Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Exploring Brooklyn by Bus: the B100 to the Wilds of Mill Basin

This was posted to Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Wednesday, July 18, 2007:
Exploring Brooklyn by Bus: the B100 to the Wilds of Mill Basin

The B100 is the bus that went past the block I lived on – East 56th Street between Avenue O and Fillmore Avenue – from the summer of 1958, when I was about to start second grade, to the fall of 1979, when I was a 28-year-old with two masters' degrees and a recently-published hardcover collection of short stories, critically acclaimed by The Minneapolis Tribune as "a cornucopia of crap."

The MTA lists the B100 as the Quentin Road/Fillmore Avenue/East 66 Street route, but we always called it the Mill Basin bus. Actually, we often just referred to as "the Pioneer bus," not because it went to Brooklyn's then-newest neighborhood (many of my friends' homes in Mill Basin proper were, to use the euphemism, "settling," for the first few years of residence; "sinking into the marshlands" might have been more honest) but because the route was operated by the private Pioneer Bus Company, which obtained the franchise in 1960.

After an incredibly long 1979 strike, the Command Bus Company took over the route until 2005, when it joined the other city-owned buses. But not quite. Technically, the B100 is run by a separate entity called the MTA Bus Company, not the New York City Transit Authority which runs the other Brooklyn bus lines. It's only in the last year, however, that the broken-down old buses with the Pioneer and Command colors began to be replaced by the standard MTA electric hybrids with the raised rear section.

The B100 was presumably designed to give those of us in subway-less extreme southeastern Brooklyn access to the Brighton BMT line at the Kings Highway, where I get off the B train, currently the express, with the Q serving as the local. For many years, though, the D was the express and the M the local. In the mid-1960s, when I first started riding the trains by myself, the Q was the express and the QJ and QB were the locals (they differed in their routes to Manhattan; the QB went over the bridge and the QJ went by tunnel).

I walk down from the el to exit at East 16 Street, my ears assaulted by having to listen to the N-word about five dozen times by the African American teens I follow onto the B100 at its starting point. Do I really need to hear sentences like "Niggaz need not to smoke on an empty stomach"?

It was on the Mill Basin bus around 1970 that I was sitting across this guy a few years younger than I was who I thought was really cute – that is, until we passed a corner house along Quentin Road where a black boy was watering an expanse of lawn. The kid on the bus yelled out "NIGGER!" at the young gardener, and I'll never forget the expressions on both their faces: the cute kid suddenly looked disgustingly ugly and the black kid looked up, his hose limp in his hand, his face a mixture of bewilderment and hurt.

The racist kid on the bus then turned to a couple of girls behind us, smirked and said, "That's what we call them in Maryland, where I live." The girls rolled their eyes and turned to each other to avoid looking at him.

I'm the only one of my baby boomer friends who likes hip-hop music – in 1990 I published a New York Newsday column and made the national news when I started Radio Free Broward to send 2 Live Crew albums that had been declared obscene by a federal judge in the Southern District of Florida to anyone in three counties that wanted to hear Luke Skyywalker's obscenities – but I've always had trouble with the N word, which I'd never heard pass the lips of anyone in my childhood.

The bus driver closes the door and makes the left turn onto Quentin Road. Despite what Broadway musical audiences may believe, there is no Avenue Q between Avenue P and Avenue R in New York. I always assumed this was because Q was an odd letter (not on our phone dials) but later learned the street was named after Theodore Roosevelt's beloved youngest son Quentin, who in the First World War was shot down in France behind enemy lines. T.R. never recovered emotionally from the loss and died less than a year later, in 1919; Quentin is buried in St. Laurent-sur-Mer, France, alongside his brother, General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who died of a heart attack the day after D-Day in 1944.

