My friend, Farley, recently reminded me to “get over it” when a twenty- something at work called me by my first name and then expected me to call her “Ms.” His playful rebuke was that while I prefer to be addressed as “Dr.” that I would always be a Fifth Avenue Girl. In Brooklyn that is…not the famous Manhattan Fifth Avenue. Our family lived on Fifth from the late fifties to the early seventies. As Puerto Ricans we were strategically moved to the outskirts of America to faraway places like Flatbush and Pennsylvania. Park Slope was in its early years of making way for the gentry.
Exactly forty years and some marriages, children, degrees and homes later, my cousin, Mike, invited me to have lunch on Fifth with our Uncle Louie who I hadn’t seen in years. After shedding a few tears, hugs and observations that we all look pretty much the same as we did forty years ago (ha!) we decided to pick out a restaurant on “our block.”
It suddenly occurred to me that the restaurant we were sitting in was the actual apartment my cousin grew up in. It looked different with the old plaster walls taken down to reveal exposed brick. The bedroom had long ago been turned into the chef’s area. The other customers enjoyed their seafood as we did. But they didn’t share the memory of my Uncle Louie in the room, standing in the spotlight of the Hanna-Barbera toy projector, pretending to be a cowboy with his gun stuck in his holster- ala Barney Fife.
We shared stories as we sat at the table in the backyard. My cousin reminisced about this area being the first “outside” he knew and about the rabbits that he couldn’t get too close to-you can imagine why. I took pictures of the fire escape we’d sat on eating pancakes as children during twilight summer evenings. Our parents had gone out dancing. Fireflies had danced around us. Our pancakes were sized in order. My uncle, Junior, made sure that he got the largest as he was the eldest- cooking for us as he babysat. As we sat in the glow of our memories, my phone rang and I ignored it. I didn’t want anything to break the spell.
They shared stories that I hadn’t heard of before. They spoke of my sister’s spiritual presence that they’d experienced over the years. She’d died at fourteen after a long illness. As an eleven year old I couldn’t know for sure, as they did, that she’d stuck around spiritually. I wasn’t able to feel that until years later. Mike told of getting jumped by a group of kids, of briefly inhabiting an abandoned brownstone and of almost getting his brains blown out by a drunk who made him “own” being a man. All at the age of fifteen- I shivered at those stories. I felt warm when he told the one of falling through the ice at the Prospect Park Lake. He said that he’d felt my sister had somehow saved him. Mike updated me on our young thug friends- many of whom are sadly no longer living. We laughed when Mike told me that he’d brought his children around to Park Slope. They’d challenged him when he told them it used to be a dangerous neighborhood, “Yeah, right, Dad.”
At the end of afternoon they walked me to my car. When we hugged goodbye, I sat for a moment relishing the stories, my family and my life. I remembered that I’d missed a phone call. I listened to the message. It was an editor expressing interest in my novel. It was all so magical but true. Yes, I have changed a great deal but I will always be a Fifth Avenue Girl.