2005, Felice Bedford
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I remember eating and loving charlotte russes; I can still feel the anticipatory joy of getting one and being about to indulge. You got them at a bakery and ate one as you walked along. The bottom was a round thin piece of sponge cake - usually way too thin. On top was a big mound of whip cream. On top of that was a maraschino cherry. It was served in a thin flexible cardboard contraption. On the bottom was a round piece of cardboard roughly the diameter of the cake, and thin white cardboard came up the sides which presumably gave it structure, but also had the frustrating effect of making the bottom nearly unreachable. As you licked off the whip cream and ate further towards the cake, it was designed so that you pushed the bottom cardboard up to be able to access more of the dessert. I don't remember for sure exactly when I ate the cherry, but I can imagine myself saving it until almost all of the whip cream was gone and then deciding it was time.
I'll bet few native New Yorkers are fortunate enough to have the distinct pleasure of remembering their first bite of pizza, since most of us were eating pizza before verbal memory began. However, I had inexplicably refused to try pizza until one day my mother in her always infinite wisdom said "maybe you like Sicilian pizza". She learned early on that playing to my sense of being different worked every time. I still remember standing outside the front of the pizza place on Parkside Avenue, a few stores in Perhaps the visual image is so vivid because of the experience about to come. I remember tasting it and finding it probably the best thing I had ever tasted in my life. I didn't know taste could be that good, and that way. I'll bet I raised my eyebrows some. Though I admitted I liked it - probably because it was impossible not to and keep eating - I did not share my sense of overwhelming enthusiasm. I had already learned at 5 that one kept feelings to oneself. Perhaps it would be like admitting they had been right about pizza, or perhaps one shouldn't admit just how much one likes something or one is more vulnerable to it being taken away. But these are the eyes of an adult. But not the taste buds.
p.s. I can visualize the square slice as well and a close up of what it looks like on top, and the pizza guy cutting into the pie, but those I can't be sure didn't come from hundreds of return visits for Sicilian (square), never a corner piece (yuck), sometimes the coveted middle square, and later, "regular" pizza.
Inflation and Pizza
Thirty-five cents? For pizza? So said "my friend" in what was probably our 5th or 6th grade. I can just about still hear it. A slice had just gone up from a quarter and we were all sharing disbelief, annoyance, and possibly outrage -we were incensed - over the increase. Probably the first conversation I ever had about inflation. I remember pizza slices and bus fares cost the same and kept pace with one another. I believe this is still true - though probably at a higher percent of minimum wage.
Pizza Practical Joke
There was a passing fad among my classmates to send an unordered pizza (unpaid of course) to an unsuspecting victim. Once, we were so targeted. The disruption to our evening routine included sending back the pizza with the delivery guy and being pissed. Not pissed at the joke, but because someone had sent a Ben's pizza. Ben's pizza was awful! (Is my memory accurate that it was called "Ben's"? No wonder it was awful...). The tomato sauce didn't taste right. How could someone think that if we ever did order a pizza that it could possibly be from Ben's? What nerve.
p.s. I am pleased to report that I never played that phone practical joke myself. The prank phone calls I made with my friends were limited to the old fashion variety that you would think would be beneath street urchins. Yes, we really did say, "is your refrigerator running?"
New York Pizza Educates Reality
And it was through pizza I knew the Brady Bunch was made up silliness. No kid ever ordered a whole pie, and to think it could be in a car (?) and with stuff on it (?) simply proved that someone's odd (but fun) imagination made the show up.
Coney Island and Coming Home
Few events for me could top visits to Coney Island when I was very young. My mother, my brother and I would take the D train and there meet my grandmother and great Aunt (by marriage) Zelda, both of whom I think now must have had quite a long commute from Manhattan. At night there were fireworks, I think one night per week during the summer. I remember being on the boardwalk, near the entrance for the various amusement parks, listening. The excitement of fireworks, after dark when we were usually at home, near the excitement of amusement parks, and being at the ocean - it just didn't get much better than that as far as I was concerned. I wish I could remember exactly how often we went for the evening fireworks, but I cannot. My grandmother and I loved the beach, my brother hated it, and my mother was closer to my brother's opinion though tolerated it better. It was another commonality that tied me to my grandmother, for who I am named.
One night I remember that we came home, late. We must have forgotten to leave the hall light on and when we turned on the lights, what must have been a hundred adult roaches, at least, scattered with the light. The visual image of the pattern they created while running remains vivid. I guess in Brooklyn, you take the bad with the good.
