Authors: Triss Stein
Up the street, at the corner, a side door opened at the library and someone came out. I could see the blue of a uniform and the flare of a cigarette lighter. This was the moment to make some noise.
“Get out of my way.” I said it as loud as I could. Louder, actually, than I thought I could.
They were laughing at me. My shouting amused them in their cat-and-mouse game, but it kept them from noticing the man running toward them, yelling at them obscenely to move along and that a patrol car was on the way.
They were way too cool to run, or panic, or even act concerned, but they were suddenly drifting off down the street. The leader turned back just for a second and waved a mocking farewell.
“Are you all right, ma'am? Those kids. They always hanging around here, annoying all of us. They been trying to follow one of our pages home.”
My voice trembled. “I'm okay, just kind of shaky. Nothing really happened.”
“This time.” He came down hard on those two words. “Nothing happened this time. Do you want to come into the library, have a glass of water or whatever?”
“I was planning to do exactly that, come into the library. And thank you for coming to the rescue.”
He smiled. “What I'm here for. You know, most of the time it's a boring job, library security. Most exciting thing I do is tell kids to behave or leave.”
“I'll be happy to let your boss know what you did. How's that?”
“'Preciate it.” He checked to make sure the car doors were locked. “You come along now. My name is Wilson.”
The library instantly felt like a refuge from the street outside. It was calm and quiet and pretty. Shabby, perhaps, but welcoming. It wasn't a bit like the library in my own childhood neighborhood, a building with all the charm of an airplane hangar.
“Ms. Talbot,” he said to the tall, gray-haired woman at the desk, “this young lady was coming for a visit right here and had a little run-in with those boys been bothering Savanna. You know the ones.”
“They're back? My word, what a nuisance. Would you let Savanna know you'll walk her home?” She turned to me. “Are you all right? Did they hurt you?”
“I'm fine. Really. It was just a little scary there for a minute. It's not like I scare easily but there were more of them than me. Um, Mr. Wilson came to my rescue, actually.”
“I know all them boys.” He shook his head. “Two of them already done some time. Not one of them goes to school or works, neither one. They'd rob their own grandmother if she had anything worth taking. One of their good dads threw him out 'cause he a bad influence on the littler ones.”
Ms. Talbot said, “You were on your way here? What can I do for you?”
She was surprised by my explanation. “Not much happens to write about here, except the bad things,” she said. “Around here we have gangs and guns and most people are just struggling. I'll certainly help if I can.” Her manner was forthright but warm.
“Well, I know some of the history of this building.” I showed her Espy's photo of the same building, perfectly recognizable.
“That's when this place was brand-spanking new. Poor old thing, it's worse for wear now. Well, I'm not what I once was either.” She chuckled. “In fact, we're closing soon for a renovation that's way overdue. I mean decades. I'm happy to show you around.
“This has not been a special children's library for I don't know how many decades. It wasn't even when I was growing up around here, anyway. Now we have the children's section over here on the right. Look around you.”
The fireplace presented an elaborate fairy tale scene with a castle painted on the tile surround. There were very old, Gothic-style benches with rabbit heads carved on the armrests.
“Yes.” She smiled. “We have a few original items. They have promised meâin blood, mind you!âthat they will still be here after the renovation.”
“Even the outside looks impressive to me.”
“You got that right. The head of children's work back then fought for it, to make it a place of beauty and imagination.” She nodded emphatically.
We walked toward the adult section. There were computers, all in use, and a bookcase of trade manuals and prep books for licensing exams.
“That's the most popular section for adults. Like I said, folks are struggling here. Getting something like an MTA job or a taxi license is a step up. Otherwise, adults mostly take best sellers, urban paperbacksâyou know, life on the wild sideâand sports and music bios. We carry graphic novels, too. Andâ¦” she lowered her voice, “we have a reading skills workshop that meets here so we keep a bookcase of easy-to-read adult books. They circulate more than you might think.”
She suggested I look around at will and then come back to her office. Savanna, the young girl at the desk, could show me the way and also take me upstairs.
“Upstairs, Mother Gaston used to give classes about African heritage. Savanna knows the story well because her mother was one of the students. Savanna isn't for the city in Georgia but for the African plains.” She whispered to me, “It was her mother in her dashiki-wearing phase. Don't ask Savvie about it!”
