Nobody can know Brooklyn, because Brooklyn is the world, and besides it is filled with cemeteries, and who can say he knows those people? But even aside from the cemeteries it is impossible to say that one knows Brooklyn. Three blocks from my present house live two hundred Mohawk Indians. A few blocks from them are a group of Arabs living in tenements in one of which is published an Arabic newspaper. When I lived on Schermerhorn Street I used to sit and watch the Moslems holding services in a tenement back yard outside my window, and they had a real Moorish garden, symmetrically planted with curving lines of white stones laid out in the earth, and they would sit in white robes—twenty or thirty of them, eating at a long table, and served by their women who wore the flowing purple and rose togas of the East. All these people, plus the Germans, Swedes, Jews, Italians, Lebanese, Irish, Hungarians and more, created the legend of Brooklyn’s patriotism, and it has often seemed to me that their having been thrown together in such abrupt proximity is what gave the place such a Balkanized need to proclaim its never-achieved oneness.
But this is not the Brooklyn I know or was brought up in. Mine was what is called the Midwood section, which now has no distinguishing marks, but thirty years ago was a flat forest of great elms through which ran the elevated Culver Line to Coney Island, two and a half miles distant. My Brooklyn consisted of Jews, some Italians, a few Irish—and a Mr. Dunham, whom I remember only because he was reputed to carry a gun as part of his duties as a bank guard.
Children going to school in those days could be watched from the back porch and kept in view for nearly a mile. There were streets, of course, but the few houses had well-trodden trails running out of their back doors which connected with each other and must have looked from the air like a cross section of a mole run; these trails were much more used than the streets, which were as unpaved as any in the Wild West and just as muddy. Today everything is paved and your bedroom window is just far enough away from your neighbor’s to lea\e room to swing the screens out when fall comes.
My aunts and uncles, who moved there right after World War I, could go to Manhattan on the Culver Line for a nickel (although my cousins always climbed around the turnstile, which was easy, so long as you didn’t mind hanging from iron railings a hundred feet or so above the street), but they had to buy potatoes in hundred-pound sacks because there was no grocery store within four miles. And they planted tomatoes, and they canned fruits and vegetables, and kept rabbits and chickens and hunted squirrels and other small game. The Culver Line cars were made of wood, like trolleys hooked together, and clattered above the cemeteries and the elms, and I must say there was something sweet about it when you got aboard in the morning and there was always the same conductor who knew you and even said good morning.
I don’t precisely know why, but Brooklyn in my memory has always been full of characters and practical jokers. I suppose it is really a collection of villages which all seem the same to the stranger’s eye, but are not; and characters thrive and express their special ways in a village atmosphere. My father was one, and is the last of those Mohicans as he sits in front of his frame house of a Sunday afternoon, remembering, as he glances down the tree-lined block, the old friends and screwballs who lived in each of the houses and are now resting peacefully in the cemetery that spreads out two blocks away, their pinochle decks laid down forever, their battles done.
My father, a large, square-headed man who looks like a retired police captain, and has that kind of steady severity, is likely to feel the need, from time to time, to “start something.” Years ago, he sat down on the Culver Line one morning, and seeing a neighbor whom he regarded as particularly gullible, moved over to him and in his weightiest manner, began:
“You hear my brother-in-law got back from Florida?”
“Yes, I heard,” said the neighbor. “What does he do down there? Just fish and like that?”
“Oh, no,” my father said, “haven’t you heard about his new business?”
“He raises cockroaches there.”
“Cockroaches! What does he do with the cockroaches?”
“What does he do with the cockroaches? Sells them!”
“Who wants cockroaches?”
“Who wants cockroaches! There’s a bigger demand for cockroaches than for mink. Of course they gotta be of a certain breed. He breeds them down there. But they’re all purebred.”
“But what good are they?”
“Listen,” my father confided, lowering his voice. “Don’t say I even mentioned it, but if you happen to see any cockroaches around, in your house, or anywhere like that, my brother-in-law would appreciate it if you brought them all to him. Because I tell you why, see—he’s raising them up here now, right in his house, but in Brooklyn it’s against the law, you understand?—but once in a while a couple of them escape, and he’s bashful to ask people, but you’d be doing him a big favor if you happen to catch any, bring them to him. But be very careful. Don’t hurt them. He’ll pay five dollars for any purebred cockroach anybody brings him.”
