Sturm und Drang

Are you afraid I’m going to steal your lunch?” he asked.

I was hunched over the table in the cafeteria of my junior high school when some guy, who I didn’t know, asked me that question. My left arm encircled a Tupperware containing a small chef’s salad, while I shoveled a forkful of lettuce in my mouth with my right hand.

“No,” I mumbled.

I could see how it would look like I was afraid of that, given my posture. But, actually, I was trying to hide what I was eating. I was trying to keep to the Weight Watcher program I had begun six months earlier. Most kids didn’t bring salad to school. I wished I was eating one of those moon pies – a chocolate marshmallow confection of gooey goodness that they sold at school – but none of that for me.

I was humiliated by his question, though I didn’t think he meant to be cruel. He sounded more curious and bemused as he asked it. Still I was relieved that he moved on and left me alone. I continued eating, but tried to look less protective of my salad.

Junior high school was a challenging time. I was still recovering from the death of Nana a year and a half before. I was trying to find my way in my second year at a new school where I knew very few of the other students. The vast majority of my elementary school classmates were zoned for a different junior high. I made it through 7thgrade and now it was the beginning of 9th(I skipped 8thgrade as part of a New York City program that compressed junior high into two years instead of three) and while I was beginning to make some friends, it still wasn’t easy. (I wrote about one aspect of my junior high school experience, the boycott of schools caused by the busing plan in this blog post)

Making matters worse was the fact that I had matured early. I was fully developed which made me self-conscious. I also had menstrual problems. My period was very irregular and when I got it, after missing it for several months, it was terrible. It would last for two weeks, with cramps, and I bled profusely. My situation wasn’t as bad as my mom’s in that when she was that age she would pass out when she got her period. She told me that she had a friend assigned to keep an eye on her when she was in junior high school. Though she shared that story, I didn’t feel like I could talk to her about my concerns. I wasn’t passing out, and the thought of someone being assigned to me was completely unacceptable. My goal was to fly as far under the radar as possible. At 13, if I could have blended into the woodwork at school, I would have been happier.

It was 1972 and they didn’t have the feminine products available today – sanitary napkins were bulky and didn’t come with a wrapper in which to dispose of it (you had to wrap it in toilet paper). If memory serves correctly, the girls’ bathrooms in school didn’t have waste receptacles in the stalls either, just a garbage pail by the sinks. All of which meant that it was nearly impossible to be discreet about having my period. I needed to carry a purse (something I didn’t ordinarily do), and I would have to take that purse with me to the bathroom. Even on an ordinary day, the idea of using the bathroom was an anathema to me, I tried to avoid it. I didn’t want to be marked, I didn’t want anyone to know about my bodily functions. I don’t know why I felt ashamed, but I did. I thought other girls, if they even got their period, didn’t have the issues I had, and I didn’t have the nerve to broach the subject with anyone. So, I suffered in silence and muddled my way through, hoping not to embarrass myself by staining my clothes (which sadly did happen on more than one occasion).

Eventually, I had an episode of cramps that were so bad, I had to tell my mom. She made an appointment for me to see her gynecologist. I remember Dr. Holland asking me a series of questions before examining me. Mom was not in the room with me for that part. He asked me if I had had intercourse. Surprised by the question, I answered no (I was still only 13!). He asked me if I was sexually active. I didn’t understand the difference between the first and second question, so I told him no, again. A nurse stayed in the room for the physical exam, which wasn’t that traumatic. Fortunately, he found nothing wrong. He made some suggestions to treat the cramps if they were painful in the future and that was that.

Though I continued to struggle with my menstrual cycle, not everything was bleak during my junior high school years. Eventually I connected with a few girls. Toward the end of 9thgrade, a couple of us made a plan to leave school for lunch, a daring idea. Geri and Lisa came up with the notion of sneaking out –  everyone had to eat in the cafeteria, no one was allowed to leave for lunch (maybe they were afraid we wouldn’t come back!). We decided we would go to Lisa’s house, where no one was home, since it was only a couple of blocks from school. We would make sure to get back in time for our next class.

