I didn’t always know what street I was on, but I noticed stones and glitter embedded in the concrete, and sidewalk cracks to be avoided, and the chalky numbers of hopscotch games. I remember the glow of neon lights reflected in puddles, and window sills with clay pots of geraniums, and the stripes of sun and shade on the cool damp sand beneath the Coney Island boardwalk, where fleshy swim-suited bodies intertwined on blankets, and it smelled of salt and sweat and suntan oil and something cloyingly sweet, like cotton candy or corn dogs. I remember church bells clanging and traffic lights changing, the swish of brooms, the sing-song shouts of vendors peddling fish or offering to sharpen knives.
I remember people too, and vividly, like pictures in a gallery: a lady named Charlotte with watery eyes and parched pink skin who grew roses and gave them away, wrapping their thorny stems in damp paper towel. A brassy blonde named Blanche, with bracelets, bright lipstick, and manicured nails, an old friend of my mother’s from before she was my mother, a discouraged person…somehow I could tell…but with a chipper veneer. There was easygoing Mr. Keating, who might come downstairs and treat us all to ice cream when the Good Humor truck went by, and Rae Paterno, who served my mother coffee in the doughnut shop, lingering to chat if it wasn’t busy, and Mr. Herman in the house of clocks, as stately and precise as a grandfather. There was nosy Mrs. Milici with her elbows on the window sill, and Charlie the butcher weighing liverwurst and packaging it in white paper, and Carol’s Aunt Marie, being pulled along by her skinny, uncontrollable dog. There were so many people passing through whose names I didn’t know, so many people living their lives, being busy, feeling what they felt. I remember the oddest details about them. It’s just how my mind works. There’s no cohesive whole, only details.
I recall details for navigating too, fragments of knowledge and advice, words left hanging in the air, maybe still there if I could go back to the place, close my eyes, and listen. Carol told me that a minute was longer than a moment. The crossing guard at Ocean Parkway said I should aspire to greater things. My brother told me never to let anyone see you cry, and he was partially right. I learned that tears could garner sympathy from people who loved me, but they gave power and satisfaction to the mean ones, and were therefore best withheld. I learned too that there was potent magic in pretending. The street could become anyplace you wanted it to be, games could engage you so fully they might as well be real. Carol and I pushed our baby dolls in prams along the leafy side streets with the stately porched houses…private, one-family homes…and it was as though we were all grown up and living there. My sisters and I were princesses in Prospect Park. No one could have told us otherwise. There was always a gap between fantasy and reality, but I had a knack for filling such gaps with stories. “You’re such a Pollyanna,” said my brother.
Christmastime came, and back then I perceived it in a silver-bells and snowflake kind of way, everything sparkling and hopeful, tinseled and twinkling, really quite conventional, “city sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style”…that sort of thing. But the season genuinely cheered me, and we were off from school. Salvation Army Santas rang their bells at storefronts, and we sang carols in church, which was a place I used to go to. Women wore holiday corsages pinned to their coats: a cluster of ribbon and a sprig of pine, with perhaps a fake poinsettia and a plastic candy cane, and lots of glitter of course. I loved how strings of colored lights transformed even the shabbiest of houses, and there was a feeling that maybe this time my own troubled family would be like one in a storybook, with a tree and presents and everyone together, and no one would feel burdened or worried, and it wouldn’t end in a terrible uproar.
I remember in great detail a particular day in December, walking with my mother. She was Jewish and had a different sense of this season-to-be-jolly, but it was pleasant being in the cold crisp air, everything festive and expectant. She wore her broad shouldered wool coat and a felt beret she called a tam, which is how she used to dress then. That was my mother being young and beautiful, though I didn’t realize it at the time.
We stopped to peer into a store window where Christmas corsages were on display, and just as I was wondering which one I would choose if ever I had the means for such a luxury, the proprietor of the shop stepped out onto the street with two corsages in his hand. I cannot recall his face, only his kindly demeanor. He was an older man, balding perhaps, bespectacled. He handed me a corsage and said, “Little girls should have corsages for the holiday.”
Then, turning to give one to my mother, he said, “And pretty ladies too.” He wished us a good day and a Merry Christmas, gave a courtly sort of bow, and retreated back into the shop. I spent the rest of the day feeling giddy, staring down at my corsage, touching its ribbons and tiny plastic charms, believing that I was now truly part of the pageantry and procession of Christmas in the city, right down to this detail on the lapel of my winter coat. I have no idea where in all of Brooklyn that store was or the name of that man, but I will never forget his gesture. He achieved a kind of immortality that day, and whoever he was, he is famous to me. He was of those who helped me see the world as a place that could be gentle and unexpectedly indulgent.
It’s easy to feel depressed and overwhelmed about the way things are, but maybe the idea is to think a little smaller sometimes. There were so many people hurrying by, living their lives, being busy, and some of them stopped to be kind. Those are the details that shape the world. What did it all mean? Are the answers in the details? Details. I remember the details. And maybe I invent a few. But I can’t recall the big picture at all, just a mosaic of details with many tiles missing.