Driving home one night after a wake for a neighborhood friend with my childhood pal Faz, we stopped at a traffic light by Prospect Park and watched as five teenagers crossed the street. They crossed in a line, one behind the other, like the Beatles on the Abbey Road album cover. They all walked the same, heads held down, staring into their cell phones. When they reached the other side they continued walking, not talking, tapping away into their phones.
“Look at these assholes,” Faz said. He took a drag from his cigarette, let out a long exhale, leaned over me and shouted out of the window, “ WHEN WE HUNG OUT WE TALKED TO EACH OTHER .” They looked up dumbfounded and he peeled away, the two of us giggling.
We did talk to each other. Maybe it has something to do with growing up during the seventies, in what now feels like a less complicated time, with the right friends, and no cell phones. For me, it also has to do with a certain place. That place was Windsor Terrace and my local hangout Faaland’s Pharmacy. We just called it the drugstore.
Before the rents from Park Slope, Fort Greene, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens priced everyone out of the neighborhoods closest to Manhattan, no one knew about Windsor Terrace. This working class neighborhood of Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans, and a few other ethnicities, belonged solely to the residents who lived in homes their grandparents had or which their parents bought or rented for a song. It was a neighborhood of low slung two-story limestone, brick, or clapboard houses and limited shopping options. There was a crappy pizzeria, a butcher, a dry cleaner, and a mom-and-pop shop operated by a real Italian couple that knocked out the best meatball heroes I’ve ever tasted. They always had a cauldron of Italian gravy (today known as “sauce”) simmering on the burner. There were no hipsters back then, and our local watering holes—Harold’s, Ulmer’s, and The Terrace Bar—were more like old man bars. The kind of places where grizzled guys in white tube socks kept one foot on the brass rail or sat hunched, lingering over gin or sour pints of Rheingold.
It was a neighborhood that once rolled towards Prospect Park but that had been torn in half in the 1950s by the hands of eminent domain, leading to the construction of the Prospect Expressway. This small highway of three exits might have made it easier for Brooklynites here and beyond to reach the city but in the process it ripped Windsor Terrace in two. Two bridges link Windsor Terrace over that expressway. A large snake bridge connects both sides of Greenwood Avenue and a smaller ramp joining Fort Hamilton Parkway and Prospect Park Southwest.
Even though the other side of the highway was virtually the same neighborhood, for us it might as well as have been Mars. We called it “over the bridge,” as in “he lives over the bridge” or “we were over the bridge last night.” We didn’t mix much with anyone over the bridge, which had its own heart and lungs: Holy Name of Jesus Roman Catholic Church, and Farrell’s Bar which to this day is a different kind of church.
The drugstore sat on the Fort Hamilton Parkway side diagonally across from the looming presence of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, aka IHM. And while this parochial institution, along with its own grammar school a block away, was responsible for providing us with a moral backbone, it did nothing to stop us from wreaking havoc. About fourteen of us, an almost equal measure of guys and girls, met at the drugstore nightly. How that came to be our hangout, I couldn’t say. Like any other band of misfit teenagers, so long as it wasn’t home it would do just fine.
Each night we’d make our way there one by one, like bees to a hive. Someone had a boom box and we’d listen to FM radio, and the familiar voices of deejays like Scott Muni, Vin Scelsa, or Alison Steele (The Night Bird), who’d drop the needle on a record, turning us on to what would become the anthems of our youth. Songs like David Bowie’s “Changes,” Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop,” and a range of other solid sounds. For those of us with older siblings, a musical high bar had already been set by the likes of such bands as the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, the Rolling Stones and, of course, the Beatles.
Situated on a wide corner, the drugstore had a crescent entrance. In good weather, we flanked its curbed stoop running along the East 4th Street side of the three-story building, spending the night sitting, conspiring, flirting, and working out our angst and confusion. We traded the horror stories of our lives at home, of what we’d do when we were able to break away. When someday we’d get jobs in Manhattan and have the freedom to do whatever we wanted.
