The year was 1936. I was seven years old. My family like millions of other families was caught in the monstrous tentacles of the depression. We were living in a four-floor walk-up on East Forty-Fifth Street in Brooklyn. It must have been sometime in the spring that my mother told me and my three older sisters - - at seventeen, Silvia was the oldest, Roslyn was a year younger and Gail was either fourteen or fifteen - - that we would be moving in a few days to a six-floor walkup on Chester Street in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn and that she had bought a candy store a few blocks away on the corner of Hopkinson and Lott Avenues.
Silvia, the most dramatic of my sisters immediately began to cry and scream that her life was ruined, while Roslyn wanted to know where the money came from to buy the store, and Gail was silent.
My mother said, “That’s what we will do, like it or not.”
As far as I was concerned, it meant leaving Public School 135 where I already had a reputation as a “hard case” and was left back twice. Though the move would put me in a new school, I would still be in a school, a place I hated with all the hate that a seven-year-old could muster.
I had no idea how the move would impact all of us. The move was connected to the candy store. My father who was a jeweler and had worked for a man named George Harris was let go after twenty-five years. The experience traumatized him. He lost the ability to distinguish color and became lethargic leaving all of the critical decisions to my mother.
The day we moved was gray and intermittently rainy. Except for Roslyn and my mother, none of us had been to the apartment. Of all of her children, she depended on Roslyn the most, and though Roslyn was only in her mid-teens, she often sought her judgment on various matters.
Silvia was “a clothes horse” and “boy crazy.”
Gail was a “tom-boy,” and kept a “tight rein" on her feelings, and, of course, I was too young to be involved in family matters and was considered, because my poor record in school, to be both “slow” and a behavioral problem.
Roslyn said nothing about the apartment that we were going to be living in other than it had the same number of rooms that we were accustomed to which meant that my sisters would share one bedroom, my parents the other, and I would sleep on a fold away cot in the living.
On the day of the move, we waited until the moving had loaded everything we owned into their truck before we left the apartment. We rode the Church Avenue trolley to Hegeman Avenue and Chester Street; then walked one long block to Lott Avenue.
"There it is,” my mother announced pointing to the building across the street where the moving van parked in front of it. “Our apartment is on the top floor in the rear.”
There was an empty lot between the building and Lott Avenue, and there weren’t any trees on Chester Street or on Lott Avenue. The building sagged somewhat in its middle, and there were fire-escapes attached to the back of it.
“I got three months concession,” my mother said proudly as we crossed the street.
None of us answered.
In the building, there was a long, dimly lit hallway to the stairs. It had a sour smell.
With my mother in the lead, we walked up six flights of steps. Like the hallway, each landing was dimly lit with one bulb in the ceiling. Inside the apartment, the air was thick with the odor of fresh off-white paint. The windows were streaked with it.
I went into the bathroom. I remember being shocked - - surprised would be a better word for a seven-year-old’s reaction to what I saw. The walls and ceiling were covered with embossed metal painted with the same off-white color on the walls and ceilings of the other rooms. There wasn’t a shower, and the bathtub was supported by four pieces of iron or steel claw-snapped. For the first time since my mother had told me and my sisters that she’s bought a candy store and that we were moving in order to be closer to it, I knew that all of our lives were irrevocably changed and not for the better. In my own way, I was frightened. Since my father had lost his job, there were changes in all of our lives. My nickel a week allowance stopped, my sister’s allowances were cut, there was less meat for dinners and more stews when there were meat or soup bones.
The day before we went to the apartment I overheard my sisters talking. Roslyn said that the seven hundred dollars that our mother used to buy the candy store came from our parents’ bank account which was originally a thousand dollars. A huge amount to them and me, and now there were only three hundred dollars left. She also said that we were poor and if the candy store failed, we’d be much poorer.
It must have taken a couple of hours for the moving men to place our furniture where my mother wanted the various pieces. As soon as that was done, and the moving paid, she said, “Okay, now we’ll go to the candy store. I want to open it first thing tomorrow morning.
We left the apartment and walked a couple of blocks to where the candy store was located on the corner of Hopkinson and Lott Avenues, across the street from Public School One Sixty-Five. It looked exactly like PS 135, the school I had left.
Before she unlocked the door, she said, “It’s mine; I own it.”
I was too young to understand what those words meant to her. That knowledge would come decades later when my wife, Anita, and I bought a house on Staten Island. But at the time that my mother, three sisters and I stood at the door of the candy store they were meaningless.
