In response to readers’ requests, we have previously, published several mini-essays, on the exotic immigrant World in the 1940’s Brooklyn (East New York). So many of these nostalgic and colorful scenes, of many decades ago, still seem remain fresh in our bank of early memories; hopefully, their depictions have been of interest to readers.
We have previously, sampled snippets of our recollected memories on such subjects as the newly settled, Eastern European Ashkenazic residents, themselves, their manifest poverty and efforts, personal sacrifice to support their families, their aspirations for the future of their American, children, their earnest, and at times, somewhat risible, attempts at self-Americanizing, among other things, their impatient desire to quickly replace their Yiddish language, with American conversation (Yinglish), their recently transplanted folkways and cultural traditions, their tenement residence, their ambiance, the era’s, electrified trolley cars and street tracks, the still extant, albeit outmoded, colorful horse and wagon entrepreneurs, the iceman, the milkman, the street food vendors, the children, and their street games, and many other, cherished, and long bygone, snapshots of the times.
It must be considered that, in those days, regarding the significant, developmental stage of young children’s need for diversion, there was no television, no electronic gadgets or games (beyond “wind –up” toys), only, roller skates, tricycles, rubber balls, marbles (this latter, Olympic sport, highlighted, in an earlier writing), the occasional movie or visit to the overcrowded, neighborhood pool, constituted a young boy’s total universe of diversion.
Fortuitously, in close proximity to many multiple occupancy, residential neighborhoods, there were vacant lots, affording to the local boys, a unique, and significantly, rare, uncrowded venue, in which they could discharge their youthful energy as well as their need for freedom, and engage with friends.
In order to better transmit a timely picture of the scene, we would briefly, touch on the typical neighborhood lot. The same was not a garden paradise, by any measure, but located, only one or two city blocks, from the young boy’s apartment building, it was to him, a terra incognita, an exciting, uncharted, and open territory. Very few of these children had ever been to the countryside, and so the weeded, overgrown, often littered (empty tin cans, paper, boxes and miscellaneous discarded items, scattered among the weeded, grassy) area was always, to their perception, the outer reaches, a precious, open experience, in stark contrast to the cramped space of their (either, cold, or overheated) family apartment. The boy could “kick up his heels,” and run freely over, perhaps, two acres or so of territory. To his inexperienced perception, it was a natural, (albeit, scruffy), oasis in a desert of concrete sidewalks and brick residential buildings. The lot had many diverse iterations, depending upon season and weather. In a snowy winter, for example, it was ersatz Vermont, with snowballs and white ambiance. For unsophisticated and inexperienced, poor children, it was an imagined rural countryside.
We would point out that most of these vacant, weeded, and littered areas, in New York City, had, decades later, sold to developers and builders for many millions of dollars, for business and residential development. But, at the times of which we are reminiscing, they provided the needed opportunity for a young, imaginative boy, for sports, high adventure, and the youthful release of energy.
The vacant City lot provided a useful arena for games of “cowboys and Indians,” mock warfare, or pretended gunfights between cops and the robbers. In our remembered lot, there was natural furniture, like a fallen tree trunk, which served as a hard couch, flat rocks, or a stiff bushes, for the placement of equipment or a sweater, removed, in breach of contrary assurances to one’s mother, and plentiful small mounds, available for sitting or hiding. Digging in the soil, where possible, would often be rewarded with, discarded, relics of past lives. [ see our early poetics: “Under the Blue Ageratum.”]
It was not unusual, sometimes, to bring to the lot, empty jars to be used for selected, short term incarceration of grasshoppers or exotic bugs; nice boys like we, would set free the insects, unharmed, at the end of play. This was wartime, and we vividly recall using those jars for the evening hunting and collection of fireflies, as requested by the Navy, for signal light experimentation. In aid of the war effort, we would also collect metal and rubber objects, much needed for recycling for military use, for deposit at designated depots.
One of our fondest memories of our activities on our lot was that of “baking mickeys.” We would each bring one or two foil-wrapped, baking potatoes, dig a small hole, place them in the hole, partly fill the hole, burying the potatoes, then cover it with dry trigs, light the twigs, as a cooking flame, and let the potatoes bake. Dugout, when “done,” the hot “mickeys,” were always pronounced, “delicious,” as we ate them, sitting on the fallen tree trunk, irrespective of their frequent lack of uniformity, in the final result.
We, obviously, could not possibly conceive, that some decades later, man would actually succeed, in landing on the moon. But in our time and at our childhood age and limited experience, the expeditions to our neighborhood vacant lot, were, exciting adventures into uncharted, exotic, territory (terra firma incognita).