Brighton Beach Memoirs
Just after I was born, my family emigrated to America, the land of opportunity where the streets were ‘paved with gold’. My sister and I recently decided to retrace our childhood steps and set off for Brooklyn, Noo Yawk to see if we could find the ancestral tenement.
The year was 1946. Dad had gone on ahead – Mum to follow, with sis, Marilyn aged 4, and I, aged 5 months. Decked out in her newly-purchased post-war undergarments of brassiere, liberty bodice, panty girdle, seamed stockings and suspenders, hand-made woolen dress with matching coat, high-heeled shoes, hat and gloves all specially designed for her grand entry into the New World, Mum didn’t reckon on the flight taking almost four days…
All the neighbors turned out to wave us goodbye and good luck. Our widowed grandmother stood there dabbing her eyes with a lace-edged handkerchief. We reached the Croydon Aerodrome for the first leg of the journey only to be told that the aircraft wouldn’t be ‘air-worthy’ until the following day, so we trooped back home again. Grandma had already let the rooms.
Off again the following morning with slightly less pomp and ceremony, we survived the first flight to Shannon only to be told (in great confidence) that the airplane on which we were due to fly the Atlantic was deemed ‘unsafe’! Women and children were advised not to board. Everyone else was!
They put us up that night in a B & B on the West Coast of Ireland in a single room with another mother and her two babies, one of whom had whooping cough. Our Mum sat up all night shielding our delicate rosebud mouths and button noses with pieces of muslin to distract the ambient germs.
By morning, she’d run out of nappies and was obliged to use scrunched up toilet paper (of the crispy Izal kind) for my delicate little tush. Her elegant costume, as well as her mood, was by now somewhat frayed around the edges. Dad meanwhile, in the absence of adequate communication, cast a worried eye across the empty skies.
We finally took off in a tin box held together with spit and sealing wax and rattled across the Atlantic for 21 hours finally coming down with a flop of relief in Newfoundland. They put me in a drawer for landing. The pilot thought it would be safer than wobbling about on my mother’s knee when she already had a fractious 4-year old to contend with.
Onwards to Manhattan, and from there to Los Angeles. Mother didn’t take to the sun-drenched, sprawling, unstructured city with no public transport whose only redeeming feature was a pubescent film industry in a suburb called Hollywood. We settled nearby and stayed for 8 months. There I spoke my first words and took my first steps.
Back to New York where Mum reckoned she was halfway home. We moved in with Aunt Miriam (who weighed 24 stone) and her Polish husband, Uncle Mich, who hardly spoke a word of English. Our address was 3085 Brighton 13th Street , Brooklyn, an address imprinted on my mind ever since from the airmail letters with a $5 bill inside that Aunt Miriam used to send us for our birthdays after we’d returned to the UK in 1950.
And so, in October 2010, my sister and I arrived in NYC after an effortless 7 hour flight and set off to find 3085 Brighton 13th Street. It was a Sunday. We took the subway from Times Square but were turfed off halfway due to ‘works on the line’. Same shit. Different continent. We boarded a shuttle bus (slightly less traumatic than our mother’s journey 60 years before) and watched the street names rumble by until one said Brighton 10th Street where we leapt off.
As we walked towards 13th Street, my sister, who generally has little memory for distant detail, suddenly began to have flashbacks. “OMG! That’s where Daddy used to go to phone home!” she said excitedly, pointing to a small news and candy store. At the back of the shop had been 2 telephone booths where you’d book a call through an operator and go back 6 hours later to see if it had come through!
We walked on wondering whether our building would still be standing. The other side of the road was seafront – the famous Boardwalk (…under the Boardwalk, out of the sun, under the Boardwalk, we’ll be having some fun…) that leads all the way to Coney Island.
3085 was indeed still standing – a 5-storey, brick-built Victorian block much grander than I expected for our then humble circumstances. It’s now mostly occupied by middle-class Russians. We followed a couple inside, found the janitor and told him our story. He listened fascinated then showed us around. My sister again began to remember stuff: the rubbish chutes hidden in a small cupboard on each floor, the laundry room in the basement that housed the communal washing-machine into which our Dad would place his dime – the dime he’d drilled a hole in and tied a piece of string around so he could retrieve it to use again!
The building’s manageress had joined us by this time and asked if we remembered which number we’d lived at. We didn’t but by description she said it must be 2C and when she knocked on the door and asked the lady if we could look around, my sister freaked out.
It was exactly the same – the layout, the view from the bedroom window down to the yard where she used to play, the bathroom – in this apartment still not modernised – where I was sitting on the loo one day aged 2½ and the ceiling came down on my head! This may explain certain things…
I met my first boyfriend in Brooklyn – Bobby Braun, 2 ¼, a few months younger than me. I wonder if that started the toyboy trend…
Wendy Salisbury aka Poshbird is the author of The Toyboy Diaries 1 & 2.