Earliest Memories: Williamsburg
Life with Libby is one of my earliest memories of the early years of my life in the forties. It was a radio show that played beautiful melodious tunes and had a different story line each day.A one hour soap without a continuation.A different story each day.Mom would listen to this show on a daily basis and I enjoyed the background music. This was the signal for getting up and going outside to the lots next to the tenement where I lived. I loved to explore the lots which contained a giant billboard sign at the corner of Union Avenue and Lynch Street in the Williamsburg Section of Brooklyn N.Y.
The lots were a corner piece of land about an acre in size. It always seemed to contain a broken window screen and it held a fortune of mystery for me.White butterflies would occupy it and I would run with my window screen in hand chasing them all over the lot. The grass was high and would break my fall as I leapt through the air and the screen would pin the butterfly under it. The butterfly would always have this white powdery coating on it and my fingers would get full of the stuff.
Once in awhile I would get lucky and land a giant butterfly with all pretty colors on it. I would let them go because they were so pretty. There were many caterpillars all over the place.Brown fuzzy haired looking ones,green hairless ones.They were all over the caterpillar tree’s.Later I found out that they were called the “tree of heaven” its real name was the “ailanthus” tree and the story and movie of that name,”A tree grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I used to collect caterpillar’s in a jar, God only knows for what. I was five years old and they were life and somehow it seemed right to do, what I was doing.
Now and then there was a dead cat in the lot and when I happened across one; the maggots would be crawling all over the dead creature. I would get a long twig and start agitating them. The stench would get unbearable and then I would leave the scene to go on to something else.
The billboard sign in the lot was about 30 feet tall and you could climb to the top of it through the back where the boards joined the corners together.Many boys would climb the back.Once I climbed to the top and walked back and forth across it. It was very scary. I was very daring and very dumb.
The lots faced the back of the houses on Middleton Street and there was this little old colored lady who lived on the bottom floor of one of the tenements. We used the word colored in those days not Black or African-American. She always had a corncobs pipe in her mouth and was puffing away. She would always look stern. One day I said, “hello”,to her. She said,” Get out of here. I responded with,
“Don’t you like me?” She seemed shocked that I answered her back. She broke out in a smile and said,”You’re a good boy, you can play around here”. I thanked her.
My Dad was in the U.S. Navy at the time and we lived in a tenement, next door to the tenement house I was born in. They tell me my Dad passed out when he saw me coming into the world. The four rooms we lived in were called cold water flats. They were heated with a coal stove and also had a gas stove for heating water. You took a bath in the kitchen sink, which was a large tub. The tenement house was three stories high and had six families living in it; three on each side. We lived on the second floor right. The toilet was in-between the tenants on the left and the tenants on the right. Both tenants had to share the toilet, which had this large gravity flush box above the commode with a long metal pull chain for flushing. You had a choice in that toilet either stand or sit. There wasn’t room for anything else. We also had mice and cockroaches living with us. The rent was four dollars a month.
My breakfast cereal was shredded wheat and I loved it. I ate so much of the stuff I suddenly grew an aversion to it and haven’t eaten it since. As time passed I tried different cereal. One was called Pep and it tasted like pepper but it had a button in it with a cartoon character and so I put up with it because of the button.I’ll never forget the day Mom bought home Rice Krispies that Snap,Crackle and Pop.My hand was in that box searching around and my Mom asked me what I was doing. I told her I was looking for the men in the box.She said, “what men?” I pointed at the picture of the three characters on the box and said,”them”. She laughed and explained there were no men in the box. I was really disappointed.
Although I was young I was able to cross streets in those days. Union Avenue was dangerous and so I would enter the subway on Union and Broadway and come up on the opposite side. Right at the subway entrance I had my first encounter with a hotdog vender. I asked him what he was doing and he told me he was selling hot dogs. He opened the box on his stand and showed me the franks floating around in the water. He then proceeded to show me the saurkraut.”What’s that stuff”,I asked.He said “Saurkraut”.”What is it?”was my next question. He took some on a fork placed it in a napkin and gave it to me.I ate the saurkraut and liked the vinegary taste of it.Needless to say he always gave me saurkraut when I asked for it but after awhile he charged me a cent for it.
Once in awhile I was lucky enough to have a nickel and I bought a Frank with the works. Saurkraut and mustard.
Once on the other side of the subway entrance I was able to walk up to the main street called Harrison Ave. Trolley cars would ride along Harrison Ave. and I soon learned to squish pennies on the trolley track when the trolley passed over them.