The big day arrived and we successfully escaped. We were feeling triumphant and excited as we hurried to Lisa’s house. As we were walking down Avenue K, we heard a car horn and some hooting and hollering. We all turned to look. At first, I didn’t know what I was seeing. I saw flesh pressed up against the rear window. They were butt cheeks! We started shrieking and running. We were afraid the car would follow us. We got to Lisa’s house – we were laughing and terrified at the same time. One of the girls knew that it was called being ‘mooned.’ I had never heard of that. We took it as some kind of sign that we shouldn’t have snuck out. I didn’t leave school for lunch for the remainder of the year. I don’t think any of us did.

I ended my junior high school career on a high note. I was given an award – the Ben Ramer Memorial Award – for outstanding female athlete. When they told me about it, that I would receive it at the graduation ceremony, I was incredulous. The thing was there were no opportunities for girls to participate in sports, other than gym. There were no teams. We did the Presidential Fitness Program and we had physical education, but that was the extent of it. I couldn’t imagine how they determined I should get the award. I felt undeserving, but proud, nonetheless.

Mom and I went shopping for a graduation dress and found one that I felt pretty good wearing, which was saying a lot for me. Graduation day was humid with intermittent showers, which perfect for my hair! It curled just the way I wanted it to, the humidity calmed the frizz. I wore white platform heels and managed to walk across the stage without stumbling. After all of the Sturm und Drang of my junior high school years, things were looking up. I looked forward to a new beginning in high school.

A Loyal Sport

In preparation for writing a blog post, I went through one of my many boxes of memories. I have stashes of letters, photos and mementos and periodically I go through them either looking for something specific or looking for inspiration. In this case I was looking for something specific.

I had a memory of a particular article I wrote about a blind high school athlete, Andre Rodriquez. I have a yellowed, tattered portfolio of articles I wrote when I was in high school and I wanted to see if I had that one. As I recall, that article was featured in the centerfold of the Canarsie Digest, a two-page spread. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it among the clippings. I wanted to write about the experience of interviewing Andre, but I didn’t think I remembered enough without finding the piece. I did find three other items, though, that sparked other memories. One was a pad on which I wrote thoughts on motherhood when Leah was a baby. I shared that essay last week on the blog. Another was a profile of a college soccer star, which I will use for a future blog post. The last item I found was another letter from Zada. Here is that letter:

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10/31/74

Dear Linda,

            I think you might be interested to know why you possess such a love for sports and sportsmanship in general. It all goes back to an event that happened a long time ago. It was my father, your great Zada, who performed an act so sporty, that I think that even the Marquis of Queensbury would have been impressed, had he known about it.

            As you know the Marquis of Queensbury rules pertain to boxing. Our present boxing rules, and the most important one according to the Marquis, was that you never hit a person when they are down. The custom in boxing is to allow the fallen one to take a mandatory eight count, and if he does not arise by the count of ten, it is considered that he has been knocked out.

            Well the year was 1921, your Uncle Sidney was about eight years old or young. The Spilkens owned a bakery on 3rd Street and Avenue C, in Manhattan. So let me try to set the picture for you. It is a Saturday morning, the street is void of pushcarts, and the street cleaners, as was the custom in those days, brushed the accumulation of garbage of the day before, into one spot opposite to where the bakery was. Then a dump truck would come by, and all the dirt would be shoveled into it.

            Now from that particular place, a wailing was heard, it seems that Uncle Sidney and other boys had provoked in some manner, the Super. (in those days, he was known as the janitor.) But, as usual, the only boy caught was Uncle Sidney. The janitor had struck him, and his cries reached great Zada in the bakery. I told you before, Zada believed that when you strike somebody, that somebody should be of your size. The expression, why don’t you hit a fellow your size? Evolved from that ruling.

            Well, Zada, as quick as a flash, was on the other side of the street, and began pummeling the poor janitor. After a succession of blows to the head and solar plexus, the poor man went down into the heap of rubbish aforementioned. But Zada being the sport he was, and pursuant to the Queensbury rules, picked the man off the ground, held him aloft after he counted to eight, and fearing the man would collapse if he waited until ten, began to belabor the poor fellow, until he thought (Zada) that he had taught the man a lesson, you don’t hit anyone unless he is of your size.

            I’ll never forget, for it comes to my mind often how sportsmanlike my father acted because he did not strike the man as he was lying immersed in garbage. But put him on his feet so that he could continue the punishment in a fair and square manner.

