For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites

Brooklyn, Lupita and I

by Carmen Margaret Thurman


ome August, 1962, moving from Lafayette Avenue in downtown Brooklyn to Hopkinson Street in Brownsville was going to be very traumatic for me. I was leaving behind my new-found friends and the YWCA on State Street and Third Avenue. Life was never going to be the same.

I was leaving behind my neighborhood landmarks: the YWCA; Williamsburg Savings Bank; Fort Green Park; the movie theaters, Majestic, Loew's, RKO and Paramount. How could I leave my favorite stores in downtown - Fulton, May's, Abraham and Strauss, McCrory and Juniors? At my elementary school, P.S. 20 on Adelphi Street, I was leaving my fifth grade teacher, Miss Gil, and the best ever, never to be found, lemon cookies. Before I left home in the mornings, I made sure I had five cents to buy at least five cookies. Who made them? They came in these big two pound tin cans and the school sold them for a penny each at morning recess. A glass of milk never tasted as good as when paired up with those cookies.

Swimming for an hour at the YWCA for fifty cents was therapeutic and paradise. The Red Hook public pool was still closed, and school was not out yet. Fortunately for me, believing myself to be the next Esther Williams, I was able to walk every Tuesday and Thursday to the YWCA and swim for sixty glorious minutes, wearing the Y's hideous cotton bathing suit and tight fitting cap. Half of the time I had to knot the back straps of the bathing suit so I wouldn't wind up swimming in the nude. They just did not fit me. At age ten, curvy, voluptuous Marilyn Monroe I was not. I was just a flat-chested, no-hipped, scrawny Puerto Rican girl. Heaven forbid if you asked the counter lady who handed out the bathing suits and caps for a smaller size. She just glared and handed you a bigger size than she would've given you in the first place. Those chlorine-washed-out, red, blue or green bathing suits were a sight!

As a ten year old, walking to the Y, I was always amazed how a pool could be on the fourth floor of this building. You would think it would be in the basement, set into the ground. How was that possible? Maybe there was a missing floor between the third and fourth floors and the pool just dipped into this phantom floor.

All the neighboring girls walked to the Y and met new friends or enemies every week. If you were considered the "enemy", you would get accidentally bumped or scratched by one of us, in the lockers or pool. If you were our friend, we banded together and helped you to get back at the "enemy", who frequently attacked you underwater and also scratched you, not pinch. A scratch was easy to explain as they swam. A pinch was more premeditated and could not easily be excused. This is why they always gave the sneaky lie of, "oops I am sorry…I didn't mean to scratch you!" Sure! We knew! Payback! We became "Godzilla" and sharpened our nails for the attack. The pool became a battle scene, the groups divided almost like in West Side Story, but then the buzzer rang and the hour was over. We got kicked out of the pool. Gee…too bad…we didn't have to fight!

I remember one so-called enemy whose name was Lupita Colon. She sure was stuck-up, pushy and a Miss Know-it-all. She wanted everyone to maintain a straight line in front of the pool doors, in the order they arrived. No cheating and getting ahead of the person in front of you. I mean, who made her the Y's hallway monitor? My friends and I abided by the rules, well...most of the time. We really wanted her to mind her own business. So we gave her the "look". You know, eyebrows creasing together and making a straight hairy line across our forehead. The look meant, "Oh yeah…says who…we'll get you!"

One rainy Tuesday, when a new group of girls stole Lupita's watch from the shower stalls, we didn't lift a finger to help her find the culprit. At the end of the swimming session we ignored the locker room commotion and scurried to get dressed. We pooled together our leftover money - fifteen cents - and went to Joe's Pizza shop on Lafayette and South Portland. We shared one huge slice of pizza and ate contentedly. We left Lupita facing her accused enemies, four tough looking gang girls. We giggled and laughed and agreed "it served her right!" Pay back is here!! I never knew what happened afterwards.

Old, weary and somber Joe made the best pizza ever. He worked in his small one-counter, two tables with chairs shop and never smiled. He just kneaded and spun and flipped and then stretched and spin again and flipped and baked pizzas all day. His pizza was the first I ever ate. That first hot, gooey, saucy pizza bite introduced me to another world's cuisine. Yum, was it good, better than arroz con pollo.

We finally moved and I said my goodbyes. Late that summer, I sat in front of my new home at 433 Hopkinson Avenue, across from the Hopkins Manor, and looked at all the kids at play. Down the street was Yolanda and Paula Mendez, Ivan Vazquez, my cousin, Rosita Canino, playing stoop-ball. In front of me was a group of kids with their father's monkey wrench and hollowed-out soda-pop can trying to open the "Johnny pump". It was hot!

As the new kid on the block, I was acting bashful and feeling sorry for myself, when a voice said, "Excuse me, can I get through?" I looked up. A tall skinny girl with saucy big brown eyes, holding a trash can, was trying to come down the stoop to the lined up aluminum trash cans in front of the building. Those eyes looked very familiar. Oh no! It was her, Lupita! She also recognized me and smiled. As always, busy-body that she was, she went on to ask a hundred questions. Yes, I just moved here. Yes, I am starting the sixth grade. Yes, I am going to P.S. 175 on Hopkinson and Sutter Avenues. I then reluctantly said, "What? Oh no, I live next door to… your… apartment? Great!"

My life would be changed forever. Not only did Lupita live right next door to me, she sat next to me in Mr. Zieglan's sixth grade class. Yes, this was one of those "and then life throws you a curve" situations they talk about, because ultimately Lupita and I created a bond that lasted twenty eight years. Even when she moved to Park Avenue in Bedford Stuyvesant, we still hung out. We hung out with her cousins, Ronnie, Susu, and Papo. We became inseparable. We shared every inevitable life stage, from the onset of womanhood and losing our virginity to motherhood and caring for our children.

We are no longer together because of her premature death. Lupita was forty-one years old when she died from a brain hemorrhage. I still think of her and all the good and bad times we lived. Our children still laugh at the way she and I met and the tales behind our lives. They even compared us to Lucy and Ethel or Laverne and Shirley. Lupita and I shared so much even though our life styles went separate ways. I graduated from Clara Barton, she had a baby and left school. I ultimately wound up in Florida, while she remained in the neighborhood. At least once a year we came together and reminisced, laughed or cried on each other's shoulders. We respected and understood each other and always shared that special bond. It was one of those Brooklyn friendships that is remembered always.

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