I would ask somebody to assist me to cross Harrison Avenue because on the other side was Rubins Candy Store on the corner and in the middle of the block was Lizzie’s grocery store. Sometimes Mom would send me to Lizzie’s and the usual order was a quarter of a pound of deli ham and a bottle of Pepsi Cola.And don’t forget the loaf of sliced bread.
Rubin’s Candy Store was the best though. They had this vending machine that dispensed cards with pictures of movie stars and cowboys on them. My favorite card was The Texas Rangers. They all wore masks and they all looked like the Lone Ranger.This was not the baseball team. They didn’t exist at this time in history.I had cards with pictures of Roy Rogers,Gene Autrey and many movie stars of that era on them.
On Saturday’s in back of Rubins Candy Store there was a large room.In that room a marching band practiced their instruments.Until this day I remember a young boy a little older than myself playing a trumpet. I would stay outside and view them while they played and marched in place to the music.I would always fantasize that someday I too would wear that marching uniform with the gold buttons and the fancy cap and play a drum in that band.
One day as I was coming out of Rubin’s,a boy about my age wearing a black hat and having long curls coming out from under his hat and running down his cheeks came toward me. I asked him if he wanted to play.Just then a woman,most likely his mother came along and they walked away.I heard her speaking in another language.My Mom told me he was a Hassidic Jewish boy.There was and still is to this day a whole neighborhood of Hassidic Jewish people in that area that runs along Bedford Ave Between Lynch St and up to Broadway.
My Grandparents lived in the next tenement over from us. So did many of my Mom’s sisters and brothers.I would go into the yard in back of the house and eat the morning Glory’s that were growing there. Once I ate practically everyone I saw and got caught doing it by my Grandfather. It’s safe to say I never ate anymore.I mean after all who knew? They looked yummy.
When my Dad was in the Navy, Mom would await his letter’s.Whenever we got a letter she told me about it and I was very happy because I missed him as much as she did.
My cousins would take me to the local movie houses which always showed B- movies and cowboys. I loved technicolor movies and especially musicals. Donald O’Conner was one of my favorites. I thought Jon Hall and Maria Montez in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves were the greatest.My heroes were Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers.Cowboy’s were The favorites in the 40’s and so was a song sung by Bing Crosby,”Don’t Fence Me In.”
There were some great Movie Houses in Williamsburg. The Loew’s Commodore, the RKO Marcy, the Playhouse,Rko Republic,Graham,Alba,Sun,Rogers,Lindy, Loews Broadway,the Rainbow.Graham Ave held excellent shopping and Siegal Street had all kinds of vendors with carts. The Market was on Moore St and stands there till today.This is an indoor marketplace with all types of ethnic foods and at excellent prices.
As for the vendors, their price of goods was negotiable, you had to negotiate a price for an item; no price was written in stone and if you said,”Forget about it”,they would most likely meet your price.
There was and is an elevated line that brings trains of the Metropolitan Transit Authority down Broadway and over the Williamsburg Bridge. At the foot of the Bridge was Bridge Plaza. This was were the trolley cars would reach the end of the line and begin its route through the streets of Brooklyn once again.In this location is a Steak House called Peter Lugar and people from all over the world come to Peter Lugar’s to taste their excellent cuisine.Trolley cars rode along tracks in the street.Young boys would sometimes hitch the back of the trolley unseen by the conductor.
Broadway was exciting to me. There was a Bathhouse on the corner of Broadway And Lorimer St. There were park benches in that area.There was also a horse trough which is where the horses would drink water. I had made a little shoe shine box out of a fruit box and I shined shoe’s along Broadway.
There also were Boxing matches held on Broadway and Union Ave. They were outdoor matches. And there would be dozens of people crowded to watch.They placed a boxing ring in a large lot and the fights took place at night.
The poorer Black families lived on Broadway and Lynch Street. There was a young boy named Waldo Brown who lived there. The neighborhood was migrated by various nationalities of European descent. Russian, German ,Polish Jewish and non-Jewish,Irish,Italian,Albanian,Hungarian and Gypsy families and African-American families.There were also Hispanic and Native-
American families.I lived in a melting pot it was great.
There weren’t many automobiles back in those days.If you had an auto,you can be sure it had a running board and it was painted black.Women didn’t drive much in those days probably because the auto’s didn’t have power steering. You had to have some heavy duty muscles just to turn the steering wheel. Many autos had to be cranked from the front in order to start them. They used a heavy metal crank bar.
