About the Book: In the Shadows of the El
Book Synopsis: In the Shadow of the El
Book Excerpts: In the Shadow of the El
About the Author: John Fabrizio
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—The Davey Crockett lunchbox . . . dints and dents.

Raising the Bar

      We lived in the Navy Yard neighborhood of Brooklyn, in a four-story, green and white family house, with a row of trees all looking back at us from across a narrow street. In the summer, the leaves hid the park. But my ear always heard the park, regardless of the season. Even in winter, on the coldest and darkest of afternoons, with the windows closed, noises from the park found their way into my house. I knew when Jimmy, the park laborer, slammed the big gate shut, calling it another day. I could detect the rattling of chain links, followed by a “thump,” as some kid hopped and landed on the other side of the small fence. I grew familiar with the complaining of Keds sneakers when players made sharp cuts on the courts, hoping to save a ball from getting past them so that they didn’t lose a point. So the outside sounds mixed with the inside ones, and I lived in two places at once.
      I was born and came to this house two years after the Second World War. They told me it happened during a blizzard near Christmas time. I don’t recall. For the first six years, I only recall flinching my face. “Will ya stop ya flinchin’, Johnny! You’re gonna get soap in your eyes,” Ma said. She called it a sponge bath, but I didn’t see anything spongy or soft about it. Sponges felt like friendly things which you could squeeze and play with, and would pop back to life, and wouldn’t cause you pain. From the kitchen sink, with the brown soap by the faucet, she hurled a nasty, rough rag at me. She called it a washrag; and by the time she finished, my face blossomed red. When Ma’s face got meaner and meaner looking, and more and more of the soapy slaps delivered themselves against me, I tried to get words out but my lips moved in different directions. But by the time I regained feeling in my lips, the Irish uprising subsided, and Ma had already gone back to her counter.
      One particular morning, getting ready to go to kindergarten, I endured the usual rag rampage, seated on top of the chrome kitchen table, across from the sink. The voice on the radio said Eisenhower and Stevenson were running, and I briefly wondered how fast they were, why the race took so long, and where was this city called Washington. But as I passed through periods of darkness then light, wetness then air, I pondered over a matter of grave importance. The night before, I had watched my favorite TV show, Davey Crockett. The episode ended with scenes from the next week’s show, and it tossed inside me. They showed Davey and the other Americans in a place called the Alamo. One particular shot focused on Davey in a small room, swinging his rifle, Betsy, at hundreds of Mexican soldiers swarming, all trying to smash their way inside. The Mexicans looked like they were all related, so that Davey kept killing the same guy, over and over again. Each one of them had a black mustache, a tall hat, and a belt of ammunition around the shoulder. And when the announcer bellowed the name of their general, “Santa Anna,” my palms slid forward on the armrests. What a nasty name, and they didn’t even bother to show what he looked like. It was just “Santa Anna”—certainly a dark, wicked face, holed up in a tent somewhere, with boots propped on the table, drinking wine and spitting tobacco juice in the dirt. I didn’t even know whether he had one name or two for it flowed powerfully, invincibly. Maybe, I hoped, by the time the next week arrived, more Americans would join Davey in the fight. I resisted thinking the worst.


—St. Paul’s Report Card . . . numbers and letters in fountain pen ink
. . . faded signatures of approval and a trail of “promoted” stamps.

Bilby and the Bridge of Sorrows

      St. Paul’s Academy, my grammar school, stood three blocks from my house. Considering the sideshow entrapments along the way, it made for a difficult daily journey. Even before reaching the first corner, I forced myself to tune out the park’s handball courts where the possibility of a rip in my school pants outweighed the enjoyment of an early morning game. On the corner, I met my uniformed schoolmates conducting multi-colored top fights. Red ones bumped green ones and then bumped the nefarious-looking black top, as all of them spun and glided effortlessly on silver points, back and forth on the street tar. When they were thrown and released correctly, the tops gave off a consistent, peaceful, almost noiseless hum, emitting a promise to defy the physical laws and to spin eternally. In unpredictable directions, they traveled across the smooth black tar, miraculously, like miniature Christs walking on water. Kids, holding strings in their hands, cheered on their favorites; but they eventually moaned, as their exhausted tops faltered and slid out from the pack. On the avenue, Sadie’s store window lured me to inspect for any new candies and two-penny trinkets I should purchase. The ultimate marketer, the plumpish old lady was somehow privy to the newest upcoming kid fads. Sadie’s pulled at me; but I kept to the path. Once I crossed to the next corner however, the aroma of Anselmo’s Kent Avenue Bakery beckoned me—like Delilah did Sampson—to slow down, to come closer, to get a better whiff of the new morning rolls, or simply to gawk and salivate from my desire for pastries topped with whipped cream mountains. And I was tempted again. Very close to the entrance of St. Paul’s, I met the congregation of baseball card flippers gambling on their talents to land closest to the stoop wall, hoping to get a “leaner” against it. Victorious, they stuffed their back pockets with winnings so that they walked happily bulging and lopsided for the rest of the day.
      In spite of these various street amusements and diversions, I arrived every day for eight years in time for the first whistle. I merged into the other kids, all outfitted in their official uniforms for learning. The boys wore newly pressed, blue pants, shiny from wear; their white shirts with enough starch in them so they could live on their own; and their mandatory blue ties, with the letters “S P S” emblazed in yellow. The girls fashioned blue skirts and vests, white blouses, and brown and white saddle shoes. Depending on moods that day, their mothers either braided, or clipped, or left their daughters’ hair to flow freely. Together the hundreds of us made an ocean of blue and white swirls to the eye, which parted and then quickly swallowed each new entrant passing through the gate.