Quentin Road is residential: a few brick apartment houses, mostly private detached one-family homes with porches, as we go through the East teens and 20s. At Bedford Avenue, the black teens get off and others get on; sitting on the steps of James Madison High School are a group of teens, only one of them white. Madison boasts among its graduates three sitting U.S. Senators – a Democrat, New York's Chuck Schumer; a Republican, Minnesota's Norm Coleman; and an Independent, Vermont's Bernie Sanders – as well as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

But although I entered tenth grade at Madison in September 1965, I left the next month, transferring to a private school on Manhattan's Upper West Side. There were no high schools close to our new neighborhood, and I'd gone to junior high at Meyer Levin in faraway East Flatbush. All my friends were zoned for Tilden, across the street from our JHS 285, or to Midwood, ten letter blocks north on Bedford Avenue at Glenwood Road. (There's no Avenue G, either.)

However, what really bothered me about Madison – because I was extremely phobic about putting my head under water – was that I was forced to take swimming. This neurotic fear trumped everything else. I wasn't even all that bothered by the Board of Education's edict that boys had to swim nude, as if we were athletes in ancient Greece. The first day of school, our swimming teacher, Mr. Singer, tried to reassure us about being naked in front of others: "Some of you are dark-skinned and some of you are light; some of you are hairy and some of you are smooth; some of you" – here he pointed to a tall obese kid – "are big and some of you" – here he pointed to 98-pound, five-foot-one-inch me – "are small."

"How do you know he's that small?" a wise guy in the back row called out. "We won't find out till tomorrow."

People today find it hard to believe that this forced nudity occurred not at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 but at Board of Education facilities in the Wagner administration.

To this day I do not know how to swim. I barely escaped the requirement that Brooklyn College graduates had to pass a swimming test when the rule was rescinded by the faculty council in 1972, when I was a junior. My friend and fellow aquaphobe Robert Wechsler, a history major who'd later teach at BC, spearheaded our drive to get rid of mandatory swimming tests and won the day despite what many professors thought was a logical argument by the chairwoman of the Women's Health and Physical Education Department, who explained that since Brooklyn was on an island, it was essential that, in the event of a devastating flood, graduates should know how to swim to safety on the mainland. Perhaps in light of global warming, the college might want to revisit this issue. I don't care, as long as I don't have to stick my head under water.

Yes, I am embarrassed to admit this, but making my fear even more ridiculous is that our house on East 56th Street was one of the few homes in Brooklyn, then or now, to have a swimming pool in the backyard. As a BC student, I hosted many pool parties in the summer when my parents were upstate in the Borscht Belt hotel they owned in the early 70's, but none of my friends ever saw me do more than dangle my darkly-tanned legs in the water. The only thing I got out of growing up with a pool was basal cell carcinoma.

Starting in October 1965, now a private school student wearing a rep tie, dress slacks and blue blazer with the school crest and carrying a brown attache case, I still took the B100 every weekday as it took me to and from the first (or last) of the three subway lines that got me to the Franklin School on West 89th Street and Central Park West.

With sophisticated Manhattan classmates whose parents were familiar to me because I'd seen them on TV or read about them in the Herald Tribune, I got to experience a world totally alien from the Jewish/Italian neighborhoods I was from. At one boy's vast East Side apartment after school, we were on his way to get the maid to get us a snack when he casually pointed to a weird flag painting on the living room wall and said, "That's a Jasper Johns, of course." I had to go to back issues of Time Magazine and read the Art pages I'd always ignored to find out what he was talking about.

But the almost four-hour roundtrip commute got too much for me, and the next year I got a phone in my name at the home of my parents' friend NYPD Lt. Joe Cone, who lived across the street from Midwood, and I transferred there, fooling the Board of Ed's Zoning Police.

Mr. Singer, my Madison swimming teacher, reappeared in Midwood as my boys' hygiene teacher, still reassuring young males about their sexuality. He came in one day and began the class with the question, "How many of you masturbate?" and when no one raised his hand, he shrieked out, "Every one of you is lying!" and then added, more quietly, "If you're not, see me after class."

