Jerry Della Femina
As I write this column the temperature outside is 98 degrees.
I’m not about to leave my air-conditioned room, where the temperature is a cool, comfortable 67.
I weigh my choices for the evening.
Should I go out to a restaurant in this hot weather? No way.
Should I call for a delivery of pizza? Chinese food?
I decide to make myself a couple of martinis and settle for eating Ice Pops out of the freezer.
It wasn’t always this way.
That’s when I thought about a time when I was 7 years old.
That’s when I thought about Brooklyn Nights:
It was a time before there were weathermen and weatherwomen who always smile, with their perfectly straight Chiclets 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 of the front page of the New York Daily News. Sometimes it was just three or four words: “Heat Wave Continues. High 97.”
It was a time when no one slept.
How could they?
There was no air conditioning, just a fan blowing hot air across your bedroom.
The heat was unbearable.
It was the 1940s in Brooklyn and everyone, on every street in the borough, spent July and August evenings sitting outside of their homes for hours, searching for a tiny trace of a breeze.
On my street, West 7th Street, we convinced ourselves that our breeze was blowing in from Coney Island, and the Atlantic Ocean, which was a few miles away. What did we know about breezes?
The nights were soft and long and sometimes they would go on until one or two in the morning. There were five ... 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 her husband Charlie, “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 AM 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 PM 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 results page very, very slowly as if to make the moment last – 99 percent of the time they would mutter “son of a bitch” and, without reading another word, throw the paper into a trash can. And 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 Pee Wee Reese and ya gotcha Jackie Robinson.” And the speaker, if he were a Dodgers fan, would always lovingly add the words, “A credit to his race,” every time he said Robinson’s name.
The conversation was about boxing: “I’m tellin’ you pound for pound there’s nobody better than Willie Pep. And I don’t care what you say about that moolignon [an Italian racial slur], Ray Robinson’s a credit to his race, is 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 Nicky’s Dream 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 Nicky’s Dream comes down the middle and the other two drivers are breaking their arms pulling their horses back and Nicky’s Dream 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?
It happened when air conditioning and television came along, and all of the sudden the sizzling summer streets in every neighborhood were empty.
Then, as you passed each house, you heard the hum of a new 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, hasn’t been the same since.
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