Thursday, September 29, 2011

Old Neighbors Get Together For Emotional Reunion (first published on September 21, 2000)

For more than a decade a lukewarm effort for a reunion of former neighbors was kicked around among several of the two dozen or so youngsters with whom I grew up in the 1950s and early ‘60s.
It’s been 35 years or more since many of us, who lived in a Sheepshead Bay public housing project, had seen each other, much less socialized. However, due to a genuine “extended family” inclination among most of us who lived there through high school, over the intervening years we’ve kept tuned into each other’s lives — weddings, births, deaths, etc. — through sporadic contact, despite the fact we’re now spread from coast to coast.
A practical reunion, therefore, seemed like a long shot at best.
My younger brother, Mark initiated the reunion undertaking in 1987. He didn’t get to see his vision materialize because he died suddenly less than a year later. However, a few of us were spurred by his inspiration and decided to fulfill his notion.
This past Sunday, a small, but warm and gratifying gathering finally took place in our “old” Brooklyn neighborhood.
Fifteen former neighbors from the six-floor, red-brick, 30-apartment building — 3641 Nostrand Avenue — showed up. Four “adults” and 11 “kids” came from New Jersey, Nassau and Suffolk counties, Manhattan, Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach. In spite of the fact the “kids” are now grown-ups — over 50 with families of their own — many of us will always refer to the division of parents and children as “adults and kids.”
Sadly, in addition to my brother, many adults have also died over the years, including my father and mother. With them in mind, we ended the brunch portion of the afternoon paying homage to my brother and his proposal, and to those who are no longer with us.
That emotional moment notwithstanding, the overall feeling was festive, focusing mostly on old times and catching up about the intervening years.
Before going our separate ways, with assurances to stay in touch, most of us stopped by our old building for reminiscing and photographs.
Not only did the neighborhood noticeably change since our youth, but it was immediately obvious that the area directly outside the apartment house was modified from grass to concrete.
On uncomfortable humid summer nights, kids and adults congregated in front of the building, some lying on beach chairs, others sitting on nearby benches, to escape the stifling apartments not yet wired for air-conditioning.
We realized that just about the only thing that had not changed were the red bricks, the number of floors and the address — 3641.
Standing on the spot where we spent many hours of our formative years, we summoned up myriad memories.
With an aggregate of sophisticated toys and electronic gadgets currently available to youngsters, it was pleasing to recall the uncomplicated ways we spent our leisure time back then. There was no Game Boy®, no Play Station®, no Nintendo®. Nor VCRs, personal computers, CD-Roms or DVDs. Television could only be viewed in basic black & white.
Several leisure pastimes centered on a small, round, pink rubber Spaldeen — stick ball, stoop ball, punch ball. Other activities required no equipment at all, just a durable body for rough and tumble games such as ring-a-levio, hide-and-seek and Johnny-on-the-pony.
And there were lanyards — flexible, brightly colored narrow plastic strands that could be interlaced to make key chains, bracelets and other assorted adornments.
The more nature-minded kids would literally catch lightning in a jar in the form of small, airborne insects known as “lightning bugs,” which seemed to magically glow every few seconds.
It was, to use the familiar cliché, a simpler time.
I realize now, as do most of the “adults and kids,” that there was something extraordinary about the relationships that developed there from 1950 until 1967 or thereabouts.
The atmosphere in many city projects, compared to the reasonably more apprehensive one today, was essentially free of worry about personal safety. Anyone could walk into the building without encountering locked entrance door or security cameras. You simply walked in and took the elevator to your destination. And apartment doors usually remained unlocked during the day and sometimes at night. Just about any time you went to a friend’s apartment, you just walked in. Modesty, in my recollection, was never accidentally violated.
To gain access to buildings now, a key or buzz in-recognition is required.
Sadly, the protected ambiance and fearlessness gradually diminished, as they did simultaneously around the city and eventually across the nation, as the new decade progressed. Nevertheless, for years before the undaunted spirit changed, and children headed off to college, jobs, personal pursuits and adult lives, there was a distinct collection of families that played and prayed together.
Almost every summer our “extended family” would go on picnics to Hempstead or Valley Stream state parks. On many summer days, weather permitting, our group would head to the beach at Bay 18 on West 25 Street in Coney Island. We’d occupy an ample portion of the sands that would increase significantly when invited relatives and friends would join our gang and especially on Sundays when working fathers joined us. It was, after all, the era of pre-Women’s Lib when mothers were primarily diligent housewives and fathers enduring breadwinners.
Though every family struggled to some degree to make ends meet, we didn’t realize until years later, (to borrow the immortal phrase from Charles Dickens), “It was the best of times.”
Though all of our lives have evolved since those carefree, bygone days in the project, “36ers” have perpetuated an exceptional bond for 50 years that reaches beyond the traditional boundaries of friendship and even family.
While the ultimate American Dream may be to own a home, growing up in the apartment house at 3641 Nostrand Avenue afforded us a rewarding opportunity to form relationships that have withstood thousands of miles of separation and the test of time.