As the bus makes its way to Nostrand Avenue (Ocean is East 20th, Bedford East 25th, Nostrand East 30th for those of you who've never been south of Prospect Park) and Gerritsen Avenue and turns left on Fillmore Avenue past Marine Park park in the neighborhood of the same name, the houses are still basically one families, with a few brick "garden apartments" more commonly seen in Queens. I recall watching my parents jog around the Marine Park running track at the same time they gave up smoking in the mid-1970s, just before they became vegetarians.

At Marine Park I watched more than a few cricket and soccer games, played by West Indians, and even my Manhattan friends would deign to meet me this far out into Brooklyn, bringing goodies from Zabar's, for summer Metropolitan Opera contests. I was taught to appreciate opera by tough old Italian men whose radios and Victrolas blasted Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Verdi, Rossini and Puccini into our neighborhood streets.

Contrary to what residents of Brownstone Brooklyn may believe, there always was culture in suburb-like neighborhoods like Marine Park and Mill Basin. The Tony Award-winning director Gerald Gutierrez, who helmed Lincoln Center Theater productions of Dinner at Eight, The Heiress, and A Delicate Balance and who I met at Midwood when I was a junior and he a senior, was still living in the Marine Park house he grew up in at his untimely death a few years ago.

We pass Batchelder Street, where I went to see a psychologist in 1979, stressed out by my parents' sudden selling of our house and their move out of state and my uncomfortable status as a published author who saw his name in the New York Times when he still felt like a boy. After a couple of sessions, I realized that Dr. Gentile had been in my Midwood graduating class of '68. He was Mike from the football team, who had seemed a nice guy – but then those of the drama club didn't hang out much with the jocks. It was good to know that a decent halfback could turn into a perceptive psychotherapist. I think that today he and his wife, Dr. Judith Cohen Gentile, see their clients at an office on Avenue T.

On Fillmore Avenue on the block between the major Brooklyn thoroughfares of Flatbush and Utica Avenues, we pass the Flatbush Depot, a two-block-square car barn filled with nothing but buses. Originally built in 1902 by the Brooklyn Heights Railroad for a number of the borough's streetcar lines – many older bus routes, like the B46 along Utica Avenue from Williamsburg to the Kings Plaza shopping center a few blocks south of here and Flatbush Avenue's B41 from the Civic Center to Kings Plaza, follow the same pathways as the trolley routes of the early 1900's.

Utica is East 50th, so we pass my old block before I know it. The last time I visited, a couple of weeks ago, it looked pretty much as beautiful as I remembered it from the 50's, 60's and 70's, except the once spindly London plane trees had become big shady ones.

As I watched ten boys play basketball in the wide two-way street (a rarity here), a hoop set up at the edge of what we called "the gutter," I noted that each team had a token nonblack player, one white, one Chinese. It reminded me of how we had gym outside at our crowded junior high and couldn't play the classic skins vs. shirts in the chilly weather, so we decided it would be easiest to play whites vs. Negroes.

The only problem was that the Negroes would always win. To solve that, it was decided that I – the shortest kid and the worst player (except for foul shots because I had very good aim) – would become "an honorary Negro" for the duration of the gym period. When one of my teammates said that being an honorary Negro may not have been as good as a real, at least I could never become an "H.N.I.C.," I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn't figure it out till I read a book for a law school class on Race and Race Relations in 1994.

One night in September 1990, living temporarily in Rockaway, I came to visit the old block and found incredibly bright lights enveloping it. Spike Lee was shooting "Jungle Fever" there, with our more tolerant Italian neighborhood standing in for what the producers thought would be a more hostile Bensonhurst. For about an hour I watched one of my favorite filmmakers direct Annabella Sciorra and John Turturro outside a house a few doors from the one I grew up in.

Fillmore ends as Avenue T crosses it, and the residents of East 58th and 59th Streets and Ralph Avenue have to tell people that they live on the block between Avenue O and Avenue T. There's the Mill Basin Delicatessen, one of the few kosher delis left in a town that used to be crawling with them. I ate my Hebrew national franks and my French fries and later turkey, white meat, on rye with a slice of onion sandwiches here with my parents and brothers at least once a week.

