Authors: Triss Stein
Two days later, there was still no additional news about Savanna. I was sure about that, because I was listening to the radio or TV all the time. I wanted to know those nasty young men were locked up, to hear that young Savanna was on the mend, to see her mother at another news conference talking about how relieved she was. None of that happened.
I already knew I would have to go back to Brownsville. My photos were only barely acceptable so I had borrowed a good camera. My ladies at the nursing home had given me some more locations I wanted to see and perhaps photograph. They were many years younger than Maurice Cohen and their hangouts were different. He wrote about meeting girls in the park in the thirties. They told me where they were when the war ended.
I had organized my cameras, notebooks, keys. I did not expect my dad to show up at my door.
Dad and I have a difficult relationship. It's getting better, partly due to Chris' desire to have him in our lives, but it's still touchy. I don't know what irritates me most, his desire to protect me and take care of me, long after I needed anything like that, or my lingering distrust, stemming from the woman who took over his life after Mom died. She dragged him off to Arizona when I really did need him, and then dumped him.
I didn't talk to him for a time, but Chris did. And then he came back home, to the little house in East Flatbush where I grew up. And then he tried to work his way back into my life. Sometimes I even let him.
There he was, ringing my doorbell.
“Dad? What's up? I was just on my way out.”
“Off to school?”
“Ah, no. Um, off to another part of Brooklyn. It's, um, job research.”
“How'd you like a driver? I've got no special chores today. Come on, I'll take you out to breakfast. Which way are you heading? I know how to find pancakes in any neighborhood.”
He did, too. He'd worked as a cab driver until his retirement. He knew how to find anything, anywhere in the city. Sometimes it was eerie. And that healthy yogurt I'd eaten at seven a.m. seemed very long ago.
“Okay. But there's a deal.”
“If I tell you where I am going, no comments. None. Promise?”
“What exactly are you up to?”
I shook my head. “Promise.”
“Deal. I'll drive. Just point me in the right direction.”
“Out Eastern Parkway.”
“Where are we going?”
When I told him, his expression changed.
“You promised, Dad. Not one word.”
“What? What did I say? Nothing. But we'll stop for breakfast before we get there.”
And so we did, at a diner he knew about. He always knows about a diner.
Over bacon and eggs I told him about my project, the chapter on crime for my dissertation, the photos, my visit to the nursing home. I left out my scary encounter. Not by accident either.
When he started to ask me why I had not asked him to go with me, I gave him a look, the one Chris gives me. “Because I am a grown woman? I don't need my dad to hold my hand?”
He didn't seem convinced, but he was smart enough not to say so. In the car, fully caffeinated and fed and then some, I gave him some specific locations courtesy of Ruby and Lillian. “This is how we'll do it. You stop and I'll hop out, take a few photos, and jump back in. Got it?”
He nodded without a word. After a few blocks on almost deserted streets, he stopped suddenly.
“I know this street.”
I was flipping through my notebook, checking addresses, not listening. “Sure you do. You know every street, everywhere in Brooklyn.”
“No, I mean I really know this street. I remember it.”
The change in his voice finally caught my attention.
“Dad? Why are we stopping here? This is not one of my addresses.”
“One of mine, I guess.” He pointed. “Look over there.”
“Where? What am I looking at?”
“My grandparents lived there, upstairs, above the store. It was a coffee shop then. Theirs, I think.”
That was all news to me.
“Yeah, I just barely remember but my folks, your grandparents, had a photo that was taken outside. And you could see that building over there.” He pointed to a large sign painted on the side of the building. Bricks showed through the ghostly, faded paint. “Abrams. Finest wedding clothes for rent. Brides and grooms.” A second of surprise flitted across my brain and made a note. I didn't know you could rent bridal gowns.
He looked around. “Everything else is different. Or who knows? I'm not remembering it all anyways.”
“Dad. How come you didn't say anything about this before? I'm working on this chapter and you never told me we had a family connection?”