Savanna was a slim, pretty teenager decked out in neat, elaborate cornrows and careful eye makeup. Savanna? Was she the girl that little gang had mentioned? The one they were waiting for?
She led me up a beautiful wooden staircase, now so worn parts of it were covered by ugly linoleum. And that was worn too.
The meeting room walls and bookcases were stripped bare, with piled up cartons in one corner.
“Mother Gaston was really a teacher. She gave free classes on African-American history and made it fun. Least, that's what my momma says. They had music and dancing and cooking. Everything here is already packed up. After the renovation, we're hoping to make a museum up here.” She ducked her head shyly. “I mean, Miz Talbot hoping. Maybe I would help if I can, when I'm home summers from college.”
“Are you starting college in the fall?”
“I am. I just learned, this week. I got a scholarship but I would have gone to Brooklyn College if I didn't. My mama said no chance I was not going. She's a scary, determined woman.”
“Well, good for her.”
“Yeah.” She smiled again. “It's not cool for me to talk all the time about it, but yeah. I'm so happy she pushed me.”
“Well, congratulations. Not that Brooklyn College isn't a huge gift itself. I went there and I was glad to have the chance. I'm in the City University graduate program now.”
“Oh, no, I would never disrespect a public college. Some of my girls are going there and happy to be able to, just like you said. We have a gang, not a
gang, just some homegirls. And we kind of all promised each other we would go. No babies, no jealous family, no boyfriends if they didn't encourage. Know what I mean?” She paused, assessing me, then said, “I'm going to Wellesley. That's where I got the scholarship.”
That took me by surprise. I hoped it didn't show.
“I know you worked very hard for that! Your mom must be very proud.”
“She so excited, she went right out and bought me a suitcase. Like I was about to start packing today. It meansâ¦” She looked away from me, her voice shaking, and whispered, “Sorry. It just happened this week, and she was all choked up and that gets meâ¦.”
“I know.” I thoughtlessly patted her shoulder, mom instincts kicking in. She didn't seem to mind. “I have a daughter too. You girls mean a lot to us moms.”
“I shouldn't go off like that to a stranger. You'll think we're all crazy around here.” She squared her slim shoulders and gestured around the room. “Anyway, Mother Gaston did a lot of good things here. That's why she got called Mother. She not really a mother, she a maiden lady.” She stopped and repeated carefully, “She was not really a mother. She was a maiden lady.”
When we got back to the main floor, Ms. Talbot took me aside.
“We are having a little surprise celebration because Savanna has good news. Did she tell you? Would you care to join us? It's just a cake.”
“It's very kind. Won't I be intruding?”
“It's a big cake!” She smiled. “I sent Wilson out to get one, and you know men. Twice as much is always better. And you are most welcome. Not many people from outside take an interest in what we do here. Feels like we are lost in the wilderness sometimes.”
That's how I got to be adopted into the Stone Avenue staff. The cake was indeed enormous. The guard took a lot of kidding about it, and he kidded right back. Savanna took some kidding about an all-girls college, and she giggled and told us her momma thought that was a good thing.
“And what you thinking about it, girl?” Wilson asked. She only smiled back at him and said, “Not sayin'. You all know my momma too well.”
I asked her what she did to get that scholarship, and they all laughed when she said, “Went to a really good high school and worked my butt off.”
“I grew up right around here myself,” Ms. Talbot said, “and I didn't go to the local school either. In my day, there was heroin-dealing out of the third-floor boys bathroom. Yes, there was! I went to Lincoln, but Savvie took that entrance exam and went off to Brooklyn Tech.”
“That cute little thing can write computer code,” Wilson said. “Scare off all the boys, I bet.”
The other clerk said, “Oh, don't be so foolish, Wilson. Don't you know Tech has got twice as many boys as girls? They be lucky if she honors them with a smile. Am I right, girl?”
“I had to work so hard, I didn't have time for any of that foolishness,” she responded with a straight face. Then she giggled.
Ms. Talbot raised her glass of apple juice and said, “To our own Ms. Savanna Lafayette, who is going places. We believe there will be a Senator Lafayette in years to come, or a Dr. Lafayette. And we can say we knew you when. We are mighty proud of you.”