We ate out most nights because my mother "never saw the point of cooking." When my friends would ask me what my mother made for dinner, I'd say, "Reservations," but we mostly ate in delis, Greek diners, Cantonese restaurants, red-checked-table Italian places and pizzerias like the one next door to the Mill Basin Deli.

By the time I grew tired of buses and began driving my mother's fire-red 1964 Valiant around the neighborhood – first illegally, then with the sanction of a driver's license after I passed my road test in Canarsie on the third attempt – I was taking potential and actual girlfriends and boyfriends out to dinner dates at the Mill Basin Deli.

Mark, the owner, has always been an art lover who graced the restaurant's walls with paintings. Of course in this benighted backwater of the borough, you can't expect to find a Jasper Johns like in the Sutton Place apartment of my private school classmate. No, if you want what many people think is New York's best pastrami, you'll have to settle for looking at a Roy Lichtenstein, a Chagall and an Erte.

The B100 goes up Mill Avenue, leading to Mill Basin proper (once Mill Island was filled in, as was Coney Island, but Mill Island got a name change to reflect its true geographic status) and across Avenue U, past the Flatbush Park Jewish Center, where I was forced to endure Hebrew school.

Supposedly I became a man in the main sanctuary on the morning of Saturday, May 23, 1964, but I'd long before decided to follow the socialist, atheistic beliefs of the grandfather and great-grandfather I'd idolized.

I did graduate Hebrew school but refused to go to the ceremony or pick up the diploma after four years of playing a lot of hooky from the only classes I ever hated in my life. Riding my bike around the neighborhood, reading in the storefront Mill Basin branch library next to the deli, buying The Flash or Green Lantern or Justice League comic at the candy store which in "Jungle Fever" was the owned by the Anthony Quinn character, watching older guys fish in the actual Basin, wandering around the marshes looking for the wild cottontail rabbits and ring-necked pheasants who lived there, going to Barbara's General Store and buying penny candy as I warmed myself at her potbellied stove in winter – all of that seemed like much more fun than sitting in Rabbi Rubin's class, having to endure reading passages that were gibberish to me.

I would make the right sounds in Hebrew but had no idea what these words meant in English; telling a kid like me "It isn't important what the words mean" was about the worst thing I could hear from a teacher.

As we make a turn by Brooklyn's most suburban strip shopping center, where I spent many hours sitting at the luncheonette, pizzeria and Chinese restaurant or walking the wide aisles of Waldbaum's (now Key Food), I realize that growing up in this remote part of Brooklyn prepared me pretty well for a couple of decades of living in the car culture of brand-new Sun Belt communities in Florida, Arizona and California.

Now we're in fancy-schmancy Mill Basin, home of Brooklyn's original McMansions. Boats are docked in the marina, with luxury yachts anchored behind nearly every waterfront house. The bus goes up and down residential streets filled with detached homes that resemble Johnny Sack's place in "The Sopranos" – one of these houses probably played the Brooklyn Mafia don's home in the HBO series. We make a turn and across the water, I spot Kings Plaza, Fun City's first indoor mall.

My father and mother's brother owned one of the original stores when it opened in September 1970, the newest location for their 15-store chain The Pants Set, started on Long Island a few years before as women began to abandon their dresses and skirts. I recall the woodsy smell as I accompanied my uncle inside the shopping center while it was still under construction.

I've always loved that new building smell, just as I still love what I called "the smell of Mill Basin" that would be in the air on very foggy days in the neighborhood, that brackish smell of fish when I could almost feel the saltiness on my lips. At night, an insomniac even as a kid, I liked to listen to the foghorns from the boats.

