The Boys of Crown Heights

by

08/08/2021

Neighborhood: Crown Heights

Ebbets Field

Dr. Schpahl looked like a Nazi out of central casting. A thin mensur crawled down his right cheek, across his pock-marked face, to below his mouth. He spoke in clipped, accented barks, most of which were expressions of severe disappointment. That he was a Hebrew teacher and not a camp commandant may have been a surprise to the newly introduced. But not to me and my fellow 15 pre-teens who had been doing hard labor in his Brooklyn class for years preparing for our bar mitzvahs. I was coming home from one of Dr. Schpal’s Inquisitions on Eastern Parkway on April 12,1945, when I learned from a weeping passer-by that Franklin Roosevelt had just died and that the War was surely lost, to Dr. Schpahl’s side, I thought.

When my Bar Mitzvah finally occurred, in 1947, I expected that the three days a week I had devoted to after-school religious instruction could at last be put to better use in the schoolyard, with my friends. But my father wasn’t yet satisfied with my Jewish authenticity and insisted I spend an additional year putting on “tefillin” and praying every morning. Sports were everything to me and my pals. Anything that stood in the way was anathema. I was devastated.

My family lived on the fourth floor of a Crown Heights apartment building on Washington Avenue. My five closest friends lived in the building, or right next door. We played together constantly in one of three schoolyards across the street, stickball, “pitching in,” basketball, baseball, touch football, punchball. We only stopped when someone’s mother stuck her head out her window announcing that supper was ready. When the weather was bad, we were in each other’s apartments playing sports board games for which we developed our own leagues, team standings and even crowd noises, which we created by exhaling rapidly with lips pursed.

Hal M. lived on my floor just two doors down. His sister Susan who’d recently grown breasts had suddenly stopped talking to us. Hal was always my best friend.  In the eighth grade he was voted “Most Likely to Succeed,” an accolade testifying to his popularity. But our group began calling him “Hal the Gal” because after his election he developed a walking conceit, a swivel of the hips together with a fey extension of his right hand, that was pure affectation. He dropped it when he overheard his new name. 

We lost contact for 10 years. Then, Hal introduced me to my first wife, and got married three times himself. His first two wives were drug addicts and his latest hardly talks to him. He lives in my neighborhood, so we speak occasionally. He admits to having been jealous of me for much of my adult life. I’ve never encountered such an admission from anyone else. I feel good about myself when I’m around him.

Ronnie Cohen lived on the fifth floor. A corpulent giggler, he was the only Yankees fan among us dyed-in-the-wool Brooklyn Dodger worshipers. We called him “Big T” in honor of Tommy Heinrich, the Yankee right fielder who Ronnie adored. He loved reminding us of Tommy’s at bat in the 1941 World Series when, with the Dodgers ahead in the top of the ninth with two outs, instead of the fast ball that Mickey Owen, the Dodger catcher had called for, Hugh Casey tossed a “game ending” third strike curve ball which Heinrich swung on and missed for the third out, (Yay), but which the unsuspecting Mickey proceeded to drop, (Boo) allowing Big T to get on base, paving the way for the most improbable Yankee win in history. That loss dashed all Dodger hopes for years to come. Anyway, one Friday Ronnie was playing punchball with us. He was one of our best players and could hit “two sewers.” And the next day he was gone, forever, having moved to Rochester to his father’s new car dealership. For most of us, it was our first experience with loss.

Yeah, the Dodgers were a big part of our life. This was 1947. We lived only three blocks from Ebbets Field. On hot nights, with no a/c, many families in our building walked upstairs to the roof for cool air. You could easily see the ballpark’s night game lights and our game radios were drowned out by the actual roar of the crowd. We were that close. Jackie Robinson had just joined “da Bums”. “The Duke” (Snider) and Gil Hodges were reaching their prime. Gene Hermanski and Carl Furillo, the “Reading Rifle”, alternated in right field, Gene playing against right-handed pitchers. On off days, he drove a yellow convertible to visit Gilda Weiss’ older sister on the first floor of the building next to ours. If the shade was pulled down the wrong way, we could lift ourselves up on the iron gate and see them enjoying themselves through the window. That’s how we knew Gilda Weiss’ sister was a real red head. 

Peter Hirsch lived on the third floor. He was a thin, hawk-nosed blond, with a bum leg and always complained about feeling “schwa,” Yiddish for weak. Of course, with his bad leg, Hirsch couldn’t run the bases. When he hit, someone had to run for him. Hirsch had self-esteem problems. So, we made fun of him all the time and punched him a lot. But Hirsch kissed a lot of ass, so some of the bigger guys started to protect him. I saw him some years ago. He was a married dentist, dressed like a preppie and boasted that his office had “8 chairs.” I’d never been exposed to such a reckoning of dental wealth, but for sure, Hirsch felt he’d made it, so I was glad for him. And his wife was real cute.