“Well, listen, that’s his business. But don’t tell anybody I told you because it’s against the law, you know?”
Having planted this seed, my father left the neighbor. A week or so later my uncle’s doorbell rang, and there was the man, considerably insecure in his mind, but there nevertheless, with a matchbox full of cockroaches. For three whole days my uncle refused to play casino with my father.
There is Ike Samuels, who runs—or rather sits outside—the hardware store. Ike’s way with women who come in not knowing precisely what they want is something not easily described. I have watched him double-talking a Hausfrau for better than ten minutes, but when they come in with complaints he rises to a height of idiotic evasion that is positively lyrical. I was myself a victim of his for years, as a boy. We lived three blocks from his store, and often as I passed he would open his eyes against the sunlight where he sat in his rocker beside the door, and say, “Raining on Ocean Parkway?”
For years I answered him seriously because he has a remorseless poker face and thick lenses on his eyeglasses that make a clear view of his eyes impossible. Out of respect, at first, I described the weather three blocks away; but later I began to doubt myself and came to wonder, now and then, whether it had been raining there while the sun shone here.
But that was the least of Ike Samuels. I happened to be in his store one morning when a woman entered. Like so many of them at eleven A.M., she had a coat on top of her nightgown—and in her hands was an electric broiler which Ike had repaired only a week before. She strode in, a large woman with lumpy hair that, in her anger at the broiler, she had neglected to comb, and she plunked the broiler down on the counter.
“You said you fixed it!” she began.
“What is the trouble?” Ike said.
“It don’t heat! My husband came home last night, I put four lamb chops in, we could’ve dropped dead from hunger, it was like an ice box in there!”
Ike took the top off the broiler and made as though to examine its works. There was a silence. He peered this way and that inside it, and I could tell that he was winding up for a stroke that would resound through his whole day. Looking up at her like a detective on the scent, he asked, “What did you say you put in here?”
Suspecting, perhaps, that she had in fact done something wrong, she parried: “What do you mean what did I put in here?”
Like a prosecutor, Ike leaned in toward her: “Answer my question, madam; what did you put in this broiler?”
Her voice smaller now, off balance, she replied, “I said—lamb chops.”
“Lamb chops!” Ike rolled his eyes at the ceiling, where the mops and pails hung. “Lamb chops she puts in!”
Close to tears now, the woman began to plead. “Well, what’s the matter with lamb chops?”
“What’s the matter with lamb chops!” Ike roared indignantly. “Can’t you read, lady? What night school did you go to? Look!” With which he turned the broiler upside down and pointed to the brass plate riveted to the bottom, on which were embossed the long serial numbers of the manufacturer’s patents, and the Underwriters’ Laboratory seal.
She bent over to peer at the tiny numbers and the few words. And before she could fix her eyes Ike was on her. “It’s plain as day. ‘No Lamb Chops,’ it says; this is written by naval architects, graduate engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—’No lamb chops’—and you throw lamb chops in there. What do you want from me, lady? I fixed it for steak!”
Her eyes were distraught now, utterly bewildered. “But he likes lamb chops,” she pleaded.
And now, having won the initiative, he came around the counter and escorted her to the door. “Now look, don’t be discouraged. I’ll do my best, and I’ll fix it for lamb chops. I got a license for that, but you gotta have a double affixative on the forspice.”
“Could you put one on?” she asked, exhausted.
“For you anything, darling,” he said, and sent her on her way.
It was a village, even down to the feeble-minded Danny, who hung around Ike’s store, and when you came by he would point at you and say, “Navarre 8-7135,” because his pride lay in remembering everybody’s phone number. If he overheard Ike talking about somebody’s aunt, he would interject, “Dewey 9-0518,” which, in his mind, identified the aunt. “Ulster 5-8009 is getting married, Ike,” he announced one morning. Asked who the bride was, he answered, “Navarre 8-6661.” But he had his dignity, which he enforced. If they started kidding him, he would get off the barrel and leave, saying, “I gotta see a party.”
It was a village, and while to the stranger’s eye one street was no different from another, we all knew where our “neighborhood” somehow ended, and the line of demarcation was never more than three blocks away. Beyond that, a person was somehow a stranger.