            I must not leave you with a wrong impression, Zada being a thorough sport, gave unto his son Sidney a thrashing the likes of which your Uncle Sidney would carry with him for a long time. You see he was certain that the janitor was plenty harassed by Sidney.

            In other words, he felt that the man was justified in hitting Uncle Sidney, but the way my father figured as I stated before, Sidney was much smaller than the Super.

            Linda, honestly there are so many stories I could tell you about great Zada and about your Uncle Irving. They will wait for an opportune time but being the sport you are please understand the moral of this story. Always protect and defend any member of your family, but do it in a sportsmanlike manner.

            Write to your Zada. I love to read your letters.

  CS  (He signed the letter CS – Charles Spilken)

The letter sparks many thoughts. First, I can’t say I see the connection to my love of sports. But I imagine Zada was taking literary license. Second, I’m not so sure I see this incident as a shining example of sportsmanship. Perhaps Zada meant it tongue in cheek? But, then again, maybe he didn’t. I do know he took quite seriously the idea that you don’t hit a man when he’s down. There is another family story in that vein that my mother told us. When she was a young girl, her father took her to a baseball game. Apparently, the pitcher had a terrible inning and as he was coming off the field, my mother yelled, “You stink!” (A tame epithet by today’s standards!) They were seated close enough to the action so that the pitcher heard her. Zada was appalled by his daughter’s behavior and was quick to point out that you don’t kick a man when he’s down. I believe he had her write a letter of apology when they returned home. Mom liked to tell us that story to impart the message that you don’t pile on, you don’t add to another’s misery.

I also note that Zada wrote that his father gave Uncle Sid a thrashing he would not forget. It is interesting because I don’t think Zada used corporal punishment in his disciplinary approach to parenting. My parents certainly didn’t. Of course, as I have written before, our Dad was an imposing presence, with a bad temper, so he didn’t need to use his hands to discipline us. The raising of his voice and the intensity of his scowl were enough.

The other moral of the story that Zada highlights in his letter is the idea that you defend any member of your family (even if they are wrong), as long as you do it in a sportsmanlike manner. This is a topic of debate in my immediate family. Gary totally subscribes to that philosophy. He will go to the wall to defend Leah, Daniel or me (or his siblings, etc.). There is no question. His first response if his child has been in a conflict is to want to do harm to the offender, who he assumes is not his child. He is nothing if not loyal. He also holds a grudge. Anyone who did Leah or Dan wrong, it could be 20 years ago (they could’ve been 8 at the time!), is still on Gary’s shit list. Okay, I could be exaggerating, but only a little. I see the pluses and minuses of this. His children know with the same certainty that day follows night that he will be there for them.

For better or worse, that isn’t my approach. I have been blessed or cursed with seeing the world in shades of gray. When Dan or Leah or Gary had a conflict with someone, I do ask, what did you do? What was your role in the argument? Sometimes they don’t want to hear that question. Certainly, they don’t appreciate it when it is the first question I ask (I try not to do that!).

The truth is, I don’t believe in blind loyalty. I do believe in unconditional love. If my children or other family members did something wrong, I would be there for them, to help them, to support them as they moved forward and made amends. Of course, wrong-doing can take many forms – from minor to major – and that makes a difference, too. In general, though, I would not look the other way and I would not cover it up. On the other hand, if my child or family member was done wrong, then sign me up, I’m ready to do battle on their behalf.

What do you think?  What does loyalty mean to you?

1982: A Year of Change

 

 

Changes were afoot in 1982. It was a big year for the Brody family. Joshua, the first grandchild, born to my brother and sister-in-law, Mark and Pam, arrived February 1st. In April Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara moved from the upstairs apartment in Canarsie to a large suburban house in Morganville, New Jersey. My parents had their first non-family tenants take their place. I began my job search, as I was in the last semester of my master’s program at Columbia. Gary was waiting to hear about medical school admissions, he was wait-listed at Pittsburgh and Downstate (in Brooklyn).  It was a time of excitement and anxiety.

In the midst of this, and maybe because of it, my parents started looking for a second home. I think my father thought that, since they would truly be empty nesters for the first time, my mom needed a distraction. Financially things were more comfortable than ever before. All three of us kids would be out of the house (two were married), they would have a market-rent-paying tenant, and their own salaries had crept up over the many years of teaching. They could afford to consider getting a country home. Their close friends, Cliff and Muriel, were in a similar position and together they went on weekend jaunts exploring places where they could consider buying.

