The apartment house in which we lived on Alabama Avenue was broken up into eight flats -- two on each floor, fronts and rears. Our ground floor, rear, sheltered us from the noises of the street, but in exchange for the quiet, we lost the drama of the street scene that played out daily, like a newsreel, under the windows of ground floor, front.
Ground floor, rear, had one other advantage -- a weedy patch of backyard that I could reach by hoisting myself out of my parents' bedroom window, and slipping down the angled cellar door to the grass. Not intended for recreation, these squares of green came with every ground floor rear, up and down Alabama Avenue. Clotheslines with hanging wash that betrayed the secret lives of the tenants screened the sky.
We might, of course, have had a garden. But neither my mother nor father was so inclined. Nor did either of them have a deep commitment to the place, which they were resigned to endure until times got better.
Our apartment was strung out in four, tiny, box-like rooms: the kitchen, where you entered from the always darkened hallway; living room; my bedroom; and finally, at the end of the line, my parents' bedroom. Each of the first three rooms had a window that faced onto the air shaft. My parents' bedroom had two windows that looked out to the yard. In spite of the bleakness of the neighborhood, the absence of any softening of the harsh tenement environment, and the strident human interactions of the street, the apartment seemed always bright to me, although I do not know how sun could have reached the air shaft windows. The perception of brightness may have come more from my mother's constant cleaning and polishing. No surface escaped her vigorous scrub-brush. Cleaning was her favorite sport, and in my memory of it, everything shone.
We moved to Alabama Avenue when I was six, and ready for first grade. It was a step down for us. My father had been gravely ill and had lost his job after being hospitalized for three months with a kidney infection. The great depression was at its peak and the hearts of the working classes stung with the pain of powerlessness that seemed both incomprehensible and unending. We had to join the relief rolls, a welfare club for the impoverished and a source of great shame for my parents.
In our apartment, our furniture, bought during more prosperous times, was comfortable and ample. The small living room had a couch and easy chair, a table for the radio and an old upright piano. In my room, in addition to my bed, there was a pine-board shelf set up high, beyond my reach. On it, my mother kept who-knows-what treasures out of my hands. Also on the shelf, in a box protected with several layers of white tissue paper, was a three foot, dressed-for-a-party, curly-haired doll which my mother had won in a raffle. It was the only thing, she said, that she had ever won. While the doll was supposed to be for me, I never got to play with it. I was not allowed to get it dirty and once in a while, when my hands were properly washed, and I had accumulated several days of good behavior in a row, my mother would take the doll down, unwrap the tissue and hand it reluctantly over to me. I would reach for it greedily, but quickly lost interest. The doll was my mother's treasure and I was afraid that I might do something to soil that pink dress, or tangle those fine curls. After awhile, I forgot about her altogether, until, on one of her cleaning binges, my mother found to her horror that those curls had become a haven for vermin -- the entire doll's head infested with the most revolting assortment of wriggling, writhing, maggoty beasts, a sleeping Medusa. Needless to say, the doll was hastily dispatched to the garbage bin and the shelf and surrounding area washed with Lysol, scrubbed and polished several times over. I felt no loss, but only a remote sadness over what we might have been to each other.
My mother made a full time career of housekeeping with a weekly routine that was sacrosanct. Monday, the washing; Tuesday, the ironing; Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, the marketing and preparing for the Sabbath. The program of housecleaning was done in small and large measures. Each day, she made the beds, tidied the house, dusted and swept the floors. Once a week, she scrubbed the woodwork and walls, washed the windows and the kitchen floor, and attacked the kitchen appliances. My mother was in a constant battle with dirt and she cheerfully accepted the name my father bestowed upon her, Mrs. Clean, as a badge of distinction. With such a schedule, she had little time for leisure activity. In the evening, she spent her time knitting, another productive task. Even visits to my grandmother were programmed every other day, after household chores were done.
My father, on the other hand, was completely disinterested in the affairs of the house. He was a social man, and one of the few I know who felt completely at ease meeting and chatting with complete strangers. After dinner, no matter what the weather, he would get up from the table and say, "I'm going out for awhile." He generally went as far as the corner, to the local candy store hangout, where he'd smoke, chat with whomever came in and drink an occasional egg cream. Once a week, he'd bring home the weekly edition of Detective Fiction, a pulp magazine with a lurid cover, which my mother thought was trash, but which I learned much later in my life, contained the early stories in episode, of Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler and other notable writers of detective fiction. My father was hooked on Detective Fiction.
Although I was an early reader (if my mother's stories are to be believed), the reading material in our house consisted primarily of stacks of Detective Fiction magazines, piled neatly on the table next to my father's easy chair. I tried my luck at these from time to time, but while I could phonetically manage many words, the meanings eluded me. We also took the Daily News and the Mirror every day, and I would read the comics in each many times over. Sunday was a double blessing, colored comics and much more of them, which I devoured. When I found that the Journal American had an even more extensive Sunday comics section, I pressed for its inclusion into our literary diet, but my parents vetoed my demand. Two newspapers were enough.
Money in our house was consistently short and it was rare that I had more than a penny, at most two, for spending. When my uncle came for a visit, his pockets jingling with coins and always a chocolate lollipop for me hidden somewhere on his person, I could expect to receive largesse in the shape of a nickel. If I had a dime, it meant a trip to the Woolworth on Sutter Avenue, where my affluence could buy me an afternoon's read at the Big Little Book counter. I'd start at one end of the counter and read down the row, showing my dime, knotted into the corner of my handkerchief, when the saleslady asked if I had the money to buy. If not, you were immediately turned out into the street. When I finally made my choice of the Big Little Book, it was one I'd already read in the course of making my selection. It didn't matter. I'd take it home and read it maybe a dozen times more. Had my uncle's visits been more frequent, I might have eventually owned every Big Little Book in the Five and Dime. As they were not, I managed to collect only about a half dozen. There were, of course, other pulls on my meager financial assets.
