STORIES FROM GROWING UP IN GREENPOINT
FROM BROOKLYN WITH LOVE THE BOOK
This is my creative nonfiction book about life growing up in
Brooklyn from the 1940's to 1968 when I left and moved to Connecticut.
While I am working on a geneology of our family, I am using
story techniques to make the book more interesting to readers.
My hope is that this book inspires others to remember their past,
hopefully with affection, but also with forgiveness. No one
I strongly feel this book is inspired by my angels
and what I write will
have meaning beyond
what I realize. I hope you enjoy these excerpts and
you leave these pages with a smile, a tear, and hope
in your heart.
Tortorici Sheftel, cousin to the Manzo family.
I was born at Greenpoint hospital in the 1940's and lived in that
section of Brooklyn until I married and moved away in 1968. Now I live
and am looking back on my happy childhood in Brooklyn.
I'm a professional writer. My work has appeared in magazines and
newspapers. I also write romance novels. My latest project is a NONFICTION BOOK--memoir
called FROM BROOKLYN WITH LOVE.
I will include excerpts here. I look
forward to hearing from other ex
and current Greenpointers as well as any relatives who find me.
BUBBLE GUM DREAMS
I was probably ten at the time when my fascination with retail businesses escalated into my virgin entreprenurial attempt. The first step in my business plan was to obtain a toy cash register like the one I saw at school. That Christmas I received not only my metal cash register which had a drawer which opened and a bell that rang on sales, but play money and coins.
That winter I played store with my brother and sister but I longed for the warmer weather and an opportunity to open shop outside the house, in front of the stoop. On spring weekends and in the summer, kids on the block sold lemonade, comics, and other stuff. I wanted to earn money and had a business idea I ran by my mother. For some reason, perhaps has a lesson, she gave me her investment of $1.00 to buy bubble gum.
I went to the corner store and bought bubble gum at one penny a piece. I planned on selling it for two pennies each. I hadn't considered the fact that there was a candy and soda shop one house away from ours as well as across Nassau Avenue. In fact, like bars, which were said to be on every corner in Greenpoint, there seemed to be a candy store too.
My store was a card table in front of the stoop. With my metal cash register and a jar filled with bubble gum, I smiled hopefully waiting for my first sale. Women walked by pulling their shopping carts behind them on their way to the grocery store. Kids stopped, looked at my hand printed sign, and walked on giggling. The hot sun beat on my head. Selling outside my home wasn't as much fun as I thought. It was almost noon when I was ready to give up.
The two penny a piece bubble gum didn't sell. At least I had my stock and I knew it wouldn't be wasted. Even my mother enjoyed chewing bubble gum.
One of the new kids on the block stopped at my table. "Whatca doing?"
"Selling bubble gum. Want to buy some?"
In my best imitation of a real store owner's voice, I said, "Only two pennies a piece. A real bargain."
Mike laughed. "That ain't no bargain. I can buy bubble gum at the candy store for a penny."
"Oh." I wanted that sale. What could I do? My competition, the candy store on the corner, was only thirty paces away. That gave me an idea which I thought was brilliant. "Okay, how about two gums for a penny?"
"Sure." He put his hand into the pocket of his pants and pulled out a nickle. "Give me ten pieces."
The word spread and soon other kids bought my gum at my bargain price. It wasn't long before my entire stock was sold. With the jangle of coins in my cash drawer, I closed up the table and brought everything into the house.
I shouted as I walked into the living room . "Mom, guess what, I sold all the gum!"
"Good." Now a dollar was a good sum in those days. Kids could go to the movies for less. Looking back I understand now why my mother entrusted me with such a large investment. Arithmetic was my worst subject in school. Mom spent many afternoons going over my sums with me trying to help me understand math concepts. Her support of my business venture was a real life way for me to practice my arithmetic. I dumped a fistfull of change on the dining room table. Mother watched as I counted the pennies, nickles and dimes.
I beamed. "I made fifty cents!"
Mom recounted the coins. She frowned. "I gave you a dollar."
I nodded. "Yes. And I made fifty cents."
