Fiction

Story: The Last Great Family of Brooklyn

By: Steve Slavin

family-silhouettes

1
Albemarle Road is not just the most beautiful thoroughfare in the group of seven neighborhoods known as Victorian Flatbush, but perhaps in all of Brooklyn. Most of the homes were built around the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, and were owned by very prosperous merchants who had businesses in Downtown Brooklyn, or in Manhattan. The entire length of Albemarle from the subway all the way to Coney Island Avenue is divided by a well-tended grass mall. And perhaps best of all, no parking or standing is permitted at any time.
Nearly all of the original mansions are still well maintained. But the merchants and their descendants are long gone. This is the story of the last of these families.
The Goodmans were an anomaly from the day they moved in. Some old-timers can recall that the neighborhood, formally known as Prospect Park South, had once been “restricted.” That was a more polite way of warning off “undesirables” than the signs posted elsewhere, such as “No Jews or dogs allowed,” or the more discreet, “Church nearby.” Indeed, back in the day, Brooklyn was called “the city of churches”; and Church Avenue remains just one block from Albemarle.
Whether Morris Goodman bribed his way in or employed other means, for many years his family was the exception that proved the rule. During the Great Depression, a few more Jewish families were “permitted” to buy homes in Prospect Park South, but only because some homeowners were desperate to sell. That worked out very nicely for the brood of Goodman children, who finally had other children to hang out with.
Morris Goodman was as smart as he was rich. An extremely successful furrier, he had a knack for not only foreseeing the future, but putting that knowledge to great advantage. At the close of World War I — then known as “the Great War” — Prohibition (which would make it illegal to purchase alcoholic beverages), became increasingly inevitable. Mr. Goodman began stocking up on liquor. In fact, he bought so much, that well into the 1960s the hard-drinking Goodman clan was still very well supplied.
A year before the stock market crash, Mr. Goodman had sold his entire portfolio of stocks, liquidated his businesses, and invested most of his fortune in U.S. Treasury bonds. Lying on his death bed a few months later, with his family gathered around him, he uttered his last words: “Stay out of the stock market.”

2
Like most other Brooklynites, I came from a much more modest background. My family lived in a four-room apartment, where I shared a bedroom with my older sister until I was twelve, when she ran off and got married. A few of my friends lived in private houses, but even they usually shared the house with another family.
My first impression of the Goodman home could be summed up in just three words: very, very big. Years later, I would come to appreciate such details as the ballroom-sized living room, with its huge fireplace, the high ceilings, the wood paneling, the stained glass windows, the beautiful chandeliers, and the grand staircase.
A friend invited me to a party, which was given by a granddaughter of Morris Goodman. Marcy lived in the house with her parents and a few other relatives. For some reason, the two of us hit it off immediately. We were both sixteen years old, and had been born just three days apart.
But I don’t want you to get any ideas. Marcy and I were just friends – and that was it. OK, OK, once I did try to kiss her, but she immediately set me straight that such behavior was much too “fast.” What can I tell you: Marcy was a true child of the 1950s.
Once, when we were sitting around in the living room with her parents and a bunch of uncles and aunts, Marcy had a question for all of us. She had gone to a party that some college boys had given in their clubhouse. The lights were turned down very low, and several couples were “slow dancing.” She was sitting next to a boy she had been talking to for hours. He reached over and held her hand. They sat like that for half an hour, still talking. Marcy’s question was: “Do you think that I was leading him on?”
Gee, none of us knew if she was or she wasn’t. What do you think?

3
Marcy’s dad, Jack (aka Jackson), had grown into the role of family patriarch. But in truth, he was really a first among equals. The seven siblings owned the mansion, but just Jackson and two others, Uncle Rube and Aunt Hattie (aka Fat Hat) still lived there. Jackson was married to Tsippi (Her formal Yiddish name was Tsipporah), who was a born hostess. Every visitor was made to feel welcome, and I came to be considered almost part of the family.
I was amazed to learn that not one of the seven brothers and sisters had ever held a real job. Was it because they didn’t have to work, or maybe because they were just lazy? Or perhaps they were all simply incompetent.
Uncle Rube seemed quite satisfied selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. But most of the times that I visited, he was snoozing on a couch in the living room. Even when a few of us were sitting there talking, Rube would continue sleeping peacefully.
Jackson had once traveled around the neighborhood with a pony and a camera. He took photographs of children sitting on the pony.
“You made a living doing this?” I blurted out.
Jackson just smiled, while Tsippi rolled her eyes.
Fat Hat was married to Uncle Acee, who was arguably the world’s greatest Brooklyn Dodger fan. He would draw up a chair a few feet from the TV and watch every minute from Happy Felton’s pre-game “Knothole Gang” to the ballgame’s final recap. If you were to ask him anything about the Dodgers – anything at all – Acee would know the answer. But if you asked a question while he was watching a game, such were his powers of concentration, that he would simply be unable to hear you.
When I was looking for a summer job, Jackson sat me down and gave me some sage advice. “During the interview, when they ask you where you see yourself a few years from now, tell them that you expect to have their job. Or better yet, you want to be the president of the company.”
“Did that ever work for you?”
“Actually, it never came up. I’ve always worked for myself.”

