When I tell people that I grew up in New York City, they immediately think of skyscrapers and an isolated life. But my home, the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, was a small town in the middle of the big city.
Our home was a bungalow with a small front garden my father lovingly attended. We had a sliver of grass and several beautiful rose bushes. Dad spent almost every weekend on a ladder repairing the crumbling stucco on the house while smoking a stinky cigar. For my dad, who was born into poverty, that house was his American dream come true. There was one bathroom for five people and the occasional summer tenant. We had no family room, and all of the bedrooms were off the living room. If someone was watching television, no one could fall asleep.
From birth, I was deposited in the front yard in my carriage, and eventually in my playpen, to greet everyone as they made their way to the train in the morning on their way to work. Our small bungalow was across the street from the overhead subway tracks, and my family missed the most important dialogue in every television program we ever watched. Cousins who visited complained about the train noise, but we did not even notice it.
The neighborhood had natural geographical boundaries: the beach, the highway, and an overpass. Everything we could ever want was in this small area of 10 blocks by 10 blocks. All of the children attended the same schools. All of the parents shopped on the same long avenue. Brighton Beach consisted of open-air food stalls, a movie theater, noise from the el train, endless strange smells, and crowded streets. You could close your eyes and make believe you were in an exotic foreign country.
In our little hamlet, everyone knew everyone, and if you misbehaved, either the neighbor would reprimand you or tell your parents about it. There were eyes everywhere, but we always felt safe in the neighborhood with everyone watching out for me and my friends as well.
As children, we had lots of freedom in our community by the beach. We walked to school or to buy an ice cream cone at the drug or grocery store. We could walk to doctor and dentist appointments. We played hopscotch and kickball in the street, rode our bikes everywhere, and walked and played on the beach, where we got miserably sunburned. Every Tuesday night, there were free fireworks on the boardwalk. It was a youngster’s wonderland.
Of course, we could also take the train into Manhattan, where people lived in those tall skyscrapers on crowded streets. The ride took 1½ hours and cost me a 15-cent token. After seeing a Broadway show in the second balcony ($2), my friends and I would return to Brighton Beach. When the train doors opened, we would be greeted by a fresh, clean ocean breeze and the belief that we truly had paradise in the midst of this enormous city.