Monday, December 27, 2010

A Brooklyn Memory...

When I visited my Dad last week in Brooklyn, I took a day and traveled to Grand Army Plaza, the section of Brooklyn where I was born and raised until shortly before my fifth birthday. The neighborhood’s main drag is a grand old six-lane boulevard called “Eastern Parkway.” According to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, Eastern Parkway was “the world's first parkway, conceived by famous architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1866. The term ‘parkway’ was coined by these designers as a landscaped road built expressly for 'pleasure-riding and driving'. To these ends, commerce was restricted.”

Wonderful, late ninetheenth century apartment buildings of twelve to fifteen stories each line the North side of the parkway. And then the opposite, South side of Eastern Parkway contains a wonderful array of Brooklyn’s finest culture, one next to the other: The Brooklyn Museum, The Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, and then Prospect Park, a 585-acre masterpiece, also designed by Olmsted and Vaux.
On Saturdays, Dad would take me and my brothers to the Library and the Gardens, in order to give Mom some quiet time at home. But every day as a toddler I was pushed in my carriage through the Gardens and the Park by Faith, the wonderful Jamaican lady who was my primary caregiver.
41 Eastern Parkway
Towards the middle of the afternoon, I headed for the Library. When I was almost there, I stopped dead in my tracks for across the street from where I was standing I saw 41 Eastern Parkway, the apartment building where I was born. It had been over 46 years since I had last seen that building.
And then powerful memories of Chris started flooding my mind. Chris was the building’s old, white-haired black elevator operator. In buildings from that era, the elevators were all manually operated. There weren’t buttons for each floor, but an up/down lever for the elevator itself. Skilled elevator operators were necessary to make sure the elevator actually stopped level with the particular floor it was going to. And there was a shiny brass gate that the operator manually opened and closed for you to let you on and off the elevator.
Because he was in the elevator all day, there was a little operator’s seat that Chris could fold down from the wall to sit upon. But Chris always stood when he had passengers to take from one floor to another. He had very shiny shoes and a smart cap and uniform with big brass buttons. His pants had gold stripes down the outsides of the legs.
Of course, at the time I never realized that all the elevator operators in these Eastern Parkway apartment buildings—just as all the lavatory attendants—were black. But the memories that came to me so strongly were ones of Chris smiling kindly at me, as he let me operate the elevator and I laughed with delight at the fun of it all. I also remember his folding down the seat for me to sit on, and we would chit-chat together like two old friends.
Later in the day as I sat with a cup of coffee in the Library's cafeteria, I marveled that try as I might, I couldn’t remember the apartment I had lived in for almost five years. The only images in my mind were ones that I had seen in family photographs from the time period. There was nothing of it that was really “mine.”
Yet what DID stick with me in glorious, living color from 41 Eastern Parkway after almost five decades were the simple kindnesses of an old black man toward a very little white boy.
Elevator Up/Down Lever

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