It was a village with village crimes. I don’t recall any time when the cops had to be called. Everyone was so well and thoroughly known that the frown of his neighbors was enough law to keep things in line. When we stole from the candy store, when we played handball against the druggist’s window and broke it, it was enough for the offended proprietor to let it be known to the parents. Although I must add that Mr. Dozik, the pharmacist, had it a little harder. The wall of his building was perfect for handball, and poor Dozik had to be all the time giving us water from his soda fountain. He tried putting up billboards that projected from the wall, but we played around them, until finally he had his soda fountain removed. Mr. Dozik is the first man in history to discover that boys cannot play handball where there is no cold drinking water.
He’s still there as he was then—a kind of doctor who knows what ails everybody; a man who sewed up the arms, hands and ears of all my cousins and remembers every stitch.
It was a village with no stream, however, so my cousins and I would get up at four in the morning and climb around the turnstile of the Culver Line, and go rickety-rackety down the two-mile track to Coney Island and fish off the rocks and bring home flounder or sea bass—even in winter, when the wind was raw off the ocean.
I got to know those village winters especially well because I delivered rolls and bread every morning for the bakery before I went to school. There were no gloves warm enough to keep the icy cold of the handlebars away from my fingers, so I wore long woolen plaid stockings that came up to my elbows, and with the basket over the front wheel piled high with bags of bread, rolls and bagels, I would ride forth through the streets at four-thirty in the morning.
In the spring and fall it was lovely and one could sing out loud for the beauty of it, but when the snow fell, or worse yet, when the streets were covered with ice, a special kind of hell broke loose. Bread means something very special to these people. A man rising to breakfast in those houses expects his bagel, or his rye bread, or his onion roll or whatever it is he craves most. Give a bagel man an onion roll and his whole day is ruined, while for a rye-bread man a bagel is beneath contempt, especially for breakfast when one’s taste buds are fresh and quivering and so very delicately attuned to flavors.
So it used to be with a somewhat trembling care that I would guide the bike down the streets when there was ice, because each bag was filled with its special order, and each one marked in crayon with its proper address. I would slowly ride down the center of the street, carefully holding to the crown of the road, and the cold cats would follow me, meowing and pleading for warmth and food, and the dark sky of winter was merciless over my head. And there came a time, once, when the bike suddenly slid out from under me, and the bags tumbled out of the wire basket, and many broke, and others just opened because they were overstuffed, and as I sat there on the ice, I could see bagels, onion rolls, whole rye breads, sliding out over the sheet ice in all directions. Few people can imagine how far a bagel will slide on clean ice. I know.
And besides, the baker had gallstones. I hadn’t the heart to return and tell him of this catastrophe. So I went about on the empty street, gathering up the cargo, some of which had come to a stop three quarters of a block away. I then sat on the ice, flashlight gleaming, trying to put things back into the proper bags. Some were easy, because the bags had been packed so tightly that the impressions made by the hump of a rye bread’s back and the circle of a bagel were unmistakable. But most were simply bags, like any other bags, and I finally just stuffed them as best I could, spreading the bagels through the lot, and offering, in short, what I thought was a nice variety to each customer. I had, as amateur mechanics do when they try to assemble a machine that has been taken apart, several pieces left over, which I simply ate before delivering the bags.
I returned to the bakery to leave the bike, and already the phone was ringing, or more accurately, burning. The baker looked ghastly. In his whole life nothing like this had happened. Utterly baffled, he listened to Mrs. 1690 screaming in his ear for her onion rolls, her husband is going to be shaved in five minutes! And Mrs. 1277 asking when in her nine years of dealing with him she had ever ordered rye bread! And the poor man turned to me, his two overcoats making him look like a mountain of horrification, and I explained at last. But it remained a tragedy from which, as far as I could tell, he never fully recovered.