Girls sat in between each other’s legs, getting their hair brushed or braided. Boys ranked on one another, talked of sports, or of the girls they were sure they’d hook up with as we made weekend plans. In brutal weather, we pressed ourselves within the building’s cubbyhole doorways, linking arms and huddling for warmth. We were close physically and emotionally and our hormones were raging. Some were couples, most were not, but no matter the relationship, we were happily stitched together.
My closest girl friends were Nancy and Linda. Nancy always lamented feeling like a girl trapped in a woman’s body. Her pear-shape complimented by a “nice rack” as the boys would say. The only thing that gave her more trouble than her body was her mother, probably because of her curves. She was the kind of girl that grown men looked at with desire. Linda was a different kind of beauty, with a head crowned by jet-black curly hair. Her Irish-Italian-American bloodline resulted in one of those perfect creatures that seem to be common with that cocktail. There was something about the way it all came together with her that reminded me of Snow White. Her parents were jailers, instilling all kinds of curfews on her—something none of us had—but I suppose they knew what they were dealing with and she was certainly a wild card.
Despite the closeness to those girls, I was a tomboy at heart. I loved the grinding sound from Timmy’s skateboard rolling across Fort Hamilton Parkway. Charlie, his best friend, amped up the noise barreling down East 4th Street on his own board as they converged at the drugstore. They were both whip-thin and their attachment to their wood on wheels earned them a bit of weirdo status from the other guys. I wanted to master the board as well but my deep insecurity knocked my courage flat.
Faz was the kind of guy you naturally felt safe around. He was big but athletic and had a bear hug nature with the girls. Over time I learned that his warmth and protectiveness extended only to the family we’d built on that corner.
Doc was someone I’d known since we sat next to each other in kindergarten, and I winked at him when he looked my way. When he asked his mother what he should do the next day she told him to wink back. He’d grown into a very handsome guy, but had a tongue that could cut you to ribbons if you found yourself on the wrong side of it. Nancy dated him for a long time and benefited from it in better ways. He always said that when she and I started talking that we were way too intense.
Another group of kids hung out on the next street over, and down from them another group. Kids filled the streets with stickball, hockey, stoopball, ringolevio, or two-man touch. With shouts, and screams, and laughter. You don’t see or hear that anymore. Save for traffic, the streets are quiet.
Winter was truly wicked. We’d be fucking freezing yet there we stood, the girls shivering in plaid, belted wool coats, the boys in Eskimo jackets or down parkas under the entrance dome, backs against the wind, taking turns rotating like penguins. Home was so much warmer but who wanted to be there? This was our family.
Glass cabinets that once served as a soda jerk area when Faaland had the shop displayed fancy items that got stepped up during Christmas time, like Chanel No. 5 perfume and men’s cologne. A meager display held Maybelline, Max Factor, and Revlon makeup, tweezers, and other vanity items. The rest of life’s necessities—shampoo, soap, Bromo-Seltzer, and stuff our parents used—sat on dark wooden shelves. The mechanical wonder of a penny scale was as fixed to the drugstore as we were. If we weren’t standing on it or bouncing on it, then someone was looking for a way to break into it. You do a lot of stupid things when you’re bored but while the sheer weight of the one hundred fifty pound scale prevented its theft, there were other lucrative items to set your sights on.
Louie, an Italian-American, was short and earned his nickname for obvious reasons. At fifteen he was already hiding from loan sharks. In contrast, Roter, an Irish-American, was tall and thin, and a wavy mane of copper hair brushed the straps of the denim overalls he always wore. His real name held the initials RR, which lined up with the old Roto-Rooter plumbing commercials so when an older boy from the neighborhood christened him with it, it stuck. Louie and Roter were always looking to get something for nothing and a stamp machine became their target.
