August 8, 2012

Growing up in Brooklyn

How well I remember that summer day in 1938 when the Wibecan family moved into our new home at 917 Lafayette Ave. in Brooklyn. It was a typical three-story, two windows-one-door-wide brick row house. To my younger brother, Jay, and me it was heaven — our own room to share, a back yard and twice as much space as the cramped apartment on Halsey Street that we had just left.

The extra-wide, two-way street sang with the music of children. Older boys played stickball in the middle of the street, girls jumped rope on the sidewalk and younger kids played marbles in the dirt.

We were in a wonderland of immigrants, full of new sounds and sights and populated by people of various colors and languages. The tempting aromas of new ethnic foods drifted out the windows and called to us as we passed by. It was a cultural experience for all. Diversity was not something we discussed across the dinner table, we lived it.

Jay and I quickly learned the lore of our new surroundings. Ronnie Levy’s mother kept a band of chickens in her backyard, led by a colorful rooster that regularly announced the rising of the sun. Mr. Phillips, a tall, gaunt, elderly man who lived alone and rarely ventured outside, was a vampire, we were told — and we didn’t doubt it for a minute.

Larry Weinstein became my academic competition. By decree of my father, my report card had to look at least as good as his or I was in trouble. Burton Tunkel and I would sit on his front steps at night to identify the constellations and solve the mysteries of the universe.

Most of our fathers smoked cigarettes, and smoking became a rite of passage. We boys looked forward to the time when we would become men, cigarette in hand, smoke curling from our nostrils. Every once in a while one of us pilfered a cigarette, which we shared in the playground, trying our best to look grown up.

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