For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites

Unknown Legends


by Siobhan Barry-Bratcher

S

low down!" the rink guard warned. Rosie didn't bother to turn around. She knew he wasn't talking to her. She kept her head up and her eyes straight ahead to avoid collisions with inexperienced skaters. There were at least twice as many people on the rink as there had been an hour ago when the session started.

When it first opened in the 1920s, no one could have imagined that the venue on Empire Boulevard between New York and Nostrand Avenues would one day entertain customers from all over the United States and Europe. American and foreign sailors headed straight to the Brooklyn Skating Rink as soon as their ships docked in New York. Lines for the evening sessions frequently extended all the way down the block. The whole world seemed to know exactly where to find it.

The rink windows that once drew spectators by the dozens were now covered in black paint. Any light leaking from a building at night could be dangerous. Thankfully, there was no blackout on fun inside the Brooklyn Skating Rink. Fifty cents bought Brooklynites and visiting servicemen a few hours of respite from a world at war. It was money well spent.

Fifteen-year-old Rosie was lucky enough to live right next door to the rink. The wooden-wheeled white leather boots from the Chicago Skate Company were the young skater's most prized possessions. And, like the rest of the girls in the Figure Eights Skating Club, Rosie had sewn her own uniform, a navy blue jumper and yellow blouse. She cleaned houses and washed windows for twenty-five cents an hour to earn money to buy the skates and pay for her sessions at the Brooklyn Skating Rink.

Rosie and her older sister, Jo, could be found at the roller rink seven days a week. Artistic skating was their life. On their bedroom wall hung an 8x10 photo of their friend, Rose Piccola, with her skating partner, Bobby Johnson. The pair was now touring with The Roller Follies of 1942. Rose Piccola, the girl next door, had come a long way from her days of sitting on a Brooklyn rooftop eating banana and whole wheat bread sandwiches with Rosie and Jo.

Some of the show's rehearsals had been held at the rink on Empire Boulevard. In fact, Rose and Bobby weren't the only skaters gleaned from the Brooklyn Skating Rink by the producers of the newly formed Skating Vanities company. When the train carrying the troupe to Baltimore pulled out of Penn Station on that January afternoon, a crowd of Brooklyn friends and relatives bid the skaters farewell and wished them success in their debut performance. Along with Bobby and Rose, there were professional skating instructors, Dolly Durkin and Walter Hughes, skate boy and floor man Tommy Tommaso and skaters Wendy Wendland and Louis the Barber. These and more had called the Brooklyn Skating Rink home and they were sorely missed by those they left behind.

"Rosie! Rosie!"

She scanned the crowd to see who was calling her name. Across the rink, she spotted Terri waving enthusiastically in her direction.

"Rosie! Watch me!" the little girl called.

While the rink guard held her hand, Terri pushed off on her left foot and stretched her right leg out behind her. With her head held high and arms outstretched, she glided straight ahead, holding her Arabesque position until her skate wheels came to a stop. The child's bright red sweater was the same color as the rink guard's outfit. The pair was hard to miss as they made their way to the center of the rink. Terri let go of the rink guard's hand and skated over to Rosie.

"Rosie! I'm gonna get real skates like yours!" the little girl bubbled. "My mother says so!"

"Couples only," announced the rink guards. "Take partners for a rhumba."

"Oh," winced Terri. "I wanna skate."

"It's couples only," Rosie reminded her. "Go upstairs and sit with Ralph," she suggested. "You can watch the dance from there."

"Okay!"

With the rented skates still attached to her shoes, the eight-year-old slid behind the glass enclosure and bounded up the steps to the organist's booth. Ralph moved over to make room on his bench for Terri.

On the rink below, Rosie searched for a partner as the rink guards distributed cards to the skaters. A confused-looking sailor caught her eye and she skated over to him. He studied the card, then looked up at Rosie and smiled.

"Don't you understand the instructions?" Rosie asked.

Still smiling, he shrugged his shoulders and held out the card that described the dance steps. "Français?" he asked.

"Do I speak French?" Rosie laughed. "No. No Français. I only skate in English! Don't worry, I'll show you."

Language ceased to be a barrier the moment the organist began to play "Besa Me Mucho" and the teenager led the young sailor through the dance.

"See? You're a better skater than you thought!" said Rosie.

Her student once again smiled and shrugged his shoulders. When the dance was over, he bowed his thanks and Rosie skated away. Terri wasted no time catching up with her

"Do you like him, Rosie?"

"Terri! Grow up!" admonished Rosie. "It was just a dance. He doesn't even speak English."

"My mother's taking me to the Flatbush after this," Terri announced. "She says you can come with us. She asked your father."