Cliff was my Dad’s closest friend. He was principal of an elementary school in Brooklyn. Muriel was a home economics teacher.  As couples and individuals they shared many interests: travel, food, wine, books, and, for the men, tennis. Cliff and Muriel shared a unique quality: each had a very distinctive voice. Cliff’s was a gravelly bass rumble. Muriel spoke loud Brooklynese with a shrillness that could be hard on the ears. Fortunately, she was funny and interesting, her voice grew on you as you got to know her.

The two couples took weekend trips to the Catskills and the Poconos. They were looking for modest lakefront homes where they could escape from the stresses and strains of Brooklyn living and working. After checking out a number of areas, they came upon Edgewood Lakes Inn, a rustic hotel outside of Livingston Manor in the Catskills. Private homes were being developed on property adjacent to the hotel. Owners would have access to hotel amenities and to a lake. The two couples took the plunge and put down a deposit. Arrangements were made with a local builder.

Given that my parents were life-long Brooklynites, they entered this project with some trepidation. They had no history of being outdoorsy. I don’t recall them ever hiking or fishing or skiing. They had an appreciation for nature – but at a distance. When we drove through a national park, like Yellowstone, we pulled over at scenic overlooks. There were no hiking boots or backpacks involved. If we came across a mouse in our house, we all freaked out. My mother was afraid of all animals. Buying property in the woods, and building a house there, was a bold choice.

Those plans were proceeding while I moved toward graduation. I found a job with the Mayor’s Office of Operations in New York City. Gary continued working at a lab at Columbia Presbyterian, still waiting to hear about medical school.

At the end of June, I started my new job. I was assigned a cubicle in a row of interior cubicles. I was given a standard issue desk, chair and telephone. I called home and gave Mom my number so they could reach me if necessary (this was long before cell phones). I went through some orientation activities in the morning.  I was setting up my desk in the afternoon when the phone on my desk rang. I was quite surprised. I thought, who could possibly be calling? I was even more surprised when I heard Gary’s voice. I hadn’t even given him the number yet. He shared great news; he was accepted at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine! He was very excited and I was, too. But, it was also complicated.

Through my final semester in graduate school we wanted to coordinate our plans. We hoped the timing would work out, that I would know where he was going to be for medical school and I could search for a job there. But it didn’t play out that way.  Time was passing, I had to make a choice, so I took the job in the city. On my very first day of work, on June 21, 1982, we learned that Gary would be moving to Pittsburgh at the end of August.

That night Gary picked me up after work and we went to a bar in Sheepshead Bay for a celebratory drink. We sat at a table and raised a glass to toast his good fortune. Then, Gary asked me to marry him. Though Gary and I were planning our future together, we had not formalized it. There had been no proposal. For reasons I couldn’t really understand, Gary needed to know he was accepted to medical school before he would propose. It didn’t matter to me. I knew I wanted to be with him if he was a science teacher, lab tech or doctor. But, he didn’t see it that way. Now that he had the certainty of admission to Pitt, he popped the question. I said yes. He didn’t have a ring yet, he wanted me to shop with him so he would know what I liked.

We had decisions to make – and not just about the ring. I couldn’t see leaving the job I just started. We agreed that it was probably good for Gary to start medical school on his own so he could concentrate fully on his classes and get adjusted to the workload without worrying about me. Our preliminary plan was for me to stay at my job for a year, get married and then join him in Pittsburgh.

We shared all of this with our parents. Years later I learned from my father that they considered backing out of purchasing the house at Livingston Manor because of the looming cost of the wedding. They had not anticipated that we would be getting married that soon. After considering their options, they decided not to change course. Though it would be tight, they thought they could manage it.

The summer of ’82 passed. We planned the wedding. At the end of August, I accompanied Gary on the drive to Pittsburgh. His father rented a small van and we nervously drove it the length of the curvy, foggy Pennsylvania Turnpike. I helped get him settled, then I flew back home.

I came home to an empty house. In New York City the school year, my parent’s work year, didn’t start until after Labor Day which fell on September 6 that year. They were squeezing the last bit of pleasure out of the summer by spending the days leading up to Labor Day at Edgewood Lakes Inn.

