Brooklyn, New York, is the hippest place around, if you believe what you read in New York newspapers. It has been gentrified, rebuilt, and remodeled to exude an aura of cool chic. But it wasn’t always that way.
The block I lived on had a Damon Runyon feeling to it. The people were so colorful that they were almost caricatures. I remember an old woman always sitting on her “stoop,” in the summertime, who used to give me a penny to run down to the corner candy store and buy her a vanilla ice cream cone. I was thrilled to earn that much money for such a simple task!
A group of boys on our block appeared to be gangsters-in-training. Three of them were always together and hung out at the corner, next to the candy store. They looked tough, and engendered fear among us small folks who cowered at the sight of their swagger, their leather jackets, boots and chains and their “gangsta-talk.” Just a glance at their tough, unsmiling faces caused us fear, forcing us to detour around them.
One fall weekend my parents took my brother and me to Chinatown. We came home with some precious souvenirs: mine was a sugar cane almost five feet long.. I thought it would be a great curiosity to bring to school for “Show and Tell.” But to get to school I had to walk past the gangster-in-training hangout. “Hey, girlie,” one of the boys called out to me, “Can I have that stick?” My second grade self answered bravely while quivering inside, “It’s not a stick; it’s a sugar cane.” Did he know what a sugar cane was? Doubtful, but not wanting to reveal his ignorance in front of his fellow gangsters-in-training, he allowed me safe passage onward towards school.
I remember two little boys on the other far corner of the street, Chuckie and Joey, about 4 years old. They were once as cute as any toddlers you’ve ever seen. I don’t know what happened to those adorable children in so short a time, but very soon they grew up with the gangster-in-training look, and were soon terrorizing children on their end of the block.
The most poignant memory I have of living on Rogers Avenue was of a thirteen year old boy, Anthony, who drowned one afternoon while on a fishing trip. The story we heard was that he was afraid to take off his shoes when he fell off the boat for fear his mother would yell at him for losing them. So he was pulled down by the current, the heavy water-filled shoes making it impossible for him to float to the surface. The whole neighborhood turned out for his “wake,” the first one I’d ever attended, and the first dead body I’d ever seen. He was lying peacefully, all dressed up, hair perfectly combed, looking handsome as I’d ever seen him. I still envision that boy lying lifeless in the funeral parlor because he was afraid his mother would yell at him for losing his new shoes.
But that was before Brooklyn was so incredibly hip.