She opened her hand. "Give me back the dollar."
I was stunned. "I spent the dollar to buy the gum," I reminded her.
"Yes, and you made fifty cents. So give me back the dollar." Mother repeated this several times while I looked up at her puzzled. How could I give her a dollar since I'd already spent it to buy my stock.
Finally she explained, "You said you made fifty cents."
"To make a profit in any business first you have to earn back your initial investment. Everything you make over that amount is what you've earned."
I looked down at the pitiful amount of change on the table.
"You spent a dollar to make a half a dollar. You didn't make money, you lost it," she finished.
"Oh!" The truth hit me. My profit was an illusion of a math challenged mind.
Well, that was the end of my childhood effort to run my own business. Unfortunately I didn't learn my lesson well enough and in adult life I've run several businesses all pretty much falling into the same category of spending more money to make less money. I've even lost thousands on ventures before studying all the pros and cons. The tug of running my own business still pulls at me but I resist.
"If you spend a dollar to make money, you need to make more than a dollar to have a profit." My mother's words echo in my head. She was right, but it sure was fun to press the keys of the cash register, see the drawer pop open, and hear the jangle of a sale.
(c)copyright Bea Sheftel 12/98
Excerpted FROM BROOKLYN WITH LOVE
In Greenpoint, and perhaps in other areas of Brooklyn, we called the
front steps the stoop. This was a place to sit day and evening
conversing with family and friends, or just hanging out people watching.
In the 50's the summer stoop was like our front porch. My Nana came
over and my Aunt Kit. A chair was placed on the top landing for
Nana, while my mother and aunt sat on pillows on the top step. We kids
would pick our spots and join them.
Before air conditioning, the stoop was the coolest spot to be on a
hot summer night. It also was a way for neighbors to know
neighbors. Kids would come to our home and we'd play outside during
the day. After jump rope, roller skating up and down the block, or
red light-green light, we'd sit on the stoop. Sometimes Mom would give us
sandwiches. My most frequent playmate was Ruthie Olsen.
We would sit on the steps and play with our paper doll cut outs, or
dress up dolls. This was before Barbie. The dress up dolls were larger
than Barbie's but were fashioned like adult women. Neighbors walked by rolling their shopping
carts after them. They'd stop
and give me a message.
"Ask your mom if she's going to St. Stan's bingo on Tuesday. I'll
walk with her."
Or they'd ask when my father was home. They came to him to get out of
jury duty, or to write a letter. I'd always answer the same for my
father. "I don't know when he'll be home."
He came and went as he pleased.
As day wore into evening, and the supper dishes were washed and put
away, the adults would join the children on the stoop.
The favorite drinks were ice tea or seltzer served in metal cups
or melamaire which was an early version of plastic. The Seltzer
was delivered by truck and came in large clear bottles with a push
down handle. It made a hissing noise when it came out. Added to
flavorings, it made a soda, or used by adults in their drinks or
plain perhaps with a slice of lemon.
While the adult women talked we kids would play. Blowing bubbles
into the night air was my favorite thing on those hot nights.
Sometimes one of my friends would stop and we'd imitate the
adults, and sit and talk awhile. The street lights brightened the night, as well as
an overhead light my mother had installed which highlighted the steps.
When we heard the icecream wagon bell, Mom would say, "Get my
purse." One of us kids would run in and bring her pocketbook and
she'd reward us with twenty five cents each to get our favorite
icecream. Mom, Aunt Kit, and Nana weren't immune to the lure of
the ice cream wagon and some nights my mother would say, "I'll
treat, who wants an icecream?" And the three of them would sit in
their housedresses, their legs covered to the ankels with white sox,
eating the cool confection.
Other times, Mom sent us to Friedrick's which was a small but classy
icecream parlor on Nassau Avenue where the owner and his wife made
their own icecream. It was the most expensive, but also the best.
A single or double cone from Friedrick's was a special treat.
Now the stoop sitting was not allowed when my father was home. He
hated it. He thought it wasn't dignified, but since he was usually
at one of his clubs, it was safe for us to sit
out there and enjoy the refreshing night air.
