Even on the night before, Dad had been very nervous that we wouldn't go, wouldn't leave soon enough, wouldn't see everything he wanted to show, there wouldn't be enough time.... Nonetheless, we were up early (despite the fact that sister Rachael and I arrived around midnight) and ready to go just after rush hour.
We make our way with surprising lack of difficulty to Rte. 46, to 3, to the New Jersey Turnpike headed south. Actually, we miss the first turnoff to the turnpike--noted by a lackadaisical sign which we notice just as we pass it by--and catch the second. Dad notes that in his day this was all swampland. But then, he continues as we pass over the Goetthels bridge onto Staten Island, in his day Staten Island was where the boy scouts went camping, leaving from Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn. Once over the bridge we get onto 7th Ave and commence navigating by subway map. We pull into a local diner to use the facilities. I anticipate an interesting day hunting frequently for facilities, ahead.
At this point, other than knowing that we will end up at Coney Island at some point, none of us are clear where we are going. Dad walks back from the diner and lets me know that I can make a right at the light, and then a left. No destination is mentioned.
As we go up 8th Avenue, Dad mentions that there were once trolley tracks. This will be true of most places that we go. at 46th st. we stop opposite the apartment where he lived through high school and city college. We can look into the second story window where his room was. He describes stick ball and stoop ball and being terrorized by his older cousin David, whose mother was boarded by Dad's parents. Dad has often referred to this cousin with bitterness. Because the cousin's mother was divorced, and because she was even poorer than my father's family and boarded with them, the cousin got the best of everything. In return, he made my father's adolescence as hellish as possible. He shows us where the cousin and friends would wait to ambush him (until, as happened with many assailants, my father came after him with a stick). He also describes even the most petty of insults, such as when his sister, his cousin, and he would be hired by his cousin's mother to pick up pins at her clothing factory. The cousin, of course, did nothing, but got an equal share of the pay. (I should add that this cousin was one of only two not invited by another aunt and uncle to their fortieth wedding anniversary. No one with whom I talked could remember occasions when this cousin had been pleasant.)
We visited the park where Dad took his sled in the winter, and where he learned to play basketball, a sport in which he excelled (along with diving). We see the elementary school and junior high (There we are accosted by a gym teacher who spots us for tourists coming back and shmoozes with my father about changes in the school. This guy went to school there in the 50s--ten years after my father--and came back and has taught ever since. He looks pretty content not to have left the neighborhood. The kids are playing fairly harmoniously, so he must be good at what he does.) and high school. The synagogue where Dad was bar mitzvahed has now been taken over by some hasidic sect for use as a girl's school. We do a fair amount of walking, and as we get into it he loosens up and relaxes, as well.
Next we make our long way through Brownsville. We are told that this is a dangerous neighborhood. There is a predominance of African-Americans, and it is clearly a poor neighborhood, but we see nothing to directly support that fear, other than our own strangeness to the neighborhood. It seems incongruous to find the spot on East New York St. where my grandparents cold water flat once stood, and to be sitting, uncomfortable with the idea of getting out of the car, then looking across the street at Herzl St., which their apartment overlooked. It seems incongruous to see a "Herzl St." in such a neighborhood. We also see the busy intersection where on a Saturday afternoon Dad and the neighborhood kids would go down to put Sunday papers together to sell. There would be a couple of kids selling papers and several others defending the corner. On a busy Saturday night, after several hours, they would net 50 cents--which actually, in those days of 2 cents plain, wasn't quite as insignificant as it sounds.
After Brownsville comes Coney Island where we lunch on Nathan's hot dogs and fries. Later we walk up the boardwalk, which has changed some since his days. Really, with Luna Park burned down, and Steeplechase pretty much an empty lot, there isn't much left--and even that is a very recent revival after the entirely bleak '70s and '80s. We finally find the façade of the sports club/steam baths where he and his friends would come and work for a couple of hours to gain access to the lockers (to leave their clothes safely) and the handball courts and steam baths. The kids would usually rush out to the beach and swim to a buoy, where with rubber-band powered spear guns they would dive and catch sea bass and other fish for dinner. ("Grandma used to cook fish you caught with a rubber-band powered spear gun??" "Oh, yes.")