With less than an hour to go before the end of the session, patrons were still streaming in. Rink employees used special crank-type keys to quickly attach the rental skates to customers' shoes. Among the rink regulars, it was no secret that some of the young men who worked there enjoyed looking up the girls' dresses as they attached their skates for them. The rink was so

crowded that Rosie could barely practice her skills anyway, so she accepted Terri's invitation.

A stop at the Flatbush luncheonette on Nostrand Avenue at Empire Boulevard was a perfect ending to an evening of skating. Rosie, preferring to save her money for the rink, could rarely afford to go there. Tonight, Terri's mother, Angie, was "treating" and the girls both ordered hamburgers and milk shakes.

"How can you kids drink milk shakes on such a cold night?" asked Angie, warming her hands over a steaming cup of hot chocolate.

"It's not cold out," countered Terri.

"This is delicious," added Rosie. "Thank you so much."

"It's the least I can do," replied Angie. "You've been so nice to Terri."

"I wish I had sisters like you," said Terri.

"It's not as much fun as you think," the teenager informed her. "You have to share clothes and you don't get your own bed. Older sisters are always telling you what to do and younger ones are always snitching on you."

"I'm not a snitch," declared Terri with pride.

"Well, I'm certainly glad to hear that," laughed Rosie.

"You have one less sister in the house right now," Angie reminded her. "When is Jo coming home?"

"That depends. If she makes it, she won't be coming home for a while. If she

doesn't, she'll probably be home next week."

"Have you heard anything yet?"

"No," Rosie frowned.

"That's a good sign," said Angie. "Can you imagine your sister as a professional skater?! The day she got that telegram from Rose about the audition, I thought she was going to die! She was so thrilled. She's good enough. She'll make it."

"Yeah, Rosie!" said Terri. "Then the next time there's an opening in the show, Jo can recommend you!"

"Oh, I wish!" replied Rosie.

"Hey! Then you can recommend me!" exclaimed Terri. "Mommy, can I be in the Roller Follies?"

Terri's question was so sincere that Rosie and Angie couldn't bear to let the child see them laugh.

"Sweetie," said Angie, "let's get you through the third grade before we make plans for you to go traveling all over the country. Alright?"

"Okay," sighed Terri.

Angie glanced at her watch. "Oh my God, it's almost eleven- thirty. Finish your drinks, girls. We won't be able to get up for church in the morning!"

Just minutes before midnight, Rosie was in her nightgown and ready for sleep. She tiptoed over to the dresser and quietly pulled the top drawer open. The envelope, addressed to Miss Josephine Iacobuzio, was right where Jo had left it. Beneath the Western Union logo, the words "The sender requests an answer" were printed in bold black letters. Rosie slid the telegram out and unfolded it.

=THERES AN OPENING FOR YOU IN THE SHOW NOW THE PRODUCER IS WILLING TO
 GIVE YOU A TEN DAY TRIAL   WILL PAY YOUR TRANSPORTATION GIVE YOU
 THIRTY DOLLARS A WEEK FOR REHEARSALS AND IF NOT ACCEPTED WILL PAY
 YOUR WAY BACK   AM QUITE SURE YOU WILL BE GOOD ENOUGH SO ADVISE YOU
 TO COME OUT HERE IMMEDIATELY   IF YOU ARE COMING CONTACT SKATING
 VANITIES OFFICE PHONE CIRCLE 7-1348 NEW YORK CITY 1775 BROADWAY ROOM
 608 AND THEY WILL GIVE YOU YOUR RAILROAD TICKET   PLEASE ANSWER ME
 BY WESTERN UNION IF YOU ARE COMING AS THE COMPANY MUST KNOW=
ROSE PICCOLA

Rosie turned out the light and climbed into bed. Out of habit, she kept to her own side of the mattress. She tucked the blanket around her shoulders and piled the old coats on top of herself. In an instant, she was asleep.

* * *

It was Rosie's turn to practice figures. The other club members watched as she got up from the bench and made her way to the center of the rink. Her tracings, made visible on the rink floor through a coating of white rosin, were nearly perfect. She wasn't the slightest bit nervous. Her wooden wheels were freshly sanded for smooth skating and her new outfit made her the envy of every one of the Figure Eights. Little did they know, Rosie had cut up her sister's old Schraft's uniform to make the smart white skating skirt they all admired. The matching pants beneath the skirt were actually the bottom of Rosie's bathing suit. Money was scarce in the Iacobuzio household, but there was no shortage of ingenuity.

At one o'clock, the rink guards began sweeping the rosin from the floor to get it ready for the public session. By 1:30, the line of impatient customers was half a block long. Rosie was glad she was already inside. She sat down on a bench while the floor was being cleaned.

When the doors opened to the public, Terri was the first customer in. She headed straight over to Rosie.