Once we were inside the store, even I realized how filthy everything was. There were mouse and/or rat dropping on the counter, the three tables and on the floor. The store was longer than it was wide. There were four stools in front of the counter. Their red cushion tops were torn. The candy case was next to the counter, and another one at the back of the store under a large dirty mirror that covered part of the wall. A telephone booth was opposite the counter on the other side of the wall. Four strips of flypaper with hundreds of dead flies on them, dangled from the base two ceiling fans.
There was a small room in the back of the store with an old fashion coal-burning stove in the middle of it, and a bathroom filled with old newspapers and filthy rags.
My sisters were horrified.
Silvia sat on one of the chairs and began to cry. Roslyn told my mother that she couldn’t open the store the next morning for business because it was too dirty, and she needed to restock the candy because all of it was crawling with worms.
“Start to clean the place up,” my mother said. “I’m going out to get help. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Roslyn became the self-appointed chief of the cleaning operation. She assigned tasks to Silvia and Gail and to me. She worked on the countertop.
About an hour later my mother appeared with three black women and one very big black man. And immediately set them to work. One of the black women had a son about my age with her. I noticed that he wasn’t wearing shoes.
The work went on well into the evening. The added help was paid two dollars each and would return for as long as they were needed.
When we returned to the apartment, my mother opened a couple of cans of chicken soup, put out a few pieces of bread and told us that would be our dinner. When my father arrived, she gave him the same fare that we had.
The next day I went to school, and my sisters returned to the high schools they attended: Silvia, to Erasmus; and Roslyn and Gail, to Tilden.
It took several days to clean up the candy store and open it for business. Silvia printed on large pieces of cardboard: UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT and my mother placed them in the store’s windows where they would be seen by anyone passing by.
As for restocking the candy, my mother took another hundred dollars out of the bank account to do it. She bought the candy from a wholesaler on Thatford Avenue. I went with her after school on a day that Silvia came home early. She cut her last class, she told my mother, because it was Latin and she hadn’t any reason to learn it.
My mother said she would deal with that later and off we went to buy candy. At the time she was too preoccupied with the candy store to think about anything else. Whatever her dreams were she did not share them with her children or her husband.
The black boy who came with his mother became my first friend. His name was Kenneth, but everyone called him Kenny. He had a twin brother, Milton and was known as Millty. The shared a pair of shoes and alternated coming to school. I also became friendly with him. Our teacher, a stout woman with gray hair and black-framed glasses, couldn’t tell which one was in class. Neither could I unless one of them gave me his name.
By the end of the first week, I had my first fight. The class bully, Peter, came over to me during recess in the schoolyard and started to jab at my right shoulder. I didn’t even tell him to stop. I drove my right knee into his crotch. He went down howling in pain. I got on top him and slammed my fists into his face. The teacher came running over to where we were and pulled me off of the boy while telling me that wasn’t a good way to start in a new school. Later that same afternoon I was summoned to the principal’s office. Unlike my teacher, the principal was very thin and wore white metal framed glasses. Her office had highly polished bookcases, and her desk was very large. She warned me that if I caused trouble again, I would be sent to an ungraded school.
I said nothing.
“I’ll be watching you,” she said before I left the office and returned to my class.
Somehow my mother found out about the fight and my subsequent visit to the principal. The moment I stepped into the candy store, she started to scream at me and came out from behind the counter and beat me with a broomstick.
To get away from her, crying I ran out of the store and didn’t go back until Roslyn came.
Later, when my father arrived, she told him about the fight. He didn’t say anything, but he looked at me and shook his head.
My mother complained that she had enough to worry about didn’t need to worry about me.
The next day during recess a boy who I hadn’t seen before came over to me and said, “You beat the hell out of that Peter. He got what he deserved. I saw him jabbing at your shoulder.”
“Yeah, well I was sent to the principal because - -”
“Listen, I’m in class two A,” he said. “My name is Frank Distophono.”
I gave him my name and said, “My mother owns the candy store on the corner.”
He nodded, and that was the beginning of our friendship.
Because his father carved tombstones, the Distophono family was one of the wealthiest in the neighborhood. They were very generous to me, and I often had Sunday dinner with them. Frank’s mother always made up a package of food for me to take back to the candy store.
By the end of the term in June, I finally was promoted to the third grade after having repeated the second grade twice. But I was still in the slowest class, and that was the class that had the grade’s “throw away, students.” But I was happy that I wouldn't have to go to school for two months.