Along the boardwalk we find a middle-aged black woman feeding a little baby kentucky fried chicken or some such. She knows the neighborhood going back decades and helps fill in his memory. She also knows Sheepshead Bay, our coming stop, where she describes how unsuccessful fisherfolks coming in would pick up some fish at the docks to take home and display, "as though".
Later, we are forced to duck into an Italian restaurant to use the toilets. There are no public toilets anywhere in sight. Finding toilets becomes an ongoing theme of the day, with this possibly being the worst.
At Sheepshead Bay we see the boat docks and the remnants of what was once a thriving tourist area--it sounds like it must have once been a lot like Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. My grandfather was partners with a 500-seat restaurant called "Seidel's". And even that wasn't the best food--Dad insists that "Pappas" was better, or the biggest--"Lundy's," with 1000 seats. But it did well, and of course he worked there through the end of high school and college. This was one of the acmes of my grandfather's financial health. Seidel's came after a diner in Glen Cove, and then a lunch counter in Manhattan (the Brownsville era). During the lunch counter era, my grandmother was also helping her brother keep an ailing restaurant going on Wall Street. Although my father feels that my grandmother's family did little to repay her, he does concede that at several points this brother, and his sons, did help out to help my grandparents get loans when they needed them. One loan, although I'm not sure which one, was also co-signed by my grandfather's brother Eddie, who had been a flyer with the Lafayette Espadrille in WW I, downing several German planes and surviving a couple planes shot out from under him, as well. Later he went barnstorming until he just managed to walk away from a crash of a "Jenny" outside Chicago. He later ran a concession near a Long Island car-racing track (and taught my father to drive--I remember my father telling me as a child that he had once spent a summer racing cars which he felt was too dangerous--"even for me at that age."). Eddie and his wife, Rose, were quite the partying couple. They had a lovely red convertible and even a Stanley Steamer--a car that was actually driven by coal-fired steam. (Why this was glamourous never came up--but perhaps it was just the novelty of owning such an unusual car.) Family lore assumes that Eddie, and several in the family including my grandfather, were involved bootlegging during prohibition, but Dad does not touch on this.
While my father was in Korea, one of the three partners in Seidel's died, and my grandfather was arguing all the time with his remaining partner. He wrote my father asking whether he should sell out or buy out. My father let him know that he had no interest in coming back to the restaurant, so my grandfather sold out and bought a liquor store. Later, he sold the liquor store and retired, only to have the purchaser of the store run the stock down and default on the mortgage. At retirement age, my grandfather had no choice but to go back to work, this time with a concession at Long Beach. The first year they did phenomenally well, which enabled them to discount a lot of notes and enabled them to do just "well" for several years before retiring for good. My grandmother would wake up early in the morning and bake danishes as part of what they sold. Knowing my grandmother's cooking, it is easy to understand how they did so well.
To end the day we made the drive out to Glen Cove, found it, and then discovered that the nearest motels were in Hicksville, where we repaired for the evening, dining in a shopping center Chinese Food joint, which was the likeliest looking of the "deli, Italian restaurant, and Chinese Restaurant just up the road" in this particular shopping center.
(written several months later)The next morning we head into Glen Cove. Dad directs us by the old road, and then, just as we are beginning to wonder, he finds the school just as he remembered it. We park the car and the geography of the neighborhood comes back to him. The house where he lived is gone, but neighbors houses are still there--down to the slopes and "feel" of the houses where he played. We also find the creek where he fished, and confirm where the playing field had stood.
Wandering into town, we park the car in downtown Glen Cove. There, we inquire in a local clothing store for an oldtimer, and are directed to the business owner who gathers a couple of other cronies to reminisce about the town with my father for an hour or two. They and Dad enjoy themselves tremendously.
Later, we find the park that J.P. Morgan donated to the town, and head out to Sayville to see my mother's family. My father is still pleased at finding so many things as he remembers them. We've heard more stories in the last two days than in the previous forty years. Later, Dad sends me a rough draft of his memoirs by e-mail.