"Hi Rosie. Wow! You look great! Is that the skirt you made from Mary's old uniform?"

"Terri!" the red-faced teenager gasped. "Shush!"

"I'm sorry," the little girl whispered.

"I swear, I am never going to tell you another secret as long as I live! Go get your skates put on."

"Sorry," Terri repeated.

Rosie dug two quarters out of her coat pocket and skated over to the counter. Ralph, the organist, was on his way upstairs when he spotted her.

"Rosie!" he called. "I didn't know you were still here. Leo was looking for

you."

"For me? Why?"

"Jo called."

Rosie stopped and stared up at Ralph. He didn't have the heart to keep her in suspense.

"Don't expect her home before Christmas," he grinned.

"I'm gonna tell my mother!" squealed Terri.

"No you're not! Not until I tell Papa. Besides, you can't go outside with those skates on and you know it! S-U-A-S!"

"I know," moaned Terri. "Shut Up And Skate."

Rosie's plans to concentrate on her skating skills during the public session were thwarted the instant the announcement was made. Brooklyn Skating Rink's very own Josephine Iacobuzio was the newest member of the Skating Vanities. Club members, friends, neighbors and strangers stopped Rosie on the rink to offer their congratulations to her older sister.

Terri wasn't about to let this opportunity go by. With hands on hips and head wagging from side to side, she shouted across the rink.

"Hey, Rosie! S-U-A-S!"

Rosie, grinning from ear to ear, shot across the rink shaking her fist in mock anger. Terri reached her hand out and waited for Rosie to catch up to her. The two girls glided along the floor as if the law of gravity no longer applied.

* * *

The girls walked Terri's mother to the subway station. Rosie considered Angie a friend and would have easily agreed to babysit Terri for free, but the teenager certainly didn't protest when the child's mother offered to pay for Rosie's Saturday evening skating session and dinner at the Flatbush.

"Your father looks so proud," said Angie to Rosie.

"Oh, he is," emoted Rosie.

"In a few years, you could be next," predicted Angie. "Imagine how he'll feel when he has two daughters in the Skating Vanities."

"I don't know, Angie. I'm not sure what I want to do. I love to skate, but I'm not a performer. Besides, even though Papa is so happy for Jo, I can see he's a little sad too."

Terri couldn't believe her ears. "Sad?!"

"Because we're all leaving," explained Rosie. "My brother, Mike, is somewhere out in the Pacific with the navy. My sister, Marge, is in the army and she's all the way over in Germany. Now Jo is going to be traveling around the country..."

"You've still got plenty of time to figure out what you want to do with your life. Your father's done a great job with you kids since your mother died. I'm sure he'll be proud of whatever you do."

"Hey," Terri interrupted. "If you don't wanna skate in the show, you could always teach at the rink. Then you wouldn't have to leave Brooklyn. You wouldn't even have to leave Empire Boulevard!"

"When she's right, she's right!" laughed Angie.

"It's something to think about," agreed Rosie.

"Hey, Rosie! Would you be my teacher?"

"Terri!"

* * *

As they approached St. Blaise, Terri and Rosie pulled their hats out of their coat pockets and put them on. Once inside the church, they tiptoed down the aisle and knelt at the altar. With eyes tightly shut and hands clasped in front of them, they offered a quick prayer of thanks for family and friends. They asked St. Blaise to watch over loved ones far away and keep them safe. Then they stood, made the sign of the cross and walked over to the side altar.

Rosie put a penny through the slot and let it drop. The plinking sound of her coin landing at the bottom of the metal collection box echoed throughout the church. Terri's eyes scanned the tray of candle glasses for just the right one. She picked up the slender wick and held it over a candle that was already lit. The wick caught the flame and she used it to ignite her chosen candle. Rosie and Terri crossed themselves again and studied the rows of flickering flames. The tiny dancing lights imparted a sensation of well being. The heat rising from the candles turned the girls' faces pink and the scent of warm wax caressed their nostrils.

On their way out of the church, the girls turned and genuflected in front of the main altar. As soon as the door closed behind them, they pulled off their hats and stuffed them back into their coat pockets. Having made their visit to St. Blaise, Rosie and Terri could now get on with their plans for the evening.

At the Flatbush, the girls didn't bother to open their menus. Hamburgers and chocolate milk shakes were all they wanted. After their order was taken, Terri leaned over and picked up her coat. She put her hand into the left pocket and carefully pulled out what appeared to be a wad of white tissue paper. She handed it across the table to Rosie.

"My mother and me got this for you at A & S. You can put it on your Christmas tree this year."

Rosie unrolled the tissue paper and revealed the ornament. It was a tiny ballerina with black curls and a white costume.

