Neighborhood: Crown Heights

There was no sex in Brooklyn in the late 1940s. If desire affected my crowd (the 15 some odd members of the Gems Social and Athletic  Club, with whom I hung), it had to do with the Dodgers and urging Jackie Robinson to steal another base, or imploring Rex Barney to throw some strikes, or wishing Pete Reiser a return to his pre-War form, or finally beating the Yankees in a World Series. 

That’s the stuff we wished for, nothing more. Playing ball was our business; the two schoolyards across from our apartment house on Carroll Street was our venue; touch-football, basketball, long stickball or punchball, our metier. Who had time for sex? Who even knew about it? We were too busy with the stuff that counted. We felt that what we had in those schoolyards, in that neighborhood, would last “fuheva”.

I remember when it began to change, and how disappointed I was. I can’t say it was on any specific date, but over time, the juice wasn’t entirely there any more. When Jimmie bent his knees and arced the ball toward the basket, producing that wonderful “swish;” when Skunk heaved the pigskin almost the entire length of the schoolyard—it had to be 50 yards on a fly; and when Epstein punched two sewers, yeah, we still got excited. We still jumped around. Yeah, we still talked about why Hugh Casey was the best closer in the league. But, somehow, the juice wasn’t there. Something new and diverting was in the mix. Regrettably, and unbeknownst to many of us, sex had finally come to Brooklyn and, although we didn’t realize it then, it meant the Gems would soon be out of business and our Garden of Eden would soon go to seed. 

Of course, it didn’t happen to all the Gems at once. We were different ages; some, like me, as young as 13, others as old as 16. So, while I had never thought about it, I guess there were important differences among us. 

On weekend nights, we met outside Goldstein’s candy store on Carroll Street across the RR bridge, slipping indoors for an egg-cream if we were lucky enough to have a nickel. You could depend on 10 or 15 Gems being there every Friday and Saturday night after dinner. We talked a lot about that day’s exploits—Feinberg’s curveball, Budnick’s hook shot. We joshed around all the time. Like Rosenbaum, bug-eyed, shouting “jackson” after an evenly modulated sentence. He’d say “I went to my Spanish class this morning, … JACKSON.” Or,  “Arthur Blumberg is a real moron… JACKSON.” We found that so hilarious, it doubled us up. We ran around the sidewalk shouting “JACKSON” until we were hoarse, unable to catch our breath. Don’t be so critical. That kind of nonsensical camaraderie was an important part of our getting through long evenings. We were the Gems, not Mensa. 

But the time came when I began to hear whispers. As I bounced from one conversation to another, I noticed some of the guys weren’t looking me in the eye.

I felt something was being kept from me; that I wasn’t being included. Later, I discovered some of the older Gems had been invited to parties by a group of girls. Gradually, over months, the talk in front of Goldsteins became less nonsensical, included fewer references to sports, and focused more on snickering over Diane being “a slut,” Nina having “a great pair,” and when the next party was scheduled. The world was changing around me, and I was helpless to stop it.

In “Paradise Lost” Milton goes into detail about the wonderful pre-lapsed world of the Garden of Eden. Then, as the Bible teaches, a bite of an apple caused the scales to fall from the occupants’ eyes and, behold, they were naked, and became ashamed and guilty. Well, ditto on Carroll Street. When sex arrived, and the scales began to fall from our eyes, it was my turn to feel bad.

It’s not as if I was totally wet behind the ears. I knew about sex. Two years before, my friend Paul had told me about intercourse as we were lined up to go to gym class. He illustrated his lecture with pictures his father had purchased in France. I insisted my parents would never consider it. 

One afternoon on the basketball court Minkie came to watch our half court game. She lived on Carroll Street, but we knew little about her except that she was maybe 16 years old, a plain-looking blond with short hair. She wore conspicuous round-framed glasses and had an inconspicuous IQ. I thought her name was strange, and didn’t pay her much attention.

That fall afternoon we stopped shooting hoops around five in the afternoon and began filing out of the schoolyard for our respective apartment houses across the street. Sam, Bruce, Paul, Skunk, Fred, and I lived in the same building, so we were walking together when Minkie approached.

“Wanna see something?” she asked.


“When I show it to ya, you’ll know”

“Well, what is it?”

“It’s a secret.”

“Where is it?” We were now astride our building.

“Down there” she said, pointing to the ramp leading to the cellar.