Horse and wagons were still en vogue. If you saw a fruit and vegetable vendor coming down your block,chances are he was using a horse and wagon or a pushcart that he himself pushed along. There were all kinds of food vendors roaming the streets in those days. My favorite was the man who sold Potato Knishes.The knishes were heated in a box like metal cart by charcoal.As he pushed his cart he would stop and ring a large bell he held in his hand.
There was a horse stable on Hewes Street off of Broadway and I would visit it to see the horses and watch the blacksmith shoe the horse’s.The Good Humor Ice Cream Depot was also on Hewes Street and Broadway.It was one of their large depots and they had small trucks that looked like a bungalow.They were Bungalow Bars competitor.
When I turned six my younger sister was born.Soon Dad would be coming out of the U.S. Navy.
When Dad got out of the Navy we moved to his neighborhood, the Bushwick section of Brooklyn,N.Y. Mom and I would travel by trolley car to visit her parents.
In the new neighborhood I would begin to play marbles.I had purees and shooters and special shooters and my pockets were filled with these marbles.There were several movie houses in the neighborhood. Movie houses were big in those days they were like mansions. Marble and Mirrors all over the place. Most had balconies and loges,beautiful carpeting. You felt rich when you went to the movie house. They held mystery and intrigue. You also got to see three movie pictures,cartoons,a serial cliffhanger,a newsreel, some movie shorts and throw in the Three Stooges for good measure. All this for less than a quarter. The candy counter sold Bonomo Turkish Taffy, Mary Janes( a taffy with peanut butter inside. This stuff would last about a week. It was never ending candy.
In those days the movie houses also gave away gifts in order to draw the crowds. They had turkey raffles, and toy raffles and gave dishware away to the women.Some of them were Starr,Willoughby,Rivoli,Parthenon,Wagner,Wyckoff,Oasis,RKO Madison,Ridgewood,RKO Bushwick and Loews Gates.
Bushwick had been primarily a German community prior to the Italians and other Nationalities moving in. The houses were primarily tenament houses for folks in the lower middle class income bracket. Along Bushwick Avenue there were nicer houses,one and two family homes occupied by Professionals such as Doctors and Lawyers in the upper middle classes.
In those days the apartments were called cold water flats.A four railroad room occupancy and the heat you used came from a heavy black stove in the kitchen.This stove used wood,coal or rolled up tight newspaper if you were poor.Later on they would be modified into kerosene stoves which were quite dangerous and then the houses would be converted to steam heat.One tenant of the house would then become a janitor and this In turn meant a discount on rent.The rent went from eight dollars a month to twenty five dollars a month.Folks didn’t have to pay for there own heating bill.
The era was the early forties and each day my Mom would stay tuned to her radio soap opera’s. Stella Dallas was big in those days. Stella was always running into problems dealing with her daughter Lolly. Then there was Lorenzo Jones, another soap. My favorites of course were Superman,the Shadow, Inner Sanctum, Lux presents Hollywood,Al Jolson,the Green Hornet, Gangbusters, Baby Snooks, the Great Gildersleeve, Ozzie And Harriet,Archies Tavern and so many more.
Childhood games were plentiful and you could always leave it up to the kids on The block to choose which one we were going to play.We had over a hundred outdoor games to play. Bushwick Park was within the boundaries of Knickerbocker Avenue,Starr Street,Irving Avenue and Suydam Street. They had swings for children and teens, Sandboxes and Monkey Bars.They had baseball courts, and a handball court. The center Of the park sported a long flagpole. The park was attended with parkmen who kept it clean and manicured.There were tall acorn trees and beautiful manicured grass. Families would commingle on the many park benches.Children would tricycle around and some would skate with steel skates.In the summertime they would put on water sprinklers in the park pool.Children would lie on their tummies and pretend to swim in six inches of water.
Comic books were big sellers back then.today those Golden Age comics bring big prices as collectibles. Back then we read them,traded them and gave them away. The community consisted of middle class people young and old and many young couples with growing families of children. The majority of the younger families were the children of immigrants. They would soon learn each others traditions,foods and lifestyles.
My Mom had cousins that lived in an area that could probably be considered Williamsburg at the time. Throop Avenue near All Saints Church. One of Mom’s cousins called to me while I was playing on the side walk downstairs and said,
“Come up Howdy Doody is coming on.” “What in the world was a Howdy Doody?”, I thought to myself. A while later I was watching a doll with strings on it singing,”It’s Howdy Doody Time.” in a wooden box.I didn’t know what to make of this little box and after we left I put the thought out of my mind.Little did I know how much this box would change the lives of so many.