada and many others could heard streaming out of our windows.* I found out that the elderly people on the benches liked the song “I left my heart in San Francisco” by Tony Bennet. Therefore, anytime my mom would take my little sister and I walking on the medium; I would sing that song to anyone who was willing to listen. The first time I sang it, a woman and her husband gave me a dollar! Something was placed in me that day; I found out later that it is called “The New York Hustle”*. It made life sweet to know that people would gladly pay you to make them smile, especially when there were plenty of candy stores around. Our family made weekly trips to Brownsville to shop at the Pickens Ave Market that hosted shops both indoors and on the sidewalks. You could stand on the corner and see carts for what seemed like miles. Everything from fresh meats, seafood, socks, household items, you name it and New Yorkers know how to sell it. Pickens Ave was alive with car horns blowing, music blaring and everybody seemed to know how to “Banter” (bargain) the bantering was loud and boisterous, and my mother was very good at it. A serious way of life for the New Yorker, in fact, I still have a hard time paying for my purchases without asking the salesperson to lower the price! But guess what, it still works in some places! I believe that if New Yorkers were not able to exercise their God given right to banter we would all die from broken hearts! While we were shopping, my step-dad would disappear, then my mom would find him in the record shop buying 45’s and albums as though they were gonna stop making them the next day.
Flatbush: Summer in the City
A couple of years later we moved to East 52nd Street and Clarkston Ave. We were the first people of color to penetrate this Jewish or Hasidic community. It was a bit touchy at first, no one spoke to us, but they would turn to stare at us as we passed by. Eventually the women would say good morning to my mother and then ask her a question. The men began to strike up conversations with my stepfather, and before long, their children began to knock on our door for me and my sister to come out and play. My mother kept a busy schedule as a Jazz Vocalist my stepfather worked as a civil engineer for The New York Rapid Transit System he specialized in demolition. I never really knew if we were accepted or simply tolerated, I‘d like to believe it was a little of both. Rain or shine, we were up at 5:30am and in line at 6:00am in front of the bakery across the street. We were there with the rest of the neighborhood shivering, laughing and talking while waiting for fresh rolls and bagels. It was well worth it when you got home and piled the cream cheese or scrambled eggs and lox on them while they were still warm. Oh, God how I wish my children had the same vast experiences that Brooklyn afforded me. In hindsight, I see that the 4-block area of Clarkston Ave from 53rd to Utica Ave was a micro-city that was in fact micro-managed by the shopkeepers, the Yenta’s (nosey women) and us kids who were full of mischief. Dotted along two blocks was the fish market, a kosher meat market, a Met Food Store, an egg store, (Really, the family that owned it sold nothing but eggs!) an open air fruit and vegetable market, two luncheonettes, one Jewish Deli, two candy stores, and a pharmacy. While each proprietor had a specific product to sell there were times when the competition got heavy. Harry owned the vegetable stand; directly across the street Moshe (pronounced Mo- Shay) owned the Met Food store, which sold everything kosher. Harry had no love for Moshe, he had a problem with Moshe selling fruits and vegetables that he (Harry) felt were not fit for human consumption. Every morning Harry would open his stand and sweep the sidewalk in front, on cue Moshe would come out and began his tirade about how Harry had better stop saying ugly things about him and his vegetables. Harry would reply by telling Moshe that he and his vegetables were an abomination and that his mother probably died of shame. Moshe would then pronounce Harry as Satan telling him that he did not have a mother but crawled out of the ground from the pits of hell, and then he would invite him to go back down there. Occasionally the dialog got so heated that they would meet up in the middle of Clarkston Ave with their brooms (or shovels in the winter) and circle each other rising and lowering their weapons as if one was waiting to take the head off the other. It never took more than a minute for the men of our village to come out and separate them, the women stood on the sidewalk and put on a good show of lamentations because Harry and Moshe’s behavior was sending the nation to hell in a hand basket. I would sit on a crate and watch the whole thing while laughing so hard I would sometimes pee my pants. It was the most creative marketing ploy I have ever witnessed; to keep the peace, no one in the neighborhood would dare to shop at Moshe’s store without going across the street afterwards to buy something from Harry or visa-versa.*
The Moral of the Story