I do not think I am painting it more serene than it was. There was a rhythm and a flowing to the days that began with the men trekking to Avenue M from all the side streets in the early morning, and like a column of ants climbing up the long steep stairs to the Culver Line, and it ended toward nightfall when they trekked down again and dispersed into their houses. We walked three miles to James Madison High School, and the ambitious track men among us trotted all the way, stopping only to look at the girl setting out the blackberry tarts in the window of the Ebinger Bakery. I do not think there were any intellectuals among us and as far as I can remember the greatest thing anybody could do was to get on the football team, or run like hell, or swim a couple of miles in the ocean in the summer. I know that in later years, when I began to publish, my old high-school teachers looked through their records in an attempt to remember me, but not one of them could. I was, in fact, thoroughly invisible during the entire four years, and this is by all odds my most successful accomplishment so far. Because the idea all of us subscribed to, was to get out onto the football field with the least possible scholastic interference, and I can fairly say we were none of us encumbered by anything resembling a thought.
The first ripple of what may properly be called the Outside World was felt one day when a crowd of people formed at the doors of The Bank of the United States—which was not even in our neighborhood, being five blocks away. To be succinct about it, the thing had closed. This in itself did not bother me particularly because, while I had been a depositor to the tune of twelve dollars, I had withdrawn the entire amount the very day before to buy Joey Backus’s Columbia racer. What did bother me was that the day after the bank closed I got hungry, left the bike in front of our house, went inside for some bread and jam, and came out to find no bike, and a block can never look as empty as it does to a boy whose bike should be on it and isn’t. In that emptiness lay the new reality.
With this incident I was introduced to the Depression Age. Suddenly, overnight, in fact, the postman became an envied character because he could not lose his job and even had a paid vacation. Our postman, unlike some others, did not flaunt his new superiority but went right on opening our front door, coming into the living room and calling up to my mother to read her the mail: “Nothing important, Mrs. Miller. Gas bill, electric bill, and a card from your sister. She says she’s enjoying the hotel and will be home next Friday,” with which he simply went out, just as he always had.
But other things had begun to change, sometimes in a weird way. The Government soon took over practically every mortgage on the block, and the result was that all the housewives started making more and better coffee. When the man came to our house to collect the payments, my mother, for one, got out the coffeepot and her wonderful coffeecake, and he would sit down and before he could say a number she was stuffing him, and for about a year or so this collector always left our block bloated, and not with money either. It got so he would never mention the mortgage, but just sit there and wait to be served.
There was a lot of tension, though, in that time, and in a little while you could see grown men sitting on the porches in the middle of a weekday afternoon, and the trotters to Madison High were thinned out as one after another had to go looking for work. And the line of breadwinners coming down the stairs of the Culver Line had the slump of humiliation and bewilderment in their shoulders, and there were stores empty now, and when you ripped your shirt it was a minor tragedy, and every now and then, toward midnight, there were voices raised in loud argument within the houses. It got so bad that one night, after dinner, my grandfather put down his paper—he who had been a Republican all his life and believed, if you pressed him hard enough, that what America needed was a king like they had in Austria—my grandfather turned to me with his great bald head and the bags under his eyes like von Hindenburg’s, and said, “You know what you ought to do? You ought to go to Russia.”
The silence that fell is better described as a vacuum so powerful it threatened to suck the walls in. Even my father woke up on the couch. I asked why I should go to Russia.
“Because in Russia they haven’t got anything. Here they got too much. You can’t sell anything here any more. You go to Russia and open a chain of clothing stores; you could do a big business. That’s a new country, Russia.”
“But,” I said, “you can’t do that there.”
“Why not?” he said, disbelieving.
“The government owns the stores there.”
His face would have put fear into Karl Marx himself. “Them bastards,” he said, and went back to his paper.
By this time, of course, inevitable changes had helped to destroy so much that was human and lovely in my neighborhood (although much remains even today)—changes that had nothing to do with the Depression. The woods were gone now and there were houses everywhere, and even the last lot left to play football on was turned into a fenced-in junkyard. Bars had begun to sprout along Gravesend Avenue, and the whole idea of drinking, which the old neighborhood had never known, became quite normal.
An invisible vise seemed to be forever closing tighter and tighter, and the worst, most unimaginable fates became ordinary. The star football player became a shipping clerk, and was glad to have the job; I, who had planned to go to Cornell because they offered a free course in biology—although I had not the slightest interest in the subject—waited around until the fall term began, and seeing that nobody in the house was in possession of the fare, I went to the employment offices for a couple of months and ended up in a warehouse. It was the time Nick appeared on the scene and the time my grandfather decided to die.
