If you never saw Columbia Street before 1960, you missed a lot. The street is still there; the sidewalks, the street sign, but the stores, the people, the charm are all gone. That strip of avenue is unrecognizable, now lined with barrack type housing and no character at all.
The house where I was born no longer stands. 11 Woodhull Street. Next door at 9 Woodhull Street was my grandfather's candy store, Ralph’s. I can still picture him in his canvas Daily News apron and metal changer hanging from his belt, a Camel cigarette dangling from his mouth.
Columbia Street was colorful, with old stores, old people, and lots of kids. It was a neighborhood of Italian and Puerto Rican poor people, produce, poultry and petty gossip; And everyone we encountered knew our names. My Mom might be known as Ralph’s daughter or Lefty’s niece, or Christina.
On the corner of Columbia and Summit Street was Mr. Bell's Pharmacy. This is a vague memory, I was very young. But, I do remember Mr. Bell's shock of white hair and the glass counters with old medicine bottles lined like soldiers. And the big scale, which cost a penny to use.
During a typical grocery-shopping afternoon with my mother, we’d first stop at the chicken market on Sackett Street, right off Columbia. As a kid I thought it was a pet store, hearing those live birds squawk, until my mother would walk out of that store, one hand holding mine and the other carrying the bag with a freshly killed chicken.
On the corner of Columbia and Union Streets was the open fruit market. The produce crates covered half the pedestrian sidewalk, skirting the entire corner. With her hands full of bags, my mother would squeeze the fruit and inspect the vegetables. She would meet a dozen other women going through the same drill.
Our next stop was on Union Street, to the original Mastellone for some fresh cut bologna and American cheese; orange, not white. Thick and delicious, slapped on Wonder white with mayo, it was our Saturday lunch routine. I grew up on it, no baloney.
On occasional Saturdays, my mother's youngest sister Sophia, an aunt who is four years older than myself, would sometimes take me to the Happy Hour Movie House. We’d buy brown soft chocolate licorice, the kind with the two holes down each side. I’d suck the flavor right out of them. The concession stand was oddly located - down by the screen, just to the right. The matron was mean and you couldn’t make a sound. After the movie, we’d stop next door at Izzy’s for a Charlotte- Rouse. At a dime apiece, it was mini layer cake with whipped cream, topped with a cherry, wrapped in a white cardboard cylinder, easy to hold and wonderful to eat.
Everyone in the neighborhood eventually got framed. Anyone in the neighborhood who received communion or confirmation, got married and had a baby would all wind up hanging in Pamasano’s window, the local photo studio. I hated seeing my face up there, white veil, crossed eyes, and buck teeth framing a forced smile. The most beautiful photo to grace his window was that of my youngest aunt and future uncle, their engagement picture. Blue eyes sparkling right at you. Diagonal to Pamasano’s was the competition, Natoli Studios. Each of these two stores had their own loyal following of customers.
In those days, no one had money, at least not my family. My parents furnished their entire apartment from Sokol Brothers Furniture Store. Furniture on credit, a month, no interest, no contract, just an agreement kept track on a 3X5 lined index card. This was real old fashion mahogany, not the pressboard stuff passed off as furniture today.
There on Columbia Street near Union Street stood the BIG Clock. If you ever had to meet anybody, it was always under “The Big Clock”. That’s where the Shoe Box shoe store was located. Every end of August my mother would take me in for school shoes. I would always wind up getting smacked because I wanted loafers and she insisted on ugly laced oxfords. I never won, but I do have a closet full of shoes today, and none of them have laces.
My Easter outfit was always purchased at Mrs. Summers', a small clothing store run by an elderly Jewish lady. Hers was another store I often got smacked in. I hated hats and every Easter my mother would insist I wear one, the most ridiculous assortment of bows and fake flowers. I looked goofy enough without that straw upon my head. On Easter Sunday, with my young aunt, we’d be on our way to Mass at St. Stephens Church, but when far enough from the house, I would pull the hat off and replace it with a tiny lace chapel cap.
Making a left onto Union Street we’d hit “Cheap Cheap” Louie, where everyone in the neighborhood bought nylons, bloomers and aprons. My grandmother used to do her Christmas Shopping there, probably spending no more than thirty dollars for twelve people. She would buy the girls pajamas and the boys socks, always socks, and sometimes handkerchiefs.
A few doors away was Choffi Pastry Shoppe. It was only once a week, Sunday mornings, that my grandmother would give me three dollars to buy some pastries for the house. That three dollars would be enough money to feed pastries to the whole family. This was not something we did during the week; it was only on Sunday afternoons, after the big meal when expresso was served to the entire family and, for unexpected relatives who would drop by. The door was always open at Concetta’s.
As we’d walk home toward Woodhull Street, we’d meet many of our relatives on the way. My mother's Uncle Lefty Big Ears (They all had nicknames) would be hanging out by his house on President Street, in front of Gargulio Florist. He’d be dressed in a suit, no matter the season, surrounded by his loyal friends, ex-long shore men and ex-cons. He could take your watch right off your arm and you’d never know it. He did that for entertainment for the kids while producing a quarter from behind your ear.
Next door was their club, an old rented storefront. Beach chairs filled with cigar smoking men, coffee in hand would gather in front of their social club. In the dark recess of the store, a card game would be going on as the TV blared baseball or boxing. His wife, my Aunt Anna would cook homemade lunches for a dollar or two, serving black espresso afterwards.
Sometimes Lefty’s brother was in town from Hollywood, CA. Louie, the uncle that got away. He was so dapper and tan, when you ran into him you’d have thought you were meeting a real moviestar. The whiteness of his teeth blinded you and his conversation had you mesmerized. We could not get enough of Uncle Louie. I never did find out what he did for a living, but he sure looked good. Never worked a day in his life.
There were many other stores and people worthy of remembrance; it was truly a great community, but my memory does not delight me in every detail. Those things I do remember, including “multiple smacks along the avenue,” I will never forget. For me, the ruins of Columbia Street are as significant as the ruins of Rome. A lost civilization.
Tina Portelli, baby boomer, lives in Cobble Hill Brooklyn, where she was born. She self published a book called Brooklyn Lasagna, 55 Layers a collection of humorous short stories based on life in Brooklyn. She still works as a full time office manager, and continues to write for fun.