Penny scales and stamp machines were standard elements in pharmacies, and while it’s rare to see them today, you could probably still find them in old chemist shops. The stamp machine at Faaland’s was situated towards the taboo corner of the shop near the feminine hygiene products. It was bolted into the wood floor and since it wasn’t unusual to see us leaning against it, Louie and Roter worked this opportunity to their advantage, rocking that stamp machine like a baby every chance they got in an effort to loosen it up. Every so often a customer would enter and these two pretended they weren’t up to no good. One day, Roter gave it such a strong jerk that it split the hardwood floor. The sound sent a shotgun crack throughout the shop that brought George, the drugstore’s owner, running out from the back. Looking around wildly, he demanded to know what the hell had happened, only to be met by blank stares.
“Nothing,” Roter said, barely leaning against the machine like a bored cat but grinning inside from the rewards of his labor.
It was short lived. The next day brought a heavy blizzard that shut down the drugstore and all activity throughout the neighborhood. When Faaland’s reopened and Louie and Roter went back to kidnap the stamp machine, it was already gone.
Two wooden phone booths were shelter from cold or crappy weather. The wood doors squeaked as they slid shut and blocked out the noise from the shop. Two or three of us squeezed in, sitting on each other’s lap as if we were in our own living rooms, yapping into the receiver with no one on the other end. Whoever didn’t get a seat leaned against one of the card racks or on the scale. Every once in awhile, an old lady would enter and give us the once over, tut-tutting all the way to the counter. It wasn’t too long after that a roar would come from the chemist section. “ OUT ,” George would bellow, charging through the store, herding us out onto the street. He was big and fat, over six feet, had a moustache, and was also probably a lot younger than we imagined. We all knew we didn’t belong there but that didn’t stop us. As far as we were concerned, we owned that corner.
So why did he put up with us? My friend Bee worked behind the counter, and decades after we’d quit that place she told me that George was wacky but that the ultimate reason he didn’t throw us out was because he loved children. For all the grumbling he did towards us, she said he was a good man. Despite the blustering displays of throwing us out to show customers he ran the show, he was a gentle soul, and an insulin dependent, type-1 diabetic who was very lonely. He could easily have gotten rid of us, but he never once called the cops.
Aside from Marlboro cigarettes, Dentyne, or Luden’s cherry cough drops, we didn’t shop there. With the church across the street, condoms and any items of a sexual nature were locked away behind the counter. Not that we bought that stuff. Our birth control relied more on a wing and a prayer.
Our parents all knew where we were. With no cell phones there was no “call me when you get there.” You told your mother you were going out and out you went. Besides, the last thing we’d have wanted was a phone to track us. We took no offense with the directive to “get lost.” We were all within a six-block or less radius of where we lived. Because pretty much everyone in the neighborhood went to IHM grammar school or church, there wasn’t a block you could walk down without knowing someone or everyone. We’d all been running errands to get a quart of milk or a loaf of Italian bread since we were six. We may not have been viewed as most likely to succeed, but we were street smart and we were trusted.
Down the block on East 5th Street, PS 130’s schoolyard was another hangout. On winter nights we’d sometimes pile into an empty green dumpster Faz had coined “the can” and get high. In the summer, we’d scale a fenced window to hoist ourselves onto the school’s small roof and spend the evening trading secrets, smoking, and watching the light fade. It was the Summer of Sam, when teenage girls cut their long hair to avoid being targeted by some freak that was shooting couples parked in cars. My waist-length hair didn’t seem to worry my mother. As a single parent she had other concerns.
One sweltering July night up on that school roof with Nancy, I saw a flash in the sky and the lights from Manhattan faded. A few minutes later someone on the street shouted that there was a blackout. It was 1977, and while it was fun for us in our little white haven, the Bronx, Harlem, and other parts of Brooklyn didn’t fare so well from the looting and rioting. All over the neighborhood mothers stood on their stoops, calling for their kids to come home. The next morning would find parts of Bushwick destroyed but in Windsor Terrace the only brutality we faced was another scorching day easily relieved when the boys turned on the fire hydrant.