There was a round of applause and then they cut the remaining cake into tiny pieces to share with the library users all afternoon.
Savanna walked back out to the main room with me, asking if I'd ever been to Boston and what it was like. I explained I was a Brooklyn girl myself, like her, and just going out of the neighborhood for high school had seemed like a big step.
I thanked Ms. Talbot for all her help and Wilson asked if I wanted to be walked to my car. I said thanks but no; I'd be more alert this time. Damned if I was owning up to needing help, let alone wanting it.
I walked to my car, thinking about Savanna and hoping someone in her life would understand what a long leap it would be, from a Brownsville project to Wellesley. My daughter goes to private school, courtesy of a mountain of financial aid. I needed the extra child-care hours when I was a single parent back in school myself, but being part of that world has been a huge leap for me. And it was nothing compared to the one Savanna was about to take.
I had spoken some brave words about being fine but my earlier encounter hit me after I got into the car. As soon as I was in a more familiar neighborhood, I pulled over and put my head down on the steering wheel. I shouldn't drive while I was still shaking.
When I was ready, I turned the radio to rock oldies, as loud as I could make it, and filled the car with sound. I sang along, slapping out the beat on the wheel, and by the time I got home, I was myself again, ready to be whirlwind mom.
The traffic home had been heavy. It was already getting late, already dinnertime.
“Hey, Chris,” I shouted upstairs. “Let's go out tonight. I want some lights and noise, no dinner dishes. Half an hour?”
She came to the top of the stairs. “What's going on?”
“Nothing,” I lied. “Just feel like a change.”
“Okay. Where are we going?”
“How about the new burger place?”
She hesitated. “I'm trying out vegetarianâ¦”
“What? Since when? Anyway, they have veggie burgers and fish, too.”
She nodded. “Okay. Let's go now. There's always a wait.”
The new place was noisy outside, with the waiting crowd, and noisy inside with the gluttonous crowd. I was happy to join them, and, torn between exotic elk or exotic venison, I gave up and settled for a beef burger with cheddar and a mountain of fries, the least healthy meal in a week. Sometimes a girl needs grease to absorb emotion. Chris tucked into her veggie burger, on moral grounds, but did not object to fries on health grounds.
It was far too noisy to talk and that suited both of us. It was brightly lit and decorated in primary colors. We waved to a family we knew. We gobbled up calories and enjoyed the antics of the many small children, pointing to catch each other's attention. The cheerful chaos was just what I needed.
There was a voice mail when we came home. A quavering but clear voice said, “I am trying to reach Ms. Erica Donato at this number. This is Ruby Cohen Boyle.”
“Mom? This is for you. She sounds a hundred years old.”
“Not quite. Only about ninety-one. She's a source for me, maybe.”
“Oh. Your schoolwork.” That was the limit of her curiosity. “I'm going back to mine. That insane Mrs. Grant thinks we only have Chemistry homework every nightâ¦” Her voice faded as she went upstairs.
Mrs. Boyle had called me. I was so surprised. Really, she was Professor Boyle. Or Dr. Boyle. She was Maurice Cohen's little sister, ten years younger, a retired Labor History professor.
I wasn't looking for people to interview. Using Maurice Cohen's book as a source, I needed some background on his life in order to understand it. I was astonished to learn about the little sister, never mentioned in his writing, and estranged for many years from her famous brother. I was more astonished when my research on him pulled up an article that quoted her. A recent article. It seemed she was still alive and capable, in fact, still very sharp.
When the professor gods hand you a gift, you don't ignore it. It would be interesting, and maybe helpful, to compare her memories to his. It wasn't that hard to track her down to her home in a vast and luxurious senior living complex. So I wrote to her. And here she was on my voice mail.
It wasn't too late to call back. I'd better gather my wits first. When I had my hello speech down to a few concise sentences, I made the call.
She listened to what I had to say and responded crisply, without a quaver. “You explained all that in your letter. Yes. I remember Brownsville very well. As one gets older, those early years oddly come back even more vividly. What would you like to do? I find long phone conversations somewhat tiring. Can you come to see me?”
“I would love to, at your convenience of course.”
