The Wilds of Canarsie

A brief aside before continuing with my stories:


In order to better understand some of the events I’m describing, especially for those not familiar with Canarsie, I thought a map might be helpful. The small ‘x’ at the bottom is where my family lived – the small enclave jutting into Canarsie Park. When I was growing up we called it Seaview Park. This map shows that the park abutted the Belt Parkway. While it may have been parkland when I was growing up, it wasn’t in anyway improved, there were no ball fields or playgrounds; it was simply ‘the weeds.’ Now back to the story…..


The general zeitgeist of the ’60s, and the sights and sounds unique to my neighborhood made for a childhood woven with strands of anxiety.

If you were a girl growing up in the late ‘60s in New York City then you grew up in the shadow of the murder of Kitty Genovese. Perhaps not everyone was as affected as I was, but that story of neighborly indifference, of violence, of the callousness and danger of living in New York City, was part of the air that I breathed. I now know that the story is far more complicated than originally reported; there weren’t as many witnesses as the newspapers said at the time, calls to the police were made and a bystander did actually help her. But, that wasn’t the story that was embedded in my psyche at the time.

Kitty Genovese was murdered in Kew Gardens, Queens in March of 1964. The legacy of that crime was that we believed that people in New York City wouldn’t get involved, that New Yorkers took minding their own business to a dangerous extreme. Coupled with the incredibly high crime rate, this made for a fear of potential victimization and perhaps it became a self-fulfilling prophecy; a story we told ourselves.

I never liked when my parents went out for the evening, unless Nana and Zada were home. I would hear creaking, rustling and other assorted sounds – the usual sounds a house makes – and I imagined someone was trying to break in. It was hard to distract myself though I tried by watching television with the volume turned up. Of course some of the television shows of that era, Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, Twilight Zone, played on those story lines. My brothers weren’t helpful in comforting me. I likely didn’t share my fears since Mark in particular would look for any and every opportunity to tease me.

It was a time when once it got dark, we stayed inside. For as long as we lived in Canarsie, if an event or activity was going to end after dark, I had to have a specific plan for getting back to my front door. Since we had only one car this often meant that my father drove far and wide to pick me up. Fortunately, he did this with good humor and generosity. I’m pretty sure those limitations didn’t apply to my brothers.

The feeling of menace was heightened by our surroundings. With the park on one side and “the weeds” on the other, it was easy to imagine sinister people lurking. “The weeds” were the marshy landfill that separated our block from the Belt Parkway. When I played with Susan, one of my two friends in the neighborhood, we would ride our bikes on the street that ran along side the weeds. We would dare each other to run in and run out, not a dare I was willing to risk.
Our neighborhood was also in the flight path to JFK. Airplanes would skim over our roof. If you were on the telephone you had to pause in your conversation because there was no chance of hearing or being heard. If you were watching TV you had to hope you didn’t miss a crucial piece of dialogue. If any of our cousins slept over, the roar of the jet engines took some getting used to. My cousin Ahri, who grew up in Manhattan (not exactly a bastion of quietude), asked me how I could stand it.

If the wind was right, coming from the southeast, it brought with it the smell of one of the city dumps. One might imagine it carrying the smell of the ocean, since we were so close to it, and it did that, too. But, the dump was located along side the Belt Parkway, just past our exit and the odors emanating from it trumped the fresh smell of sea air. The mounds of trash rose like a small mountain range on the south side of the Parkway. Naturally I had a sensitive nose.

The dump also attracted scores of seagulls. The detritus and Jamaica Bay beyond were quite an attraction for all kinds of birds. The cries of the gulls were another constant part of the soundscape of our Canarsie neighborhood.

There was a fine line between the pleasures of the park, the beauty of the gliding gulls, the earthy smell of the marshes and ocean air, and the menace those same features held. All the elements, sights, sounds and smells, would often conspire to heighten a sense of foreboding, at least in my imagination.

Hair: Not Long, Not Beautiful

My hair was a constant source of difficulty when I was growing up.   A mixture of curls, waves and wiry frizz, it was entirely unmanageable. This was before the advent of the myriad of gels, creams, sprays and treatments that line a full aisle of CVS today, products that I take full advantage of now.

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, fashion required girls to wear their hair long and stick straight, if they could. I was in a state of war with mine – and my unruly hair was winning.

Combing and/or brushing my hair after washing were a nightmare for me and my mother, and anyone who was within earshot. It was always a jumble of knots that made it unbelievably painful to brush out. I wonder if our neighbors considered calling child protective services – if that existed in the 1960s. I must have sounded like I was being tortured.

Nana entered the fray by offering to take me to her hairdresser. Nana would get her hair done every couple of weeks. She would come back from a session at the beauty parlor with her silver hair teased high, each hair sprayed into submission. Fortunately, that wasn’t what she had in mind for me, though that still might have been an improvement.

