Lessons from a Lost World

1563 Sterling Place, Brooklyn NY

The world of my childhood is long gone, though the building we lived in still stands.

The first home I remember was a small apartment—one bedroom, a living room, and a kitchen—on the ground floor of 1563 Sterling Place. My parents moved there in 1943, shortly after I was born. Our windows didn’t get direct sunlight because the apartment was in the back of the building, facing north. Our parents had the bedroom, and my little sister Jeannette and I slept on a pullout couch in the living room. We had footed bunny pajamas with a square flap in back. You unsnapped the flap to go to the bathroom.

Like most of the brick tenements filling both sides of the street, ours had been erected in 1922. They must have been part of a development project. 100 years later, those four-story edifices look pretty much the same. Between the buildings were concrete courtyards festooned with clotheslines running on pulleys from outside each kitchen window to the wall of the building next door. In the evening cooking smells drifted across the courtyard, meatballs or beef stew during the week, roast chicken and chicken soup on Friday, and sometimes baked cookies or pies.

Laundry lines between New York apartment buildings

Rectangles of back yard separated the row of buildings on the north side of the block from those on the south, with wooden fences—and sometimes barbed wire—along the property lines. Scraggly ailanthus trees grew in these yards, along with weeds, rusty junk, and shards of glass. Some of the more adventurous boys hid in the back yards during mock war games or scavenged the discards for makeshift weapons.

Near the western end of the block was Dr. Held’s house, the only single-family home. Dr. Held treated us all, either in the clinic that occupied the lower story, liberally supplied with toys, or on house calls with the traditional little black bag. We sometimes played in his front yard. An office visit was $3.00, a house call $5.00.

Where we played, most of the time, was in the street. After the mothers’ chores were done, after the fathers came home and had dinner, they went outside and chatted. It was a small community, we all knew each other, and anything we didn’t know was the subject of speculation and much judgment, according to the mores of the times.

The Moscowitz family lived in the apartment next to ours. Al Moscowitz was a plumber. Down the hall was Mrs. Cushman, a widow lady, rumored to be related to the landlady and a spy for her. The Bogdanovichs lived upstairs, the Belkins and the Markmans in the adjoining building. Tom Bogdanovich was a fireman.

I’ve forgotten what Mr. Belkin and Mr. Markman did. One day my mother told me, in a disapproving tone, that Mrs. Markman had taken a job outside the home—this was rare for mothers of small children in those days—and had purchased a nice new coat for herself with her earnings. The suggestion, clearly, was that Mrs. Markman was selfishly neglecting her kids. We remained friends with that family, even so, and had sleepovers—four little girls sharing the pullout couch. Francine, the youngest, sometimes wet the bed. I don’t know how my mother got the pee smell out.

On warm days we might holler up at someone’s open window, “Barbara’s mother! Can Barbara come out and play?” and Barbara would soon appear on the street.

Nobody hollered for Gloria. She lived with her mother on the top floor of our building and wasn’t allowed to socialize with the rest of us. Someone told me that her mother forced her to do housework. When she did leave the building for one reason or another, though, she was always well dressed and looked healthy. I don’t remember seeing a father, and never got to know her story.

On the other hand, I knew too much about the Moscowitz family, who shared a wall with us. At night we could hear Al and Selma scream at each other, along with Selma’s mother, Mrs. Daniels. Al was a plumber and had been a Golden Gloves contestant in his youth. My father said he was “punch drunk” from being hit on the head too often. They had two sons. Sweet little David was my sister’s age and sometimes played with her.

His brother, Freddie Moscowitz, two years older than me, was not so sweet. After I started kindergarten in 1948, he and his best buddy ragged me in front of our house, singing “Kindergarten baby, stick your head in gravy.” I started to cry. Fortunately my mother was outside at the time. She told me to hold the tears. “Don’t give them the pleasure. Just laugh at them.” When I followed her advice, the boys looked puzzled, and after that they left me alone, perhaps to seek out more satisfying victims. Thank you, Mom!

One day I saw Freddie run outside, his mother chasing him. Selma had hit him so hard his face was bleeding. It was the only time I felt sorry for him.

I played hopscotch with the girls and “cowboys and Indians” with the boys. One summer cap guns were all the rage. They looked like six-shooters. You put a roll of paper with dots of gunpowder inside, and when you pulled the trigger, the hammer hit the dot, resulting in a satisfactory bang! Our street was permeated with the smell of burnt gunpowder, at least until we got bored and went on to other games.

In 1949, when I entered first grade, I got my first lesson in how to deal with bullies. My mother would dress me in a white blouse and brown jumper, and pack my sandwich in a metal lunch box with a plaid pattern. On the way to school I would have to pass the building where Joel lived, and he would dart out after me and either pull my hair or yank up my skirt. When I complained to Mom, she took me to Joel’s house. His mother didn’t seem particularly upset but said she’d have a talk with him. Whatever she said, if anything, had no effect—he did it again next morning.

This time, however, having failed to solve the problem by complaining, I turned and hit him on the head with my little metal lunch box. He started to run and I chased him in a circle, whacking away, raging, happy, triumphant. He never bothered me again. When he had to sit next to me in second grade, he pretended never to have seen me before.

