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.