For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites
Something's Not Right Here
here are times when I feel that growing up by the seashore was the single most profound influence on my life. Balmy days and cool nights. Hot dogs at Nathan's and pizza at Larry and Vinny's. Swimming all day while the older guys would serenade their teenage goddesses by singing doo-wop songs a cappella. The beach, the boardwalk, and the amusement parks. We lived in Brooklyn in a place called Coney Island.
There was something about coming of age in a city where each neighborhood had its own distinct cultural identity, vitality and unique sounds and smells. We would travel through the borough of Brooklyn like some modern-day pioneers, meeting its natives and sampling its wares. The whole group was like an extended family that nurtured us outside the doors of our apartments: Eddie, Stuie (AKA Baby Bull), Randy the mouth, Harvey, stitch Rich, and many others.
We would ride our bikes or use the buses and trains on our journeys. Turn any corner and the language and dress would change. So would the smells. Ah, the smells! Walking by a pizzeria in Bensonhurst where Italian immigrants made their pies and the smell drifted out onto 86th Street. Open-air produce markets where the vendors hawked their fruits and vegetables: "Hey lady, you ever see tomatoes this nice"? Eating clams by the docks in Sheepshead Bay. We loved it all, but we always came home to the beach. We watched people and laughed. We looked at each other and laughed. We went down to Stillwell Avenue in Coney Island to ride the Cyclone and go to Nathan's where the Puerto Rican boys behind the counter would sell us giant cups of Rheingold beer for 25 cents. The world was exciting and colorful and we didn't have a worry in the world; but every once in a while, something happened that left the lingering feeling that things were about to change.
There was a time when the Black Panthers took over an apartment building and hung out a banner proclaiming their feelings toward the oppression they felt from a system that didn't recognize their dignity as people. I couldn't understand. I had black friends and I never saw them as any different from me. We were all mixed together: Italians, Jews, Blacks, and Irish. We played stickball in the park, watched the fireworks on the boardwalk every Tuesday night in the summer, and ate pizza at Larry and Vinny's.
There was another time when there was a shootout at Deb-Zel's Luncheonette (I think it was named after the owners' two daughters, Deborah and Zelda). It was right across the street from my apartment building and on one hot, sticky day in July, there was a hold-up. The man went in and pulled out a gun and the owner's wife sneaked behind him and locked the door. The owner was shot dead and the gunman crashed through the front door and was so cut up he was rushed to the hospital. It was like watching a "B" movie. What was happening here? My father used to tell me that we lived in a bad neighborhood and that I had to be very careful. I listened but I didn't believe it. If you minded your own business, you'd be all right. Violence was not a foreign concept because we did live in New York City, but it never touched us in any way that mattered. All that changed in the summer of 1967.
We were hanging out in the park one day, just laughing and relaxing (why were we always laughing?). All of a sudden, a police car roared up to the entrance to the beach by the boardwalk on 31st Street. We all gathered around as two policemen rushed out of their car with guns drawn and ran under the boardwalk. Our parents told us to stay away from "under the boardwalk" at night because all kinds of unsavory people lurked there, ready to do something horrible to you. Parents can be so colorfully morose. Didn't they know we were just looking for a good time? Besides, it was daylight. What could happen in broad daylight? A short time later, a cop came out from under the boardwalk with a teenage girl. She was crying hysterically and her clothing was torn. Her eyes were so swollen that they looked like slits, and blood was trickling out of her mouth. She was choking on it as she was crying and trying to talk to the cop. We heard them talking about rape.
A full ten minutes had passed when the other cop came out with this big kid whose hands were
handcuffed behind his back. His head was bleeding, his nose was bleeding, and his mouth was
bleeding. The cop was a little stocky guy, powerfully built and very angry. He told his partner
that "this jerk ain't gonna hurt nobody for awhile." The kid was crying and shaking, and
then the cop grabbed him by the neck and smashed his face into the squad car's window. I was
on the opposite side and all I could see was a bloody pulp up against the windshield. The kid's
front teeth were knocked out and he was barely conscious. The cop put him in the squad car and
drove off. By this time another car pulled up and the girl was given a blanket before she was
taken to Coney Island Hospital. We all stood and stared at the scene and then we looked at each
other. We were confused and scared; the true meaning of what happened had not begun to sink
in yet. Our načve view of the big city was about to come to a screeching halt. It wouldn't happen
now, but during the quiet times when we would look at the ocean and start to dream. Oh, yes,
the realization was coming later, but now, we all looked at one another and with a silence louder
than the noon siren, we said without speaking, "something's not right here."