“Lady, do me a favor. Get out of this block, will ya?”
(Police Sergeant to Florence Campbell, one of the last holdouts in Bay Ridge)
83rd Street was where the action was: stickball, pitchin’ in, slap ball, triangle, running bases, mum-freeze, buck buck, three steps to Germany, box ball, hit the stick, ringaleevio, kick the can, whiffleball, touch tackle, and APBA, a baseball board game of an unusual type, in which we kid “managers” set line ups, made pitching changes, made trades with the cards of pro baseball players, each rated on the season he had before. It was played with dice. Paulie Sorensen had a set of lucky dice, so small they were hard to read. The Zooch had two big ones, the size of large bullion cubes. We threw the dice down steps, shook them up and blew on them like we were gamblers playing craps in a back alley.
83rd Street was part of Bay Ridge and a good part of Bay Ridge, that which held the childhoods of hundreds of kids like us. It was being demolished so they could build the Verrazano Bridge to connect Brooklyn to Staten Island, where none of us ever went. Most of us were clueless about what was going on. We only knew they were leaving: families with kids our age. Families with the big guys, who taught us our street games and showed us how to act and what was hot. Even families that weren’t, like Mr. Duffy on 82nd who used to whack off to “Bubbles in the Wine” while we watched him go at it, peeking through his living room window. He really was devoted to the Lawrence Welk Show. Most families lost their houses, but Moose Scotten only lost half of his because it was a semi-detached. So, he wound up living right next to the three-lane highway, the Gowanus Expressway, that connected to the bridge. That road also connected to the Belt Parkway, a pretty important highway along the Narrows and parts further. You never went in the water: it was full of Coney Island white fish, but when we came to a certain age, we knew how the schools of fish got to swimming. Plum Beach was a prime producer of the white fish, and it was on the Belt. But that was after the bridge anyway.
Before bridge time.
One day Tommy Sale and Brian Bendyk were sitting on Bryan’s stoop when Pete Windford came by. Pete was a strange looking kid, looked like an old man when he was fourteen. He was ghost white, thin like a rope, and had a pinhead. His folks weren’t the neatest of people, and his apartment had the smell of boiled vegetables and old socks. All the armchairs were shabby and the sofa sagged. But, he was one of us. That day Pete came by and saw Tommy and Bryan. Pete had a problem with Bryan because he knew Bryan called him Petie Pinhead behind his back. Just so happened, Pete had a metal dart in his hand that he’d found in the gutter. He asked Bryan, “What’s my name?”
“What? You stupid or what, Petie?”
“Am I stupid because I got a pinhead?”
“You said it, not me. Yeah, that prob’ly has something to do with it.”
“Well fuck face. Here’s a little prick from this pinhead.” And with that he flung the dart and hit Bryan square in the forehead. It stuck. Bryan went in his house without a word. We didn’t see him for a week, and we needed him to make a full team for softball against 85th Street. Five dollars a man, and winner took all.
Tommy was a handsome kid, and it worked out okay for the rest of us because he drew the girls to his stoop. We hung around and every once in a while somebody went off with a girl. Nothing much ever happened, maybe a kiss and a crotch rub on the hood of a Caddy.
So that’s what we missed when the damned bridge came. We missed the drama between Petie and Bryan. We missed Tommy and the girls. We missed ourselves; part of ourselves was cut off, like a parkee hacking off the limbs off a tree at Dyker Beach Golf Course.
Fuck the bridge and everything it brought. We lost Robbie Holland, whose family moved to Shore Road, where the wealthy lived. Robbie went to Poly Prep while the rest of us went to public schools. He was okay though. He hung out with us until the end of high school even though he was a Preppie. We didn’t know what happened after that until we heard from him up in Toronto. He got 58 for a draft number and went to Canada. He’s a Canuck now. Shitty number that 58. First year the Dodgers were in LA.
It’s one thing to walk to 5th Avenue and know who lived on every block, which were good blocks, and which were dead, nothing happening, and which were dangerous because they belonged to different kids. Then it’s another thing to walk across an expressway overpass with nothing to block the shiver cold winter winds and all that noise from the traffic below, and know that none of those kids were there anymore, not the ones who were part of us, not the ones who hated us. Just a shit pile of nothing. They took it away. Just like that. 7,000 people had little say in their own lives.
Before the bridge
Jackie Walker, Bobby Wenner, and Scottie were sittin’ outside the apartment on 83rd, and let us little guys sit at their feet. We learned to like Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Tear Drops,” what it was like to go the Apollo before all the white culture vultures got there, what was the best thing about Corvettes, who was the best centerfielder in NYC, and whether Sophia Loren had a bigger rack than Gina Lollabrigida, but how Jane Mansfield had the biggest rack of all, and did you see “The Girl Can’t Help It” when it was at the Dyker with Little Richard and Fats Domino. They also speculated about when the next set of APBA cards, the 57s, would come out. That was the knowledge. If they felt like it, they’d choose up sides with us little guys and we’d have one hell of a game of slap ball.
The bridge brings in millions of dollars. It has traffic from morning to night, seven days a week. It has made Staten Island easy to get to, but it’s not half as much fun as taking the ferry was. Now people live in Jersey and commute across the bridge to the City. But it stole from us the ones who lived in the houses that got demolished so the bridge could be built.
How much is a neighborhood worth? How much for a childhood? Then and now, the City has flushed out its own and repopulated itself with the young and ambitious from the U.S. heartland. When John Lennon came to live in New York, he was just one of a flood of new arrivals from all over the world, looking to make the City work for them. The City never believed in childhood unless you were Eloise at the Plaza Hotel. From Robert Moses to Donald Trump, there’s never been much difference among the City movers and shakers. Just a little more greed for power.
We were Brooklyn and the City did this to us, its own, but then, the City was Manhattan. That’s what we meant when we said the word, city. We never said Manhattan. We never went to Queens if we could help it, or the Bronx, unless we were among the few Yankee and Giant fans in our neighborhood. Staten Island was the ferry. We were the heart of NYC, the borough of churches, the hometown of Woody Allen, Red Auerbach, Isaac Asimov, Mel Brooks, Clara Bow, Steve Buscemi, Larry Brown, Barbara Boxer,
Henry Beecher, Gary Becker and Al Capone. And I could go on forever. So Florence Campbell, I salute your Brooklyn soul. You stayed until the bitter end, a true Brooklynite and daughter of Bay Ridge.