I used to live in a house with two windows that looked out onto the elevated train tracks that ran above Broadway in Brooklyn. The tracks and Broadway ran west to the Williamsburg Bridge, which spanned to the island of Manhattan, and east to a tangled junction known as East New York. Most of my world existed between the two closest train stations—Kosciusko Street and Gates Avenue—and the avenue that paralleled Broadway, Bushwick.
Broadway was the local shopping boulevard: around the corner was Syd, from whom we bought fruits and vegetables; at the corner was Marty, from whom once a year my parents would buy me and my sisters wrist corsages after our dance recital; next door was Eunice, who cut and coiffed my mother’s hair periodically; and across the street was Lucky, to whom we took our little bit of dry cleaning. From our block we radiated out as necessity dictated—to the big grocery store and the small one, to the shoe store, to the two large movie theaters, and, on special occasions, to the ice cream parlor where, after our dance recital, I ate sherbet, fruit of the gods.
My parents owned the paint and hardware store, an essential business at which patrons had windows repaired, pipes cut and threaded, locks set, keys made, and kerosene pumped, in addition to purchasing washers, screws, nails, and hammers. Advice was free. The store was old; its wooden floors were smoothed by dirt, oil, and feet. A ladder rode a rail that circumnavigated the store to give access to hardware that resided in small drawers above head height. I loved the store, even in its characteristic messiness; a community existed there.
My family lived in the two-story dwelling above the store. There was quite a diversity of rooms in the compact space, and my father had used his handiness to make the most of the available space. He constructed closets with built-in storage racks and a window bench for our toys; both a drying rack and our bikes were suspended from the ceiling by rope and pulley.
I shared a large bedroom with my two sisters; our brother rated his own small bedroom. My younger sister and I slept in bunk beds; our older sister was afforded the privacy that a latticed partition provided. We each had a dresser and another personal piece of furniture nestled somewhere; mine was a vanity in the laundry room. It was there I kept my treasures and earliest writing.
My parents’ room was separated from the girls’ room by what we called the closet room—a dark, interior space through which I ran with dread of the monsters that I imagined lived there. I was braver with company, but alone I could barely manage to retrieve a dress from the closet.
It was from both the girls’ room upstairs and the living room downstairs that two windows looked out onto the elevated tracks and street below. I grew up with the sound of trains in my sleep, in my play, in my homework, in my piano practice. But trains weren’t the only source of street noise; there were whistles and shouts, cars, buses, and sirens.
We lived in a neighborhood in transition—from working class poor to out-and-out poor. My family gradually became an extreme minority, but as a kid this community defined the norm. However, our microcosm was not insulated from the larger world of the 1960s. There were riots in the streets, and although my parents’ store wasn’t vandalized, gates went up on the store’s windows.
Eventually my parents became uneasy that our neighborhood was no longer racially or economically integrated. When I was twelve, my family moved. I cried to my friends that I would not leave them and the place I loved. But I did.
Many years later, when my father was hospitalized, I went back to my old neighborhood to check on the store for him. I was heartened to see that while the neighborhood was still extremely depressed, the store was still a vital part of the community. I went upstairs and found my first home just as I had remembered it, not one bit smaller. For all the places I’ve lived since, there has been none larger or more contained. I used to live in a house with two windows that looked out; actually, I still live there.