My parents called me from there late one afternoon. That day, September 1, Cliff had a massive heart attack and died. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it happened while he was on the tennis court with my father. It was shocking. Cliff was 52, my Dad was 49. I was devastated for my father, actually for everyone. It was hard to take it all in.

Again, my parents faced a decision about going forward with the house. It was starting to feel like it wasn’t meant to be. While I wasn’t privy to all the details, they decided to move forward and Muriel did, too.

When I look back at 1982, it was such a roller coaster for my family. The birth of Josh. The traumatic death of Cliff.  Dad went for a thorough physical afterwards and found out that he had a bundle branch blockage, meaning that two of the three electrical pathways that regulated his heartbeat were blocked. He was told that eventually he might need a pacemaker. He also found out that his cholesterol was very high. Dad made a number of lifestyle changes as a result. It took him some time to get back on the tennis court, but he did.

Gary finished his first semester of medical school very successfully. We decided six months at my new job was enough, rather than a full year, and I moved to Pittsburgh in January of 1983, we got married in July. The house at Livingston Manor was built and was a happy home for my parents for over 20 years. They hiked, they went cross-country skiing, they hosted family and friends, they picked blueberries from the bushes in the woods nearby, they dealt with an invasion of bats. They mourned Cliff’s loss. Life went on in all its bittersweet glory.

A Surprising Friendship

I wonder sometimes how much of what I remember is real. This is especially true of my friendship with Susan.

 

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Me, in front of my house, at the time I became friends with Susan

I didn’t have many friends on my block. Somehow East 91st Street had an inordinate number of bullies and I was a target of their ridicule. Here are just a few examples: I was riding my bike when a couple of kids chased me thrusting a stick at my spokes hoping to knock me off, I was spat on as I walked home from synagogue on Rosh Hashana and my cat was mistreated (I wrote about that here). This was all at the hands of the Italian kids who lived at one end of our block. My brothers were occasionally called into service to scare them off. I knew enough not to generalize, after all, each of my brother’s best friends were Italian. But given all that I experienced, my friendship with Susan, who was also Italian but lived at the other end of the street, came as a surprise.

Susan was popular on the block and in my class. She was blonde and blue-eyed, with an up turned nose. She was rail thin. She was everything I was not. She could do a round-off, cartwheels and handstands. I will allow that I was athletic, but in a different way. I felt rooted to the ground by my thick bones and muscular frame. I could run and throw a ball, and my balance was good, so I didn’t feel clumsy, but I was unwilling to hurl myself into space to do any kind of gymnastics move. I didn’t have Susan’s grace or fearlessness, which is why this next part is so surprising.

Susan and I spent long hours teaching ourselves tricks on our bicycles. The street next to her house which abutted the weeds had very little traffic, so we would ride up and back endlessly, perfecting our moves. Starting simply by riding with no hands, ultimately, we were able to stand on our seats in an arabesque, one leg extended behind, our arms outstretched. I felt like I was flying. When we thought we were good enough, we invited our parents to watch our circus act. My mother was aghast. I think back and wonder, did I really do that? It seems so out of character. But, I did.

Susan loved horses and would draw them again and again. I came to share her enthusiasm, learning to draw them and reading horse-themed stories like Black Beauty and Misty of Chincoteague. She and I would gallop around her side lawn, her corner house had enough property to be considered a lawn, unlike the postage stamp we shared with our neighbors.

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I’m probably around 15 years old here, but that is the ‘lawn’ we shared with our neighbors – the bane of my father’s existence.

Susan and I were in the same class at PS 272. In 4th grade there was something called a ‘slam book’ that was all the rage. It was book made up of looseleaf pages fastened together, each page contained a list of favorites. Favorite TV star, favorite football team, but it also ranked the cutest girls in the class, smartest boys, etc. It was a measure of popularity and caused me great anxiety. The book made its way up and down the rows of the class while our teacher, Mrs. Feinberg, faced the chalkboard. For a while this was a daily occurrence. Kids ranked things and wrote comments anonymously. I was always afraid what I’d find when the book arrived at my desk. I think once I made it to fifth cutest in the class. Susan was always in the top three. In choosing to be my friend, I felt anointed, touched by her popularity.