“To tell the truth, I forgot. We moved away when I was real little. My grandpa died and grandma moved to Aunt Sally's building in Rockaway. I don't think I've been on this street even once since then.”
“You know, you're useless when it comes to family history. Didn't your parents ever talk about it? Growing up here?”
“Not really. Not really at all. They were not at all interested in reminiscing about those so-called good old days. They weren't as good as the ones we were in then, I guess.”
I knew it was true. Being very poor was being very poor, even in good times. I had Maurice Cohen to say it for me in print. And their early times were not good times for anyone. But the 1950s, that silent decade I had studied in a class? In the conforming suburbs of identical homes? Heck. For them, after the war, a brand new house of their very own, with a bit of lawn, was more than they had ever dreamed of. It was paradise. Not my idea of paradise, which is why I live in Park Slope, but then, I didn't grow up in Brownsville. Hmmm. Was this something I should write about? Or maybe a museum exhibit?
Not for the first time, I wished I had asked them more while I had the chance.
“Is it weird to think that your childhood is now part of history? Like, studied in class? Did your parents ever think about all the events they had lived through?”
“Naah, not really. It was just regular everyday life to us at the time. You know? Especially when I was a kid. I thought about stuff like, when would we get a TV? And how could the Dodgers leave Brooklyn?”
“Funny thing isâ¦” Dad said as he started the car, interrupting my free-associating. “Wait. Where to next?”
I told him. “And you were saying funny thing isâ¦.”
“Funny thing about my grandmother and their past. I always had a feeling there was more to it. It wasn't just that she had no interest to talking about those days, she refused. Like, quick, change the subject and mutter a prayer. Or maybe it was a curse. Then she would bring out cake and that was that.”
“Your grandmother? Not mine?”
“Yes. Ya know, later, I knew a few guys who lived in this end of Brooklyn, and Grandma did not like that at all either.”
“Dad. What is this, dad's time machine day? You never told me any of this!”
He shrugged. “Never any reason to. I'm telling you now.”
“No, you're not. You're just throwing me crumbs. Who did you know from around here? And what was it like then?”
“Like it is now, more or less. I guess. Sad. Angry. Rough. Lots of street fighting, even little kids. Most of those guys, their families moved away eventually. Really, I came to play pool. Somewhere around here. There was a placeâ¦yeah, it's kind of coming back to me.” He made a sudden turn.
I looked around. “Dad, what are you doing?”
“Hold your horses, kiddo.” We went a few blocks and stopped across from a long building with many tiny storefronts, many empty, at street level.
“See? At least I think it's here. The second floor was a pool hall. I did a certain amount of hanging out there in my misspent youth.”
“A pool hall? Really? What would you have said if Iâ¦?”
“Another subject altogether. I'm giving you some information here. Want it or not?”
He sounded irritated. I responded with a polite “Yes, please.”
“In my day, it was a pool hall. I was underage to even be there, but it's not like anyone ever asked. And I could get a drink, too. Betting, yeah, always, that's part of the game.” He glanced at me. “And a place to find someone who sold weed, if that's what you wanted.”
“Dad? You?” I was shocked. My dad was always a very by-the-book guy.
“It was a very, very long time ago. But you get what I'm saying? And the building was owned by a guy who was the Brooklyn Borough president for a while. If anyone asked about the pool hall, I guess he would have said he didn't know a thing about what his tenants did.” Dad kind of snorted.
“Okay, you want me to get to the point?”
“If you have one, which I am beginning to doubt, yes.”
“There were old guys who hung out there. They always claimed this was the toughest neighborhood in the city and the pool hall used to be a through-and-through mob hangout back in the old days. I dunno. The storytellers were petty crooks, kind of gangster wannabes, I think. The gangsters were gone a long time by then.”
We turned a corner, heading toward the library.
“Now this street looks a little familiar but I'm just not sure.”
“They changed the name. It was Stone Avenue back then.”
“Yeah, I know it now. I rented my prom tux along here somewhere. Powder blue.”
“Please tell me you are kidding.”
