Housekeeping in Brooklyn, Circa 1952

by

04/04/2002

4910 14th Ave, Brooklyn, NY

Neighborhood: Brooklyn

The summer of 1952 I was ten, and the center of my universe was Brooklyn. The Dodgers were still Brooklyn’s team, and Ebbets Field was where they played baseball and not a hous ing project. Everyone hated the Yankees.

With the end of school still close, the pinch of freedom felt as unnatural as the stiff pair of dungarees my mother bought for me, and September was far enough away that the terror of Labor Day wasn’t even a thought. Then summer seemed an endless coil of days filled with stoopball, hit the penny, and marathon stickball games that broke for supper and continued in the dusk under the street lights. A person’s worth was measured by a Spaldeen hit three sewers, and the only shoot-outs were water pistol fights under the hot sun, or marbles “played for keeps” in the narrow grassless strips of dirt along the curb. Afternoon and night, Jack the Good Humor Man pedaled his cart and tantalized us with the tinkling bells heard from blocks away, causing us to quit street games and call up alleyways, “Hey, Ma, throw down money for ice cream!”

In the cooler evenings it was ring-a-leveo or hide-and-seek and manhunt, hiding in the bushes of Mr. Lotito’s house, until the old man rushed down from his front porch to chase us with a spray of water from his garden hose. Older boys and girls paired off in the vacant lot to lie down in the weeds among the crickets, marking passage of the stars, between kisses and gropes in the dark.

“Jo-seph,” my mother’s voice, a lilting melody, called, “time to come in for a bath!” And after I would fall asleep to the thrum of summer, the murmur of cicadas mingled with familiar voices in quiet conversations that carried into my bedroom from the stoops as another summer day came to an end. All was as it should be in that world of comforting sameness and predictability where nothing ever changed.

Maybe that was why I was so surprised the early afternoon when two colored women walked onto the block. Colored was the term we used then, before Negro or black or African- American. I had often heard my mother say, referring to an actress, or some woman she might have seen on the downtown bus, “She’s very pretty, for a colored girl.” Of course I was aware of the other word from the rhyme we recited when- ever we’d choose up sides for a game: “-and if he hollers let him go.” But to me it was just another word, devoid of emotion or power, just another name for those strange people I only knew from the Tarzan movies I’d seen at the Loews 46th Street Theater. In my brief life I had never seen a real colored person, only Jackie Robinson, who once waved to me at Ebbets Field before a game. My world was Catholic and Italian, except for Henry Hernandez whose father was Puerto Rican but whose mother was Sicilian, and it was white.

With their light summer-floral dresses trailing in the July breeze, the two women stepped carefully, eyes lowered, heads down, holding firmly to each other for support. Their dark skin glistened with perspiration from the afternoon heat and their bent forward exertions to negotiate the uphill walk.

I watched their slow progress up the street until they stopped on the sidewalk in front of my very house, where they stood for a long moment looking up at the door. From the safety of the shadows I was able to study both women carefully without being seen. One had gray hair pulled in a tight bun under her hat, and the other, who was younger, wore wire glasses like my grandmother’s. The gray haired wo- man struggled up to climb the steep cement steps and ring the doorbell. Then she hurried back and rejoined her compan- ion on the sidewalk.

When my mother appeared behind the closed screen door she didn’t try to conceal the look of surprise on her face. “Yes?” she asked curtly, with that tone of suspicion I knew so well.

“Excuse me, Missus,” the woman said with a slow accent, “I was telling my friend here that I use to clean this house some years back. For the Parkers.”

“Not this house,” my mother said quickly, about to shut the door. “You’re mistaken.”

“But,” the woman persisted, “I did, Missus.” She fixed my mother with a glance, and then she turned again toward her friend, whose disbelieving eyes rolled up behind her glass- es. “Back in forty-eight,” she said nodding to reenforce her recollection. “That’s right, Missus. I clean for Mr. Parker and his wife.” And there was a note of pleading in her voice. “You must remember, Missus? I work here three days a week.”

My mother paused, and then she nodded her head. “Uh, yes,” she said. “The Parkers. Yes, I remember now.” Her answer surprised me. We had lived in that house all my life and my mother was the only one who ever cleaned anything.

“I told you I work here,” the gray haired woman said with some satisfaction to her friend. “Didn’t I tell you?” She turned to face my mother. “How is Mr. Parker?”

“Oh,” my mother replied, and her voice took on a different tone, “Mr. Parker died.”