“Come the day after tomorrow. I am busy many days, but there is no activity that appeals to me that day. There is a pleasant cafÃ© here. We can have tea. Do you know the way? It is tricky.”
I know how to use a GPS. I'd find it. When I said yes, I was only embellishing the truth a little.
She ignored me anyway, and provided detailed directions from the highway to the complex and the building with the cafÃ©.
Good thing I wasn't working at my part-time museum job tomorrow. I would have time to review what I knew and get ready with my questions. She had been described as formidable.
On a bright sunny day, I took the beautiful drive up Manhattan's west side along the Hudson River, under the massive George Washington Bridge and up the cliffs called the Palisades. A random piece of history trivia: an older name was
, Gaelic for a rocky cliff, and so it was. Not a bit like Brooklyn, most of which has a human scale. This was something else, sweeping and splendid. Palisades sounds like a western fort built of logs but tor evokes misty Scottish mountains.
The buildings were perched on top of one of the cliffs, with sweeping lawns looking west across the Hudson. I wondered what sunsets were like and if the inhabitants were still able to enjoy them. It looked like an unusually beautiful college campus and it was large enough that I had some trouble finding the right building. I was almost running when I finally got there, and pulled myself up short at the entrance, caught my breath, smoothed my hair, and made a calm entrance.
“Dr. Boyle? I am Erica Donato. Thank you for meeting me today.” I put out my hand and she shook it slowly. Her old skin felt like tissue paper but understated makeup was in place and she wore an elegant mauve suit and pearls with her lace-up shoes.
“You are late. Not so easy to find after all, was it?”
The words were intimidating but there was a little twinkle in her eyes.
“I am so sorry. It wasâ¦”
“Oh, please. Just sit down. I've ordered tea and a plate of cookies, but you can have coffee if you prefer. Now. Let's begin. You tell me just what you are doing in your research. I've served on plenty of dissertation committees. We'll be talking the same language. Did you bring a tape recorder?”
I explained my work, a dissertation on how Brooklyn neighborhoods changed over time and the impact of different kinds of newcomers, and also that I worked part time in research at the Brooklyn History Museum.
“Do you love it there?”
“Most of the time, yes I do.”
She smiled. “That's why they can pay you a pittance, as I am sure they do.”
I admitted that was true, but I needed both the pittance and the flexible hours.
“Where do you live?”
I named the neighborhood, one that has gone from downhill to highly gentrified, helped by quaint brownstones ripe for renovation.
She looked at me shrewdly. “You didn't grow up there.” It was not a question. How did she know?
So I told her about my deep Brooklyn childhood in the old neighborhood and my move to someplace completely different after my husband died.
“Interesting. I'm betting that was as big a move as going across the country. Am I right?”
I had to smile. She had nailed it.
“My generation, we children of uneducated, poor immigrants made an even bigger move just by going to college at all, to work with our brains instead of our hands. It seemed like the other side of the globe, that great bohemian world where we lived for ideas instead of for putting the food on the table.”
She talked in complete paragraphs.
“We lived for ideas and we discovered sex, the first generation that ever did.” She winked when she said that. “We ate, slept, and breathed Freud, Jung, Kafka. And the great political battles of the time, of course.” She paused. “Some were great, but some were, after all, tempests in teapots. In Brownsville we grew up with heated politics all around us. We just argued with more sophistication. We were still poor but in a different way.” She smiled, fondly, as if at a child, her own young self. “We were bohemians, you might say.”
“You flew away, all the way to Manhattan?”
“Certainly. I went to graduate school at Columbia. It was quite the scandal for me to move into my own apartment. âWhat would people think I wanted to do there?'” She flashed a mocking smile. “I did have my big brother as a role model, though.
“I worked hard and got on with my life. My parents had no clue about any of it, of course. They could barely explain to relatives that I was becoming a college professor, not a public school teacher.” She smiled. “Working for the Board of Ed was about the highest aspiration for a girl that they understood. They did work âmy daughter at Columbia' into every conversation, though.” She sighed. “And of course you've read my famous brother's books.”
I nodded, afraid to say a word. If I admitted to how much I admired them, would that bring the conversation to a crashing stop? In Professor Boyle I had found a time machine; I wanted to listen for days.
