Friday, August 18, 2006

The Old Neighborhood

After I left Di Fara's I took a walk around the neighborhood. I went to my old block. I looked at the old apartment building. Oddly, I felt nothing—no emotions, no connection—which may be a good thing. On the way back to the subway I went by my elementary school, P.S. 217, in what is now a largely Pakistani neighborhood. I was happy to see that the grim, concrete schoolyard had recently been transformed into a pleasant, colorful playground.

The last time I had been to the neighborhood was at least fifteen years ago, even though I don't live so far away. I wrote an account of that visit at the time, but before the narcissist-friendly blogging era had arrived there was no place to publish it. Now there is.

* * *

Patti wanted to see where I grew up, so I told her I'd take her on a walking tour of the old neighborhood. I hadn't been back for some years. One side of me was glad for the opportunity to go back and tell tales of my Brooklyn youth to someone from a foreign culture (Patti is a WASP from rural Pennsylvania), but another side of me was petrified—I had a miserable childhood, some horrible memories, and now I was returning to the scene of the crime. Oh well, I thought, at worst it will be a therapeutic experience.

We took the D train to Newkirk. We walked down to Coney Island Avenue and I showed Patti my grade school, P.S. 217. Then we walked toward Avenue H.

I told Patti about some colorful characters from the neighborhood. I told her about the guy who slept all day and rode the D train all night, and who once had a job as a commission salesman on the graveyard shift at an all-night men's clothing store—Dennison Clothes: "Money talks, nobody walks." I told her about the fat guy who went off the deep end, picked up a rifle and started taking pot shots out his window on Avenue H. And I told her about the guy who had become a psychologist and was arrested for sodomizing his patients at Creedmoor.

Kirschenbaum's funeral parlor was still at the corner of Avenue H and Coney Island Avenue. I remember hearing, when I was a kid, that Kirschenbaum was related to one of the Americans—one of Jay and the Americans, that is, and when you're a kid in the 'sixties that kind of connection is very exciting. Equally exciting was the news that Mary Tyler Moore had attended the local Catholic school, St. Rose of Lima. We all pronounced Lima like the bean.

Patti and I walked down Avenue H to my block, East 9th Street. I lived near the dead end, by the freight tracks. I looked down the street. The distance to the dead end seemed much shorter than I remembered.

We walked down the street. My heart started beating faster. Would I run into anybody I knew?

We got to my building.

We stood outside and stared at the entrance.

"Let's go in," Patti said."

I don't know," I said. "What if we ran into somebody I know?"

"What would be so bad about that?" she asked.

"I might have to talk to them."

I finally decided to go in.

We read the directory. At a least a third of the names were familiar, people who had been there since my childhood, some of them for more than fifty years—nobody gives up a rent-controlled apartment. Ocasio, the super, was still there. Browner and Kurland were still there. Forman was still there. And Fergo was still there. Fergo, arch enemy of all the kids on the block. Her name was Josephine Fergo, but to us she was just plain Fergo. She was an old Italian woman who dyed her hair red and wore lots of makeup. She used to scream at us when we played ball near her window. We screamed back. Sometimes she would throw hot water on an especially persistent kid. Fergo was a witch.

Fergo used to terrorize her husband, John. They would fight every Saturday morning, and he would spend the rest of the day in a lawn chair in front of the building, sulking. My mother told me that Fergo was a neat freak and that John had to take all his meals over the sink. We usually avoided Fergo's apartment on Halloween, but one year we decided to give her a try. Fergo gave each and every one of us one walnut, in the shell.

Patti and I left the building and started walking down the block. About halfway between the dead end and Avenue H we passed an old woman with dyed red hair. I looked at her. Did she recognize me? As soon as the woman was safely past us I said to Patti, in a stage whisper, "That was Fergo!"

The Fergo incident really impressed Patti. That evening we were dining at a Russian restaurant in Brighton Beach and Patti kept repeating, "What a day. What a day. We saw Fergo!"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My search for an answer to "is it ok to eat raw pizza dough?" (in order to dissuade my 14 yr old from eating it on a regular basis) led to a site about DeFaro's which led to your blog. We grew up on that block, moved when I was 5, but I think you were in school w/ me at Ditmas. This past winter my brother, Jesse, and I went back also....all our old play places were fenced off and things looked a lot smaller and more grimey....I remember the 'playground' behind a building across the street from ours (825)...I liked your "life of crime" story

Martha C.

6:13 PM  

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