“That’s a shame,” the woman said, her fingers over her lips. She seemed genuinely concerned. “And Mrs. Parker? How’s she?”

“Oh,” my mother said again, “she died too.” And then she added, “Got sick right after Mr. Parker passed away.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” the woman said, shaking her head. “They’s nice people, the Parkers. Always treat me kind. Al- ways make me lunch when I clean, and give me things to take back home. That’s too bad,” she said again. Her eyes were wet. She wiped her face with a gray handkerchief she took from her pocketbook and blew her nose, making a sound that startled me. “Now I don’t mean to be no trouble, Missus, but do you think my friend and me might have a glass of water? If it wouldn’t be a bother? It sure is hot today.”

“Water?” My mother balked at the request, as though the wo- man had asked to borrow money.

“Sure is hot today,” the woman said again. “We’d sure be grateful. But if it’s too much trouble, we don’t want to be a bother to you, Missus.”

“Yes,” my mother said finally, “it is hot.” She deliberately locked the screen door. “You wait there and I’ll go get some water.” In a moment she returned holding two sweating Depression glasses filled with cold water that we kept in the refrigerator. My mother opened the door and handed down the glasses to the women.

“Thank you, Missus,” the gray haired woman said when she finished her drink. “And bless you.”

They drank and put the empty glasses on the steps. Then the two women turned and continued up the street.

“See,” the older woman said with great satisfaction to her friend, “I told you I work in that house.”

After they were gone my mother picked up the empty glasses from the steps and carried them to the side of the house. I watched her from my place in the shadows as she opened the garbage can and dropped both glasses inside. Then she went back inside to finish her housework.

Nearly fifty years have passed since then, but I never for- got the incident. I never told my mother that I saw it all. I’m sure she wouldn’t remember even if I did.

Today the whole world is different, and everything has changed. My mother is almost ninety-four, and although the years have taken their toll, she is still healthy and alert. She lives on her own, in the same house where I grew up. I visit every Sunday to check on her and to bring her grocer- ies. In winter I shovel the snow. In summer we sit together on the porch and watch the Mets on TV.

“They lost again last night,” she says with disgust. “In the ninth.” A momentary passion ignites the spark in her old eyes, and I nod in sympathy. “They couldn’t buy a hit. A pack of bums,” she continues, and I wonder if she is thinking about another team and another time.

My mother has a companion, a woman in her fifties, who comes to fix her meals and to keep her company. Her name is Lotti, and she is from the West Indies. At first it was just a job, but over the years they have become friends. They eat to- gether and play cards. She never seems to mind, or even no- tice, when my mother cheats. They tell jokes, and they com- plain about life, alternating family stories.

“She’s a beautiful girl,” my mother whispers to me, as Lotti returns to the porch with the lunch she made for all of us. “Beau-ti-ful.”

“Momma’s talking about me again,” Lotti says with mock in- dignation. The cadance in her voice is music. “I know she always talk about me when me back is turned.” She says to her and then turns and winks at me. “She thinks there’s something wrong with me hearing. That I don’t hear her, but I do.” She hands over the tray of sandwiches, and a pitcher of cold, fresh-made lemonade she hand squeezed.

“Lotti, I just told my son that you are a beautiful girl,” my mother repeats, and she reaches out to touch Lotti’s dark hand.

“She don’t think I know the bad things she say, especially after I have to get tough with her. Momma is a very stubborn woman sometimes.” Lotti lays out the three glasses filled with ice and places a sandwich cut in triangles on my mo- ther’s plate. “Now what stories you been telling?”

“I would never say anything bad about you, Lotti,” my mother says, and she touches Lotti again. They are a contrast of white on black. “I love you.”

Lotti covers her face and shakes her head with genuine em- barrassment. “Oh, Frances, how you do make me blush. Is my face red?” And she throws back her head in a hearty, open mouth laugh that shows her gold crowns. “But you just be quiet now, Frances, and eat that sandwich I made,” she scolds her, wagging a crooked finger at my mother. “Some- times,” Lotti turns to me, “Momma talks so much she gives me a headache!” But I can see that both of them are pleased. “Now you hush and eat your lunch, Frances.”

It surprises me that my mother doesn’t answer back. She just picks up her sandwich, like a dutiful child, but waits for Lotti to sit before she takes a small bite.

Pouring a tall glass of the lemonade for each of us, Lotti says, “Have yourself a cold drink. Let’s all of us have a drink before we dry up in this hot air and blow away.” Then she adds, “Sure is hot today.”

And I smile at her words.

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