back in the day

Brooklyn was an independent city until 1898 when it was consolidated with New York City but it retained its distinct culture and architecture from the early settlers. Its motto was In Unity There is Strength and sixty-two years later the 2.6 million people in Brooklyn still thought of it as an independent city. They didn’t like the people who lived in Manhattan.

In 1959 I shared a one bedroom apartment on Nostrand Avenue, East Flatbush near the corner of Winthrop Street, one block from Kings County Hospital and a ten minute walk from the abandoned Ebbets Field. It was on the third floor at the back of an old building above an Irish bar and the subway. The apartment was heated but had no air conditioning. For the oppressively hot summer nights there were no steps outside the building to sit in the hope of catching some cool air. The only way to get air into the apartment was through the single window at the back of the building. East Flatbush was a mixed area. I drank beer in an Irish bar, walked one block to an Italian barber and one block in the other direction to a Jewish-owned food market. The bar did not close until three o’clock in the morning when the empty bottles were dumped into a bin below our window. The winter was bitterly cold, worse than anything I had experienced before, so my first Christmas was spent in the bar with others who had no place to go.

Three young men living in a one-bedroom apartment was not considered unusual in Brooklyn where everyone was jammed into small apartments or houses. There were two single beds in the one tiny bedroom and an uncomfortable couch in the living room where Eddie, the trumpet player, slept. We had different hours so didn’t talk much except to argue over whether the toilet seat should be left up or down. Eddie worked all night and slept all day. He was asleep on the couch, often alone, when I left for work and gone when I came home. I suspected he moved from the lounge to one of the beds after I left for work. Eddie was a heavy smoker and rolled his own peculiar brand of cigarettes. The “cigarettes” had a strange sweet smell which attached itself to the furniture, curtains and bed covers. Eddie was stoned most of the time. The other occupant of the apartment was a strange quiet guy. He spent a lot of time with his girl-friend in Manhattan.

The Winthrop Street subway station was only fifty yards from the apartment and I routinely caught a train about 7:30 in the morning to Rockefeller Center. After work I took the subway to 116th Street and Broadway, the Columbia University stop. From there it was a long trip home to Brooklyn. Several times I fell asleep on the train, missing Winthrop Street and continuing to the end of the line at Brooklyn College. One morning, I woke up in a darkened carriage parked in the train yard, surrounded by heavy snoring from the homeless men who slept there every night. They left the train before it began its early morning run back to Manhattan. I stopped off at Nostrand Avenue to change for work.

The two Irish bartenders in the Nostrand Avenue bar had immigrated to the US in the 1950s and settled in Brooklyn. They had never been to Manhattan and like most people who lived in Brooklyn referred to it as “New York”. They could readily understand that I would travel half way around the world to live in Brooklyn but could not understand why I would travel forty-five minutes on the subway to go to New York. After all Brooklyn had everything except a baseball team.

The Irish bars along 2nd and 3rd Avenues in midtown Manhattan became a favorite place for lunch or dinner and to watch television. I didn’t own a television set. The corned beef and cabbage was excellent, beer was fifteen cents a glass and the whiskey was free poured so good value for money. Other attractions of the Irish bars were the air conditioning in summer and sport on television all year. If there were no games on television, I frequented a bar in West Greenwich Village to listen to music. It was on my way home and the hamburgers were good.

Julius’ Bar was the oldest bar in the Village. It started out in life as a grocery store and then a popular speakeasy during prohibition. Julius’ interesting history attracted writers, journalists, critics, publishers, editors, artists, jazz musicians, students, Greenwich Village locals and visitors from nearby states where the drinking age was twenty-one. In New York it was eighteen. The wall behind the bar was covered with signed photographs of celebrities and old photographs of race horses. There was some strange “crud” hanging from the ceilings, sawdust on the floor and the air was full of smoke. Once a week Julius’ had a jazz band playing there and often, after midnight, musicians who had finished at the nearby jazz nightclubs Village Vanguard and Nick’s would stop by to sit in and give an impromptu performance. On those nights there was a charge of $4.50 to get in but it included three beers. On the other nights a huge jukebox near the rear of the bar blasted out the latest hits. It was at Julius’ that I developed my love of jazz.

One night, sometime after midnight, three musicians walked in to Julius’ after performing at a nearby club and started up with the group. I had not seen them before but the jazz was unbelievably good, worth more than the $4.50 I had paid to get in. When the bar closed at 3am the musicians moved on to an apartment in the Village, followed by some of the jazz fans from the bar. I followed, sat on the floor sipping beer and listened, enthralled by the impromptu performance. The trumpet player didn’t talk or care if anyone was listening, he and the guy on tenor sax just played uninterrupted for a couple of hours and left when they were finished. I didn’t know who they were but the music just blew me away. Two weeks later, when I stopped off at Julius’ I asked a friend there who the musicians were we listened to until 5am. He replied: “Oh that was Miles Davis, John Coltrane and some other guy.” I had been in the presence of the “Prince of Darkness” and didn’t know it. I still have the vinyls I bought in New York and the CDs of “Round About Midnight” and “Kind of Blue” are in my car. My grandkids don’t understand why I keep playing “that old music”, but then they didn’t understand why I drove an old car either.