After getting Mom’s agreement, Zada drove Nana and me across Brooklyn to her beauty parlor. Neither Nana nor my mother drove, that job was left up to the men or public transportation. We arrived at the salon; Nana was greeted with enthusiastic hellos. The smell of hairspray hung in the air. Most of the other patrons were Nana’s age. I was invited to sit in a raised vinyl chair. I was nervous and excited.

A new style had come into fashion – a shag, which was a layered cut that allowed for curls. I watched the hairdresser cut and shape my hair. Turned out this cut worked for me! When it was done and I looked in the mirror, I smiled. Somehow the texture and wave of my hair worked with the cut. The other people in the beauty parlor commented on how good my hair looked – a new experience for me!

Zada picked us up and drove us back home. We were excited about showing everyone when we got back to the house. Nana walked in with me to see Mom’s reaction. Mom looked at me puzzled for a long minute, brow furrowed, and said, “I have to get used to it.” Her face said she didn’t like it. I burst into tears and ran to my bedroom. As I left I heard Nana say loudly, “Feige, you don’t know your ass from your elbow!”

I had never heard Nana use a curse word – ever. And, I had never heard her say a cross word to my mother. I also had never heard that expression – it conjured up an image that shocked my eleven-year old self. I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry – so I did both.

After a minute or two, Mom knocked on my bedroom door. “Nana’s right, Linda,” she said as she sat down next to me on my bed, gently stroking my back. “The cut looks great. I’m sorry for reacting that way. I was just surprised.”

“Ok…but I can’t believe Nana said that!”

“Well, she was upset with me. Don’t worry about it. Just enjoy the haircut.”

“You really think my hair looks okay?” I sniffled.

“I do. Go upstairs and let Nana know you’re feeling better.”

I did.

As I look back on that incident, and more generally growing up in that house with my parents, grandparents, uncles and brothers, it was more fraught than I understood at the time. There were undercurrents of resentment, disappointment and perhaps jealousy. I didn’t think about how it might have felt for my mother; that came much later. Fortunately, through those undercurrents, love shone through.

Location, Location,Location

Our house was located in a small enclave in Brooklyn, situated between a park on one side and the Belt Parkway on the other. An expanse of weedy marsh separated the Parkway from our street. Our neighborhood was made up of four small residential streets that were closed off from the main part of Canarsie.

It was a long walk to school (PS 115). After second grade they redrew the district lines and I was moved to another elementary school (PS 272), also a long walk. In both cases there was a major, busy avenue to cross.

The importance of the distance was two-fold: One, I couldn’t go home for lunch, which left me in the chaotic cafeteria or tagging along like a lost puppy with a classmate who invited me home; two, it was difficult to play with kids from my class after school or on weekends. I had only two friends on my block; the other kids were downright mean. They were the type that when they got old enough to drive would triple park, dare you to honk to get by and, just for good measure, flip you off when you finally did hit the horn.

I wasn’t the only one in our family that dealt with the consequences of our physical location. As a child I didn’t understand how difficult the move to Canarsie was for Nana. Nana and Zada had lived above their store on Rochester Avenue for over twenty years, in a neighborhood where stores and friends were in close proximity. Nana’s arthritis, diabetes and bunions made walking painful and difficult. Fortunately for her (and for me), her many friends and family didn’t abandon her to the wilds of Canarsie.

On any given day, my visit with Nana might have included one of her friends from her old neighborhood. Like Nana and my mother, they relied on public transportation or a car service.  But still they came, trudging across Seaview Park.

Alex, the tailor, who had one leg shorter than the other and wore a clunky orthopedic shoe, made the trek. Alex repaired the holes in my winter coat pockets by replacing them with a colorful, satiny smooth fabric. I loved the orange and yellow fabric so much I wished I could wear the pockets on the outside to show them off.

Dora, Yetta and both Goldies made the trek to Canarsie, too. They climbed the stairs to Nana’s second floor home and settled in at the marble table, like I did.

Invariably they would bring a small trinket for me, a large chocolate coin wrapped in shiny foil, or a miniature stuffed animal. Nana smiled as they gave me my small treasure. I would sit with them at the table. After asking me what grade I was in and if I liked school, they went on to speak to each other as if I wasn’t there. They talked about their disappointments, but they laughed and gossiped, too. I listened.

It seemed that Nana was a collector of lost souls. Some had physical problems, some would be considered spinsters, but no matter, they had a place at her table.

Not all of Nana’s friends were lost. There was another group of friends that she and Zada socialized with – who had cars, the women coiffed, perfumed and made up. I was fascinated by the beauty mark on Jewel’s face (yes, that was her name), trying to figure out if it was real or applied.

