I just recently saw a group of old photos of the Sunset Park pool sent to me by nephew Wayne Lydon and it got me to thinking about how weird it was growing up in Brooklyn in the 50s and 60s.
I lived for most of those growing-up-years at 441 43rd Street just below (that is, northwest of) the main staircase of Sunset Park. Surprisingly, that staircase still looks the way I remember it with huge concrete finials atop the walls, although there is a curved path above that I don't recall. Wayne says it's newer than his childhood.
I attended St Michael's School just down the street at 43rd and 4th Avenue from age 6-or-so until high school and for most of that time I led what must have been an extremely sheltered life. All that changed about the 5th or 6th grade.
There were always new students moving in from elsewhere, and students who would disappear at the end of term because their family moved away, a slow but constant churn in the population. One term, a boy named John McLean Simpson joined the class and I have to admit he turned my sheltered existence inside out. John grew up on Manhattan's East side, barely more civilised than it was 100 years prior, but it was Manhattan, a world away.
One day John asked if I had ever been to The American Museum of Natural History (Central Park West at 81st Street) and I admitted I had not. He talked me into going with him on Saturday, and here begins the weird part:
On Saturday morning, I informed my mother that I was going to the museum with a classmate and that I needed some money. Understand, I was 12, possibly 13, and I had just asked my Mom to fund an all-day, essentially unsupervised excursion to Manhattan from Brooklyn. A parent who did that today would lose their children to state supervision and never see them again.
She handed over two, maybe three dollars. This would be enough for two 15-cent subway tokens and lunch. Admission to the museum was then free.
John made a small navigation error and we got off the train on the east side of Central Park rather than the west side. John assured me this was not a problem and we proceeded to hike across Central Park to the other side, and then to 81st Street. Now, Central Park is only 2,000ft wide, less than half a mile, measured from east-side to west-side, so it's not so big that it can't be walked, except that I had never been to Central Park so it seemed pretty damned big to me. It gobbled an hour or more of our day, but I always considered it 'worth it'.
We wandered through the museum as John pointed out absolutely awesome exhibit after absolutely awesome exhibit. I was thunderstruck. I had never imagined such stuff even existed, much less existed a simple train ride away. It was the first museum (of many) that have thrown me out at closing time. John and I used our remaining tokens to bring us home to the 45th Street station of the 4th Avenue Local, now called the RR line. When I got back to my home around six-ish, my mother asked how my day had been and I may have bent her ear for the next hour. It was apparently not a surprise to her that I had spent all day in another county, managing to deal with the New York City subway system both ways, and that I was still alive. To this day I wonder what the hell she was thinking.
Until I married and moved away, it remained one of my favorite attractions in New York City. I even took my kids on a field trip there when we lived in Westchester County.
From the time I entered first grade I have worn glasses. I probably needed them before that but no one noticed until a teacher discovered I had problems with small print. My Mom took me to her optometrist (?), Samuel Laub, 400 Van Brunt St. in Red Hook. Fifth Avenue bus to 9th Street, transfer to the 9th Street line, and it's all a fog after that, but I wound up with my first pair of glasses. I was now, more or less officially, "four eyes".
During my tweens and teens, Red Hook had a reputation as a place run by street gangs of the most violent sort. To the best of my knowledge I never went there again. Today, Red Hook has an entirely different reputation as it houses NYC's cruise port.
I've now worn glasses for so long that it has become an almost Pavlovian reaction that if I take my glasses off I go to sleep.
At the foot of 43rd Street (at 4th Avenue, downslope toward the Upper Bay) was, at one time, a courthouse (I don't know what sort) that occupied the entire strip from 42nd to 43rd. On the 43rd Street side were two stone platforms that always seemed to me to be speakers' platforms. They were excellent sites for play-acting of various sorts. On the 42nd Street side the land was slightly lower (or the building was higher) and the 'platforms' were ramps that were perfect for sliding, and many were the jeans whose seat was worn thin from them.
On the 4th Avenue side, a pit allowed light to flow into some of the basement offices. It was possible (but quite dangerous) to scale the four-foot fence guarding the pit and, if one had good sneakers and strong fingers, climb down into the pit and then climb back out. Although I, personally, never did, I did cheer on a few of my more daring neighbors and was eyewitness to it being done.
These days the court house is no longer a court house but has been repurposed for local community use and is surrounded by a seven-foot picket fence. No more playing on those dangerous structures.
When I was very young, it was a tradition for my father to take me for a walk on Thanksgiving morning. 'The Walk' had several good effects. It got me out of the house and out of the hair of those who were doing the cooking. It gave me an appetite so that I would be able to do justice to the meal. It gave us a little father-son bonding experience. My Dad used it to get the pies we would eat for dessert. We got our pies from (Wayne suggests) a Mrs Wagner's bakery outlet at 283 4th Avenue, so we're talking quite a walk, easily two miles each way and with my short legs, it certainly took the better part of two hours. My brother Jerry and his family continue that tradition to this very day minus the pie pick up, and it's not unusual for three dozen people to go out walking.
My father was a walker and a talker. One of his favorite walks was up 36th Street past the bus garage (now renamed after Jackie Gleason whose character on 'The Honeymooners' was Ralph Kramden, a NYC bus driver) alongside the southern border of Greenwood Cemetery up to 9th Avenue past the tracks where the Culver Line used to run. Along the way at about 7th Avenue, 36th Street turns to become 37th Street. There was a concrete wall there and it was split vertically. On one cold-weather walk my father told me to slip my hand into the split and, after some initial hesitation, I did. "Remember that," he instructed. Later in the season in warmer weather we repeated the walk and at the same point he told me to slip my hand into the split. I couldn't because the split was much narrower than it had been. In this way I learned what an expansion joint was and why they existed. A one-piece wall would have fractured from compression as the weather warmed or pulled itself apart as it cooled.
