Scenes from My Life On Hemlock Street: A Brooklyn Memoir by Arlene Mandell
Crossing Pitkin Avenue
In September of 1946, on the first day of first grade, my mother walked me to P.S. 159, pushing my brother Eddie in his baby carriage. Since she couldn’t get the carriage up the red brick steps, I went through the black metal doors alone. Room 104, Miss Livingston, Room 104, I kept repeating in my head, stopping at each door as bigger kids rushed past.
Some of the girls in Room 104 knew each other from kindergarten and were best friends. I hadn’t gone to kindergarten. My stomach hurt. Miss Livingston looked mean. She pulled the pencil out of my left hand and put it in my right hand. She called on me to read: “Look Jane look. See Spot run.”
They were baby words. I had been reading bigger words than that since I was three years old.
After school my mother was waiting outside. Eddie was screaming in his carriage, his face bright red. “I had to wake him from his afternoon nap,” she said. “Tomorrow you’ll have to walk to school by yourself.”
The next morning I ate breakfast, threw up, and started off the three very long blocks to school. In my red plaid book bag was the American cheese and mustard sandwich I probably wouldn’t eat. And a homework page of shaky alphabet letters written with my right hand.
I walked up our block, passing houses and people I knew and Mrs. Adamo’s cat, Rigoletto, who could only see with his left eye because his right eye was clawed in a fight. At the corner by Dan’s Market, I stopped and looked both ways. I looked again and saw a car a block away. I waited. More cars came. Finally I raced across the street, my book bag banging against my left side.
The next block was filled with dark brown houses, brown steps and two rows of trees. Some of the concrete pieces of sidewalk were tilted from the tree roots pushing up. I didn’t know anyone on this street. There was a blister on my right heel where my shoe was rubbing, but I walked as fast as I could.
On the final block before my school were apartment houses. Lots of kids were walking and laughing and pushing each other, especially the boys. Then it was time to cross Pitkin Avenue, which had lots of cars and trucks going in both directions and a crossing guard. The bigger kids sort of strolled across the street when she blew her whistle, but I ran. “Look at her,” a tall girl with buck teeth pointed at me. “What a little twerp!”
Days, weeks, months went by as I trudged to school. When it rained, my glasses got fogged up. Once, when the sidewalk was icy, I fell and twisted my ankle. By the time I finished first grade, my legs had grown longer and the blocks had gotten a little shorter.
Two more years passed. My book bag got heavier. And then one day I had a companion, a boy named Freddie whose father owned the fruit and vegetable market on Crescent Street. Freddie was really cute, with green eyes and a little sprinkling of freckles on his nose. He had his own gang, two younger boys who carried my books and his as we strolled hand in hand. Then school ended and Freddie sort of disappeared.
I calculate that I walked back and forth on those same three blocks more than a thousand times. Nothing interesting ever happened. Nothing at all. And then it was June 1952 and I was chatting with my friend Joan as we waited on Pitkin Avenue for the crossing guard who was frantically trying to control traffic.
In September we would be attending a junior high school in another part of Brooklyn with five of our classmates. We had been selected for a “rapid advance” class that would complete three years of junior high in two years, and we had heard ominous rumors: P.S. 171 was run by tough girls who had been to reform school. They liked to pick on seventh graders.
The crossing guard signaled for us to go ahead, and as the crowd surged forward, Carmine, a vicious sixth grade boy from the slow class, knocked a little girl into the gutter. Joan and I bent down to help her. Her eyes were shiny with unshed tears. Her knees were scraped. Her hair was in eight braids with a different colored barrette at the end of each one.
“Don’t worry. We’ll take you to the nurse,” I said. I looked at Joan and knew we were both thinking the same thing: he pushed her because she was colored. “She’ll clean your knees and give you Band-Aids,” Joan added. Then we crossed Pitkin Avenue with the little girl shielded between us.
© Arlene Mandell, 2009
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