About Nick in a moment. One hot afternoon, while the neighborhood and the nation slumbered in the tortured sleep of the Depression and a fiery heat wave in the bargain, my grandfather began to pant. He rarely sat outside his bedroom without his jacket, stiff collar and tie, but that day he gradually took off all but his shirt, and even went for his wire-frame glasses, which were cooler, he believed, than the tortoise-shell ones. Then he lay down on the couch and heaved his chest and looked terrible, and my mother called the doctor and her two sisters and several sisters-in-law, and in half an hour they were all wailing around him and trying to prevent him from speaking, but at last his right arm raised up imperiously, palm out, and they fell silent.
He had been a blunt sort of Germanic businessman all his life; had had a factory of importance for many years, and it is enough to say of his physique that whenever there was a strike in his plant he would pick up two workers and knock their heads together. This was as far as his ideas of labor relations went.
With the Depression his income was gone, and he had been shunted from one daughter’s house to another’s, and while no one dared cross him, they did manage to palm him off on the next one every six months or so “for his sake.” Unfortunately, he could not get sick. He drank gallons of mineral water, panted, and I had often seen him striding down Avenue M with his cane flashing and hardly touching the pavement, but when he turned into our block, he would slow down, pant, lean heavily on the cane and barely make it to the door. Then he would eat the equivalent of a wash basin of thick soup, as many chops as there were, and sit down to listen to Lowell Thomas, and if some fool forgot and asked him how he was feeling, he would shake his head like an ailing emperor and could barely be heard complaining. He was so neat he folded his socks before putting them in the laundry hamper, and it took him five minutes to get his two pillows set exactly where he wanted them on the bed before he lay down, or rather half sat up, to go to sleep. Once a week he went to the barber to have his little Vandyke trimmed, and insisted on being sprayed with toilet water of a certain brand. Even his rubber heels he wore out evenly, and his four hats were kept in their original boxes. Once every week he smoked a cigar.
And now he lay dying. Slowly the last words issued from his lips. Like Lear parceling out the nation he told each daughter what she was to have of his possessions. The trouble was that he only had twenty-six dollars left, and his hats. But it made no difference, each one burst into thankful tears as her bequest was mentioned. And finally, he said, “And don’t bury me in the old plot. It’s too crowded there. I want a little room. And I don’t want to be where people are going to be walking over me all the time.” He always liked room and plenty of air. “Put me on the aisle,” he concluded, probably feeling at the moment that it would be cooler there.
Having gotten their agreement, he groaned and sat up. After a while they tried to make him lie down but he said he felt better now. The conversation turned to other things, and pretty soon the women were playing rummy and forgot all about him. The next they knew he was coming down the stairs, cane, jacket, felt hat, stiff collar and tie. “Where you going, Papa?” his daughters screamed.
He turned in the doorway, his brows drawn together as though in preparation for a mission of importance. “I gotta go for a fitting,” he said.
“A fitting!” they called. “You can’t go out in this weather!”
“I’m having a suit made downtown. Beautiful material. Two pairs of pants.” With which he walked out and lived ten years longer. The whole thing was just due to the general discouragement, I guess.
Equally unforeseeable, but a sign of the times and the nature of the neighborhood, was the way Nick made out. One day, in the year of especially long bread lines, a man knocked on my aunt’s door and asked if he could wash the windows for her. He was built low to the ground, lisped, and was neatly combed and obviously quite poor. In those days strange men were constantly appearing in the neighborhood looking for work or a piece of bread, and we had more than a few who fainted from hunger on our steps and only my mother’s chicken soup could revive them. My father, slightly more cynical than some others, said, “Sure, they smell the chicken soup and decide it’s a good place to faint,” and we spent one whole Sunday morning looking all over the house for any mark or secret sign that seemed to lead these fellows directly to our door.
But my aunt hired Nick and he worked carefully, and when night came she let him sleep in the cellar. Next morning, when the family came down, the dining-room table was set with a tablecloth and napkins standing up stiffly. The breakfast he cooked and the way he served it swept them all away, as well it might, since Nick had been a steward on three great ocean liners for fifteen years. To make a long story short, Nick lived to bury my uncle and my aunt, painted the house three or four times in the nearly twenty years he lived there, and was periodically thrown out never to return because he would wait until my uncle had squeezed all the grapes and made the wine, and then drank it up down in the cellar, gallon after gallon, and had to have his stomach pumped by the ambulance driver, who, after a while, got out the stomach pump the minute he pulled up in front of the house.