Miles-Davis-Record-Collection

At Julius’, the students and artists occupied one end of the bar and the tables near the toilets and juke box. The writers and journalists sat at the other end of the bar, near the front door. They were the 1960s version of the 1920s group known as the Algonquin Round Table who lunched together regularly at the Algonquin Hotel to discuss the latest books, plays and stories. I sat at the bar with the locals, between the two groups, not being accepted by either one or wanting to join them. Occasionally, when I arrived late and there was standing room only I found space among the writers and became engaged in conversation about the only thing we had in common, the baseball or football scores. In the early 1960s Julius’ started to attract a different crowd, many moving from the bars on Christopher Street. The writers and journalists didn’t fit in with the new crowd, nor did my friends and I so we all moved to another bar in the Village where there was no jazz band.

After three years in Brooklyn I was offered a rent-controlled studio apartment in Manhattan on East 47th Street, near First Avenue and the United Nations Building. The old narrow five story building, with no elevator, had only two small apartments on each floor. I rented the furnished apartment on the fifth floor overlooking 47th Street. It had a single bed, sofa bed, small table with four chairs and a tiny kitchen shielded by a free-standing screen. There was no air conditioning but it was close enough to the East River to capture some of the breeze in summer.

It had not been an easy decision to move to Manhattan and leave the village environment of East Flatbush, my friends at the barber shop, the laundromat and the Irish bar on Nostrand Avenue. But the apartment on East 47th Street was more convenient. I could live alone and walk across town to work. In Brooklyn people were friendly and happy to talk. I didn’t have to sit at the laundromat to watch my clothes whirl around, others were there to take them out of the dryer if I hadn’t returned. Manhattan was a very different place. It was busy and impersonal, everyone went about their business and watched their own laundry.

In 1925 John Dos Passos described Manhattan as “merciless but teaming with energy and restlessness.” Dos Passos wrote his classic novel Manhattan Transfer when he had a pessimistic view of life and saw the USA as two nations, one rich and one poor. He attacked the consumerism and social indifference in Manhattan and highlighted the crime, gang warfare, dirty streets and poor people struggling to survive during the Roaring Twenties, when the new music and big bands filled the nightclubs. It was little different in the 1950s and 1960s, except the big nightclubs had almost all been replaced by small jazz bars. Manhattan was still a city that never slept. There always were people in the streets and on the subway, going to work, going home, enjoying the nightlife or preying on those who had enjoyed themselves too much. High rise buildings with small apartments lined the streets. In summer the sun only reached the pavement when it was directly overhead and in winter the streets remained dark. Manhattan was a “pressure cooker” in the hot months as the cooling breeze at night from the wide Hudson River penetrated only a few blocks on the West Side. The breeze from the smaller East River barely made it to Second Avenue. The oppressive heat and humidity forced people onto the streets or the steps of their non-air conditioned buildings. Domestic fights became street brawls, often leading to riots in Harlem and across the river in the Bronx. In the winter the only warmth outdoors came from the steam-filled pipes under the pavements and the subway air vents.

PJ Clarke's
PJ Clarke’s

The move from Brooklyn had reduced my reliance on the subway and removed the temptations of Greenwich Village and the Irish bar on Nostrand Avenue. Living alone also gave me more time to study. Going home late at night was easier and walking along Lexington Avenue was safe as the prostitutes working the eastern side of the street recognised me as a student and made sure I wasn’t bothered by the pimps and deviants. I had moved from my strange friends in the Brooklyn apartment to live alone in Manhattan, protected by the prostitutes on Lexington Avenue. There was no Irish bar on my trek from the subway to the apartment so I had to go further to find a replacement for the Nostrand Avenue bar I had enjoyed for three years. I found it on the corner of Third Avenue at 55th Street. P J Clarke’s became my oasis of hope.

Living in mid-town Manhattan was a different experience. It was noisy, congested and unfriendly. Of the eight million people living in New York City, 1.7 million of them lived in the tiny borough of Manhattan. Walking the streets was like exploring a cavern, the buildings were the walls and the sidewalks were the tracks through the dark maze. Police, ambulance and fire engine sirens screamed out all day and night. People walked quickly everywhere as though they were escaping from something, their heads down to avoid eye contact. Yet if I spoke first and said “Good morning or good evening” most of them responded with a slight smile. In the stores if I politely asked a sales assistant for help they would respond quickly and happily because they were expecting a more abrupt approach. One night it was raining when I left the subway so I started to run along the dark streets towards my apartment. After a few blocks I heard a police siren, a common sound at night, so I kept running until the police car sped past and skidded to a halt in front of me. A large Irish cop jumped out and shouted for me to stop. He asked why I was running and I replied “because it is raining.” The cop asked me to open the bag I was carrying and said: “Where did you get all those books?” I stammered: “I am a student and they are my books.” The cop looked through the bag and said: “Are you sure you didn’t steal them? No one runs in New York unless they are running away from something.” After convincing him that I was just a student hurrying home on a wet night I walked on, thinking I should buy an umbrella before it rained again.

###
Images: The two photos in the story were taken by the author, Ken Peacock
Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock, a former senior Australian executive of a mining company, first visited China in 1972 at the end of the Cultural Revolution and before diplomatic recognition by the Australian and US Governments. This was the first of many visits to China during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1978, he traveled throughout China with a trade delegation and revisited Shanghai where he stayed at the Shanghai Mansions Hotel and discovered the “Last Bottle of Gin in China”.