A Room with a View, Too.*
My aunt Edna had a room with a view of the brick wall of the small apartment building next door. She lived on the 2nd floor of a 4 story building at 1017 Hopkinson Avenue, in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, and her window looked out on the bricks of 1019. Edna had gone to school long enough to know her times table through 15, the names of the all the presidents, and the capitals of the 48 states. Although she learned to revere George Washington, Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, she adored Herbert Hoover. We never knew why. My aunt never told a lie—except when playing penny poker— and liked everyone but redheads. We called her Addie, as Eddie didn’t seem quite right.
Addie had six sisters and six brothers and although she never married, she didn’t lack for company as her rooms were always full of nieces and nephews. She taught them all to play poker, although her method of teaching was to encourage slow and steady progress—mostly by not explaining all the rules at once. In this way, she methodically collected our allowances, almost always in pennies, and stored them away in large Mason jars, for hard times. If you beat Addie twice she would never play poker with you again. She would move you quickly on to some more challenging game, usually Whist. Her technique made for hard thinking children and critical thinking adults. Two of my cousins went on to be household names in the world of bridge, while two others could never be convicted of the bank fraud they had so obviously perpetrated. When Addie died last year, we found 42 Mason jars full of pennies—just over a thousand dollars worth. Of course, we played poker for them. One of the bank thieves won. Did she cheat? Perhaps, but we will never know.
Addie worked her entire life in a factory that made the sleeves for long playing 78 records. She would often bring home the latest Sinatra or Tony Bennett—but without the record. She had, I believe, the largest collection of record sleeves in the country, but not a single record. She said that she could not see any point to music. I thought at the time that she might not have picked the right sense for music appreciation, but I have heard her croon “Happy Birthday,” on many occasions, and I’m forced to admit that her natural antipathy to music may not have been a bad thing. It may have, in, fact, contributed to her popularity.
But the love of Addie’s life was the mural she was continuously painting, when weather permitted, on the patch of bricks across the narrow alley from her bedroom window. I was handy and when I was 10, she had me construct from a broom handle, a device she could use to screw in paint brushes of different sizes and shapes. It wasn’t far from wall to wall, across that narrow alley, and by using my invention she could paint quite comfortably. It was always a thrill for six or seven of us to gather in her room at the very first hint of spring and listen to what she had planned for the mural that year. We’d offer our suggestions en mass, in our cacophony of high and low pitches voices, which to Addie must have sounded much like music and made as little sense.
There aren’t many occasions now when I can get together with my cousins —those at least that were the children of the fifties that grew up in Brooklyn. We are scattered across the country and the world. For most of us, explaining what we do now, or how we got to what we do now, or, I suppose who we are now would be uncomfortable, awkward even for the few of us whose lives bear scrutiny. But what can I say, “We will always have Brooklyn”, and for those of us who grew up together there and then, there is an easy comfort in each other’s company. We last met at Gloria’s house on the island. She didn’t tell us what she had planned. Gloria has more money than god has children, as they say, but she is also very lucky and has aged the way that lucky rich people do. I don’t envy Gloria that, but I do envy her the four aces, she still carries with her, that Addie dealt her in a poker game in 1958.
Gloria rented a limo to take us all to the Bowery and the New Museum—a multistory cavernous warehouse filled with the most contemporary of contemporary art. The show was entitled, “Post-graffiti: Building art in New York City.” And Addie’s mural, chipped from the building and reconstructed in the third floor gallery was clearly the highlight of the show. It turns out that New York City is using federal stimulus money to take down many of these old apartment buildings. All in all, over a thousand buildings will be removed and replaced. But as they have gone over the buildings—many of them empty for years—they have discovered a treasure trove of art work. Painted floors and walls, mosaics, abstracts and representations—a primitive, yet very urban art, that they have decided is not only worth saving, but worth exhibiting.
My cousins and I marveled at the show. We particularly liked the title for Addie’s work, “The View from My Room of New York City.” We ate at the old Chinese restaurant on 98th Street, in East Flatbush, that has survived so many changes to the neighborhood. We joked that they had probably started cooking some of the food we were eating back in fifties, when the Yankees were king and every summer lasted 100 years. Then we settled back at Gloria’s for some very serious penny poker. As always, I lost my shirt to those sharks.
*This year is the 100th anniversary of the Bloomsbury group.