The enthusiastic response to our immediately previous post, “Some More Ancient History,” and the two earlier writings, on the subject of immigrant life, in Brooklyn, during the 40’s and 50’s, has encouraged us to publish this one more, in that genre. In the present writing we attempt to understand and recognize the disappearance, or, put in evolutionary terms, the “extinction,” of certain popular phenomena, that flourished, during that period. Modern empirical research advises that, many mass extinctions have, at times, accelerated the evolution of life on earth; but it is rarely because the new is superior to the old life, as previously thought, but because “extinction events” eliminate the old, and make way for the new.
It appears to us that the United States of America, which had been on a steady, predictable, route to become a great world power, ascended more rapidly to that august description, following the two great wars. Our reading of history reveals to us, that the outcome of the Second World War, proved to be an effective catalyst to the speed of change. The U.S. evolved to the status of a leviathan, industrially and militarily, and the country became aware, of the relevance of international affairs. We would designate the post-war period, an “extinction event,” morphing the Nation, from a previous, local, domestic and national mind-set, to a more sophisticated and worldly awareness, with broad ramifications; inclusive of those affecting the Eastern European, immigrant society, in Brooklyn, in the 1940’s and 50’s (the subject of our previous writings).
We have selected three illustrative events, as recalled, in ascending order of consequence, felt representative of the ubiquitous impact of “societal” extinction, taking place in the chosen years. Please note that we have chosen such events, in the ascending order of their respective historical and societal impact. The extinct phenomena, in order of significance, and impact on society, are “egg creams,” trolley cars and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Following those illustrations, we will offer our observation, concerning the status of the referenced, Eastern European Ashkenazi immigrants, in this newly changed milieu.
We are unaware of the possible existence and prominence, of “egg creams” elsewhere, but they were at the very zenith of fountain soda, in the forties and fifties, for younger residents of Brooklyn. For those who may have forgotten, the period featured separate soda counters, in most candy, drug and ice cream stores. The “soda jerk” (not then used an expletive reference) wearing an immaculate white apron and white, slanted cap, would wipe the stone counter with his cloth and say: “What’s yours?” The young customer would, joyfully, exclaim, “an egg cream please.”
For the benefit of the unsophisticated reader (if any such exists), we would explain that an “egg cream” was not simply a fountain soda, made with chocolate syrup, milk and fountain seltzer. When made properly, it was a masterpiece of the cognoscenti. The artistic soda jerk would first, pump the proper amount of chocolate syrup (most often “Fox’s Ubet,” or occasionally, “Hershey’s,”) in the glass, then add to the syrup, a few ounces of milk. It was, at this point, the singular moment, for the maker of the drink, to prove himself; by slowly adding carbonated water from his fountain spigot, but, ESSENTIALLY, to do so by deflecting the carbonated water off a long spoon, into the milk and chocolate syrup. If done properly, the drink would be appropriately creamy, and qualify as an “egg cream.” Failure could mean a serious decline in of business at the soda counter.
For the young Brooklyn resident, a proper egg cream and two large, salty, pretzel sticks, were, easily, the equivalent of a well shaken, dry martini and Russian caviar. Societal advance, including, the extinction event of the appearance of pizza, on the young stage, cast the egg cream, into the dust bin of archeological inquiry.
Some of our readers may remember the venerable, and truly romantic era, of the clickedy-clanky Brooklyn Trolley System. The trolleys were a large, railroad car, or bus size, electrically run, surface transit, which rode on railway-type tracks, on designated streets or avenues. The Brooklyn trolley was an classic, deriving its source of electricity, by way of metal connections, attached to its roof, which, through a small, wheel-like device, maintained permanent attachment, affording a reliable, constant, electrical current. Sometimes, blue sparks flew from this connecting link, but the especially noticeable feature of the trolley car, was the sound produced by its wheels running along the steel tracks, which varied at times, between a rolling sound and a squeal; all turns predictably produced squealing, and the auditory discomfort of screeching. The trolley had two entrances for riders, and, like the busses of today, made stops at regular places, to pick up and discharge passengers. It was not uncommon to see young boys with roller skates foolishly holding on to a trolley for a thrilling ride, which too often, resulted in injury.
