Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Wednesday Morning in Canarsie: Breakfast at Canarsie Pier

At 7 a.m. today we left Dumbo Books HQ, forsaking Williamsburg, where the death knell is tolling for Toll Brothers and other real estate developers, for the open spaces and fresh waters of Canarsie Pier.

We muscled aside a pair of seagulls and found a comfortable bench to bunk on for a few hours and eat our bagel, drink our tea and read the paper.

We used to come here a lot in the 1970s. Our forthcoming book from Superstition Mountain Press, Autumn in Brooklyn: September-November 1978, contains this section of a diary entry for Sunday, November 5, 1978:

I walked along the pier in Canarsie this afternoon – it was yet another beautiful day – and I watched people fishing dreamily and intently but always patiently. I admire their ability to wait; I don’t have it, and I’m afraid that unless I acquire patience, my life will be very unhappy.

Here I am in this diary; I can’t fool you. People may think that I’m a great success or an egotist or a decent, well-meaning guy, but everything comes down to these pages, where I seek refuge because I can’t hide here. I need more discipline and more patience and a great deal more courage.

Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara that people with courage don’t require the esteem of others. In a way I see myself as this kind of figure, but in many ways I am not.

Maybe a couple of years ago this would have been a self-lacerating depression, but one of the comforts of growing older is becoming more tolerant of myself. Someday – not too far away, I hope – I may yet become the writer. . . I was going to say “the writer I need to be,” but what I really mean is “the writer who doesn’t need to be any kind of writer.”

I’m young, and my ideas aren’t very complex yet – though they’re much more mature than they were. This morning, shaving, I wondered if writing for me was just a means to an end – success – and that, if circumstances had been different, I would have used politics or acting or athletics to achieve my real goal.

Sad to say, a lot of my need for success is mean-spirited. I simply want to “show up” people who have never believed in me – people like my parents’ friends the Cohens, or my Italian neighbors, or the kids who rejected me and ridiculed me.
Often I’m scared at how much I want fame, what I’m willing to do to get it.

Okay, the author was just a stupid kid . . .

On our way back, we walked under the Belt Parkway

and over to the shopping center where a CVS has replaced a movie theater, The Seaview, that we wrote about in "The Lost Movie Theaters of Southeastern Brooklyn and Rockaway Beach," originally published at Eyeshot and collected in our book And To Think That He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street:

This was a small cinema in a strip shopping center in Canarsie, opening when Eugene and I were old enough to use the word cinema. We saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg here, and Dr. Zhivago. At fifteen, we were blown away by Blow-Up but confused by the mimes playing tennis without a ball at the end. It definitely was not Rock Hudson and Doris Day.

A couple of years later, I went alone to the Seaview to see Wild in the Streets, falling in love with the utter coolness of Christopher Jones as the rock star who becomes President when teens are allowed to vote. When I got home, I recounted the plot to my ten-year-old twin step-cousins, Alice and Bonnie, who stood open-mouthed as I described how Jones put everyone over 30 in concentration camps – even his mother, Shelley Winters, screaming as they led her away, “But I’m the biggest mother of them all!”

The Seaview is now just another store in a strip mall.

We walked across the street to get the B42 bus up Rockaway Parkway. It's a free transfer to the L train because the first and last stop of the route is inside the train station so you don't need a second MetroCard swipe.

But we were on our way to the Junction, so we got off at Rockaway Parkway. Walking down a block, we went to see the Canarsie branch library. In our story "Branch Libraries of Southeastern Brooklyn," originally published at Fiction Warehouse, which is gone, but also collected in And To Think That He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street, we write about this library:

On Rockaway Parkway and Avenue J, this branch is one of the few Brooklyn libraries not to have a book drop. I learned that when I was almost thirteen, a couple of years after the building opened.

It was the Sunday before my bar mitzvah reception, and we had to go across the street to the men’s formalwear shop. I figured that while my brothers were trying on their dinner jackets, I could return an overdue copy of Manhattan Transfer to the Canarsie branch. I’d pay the thirty cents fine the next time I borrowed a book.

I looked everywhere for the slot where I could drop in John Dos Passos’s novel. When I gave up and ran back across Rockaway Parkway, Dad was in front of the mirror in his tuxedo and he seemed really annoyed that we’d have to stop off at another library on the way home. He told me I should have checked in advance to see if Canarsie had a book drop.

Not yet a man for another six days, I had assumed all libraries had to have one.

Dad said I took too much for granted.

We wait for the B6 Limited bus outside Holy Family Church, where our friend Janice's funeral mass was held in the summer of 1980. We wrote about Janice's last days in "Land of Golden Giants," originally published at FRiGG and later also collected in And To Think That He Kissed Her on Lorimer Street.

