I have no intention to Dylan Thomas you, or even Greg Lake you, with this particular page. I decided, after a recent tour of the Brooklyn Army Terminal on the waterfront, to have lunch at a longtime favorite spot and then walk through Bay Ridge to the N train at 8th avenue and 62nd Street, just for the exercise. The sun came out and, seeing the Bay Ridge collection of Christmas decorations, much more lavish than those in Little Neck (apparently a group of Scrooges out here), I was not exactly seized, but affected, by some nostalgia. A deadly condition.
When I lived in Bay Ridge for my first 35 years, I appreciated the neighborhood, especially when my time there was coming to an end. I had a number of favorite streets such as 76th between 5th and 6th Avenues, shown here. My favorite blocks were characterized by groups of attached buildings divided into apartments with either rounded or squared-off bays in the front. These allowed the occupants a view up and down the street.
The owners of this building have tricked it out generously with Christmas decorations. I used to visit the lavish displays in midtown Manhattan and in nearby Dyker Heights, where the neighbors compete with each other about how big an electric bill they can run up, and I have previously written about the Garabedian house in Pelham Gardens, Bronx, the ultimate resolution of the Liberacization of Christmas.
Those displays now, though, remind me of an unlimited wealth that I now figure I won’t be seeing much of, so I tend to avoid them these days in favor of more modest Christmas decor.
This house, incidentally, features an electrically-powered gaslight in front of it, as do a number of houses on the block. There are still hundreds of these around town, but only a pair of original poles that carries gaslights on public streets.
My childhood has by now receded far below the horizon and out of sight, but I still remember snatches here and there, not all of them about what gifts I received. In my childhood home it was my father, mother, maternal grandmother and me. Most years, a shipment of oranges would come in from my mother’s relatives in California. Christmas cards from my California relatives always referred to my grandmother as “Doc.” I have always remembered this, yet have never discovered why the nickname was bestowed. My grandmother passed away in 1977, and I have lost touch with my mother’s side of the family since then. This, I suppose, is the “Rosebud” of my existence, with the difference being that others know what “Doc” meant, but not me.
One of the fondest memories of Christmas for me was the silver aluminum tree with a color wheel we used in the 1960s. We were all fascinated with the colors and would commonly turn off the other lamps in the room and stare at it with wonder. I was a nearsighted foureyes as early as age seven, and I would take off my glasses and get a fascinating image of colors blurring and blending. Such trees are still available from the specialty websites, and I intend to get another one of those trees one of these years.
At my grade school, St. Anselm, the chief joy for me around Christmas time was vacation away from it, but us kids would all get a plastic see-through candy cane filled with M&Ms or somesuch as a gift. Most of the J-shaped part of the canes were red plastic, but very occasionally, there would be a white version, and I tried mightily year after year to get one of the white ones. Just because it was different.
Gosh, Santa is the fat man in the red suit, but this is Bouncing Boy fat. This guy isn’t getting down a chimney anytime soon.
Our house had, I think, one of the first color televisions in the building and one of the first in the neighborhood. Our new Zenith was unveiled, literally, on Christmas Day 1966, a banner year (we had had half a foot of snow the previous day, making it look a lot like Christmas). For days, what I thought was the old black and white Philco was covered behind a canvas covering, and my inquiries were met with various obfuscations.
One old Calvin & Hobbes cartoon has Calvin’s Dad stating that the world turned color in 1966. For me that was the very truth, as a previously drab TV world became magical. Who knew that Jeannie’s harem girl outfit was pink, or that the guys in the red shirts got killed on Star Trek?
In the early days of color TV, constant adjustment of the knobs was necessary from channel to channel, unless you were OK with Jeannie having a green face. There was the same trouble with vertical hold and snow that there had been with the old Philco, and every so often, Mr. Linn, the local TV repairman, would have to be summoned with his case full of tubes to replace one that had blown out. Years later, when I had gotten my own place, I purchased one of Mr. Linn’s old refrigerators, and there was the spectacle of me, my landlord and Mr. Linn, who was 80 by then, pushing the fridge up 4 flights of steps. I took the by then 16-year-old Zenith with me as well, but when the picture started zapping in and out, I suspected a fire danger and finally retired it. The replacement set was appropriated by the local youth for community use a few years later.
My place was a railroad flat at 7th Avenue and 73rd Street. I spent 8 years there and even though the place was horribly drafty, I could see the Verrazano Bridge out the back room window in the winter and the Williamsburg Bank tower (now One Hanson Place) from the roof, where I was allowed to go.
This place was on the cusp of Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights. I could get groceries from both 5th Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway. I loved the place and mourned when I was asked out because the landlord wanted my apartment for his daughter; I could have stayed and fought for it, I suppose, but I’m not into these kind of battles.
Unfortunately it wasn’t till I moved out in 1990 that this Christmas specialty shop set up at 7th and Ovington Avenues. My parents and I would often frequent similar shops near our old 6th Avenue home. This place even has homemade, or “artisanal” pies as a side business. When I was on 73rd Street I still kept a small vinyl tree with some of the original tinfoil decorations salvaged from the old man’s place. In fact, I still have that tree and the decorations, but they stay in the closet these days. I do plug in a string of Christmas lights around the window; I leave them up all year and they’re ready for me when Christmas comes.
I am feeling a great level of fondness for that 1980s era. I had my own place for the first time, and I was working nights in a type shop from 5 PM to 3AM, and later 7 PM to 5 AM. I am very regimented and prefer a daily schedule. I felt quite grounded in the job. The shop, Photo-Lettering, had a Christmas party only the first year I was there, 1982, but later saved money by skipping it. As a rule, though, I have skipped Christmas parties most years at other places I’ve been, if I can get away with it, because I haven’t felt that I was an indispensable part of the workplaces I’ve been and it was sort of a phony thing for me to celebrate with management.
I’ll leave you with one more memory.
I had my choice of what train to take when coming home from work in the predawn hours to 73rd Street. I could take the N to 62nd Street and walk about 10 blocks from there, or I could take the R to Bay Ridge Avenue and walk about 7 blocks from there.
When I took the N train I would walk across the pedestrian bridge over the Gowanus Expressway at 72nd Street, and if you look over the expressway to the south, the beetling hulk of the Veterans Hospital on Poly Place rises in the distance. We would bundle up old magazines and send them over for the veterans recuperating there during the Vietnam War.
At Christmas time, I could cross that pedestrian bridge, see that the hospital, as usual, had hung on its great bulk an array of red lights in the form of a Christmas tree, and I knew I was getting close to home in Bay Ridge.
And what a home it was!