She waved her hand dismissively. “In time, he turned into a foolish man. Maybe if he'd lived as long as I have, he would have acquired some wisdom. Or at least maturity. Good writer, mind you, but silly man. He feuded with everyone, and that included my very prominent second husband. They had a fight about politics and never made up. Politics really meant everything then.”
She paused and sighed. “Or so we believed. He made me choose sides and of course I chose my husband. What did he expect? But he was on his third wife by thenâmaybe his fourth?âhe didn't take marriage as seriously as I did. Still, I read everything he wrote and his book about Brownsville was a good one.” She gave me another challenging look. “Did you find what was missing in it?”
“Ah, ha! I sensed you were a sharp one. He didn't have a word to say about what it was like for me or girls at all. It was different.”
Then we talked about that, how they were encouraged to do well in school, but discouraged from big dreams. We talked about immigrant parents making rules for daughters who were growing up, it seemed, on a different planet.
“Of course that story is the same in every immigrant generation, is it not?”
We moved on to other memories. The desperate times when money was so short, boarders slept in the second bedroom and she slept on the sofa. The year her father and big brother shared one winter coat, going out at different times. The times her mother made her brother's clothes over to fit her.
“I was embarrassed, going to school in a skirt made from his outgrown suit pants, but you know? I wasn't the only one. We were all struggling. And when I started making a salary, I went right into Lord & Taylor and opened a charge account with a card that had my name on it.” She laughed lightly. “I could only afford the sales, and barely that, but it was a long way from buying underwear at a Pitkin Avenue pushcart! I was so proud to have a slice of apple pie in their restaurant and say âCharge it.'”
She talked about friendships that were forged in poverty, and that lasted a lifetime.
“I found an old friend right here! We ran into each other in the orchestra. We have an orchestra here, you know, and we are pretty damn good. It's mostly women, like everything at our age. Men are scarce. And they called us the weaker sex! Ha. Anyway, she plays the flute and I play violin. First violin, I might add. I invited her to join us later.”
We looked at a street map of Brownsville and she pointed to one location after another and remembered them all: her favorite candy store; the dentist who took out a diseased tooth; the corner where a cousin had met an Italian boy, causing a huge family scandal.
“They were all sure he was a gangster.”
I was about to say to that, “By the way, about crime in Brownsvilleâ¦” when we were interrupted by another elderly lady, very thin and pale, using a walker, but brightly dressed in a hot pink velour running suit.
“Lil, my dear, meet young Erica Donato, PhD in training. Erica, this is my dear friend Lillian Kravitz. Now Lil, Erica wants to hear about Brownsville. I've been talking her ear off, but you can help with more details. I'm giving her the good times and the bad.”
The other woman's pale face warmed into a big smile. She patted her old friend's hand. “We had friends, and we had fun, as girls will always find a way, but it was hard. We were so very poor. Remember when we made a little social club? You, me, and those girls from your building?”
“They were cousins. The Kaufman girls?”
“Yes! And we wanted matching club sweaters, but my parents couldn't afford that.”
“That's right. So we all pitched in a few cents for you and you earned the rest. But how?”
“Working in a shop at holiday time. We worked and went to school, too. I don't know if we could have done it without our friends. Am I right, Lil?”
“Right as rain. We encouraged each other, again and again. Lots of support and no excuses.” She shook her head. “Home was not so happy because our parents struggled so hard, there wasn't much energy left for anything else, even children.”
“So we swore we would get to college and work hard and get out.”
“Moved up and away, I would say. Right? We had better lives in time, and we earned them.”
“What about the ones who didn't take that path?” I was trying to steer this wide-ranging conversation back to the subject of crime. “It's no secret that Brownsville was a hotbed of mob activity. Some of your classmates and neighbors became quite famous.”
“For all the wrong reasons!”
“Did you know any? Your cousin's boyfriend you mentioned? What did you think of all that?”
“I never thought about it at all. Not one minute.” Ruby gave me a hard look. “The boyfriend turned out to be a real sweetheart. Brownsville was made notorious because of the rotten few. Yes, there was crime, of course there was, like any poor neighborhood with desperate people. But you would think there were murdering gangsters on every block, carrying Tommy guns in plain sight.”
“And there weren't?”