“Nope. Thought I was as spiffy as, I don't know, Frank Sinatra, maybe. Or The Four Tops. Yeah. This used to be the block where the wedding stores were.
“And here's something I forgot, speaking of weddings. When I started dating your mother, her mother cried and cried. She was sure I must be a gangster if my family came from Brownsville.”
“Dad, you never told me any of this!”
He laughed at my indignant look. “It was such a long time ago. By then my folks lived in Levittown, the most ordinary place in the world, and I lived with them when I got out of the Army. But your grandmother, boy!” He shook his head in disbelief.
I thought hard. “But I remember visiting them when I was little, lots of hugging and kissing and me getting my cheeks pinched. It didn't seem like she disliked you.”
He moved a hand off the steering wheel to make a dismissive gesture. “She got over it. I had too many cop friends, she decided, to be a crook. And I drove a cab every day for a living. That was proof to her. If I was a crook, I couldn't be a very successful one.”
I had to laugh. “It sounds like Grandma's logic!”
We drove around slowly. I had a few more addresses to find, a few more old buildings to look for. I kept my eyes open for those boys, without saying anything to my father. Dad spotted a few blocks with new rowhouses, small and neat and bright. A sign of renewal, perhaps?
And it was Dad who muttered, “Now there's a sight you don't see around here much, I bet.” He jerked his head toward the sidewalk without stopping. “White guy in the hood.”
“Dad!” But he was right. And I thought I had seen him before. Blond beard, raggedy clothes. He turned into a building doorway. I gasped when I saw who stepped up to meet him. “That'sâ¦” And I stopped myself before I said, “the guy who threatened me.” Instead I finished that sentence with a small, “â¦unusual. Yes, that's unusual.”
“Drug buy,” Dad said. “Or he's an undercover cop.”
Late that night there was an e-mail message from Zora Lafayette.
Were you that skinny little white girl who always looked worried? Yeah, I sort of remember you. My baby is doing badly, but we have a whole community of people praying for her. Yours would be appreciated too.
Ahh. My prayers couldn't be worth much but my good thoughts were hers, of course. I told her so, and to my surprise, I had an instant response.
Good thoughts are kind if you are not a praying woman. Doctors at the hospital sent me home to get some sleep, but that's not happening. I don't want to take the pills they gave me, and I don't keep alcohol in my home, so for now it's just me and my buddy the iMac, working the midnight shift, trying real hard not to think. Can't cry anymore. All cried out.
Those words hit home. Without stopping to consider it, I typed:
Been there. My Jeff died in an accident at 26, hit by a drunk driver. That's how I became a single mom. Even now, once in awhile I find myself wide awake in the dark, in this unreal place of silence.
And that's how we began. For the next hour, she wrote me about Savanna, her hopes and dreams for her only child, how she had kept her focused and safe in an unsupportive world; her rage at those lowlifes, whoever they are; her repeated belief that God would not take her. I wondered if she thought repeating that would make it true.
I offered understanding. That's all I could offer, really, but it seemed to be something, out there in the darkness of the early morning hours. You can't be warrior mom 24/7, but I was not in her real life. She did not have to be embarrassed by meeting me some time in daylight.
Finally, she wrote:
Well, damn. It's 4 AM and my eyes are finally closing. Thank you, girl, for staying up on the late shift with me tonight. Good dreams to us both. And some advice. You wide wake before dawn? Go make your baby pancakes and bacon for breakfast and hug her tight. Hug her till she say to stop, and then hug her some more.
She signed off and I hit the cookbooks. And then I checked the kitchen for pancake ingredients and syrup.
When I woke up, late and foggy, there was already a message on my screen.
Hey, y'all. Sorry about the impersonal but there are so many of you out there, asking about Savvie. No change, no change at all. Doctors say now we wait and see. Thanking everyone for your prayers and wishes.
But looks like the cops did their job for once. Word out is they are holding these little wastes of oxygen that been bothering my girl. Everyone expects an arrest so there will be justice done. Personally I am hoping they spend the rest of their miserable lives in jail. And now we must pray for mercy for Savanna.