A broad, well-traveled street, Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn has gained some notoriety over the years as a symbol of America's ethnic and cultural diversity. In the mid-twentieth century, though, American Jewish culture was highly evident in my neighborhood. This was so much true that as I approached my 13th birthday, I was commonly asked by friends and their parents when I would have my "Bah mitzvah". This religious observance, I came to learn, turned out to be a big party celebrating a boy's passage into manhood. In some circles, the bigger the party, the more prestige earned. Young boys that we were, we had strange ideas about this kind of thing.
"I wish I didn't have to do it," one friend exclaimed when he found out I wasn't Jewish. "What do you do when you're 13?" I didn't know, I told him.
"Do you mean you're Christian?" asked another in disbelief (He seemed to think Christians were intolerable klutzes). I wasn't sure, I told him. I thought I probably was, since my Grandfather was a deacon of the Christian Reformed Church on the corner of Church and Flatbush Avenues (Where the cemetery was). The boy didn't know what to make of the news, but things were never the same between us after that day - I was a Goy.
So, prejudice was abstract to me, but it was certainly intriguing to get in with the second-generation Italian boys who talked of the "Hymie". At this stage of our lives, it was all in fun, a cause to joke, but we were aware of the older boys who formed gangs based on ancestry. We would stop and listen hard when we heard of a "rumble" nearby, or some petty thievery or vandalism committed by these groups. We were just kids, but these gang members were men, as far as we were concerned. Books were being published at the time designed, I presume, to expose the nature of the sociopathic gang member. But for me, these books smacked of adventure and freedom - and in fact West Side Story came to be a huge success on stage and as a film. I believe this was a result of the attraction many feel for the rebels that live more passionately than the common person. This is what we thought as a society, at least, as the decades rolled on, that the common life was so dull, death might be preferred.
So when the little girl shouts up to the third story window of a brownstone building that her mother should throw down a "quawter" for her to buy ice-cream from the Good Humor man, it's mundane to us. The mom in her flowered blue dress leaning out the window, brushing hair from in front of her face, is unremarkable, perhaps a tad embarrassing in her dullness. That's how I used to think of it, but I've changed my mind.