When it came to sex, where could we go to get it on? For those of us who lived in apartments, rooftops weren’t unusual. In winter we sometimes hung out in Doc’s basement playing pool, listening to Aerosmith’s Toys In the Attic and when the crowd thinned out you might find yourself alone with your crush. Although I was shy, sex seemed like I’d stumbled upon a foreign language that I picked up easily. It was where to study it that was the challenge.
We didn’t have cars, so the options were limited. At night they became even more limited. Which is how I found myself pushing away bits of dirt and gravel from under my back one sticky summer night as Timmy and I struggled to get busy. My type leaned towards Irish boys, and I was crazy for him and his pale body. At full tilt, our teenage lust was impervious to the streetlight’s fluorescent glare that casted a spotlight on us. Our bed: a small patch of littered grass outside East Fifth Street Park, along the concrete walkway above the Fort Hamilton Parkway subway exit. On the other side of our bliss, cars swooshed along the Prospect Expressway, barreling towards Coney Island to escape the heat or beating it out of the borough for Manhattan. Somewhere within the neighborhood, a motorcycle ripped through the quiet. Its sound faded out, replaced by our heavy breathing.
My mom still lives in the neighborhood, and when coming off that subway exit I sometimes glance at the spot. I would’ve done anything for that boy. I was so hungry for his love.
“Everything changes; nothing lasts forever,” Mom says. She’s been telling me this since I was a child. I’d roll my eyes and groan every time she said it, but I get it now.
Eventually, we scored boyfriends, girlfriends, and jobs outside of the neighborhood and out of Brooklyn. We stopped hanging out and drifted apart, because that’s what you’re meant to do. Some got married and had kids, some stayed single and had kids, some did neither, some are divorced, some died. I’ve enjoyed a nice share of great love affairs, but have avoided marriage and children.
Life slowly seeped out and away from that neighborhood, and the bars on our side of Windsor Terrace shuttered their doors, along with Faaland’s Pharmacy. Over the years the drugstore stayed vacant, then became some type of music store, and went vacant again. Several years ago, a yoga studio opened in our old haunt, but the phone booths are long gone, as well as the penny scale. Folks fled Manhattan for Brooklyn after 9/11, bringing high rents with them. Homes here now cost almost $2 million. People don’t sit on their stoops they way did back in the day, talking to their neighbors. IHM School closed six years ago and became a charter school. The neighborhood is more ethnically mixed now and any Catholics that do live around here aren’t as interested in sending their kids to parochial school. Small cafes and shops have opened in the old spaces and hipsters with beards have brought their ironic wit. But the place is thriving again, and that’s a good thing.
While most of us left Windsor Terrace decades ago for other parts of Brooklyn, Staten Island, New Jersey, and beyond, we sometimes meet up at the funerals of friends and relatives, at neighborhood reunions, or call each other to catch up. We fall back into that familiar place that feels like home, trading different intimacies and worrying about each other in different ways now.
Faz split from his wife a few years ago. I check in on him every now and then and we make a plan to hang out on our own or with a few friends like we did one recent Saturday night just after the New Year. Over beers we traded horror stories about spending time with family during Christmas. “I can’t stand being around anyone except for you guys. I could talk to you all night long,” Faz said. I nodded in agreement.
When David Bowie died I thought about my own mortality, about my youth. I zipped Doc a text, “We’re all turning fifty-five this year, let’s have a bash.” A few seconds later he responded, “You’re gonna live a long time kid, plus I don’t need an excuse for a party with my old friends—set it up.”
It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t see him or any of the others for twenty years or more. When we’re together again the needle gets dropped back on the record, we don’t skip a beat. The physical gap closes and all the safety of being home comes rushing in. Sure, we all have cell phones now, but we don’t look at them.