It was a time before weathermen and weatherwomen would smile with their perfectly straight Chiclet teeth and mindlessly point to weather maps while talking about low pressure this and high pressure that.
It was a time when the weather report was a tiny one-inch-by-one-inch box on the top right front page of The New York Daily News. Sometimes just three or four words: “Heat Wave Continues, High 97.”
It was a time when no one slept. How could they? The heat was unbearable.
It was the 1940s in Brooklyn and everyone, on every street in the borough, spent July evenings sitting outside their homes for hours, searching for a tiny trace of a breeze. On my street, West Seventh Street, we believed our breeze was blowing in from Coney Island and the Atlantic Ocean, which were a few miles away.
The nights were soft and long and sometimes they would go on until 1 or 2 in the morning. There were five or six people sitting on chairs in front of every house. The older people, the grandmothers and grandfathers, spoke Italian. It was the sound of Naples and Palermo.
Our next-door neighbor was named Adeline. (Is there a single person named Adeline left on Earth?) Adeline would say to Charlie, her husband, “Go in and go to sleep—you have work tomorrow.” “It’s too hot,” he would answer. “If you just shut up, I could sleep here.” She would never shut up and he would never fall asleep. The next morning, without fail, he would go off to work at 7 a.m. and put in a 10-hour day lifting heavy objects.
Every night there was a quick trip to a pastry store on Avenue U for a lemon ice and a quick run to Barney’s Candy Store at 9:45 p.m. to get The Daily Mirror as it was thrown off the truck, so we could get the horse-racing results. Men would open the Mirror to the race-result page very, very slowly, as if to make the moment last—99 percent of the time they would get to the page, mutter, “Son of a bitch,” and without reading another word, throw the paper into a trashcan. Finally, they would go back to the evening’s entertainment: sitting and talking.
The conversation was about food: “Ya gotta slice the garlic paper-thin. And be careful it doesn’t burn, otherwise da sauce is gonna taste bitter.”
The conversation was about baseball: “Now ya got your Peewee Reese and ya gottcha Jackie Robinson.” The speaker, if he was a Dodgers fan, would always lovingly add the words, “A credit to his race,” after every time he said Robinson’s name.
The conversation was about boxing: “I’m telling you, pound for pound, there’s nobody better than Willie Pep. And I don’t care what you say about that Moolignon (Italian racial slur), Ray Robinson’s a great fighter, too.”
But the big conversation was about horse racing. It was always about a single big victory in a lifetime of a million tiny defeats.
“So we’re at Roosevelt Raceway and I have a tip on this trotter named Volo Yates and the driver was Cobb and you know what that means—the fix was in. So he’s stalled 10 lengths behind and there are two horses blocking his way and then they spread apart like the gates of heaven and Volo Yates comes down the middle and the other two drivers are breaking their arms pulling their horses back and Volo Yates wins by a nose. He paid 38 clams. Too bad I only had two dollars on him—it was my last two dollars.”
Sometimes one of my neighbors would be strumming a guitar, and another would be playing a mandolin. One could hear the song “Torna a Surriento” being played into the night. Our grandmothers and grandfathers wouldn’t sing, but if you watched closely they would be sadly mouthing the words of this song about the old country they missed so, so much.
No one talked politics. No one talked about their work. There was nothing to talk about. The work of the neighborhood was mainly lifting heavy cargo in and out of the holds of ships on the Brooklyn waterfront.
When did it change? How did it change? When did neighbors stop spending hours together on sticky, summer nights? When did the conversations and friendships end?
When, along came air-conditioning and television and all of a sudden, the sizzling summer streets in every neighborhood were empty. Then, as you passed each house, you heard the hum of an air-conditioner and saw that the only light in each home came from the eerie glow of a black-and-white DuMont television set.
Summer and my old Brooklyn neighborhood haven’t been the same since.
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