4
Marcy had two main interests – sketching portraits of the people she knew, and watching soap operas every weekday afternoon. As a junior and later a senior at Erasmus Hall High School, she had most of her classes in the morning. She boasted that she had never missed even one of her programs during those two years.
I loved the first picture she drew of me, and it still hangs in my living room. But what I found even more impressive were the portraits she drew of her uncles and aunts. I saw some of those sketches before I met these people, and was amazed at how well she had captured not just their likenesses, but amazingly, even their personalities. There was Uncle Acee intently looking straight ahead, and a dozing Uncle Rube, evidently enjoying his dream. Most touching was the look of concern on her mother’s face – a look that seemed to grow more worried over the years.
Marcy could have gone to the Greenwich Village Art Show, which was held every spring, and made hundreds – or even thousands — of dollars doing quick sketches. But, unlike her grandfather, she was not at all entrepreneurial. She confided that if she had done that, she would have felt as though she were prostituting herself. I didn’t initially see it that way, but eventually, I began to agree with her.

5
When I went into the army, I was stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey, just a two-hour bus ride from Manhattan. Jackson asked for a big favor: Could I buy him some cigarettes at the PX, where they were not taxed? Would you believe that back in the early 1960s, I paid less than two dollars a carton? When I came home on a weekend pass, Jackson treated me like a conquering hero.
Perhaps the family member most impressed by my bargain-priced cigarettes was Uncle PP. After all, the man was a notorious penny pincher. The family’s favorite PP story involved a one-hour round-trip ride on the Staten Island Ferry. The family boarded the ferry at the Southern tip of Manhattan and sailed across the harbor to Staten Island, and then back again to Manhattan.
This ride was widely considered to be the city’s greatest bargain. You got to see the Statue of Liberty close up, as well as great views of the bridges and the skyline. The fare was a nickel for a one-way trip. If you wanted to return on the same ferry, you needed to get off, pay another nickel, and then get back on.
As the ferry docked in Staten Island, a crowd of passengers gathered at the gangplank, anxious to be the first ones ashore. Soon virtually everyone had gotten off, and minutes later the Goodmans were lining up to get back aboard for the return trip. But where was PP?
“Shit!” exclaimed Rube. “I’ll bet he’s still on the ferry!”
All the other Goodmans began laughing. “Of course he is!” declared Aunt Hattie. “I mean, where else could he be?”
As a ferry employee approached to chase him off the boat, PP began frantically waving to the passengers who were now boarding. Then, just as the ferryman began shooing him off the boat, PP spotted his brothers and sisters, “Hey gang! What took you so long?”
But the ferryman wasn’t buying it. He made Uncle PP get off the boat and pay another nickel to get back on again.
Decades later, PP and his son Michael had a late afternoon ritual. They would go out for a walk, and always seem to end up on Albemarle Road just when the family was sitting down to have dinner.
“Oh look, Michael. Here’s the house where I grew up.”
When his sisters and brothers saw PP entering the dining room, they called out in unison, “Hey gang!”

6
Another important member of the Goodman household was Bow Wow, a large mixed breed dog of indeterminate age and lineage. Most of the time, he slept at the feet of whoever had petted him last. I noticed that Bow Wow loved being around people, and that he faithfully followed the crowd.
Late one afternoon, as a bunch of us sat around the living room, Bow Wow was fast asleep next to Uncle Acee. I boasted to everyone that I could control Bow Wow’s mind. Just then, Tsippi announced that dinner was ready and we all moved into the dining room. Bow Wow, still fast asleep, remained where he was.
When we were seated, Jackson asked me how I could control Bow Wow’s mind. Still in the army, I replied that it was a military secret. But I asked everyone to watch the doorway to the living room.
I happened to have the best view, and had just seen Bow Wow beginning to wake up. I saw him stretching, getting up from the floor, and then very slowly making his way into the dining room.
Everyone began to applaud. No one but Bow Wow heard me snap my fingers. He came over to me. I petted his head and he plopped down at my feet. A minute later, he was fast asleep.
Tsippi was amazed. “How did you do that?”
“Military secret.”
“They taught you such an important secret in basic training?”

7
I was not the only person aware of Bow Wow’s psychic powers. Marcy claimed that Bow Wow approved or disapproved of all her gentlemen callers. And when it came time for her to apply to colleges, his counsel was invaluable. Marcy was overjoyed when she was accepted by Pratt, which was renowned for its art department faculty. Located in the Clinton-Hill neighborhood near Downtown Brooklyn, the school was within easy commuting distance, so she could continue living at home.
Perhaps Bow Wow’s powers did not extend to academic counselling, because Marcy dropped out in the middle of her first semester. Apparently, her afternoon studio sessions conflicted with the soap operas she had been following for years.
Marcy was the focal point of the household, perhaps because she was the only member of her generation living there. Uncle Rube was a lifelong bachelor, and Aunt Hattie and Uncle Acee were childless. Marcy did have five or six cousins who often came to visit, but she was, like Bow Wow, a constant presence.
After meeting a long line of suitors, Bow Wow evidently found one who met his high standards. The fact that Howie was unemployed would not be a problem. After all, who in the family could cast the first stone?
Howie was an extremely nice guy, and he obviously loved Marcy very much. He was completely devoted to her, and by extension, to her entire family. Better yet, he had a car, while none of the seven siblings or their spouses even knew how to drive.

