Monday, November 26, 2007


It’s a random December Sunday in the late 1950’s...a perfect day to visit Eli’s parents, the Grandparents d’Elisson.

We - me, my brother, Mom and Dad - pile into our 1954 Dodge, the one with the two-tone paint job, for the thirty-mile drive. We thread our way through the streets of Massapequa and get on the Southern State Parkway, headed west. I’m not sure what fascinates me more, the dashboard of the car or the familiar scenery as it flies by. Stone overpasses, road signs with white letters on a black background.

We slow down for the tollbooth and Dad flings a dime into the exact-change hopper.

The road bends south here as we transition from the Southern State to the Cross-Island Parkway. A few miles and we turn west once again, this time on the Belt Parkway.

We pass Flatbush Avenue and cross the old-style drawbridge near Floyd Bennett Field. Once in a while, we have to stop when the bridge needs to be raised. Before the bridge operator does so, he pulls a metal gate across the roadway. No railroad-style crossing arms here. Not yet.

Passing Sheepshead Bay, we see the familiar skyline of Coney Island to our left. The Wonder Wheel. The Parachute Ride. And to our right, a mob of subway trains - the Belt takes us right alongside one of the main switchyards. Two footbridges over the parkway announce that we’re approaching our destination.

We get off at Bay Parkway, and minutes later we’re there at Bay 26th Street. It’s a four-flight walkup, and already I can smell the aroma of Grandma’s food wafting though the hallways. And not just her cooking, but everyone else’s as well, combining to create a miraculous pong unique to Brooklyn.

While we wait for dinner, there’s lots to do. I grab the Sunday Mirror and pull out the color comics section: a rare treat. At home, we get Newsday, which doesn’t publish on Sundays...and the New York Times, my parents’ Sunday paper of choice, has no Funny Pages. So I devour them when we’re in Brooklyn. Dick Tracy...the Teenie-Weenies...Pogo...Smokey Stover...Dondi...Joe Palooka...Out Our Way...Mickey Finn. I read ’em all.

There’s a hi-fi, too, with a record player and radio. I love the way the turntable cantilevers out from its cabinet. We pull out South Pacific - a hefty stack of 78’s - and stack the thick shellac discs on the turntable. I watch, fascinated, as the tone arm swings out and each disc drops in its turn.

I look out the bedroom window, past the fire escape, at the Sinclair station on the corner of Bath and 21st Avenues. There’s something reassuringly comforting about that green dinosaur on their sign.

Since it’s a nice day, we go out for a walk, down to Bensonhurst Park at the corner of Bay Parkway and Cropsey Avenue. Dad jokingly refers to it as “Kitzel Park.” I play on the swings as Mom watches my kid brother toddle around. As we walk back to the apartment, I check out the traffic signals. Unlike the ones where we live, the ones in Brooklyn don’t have a yellow light. Red and green: that’s it.

Now it’s time for dinner. Chicken soup for starters. Sometimes, when Grandma is feeling especially industrious, there’ll be kreplach, the ineffable Jewish answer to the Won-Ton, in the soup. Today is one of those days, and I’m ecstatic. I loves me my Grandma’s kreplach, filled with a mixture of chicken and caramelized onion.

There’s gefilte fish, too. Not that crap that comes in a jar - not this week, anyway. Grandma has made her own, grinding up the fish and stuffing it back into the fish skin. It’s a little scary looking. (Maybe that stuff from the jar ain’t quite so bad.)

Next comes the meat loaf, redolent of onions and garlic, along with a roast chicken with crisp, translucent skin. There’s a potatonik, AKA potato kugel, made the way only Grandma can, by hand-grating potatoes and onions and adding just the right amount of egg and matzoh meal, then throwing it in the oven with a 55-gallon drum of vegetable oil. It’s got a dark brown, crusty exterior and a grey interior...and it tastes like Heaven.

I eagerly await the arrival of my own favorite dish, Grandma’s spinach latkes. Yes, spinach latkes, invariably made with Del Monte canned spinach, onions, eggs, and matzoh meal, then fried to a greenish-brown. Ahhh. Imitated, but never duplicated.

On the table, there’s a collection of soft drinks. Though my grandparents don’t keep kosher, the idea of drinking milk at a meat meal is clearly alien to them. The soda comes in thick, heavy glass bottles, and there’s a choice of all sorts of brands: Hoffman’s, Cott (“It’s be good!”), White Rock.

Dessert this time is a marble cake - it’s not hamantaschen season yet - baked in a well-worn tube pan. There’s rugelach, too, rolled out with Grandma’s French-style tapered-end rolling pin.

After dinner, Dad and Grandpa have a schnappsl. Sometimes they’ll let me taste a little crème de cacao, giving me a few drops in one of their thick-walled shot glasses, and I feel ever so mature.

By now it’s getting late: time to head home. We bundle ourselves up against the brisk air and get in the car. Off in the distance, we see houses and buildings decorated with multicolored Christmas lights. I sit in the front seat next to my Dad and watch the road ahead, looking for the round yellow lamps that mark the overpasses. Eventually, my eyelids grow heavy and I go to sleep, my head pillowed against my Dad’s leg.

Waking up as the car pulls into our driveway, I peer through half-closed eyes at the shadows cast by the streetlight against the garage door. A thin coating of snow crunches against my boots. We’re home again.

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