*          *          *

My parents were scared of the landlady and their fear rubbed off on me. I remember having a nightmare where she hit me in front of them, and they did nothing. I didn’t know that New York City—and much of the rest of the country—had a severe housing shortage, and low income families were being squeezed with rent increases or even evicted to make room for those who could pay more.

The federal Office of Price Administration (OPA) had kept a lid on rents during World War II, but now allowed 15% increases based on “voluntary” negotiations with tenants, or on the landlord’s supposed hardship, or on turnover. This last provision gave landlords incentive to evict a tenant who didn’t “voluntarily” pay an increase, or who had fallen into disfavor.

A stiff increase would have been devastating to us, and eviction an unthinkable nightmare. My father once told me that, according to government statistics, we were always on the line between poor and middle class, and never made it above that line.

Our neighbors were in the same boat, more or less. I was able to find some salary information for those years. In 1951, a union plumber earned $5460 a year, but I don’t think Al Moscowitz had a union job so he would have earned less than that. In 1950 a fireman like Tom Bogdanovich got $4400 a year, while my father, an accounting technician with the federal government, might have earned around $4000.

*          *          *

In 1949 the Moscowitzes bought a television, a black and white tabletop model with a 10” screen, costing around $375. Theirs was the first on our block. My sister and I went over there a few times to watch westerns—Hopalong Cassidy and The Lone Ranger. Soon every household had a TV. Families stayed in after dinner, staring at whatever size screen they could afford, and ceased socializing with neighbors—or even learning their neighbors’ names. We didn’t realize it then, but that tiny TV marked the beginning of the end of the world we knew.

Decades later, in 1964, I was mildly surprised when coworkers came in talking about the adventures of TV characters they had seen the previous night, as though these fictions were real. Were their own lives so boring as not to be worth discussing? Or were some of them, like me, compelled to be in the closet on the job? I never found out.

Now, in 2022, I can observe people glued to even tinier screens while they walk in the park oblivious to nature, cross the street oblivious to traffic, or even walk together as a couple, each one texting a person who isn’t there. O brave new world!

5 Responses to Lessons from a Lost World

  1. Esther M Newton August 15, 2022 at 6:18 am #

    Always interested in what your write, Martha. Your memory is so detailed, mine of childhood are more general, although your childhood seems to have been happier than mine, so that might account for it. If you are working on a memoir though, which is what I’m guessing these short pieces are, don’t neglect having a throughline that is driving the narrative. The first draft of my memoir had many details — though from a later episode in my life — that I was fanatically attached to, and a super helpful editor urged me to streamline and cut cut cut, which I reluctantly did but in retrospect I saw she was correct.

  2. Martha Shelley August 15, 2022 at 9:41 am #

    Hi Esther,
    I have already completed a memoir, which includes some of the short pieces in my blog (but not the current one), and it has been accepted by Chicago Review Press. It is focused on my development as an activist starting with early acts of rebellion, and goes through work with GLF Radicalesbians, etc, It will be published for Pride Week 2023. I’ll be making more announcements when the time approaches–assuming the creek don’t rise and we don’t get hit by an asteroid in the meantime.

  3. Mary Ann Aschenbrenner August 15, 2022 at 7:11 pm #

    This is a great slice of life piece. I especially like the part about when people started getting TVs and stopped hanging around outside with their neighbors.

  4. Connie Byrne August 16, 2022 at 10:46 am #

    I was one of the lucky ones, not being a city girl, but rather a country kid, living outside of Towson, Maryland on 8 acres of land my Dad had bought in 1948? . I’m guessing on that, but know I was just past 3 years old our first winter there. Family story says my Dad was watching me and my baby brother while Mom went shopping with a neighbor for groceries. He wasn’t paying attention, even though we were outside, and I wandered off across the front yard into the neighboring field. Imagine his panic since I had on a pink snow suit, hard to see in the snow!! He found me, obviously, but that story stuck around, being part of family lure.

    My play stories revolve around being outside, running the woods, building small dams in the stream to catch crawdads and never succeeding in catching the minnows when I was older. A stick with string, a safety pin and a worm was poor tackle to say the least.

    Our first TV arrived in1952 when I was in first grade. We could watch the Westerns and Howdy Doody Time after school, but only until my Dad came home. Supper was followed by homework and an early bedtime since we had to walk to the bus stop in the morning that was not quite a half-mile away. My biggest memory from elementary school was being in 3rd grade and while in the playground for recess, seeing my Dad up on the telephone pole at the corner! He worked for the C&P Telephone Co. He started out climbing poles while he went to school to get his engineering degree at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. He worked his way up over the years, retiring as a Consulting Engineer. I still have the framed photo from the Baltimore Sun where he was holding blueprints on the construction site of what became the Civic Center.
    Needless to say, our childhood and young adult memories are drastically different. However, I look forward to what you share as it gives me a deep look into what other lives were like in the 50s and 60s…so keep writing. And maybe I’ll someday do what my daughter-in-law says I should do, write it all down for the grandkids.

  5. Martha Shelley August 17, 2022 at 9:13 am #

    Connie, you should write it down for the grandkids. It’s very important for them to know their family history. Even if they don’t seem interested while they’re busy playing video games or whatever, they will regret not having that history when they are older. I wish my parents had told me more than they did–and my grandparents as well.

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