When the weather permitted, the grown ups would sit outside around the courtyard. It seemed they all had a story to tell about life, love, greed, envy and current social topics.* I caught on quickly that none of them would end the story without saying “So the moral of the story is” then they would bring you up to speed about what moral lesson you should take away with you. I must have heard a thousand of these stories of chastity, humility, charity, and moral dilemmas. I did not however, know back then, how dear to my hearts these stories would become. My family began to “Fit In” very nicely. My mom would participate in the washing of the hands ritual with the women when someone had died (or had done something so ugly that their relatives would have nothing more to do with them. This was very deep, painful and personal.) My stepfather would wear the yamaka (given to him by the men in the community, I guess that made us Honorary Jewish Citizens) and he would help the men prepare for the “High Holy Days” I had the unofficial job of turning the lights and stoves on and off during the Sabbath, Passover and other Holy Days. They would seek me out and give me a gratuity when the Holy Days were over. I went to the home of the family that lived next door to us, the woman needed her stove turned off, she did not speak English all that well, but enough that I knew what she wanted. As I was about to leave she stopped me by saying “Please!” I turned around to find her pointing at her wrist, I walked over to see what she was calling my attention to. It was my first time seeing a tattoo that people received while in a nazi concentration camp. I must have stood there forever staring at the tattoo, she allowed me to touch it then place my hand over it. I thought that if I covered it with my hand it would disappear along with her memories, it was the only form of comfort I could think of at that moment. I finally looked up at her, in her eyes I could see wildness, an almost animal like look as though she was afraid that this horrible thing could happen to her or her people again. I prided myself on being “A Tough Kid” and did not want her to see me cry, but I wanted to cry hard and long. I did pull myself together enough to say ‘I’m Sorry” the look in her eyes went away instantly and she gave me a traditional Jewish pinch on the cheek. Finally, we both smiled as though we now shared something. I asked if there was anything else I could do for her, she nodded her head to say yes, pointed to the tattoo once more but never told me what she wanted me to do. It was not very long before I figured out the moral of that story. UNCHECKED HATRED DOES HORRIBLE THINGS TO PEOPLE.
“People moving out, people moving in, why, because of the color of their skin. Run, run, run, but you sure can’t hide.”
(Released by The Temptations in Sept 1970)
Ball of Confusion
By the summer of 1970, I had gone through a myriad of changes and so had my neighborhood. Now the face of the neighborhood represented faces from everywhere in the world. Some of the shopkeepers and families had packed-up and fled to Florida, some moved to Israel, while other chose to stay and raise their children in a diverse community. This had to be one of the coolest times of my young life. Yea, I was having the time of my life; however, being a realist even at a young age, I knew everybody was as mad as a wet hen about something. Women were angry, Black people were angry, people were angry about the war (some wanted war while others did not), while I was desperately trying to find my place in all of these issues. I had stopped singing to everyone and taken up playing congas. One of the older kids had turned me on to Jimi Hendrix, (Foxy Lady) then I discovered Janice Joplin and the groups just kept coming. Santana, Grand Funk Railroad, Sly and the Family Stone (I actually dressed like them and thought I was a member of the band!), The Chambers Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, took their place on my wall of hero’s right along with Aretha, The Jackson Five, The Five Stair Steps, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. The problem was I could not say who or what cause was most dear to my heart. I read all the publications, practically lived at the library trying to get the facts straight, and participated in as many sit-ins as I could get away with. It seemed that everybody had valid talking points. Unfortunately, there were many disparities (and still are) for Blacks, Women and everyone else that was boiling mad at the time. My friends never knew whom I was coming out as each day, one day I am Angela Davis, the next day I am Abby Hoffman, then my step dad would do something stupid and I would align myself with Gloria Steinem, I remember even coming out as a Hare Krishna. In a way, I was all these people at once, but all I really wanted was PEACE. I found my peace in my drums and I found my roots in the Museums of New York. However, just as I found my peace, Janice Joplin died. (Oct 4th 1970) I was hurt, no; I was devastated because I knew that if she had lived I would have had the opportunity to play congas in her band. Now what I am gonna do with my life! Please do not get bent outta shape by that last statement; I was only 13 when I was having those thoughts.