My father came to the candy store almost every afternoon and stayed until my mother closed it, usually around ten o’clock. For a while, he just sat and smoked a cigar. Then, somehow he connected with a man named Jack Teperman. Jack lived with his father in a large house with a high stoop that was on the same street from the candy store. Between that house and the candy store, there were three other stores: a Chinese laundry, a tailor, and nick-nack store.
Jack was a big, ugly looking man with a glass eye who smelled of cigar smoke and too few baths. He wasn’t as old as my father or mother. He had a loud voice and cursed anyone he thought crossed him in some way.
I don’t remember how it happened but somehow he connected with my father, and the two of them played pinochle or poker for hours every day until my mother and father had an argument about it. She told him that if he wanted to play cards with Jack, he should find somewhere else to do it. The argument took place in the back of the store. My father stormed out and only came to the store to escort my mother back to our apartment of Chester Street.
That summer I was wild. No one in my family bothered to supervise me. I connected with a gang. At the time there were many gangs in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, including the infamous Amboy Dukes.
Most of the members of the gang I hooked up with were older boys, ten, eleven and twelve years old. We fought with another gang whose members came from the squatters, Gipsies, and small truck farmers whose shacks were in the huge open fields around Remsen Avenue that extended all the way to Canarsie. But most of the time we went into the fields to hunt for snakes that we killed when we found them.
I wasn't interested in what was happening at the candy store, but I couldn’t help hearing what my sister said or my mother. It wasn’t earning enough to pay the rent for it and our apartment. We were always late. Roslyn said, “It was like a dog chasing its tail.” And to make our situation worse, members of my mother’s family took turns coming to the store for freebies.
My sister Silvia was caught by Gail stealing from the cash register. Our mother laced into her verbally, and she became so hysterical that our mother had to slap her several times to stop her screaming. No matter what Silvia said, she was told that she was absolutely forbidden to open the cash register. She could do other work in the store but never again be allowed to handle money.
Despite the fact that I was left back twice and would be in the slowest third-grade class, I was a reader though no one in my family was aware of it. I read the newspapers and books that I took out of the library after I discovered it on Hopkinson Avenue, a couple of blocks below Pitkin Avenue. The first two books that read on my own were: a biography of KIT CARSON and THE CALL OF THE WILD by Jack London. In addition to my reading beyond my grade level, I had a large vocabulary. I was intrigued by words and their meanings. But I was thoroughly bored with whatever took place in the classroom and couldn’t sit still.
During that summer, I learned something about my father that I never knew, not that I knew much about him. He was a phlegmatic man not given to emotional displays. Though he was slow to anger, he had a fierce temper when he became angry. One day he said that we were going to go to Canarsie to visit a friend of his whose sir name was Kogel. I don’t remember his given name.
We boarded the trolley that went to Canarsie on Rockaway Avenue. There were other people on it. The ride soon took us behind clusters of houses then into the open fields that I visited with my gang. The trolley was open on both its sides and iron, or steel bars were attached to up-right poles to prevent riders from falling out. By the time we arrived at the trolley’s last stop, we were the only ones on it.
I had no idea which way we would go until my father said that we go to the Canarsie Pier. It was a short walk from where we were. Even before we got there, I saw the ship that was moored to the pier. It had a black hull and either two or three masts with the necessary spars to hang sails on. When we actually on the pier, I saw that the deck was painted white. We were told by a man who was aboard her that she belonged to the Sea Scouts, a branch of the Boy Scouts of America. He let us go aboard and walk around the deck. I was thrilled. I had read about sailing ships.
After a while, we left the ship and walked back toward trolley’s last stop. I thought that we were going to go home when another trolley came, but I was wrong. I suddenly realized that we were walking toward a two-story house that seemed to be in the middle of a very large field. The closer we came to the house, the spookier it seemed. All of its windows were open; and despite the fact that there were marshes close by and probably millions of mosquitos in the area, there weren’t any screens on the windows.
We had cut across a very large field and reached a gravel road that led to the house. Suddenly two very large dogs began to bark and run toward us. I wasn’t afraid of them. They came up to me and my father with their tongues lolling out. “A mix of German Shepard and Doberman,” my father said. “They know me.” And he patted each of their heads; then, he called out, “Kogel, Sam’s here.”
We were directly in front of the house when three teen-aged boys jumped out of one of the first floor’s windows.
“Kogel’s sons,” my father explained. “They’re a bit wild, but they're good kids.”