At the foot of 69th Street was the 69th Street ferry terminal. For five cents you could get passage to the St. George (Staten Island) terminal which connected also by ferry to the ferry terminal at The Battery. For those driving cars and wanting to cross the Narrows on their way to the Goethals Bridge or the Outerbridge Crossing, using the ferry meant a long wait. The boats could only carry 50 cars at a time and took nearly an hour for a round trip, so the three ferries that served 69th Street could only move 150-200 cars per hour across the water. When the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was completed in 1964 the ferry route between Brooklyn and Staten Island shut down.
During its years of operation, we kids used the ferry to get to the relatively-rural Richmond. The attractions over there were not substantially different than what was available on the Brooklyn side, but it was more adventurous to 'go by sea'.
It was possible to take your bike on the ferry to have transportation on the other side, but the bridge had no pedestrian or bike lanes, so the only way for a Brooklynite to go for a bike ride to Staten Island after the ferry shutdown was to cross the Brooklyn Bridge, pedal down to The Battery, and ferry across, doing that trip in reverse to get home.
Speaking of bike riding, a favorite route for everyone I knew was the bike path alongside the Belt Parkway. The Belt Parkway in those days did not yet connect with the Gowanus Expressway, the original name of that elevated roadway over 3rd Avenue. The Belt actually started in Leif Ericson Park at 4th Avenue and 66th Street. Turn west from 4th Avenue onto a shady landscaped roadway reminiscent of the Southern State Parkway and you're on the Belt which crossed above 69th Street, passing over the line of cars waiting their turn to get passage across the bay.
The Belt Parkway bike path ended at Bay Parkway where we had to exit to take Cropsey Avenue the rest of the way. That part is a blur for me, but Wayne assures me it's so. Coney Island was foreign territory for us kids from Sunset Park and it had all the attraction of the strange. For one, there was Nathan's, the home of the best hot dogs in the visible universe. Their Surf Avenue open-front walk-up service dished out hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries, fried clams, chicken, and all sorts of other goodies. Nathan's is famous for its hot dogs and for most of my life that was what I went there for. Later I learned to love their hamburgers smothered in sautéed onions. Their french fries, served in a paper cone, were indescribable. The Nathan's sites you might find at the airport or the mall are a poor imitation of what was available there on Surf Avenue.
We were always careful not to get too full because just a half block away was Shatzkin's Knishes, real potatoes with real flavor wrapped in a thin crispy crust. 'Potatoes for dessert?' you ask. Not just potatoes; Shatzkin's knishes. Yes, for dessert. Enough salt and cholesterol to kill a regiment but we didn't care. It was an eight-mile ride home, and we'd be hungry again when we got there.
By my late teens all of us were starting to sort ourselves out politically. I leaned Republican like my family and the Murphys leaned left. One of the Kennedy's had just done a long hike with the Marines (or something) and the chatter at the local pub (yes, you could drink at 18 in those days) was about how macho etc. There followed a wager, and three of us, myself, John Gunn, and Artie Bergen accepted the challenge to hike from the Manhattan side of the George Washington Bridge to the Bear Mountain Inn, a trip we all agreed was close enough to 50 miles that we wouldn't quibble over the difference, the trip to be completed in no more than 17 hours.
Dark and early the next Saturday morning (3am or so if I recall correctly) we three set out on our quest, first taking the train to the GWB, backpacks loaded with water, snacks and what-not, and walking across the bridge and north on Route 9W. (We had originally planned to use the Palisades Parkway until a trooper ordered us off — no pedestrians allowed.) We actually made the trip in 14h20, thanks to Artie and John helping me limp the last few miles after I was unable to walk unaided. They plopped me in an easy chair at the Bear Mountain Inn and went to buy tickets for the bus ride back. I was asleep before my butt hit the cushions. They woke me ten minutes later and helped me onto the bus, plopping me on the wide back seat. I immediately went back to sleep. An hour-or-so later, the bus arrived at the Port Authority bus terminal and I was dragged off the bus and onto a subway car where I fell back asleep. (Repeat for each change-of-trains.) Arriving at the 45th Street station, we checked in to the local watering hole, reported our victorious mission, had a congratulatory beer, and went home to soak our aching feet or, in my case, to go directly to bed. I was wrecked. The next day was not better, but I still recall it fondly.
A year-or-so later I bought a glitzy new 10-speed racing bike and decided to repeat the trip. I used a lower Manhattan ferry to get across the Hudson and took city streets north from there. The rough cobblestone streets and road debris put the bike out of action before I got as far as the GWB and I wound up scrubbing the trip. A few months later I tried again, this time using the GWB as a starting point (you could take a bike on the trains if you could lift it, and this bike weighed less than 18 pounds) and made it as far as Hastings-on-Hudson before it threw a pedal and discretion made me turn for home after a not-quite-adequate repair.
The third try got me all the way to Bear Mountain — and back, completing the 100-mile round-trip in just under 12 hours road time after subtracting time for having something to eat at the Bear Mountain Inn, refilling the water bottle and taking a short breather. The 8mph pace wasn't competition-worthy, but I was pleased.
I'm not sure anyone still in Brooklyn does such things anymore. It's a different world. I miss it, but I've moved on.