It was a village, and the people died like the elms did, and I do not know those who live in their houses now. I go back there now and then, but whether it is I that am no longer young or the people who have changed, I know only that things are alien to me there and I am as strange to the place as if I had never known it. The cars, for one thing, jam bumper to bumper along the curbs on streets where there was so much clear space we could have bumping matches with our first jalopies, and ride backwards and forwards and up on the sidewalks and never find an obstruction anywhere. And people seem to move in and out more often than they did, and there are many who have lived there five or six years now and the people next door still don’t know what they do for a living, or anything more than their names. The drugstore has a chromium front now and fluorescent lighting, and young Mr. Dozik is a gray-haired man. A lot of picture windows are being put in to get a better view of the wall of the next house a driveway’s width away. And when anyone looks out the picture window all the people next door are there watching television anyway.
But there is still the smell of the leaves being burned in the fall, and I imagine some boy is delivering the rolls, and all these strangers must be close to somebody, although I would swear they are more formal toward each other than we used to be, and there is an indifference in their eyes, even the ones who sit out in front of their houses in the cool of the evening. My father sits out there waiting for a friendly conversation, and usually ends up, after an hour or so, going up to bed without having talked to anyone. There has been a scandal or two and amorous conflicts the like of which were rare before, but the children still wonder if my father is really the mayor, as he claims to be in such dead earnest, and now and again a few who have not yet caught on will come to the house leading a cat by a rope because, in a sudden fit of ennui, a few weeks ago, he said to a little boy passing by, “I buy all kinds of cats,” or a child will stop a stranger to ask what his business might be because my father, what with all the casino games dead and gone, has persuaded the five-year-olds to “stand guard and watch the block.”
But I think, as I watch him sitting there, that the smell of the burning leaves and autumn will never be enough to make those few, once space-filled blocks the center of the world again, the way they used to seem. Instead of the pies and cakes being trafficked back and forth across the street, and much visiting from house to house and the late card games and a certain energetic noisiness that was full of heat, there is now an order, and more politeness, and even when people do live there a long time now, they always have the feeling that someday they might not, and that changes things.
Still, as my father said the other night, “It’s a different kind of people, but so is the world. They’ll make out all right.” And he stared down the street at the unbroken line of cars, at the old houses ludicrously changed to look more ranchy, at the tall apartment houses beyond the corner, and the metallic sound such buildings seem to make, and he got up and folded his chair and carried it into the house.
Brooklyn is a lot of villages. And this was one of them. ◊
. . .
Here’s some Holiday history which illuminates the editorial integrity of the magazine and its editor at the time, Ted Patrick.
In December 1953, Miller wrote his first piece for Holiday, which the magazine described as “an affectionate, soul-searching, and controversial essay” about his alma mater, the University of Michigan. In the essay, Miller writes with concern about the pall of McCarthyism hanging over the campus, in particular the offices of the student paper, where a state trooper visits weekly to write down the names of anyone in the letters or news items who sounds “leftist.” (The list is then sent off to the governor’s office.)
1953, McCarthyism—it’s of little surprise that there were those who didn’t appreciate Miller’s distaste towards the anti-communist measures chilling the Michigan campus. At least one Holiday advertiser, Pontiac, did not like Miller’s essay at all. But a week or two after the Michigan essay was published, Holiday editor Ted Patrick began hounding Miller to write another piece for the magazine. “Since I did little magazine writing, I thanked him but almost automatically declined,” Miller writes in his 1987 memoir Timebends. “A few days later came another request, and then another, until I finally did manage to write a short memoir of life in Brooklyn in the thirties, which he duly published. Years later, after Patrick’s death, I learned the reason for his strange persistence. The advertising department of the Pontiac division of General Motors had warned Patrick that Pontiac would cancel all its advertising in Holiday if they ever published another piece by Arthur Miller. As it turned out, my second piece did not dry up the Pontiac account, but the air in those days bristled with such threats, and I regretted being unable to congratulate Patrick for his defense, particularly courageous at the time, of editorial integrity.”