But as much as Nana collected friends, she was even more connected to her family. Her younger brothers, Jack and Morris, and their wives, were at the house all the time.   Uncle Jack and Uncle Morris took sincere interest in my brothers and me. With all of these visitors, I didn’t need friends my own age.

Well, actually, that wasn’t true. I wanted friends my own age. I wanted to play with the kids from my class. I imagined that they, who lived in the Bayview Projects or on the blocks that surrounded the school, were always together having fun. On weekends if I went to my parents and said I was bored, my father often replied with, “Bang your head against the wall.” A singularly unhelpful suggestion guaranteed to keep me from bothering him again. My parents, like most of their generation, felt no obligation to entertain their children.

My mother encouraged me to make plans with the kids from school. I didn’t know how to do that. I was too afraid to ask for fear of being rejected and laughed at. She would tell me, “Call a friend from school. You have their phone numbers. Just try it.” I didn’t know what to say on the phone. Rarely would I muster the courage to do it. Mostly kids just went out to play, maybe rang the doorbell of a kid down the street – not a good choice for me. It was more comfortable to sit at Nana’s table.

My Eyes – My Achilles Heel

Everyone has stuff that they deal with – sometimes it is invisible to others and sometimes it is painfully obvious. I’m not sure which is worse.

The image that is the banner for this blog is of my brothers and me in the style of the time, lined up in age order. Today I look at that picture and smile. When I was young I looked at it and cringed. All I could see were my crossed eyes and it felt like a personal failing.

I had my first surgery when I was one. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. I had another when I was in kindergarten. I remember waking up from that surgery with the cloying smell of ether still in my nose, the nausea overwhelming. I was released from the hospital wearing an eye patch with hopes that it would force the strengthening of the weaker eye muscle. Perhaps there are children who could pull off wearing an eye patch, making it cool, but I wasn’t one of them. Fortunately I didn’t have to wear it for long.

After that surgery, instead of fixing inward on my nose, my right eye drifted out, especially when I was tired. “You talkin’ to me?” was a question I heard often, long before it was used in a different context in Taxi Driver. Like the movie, though, the question had a very unsettling affect. I would take a deep breath, close my eyes in a kind of prayer, concentrate really hard and hope my eyes would go in the same direction when I opened them. Mostly in that moment I wanted to be swallowed up by the floor.

At least once a year I would go with my mom into Manhattan to see the eye doctor, Dr. Snyder. The trek to ‘the city’ from Canarsie was a long one. A long walk across blustery Seaview Park, a long bus ride to Eastern Parkway and then the 4 or 5 train to the Upper East Side. That trip may be a reason some Canarsiens didn’t bother going into the city.

On the one hand it was special to have my Mom all to myself for the day. We would have lunch out and window-shop. On the other hand, the subway, with its screeching wheels, the smell of metal on metal and the crowds of humanity, filled me with dread. I was terrified of getting separated from her.

Dr. Snyder’s office was just off Park Avenue. The waiting room had red leather chairs and, to my delight, Highlights magazines. I would find the hidden animals in the pictures while we waited to be seen. Dr. Snyder was gentle. There was one part of the exam that confounded me. He showed me a picture of a fly; it was enlarged, the details of the fly in blue against a silver background. He would ask me if it looked raised or flat. I could never decide. I would just pick one and looked at him to see if I got it right, but he never let on one way or another. This went on every year. Turns out I couldn’t see in three dimensions. I used one eye at a time and still do.

I was assigned exercises to strengthen my eye muscles. I was supposed to stare at my index finger as I moved it slowly toward my nose. I’m not sure that we followed the doctor’s directions as faithfully as we should have, but I don’t know that it would have made a difference.

As I got older other problems with my eyes emerged. In graduate school I was having recurring migraines and as part of the work up I had my eyes examined. Unrelated to the migraines the eye doctor found that my retinas had areas of weakness – he called it lattice. He advised against skydiving (no loss for me since as anyone who knows me would agree, I’m no adrenaline junkie!). He said, “Your retinas are your Achilles heel,” and recommended a surgical procedure to freeze them. I had the surgery. (Another story for another blog entry☺)

I think having crossed eyes, and then a lazy eye, and weak retinas shaped me in important ways. It added to feeling like an outsider. I always identified with those who felt different. I was also terribly self-conscious and received more than my share of teasing from other kids, especially in my neighborhood. More than once my brothers were called upon to defend me from bullies.

I can’t help but think that my eyes played an important part in creating the sensitive, introspective and insecure little girl that I was, the girl who sought comfort from Nana.

As my father pointed out, as I got older, some of those same qualities were a blessing, not just a cross to bear. It’s been a journey, but I can smile at that picture today, despite the fact that my eyes are still my Achilles heel.