The ringing of bells, the clanking of the trolley and occasionally, the buzzing of its connection with the overhead electrical cables, were common sounds to the Brooklyn resident. There was a trolley depot, of sorts, at Church Avenue, in Flatbush, but, we understand, that there also were official depots. A unique feature of the trolley car, was an identical engine at front and back, so the operator had only to slip his hand held, hooked handle (there were no steering wheels on trolleys), out of the one side, and shift to the other side to reverse direction. There was no necessity for a railroad “roundhouse,” to move a train engine to a new track. The trolley disappeared due to the extinction event of the development of other methods of commutation. There are visible “fossils” of old trolley tracks, for elective study, on some Brooklyn avenues.
Inarguably, the most profound and memorable extinction, was the removal of the Brooklyn Dodgers to the West Coast, in 1957. For those who are too young to remember, the home of that National League, professional baseball team at Ebbets Field, was, to residents of New York, particularly, Brooklyn, a National Shrine, which was not only a source of pride and tradition, but a vital appendage to their personal identity. The Dodgers had, for generations, existed as an ostensible source of pride, comparable, in its passionate intensity, to ardent patriotism; Ebbets field was the Holy Cathedral, and the Brooklyn Dodgers, the clergy.
Not only schoolboys, but every resident of Brooklyn knew the names of all the players, the manager and the name of the selected starting pitcher, for the day’s game. The standing of the team and its potential to win enough games to play in the World Series, was the topic of conversation for practically everyone, from the recently arrived immigrant, to the stereotypical New Yorker. In Brooklyn, on any day the team was playing, one could hear the sound of numerous radios, including, loud car radios, tuned in to the familiar voices of the celebrated sportscasters, for the Brooklyn Dodgers, in excitedly, announcing the day’s game.
It was the Brooklyn Dodgers who were the first team, to their credit, to admit a black baseball player, named Jackie Robinson. Robinson, as a black baseball player, was booed, by bigoted members of the spectators, at an away game; all tuned in, responsible Americans, applauded, the laudable action of the Dodger shortstop, “Pee Wee” Reese, who, responsive to the boo’s, affectionately, hugged Robinson. There exists a great deal of traditional Dodger lore, often factual, like the latter episode, and the team truly approached legendary status. We, and the other youngsters, of the modest Brooklyn neighborhood, would, generously, be given free stadium tickets, to Ebbets Field and Yankee Stadium, through a program, ”The Happy Felton Knot- Hole Gang,” to attend and observe (from the furthest bleachers) Dodger and Yankee Games.
In many ways, the Brooklyn Dodgers, became all America’s team. We can still recall a movie, which, took place in the theater of war, in Japan. The pass- word permitting a soldier to cross into America’s line, was the correct response to a question concerning the Brooklyn Dodgers, (like the Biblical pronunciation of “shibboleth”) as the determinant of friend or foe. In the remembered film, the party seeking entry into the allied lines was asked, by a sergeant with a southern accent, “Who plays center field for the Brooklyn Dodgers?” In the movie, the soldier was confidently given permission to cross the line, (and not, alternatively, shot) due to his correct response, “Duke Snider.”
The unhappy, extinction event, occurred in the year, 1957, when the owners of the Dodgers were offered sufficient financial inducement, to cause them to move the Dodger franchise, permanently, from the venerable, Ebbets Field Stadium, to California’s Los Angeles Stadium. There are many, especially in Brooklyn, New York, who may still be in mourning.
There is a responsibly required, melodramatic, addendum to this tale of extinction and permanent disappearance. The number of Eastern European Immigrants, who risked all, for the privilege of suffering many weeks, or months of discomfort, in frightening voyages to America, many crossing the Ocean in steerage conditions, are presently, few in number. Old age and sickness was their apparent recompense, for their danger and the generosity of their many sacrifices. The quest, in truth, however, of such immigrant parents, was for the acquisition, by their children, to be born in America, of a good education and a better life than theirs had been. During a child’s homework or study time, immigrant parents, very respectfully, remained virtually silent, in order not to disturb their child’s studies. Every such parent granted “religious” homage to education, regardless of the extent of their own literacy. Good grades at school were celebrated; lower grades would be a matter of disappointed, concern.
Most of those heavily-accented, poor, and somewhat displaced, Yiddish immigrants, by now, have passed away, from old age or sickness. There was no external extinction event for them, other than old age and failing health. We came to understand, that the successful last lap, of their troubled voyages to the United States, was to be travelled by their intended American children, in becoming well- educated, and living the good American life. Those of us, who understood, knew that their responsible duty, in loving appreciation for such brave and self-sacrificial generosity, was never to let our gratitude and love for our parents, and this great nation become extinct.