The front door of the house opened, and Kogel was framed by it. He was a tall, thin man with a large nose, thin lips, and high cheekbones. He was deeply tanned, and there were deep lines on his face. He wore a torn Tee-shirt that was once white and now was gray and paint-stained khaki pants.
“The dogs and birds told me you were here,” he said; then looking at me, he asked, “Who the hell are you?”
I looked up at my father, and he said, “He’s Sonny, my son.”
Kogal looked at me for a few moments without speaking; then he said, “You never said you had a son.”
My father answered in a language I didn’t understand though it was probably Yiddish and Kogel laughed, walked down the three steps, and stood in front of us. “Come,” he said, “the birds will soon be coming in.” And he started to walk toward the rear of the house with me and my father trailing him.
Some distance from the house, there was a large pigeon coop. It stood on a frame made of wood. A half a dozen steps led to a platform in front of the coop.
Kogel went up the steps and said, “Sonny come up here.”
When I was on the platform, my father came up.
The three of us went into the coop. There were pigeons everywhere. Most of them sat in small wooden bowls that were on shelves that jutted out from the walls. The coop had one window that rested on a small screen. On the shelf in front of the window, there was some kind of clock.
My father caught a pigeon and said, “You hold it like this. One hand over the wings and the other hand under its belly.”
I had never held any kind of bird before. I could feel its heart beating. I was thrilled.
“Okay,” my father said, “now let it go, and I’ll show you how to catch one of these birds.”
I watched what he did; then emulated the movements of his hands and caught a tan and white pigeon.
Without speaking, Kogel watched us. But when I let the bird go, he said, “Sonny, you did good.”
Praise from anyone for anything was rare. “Thanks,” I said and probably smiled.
My father and Kogel spoke to each other, sometimes in English and other times in Yiddish. I was certain that it was Yiddish.
Kogel stepped out of the coop and scanned the sky. “Not yet,” he said as he came back in.
My father pointed to one of the pigeons that had white feathers on its body, but its wings were a combination of white and rust-colored feathers. “That’s a red-checker,” he said.
After a few minutes, Kogel went out of the coop to scan the sky with binoculars. When he came back in, he said, “One is up there about a thousand feet.”
“Everything ready?” my father asked.
Kogel nodded and removed the screen from the window.
Suddenly the bird was on the shelf outside the window.
Kogel put some corn kernels on the shelf inside the coop.
My father put his finger to his lips.
The bird began to peck at the kernels.
Suddenly, Kogel’s right hand closed over the bird’s wings, and he bought his left hand under the bird’s belly. Seconds later he clocked the bird by inserting the band on its left leg into the slot on the clock. After a small piece of paper came out of another slot, he released the bird. It flew up to the coop’s ceiling and then landed on a shelf next to an empty bowl where there was a small pile of corn kernels and a tin cup with water.
“He flew all the way from Atlanta, Georgia,” my father said.
Four more birds came down to the shelf outside the window and Kogel clocked them; then, let them go.
“Now it’s time to see if we won anything,”Kogel said.
The three of us left the coop, walked to the other side of the house where there was an old, beat-up Ford. My father sat up front with Kogel, while I sat on the back seat. Neither Kogel nor my father told me where we were going.
After a short drive, we stopped in front of the store with a sign in its window that read, THE CANARSIE PIGEON RACING CLUB. There were more than a dozen men inside the store. Kogel and my father shook hands with several of them before Kogel handed the five slips of paper to a man who sat at a desk in the rear of the store. The man scared the slips and entered the numbers on them in a large notebook with Kogel/Greenfield next to them.
Three or four more men entered the store and went to the man at the desk. After he entered the numbers on their slips and their names, he stood up and in a loud voice said, “Okay, here are the results of the race. Murphy number one, Kogel and Greenfield number two, Ippolito number three. The winner gets fifty bucks, second place twenty-five and third place, fifteen.”
Kogel and my father shook hands, and Kogel asked, “How about a beer, Sam? There’s a saloon up the street.”
My father looked at me and said, “Sarsaparilla for you.”
Dolan’s Bar & Grill was across the street and halfway down the block. The bar was on the right side of the store. There was sawdust on the floor and three tables along the wall opposite the bar. It was dimly lit, and there was a sharp scent in the air.
My father chose the last table for us.
When Kogel went to the bar to get the beers and the sarsaparilla, my father told me there was a free lunch table where there were hard-boiled eggs, cold cuts, and slices of American and Swiss cheese.