Everything was so different about Susan’s family. Her mother, Maria, reminded me of June Cleaver. In my mind’s eye, I see her wearing a dress, with an apron, kitten heels and pearls. Her hair styled, lipstick applied. My mom and my Nana wore housedresses and slippers.

I remember one time Susan and I had a plan to practice our bicycle tricks. I rang her doorbell and was invited into the kitchen where her parents were each enjoying a bottle of beer. I don’t think I ever saw beer at my house. I can’t recall a single time. I knew what it was, I saw enough commercials during baseball games, but I didn’t know anyone who drank it. Susan was begging her father to let her have a taste. He relented. She took two quick swigs and we went out to our bicycles. Susan joked that after drinking the beer she wouldn’t feel it if she fell on her head. She giggled. I was shocked.

Susan’s Dad, Tony, was the executive chef at the Carlysle Hotel on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. The same swanky hotel where Presidents, Prime Ministers and celebrities stayed when they came to New York. Which raised the question: why did Susan’s family live in Canarsie?  I don’t know the answer to that, but, not surprisingly, they didn’t stay long.

At the end of 4th grade, Susan’s family moved to Wycoff, New Jersey. It might as well have been another country. We did see each other one more time. My parents dropped me off at their suburban house where Susan’s mom served, among other things, sliced homegrown tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese, dressed with basil, olive oil and salt and pepper. I had no idea tomatoes could taste that good. It was a revelation. At the end of the weekend, they drove me into the city to meet my parents at the Carlyle. We were given a tour of the kitchen. I was too young to appreciate what I was seeing. I know my parents were impressed. That was the last time I remember seeing Susan. We lost touch. She went on with her suburban life, not just drawing horses, but riding them. I went back to Canarsie, read the rest of the Chincoteague stories, and tried to find a place to fit in.

 

 

 

The Wilds of Canarsie Revisited

Note: I originally wrote this piece about how I felt growing up in my particular enclave in Canarsie and posted it on the blog over a year ago. I have edited it with the thought that I would weave it into the longer narrative that I am creating. The edits are intended to allow it to follow the story of the haircut Nana took me to get (which is part of Nana’s Table).

I have added new material at the end that reflects on some of the insights that I have gained regarding perceptions of safety through my interviews of others who grew up in Canarsie. I have been reaching out to talk with others of my generation who grew up there. So far I have interviewed a dozen people. I hope to interview more. Please contact me if you would be interested in sharing your perspective.

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The ‘x’ near Canarsie Park is the house where I grew up – so you can see it in relation to the rest of Canarsie

As a girl growing up in the late ‘60s in New York City, aside from the impossible beauty standards imposed by Madison Avenue and popular culture, I grew up in the shadow of the murder of Kitty Genovese. 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. [A recent documentary, The Witness, released in 2015, explored this ‘new’ information]. 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 I believed that people in New York City wouldn’t get involved, and that New Yorkers took minding their own business to a dangerous extreme. Add to that the nightly litany of violent crimes reported on Eyewitness News, and my fear of victimization was palpable. Perhaps it became a self-fulfilling prophecy for all New Yorkers.

As a consequence, 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, Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, Twilight Zone, played on story lines of break-ins and bad guys, so that strategy failed.

The feeling of menace was heightened by my physical surroundings in Canarsie. 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 bordered the weeds. We would dare each other to run in and run out, a dare I was not willing to take.

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 anyone slept over, the roar of the jet engines took getting used to. My cousin Ahri, who grew up in Manhattan (not exactly a bastion of quietude), asked me how I could stand it.

It wasn’t just the sounds of Canarsie that could be problematic.  If the wind was right,  from the southeast, it brought with it the smell of one of the city dumps. One might imagine the breeze carrying the scent of the ocean, since we were so close to it, and it did that, too. But, the dump was adjacent to the Belt Parkway, just east of our Rockaway Parkway 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 Belt. 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 part of the soundscape of our Canarsie neighborhood. I needed only to see a few scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds to make the frightening connection.

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, conspired to heighten a sense of foreboding, at least in my imagination.


