My Brooklyn is Cypress Hills from 1960-1983, but the Brooklyn closest to my heart is the period of 1960-1972. The time before the neighborhood began to decay into a place of drugs and racist violence and just plain neglect, when the decent folks began fleeing to Queens or the Island. My second home was the Highland Park "Y" which was on the corner of my block, Shepherd Avenue between Jamaica Ave. and Ridgewood Ave. We used to lie in the street all day long playing skelly, melting our crayons into the bottle caps, even getting extreme and loading them down with fishing weights and melting the crayon over the weights. Then we got silly for a while and started coming out with larger caps, lids from peanut butter jars and such. How I loved skelly! Remember making those slick glass checkers by dragging a Coke bottle over a sewer plate slowly and surely until the lip of the bottle just slipped off . . . and how that checker would glide across the asphalt! We'd go to the old Sunoco station that was next to the "Y" to clean out the soda machine's receptacle that caught all the bottle caps as people opened the bottles on the bottle opener attached to the unit, not a soda machine like today but more like a console-type freezer.
The Indian bridge up in Highland Park, the reservoirs, going to Houdini's grave at midnight on Halloween, sleigh riding over "the hump" or down "dead man's hill," bike riding down Snake Hill, climbing the huge weeping willow in the soldiers cemetery and carving our names in it. When I was about 10, a friend and I used to hang out at Houdini's grave and made friends with the cemetery caretaker and his dog, Zots. We were there for the annual Halloween ceremony when the Society of American Magicians would convene around the grave, mumble a few words, and break a wand over the grave. It was said that they would leave the wand on the grave and you could then take it if you wanted, unless someone else had asked for it first. I never did get it. I still have pictures of the gravesite and Houdini's bust, the mosaic design on the stone, and the wand breaking ceremony.
As a young child, the 4th of July was a stupendous event. We'd go right down the block to Shepherd and Ridgewood where men would stand on each of the 4 corners and go through mats and mats of firecrackers, lighting them and tossing them into the middle of the intersection while all the residents stood around and watched. . . . The guy who lived on one of the corners was a cop and used to drive up with a truckful of fireworks, reputedly that he'd taken off kids. They had everything: firecrackers, cherry bombs, ashcans, M-80s, Roman candles, bottle rockets,pinwheels, whistling chasers (some of us remember what those were really called back then), and much more. We couldn't wait until the next morning, when we kids would scour the intersection for all the firecrackers that hadn't gone off, then we'd empty all the "powder" into one big pile and light a "genie."
On Shepherd Avenue as a kid, I knew who lived in every house on the block by name, on both sides of the street. This was a community! There was the Inch family on the corner . . . "all the Inches still can't make a foot!" . . . they had four girls and one boy. I went to St. Rita's for kindergarten (teacher was Miss Dorothy Coss), then Blessed Sacrament for 1st-8th grade. We played stoopball, stickball, punchball, slapball, whiffleball, boxball, off-the-wall (with "booties up" for the loser), handball, Chinese handball, pitching pennies, we played a game called Wolf that was like a large-scale version of hide n seek in which each player that was found (and tagged) also became a seeker These games could last the whole day, the boundaries covered 3 blocks: Highland Place, Shepherd Ave. and Essex St. My buddies were Rocky, Richie, Roman, Jerry, Affatato,Johnny Cornell, David Delarosa ("the Cuban"), Victor and Vito . . . that was the core group. Then I had whole other configurations of friends from school (Blessed Sacrament). There was never a dull moment.
I later went to Franklin K. Lane H.S. with the whole neighborhood gang. Highland Park was the turf of the Headers, Bklyn, who flew their "colors" and lorded it over us younger guys and made all kinds of trouble until we were old enough to carry on their legacy. But we younger guys joined up with the Sabres, Bklyn, the guys from Fulton Street: Arty & Keety Webs, Billy Balls, Miller, Billy Gibson, Johnny Boy, Bogie, Tom Tom, and pretty soon the Sabres sort of merged with what was left of the Headers, and there were unfortunate acts of violence committed both by them and against them. Young people lost their lives pointlessly. Bobby Bear and Donut, shot and stabbed, respectively, on two separate occasions. By the time of Donut's death, I had drifted away from that crowd and spent most of my time with my girlfriend who had moved out of the neighborhood to Starrett City. I would take the J train (used to be the QJ; BMT line) to Eastern Parkway, then catch the LL to Canarsie, then catch a bus to Starrett. She and I would sit on the Starrett Pier, or wander through Starrett City holding hands. She and I and her brother were in Forest Park, Queens, the night of the '77 blackout. We walked out of the dark park and into and through the darkened neighborhoods of Woodhaven and Cypress Hills, and both she and her brother ended up spending the night at my house.
Blessed Sacrament Parish holds many memories . . . Father Krieg, Sister Florence, Father "Luke," Father Richmond (the ex-boxer who charlie-horsed me to tears in the sacristy one day while I was an altar boy). Yeah, we used to sneak sips of the wine while serving mass, jab our friends in the throat with the tray while serving communion, ring the bells at the wrong times. I suffered much at the hands of those nuns, I was slapped, pinched, pulled by ears, sideburns and nose, made to sit in wastebaskets, desk drawers, paddled in front of the class, made to hold a baby rattle, and many more exquisitely sadistic punishments. I was voted Class Clown at 8th grade graduation, so obviously the nuns had good cause. I often wonder about all the kids I knew in Blessed Sacrament and where they are now. I remember all the names . . . the hot girls: Margaret Vohs, Gail Heck, Michele D'Angelo, and all the guy friends I had: Timmy McQuaid, Danny Mogelnicki, Thomas Marsman, I could go on and on.