—A tin bracelet . . . from Okinawa . . . inscribed “To Dolly, Love John.”


      In the fall, Saturdays meant football in the neighborhood. Saturday mornings, my friends and I played touch football at the park up on Franklin Avenue. Generally by around nine-thirty—after finishing off some hot chocolate and bagels and reluctantly warming up our bodies—someone shouted, “Let’s get a game goin’,” and we gathered around and formed teams. The unofficially approved attire consisted of a long-sleeve baseball shirt topped by a hole-ridden sweatshirt, cut off at the elbows. When the temperature dropped, we added woolen skullcaps to the uniform. I especially enjoyed playing with the older, high school guys because then I got to smell Tony Bosso’s aftershave when we huddled up for a play. Inside a circle of reddened faces, with Tony’s breath puffing out instructions about screen plays and post patterns, his enticing scent reached across the cold air and thrilled my nostrils like nothing else in the neighborhood—except perhaps Anselmo’s Bakery. After every play I darted to Tony’s side, trying to maximize my whiffs until we again broke the huddle. In time, I even finagled my way to play halfback, behind Tony, so that I continued my olfactory addiction as he barked out signals. And if we faced the river breeze, it heightened my pleasure. It took me years to find out the name of that sweet fragrance, since you just didn’t exchange views with older kids about matters such as cologne.
      In the afternoons, most of the time Da and I watched college football on television with Cokes, a bag of potato chips, and big heroes from King Stan’s. While we relaxed on the couch, I’d ask him questions—between plays or at halftime—about things that popped into my head: What did he do on the docks? Where did Grandpa come from? Did he ever see Babe Ruth play? Where did he meet Ma? Although Da generally didn’t go in much for elaboration, sometimes I got good answers. One afternoon, when we somehow got on the subject of beds, Da recalled how, growing up with seven brothers and sisters, he switched to a different bed every night. “Johnny, it was like traveling and being at home at the same time,” Da said to me with faraway eyes. He told me, too, about Grandpa’s homemade wine that burned all the way down his throat, and how he had to drink a glass a day, to stay healthy—much to the amusement of his older brothers. Sometimes, he escaped the wine by getting lost in the park for as long as he could; but Grandpa or one of his brothers eventually found him. But once, when I asked Da where the end of the world was, he gave me only a two-word answer : “The cemetery.” I couldn’t figure that one out, and eventually stored it away in my mind along with other imponderables I had collected, such as: How could God always be? And, can you really see nothing? Such enigmas transfixed me, usually at night in my bed, and my mind raced in circles until sleep won out.
      I waited all week for Saturdays.


—Tally Ho playing cards . . . red smears on the edges.


      Looming on the corner of Park Avenue and Taaffe Place, a little more than forty years ago, stood the shadowy, sinister figure of Buddy Brushane, the bully of all bullies. He personified everything evil, a devil-child, with a nasty scowl upon his face that never surrendered into a smile, never suggested anything other than a very ugly view of his world. This arch villain of North Brooklyn roamed our neighborhood looking for trouble like a crazed Nordic warrior sought out battles. Shopkeepers watched his every move. If they let their guard down, they would soon be minus some candy or rubber balls, or even one of those expensive stickball bats displayed in the showcase. Fat Ralphie—owner of the neighborhood’s best candy store and purveyor of fine cherry cokes, egg creams, and especially delicious chocolate sundaes—never let Buddy out of his sight. While Ralphie, the most completely round person I had ever seen, dug deep down into the container with his hairy arm to scoop the perfect ice cream ball, he did so blindly—since his eyes stuck glued to Buddy’s fingers, lingering dangerously close to the penny candy trays. Preoccupation with the villain led to Ralphie’s reputation for serving up inordinately large sundaes as he just kept scooping and watching, and scooping some more. And on especially hot and sticky summer nights, Ralphie scooped ice cream, followed Buddy’s hands, and sweated. Beads of sweat, one at a time, would glisten on the wrinkles of Ralphie’s forehead, stay for a moment or two, and then descend and join in as a new ingredient to the ice cream sundae. They always made our sundaes taste better and Ralphie never charged extra for them. This peculiar construction of ice cream sundaes endured as the single advantage Buddy brought to our block.

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