Brighton Beach became my beach destination when Coney Island became too unsafe (first just the subway station, with its long walks in the station, and then the beach itself). It was a less convenient subway trip, and lacked a certain special hard to define quality. But it was still ocean, and boardwalk, and wide sand that burnt your feet as you tried to make it barefoot from boardwalk to the water where the sand cooled off. In typical New York egocentrism, I assumed all beaches were like that. I had a vague knowledge of the existence of Manhattan Beach, inaccessible and exotic, but undesirable to me because only snobs as far as I knew ever went there. It wasn't until my early 20s that I discovered exotic Manhattan Beach was an easy few stops away by bus from Brighton, and was a small lame stretch of beach with no boardwalk. And Riis Park? Forget about it; only the "very rich" who had cars and resources would ever go there. (So this is Riis Park I said to myself in my late 20s when I rented a car on vacation and went there.) Odd now also to think "Brighton" must have been named after the English town. Probably few things are as dissimilar to English town of Brighton than Brighton beach Brooklyn.
I know what your are thinking, gentle reader. That you can't stand to read yet another Nathans hot dog and french fry nostalgia story. Well at least this one isn't about hotdogs. Never cared much for hotdogs, and Nathans hamburgers were not particularly noteworthy- not enough to stand on another line for anyway. French fries were on a different line, always long, always crowded, always worth it. After you got your cup of salted fries, you brought them to the ketchup pump. Must be the ridges (not really ridges- jagged, saw like) that had something to do with potato perfection. Afterwards, branches of Nathans sprung up; all ok, but not one was worth eating fried food for, or for celebrating the existence of taste buds. I don't eat fried potatoes now, but if the original Coney Island Nathans french fries were in my city, I would do so.
The Mets and the Yankees
No self-respecting Brooklyn kid could like the Yankees and I was no exception. By default, we were fierce Met fans. I had no clue that the reason we were obligated to hate the Yankees was because of second generation hatred. The Brooklyn Dodgers and the Not Brooklyn Yankees were fierce rivals. The Dodgers exit from Brooklyn did not change the loyalties of the city. As much as I questioned things, it never occurred to me to question where the anti-Yankee, pro-Mets stance came from. It was just in our blood. Even now, though I hardly keep up with the Mets, if I hear someone is a Yankee fan, I have an immediate negative impression. It is best not discussed, like politics.
The Parkside and Ocean Ave. intersection had quite a few attractions. Besides the pizza place, which was across the very busy sometimes hard to cross parkside Ave, was the candy store with the best chocolate malteds ever. It was near the subway station, close to the corner. My mother and I would go in, sit at the counter, and split a chocolate malted. The counter was to the right in the fairly small store. Later, I don't think she could drink them anymore, but we would still go in together, and I would drink an entire one myself, way too quick. Always felt sick after, but it was such a good way to go, and always worth it. Ice cream, milk, syrup, and malt powder were placed in a metal container and under the machine that mixed them. Then the soda guy poured the container into a transparent glass (I think the kind where the top bulged and was wider than the bottom-like old coke glasses). You got the glass, the metal container to refill your glass with (which held a total of about 2 and 1/2 glasses worth), and a straw. The good soda guys knew exactly how much to blend it so that it was well blended, except with a couple of undissolved mounds of ice cream near the bottom that tasted like even more rewards. Later when I became allergic to chocolate, my mother convinced me to sometimes not have all chocolate, but have just the ice cream with strawberry syrup, or just the syrup with a different ice cream. Clever of her, as always, not to "make me" not have chocolate. It was my decision, as was most things.
p.s. For years I searched for the perfect malted, now called milk shakes, with no luck. I could never recapture that taste. I didn't realize that the critical ingredient was malt powder, which had become harder to find: "milk shakes" became the default, not "malteds", or I guess "malts" as some called them later.
And a few years ago, I met someone, both of us a couple of thousand miles away from that candy store, who frequented the same store about 10 years before I did. He said the guy's name - I guess the owner - was Louie. And that the song with the verse: "Louie, Louie, Louie, Louie; Louie, Louie, Louie, Louii" was about him. Never looked into the accuracy of that claim.
