Saturday, February 6, 2010

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in Brooklyn



Growing up on 56th Street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn of the late '60s was a young boy's paradise. As close as a city kid could get to a Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer-like existence. The front door to our apartment building was never locked. Not because we weren't afraid of burglars. It was just broke. Nobody noticed. But the front door to our apartment was often unlocked as well. That's because in the Rose family, the comings and goings of 8 boys, 1 girl and various cats, dogs and a stray Aunt, Grandma or Cousin or two meant that barring the door was out of the question. Especially in Summer.

I remember those blazing Brooklyn mornings when school was a distant memory (or a looming fear) and I would bolt out of bed as soon as the sun rose, scarf down some breakfast and hit the streets where all my other friends on the block were gathering for our favorite, all day pastime: stickball. 

In those days most families still only had one car (if they even had one at all) and it was possible to get in a good at-bat, thwack a spaldeen a cuppla sewers, run the bases (usually a mixture of car fenders, johnny pumps or the rare chalked-in base) and hightail it to the home plate manhole cover just before the throw came in from the beleaguered "outfielder" who had to warily navigate the deadly picket fences between airyways dotting the block 3 (or better yet, 4) sewers away. 

As you can tell, we even had our own slang that mystifies all who resided outside our hallowed borough. All while dodging the then snail-like automobile traffic which averaged about a car a minute. Even those were looked upon with deep misgivings and usually a good smack on the trunk as the hapless drivers barrelled their way grumpily through. No more. What a shame.

But even such glorious freedom had its limitations. A rubber ball and a taped up mop handle had no chance of standing in for the real delight we ragamuffins hungered for. Hardball. 

At some unspoken point in each day we would all grab our worn out gloves, pick up some raggedy, barely hanging-in-there wooden bats, a way-too-over-the-hill ball and flat-foot over to the nearest park to play some serious baseball. On concrete. A grass or even a dirt field was a luxury only afforded by the idyllic kids we saw on TV. Greg Brady never skinned his knees sliding into home on the treacherous gravel base paths at Leif Erickson Park. But we didn't care. We may as well have been in the World Series. It was Heaven.

Sometimes we got off to a late start. If we dallied too long, we would often arrive (after a 10 block trek) only to find some other hardscrabble kids already playing on "our" field. That meant a challenge. Winner take all. For some reason the "56th Street Boys" were an unusually talented bunch in those days. Sort of like a mini "Gashouse Gang" that mowed down all comers. Sometimes those kids would just give up without a fight when they saw us coming. We were that good. But once in a while we would have our butts handed to us, and that meant we'd have to move on to some other, lesser playground dotting the "Green Belt" that passed as the rural area of our neighborhood and stretched from 4th Avenue all the way up to Fort Hamilton Parkway along 65th Street. 

It was one of those days, when we couldn't catch a break on any diamond along that lonely stretch, that we found ourselves in what, to us, was the sleepy backwater of 68th Street and 8th Avenue. 

At the end of a long, fruitless search for a barren field, and destroyed by rare groups of invincible opponents, we found ourselves standing in front of an unfamiliar Candy Store. We always kept a few dimes in a back pocket to slake the inevitable thirst that comes from an unrelenting sun coupled with the peculiar fact that no playground ever seemed to have a working water fountain. An icy bottle of Coke was the reward for saving those coins and not frittering them away for lesser prizes like a bag of Wise potato chips or a handful of red licorice fishes. Nothing has ever tasted as sweet as those frosty colas, gulped down at the end of a long, weary, but (usually) victorious road trip.

Because we didn't know the owner of the store and we were in foreign territory, we swaggered in like WW2 Vets on furlough in France. After jeering at the old man behind the counter and mercilessly badgering him with requests for Prince Albert in a can, or giggling at some inane inside joke, we were ready to buy our Cokes and start the long, dusty trip home. But the old man wasn't having any of it. 

He suddenly produced a mean looking blackjack from behind the counter and rushed at us, threatening to "crack 'yer skulls" and calling us a "bunch of smart asses." We bolted quick, Cokeless and barely breathing. After running around a few unfamiliar street corners, we all collapsed together in a giant heap, fitfully cackling and marveling at our near escape from the ogre-like old man. We held on to our dimes until we got closer to home base and had our Cokes in a more familiar setting. In those days, there was a Candy Store on every corner. Right next to the bar.

In 1978, at the age of 19, I decided to join the Air Force and went off to make my way in the wide world outside our protected hamlet. It was nearly three years later before I made my first trip back home on leave, just before shipping off to Germany. In that time my family had moved from 56th Street to, lo and behold, a new apartment only a block away from our old nemesis, the old man in the Candy Store on 68th and 8th. But I had completely forgotten about that single moment, lost in the mists of the hundreds of days of innocent mischief that had occurred some 12 years before. 

In 1981 I was a strapping NCO, proud to walk the streets of Brooklyn in my starched and snappy Air Force blue uniform. I was a man myself now and so far away from that street urchin who collapsed in fits of laughter at the thought of an old man chasing me with a billy club. Until I absentmindedly strolled through the front door of that very same Candy Store in search of a pack of smokes and The Daily News.

Like an episode of The Twilight Zone (and not one of the cool ones) I was thunderstruck as I breezed in and had the strangest feeling of Deja Vu. The place hadn't changed a bit. And to my utter shock and disbelief, the same old man stood resolutely behind the counter. He barely glanced at me. He was not impressed by my fancy Dress Blues or the meager ribbons I proudly wore over my heart. He seemed to be caught up in his own reverie and barely acknowledged me as I perused the newspaper racks, popped out a frosty Coke from the freezer (for old times sake) and hesitantly approached the counter.

"Pack of Marlboros" I said as I reached for my wallet and began to peel a few bills from its worn, leather confines. No more carefully coveted dimes. I had moved up in the world and I was certain the old man could never have remembered me. I was as far away from that hardscrabble kid as Brooklyn is from The Mississippi and was now a respectable, even honorable, defender of our nation's liberty, about to embark on a 3 year, overseas tour in a far away land of excitement and intrigue.

"That'll be $3.50" he said as he took my bills and turned to make change from the register. I thought about mentioning the escapades of a scruffy gang of wannabe tough guys from his distant past, then thought better of it and held my tongue. Why bring up unpleasant memories? Besides, I was certain he would never remember such an innocuous event from so long ago. The old man turned back to me and handed me my change. I stood for a moment, erect as a solid block of granite, suppressing the urge to snap a salute, but decided against it and turned to walk out. As I did, I heard the old man call out to me. I'll never forget the words.

"So" he asked. "You still a smart ass?" 

I got the hell out of there quick and ran home, cackling like a carefree schoolboy all the way.