When I was a kid in Brooklyn, our neighborhood started out really nice, a patchwork of brownstones and small wood frame houses, some with Rose of Sharon growing in tiny front yards. Every corner held adventure: the candy store, the library, Herman’s grocery, the Chinese laundry where I was warned never to enter alone because of opium. School was within walking distance, and most of what we wanted could be found without leaving the block.
I was too young, and playing too hard, to see the neighborhood changing for the worse. The remaining people, as well as the new ones, had fallen on hard times. My father had a mental breakdown, got sick for what seemed like eternity, and was hospitalized for what felt like eons. Actually, I found out when I was grown, he was only in the hospital for a few months. It just felt like forever, while I watched a produce clerk trying to score points with my mother by giving her extra vegetables, and hoping dad would get better before the creep was successful. Since I was the oldest, it was my job to write the rent receipts, record the receipt stub, and forge my dad’s signature on the insurance check each month. To this day, I have no idea why my mother didn’t just sign my dad’s name herself. I suspect she was scared, but, then, my mother was always a scaredy-cat. It kept her out of trouble as a motherless child herself, and kept her clear of that produce clerk, so I should be thankful for it.
Between being in the hospital and unemployed, it was probably a couple of years until dad was finally hired, one Christmas season, by the post office as a “Temporary, Substitute, Indefinite Clerk”. His title pretty much summed up the total experience of our neighborhood in those final years we spent in Brooklyn. Meanwhile, we were better off than many of our neighbors, because my mother had three rents and my dad’s small monthly disability check to tide us over.
By then, every family left in our neighborhood had problems. One friend’s father had a heart attack and died in the men’s room of the local movie house. Two others had no father that we ever saw, and were raised by their mother and grandmother, who worked at Chock Full O’ Nuts and ironing laundry, respectively. Another one’s father hung himself, someone else’s mother would regularly be dragged home from the corner bar by strange men, stinking drunk. There was Crazy Josie, and, of course, my dad, who, after wandering the streets talking to himself, spent time in a mental hospital. Our neighborhood and our families were a mess, but fortunately we kids were mostly unaware of it. As a kid, I didn't think we were overcrowded. I thought it wonderful that, without leaving our own four-family building, there were over 20 kids to play with in the hall on a rainy day. We’d sit on the steps for hours, playing school, or cutout dolls, or having “tea”, until the sun came out again.
But I’ve come to realize that early experience probably had a lot to do with becoming a landlord myself: the relative security in hard times, being able to look beyond the surface of people’s lives, and just the “normalness” of being a landlord.