I remember Lorenzo's Pizzeria, the Hale Bowling Alley, Jack's Pizzeria, Jack's Tavern on Fulton Street, Tilotta's, the drug store on Crescent and Fulton, Joe the Barber, Joe the tailor where we bought our school uniforms, the butcher next to Tillota's who would always give me a rolled up slice of bologna when I went there with my mom and where I would beg my mom to buy me a "Chocolate Cow." Baseball cards, Italian ices, Yoo-hoo, Yodels, Freezer Fresh, the Good Humor man, Mr. Softee, Bungalow Bar ( . . . tastes like tar, the more you eat it, the sicker you are!), the girls playing double dutch and hopscotch, all of us playing "hot peas and butter" (a truly sadistic game), johnny on the pony, ringoleevio, "walking up the green grass," red light green light, and so many more games. Choosing sides by doing "odds and evens" or everyone sticking their sneakered foot in a circle and doing the "eeny meeny miny moe" or "doggie doggie step right out." Hangin' out and ranking each other out ("dissing" in today's parlance) . . . "no mothers, man!") Ringing doorbells and running, having egg fights on Halloween, climbing the mausoleums in the cemeteries and leaping from one to the next. The Arlington library, Sal and Lois's deli on Euclid and Ridgewood, going home to my grandma's house for lunch (at 390 Ridgewood Ave.) to watch Bewitched and getting back to school in time to play in the schoolyard. Cypress pool, the Embassy Theater (the first movie theater I ever went in), hangin' on Force Tube Ave. and playing foot hockey with a crushed down beer or soda can. Hangin' out at Fat Joe's on Norwood and Ridgewood, playin' the numbers, drinking Schaefer or Rheingold or Colt 45. I could go on forever.
I've often lamented all the trouble I got in as a kid and as a teen, and the negative influences abounding in Brooklyn, but the richness of my childhood was extraordinary. It was full of life and color and adventure, and it will always be so in my memories. Bless you for creating this web site! If anyone from my past is out there, e-mail me please and let's catch up. I live in Minneapolis now, but will be in NY soon on business and this site has inspired me to go visit the old neighborhood. My house on Shepherd Ave. was like a mansion to me, it was 3 stories and it was all ours, it cost my parents a whopping $8,000 when they bought it! I used to go up on the roof and walk all the way down the block along all the adjoining roofs, what a perspective! I better stop typing or I never will. Thanks so much for this site, it has touched me deeply.
Doug Sievers continues . . .
Thanks for sharing your memories on the Brooklyn web site, which I just discovered yesterday. This is in response to someone else's posting who said he lived on Hale between Fulton & Atlantic. I grew up on Shepherd Ave., between Jamaica and Ridgewood, right down the block from the Y, and then moved to Norwood, between Fulton & Atlantic when I was about twelve. I lived there until I moved out of Brooklyn when I was twenty-three. Sounds like you lived around the block from me, but maybe a little earlier in time, although I was a kid in the '60s and a teen in the '70s. Always bowled at Hale. Remember the old lady's magazine store right next to the Arlington beer distributor? It was just a dumpy little place that was piled high with stacks of magazines; you had to sort through the piles by hand to see what was there. It was there that I discovered magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland, Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella and got hooked. A couple of years ago I got to meet Forest J. Ackerman, the former editor of FM and it was like I was a kid again, I even took our picture together and also with my twelve-year-old son. The lady in the store always reminded me of the old gypsy woman in the Lon Chaney Jr. Wolfman movies. I always went there to buy my magazines when I'd saved up enough loose change.
I too remember the waterworks on Atlantic . . . I went there with my Dad when they demolished the towers because my dad wanted to get some bricks for a border around the big tree in front of our house on Shepherd Ave. Do you remember Curci's Law Office on the corner of Norwood & Fulton? My mom was the secretary there all her life, and Angela Curci still goes to work there to this day. I could hear the el train pull into the station from my bedroom window. I lived at 208, a house with six garages in the backyard, the third house from the corner bar (Norwood Lounge?). Anyway, take care & drop a line if you have the time. Wonder if we have any mutual acquaintances. The only family I knew on your block was the Spillanesthe girl's name was Jackie and she went with Bobby Schmidt for years and years (maybe they're married today?).
One funny story from my Norwood Ave. days involves the day I foolishly laughed at a boy who had fallen off his bike when rounding the corner of Norwood & Fulton. Well, that kid was after me for a long time after that. He was a deaf mute and would stand on the corner shaking his fist at me. I used to devise elaborate alternate routes to get back to my house on Norwood to avoid meeting up with him, including climbing a tall fence on Fulton right next to where the bowling alley ended, going through an alley and climbing through the backyards to get to my own backyard. He caught me one day on Hale Ave. just below Ridgewood Ave., so I accepted the inevitable and put up my fists, hoping this would bring closure to the affair. Well, this kid could box! He pummeled me mercilessly, my nose was bleeding, I was a mess, but he just kept coming until some passersby broke it up. Was his bloodlust satisfied? Not a chance . . . I was his sworn enemy for life, it seemed. This guy gave me nightmares, and my friends and I referred to him as El Nutso and had many good laughs about him (I still laugh about him with my own kids today). Man, I've got a hundred more stories but not the time to tell them. Write on, O Brooklynites!
8 December 2000
My Brooklyn was Crown Heights.
If anyone remembers me or the things I've mentioned, please let in touch. Would love to hear from you.
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