In this part, we're picking up our grandfather at New York Hospital, where he's been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and taking him back to Rockaway, where our apartment was 15 blocks from his. Janice was dying across the street at Sloan-Kettering:
I’m going to drive him back to Rockaway today, back home to die—though it will be slow, because the tumor is pretty small right now. Maybe he’ll continue to feel OK for months or even years.

I’ll have to remember to change my car’s radio station from WQXR because listening to classical music makes Grandpa Herb nervous. I’ll put on WEVD, a station old Jewish people like. Grandpa Herb once told me the call letters stand for Eugene V. Debs, the socialist for whom he cast his first vote for President.

“Well, I’ll go visit my friend for a while,” I tell my grandfather.

“Just get back here by twelve,” he says. “I don’t want to stay here any longer than I have to.”

I get up from my chair, and on my way out, I nod to my grandfather’s roommate, the cartoonist Edward Sorel, who is looking over what seem to be galleys with his wife and collaborator, Nancy, a writer. They nod back and smile.

Grandpa Herb has told Ed Sorel that I’d had a book of short stories published last year, that I got some nice reviews, but that I can’t seem to make a dime as a writer.

“You never make money from books,” Ed Sorel told my grandfather. Grandpa Herb wasn’t familiar with Ed’s work, but he understood he was kind of famous so I could tell he respected Ed’s opinion.

The temperature is in the 90s already. Crossing first East 68th and then York, I look forward to being back in the air conditioning of another hospital. Sloan-Kettering is always chilly.

After getting my visitor’s pass, I take the elevator up to where Janice’s room is. Unlike my grandfather and Ed Sorel, she is alone.

My friend Linda Konner, whom I’ve known since second grade at P.S. 203, introduced me to Janice a few years ago. One night Linda took me to Janice’s house in Canarsie, near the terminus of the LL train off Rockaway Parkway, to play Scrabble and smoke pot and drink wine with Janice and her friend Dolores.

They were about ten years older than Linda and I, but I liked them both immediately. Dolores was earthy and warm and worked at a health food store in Soho. Janice worked as a graphic artist, but she also made her own art and was involved in starting a cooperative among visual artists in Brooklyn. They rented a storefront downtown, near Fulton Street, and used it as a gallery to display their work. But it was hard to get people to come from Manhattan to see it, as nobody believed that real artists would live in Brooklyn.

Janice was tall and rangy. She had a Halloween party one year and dressed as Fritzi Ritz, the aunt in the Nancy comic strip; I thought the part seemed like a natural for her. The first night I met her, I asked her what she thought of conceptual art.

“I can’t conceive of such a thing,” she said.

Janice was a widow, probably the only person I know who had lost a spouse except maybe for some girls from the neighborhood who married guys who died in Vietnam. Her husband died of some degenerative disease. She didn’t talk about it, but I once looked through her family albums. He’d been a handsome, robust Polish guy, a boxer, and you could see him fading away, picture by picture, month by month, until the photos were just Janice and her daughter, Ingrid, alone or with other relatives.

Janice didn’t talk about her husband much. Once, when telling a nurse that she had a daughter named Ingrid, she said, “My husband worshipped Ingrid Bergman.”

They won’t let me in Janice’s room right away because the doctors or nurses are doing something. I wait in the corridor and nearby is an old woman lying on a gurney, her skin a shade of green I have never seen before on a human being. It wasn’t like the “ You look green” when people are seasick or about to vomit. It was actual green green, like the skin of J’onn J’onzz, the Manhunter from Mars.

How were such things possible?

Janice got the breast cancer diagnosis just a week after I met her. So she’s been sick throughout the few years of our friendship, and I’ve visited her in other hospitals, like Brookdale close to home back in Brooklyn.

Brookdale, at the intersection of Linden Boulevard and Rockaway Parkway, was where Janice had her mastectomy. It was also the hospital where my brothers and I were born, back when it was Beth El Hospital. Grandpa Herb has told me that poor Jewish women like his mother, Bubbe Ita, would put nickels in a charity box every week in the 1920s to raise money to build the hospital for the community.

When she first told me she was going into Sloan-Kettering, Janice always referred to it as “Sloan Catering.” She called this stretch of York Avenue, with all its hospitals, “Bedpan Alley.” Now Janice is far too sick to pun. When I finally get to see her, I am grateful she recognizes me. The last time I was there, the nurse told me that she doesn’t have much time left.