We stopped walking and looked at each other, stumped. 

“I gotta go,” offered Paul. “Me too,” Fred and Skunk said. Slowly, they drifted off toward the entrance to our building, but looked back several times to see what we’d decided.

I looked at Sam and Bruce and shrugged. Minkie surveyed us hopefully. 

“How long will it take,” asked Sam, “‘cause I’ve got a piano lesson”. 

“Just a couple of minutes,” Minkie assured us. The three of us shrugged again and looked around, waiting for someone to take the lead. Minkie smiled cautiously.

“Why in the cellar” Bruce asked. We knew it was a forbidding place.

“‘Cause that’s where it is,” she informed us.

Maybe a minute passed. At last Sam said, “OK, we’ll go, but you go first, and remember I got a piano lesson.”

Reluctantly, we fell into line behind Minkie who descended down the ramp into the cellar, turning right into a room adjacent to where all the coal was stored. The door had no latch, and when Minkie opened it we stepping into an array of wheelbarrows, shovels and picks stacked against the wall of a small room. The only light came from a receding October sun through a small window. I was the last in and purposely left the door open in case this was some kind of a trap. Minkie stepped to the front, and we formed a small semi-circle around her.

“So what is it?”

Minkie looked at each of us with a mischievous smile. She took her time. Then, without a word, she turned slowly, bent over, pulled her dress up and her pants down.  And there it was, unmistakably: Minkie’s tuchus.

I was taken aback. It was a tuchus all right, like many I’d seen in the baths at camp, although bigger, but this time it was a girl’s tuchus. My mind went into overdrive. I was embarrassed, afraid my blush would give me away. I couldn’t look at Sam or Bruce lest they guess my unease. I wasn’t supposed to be seeing this. It was something forbidden. I wondered, what would behoove a girl, of all persons, to show her own tuchus? Was Minkie crazy? 

Not a word was said. A long couple of minutes passed with Minkie in the same pose. I wished terribly that it would end so I could go home. Then Sam said: “Turn around!”

“Oh no smart boy” cracked Minkie. “You think I’m crazy. This is all you get.” 

Suddenly, Bruce, eyes half-closed like a somnambulist’s, carefully placed his palm on the cheek of Minkie’s derrière. Instantly she whirled around and pushed him with all her might, sending him flying against the wall and knocking a big shovel to the floor with a terrible clank. With that eruption, the three of us leapt for the door and galloped out of the cellar, up the ramp, around the corner, into our building, and into the elevator, aiming for sanctuary as fast as possible. I landed on my bed and lay there for a long while thinking about what had just happened. Did Bruce hurt Minkie? Would she accuse us all of rape? Would my parents find out? All of that, and, also, what I’d seen when Minkie turned around.

Weeks later, I finally got invited to one of the parties. I had been talking to Rosenbaum in front of Goldstein’s one Friday about how I’d fielded a ground ball like Spider Jorgensen, the Dodger 3rd baseman. Something I said made him laugh.  

“You wanna go to a great party tomorrow night with some of the guys?” 

“Sure,” I offered, desperate to be cool. 

“Great, be here at 7 p.m..”

At the appointed hour we chipped in a dollar apiece and four of us took a cab to an apartment on New York Avenue. Gloria, a stout girl with big pink earrings, greeted us at the door and hugged Rosenbaum, while we piled in behind him without introduction. On the couch were two other girls. They seemed to know my friends. Sinatra was putting his dreams away for another day; the lights already low. I sat on an easy chair opposite the couch and dipped into a bowl of potato chips. A lot of giggling broke out on the couch, built, I thought, for three, but now occupied somehow, by six. I giggled too, without being certain at what. No one said a word to me. A half hour later I got up to get some water and found the easy chair occupied by a couple on my return. There was no recourse but the floor. Soon, the lights went out. The giggling turned to whispers, then silence, broken by occasional movement, smooches and sighs. I began to feel terribly lonely. The sighs became more urgent. I stayed in place for almost two mortifying hours but told Gloria I’d had a really great time when we finally left. 

That was me at 13. It wasn’t for another year, at least, that sex took on a different aura. Until that time, I resented the change that slowly had overcome our special group. It was sex that spoiled the pot in Brooklyn and changed that special time in our lives when we hadn’t a care in the world but play. In time we all hung up our Gems jackets and bought blue suede shoes. An era had passed. 


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

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