I don't know what twisted sexually charged genius invented the game Johnny-on-a-Pony. It was introduced to us by a fellow classmate towards the end of the 5th grade. First, a person was selected to be "the pillow". It was always a she. In fact, Debbie was always the pillow. She was the most womanly of the 5th grade girls ("Debbie's busting out all over" used to be a favored chant of ours sung to the tune of, you guessed it, "June is busting out all over"). The pillow needed to be as soft and cushiony as possible. The human pillow stood with her back against a tree. After division into two teams, the first member of one team took his place. It was always a he. He would bend completely at the waist and wrap his arms around the pillow and the tree as best he could. Where his head made contact with the Debbie pillow depended on his height. The next kid would likewise bend at the waist and put her arms around the middle of the boy in front of her. And so on through the first team to produce a chain of bent over 5th graders grabbing each other's middles and holding on for dear life - I guess one long dumb pony. Each kid would tuck their head down either on the right or the left side of the person in front of them, alternating sides. One long dumb strong pony.
When everyone was in place (and that kid with the intimate knowledge of the game was finished checking to make sure everyone's head was tucked down- whether that was to guard against broken necks or to create a smooth surface, I'll never know) the first kid from the opposite team took his or her turn. From as far away as possible, you ran, ran, ran, faster, faster, faster, building up as much speed as possible. When you reached the chain, without stopping, you placed your hands on the end kid's back, and leaped as high and far into the air as you possibly could, landing as far up the chain as possible. Once landed, no inching forward was allowed, so it was important to reach the furthest back to land on as possible. (How far along the evolutionary chain you needed to be to excel at this peculiar talent was unclear) The height not only enabled you to go further, but also meant landing with the greatest possible force - important to the goal, as I will get to shortly. And going further meant there was more room for the rest of your team to jump on board. The goal was to cause the team underneath to collapse or break apart before you ran out of team members. If the team survived the hit (and you can probably visualize the necessity of the pillow now), then the next team member repeated the running jump. If there was no room left for all team members to jump on, then you lost. If they collapsed or broke apart before you ran out of jumping teammates, then they lost. I can't remember what happened if they survived intact plus you got all your teammates on. It may never have happened. I also don't know if scores were kept; sides were switched or more often than not time was up and we had to either return to school or go home. Strategizing whom should go where and who should jump when took up lots of time.
We played in the "parade grounds" (see entry for parade grounds) near school, P.S. 249. It was a thrilling game, discovered around the same time as we were discovering spin the bottle and 7 minutes in heaven. We all looked forward to playing it again when 6th grade began, but somehow after summer break, it was never the same again.
Mr. Presser the Gym Teacher
Mr. Presser was the boys' gym teacher at Ditmas Junior High School. Mr. Presser liked young girls more than he liked young boys. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. He wore very tight pants and wasn't bad looking with longish curly hair, though he was short- perhaps that had something to do with his interest in 12 and 13 year olds. Somehow, we all knew about him. One day he picked Lisa for his attention. Lisa was of Germanic descent, I think, with dark skin color which tanned very dark in the summer, dark brown hair, and smooth skin. He came over to our group, flirted, and lived up to his surname as he pressed his body just a little too close. He asked Lisa - in front of all of us - to give her his address so that he could visit her. Lisa was reluctant and said no. He pressed her repeatedly - again living up to his surname - Why not? Why won't you give it to me? (Don't you like me, I think he said also) But she stood her ground and eventually he left. Lisa's reluctance had nothing to do with fear, rejection, shyness, or repulsion at the advances. I suppose things were different then, or perhaps it has something to do with Brooklyn, but we were all used to attention from males of all ages - and found it flattering. One sort of kept an unofficial mental tally. Its absence would have alarming. Our reaction was closer to something like "why her" and some excitement and some vague sense that he was a little too old and we wanted to back to talking amongst ourselves. Lisa did not give Mr. Presser her address because she, like me and a few others, had given fake addresses to be allowed to go Ditmas, since we were zoned for Walt Whitman Junior High. She was very worried that if she gave her address, she would be found out.
While attention was welcome and expected, we all somehow knew where to draw the line as well. Part instinct, part good parenting. We knew not to get into the car with police officers who we knew drove around looking for girls. One day, I encountered one a block from school, which is probably exactly what he thought, and he asked if I wanted a ride to school. "No thanks" I said simply, saying exactly what I meant. He drove off, probably looking for someone else. There was no shortage of possibilities in Brooklyn.
Stay tuned for more Brooklyn (and index) to come!