The morning of Kings Plaza's grand opening, I got up early and went over to Fillmore and East 36th Street, to my friend Ken Falk's house, to wake him up so we would be one of the first people to get into the mall. We shook hands with Brooklyn Borough President Sam Leone as we entered by the Alexander's Department Store entrance on Flatbush Avenue. At the Pants Set, my uncle had slept in the store overnight, frantically trying to get everything ready.

My mother had her first job ever as a saleswoman in that store, three blocks from our house. She'd give away smaller items of clothing to my girlfriend and my girlfriend's female friends.

I worked only in our Bensonhurst store on 86th Street near Bay Parkway. My psychologist in Brooklyn Heights, with whom of course I'd discussed my homosexual feelings, once asked me if I ever had a desire to wear women's clothes. "Uh-uh, no sir," I said. That was one thing I was sure about: I was a guy and would only dress like one. And then I said, "Working in that store, it's not like I don't have the chance to try them on."

The last stretch of the B100 bus is Strickland Avenue, and I get off a couple of stops before the terminus. I look out at the El Caribe Beach Club, said to be the model for the place where Brooklyn cabana boy Matt Dillon worked in the film "The Flamingo Kid," although it was actually filmed in Rockaway at Breezy Point's Silver Gull Club, where my friend from Troy Avenue, Nancy Penncavage, was a lifeguard.

I walk past an assisted living facility, a newly-built medical center and The Bay Front Estates at Mill Basin, a brand-new, still-unfinished six-acre private community and marina, where, according to the printed hype, "thirty-four privileged families will experience a lifestyle within this enclave that will afford them luxury, safety, quality and value." Most of the models have five bedrooms and if I wanted to take a peek inside, I'd need to call in advance for an appointment. This could be Boca Raton or La Jolla.

Further on, there's Gil Hodges Lanes, which used to be, when I was a kid, on Ralph Avenue and Avenue M, where I went to a lot of boys-only birthday parties as a student at P.S. 203 a few blocks away. I wasn't too good at bowling, either. I don't know if this is still owned by the Hodges family. Gil Jr. used to sit next to me in eleventh grade math at Midwood, and he treated me, a new transfer student, nicely enough – that is to say, with minimal sneering disdain – so that I let him cheat off me on tests.

Unfortunately, trigonometry was the one subject I wasn't good enough in to later get into twelfth grade honor classes. In fact, along with Gil, I was transferred into "Fusion," where we took the regular eleventh grade math curriculum in three semesters rather than the usual two. I just didn't get stuff like logarithms and cosines.

After a couple of tests that first semester, I whispered to Gil as he motioned for me to let him peek at my answers, "I think you're actually better than me at this." He snorted and mumbled back, "Kid, you can tell just by looking at us which one's the brawn and which one's the brain."

The last time I saw him was in April 1972, at the Torregrossa Funeral Home which the B100 had passed at the corner of Flatbush and Fillmore. I went to pay my respects to his beloved dad, who'd died of a sudden heart attack. I had been a Mets fan since the first season when I was in sixth grade.

(We didn't "graduate" P.S. 203 but had only a "farewell assembly" since we'd be the first class not to stay for seventh grade; in the early 1960s they were phasing out the old K-8 schools and sending kids to junior highs, although in the last couple of years they've been reviving the K-8 concept.)

After passing by the Dodger star and Mets manager's coffin, I went over to Gil Jr. and said how sorry I was. He didn't remember me, but that was okay.

Across the street there's a baseball field where a fat bearded man wearing a yarmulke is pitching while all the other players look of such varied sizes and ages that they must be early adolescents. I assume all the boys are Orthodox Jews, but they've got on baseball caps, not yarmulkes. For some reason, a lone, rather skimpily-dressed girl is playing first base.

I watch a couple of guys get base hits, then walk over to the handball court, where two bare-chested boys about 16 or 17 are playing as two girls sit on the ground, watching them and looking bored. As Richard Price said in "The Wanderers," his terrific novel of Bronx adolescence that takes place a few years, shirtlessness on the playground is more likely to impress girls (and some boys) in late October or early November than in summer.