When I entered first grade at my new school, P.S. 174, I didn't know what to expect. Kindergarten, at my previous school, P. S. 62, was pure joy, with paints and dolls and stories, a treasure house of wonderful activities. No one had et me in on the secrets of Grade One. When the Elson Basic Reader was put in my hands, I could not contain my joy. I immediately began to read, and because of the slightness of volume, would easily read through the whole book twice in one sitting, while Miss Stellwagon made her agonizing climb through the rows and rows of semi-literate, painfully slow six year-olds, each taking his or her turn at plodding through a line of text. Naturally, when it finally came my turn, I never had the place and not even Miss Stellwagon's humiliating punishments could keep me from the magic of those stories, however many times I'd read them. I liked the moral tales least, and always left them for last. It was the fairy tales that I yearned for: Snow White and Rose Red. Thumbelina. The Little Match Girl. My Alabama Avenue world was left far behind when I entered the expansive world of fantasy. From first grade on, I always associated school with books. School was a place where all manner of books were housed. Lacking other experience, I did not know that real books could be bought, borrowed, or collected in a home.
When I was nine, our fortunes took a small upward turn and we moved from Alabama Avenue to Miller, about a half step up on the social ladder. This meant a shift in schools and I was returned to my beloved P.S. 62 for one last year, before fire regulations forced the closing of that derelict wooden building. My affection for P. S. 62 was undiminished, even though my fourth grade teacher was a stickler for penmanship, a subject at which I had little skill, always at a loss when it came to making those oughts and slanted lines which were the mainstay of the Palmer method. Those hateful shapes, coupled with my first experiences with a pen, netted me a series of bad marks on my report card, to the great sorrow of my parents who placed a very high value on all school performance. They could not bring themselves to understand how such a "smart girl" could not master these simple, mechanical strokes. Be that as it may, I forgive my fourth grade teacher everything, because that year was the turning point of my life, her gift to me one of the finest I had ever received.
Without any prior announcement, our teacher lined us up one morning -- we always went in straight lines, like in Bemmelmans' Madeline -- and headed us out the door for a long walk, across Atlantic Avenue, under the Fulton Street elevated, to a neighborhood with large houses and gardens and old trees lining the streets. The neighborhood itself was sumptuous and I could not envision what manner of real people might live in such mansions as these. My own imagination couldn't reach that far into life.
At the corner of Arlington and Warwick, a small palace, made of gothic stone and covered in ivy, with a great lawn surrounding it on three sides, was the beneficence of Andrew Carnegie: our local public library. We were led in, hushed by its interior -- the paneled wood, Tiffany lighting fixtures, the smell of books. We didn't mind as we waited our turns to be issued a juvenile card that would allow us to borrow two books, for a period of two weeks. Only two, mind you. I remember finding my way up the spiral staircase to the juvenile non-fiction section in the mezzanine, the whole of the place filled floor to ceiling with shelves of books. I could not get my hands on them fast enough. Classmates and teacher evaporated as I sat on the floor in a sea of juvenile non-fiction. I could have stayed there forever, abandoning mother, father, home without a second thought. When our teacher asked us to make our selections and get ready to leave, I reached with one hand for Tales of Shakespeare, by Charles and Mary Lamb, and with the other, for Hans Christian Andersen.
After our introduction to the library, we were on our own with respect to getting there, and like the proverbial postman, neither rain nor sleet nor hail nor snow nor freezing temperatures could keep me from making the nearly two mile walk, like clockwork, every two weeks. It never occurred to me that I should consider the weather. It was only my mother who fretted when I came home with frost-bitten fingers and toes, and who didn't understand why anyone in her right mind might venture out, by choice, when she could have remained home.
I could never explain it either -- how it felt to leave the scrubbed and barren apartment on Miller Avenue and begin the walk. To see the residences change, from one block to the next, from tenement buildings, to one family, semi-detached frame houses and then, to cross under the Fulton elevated tracks and enter the world of large, stately, homes with gardens and tree-lined streets. To approach the library and to know that once inside, I would be warm.
Like a beloved doll given up for other, more age-appropriate toys, the Arlington Library Branch eventually lost its hold on me, as my reference needs became more sophisticated. Without a second thought, I shifted my allegiances to the main 42nd Street branch and the vast resources of the library at college, making them my chief sources for text and recreational reading. Eventually, I moved far from Brooklyn. Yet, as memories of the old neighborhood faded with the years, my recollection of the Arlington Public Library, with incredible staying power, loomed larger than life and I ached to see it once more.
So I prevailed on my friend of long standing to drive me there, during one of my infrequent trips to New York City. She was resistant. "The neighborhood's not safe," she said. I didn't care. We drove down the Interborough Parkway from Queens and got off at Pennsylvania Avenue, working our way east on Fulton Street, and cutting over to Arlington Avenue. The stately houses were still standing, still elegant. We were able to park right in front of the library, and when I dared to look, the building seemed smaller. The great lawn I had envisioned existed only in my imagination. I walked up the steps and pushed open the big, oak door. Immediately, I was overcome by the smell of it -- the smell of my library. Inside those doors the library was unchanged, its majesty undiminished. Tears fell uncontrollably for what I had lost and what I had found. A librarian came over to me to ask if I was unwell. I couldn't answer in any way that made sense as I watched the children lined up at the check out desk, books under their arms, ready for the long walk home.