Later that year my parents (at my mothers urging) bought a building one block away at 228 East 51st street. The building housed four apartments, an empty storefront and a Kosher Deli (Maxi’s) on the corner. We turned the empty storefront into a full service Laundromat and when I say FULL SERVICE, I really mean it! We called our business “Sparkle Plenty” our sign was complete with a drawing of the Statue of Liberty. Not only did we do the wash, dry and fold thing, we actually picked up the laundry and delivered it when we were done. At first, I hated it, but the tips were good and it taught me how to serve people. We lived in the apartment above the laundry, which made it easy to work and play. It was a good community, at night the parents would come out with their lawn chairs and card tables and the kids never ran out of street games to play. As long as we did not get on their nerves, they would play cards, tell fantastic lies, and gossip while we played stickball, pop the whip, hot peas and butter, stoopball and Johnny-on-the-pony until one in the morning. The other kids taught me how to throw an egg from two blocks away and hit my intended target. (This might be a car window, a storefront or a person.) I learned how to run and jump from one rooftop to another, how to hitch buses, and last but not least how to be a major pain in the behind. (An activist in the making.) Yes, I learned everything a kid needed to know in order to survive and thrive in Brooklyn. By now, I was cooking on my drums and needed to expand my audience, so once a week I would go to Greenwich Village and play on the street with a hat out. Playing drums while reciting poetry, (Like Mary had a little lamb!) paid very well, I sometimes made over $100.00 a day! This was more than enough money to pay for my membership at the museum, buy my model airplanes and treat my friends to skating rinks, bowling, trips to the beach, and Coney Island. It also kept me waist deep in MAD magazines.* Mind you, my parents were not poor, in fact, we had it goin on, but I was driven to make my own money, my own way. When I was not wailing on the drums, I made money-selling Italian Ice’s in the summer and shoveling show in the winter. My friends and I would set up roadblocks with the fire hydrant and charge people to pass without us spraying their cars, they would gladly pay us but that did not mean we weren’t gonna spray them.
The Five Stair Steps
70’s Soul Group, Hit Songs Include:
“Dear Prudence” and “Ooh Child”
You talkin ta me?
My husband insisted that I tell this story. My mom made sure that my sister and I were exposed to various cultural events. We in were attendance at Broadway plays, took meals at many of New York’s four and five star restaurants, took part in marches for justice and anything else that would assure my mother that we were culturally fit and had proper social graces. We were regulars at The Apollo Theater, The East on Fulton Ave and I even got to hang out with mom at Trudy Heller’s in the Village. One night in 1970 The Five Stair Steps were appearing at The Apollo, mom bought tickets for me and four of my friends. Even though they were my friends, we did not agree on things like fashion. They wore the latest in hip African American attire, The Wet Look, Hot Pants and those shoes that looked like the ones that the pilgrims wore. Their hair was different too; they had stopped wearing afros and started plastering their “Baby Hairs” to the side of their faces. I tried going out like that but it just was not me. So, I wore my very best hippie attire to the show. Oh yea, my purple blouse with the huge arms and ruffles going down the front, my 2 inch red, white, and blue suspenders, I wore my favorite hip-hugger elephant bellbottoms with the 50 carefully place patches on each leg! My garrison belt with the huge peace sign buckle. Oh yea, my white moccasin boots, I made a headband out of a multi-colored scarf to compliment my Jeanne Pace Afro, threw a few flowers in my hair for effect, then donned my granny glasses. Yes sir, I was ready for the show! Did I mention the Rose Oil I bought at the Head Shop and smeared all over myself?
