Scenes from My Life On Hemlock Street: A Brooklyn Memoir by Arlene Mandell
Welcome to Hemlock Street
When we moved into our second-floor apartment in 1944, there were no hemlock trees on Hemlock Street. There were no pine trees on Pine Street, the next block, either. In fact there were no trees of any kind whatsoever. I guess the men who built our squat brick units — six-room apartments downstairs for the owners, two three-room apartments upstairs for the tenants, decided streets with tree names were better than no trees at all.
At the end of the block were two big vacant lots where the older kids played. Then the street disappeared into a narrow dirt path. Each building had a tiny front garden with a black iron fence but only the owners could go inside them. A few had roses that smelled like coffee because coffee grounds were good for the flowers. Some had dark green bushes. Some were just dirt.
Most of my childhood, from the time I was three until I was fifteen, was spent on this block of identical brick units crammed with families. Soon I knew everyone: the Adamos, Giannellas, Florios, Parisis, Sachses, and Schwartzes. Almost all the families were Jewish or Italian and had two or three kids. The Schwartzes had no children, just a mean dog named Fluffy who yapped all the time. Once he bit me.
Years later I would decide our block was like an early version of Sesame Street, spilling over with argumentative, colorful, grouchy and kindhearted characters, but back then it was just our block, not an animated educational program or a microcosm of the world.
Back then before I was old enough to go to school, I had everything I could want: beautiful books with stories I was learning to read, a doll with a pink dress and rooted hair, and my parents’ attention when my father wasn’t working or sleeping and my mother wasn’t cooking or cleaning.
I had to play quietly because my father worked nights at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, guarding the troop ships against our enemies. He carried a gun, which he stored on the top shelf of our coat closet. I was never, ever to touch it.
When we had air raid warnings, my mother would pull down the shades and turn off all the lights so the German planes couldn’t find Hemlock Street. We would sit together in the kitchen with a single lit candle in a glass jar. I don’t remember if I was afraid. Sometimes I fell asleep before the “all clear” sounded and woke up the next morning in my own bed.
Mrs. Florio, who lived in the apartment behind ours, was expecting a baby. Mr. Florio was a soldier somewhere in the Pacific. My cousin Danny was in the Pacific too, in the Coast Guard. He enlisted when he was only sixteen. Once he came to visit us wearing his Coast Guard uniform. He was handsome and so tall he could rest his hand on the frame over our front door.
My father showed me a map and explained about the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Hawaii was a part of our country even though it was in the middle of an ocean. I hoped Cousin Danny would get to see hula dancers and bring me a present from Hawaii, maybe even a grass skirt.
© Arlene Mandell, 2009
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