8
Marcy and Howie’s wedding would be the Goodman family’s last joyous occasion. Completely out of character, Uncle PP insisted upon paying for the wedding. Even more surprising, he spared no expense.
It was held at Club Elegante on Ocean Parkway, where I had once attended a sweet sixteen party. Johnny Mathis, who was just becoming popular, was performing that evening. The party was for Karen, whose parents had reserved two long tables. I had a crush on her, and when she asked me to dance, that made my evening. And then, as we stepped out on the dance floor, Johnny told everyone that Karen was sweet sixteen tonight, and he sang “Twelfth of Never” just for her.
Club Elegante was the perfect setting for the wedding. Unlike certain in-your-face well-known Manhattan locales, it was indeed elegant, and yet still understated. And it seemed fitting that the wedding was celebrated in Brooklyn.
The liquor was flowing freely, and Marcy’s Uncle Snag got so drunk, he fell down on the dance floor… nine times. Uncle Acee, whose beloved Brooklyn Dodgers had moved to Los Angeles, was smiling for the first time in years. He even got up to dance with Aunt Hattie. Their arms around each other, they looked like moonstruck teenagers.
I was looking forward to my discharge from the army, which I suspected, would be a blow to Jackson. Still, this was perhaps the happiest event of his life. He and Tsippi had both confided to me that they had long been concerned about Marcy’s marriage prospects. As Tsippi put it, “I’m afraid all the good ones may already be taken.”
But I knew that, like the motto Allstate Insurance would come up with decades later, Marcy was “in good hands” with Howie. And if he ever found a job, the man would be perfect.

9
A week before my army discharge, Aunt Hattie was rushed to Caledonian Hospital. She’d had an extremely serious heart attack. Howie and his car were pressed into service, ferrying family members to and from the hospital. But a few days later, Aunt Hattie passed away
The family sat shiva (a Jewish seven-day period of mourning) at the Goodman home. As soon as I got there, I almost burst into tears – not so much for Aunt Hattie, or even for Uncle Acee – but because they looked so old and frail.
Tsippi was managing to hold everything together, and I realized then that she had always played that role. Now she made sure that everyone was not only fed, but consoled. Hattie had never been much help around the house, but Tsippi knew how much she would miss her. And she worried about who would be next.
It finally dawned on me, that Tsippi really was the one who had been running the family. Marrying her had been Jackson’s smartest move.

10
On New Year’s Day of 1966, the New York City Transit Workers Union went out on strike. I was able to walk to work in about forty-five minutes from my apartment on the Lower Eastside. I had a job with an accounting firm near Wall Street, not far from the Staten Island Ferry terminal. In fact, only the ferries were still running. There were no buses – except for a few private bus lines – and no subway trains.
When I got the news that Jackson was in the hospital, my friend Monte was visiting. Jackson was at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn, and an urgent call had gone out to his friends and family for blood donations. Monte drove me to the hospital that evening, and I tried unsuccessfully to nap in the lobby.
Around six a.m. I heard a familiar voice. The mother of my college girlfriend was standing over me. “Are you alright?”
I told her why I was there. She was a technician, and I remembered that she had always worked the early morning shift. She even remembered Marcy and her family.
The department which received blood donations wouldn’t open for another two hours, so she took me to her office, where I finally I managed to catch a little sleep. That morning I gave blood, along with a few of Marcy’s cousins and some other friends of the family.
While we were waiting to give blood, we shared what little tidbits of information we had about Jackson’s condition. There he was, perhaps on a different floor in the building, and how, just maybe, we could help him pull through. Or not.
Later, a few of us needed to get to Manhattan. We took a cab over the Verrazano Bridge to Staten Island, and drove a few more miles to the ferry. While on the bridge, we saw that the harbor was completely fogged over. I wondered if the ferries would be running.
“Yeah,” answered the driver. “They got radar. They can cross the harbor blindfold in a blizzard. This fog ain’t nothin’ major.”
The man turned out to be right. I stood out on deck at the front of the ferry. After two blasts of the horn, we pulled away from the dock. I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me.
The pilot regularly sounded his horn, and I heard other horns responding. I soon realized that there was nothing to worry about. We would make it safely across the harbor.
I thought about poor Jackson. As one of his cigarette suppliers, I bore some measure of blame. But on that winter afternoon as I peered into the fog, I knew that for Jackson, for his family, and for all their friends, life as we knew it would never be the same.

Advertisements

Categories: Fiction

Tagged as: , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.