Based on my interviews, so far, it seems that I was unusual in my perception of danger, my generalized fear of violence. Most of the people I have spoken to felt very safe in Canarsie. Some suggested that changed with the summer of the “Son of Sam,” which was in 1977, and introduced a level of fear that they had not experienced before. Some recounted specific instances of threats of being accosted, mostly at John Wilson Junior High School, or particular places they would avoid (for example, Seaview Park after dark, or particular bus routes where they felt threatened), but those didn’t shake their general feeling of safety in and around their block. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to commented on their strong sense of community, especially on their block or in their building in Bayview – that neighbors looked out for each other. I did not grow up with that sense at all. Fortunately, I had my grandparents, uncles, brothers and parents to provide that support.

In addition to discussing fears of violence, I learned a great deal from my conversations about race and ethnicity and perceptions of the boycott of schools over the busing plan.  I will continue to share what I’m learning as I go along. I also hope to put a piece together that summarizes it. I welcome comments and feedback either here on the blog or via email. Again, if you’d like to be interviewed, email me at lbakst.canarsie@gmail.com.

Where were you? The Blackout of 1977

Who was batting for the Mets on July 13, 1977 when the lights went out in New York City?*

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Photo from the New York Times

I can’t say I remembered the answer to this trivia question, but I do have some vivid memories of that evening. I was in the shower in my house in Canarsie. Home from college for the summer, working temp jobs in the city during the day, that particular evening, I was home alone. My parents were visiting my grandparents in Florida. I have no idea where my brothers were – but I know they weren’t around. Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara were living in the upstairs apartment in Canarsie, and they were keeping an eye on me while my parents were away (I was 17 years old). That particular evening they were visiting friends in Rockland County and weren’t home yet.

It was unnerving to have the lights to go out while I was in the shower. I shook off visions of Psycho and climbed out of the tub, slowly, carefully. Once I opened the bathroom door, there was enough ambient light to find my way to my bedroom just across the hall. It was about 9:30 pm, but not fully dark since it was still early in the summer. I got dressed quickly so I could check outside to see if my neighbors had power.

I went out on the front porch and saw that all the houses and street lights were dark. I went back inside and found some flashlights. The phone rang. It was Aunt Barbara telling me that they were on their way home. I was grateful for that. I was also relieved that the phone was working. I felt a bit less isolated. I think I spent much of the next hour on the phone, talking to the guy I was starting to see, waiting for Uncle Terry and Barbara to get back. Eventually they made it. Things were quiet on our block. The same could not be said for other parts of the city, though I didn’t know that at the time. It was probably a blessing that I couldn’t find a transistor radio or turn on the television.

After my aunt and uncle got back, the three of us sat on the porch for a while, trying to capture the scant breeze. Eventually we gave up, went in and tried to get some sleep. New York City was suffering through a brutal heat wave, the demand for power and some unfortunate lightning strikes caused the blackout.

When I woke in the morning, the power still wasn’t on. That meant I couldn’t go to work! I was able to make a plan to go to the beach with the guy who I was on the phone with the night before. I had my parent’s car, since they had flown down to Florida. It was a 1972 Impala, a behemoth, it was like driving an ocean liner. The car was so big I had a difficult time maneuvering it. A couple of weeks earlier I went on an outing in the Impala with my friend, Merle. I drove first to Kings Plaza, a huge mall in Brooklyn, where Merle got out of the car to help me negotiate the parking garage ramps which seemed entirely too small for the mammoth car. Then we went to Island Park to visit our college friends. We were like Lucy and Ethel on that trip, Merle trying to give me directions from the handwritten notes I had taken over the phone from Dianne, while I tried to stay calm in the traffic on the Belt and Sunrise Highway. Growing up in Brooklyn in a one-car family, I didn’t drive often. Merle and I made it to Island Park and back – I only bumped a garbage can while making a u-turn – we were otherwise unscathed. But, we were exhausted from laughing so hard.

Despite my driving deficiencies, my guy and I made it to the beach in the Rockaways. It was late morning and the heat was already oppressive. There was a lot of traffic on the Belt Parkway for a Thursday after rush hour. We weren’t the only ones with the idea of getting an extra beach day in during the workweek. It was one of those summer days that wasn’t sunny, but we had to squint because of the glare.

