Last time I had visited my childhood neighborhood I was 19 years old. It was the mid ’70s. As soon as I got to Smith Street, I was happy to see a crowd.
“Great, there’s a parade,” I told Janet, my childhood friend.
“No, it’s not a parade!” she snapped back. “They are waiting for their drug dealers.”
In disbelieved my jaw dropped. I saw a crowd on one side of the street — mothers with babies in carriages, perhaps families. We were in the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, near Dean and Hoyt Streets, where my first elementary school, PS 261, still stands.
Why weren’t there any cops? Were neighbors afraid to call the police? We did not say much after witnessing this. Janet knew what to do — she still lived in the neighborhood. We turned back and headed elsewhere.
During that trip to Brooklyn, Janet taught me how to French braid, dance the hustle and about the latest New York City fashion. I purchased my first Danceskin leotard — orange — and a pair of beige high heel sandals. Janet, who was studying to be a hair stylist at Sarah J. Hale Vocational High School in Brooklyn, cut my hair and dye it a few shades darker in order to tone down my reddish dye hair.
One day, I drove a bunch of childhood friends to Coney Island on Janet’s old family car. Later that week, we took a bus to visit Mama Rosa at her Park Slope apartment on Sixth Street and Fifth Avenue. And I even attempted to drive my friends, from Dean Street, to Odyssey 2000, a popular disco from the movie Saturday Night Fever, but their car broke down and we never made it.
Eight years later, I married and went back home to New York City, but not to my old neighborhood. It was not until a few years ago that I dreamed of visiting my childhood home where I lived until I was seven. I had moved to Puerto Rico when I was 15, then after college to Rio de Janeiro, and then came back to the U.S. Several years later, we started moving again across the country but never went back to Bergen Street. Not sure why — perhaps disappointment, fear, indifference or just the fact that I had moved on. My life had changed so much since I left Brooklyn, and so did Brooklyn.
The brown stone apartment building of my childhood memories had been home ever since I can remember. Perhaps I was a year old when we moved there and about 8 when we moved out briefly to Puerto Rico and then to Park Slope. During the time I lived on Bergen Street, Fidel Castro campaigned and took control of Cuba, and President Kennedy died.
How vividly I remember the day Kennedy was murdered. But the street and sidewalks seemed bigger, and I don’t remember any trees. There weren’t many cars and no organic grocer either – only Fidel’s colmado, a Cuban grocery shop, beside my father’s electronic shop, which he ran part time.
Around the corner, stood a great pizza shop where I used to purchase pizza for under a quarter. I remember the fish market where my dad bought seafood to make the most delicious shrimp, octopus and escargot salads. Dad was famous for his seafood salads.
And how can I forget the numerous candy stores and my favorite place for dessert, Valencia Bakery on Smith Street. They made a to-die-for pineapple cake.
I also remember our kind neighbors in the apartments above and behind us. One of them was an Irish lady. She gave me my first and only pair of roller skates, and I loved her for that. Though our neighbors did not share our fondness of her. They called her “la bona,” Spanish for the bum because of her alcoholism. And then there was Juanita, a tall and beautiful lady, who lived on the same floor, and cared for my mother numerous times when she was ill with asthma. But there were also bars, gangs, drugs and even a little piece of the Bowery.
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