Mike Schimmel lived on the sixth floor. Like his brother Asher, who was good enough to play in the adult baseball games on Sundays where lots of money changed hands, Mike was a super athlete. We all attended the public school across the street, but when it came time to enter high school, Mike went to a downtown private school, where he became the star quarterback and ace pitcher. Suddenly, a lot of people knew about Mike. He was in the Brooklyn Eagle many times. When I batted against him, I could hardly touch the ball. As a senior in high school he turned down a Chicago White Sox offer and entered Harvard instead, becoming the university’s top pitcher. I asked him about that when we tripped over each other a few years ago. He hated his local law practice, complaining that clients didn’t pay him, and he was downright wistful about the lost White Sox opportunity.  Last year he died, a not terribly happy man, I understand. He might have pitched to the great DiMaggio had fate dealt him another hand.

Lionel Greene lived in the apartment building next door. My brother called him “Gawd” since Lionel prefaced everything he said with “Gawd,” such as “Gawd, it’s hot” or “Gawd, I hate school” or “Gawd, she’s got big tits.” It was just such a remark from him to a girl on Eastern Parkway, who turned out to be the sister of the infamous Joe Donofrio, that got all of us into a fight with the Donofrio gang on the night before Yom Kippur one year. Nobody spoke to Lionel for weeks after that. Lionel wasn’t the sharpest blade in the propellor, but he found a new way to dye wool and made millions before he was 30 years old. I saw him in a restaurant years ago. “Gawd, Norby, how ya doin?” he said.

We played together every day after school and on weekends, and were later joined by a group from around the corner on Eastern Parkway. Axel Rabinowitz, Neil Abrams, Ken Post, Leonard Ash, and Paul Bernstein, all began showing up regularly at our schoolyard. Rabinowitz was the oldest and became our leader. He wore blue eyeglasses. Axel said we should start a club, and, most importantly, get club jackets, for which we each hit our parents up for $15. We held a crowded meeting in the cellar of my apartment building next to the coal room where some discarded furniture was stored. It was dark and filthy, but, as Club Founders, we had serious business to discuss. Arguments ensued about what to call the club. We lit upon the “Brooks.” Things grew hotter discussing what color our jackets should be. Some wanted blue and white, like the Dodgers. But Mike wanted green and yellow, his camp colors. Since he was the best athlete among us, he carried the day. Then we had to choose what numbers each of us wanted on our jacket. I chose number 2, for no reason, but since then I always say  “two” whenever anyone asks me to choose a number. Hal the Gal chose 1, Mike was 6, Hirsch 14, Rabinowitz 7. There were near fights when more than one person wanted 8. 

Our most furious debate was over the subtext in the arabesque below “Brooks” on our jackets. Were the Brooks to be merely an “Athletic Club” or, more grandly, a “Social and Athletic Club?” At first no-one supported Social and Athletic Club. Indeed, few of us understood what one did when one was “social.” But Paul Bernstein, the handsomest of our lot and one already boasting about having felt up several girls, understood the zeitgeist better than the rest of us and persuaded the group to look to the future. 

So was born the “Brooks, Social and Athletic Club.” Three years later it disbanded amidst a bevy of high school graduations. Four years after that Paul Bernstein committed suicide. We were growing up.

***

Norbert Weissberg is a resident of East Hampton, New York and a student in the memoir writing class  offered by the East Hampton Library under the direction of noted journalist Andrew Visconti. His work has been published in the East Hampton Star.

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§ 10 Responses to “The Boys of Crown Heights”

  • TSB says:

    Gawd, Norbert, please make this one chapter of many. Publish them all here. The scene with Gilda Weiss’ older sister is straight out of Leonard Michaels, a high compliment.

  • Barbara Heller says:

    Fun read
    Great memories.
    Bobbie and Larry

  • Francia Meiselman says:

    Thank you for that little gem. Wish you could keep it going

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    thank you for this terrific story. you have a singular voice (as does everyone, of course; but i mean a memorably singular voice). as TSB suggests above, please give us more!

  • Ken Ferrin says:

    Although we grew up in different boroughs the experiences were frighteningly the same. In my case I was a renegade Giant fan and always played right field.
    Loved the piece.

  • Wendy Serkin says:

    Poignant, Norby.
    A wonderful way to remember friends and grow your story from sweet memories to the sometimes harsh present realities.
    Thanks for sharing!

  • Daniel Donofrio says:

    Great article. I had similar experiences. I still relate life to school yard life
    I was once voted all school yard.
    Which I brag about it every chance I get.
    Dan Donofrio

  • Markus Zimmermann says:

    Norby, I admire your perfect memory, especially for names. As a European, my coming of age was on one hand much different (places, sports) and on the other hand (playing with my neighbourhood kids) still the same. Please, publish more articles of “the good old American times”.

  • Jeffrey Warren says:

    This was really good. Keep it up.

  • uzanne Thompson says:

    A terrific piece. The details are magical, the characters finely detailed and memorable. You’ve created a great sense of time and place. Look forward to more.

§ Leave a Reply

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