Listening to the car radio, we heard about the looting and violence of the night before. People took advantage of the power outage to smash windows and break into stores and generally commit mayhem, especially in downtown Brooklyn. The city, which still had not recovered from being on the brink of bankruptcy, had a reduced and demoralized police department. It was also the ‘Summer of Sam.’ It wasn’t just the heat and humidity that hung in the air and left us feeling unsettled. The threat of a serial killer was another ingredient in an already roiling pot.

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It was an odd time for me, a time of transition. Although objectively the atmosphere in Canarsie was more fraught than in my years as a child and adolescent, I was not as anxious. I had more friends and was embarking on my first romantic relationship. I had a long way to go to quell my insecurities, work still in progress, but I had made a turn for the better. The blackout of 1977 didn’t derail me.

*Lenny Randle. If anyone knew this, you win a prize 🙂

My Dream of Manhattan

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Gary and me at my graduation from Columbia – May 1982

I always loved Manhattan. I loved the excitement of it, the different neighborhoods, and the energy. While I was in college, at SUNY-Binghamton where I felt exiled in a gray, isolated city that barely deserved that designation, I dreamed of coming to Manhattan to live and work. I got my chance to live the dream when I went to graduate school at Columbia University.

I finished the first of a two year Master’s program at Columbia in May of 1981. I lived in a Columbia-owned apartment building on 80th and Columbus Avenue and I had an internship in New York City’s Mayor’s Office (Ed Koch was the mayor at the time) for the summer.

Each day that summer I descended into the subway station at 79th and Central Park West. The same panhandler that I saw on a daily basis was at the bottom of the stairs. I knew him by his tattered denim jacket and black knit cap. His long legs extended, back propped against the wall, his hand outstretched, jiggling a dirty Styrofoam cup, begging for spare change. Judging by the sound of it, the cup wasn’t very full. I made my way around him. I looked at him briefly, didn’t make eye contact, and continued through the turnstile.

I stood on the platform waiting for the C train. The stagnant, humid air was already warm, despite the early hour. Perspiration started to roll down my back. I hated starting my day with my clothes already damp. I had a desk in a small office that I shared with a full-time staff person and I didn’t want to come in smelling of sweat and the subway. The one window in the office, which contained an air conditioner, looked out at a brick wall inches away. It wasn’t optimal for fresh air, but at least it was cool.

Work was interesting. I was in the Community Assistance Unit (CAU). New York City was divided into community boards. Those boards met with representatives of city agencies (Police, Fire, Sanitation, etc.) to discuss local issues. CAU was the liaison between those boards and the mayor’s office. Staff from CAU attended those meetings and filled out a report. They had files filled with these reports, but nothing had been done with them. That’s where my internship came in. I was to review the reports and look for commonalities or systemic problems and present what I found to the director of the unit.

After finishing my day, if I didn’t have plans after work, I got back on the subway to go uptown. Again, I’d wait for the train to roll into the station. It was always a bad sign if a subway car was empty – that meant one of two things: either the air conditioning wasn’t working or a homeless person was living there and the smell was too overpowering (or both). Sometimes I stepped on to the empty car anyway.

One particular day that summer I got back to my apartment and started dinner. I put a pot of water up to boil. When it came time to add the pasta, I opened the box of spaghetti and a roach fell into the pot along with the dry noodles. I shrieked. I was done. I already had an exterminator on retainer. The building, and many around it, were in the midst of being rehabbed. It didn’t matter how many times the exterminator came, more roaches infiltrated. I lost the war and retreated.

My dream of Manhattan was over. I called my parents and said I was coming home to Canarsie. I knew the commute to Columbia would be a bear, but I would save a lot of money and I just couldn’t deal anymore with life in Manhattan. Between the homeless, the drug addicts, the need for constant vigilance about my personal safety and, finally, the roaches, I gave up. The reality in 1980-81 was a rude awakening.

All these years later, it might surprise you to know that Gary and I agreed that our plan would be to retire to Manhattan. Despite that awful year, I still loved going to the city for shows, ballets, museums and restaurants. Over time, as the 1980s progressed and the city recovered from the fiscal crisis of the late ‘70s, things changed. By the time my children were old enough to take to the city, in the 1990s, I felt comfortable there. I still had to be watchful, keeping my purse wedged between my arm and my body, and be aware of my surroundings, but I felt free to show my children all the city had to offer. My dream of Manhattan reawakened.