For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites
The Sweet Sixteen Party - A Memory
n 1947, elevated trains, trolley cars, and the horrors of the Second WorldWar were still part of the New York scene. Those of us who missed serving in the war because we were too young were blissfully unaware that Korea would prove to be our own rite of passage.
I walked into our five room railroad flat apartment on Van Buren Street in Brooklyn and greeted my father who was seated comfortably on his favorite chair and reading a book.
"I've got a part-time job, pop, assistant shipping clerk for the Goldine Hat Company on West 39th Street."
"Very good, son, that will give you some extra money to help with your school expenses and I'll help you when I can."
"Oh, I forgot. Your mother wants to talk to you."
I tried to question him further, but he grinned and turned back to his book.
I walked into the kitchen and found my mother sweeping the red linoleum floor. Her plain house-dress couldn't hide her tall and regal figure. She looked at me and said, "Your cousin, Olga, just turned sixteen."
Anticipating something I definitely wasn't going to like, I said, "Yeah, so!"
"So, she's having a party Saturday night and she doesn't have any boys."
"Hey Momma, that's not my problem. She looks like Olive Oyl."
My mother folded her arms across her chest and with a glare that owed a lot to some obscure Mongolian-Jewish ancestry, said, "You know that your aunt Ada, Olga's mother, took care of you when I was sick. So, you will get some of those characters you hang around with and take them to the party."
And in a softer voice," Do me this favor, Walter, please. You know the food will be wonderful."
In a sudden flash of the rare insight that occasionally zooms into the brain of 17-year-old boys, I said, "O.K., Momma."
Six 17 and 18 year old boys walked tall and straight in dark, double-breasted overcoats and duck-tailed haircuts. We all towered over our parents. The rumor was that our immigrant parents were so astounded by the wealth of food available in the Golden Land that they literally stuffed us. Fortunately, the growth went vertical for the most part.
We met at the corner candy store on Sumner Avenue and walked to Reid Avenue, keeping a loose formation of three abreast and trying to scare everyone in our path. The young kids hooted at us, made catcalls and then disappeared into the lovely old brownstone houses to avoid us. At Reid Avenue, we boarded the trolley car for the ride to Church Avenue in East Flatbush.
After sitting down, my friend, Goldy, turned to me and said, "Good looking girls, right Walty?"
"Think about the food, Goldy."
"Hey, Walter," Simke interrupted, "maybe we'll get lucky tonight. Right?"
I answered, "In your dreams, Simke!"
All of the boys laughed as well as every passenger on the streetcar.
The late afternoon light charged the air through the particles of the February frost and gave it a clarity that invaded the Reid Avenue trolley car. It was the Brooklyn of my loves and the Brooklyn of my dreams.
The small two story house on Church Avenue consisted of my Grandfather's hardware store at street level with an apartment in the back and the home of my Aunt Ada and Uncle Nat on the top floor. Their apartment was clean and immaculate with scrubbed white walls and wooden floors covered with dark, mysterious rugs.
Six teen-age girls plus cousin Olga were waiting in front of a huge table in the dining room covered with Aunt Ada's delightful delicacies. The delicacies both in front of and on the table were displayed -through Aunt Ada's efforts - to the best possible advantage. All of the girls had been inspected by my aunt. They were adorable and dressed in the simple dresses and skirts of that era.
We walked into the apartment stared at the food and glanced at the girls, some of us shyly, and the rest boldly and lustily. Aunt Ada took over immediately, directing the boys to a bedroom for our coats and beginning the twin tasks of feeding and mixing the genders. I was introduced to all the girls and Anna. I stayed near Anna. Yankele the crazy, a sort of nerd with a pushed in face, elected to be in charge of the phonograph and records. When the music started, I danced with Anna. Aunt Ada watched while Anna pressed her tightly curved, mature little body into mine while we danced a slow fox trot to Artie Shaw's Dancing in the Dark.
"Yankele!" My aunt yelled, "Why all this slow music? Let's have a good time! Jump around! Jump Around!"
Yankele changed the record and I sat down with Anna.
As we began to talk, Olga walked over and asked, "Dance with me, Walter?"
I excused myself and danced a fast Lindy Hop with my cousin. Yankele changed the record and another slow dance started. Olga, a little self-consciously, but extremely effectively, thrust her long shapely body against mine. I was beginning to feel warm. I heard my Aunt Ada mutter, "Oy vey, I need an aspirin." She walked away, probably in search of one.
After we danced, I went looking for Anna and wound up sitting on the couch with her next to Herman and Olga. Herman, deep in conversation, turned and winked at me. I smiled and turned back to Anna, a pretty little dark-eyed girl with a delicate, sweetly blooming figure. Aunt Ada handed me a plate full of pastrami, corn beef and one enormous kugel (potato pudding standing all by itself). She whispered, "Thank you, Walter, for bringing your friends." And to herself, she muttered, "I'll thank god every night if there aren't any swollen bellies."
I replied, nodding, with my mouth full and making believe I never heard her muttering. After swallowing my food, I turned to Anna who smiled and touched my arm. Later in the evening, Danny, a good-looking, physical fitness freak walked over to me. He glanced back at a large blonde girl and said, "How about we all meet at Sammy's Pool Room later?"
"O.K.," I replied and then to Anna, "Suppose I take you home soon?"
Anna smiled and said, "That's a good idea."
We left the party and Anna took my arm. I stiffened for a second and then held my arm in a position that I thought would be comfortable for Anna. Anna didn't need any help.
In 1947 in Brooklyn, all the immutable combinations of a cold February night: icy streets; clanging trolley cars; sharp angular buildings and rushing people merged into an atmospheric softness - a sense, peculiar to Brooklyn, of having all the hard edges melt into rounded corners.
When we got to her apartment building, Anna took me up to the third floor close to her family's apartment and stopped near the radiator. I talked to her, then stroked her hair and kissed her. Anna responded. I moved my hands all over her body and Anna fended me off, kissing me passionately at the same time. After a few more minutes, Anna told me she had to go in. My racing hormones made me mute. I nodded. She said, "Call me. You have my phone number, right?"
I mumbled, "Yes."
Anna went into her apartment and I slowly walked down the stairs. I skipped Sammy's Pool Room.
The next evening I met Herman in front of his part-time job in a fur factory on Eighth Avenue. On the subway going home, Herman said, "If you're thinking about taking Anna out, you could fix up a double date with me and your cousin."
"Why don't you ask her yourself?"
"Come on, Walty."
"O.K., I'll fix it up, but you better be careful, or my Aunt Ada will throw you out the window."
Herman laughed and said, "Anything as long as she feeds me."
The subway to Brooklyn rolls, twists and turns, and maybe in 1947 moved gently through all the tunnels and stations of our lives.