That night my mom pulls up to the door and my friends run out of the house screaming because we were about to see Clarence of The Five Stair Steps! They jumped in the car, said hello to my mom (very proper like) then they looked at me as if I were a giant rat sitting next to my mom. I did not get angry with them, actually I was used it by now. As long as we have a good time and scream our heads off for Clarence that was all I wanted.
The show was going well when the intermission came, we then dashed to the lobby so we could talk about Clarence, and copy the dance steps. I was not as into it as they were so after a minute or so I stood to the side and let them have at it. This guy walked up to me and said hello, I did not know him and could not understand why he would say hello, so I moved out of his way. He moved with me and said hello again, this time I responded… I think. I looked over at my girlfriends for support hoping they would save me! They knew I did not like boys at least not like that! At the time all I knew about boys was how to out race them, how to build rockets or speakers along side of them and how to body-slam them when they needed a lesson. I looked at my friends again and they were jumping up and down screaming! That is when I realized I was talking to Clarence of The Five Stair Steps. Still confused and now scared to death I did my best to respond to his questions. He asked how old I was and I told him, he asked where I lived and I told him, he asked what I like to do and I told him, he asked for my phone number and my mother told him no! However, he was a gentleman, he did not walk away, he stayed and we talked about strobe lights and speakers. He had to excuse himself so he took my hand and kissed it, and then he said goodbye to my mom and me! HOW GROSS! I did not expect to get my hand kissed but before I could wipe it off Joanne grabbed my hand and rubbed his slobber all over her face! UGH! By the time the show started up again I was beginning to feel special, for the rest of the night I was looking at my hand. My friends never spoke to me again, and I do mean never! I was a bit hurt by it at first, but then, they dressed weird and kissed boys…forget them.
A few years later, I learned a lot more about boys, and then I understood why my friends were nervous.
Still Crazy after All These Years!
Please do not ask me to grow up and leave my 60’s and 70’s behind. At lest, do not be serious when you say it. Growing up in Brooklyn in that era was both turbulent and joyous. Scary and reassuring, some of the most meaningful words ever put to music came out in those days. The aspirations and dreams of the people changed and it challenged. I know that we can never bring those days back. Nevertheless, we can keep them alive in our minds and our hearts, especially if those days were good for you any way. As for me, I experienced many painful moments back then, more than any child should ever be subjected to. However, the good things make me the person that I am. The bad things help me to witness to others that they too can grow and get passed them and begin to plant miracles everywhere they go. (For what other reason did I survive) Thank you all for taking the time to share the good things. Please take the time to remember and share yours too!
- People were not nearly as bourgeois and uptight as they are today. We often found people singing as they walked pass our windows; some would even stop to dance. Does this still go on in New York?
- New Yorkers are born with the gift of knowing supply and demand. They know a good thing when they saw it, and they are not at all afraid to step up and sell it.
- People could agree to disagree without actually killing each other.
- People were happy to know their neighbors, and even happier for the opportunity to fellowship with each other.
- We had each other’s back, my mom threw rent parties for anyone, and you paid according to what you weighed or just bought a plate and gave a donation. No one would stand around and watch a person get displaced. Rent parties also covered food, utilities and anything else you needed. People were always ready to return the favor. We were constantly paying some kid’s way to events; if one child went, all the kids went. You did not have to be a member of some special club, group or religion for this to happen; being a neighbor was reason enough to help.
- Children played! I mean we really played, the TV could hold us maybe 30 minutes, after that you had to go build something (like a go-cart), or do something that required some energy. Moreover, it was a lot safer for us.
- The courage to be different is rare. The courage to speak up is even harder to find.
- Peace, Sistah Nedra
Written June 20, 2006
Old Hippies Don’t Die, They Become Graphic Artist