For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites
The Pony Man
y father, Frank Kelly, was a cab owner and operator in Brooklyn for more than half of his short life. In the early 1900's, he started out by driving a team of horses for his father, delivering freight or horse-drawn hearses for funerals, and later one of grandpa's cabs. He swore that if any of his sons got a hack license he'd break his legs, but one of us did and he never followed through on that threat. In addition to three cabs, Dad also owned a Shell Gas Station on East 28th Street and Tilden Avenue. Not bad for a guy who never got beyond the fourth grade in grammar school.
One rainy, winter night in the 1930's, he was driving his cab up Nostrand Avenue between Beverly Road and Tilden Avenue, heading back to "Kelly's Corners" cab stand at Church and Nostrand. Suddenly a blur passed in front of him in the rainy dark at Tilden and he hit it. Almost in shock, he leaped from the cab and rushed to see what it was that he had hit.
His worst nightmare was realized when he found a young boy in his now bloodied Boy Scout uniform and the mangled bike he rode lying on the wet cobblestones between the trolley tracks. There was no help for the boy; he was dead.
Luckily, there were witnesses on their way home from work or grocery shopping that Friday evening who bore out Dad's contention that he never had a chance to see the victim or to stop before the impact. The boy had been rushing to get to a Scout meeting and never looked, or, if he had, misjudged the distance between himself and the cab. Dad was devastated and was physically ill for several days. It was likely the cause of the ulcer he suffered for many years after. In some ways, Dad was as much a victim as the boy.
He would never allow any of us to have or even ride a bike after that night. We all did so behind his back and had friends teach us how on their bikes. My teacher was a boy in my class at Holy Cross named Fred Balluff.
As we grew older we always asked for a bike, but knew it was useless. Finally one day - I think I was in fifth grade - Dad said if we all got good marks at the end of the Spring term, he would get us something that was equal to "one horse power". Man! We figured we were all going to each get one of the new motorized bikes that were just getting popular then.
Finally, the Spring term did end and exceptional report cards were proudly presented to Dad by his three sons. Dad smiled, patted each of us on the shoulder (that was about as affectionate as this tough Irishman would ever get) and said to follow him. As we left our second floor apartment over the plumbing supply store on Nostrand near Beverly and walked toward that fateful corner, we figured that he was taking us to his gas station on Tilden and East 28th to gas up the motorbikes and show us how to operate them on quiet 28th Street between Tilden and Albemarle Road.
When he got to East 29th Street and Tilden, he suddenly turned right and headed towards Albemarle Road. What was this? Did he hide the bikes in the ice man's stable on 29th behind the dog and cat hospital on Albemarle? Well, that would figure, because we were always at the his gas station (they didn't start calling them "service" stations yet) and we were sure to find them if they were stored there. Sure enough, when he got to the yard he turned into it and walked to the small building that was the stable with stalls for 4 horses. Wait a minute! He passed the barn, which was twice as big as the stable, where the ice wagons were stored. What the heck was going on here?
He unlocked the stable door, opened it wide, went in and came back out leading a brown and white pinto pony! A PONY? "One horse power," heh? What were we supposed to do with this thing? Dad told us it was now our responsibility to feed, clean and exercize this beast...every day! This was more like a punishment for getting all those good marks instead of a reward!
Not only were we extremely disappointed by the absence of our highly anticipated "brand spanking new, motorized bikes," but now had a huge animal depending on us for its very life! This was no tiny, Shetland pony; this animal's shoulder was as high as our own. And we had to reach up to full arm's length to get the bridle over its ears.
Ponies don't sleep standing up like horses. They lay down in their stall and that's also where they relieve themselves! Every morning before we went to school, we had to feed, water and clean this thing... including washing the brown stain off its right hind hip. We used up a lot of Fels Naptha soap and CN getting that white hair clean again every day. And the smell was awful. So our days started at five A.M. to have time to do this beast's breakfast and toilet and then go back home to shower off the smell that clung to us like our own skin, before we went off to school, where, by the way, we had to put up with a lot of guff from our classmates about the smell and what were we doing with a pony in the middle of Flatbush! "Whaddaya, hicks?"
After a week of this nasty chore, Dad was satisfied that we were up to the challenge of the responsibility he threw at us. He then taught us how to apply the harness and rigging gear to the animal and the two-wheeled cart ("Thrapp" he called it in an Irish brogue) and then how to make the beast, now named "Queenie", take us where we wanted to go.
Suddenly we had a whole new bunch of friends and no one noticed the smell and took turns helping us clean the stable and the pony for a chance to hold the reins and drive the cart around the streets of Flatbush all the way out to Riis Park. We had to blindfold her to get her across the Marine Parkway Bridge, because she saw the metal grid of the bridge bed as a hole and wouldn't step on it unless she was blindfolded. She also had the nasty habit of leaping over sewer plates in the streets for the same reason. Picture what happens to the passengers in the tiny, two-wheeled cart behind her when she did that! The cart held four kids and those who couldn't fit would ride alongside on their bikes, holding on to the side of the wicker frame of the cart, until it was their turn to "ride inside". And we'd get a chance to ride their bikes.
Dad finally got us away from asking for bikes. Eventually other ponies were added to and sold from the string along with other carts. One cart was even a downsized stage coach replica! We never sold rides or anything like that. It was just our "toy" and it took Dad back to his own youth.
Years later, I finally got my own bike. I came home from Korea with an injured leg and bought a secondhand, one-speed bike to help strengthen the leg by pedaling the bike from our new home on Westminster and Cortelyou Roads to the station at East 28th and Tilden and back again after work. It was about a mile each way and did help with the rehab of the leg. It did nothing for Dad's peace of mind, but he did accept the reason for me having it. He would see me pedaling up Tilden Avenue, across Rogers Avenue, and he would go inside the office in order not to witness my memory-jogging activity and to prevent me from seeing how pale he got, according to my Uncle Ambrose.
Dad kept ponies even after we all graduated high school and went into the service. Eventually, he was down to one pony again and built a stall in one of the garages behind the station, which I'm sure was not in accordance with the health code, but nobody complained. He gave rides to the many kids who came through the station on their way to school at Holy Cross, P.S. 246, P.S. 89 and Erasmus. They'd bring lettuce, carrots, celery stalks and lumps of sugar for the pony and Dad would let them walk the pony up and down 28th Street. The last one was the biggest pony and very good with the kids. "King" would nuzzle them from behind to try to get more treats from them . That all ended when Dad had his first heart attack and sold the last pony. It wasn't too long after that, at the age of 52, that he passed away on my 25th birthday.
Our mother was surprised by the number of grammar and high school kids who came to Gallagher's Funeral parlor at Church Avenue and Veronica Place to pay their respects to Dad.
They all just wanted to say goodbye to the Pony Man.