The women talked about their day and their interests.
"There's a sale on the Avenue," mom said.
"Well go tomorrow," Aunt Kit replied.
Nana's legs weren't strong so she usually didn't go up the Avenue.
Mom or Aunt Kit would pick up what she needed.
Before my mother was forced to return to work outside the home,
she went up the Avenue everyday for a walk with Aunt Kit. They
enjoyed browsing and picking up bargains. An excuse might be to
pick up something for Nana or meat at Trunz. Walking together,
Mom would push the baby carriage with my brother and sister
inside, and my cousin Jim and I walked beside them.
"Hold my hand when we cross the street," Aunt Kit insisted,
taking Jim's hand on one side, and mine on the other.
It gave the sisters time to be together. They never stopped to have a
cup of coffee but they walked slow enough to talk. It was a long
way for little feet like mine and I often complained that my feet
hurt. It could have been the walk or the fact Mom saved money by
not keeping up with when I needed new shoes. My feet seemed to
grow faster than her money allowed and often it was Aunt Kit who
insisted, "Beebee needs new shoes. Look how she's walking, those are too tight for her."
And my mother would take me to one of the bargain stores and get me
new shoes with a little room at the toes so they would last up to the next growth spurt.
The stoop was not a place to sit and complain. It was an oasis in the
midst of honking cars, bus squeals and screaming children. The
talk was subdued. Conversation floated on the night air.
"What you make for dinner?"
Nana and Papa had pasta every night. Wednesday was Garlic and oil
sauce, Friday was clam sauce. My father prefered meat dishes, but
he gave up meat on Friday which was the Catholic no meat day. He
also wanted pasta twice a week, on Wednesday and Sunday.
Sometimes the meat was just hot dogs with saurakraut, but we kids
loved that meal as well as the hamburgers and home fried potatoes.
Mom was good at frying foods. She cooked five to six days a week
except Friday when she bought fried fish and fries for our
meatless dinner. Sundays we joined the extended family for pasta
meals at Nana and Papa's. One Sunday we'd have home made raviolis,
another we'd have lasagna. Papa grew the tomatoes and pressed them
to can. Nana made her sauce from those canned tomatoes. My
grandparents also made their own homemade sausages.
Aunt Kit was a little more adventurous in her cooking and tried
some gourmet recipes and non Italian meals. Unfortunately Uncle
John prefered the food he was used to and didn't go for the fancy
stuff. Still, I think my aunt was a much better cook than my mom.
I thought she enjoyed it but after Uncle John died in his 80's and
Aunt Kit prepared to move to Arizona, she said, "I've cooked for
60 years. Now I'm not cooking any more."
And she doesn't. Her son, Father Frank does the cooking
or she goes to her other son, Jim.
In the 1950's there were four movie houses in Greenpoint. Us
kids got to go the movies on Saturday afternoons. The adults in
the family didn't go to the movies. Their main source of
entertainment was the family. One night a week they got together
to play Pinochle or penny poker. Some Saturdays they spent the
morning at Nana's making fresh pasta and raviolis.
Sundays we gathered for a family meal.
If the family was doing well, then everything was okay. Uncle Tony
came over when he could get away from the demands of his wife
Mary. He had a deep, gravely voice. He was the professional
member of the family. A barber. At one time he had his shop on
the first floor of Nana's house. Later on he took a job as a
barber in the city and another man rented the barber shop.
Money problems, sicknesses, and family woes had no place on the
stoop. Those discussions were relegated to the privacy of the
living room or kitchen. The stoop was a respite from the cares of the day.
It was a time for the family to sit back and enjoy being
together without rushing out to prepare a dinner, clean the house, or shop.
With Nana in her sixties the roles reversed and my aunt and
mother looked after her. Not that my Nana was dependent on her
children. She lived with my grandfather in the three story house
they owned at 154 Nassau Avenue. There were two five room rail
road apartments on each floor. My Nana lived on the second floor
on the right, and my aunt lived on the left. Nana also kept the
two room apartment in back of the barber shop
on the first floor so she could go out the bathroom window into the yard.
