I ran into this guy last week when we were down in Florida, near Venice, at this place called Our Lady of Perpetual Help Center for Prayer and Spirituality. We were there for a retreat, and a week long steam bath. He was a few years older than me, I guess, with an Irish face and a New York accent. You can’t hide either of those things, and when I saw him, a little bent from the waist, about five degrees from straight up, I figured him for my age or a few years older.
He and his wife sat down next to me and mine at breakfast that first day. He said, “Hello.” I said, “What part of the city are you from?” “I’m from all over,” he replied. “I lived in Manhattan, The Bronx, Queens, and even Jersey City. But, I’m from Brooklyn. That’s where I grew up.” “You left out Staten Island,” I told him. “No bridge back then?” “There was that thing in Jersey, but I forget its name. Too much trouble.” I wasn’t sure if he meant the name of the bridge or was making a comment on getting to Staten Island before they built the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. But I knew what he was saying. I mean Staten Island? And, you gotta go through Elizabeth to get there?
It was my turn, then, so I told him I grew up in the Bronx, in Kingsbridge, and swam in the Harlem River when doing that was more hazardous than walking across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. He understood. “You a Yankee fan?” he asked after we had been talking for a few minutes, and I told him I had gone to a few games in the Stadium when I was a kid. “Not now though,” I said, “all the Yankees I was a fan of are dead. Besides, you have to mortgage the farm to go to a major league game these days.”
That got us talking about The City, the three teams that played there and the guys who played on them. I’ve got to admit that his memory was much better than mine. He was a Dodger fan, and remembered meeting the players on subways going to work, talking to them just like regular guys outside the park after the games and being treated with genuine respect; no star behavior, no bodyguards, no tattoos, no bling, no babes. More often than not there was a family waiting for the Old Man to come home from work..
I mentioned that some folks I know still carry a rock in their bags for O’Malley for leaving Brooklyn, and he told me he blames Robert Moses for that; Moses who told O’Malley he’d build a new ball park for the Bums…in Flushing Meadow. This I hadn’t known. “Yeah,” he said, ” and O’Malley said that he wasn’t moving the Brooklyn Dodgers to Queens.” “There would have been riots in Brooklyn if that had happened,” he said. “Now there’s just despair,” I said, and he nodded. We were quiet a while, remembering.
Then he turned to me and spoke a little bit of history. Coney Island, the beach on a summer day, was dotted with knots of men, sometimes as many as 50 in a group, gathered together. “Tourists” for a day from places like Jersey City or Hoboken coming to the beach would see these groups and wonder what was happening, a fight, a card game, something else? No, nothing of the kind. They were fans gathered around the guys who had their transistor radios…something new back in the late ’50’s… down at the beach and tuned into the Dodgers game. No one listened to anything else, he told me. Guys would stand around listening to the play by play and seeing everything like they were at the park.
He still missed them himself, he said, even after all this time.
The Yankees? He told me that he could never think of himself as being a Yankee fan, even if they played good ball, even if they were decent guys. They were a team for rich people, not regular guys. He said that he was still angry that the Yankees would tie up players in their farm organization, places like Kansas City, for years; players who would have started on any other team in the league. That’s how they got to be in the shape they were. Then he remembered again the players on the subway or the bus, guys who were earning ten, maybe fifteen thousand dollars a year while DiMaggio was making $100,000.00. “It wasn’t right,” he said, “it didn’t feel right to root for guys, for a team like that.”
An interesting conversation, indeed.
A couple of day later, while I was thinking about this, and Brooklyn, the Dodgers, Moses, O’Malley, the Yankees and money, I was reminded of a conversation I had a few years ago with a fellow who was a Massachusetts Parole Officer. We were looking for a fugitive I wanted to talk to. This guy had grown up in West Boston, the neighborhood that included old Scollay Square. That’s where the New City Hall is now, an excrescence in concrete, a bad dream of a building squatting in a barren brick clad emptiness. What has to be the world’s largest municipal parking garage is there too, twelve stories and two blocks of chunky grayness, a few post-Communist style government office hulks, and other architectural adventures. He told me that forty years later folks are still trying to get the state to recognize the damage it caused when they destroyed the homes and demolished the people.
“We still have reunions,” he said quietly as we drove past the block where he used to live.
A few years later when my mother-in-law was in the hospital we stayed in the flat faced block long Holiday Inn that took its place; built over the bones of homes and memories. There were forty or so free channels available on the TV in the room, and, if I wanted to, I could watch “adult” movies for a few dollars more.