“Make yourself a sandwich,” he said, “but don’t take anything more than you can eat.”
I made a sandwich of bologna, ham, and American cheese on two slices of rye bread and put it on a paper plate before I went back to the table.
Kogel was there. “You got a Coke instead of sarsaparilla,” he said.
“That’s okay,” I responded. Then, he and my father went to the free lunch table, while I looked toward the bar. I recognized some men from the Club were standing or sitting on stools next to the bar.
My father and Kogel came back from the free lunch table with sandwiches and her boiled eggs.
Again their conversation was a mixture of English and Yiddish. I didn’t mind being left out of it. It was a wonderful day for me, I was a happy child.
After we finished eating and drink, Kogel drove me and my father to where the trolley turns around to go back to Rockaway and Hegeman Avenues.
The two men shook hands, and I shook Kogel’s hand, and he said, “Sonny you can come to visit me any time.” Then, he got back into his car and drove away.
On the way home, my father and I sat up front, and he said, “What we did today is a secret between you and me. You don’t tell your sisters or your mother. You understand, Sonny?”
“Yes pop,” I said.
“Good,” he answered.
I fell asleep because the next thing that I remember happening was my father shaking me and saying, “We get off now.”
The two of us went back to our apartment. No one was there. My father told me to go to the candy store and tell my mother that we were back from our trip to Kogel.
When I got to the store, I was surprised to see my mother’s mother (who we called Big Bubba because she was a big woman, and we referred to my father’s mother as Little Bubba because she was a petite woman) there and her sister Sahara there with her two youngest children: Beverly and Morten. My Roslyn and Gail were behind the counter.
“Mom?” I asked.
“She’s in the back,” Gail said.
I could tell from the expression on her face that Roslyn was very angry. I walked to the back of the store.
“So you’re home,” she said as soon as she saw me.
Suddenly Roslyn began shouting, “This is insane. You come here for freebies and money. We don’t have either. Freebies cost and the money we have, we need.”
Our mother came out of the back room.
“Mom, tell them that we haven’t anything to give time,” Roslyn said crying. “Tell them that we’re poor too. Tell them.”
Our mother looked at Roslyn and shook her head.
“Then I’ll tell them,” Roslyn shouted. “Go home. Go home. There’s nothing here for you.”
“A few dollars,” my grandmother said.
“No. Nothing, “Roslyn cried. “Can’t you understand?”
Our mother went behind the count, opened the cash register and stood there looking down at monies inside of it. She took two dollars out of the drawer before she closed it.
“Mom - ” Roslyn began.
To silence her, our mother held up her hand; then, she walked to where her mother sat and said, “This is all I have. Now you, Sahara and her kids go home.”
By the time Big Bubba and my aunt left, Roslyn and Gail were hugging each other and crying.
I was no longer a happy child.
The summer drifted away, and I was back in school.
My mother was counting on a surge in business that would come from the teachers and the children from the school. But the surge never came. The teachers bought their lunches from their homes, and the children went to London’s, another candy store that was on Hopkinson Avenue, across the street from the school.
The autumn was cold rainy. Before Thanksgiving we had snow, and it was very cold. It was the first year that we didn’t have a turkey dinner. By Christmas, it was obvious that my mother’s dreams were just that, dreams. After the holidays, my mother closed the store for the last time. Maybe two or three weeks later she sold it for three hundred and fifty dollars, exactly half of what she paid for it.
My father continued to go to the Jewelry Exchange on the Bowery in Manhattan. Now and then he’d give my mother a ring to “hock.” We were always short of money. Many times there was only a slice of pumpernickel smeared with chicken fat for dinner.
Sometime in the spring of 1938, my mother told us that we were moving back to our old neighborhood. She said that she had gotten three months concession for a six-room apartment on Linden Boulevard near the corner of East 43rd Street. Her plan was to rent two of the rooms to boarders to cover most of the rent. The move meant that I would change schools again, and that change would change my life. It would be the beginning of the man I eventually became.
Dr. Irving Greenfield's short stories have appeared in Amarillo Bay, Runaway Parade, Writing Tomorrow, eFictionMag, Contrapositions and the Stone Hobo; and in Prime Mincer, The Note and Cooweescoowee (4X), amongst others. In addition to short stories, he has had several novels published. He is also cited in Wikipedia. He and his wife live on Staten Island. He has been a sailor, soldier and college professor, playwright and novelist.