During the talks, my brother, sister and I played with our bubble
blowers. The iridescent bubbles floated on the summer air and
burst on our hands or heads making us all laugh.
Mom knew most of the neighbors. Since my father was involved in
community activities and politics, mom had met many people. She
also was active in the Women's group at the Republican Club and at
one time was President of that organization.
So neighbors would stop and Mom would know them by name. They'd chit
chat for a few minutes about their kids, and then go on. When Dad
got home, my aunt and Nana got up and went home. They knew my
father didn't like us sitting on the stoop. He thought it made us
look low class. My parents might struggle financially, but no one
outside of our home should ever know how difficult it was to make
ends meet.We were middle class whether dad was working or not.
It was important to him to keep up appearances.
If the stoop at night was a place to sit and talk, by day it was
our playground. Ruthie Olsen and I sat on the top step playing
with our dress up dolls or cut out dolls.
Friends would stop and join us. My brother and sister had their
friends, and I had mine. On any given day we could be found all
sitting on the stoop engaged in coloring,
or doll play or other games.
Later on my father had his way and shifted our family from the front
stoop to the backyard. It cut us off from the neighbors. We had a
good time in the yard over the years but we were still drawn to the stoop.
If my father wasn't around, we'd go out there and meet our friends.
When my brother and sister were young teen they had a whole group of
friends who joined them on the stoop. They'd talk or sing. For
some reason, the cops clamped down on kids and forced everyone to scatter.
"Go home," one of them ordered.
"We live here," I replied angrily.
"Then go in your house. You're making too much noise out here."
Too much noise? How ironic. Living in the city we were bombarded by
noise from cars, buses, people, drunks staggering out of the bars.
But somehow the cops thought it more important to keep kids off the stoops.
It ended a tradition that was very precious, one that kept the neighborhood together.
Sitting on the stoop was being part of a larger community. My mother
listened to the neighborhood gossip, but not for nefarious
reasons. If she learned someone needed help, she'd find a way to
get them food, or clothing. Sometimes she even helped them find
work. She never did this in a big showy way but just as one
neighbor to another. I remember when I was about 11. She gave me a
bag of groceries and told me to bring it to someone on the block. "Why Mom?" I asked.
"You don't have to know everything. Just bring it and don't say anything."
She did this more than once, but she wasn't the only one. Another
neighbor, Mrs. Rago, often made extra meals which she sent to
someone in need, be an elderly woman all alone, or a young wife
whose husband was in the hospital. I know because one time she
called and asked me to come over to help her. She prepared a large
tray of food and told me where to bring it. The woman was home
with her young child. I gave her the food, wondering why she
couldn't cook for herself. "This is from Mrs. Rago," I said as I handed her the tray.
"I'm sorry," I said, as I left. "I hope he gets better soon." I felt
awful for the pretty young woman. Sparked by fairy tales, I often
dreamed of someday marrying, but I never thought of the troubles
that could be part of a marriage. Princes shouldn't get sick.
Kindness was a familiar way of life in the neighborhood back in the
50's. Made up of working class immigrants and second generation
American most of the Polish, Italian, and Irish people were too
proud to take any kind of government assistance. So when there was a need
neighbors found a way to help each other through the tough times.
As the years went on and the children in the neighborhood became
teens, the cops came around and chased kids off the stoops. This
was a disaster to sense of community which the stoops engendered. Old people died,
new people moved in, and hardly any one knew the names of the others on the block.
It's ironic that the cops took more interest in kids sitting on
stoops, carrying on a tradition their parents started, than in the
gambling and drinking that went on in Greenpoint. But then
it's easier to intimidate a bunch of teens than go after real criminals.
My sister lives in the house where we grew up. The stoop is
still there, but changed. It's white now, instead of red brick,
and it has two platforms, one at the top and one at the middle
where the steps turn into the airy gated area. It's really
beautiful the way she remodeled our old home. Once in a while our
adult children stand or sit out on the stoop when they want a
cigarette. The tradition of sitting at night and chatting with
neighbors is gone. My sister hardly knows any of the names of the people on her block. The old sense of community is gone.