For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites
The Green Line Straphanger
t was a hot Saturday in early June of 1956, a beach day. No one had air conditioners. School hadn't ended yet for vacation and, until finals were over, the only escape from the early summer heat was a day trip to the ocean. On my block, the mothers took turns taking one or two of the neighbors' kids with their own when they went to a Dodger game, Coney Island, Prospect Park or the beach. Usually it was a last minute invitation to prevent disappointment from bad weather or, more likely, to avoid the pestering from an overdose of anticipation. This day in June was Mrs. Fuchs' turn. My mother came back from Mass that morning and asked if I wanted to go to the beach with John Fuchs and his mom. John was a buddy, a year or so older, who had tipped me off to the trip the night before. Acting as surprised as possible I accepted the invitation.
My mom packed up a Macy's shopping bag with a towel, an old blanket, a T-shirt and a bottle of some kind of alabaster sun repellent.
"Put this on, every time you come out of the water…on your face, arms, legs and don't forget your feet and ankles…"
"Yes mom," I droned.
"…and wear the T-shirt in and out of the water!" she continued.
"I will…I will," I protested.
She wrapped a large bunch of grapes in wax paper and placed it in a brown bag with a Trunz bologna sandwich that she had made. As she fitted the brown bag into the shopping bag she reminded me to be careful with the grapes. She gave me my carfare and enough change to buy a soda at the beach for John, his mother and myself. Then came the last minute instructions.
"If it's too rough don't go in too deep…listen to Mrs. Fuchs…and remember your manners. Always polite."
"Yes mom," I replied again while she kissed my cheek as I left the house.
I met John and his mother in front of their corner apartment house. John held his "Macy's" beach kit and was equally eager to begin the day's trip. We walked the eight blocks down Glenwood Road and turned left on Nostrand Avenue toward the intersection with Flatbush Avenue. Just shy of the "Junction" we boarded the Green Line bus for the beach. It was still early, and getting on at the first stop assured us seats. We followed the driver's instructions and moved to the rear where John and I sat next to each other on a bench seat that faced the side of the bus. Mrs. Fuchs sat adjacent to us on the inside of a two-seater space that faced the front.
It was about a five-mile trip to the beach and barring any significant traffic or bridge delays would take about forty minutes. As the bus was filling, the sweet smells from a bakery waft through its open windows. Shortly though, that pleasant aroma was replaced by the fumes of a leaded gasoline engine as we departed with few empty seats. The driver squared the block and headed south on Flatbush. At Avenue K we took on more passengers.
By the time we reached Kings Highway, the third of four stops en route, there were no seats left. The aisle started crowding with more day-trippers and soon there was very little room at all. To steady themselves, those standing held on to loops that dropped from overhead poles running the length of the bus. The teardrop-shaped loops were called straps. Soon all the straps were taken and people were searching for seat backs or any anchored hardware that would provide balance when the bus went into motion.
Making her way through the crowded aisle, a small, plump woman was clumsily trying to find her own support before the bus started moving. She was out of place. She would apologize sheepishly to every person she passed for the inconvenience of her own search for stability. She did this looking down or away but never into the faces of her fellow travelers. The woman finally found a rail on a seat back about three feet from where John and I sat, gripping it, just as the bus moved. Up close I could see that she was very different.
The woman appeared to be in her mid-twenties, not pretty, and wore her hair like someone much older. She didn't wear jewelry. She carried two large shopping bags and a purse that matched her dress. The dress was faded but clean and it to seemed dated. When I glanced at her feet I noticed that she was wearing sandals, but for some odd reason she had on black wool socks pulled to her knees. I assumed she wasn't going to the beach. The woman looked ash white, not sickly, but pale as if she spent little time outdoors. Her blanched complexion contrasted two deep and dark circled eyes. She looked tired. Remembering my mom's admonition about manners, I offered her my seat. Her response was curious. Wide-eyed, she mumbled something indiscernible and curtly shook her hand, palm out, signaling a refusal to my offer.
As the Green Line bus inched its way into traffic, I began to wonder why the woman didn't fit in. I imagined that she had been sheltered, probably by parents who didn't want her exposed to the excesses of other people her own age. Or maybe it was a religious thing that somehow restricted her appearance in public. Maybe she was "retarded." Not that catchall condition applied to the odd Yankee fan living in a National League neighborhood, or someone who didn't like Good Humor ice cream, Mission soda or a Drakes Devil Dog; but a person afflicted with real mental illness.
The bus had barely gotten to Flatlands Avenue when traffic slowed; then somewhere between Avenue P and Quentin Road we came to a complete stop. I could see the woman was clearly uncomfortable in her crowded confines. She breathed haltingly. Beads of sweat formed on her brow and upper lip and she was nervously shifting her weight from side to side. When she saw me looking toward her she quickly looked away as if ashamed. I thought it a strange reaction. A moment later I noticed she had closed her dark eyes and started moving her lips as if she were in muted conversation or maybe quiet prayer. After a minute, with her eyes still tightly closed, she began shaking her head from side to side as if she were defiantly saying "no" over and over. Seconds later she caught herself. The woman opened her eyes wide again and with sweat now running down her cheeks, she scanned the bus to see if anybody was watching. I looked away to not confirm her fear and embarrass her. She again shifted her weight and then her hands. Her back was now turned toward me. I looked around to see John's mother reading the "Telegram," and John engrossed in one of six comic or sports magazines he brought for the day. Neither had noticed the peculiar actions of the woman, and if any of the other passengers had, they didn't show it.