My first girlfriend and I once took our tennis rackets and balls there on a Sunday in June and fooled around for a while. A couple of Israeli boys with giant curly Jewfros came and waited impatiently for us to yield to finish our "game." Finally the shirtless one of them came over and said, "Hey, don't you think you've been here long enough? This court's really for handball anyway, not tennis."

He wasn't quite threatening, but I nodded as I put my own shirt back on. "You're right," I said. "It's all yours."

In my 1969 Pontiac Custom S as we drove down Mill Avenue, my girlfriend seemed annoyed. "You gave in so easily," she said. "You would have won a fight against him. You have bigger muscles."

Not wanting to explain that as a skinny kid I'd observed only a very slight correlation between muscle size and the ability to win fights, I just sighed and said, "It hardly seemed worth it."

A few months later, after she'd left me for another guy at school, she asked me why I'd given her up so easily, why I hadn't tried to fight for her. I just shrugged, not wanting to give her the same answer I'd given about the handball court.

For some reason, her new boyfriend – within the year, her husband – refused to talk to me, and it bothered me. I'd been really upset with him at first, but I'm the kind of guy who loves to talk so much, I'll talk with anyone. They moved to their first apartment in Bergen Beach, about ten blocks from here.

I got the first hint that their marriage was in trouble a few years later when I had a new girlfriend with whom, unlike the first one, I hardly ever had fights. My then-current girlfriend and I were invited to a party in the backyard of Ken's house in Marine Park and were sitting on the back steps, talking to a younger boy who was quite stoned. He looked at me and Randi sitting there and said, "You know, you guys look married. Are you married?"

My first girlfriend's husband, walking down the steps with a drink in his hand, overheard the kid. He still didn't talk to me, but he said to the boy almost angrily, "Are you crazy, kid? Can't you tell that they look too happy to be married?"

Randi and I broke up a few years after that but we've been close friends for many years. I went to her older daughter's bat mitzvah in New Jersey last fall and sat at a table with other Brooklyn College friends who'd long since abandoned the borough. In the nadir of the 1970s almost everyone wanted to get out. When I told them about the Atlantic Yards project, five of them said they'd been mugged around there and they couldn't believe how things had changed.

In the disco era, my first girlfriend and her husband had an "open" marriage. They'd go to Studio 54 and pick out each other's trick for the night. The last time I saw them together, we ran into each other on the Brooklyn College campus and we went to Sugar Bowl – now it's a Starbucks – on Hillel Place for lime rickeys.

Her husband still wouldn't talk directly to me but said things to her for my benefit. They were just visiting Brooklyn, having moved to a college town in the Midwest, where they lived in a two-bedroom apartment, she with her boyfriend and he with his.

I heard when they got back, they found out the two boyfriends were fooling around with each other. My first girlfriend and her husband got divorced soon afterwards.

He eventually talked to me years later, in the late 1980s, on the Brooklyn Heights promenade. It turned out that the guy I was walking with knew his boyfriend and when he saw them – they had a place nearby on Henry Street – we were all introduced. I laughed as I shook his hand and said, "Actually, we're old friends."

"That's right," he said, finally looking at me. I think he may still live in the Heights.

Two B100 buses are sitting at their final stop, waiting to make the return trip to the Kings Highway train station. I can wait to go back. I'm hungry, and the strip mall just across the street has a lot of choices of places to eat.

There's a Subway – I'm basically a vegetarian but I do make occasional exceptions – and a "natural foods cafĂ©" with a certificate from a rabbi on the front door; Dagan Pizza, with a sign partially in Hebrew that even I can understand: "shomer shabbos"; and Pita Plus, a "glatt kosher grill" featuring "Israeli-Turkish shawarma."

I have no idea what shawarma is, but I need to put something in my stomach before I get back on the B100 bus, so I walk in to Pita Plus – as we say in the deep south of Brooklyn – fixing to find out.

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