The last time we went anywhere together, I drove her to the Foundation Library to do some research for some artists’ grants she was trying to get for the cooperative. But she got very tired very quickly, and we couldn’t go to an exhibit at Asia House next door as we’d planned. I had to put her seat back so she could lie down on the drive back to Brooklyn.

Now Janice needs an oxygen mask a lot of the time. The cancer has ravaged not only her body but also her face. Her eyes look so old and tired.

“Richie,” she asks, “do you have any paper?”

“Yes,” I say. “I can get it. What do you want me to write?”

The TV is on, it’s channel 13, and they are showing some documentary featuring an ancient Winifred Wagner, daughter-in-law of the composer. Janice’s attention is momentarily fixed on the TV set, and she says, “ That woman loved Hitler so.”

“Yeah,” I say.

And then Janice returns to what she wanted the paper for. “You need to make a Percocet chart,” she tells me.

“Uh huh,” I say, getting out a pen and taking out the receipt from the New York Hospital parking lot to write on.

“Make a list of all the times and the times I can have another Percocet.”

“OK,” I say, “I’m doing that right now.”

“Good,” Janice says, and she watches Winifred Wagner for a while, occasionally glancing over to see what progress I’m making with the Percocet chart. Mostly I’m writing down numerals at random.

“Richie,” Janice says, all out of breath. “Want to put makeup on?”

“I don’t wear makeup, Janice.”

“No. On me.”

“I think girls look prettier without makeup on,” I say. “The natural look.”

She smiles beatifically, closes her eyes, and I feel that I have said something good. When her eyes are closed for a while, I see that she is sleeping, not dead, and I sit there for about ten minutes watching her and looking at the Winifred Wagner interview on TV. Finally, I get up and leave quietly.

As I go downstairs and again walk in the Manhattan heat across York Avenue to fetch my grandfather and take him home to Rockaway—where at least it will be ten degrees cooler—I think about my last lunch with Dolores and how upset she was, falling apart even, about Janice’s impending death. I’d always thought Dolores was so strong, like an earth mother, and in that Soho restaurant I found myself comforting her. It was a reversal I didn’t like.

Dolores said that Janice’s sister and brother-in-law would take over everything. “They’re so Italian,” she said, although Dolores was Italian herself. “So truly Canarsie.”

Mostly she was worried about Ingrid, who was now fifteen. Janice wanted her to live with her cousin, another artist in the downtown Brooklyn cooperative, who wouldn’t fill Ingrid’s head with all that Catholic stuff and conservative ideas that Janice’s brother-in-law and sister would shove down the girl’s throat.

But Janice hadn’t made any provisions for guardianship, and Janice’s mother was too old to take Ingrid, so the girl will end up with the Di Falcos.

“She’ll be OK,” I told Dolores. “All Janice’s friends will look out for her.”

My grandfather’s all dressed and packed and looking like a hospital visitor, no longer a patient, in the chair beside the bed. “What’s been keeping you?” he asked. “I’ve been ready for quite a while.”

I pick up his valise, we say goodbye to the Sorels, and Ed wishes me good luck with my writing. In the elevator, Grandpa Herb asks, “How’s your friend?”

Nicht gut,” I say, wondering why I am speaking German.

Today's a good day. On the bus, we've also passed Avenue L, where the Canarsie Theater used to be, where we saw "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" when we were 15 (we had to be accompanied by our dad, because in thos pre-MPAA rating days, the film was still banned to kids under 18 coming in alone); and Canarsie Laundry, where we worked as a delivery boy in the summer of '75 until we got a call from Long Island University offering us a remedial writing course to teach; and Canarsie High School, where the beginning of the title story of And To Think That He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street, originally published at The Beat (UK) and JMWW, takes place:

In tenth grade at Canarsie High School, I was the founder and only member of SPONGE, the Society for the Prevention of Negroes Getting Everything. To avoid fights, I kept that pretty much to myself.

The first semester of eleventh grade English, I never bothered to read Huckleberry Finn because Miss Shapin introduced it by reverentially reading aloud from the book's opening and humming "NNnnn" when she came to the racial slur.

When she assigned us a book report on an autobiography, I wrote about My Shadow Ran Fast, by a white ex-convict I'd seen interviewed on the Mike Douglas show. She gave me an F and said, "You should have selected a more admirable person."

I found it interesting that Miss Shapin's name described her body. She should have failed me that term, but somehow I passed with a 65 after handing in an essay about my grandmother's manicotti.

As a writer, I have always lucked out.

Still true. We really enjoyed our morning on Canarsie Pier. As another neighborhood oldtimer told the New York Times last week, it's prettier today than it used to be.

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