The bus picked up a little speed only to stop a short block ahead… more traffic. I looked toward the woman again and noticed that she held the rail so tight her knuckles were white and the veins in her hands were raised. Her head was down and now facing left giving me a view of that side of her face. She had returned to the trance I'd seen earlier. Her head was again shaking no. This time I detected a tear seeping out of her eye and then another; and I knew something was sadly wrong with the woman. Perhaps she was retarded and has been sheltered, and maybe she was lost and scared. I had to do something. I didn't want to embarrass her but I decided to offer her my seat again. As I stood up and broke the silence in the back of the bus I was sure other people were watching me, which only made worse what was about to happen.
While tapping her shoulder I asked her, "Miss, would you like to sit down?"
That did it. I had broken her trance, causing her to shriek, "No-No! Not! Not! No!" followed by a string of words in another language.
She dropped her bags and brought her hands to her face as if for protection. She hunched and turned away, still keeping her hands and arms in front of me as if I were going to strike her. She was terrified of me… fear-struck by an eight-year old who was just trying to be polite. She panicked at my presence. I had invaded her thoughts, whatever they were, and I had brought frightful reality to a haunting that was then and there consuming her. Startled by her reaction and quite frightened myself, I jumped back to my seat while she wept, then calmed, and composed herself. The bus went still and I was humiliated. I looked to Mrs. Fuchs as tears pooled in my own eyes. I didn't say anything, however, Mrs. Fuchs knew what I wanted to hear.
She whispered to me, "Jerry, you didn't do anything wrong. It's her, not you. I think she's foreign…and not quite right."
Some how Mrs. Fuchs' words were not enough. The harm had been done and my emotions went from embarrassment to anger. That woman had wounded me.
As the bus moved again, an irritated passenger moved toward the front, leaving an open strap directly across from my seat. The vacant strap was quickly grasped by that woman. I chose not to look in her direction. Somewhere as our trip continued, the woman must have sensed my uneasiness. She got my attention by saying, "Boy…you boy..."
When I looked toward her, she looked at the floor and continued with a heavy accent, "You good boy…I am veddy sorry…veddy sorry."
I said nothing and looked away from her. She sighed and turned around to face the front of the bus, this time gripping the strap with her left hand.
When I glanced back I noticed something very strange. It looked like a telephone number that was missing the exchange prefix. The woman had neatly penned it, or so I thought, in dark blue ink on the inside of her exposed left forearm. The number began with an oddly printed seven…with a line through it.
When I pointed it out to Mrs. Fuchs, she whispered to me that it was a tattoo and further motioned me to keep quiet. As we approached the Avenue U stop, the woman gathered her bags. She looked toward me again as if to apologize but said nothing, then sighed again, and left.
The rest of the day was fun. We swam at Riis Park. John and I played in the surf and sand, we read comics and ate grapes. I tried to find out more from Mrs. Fuchs about the tattoo with the strange seven but all she would tell me was that it was a "foreign seven" and that my mother would best explain the tattoo.
Later that day, when we returned to our Brooklyn street, Mrs. Fuchs sent John into their apartment as she walked me to my house. We met my mother at the back door where I was promptly ordered to rinse the sand off in the basement shower. As I was going downstairs, I heard Mrs. Fuchs start a conversation.
"We had a little incident today…"
Sometime after dinner, when my mother had taken care of the needs of the rest of the family, she came to my room and asked me to tell her everything about the incident on the bus. I did. I could see her reaction was both sad and hesitant. For the first and only time I can remember, my own sheltering mother abandoned my protection. The mother who had carefully packed her love, and my well being, in a Macy's shopping bag earlier that day was someone else. By night's end I was crying; shattered by a revelation that to be delivered honestly could not be delivered gently. That night I learned of horrible things, atrocities…and about evil.
I learned of things like aggression, oppression, torture and starvation. I learned of things like cattle cars and gas chambers and camps like Auschwitz. I learned how families were forcibly separated, husband from wife and children from parents and siblings. I ached, imagining what fear, agony and hopelessness such treatment evoked; and I wept when I learned that those interned - those helpless humans - were tattooed with a number, and yes, in Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia they made their seven with a line through it. I cried too when I learned that while some were rescued and saved, few could ever escape the memory of it all.
By bedtime the tears were gone, sopped by the empathy of a woman who could console like no other. Yet as I lay in bed that night, trying to chase away the cruel images of the evil things I had learned of, I prayed for that poor Brooklyn straphanger whom I knew never could.