"She has black hair, like you, and a white skirt just like the one you made," said Terri. "They didn't have any skaters. Anyway, skaters are dancers too-right, Rosie?"

"That's right," agreed Rosie, holding her arm above her head like the ballerina in the palm of her hand. "She's beautiful! Thank you."

The girls reached across the table and hugged each other. Rosie wrapped the ornament back in the tissue paper and gently placed it on the table. "We'll show it to Papa when we go up to get my skates," she said.

The milk shakes came first. As soon as the waitress walked away, Terri exclaimed, "How can you kids drink that stuff on such a cold night?"

"That's pretty good! You sound just like her," Rosie giggled, putting her straw into her drink. The shake was so thick that the straw stood straight up in the center of the glass.

"Every time my mother says that, I laugh. You know why? Because she goes out in the winter with nothing on her legs! She draws lines on the back of her legs with her eyebrow pencil to make everybody think she's wearing stockings."

"I know," said Rosie. "Lots of women do that."

"Do you?"

"Are you kidding? Papa would have a fit!"

Two hamburgers didn't stand a chance against the appetites of an eight-year-old and a fifteen-year-old. The girls ate quickly, but not only because they were hungry. More importantly, they planned to be first in line when the rink doors opened for the evening session. Rosie paid their bill with the money Angie had given her and the girls were on their way.

Outside the Flatbush, Rosie and Terri buttoned their coats. Terri put her hand in her pocket and pulled out a stub of white chalk.

"Where'd you get that?" asked Rosie.

"At school," Terri replied, kneeling down on the sidewalk in front of the luncheonette.

"Terri! If a cop walks by, I'm leaving you here!" Rosie warned.

"I'm not drawing on the wall, just on the sidewalk."

"Terri, let's go!"

"Wait, I'm almost done. Look."

Rosie bent down to have a look at Terri's artwork. A round head with an oval-shaped nose and beady eyes peered over a thick chalk line.

"Terri, there's only one 'l' in 'Kilroy'!"

"Anyway," said Terri, "Kilroy was here! Now, let's go."

They raced each other up the block and into the hallway. Minutes later, they were back downstairs and dressed to skate. They were indeed first in line outside the Brooklyn Skating Rink. And, as usual, they were the last two customers to leave the building when the session ended at eleven o'clock that night.

Rosie looked up in the direction of Terri's apartment. "The light's on. Your mother's home," she announced.

"My mother says Santa Claus is bringing my skates," said Terri, handing Rosie her wooden skate case. "On Christmas Eve, I'm gonna put a candle in the kitchen window so he can find me."

"You can't do that, Terri. You know it's not allowed. There's a war going on, remember? If you even light a match out in the street at night, a plane could see it. They told us that in school."

"But I have to make sure Santa Claus knows which apartment I live in."

"Santa Claus has been finding children for thousands of years, Terri-even during wars," laughed Rosie. "Trust me! He doesn't need help finding your apartment."

"When will the war be over, Rosie?"

"I don't know, Terri. Nobody knows that...But won't it be great when they can scrape that stupid paint off the windows and we can see inside again?"

"And everybody can look in and watch us dance," the little girl emoted, kicking her right leg out and pretending to do a spin on the sidewalk. She grabbed Rosie's hand and the two girls sang.

"Besa, besa me mu..."

"Rosa! Come up-a stairs! You wake-a everybody!"

"Coming Papa," called Rosie.

The girls quickly put their hands to their mouths and muffled their giggles. They darted into the hallway, flew up the stairs and disappeared into their apartments. Two doors clicked shut in unison.

* * *

May, 1958

Rosie locked the apartment door, scooped up her little girl and carried her down the two flights of stairs. Try as she might, she couldn't coax the plastic roller skates off her daughter's feet. The four-year-old refused to remove them even long enough to walk down the steps.

The instant her wheels made contact with the sidewalk, she was off. Rosie took her sunglasses out of her purse and clipped them to her eyeglasses as the little girl darted down the block. She skated to the corner, tapped the mailbox with one hand and zipped back to where her mother was standing.

"Ouch! That's Mommy's foot! Be careful!"

"Boy! She really flies on those things!"

The observation came from Jo, sitting at her kitchen window above the artificial flower shop.

"Aunt Jo! Watch me!" the child commanded before taking off again, this time in the opposite direction.

"She's ready for the metal ones," called Jo.

"That's what her father told her," Rosie sighed. "Since she heard that, she's done nothing but ask me when she's getting 'real skates.'"

"Son of a gun! Where the heck did that kid go?" Jo asked, leaning out the window. "Oh," she laughed, "here she comes."

Rosie watched her daughter run back up the block on her little green and white plastic roller skates. She hardly gave herself a chance to glide.

"Slow down," she called. "Slow down!"




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