We rode the L line through Brooklyn to Rockaway Parkway in Canarsie. Once we made it to our first destination, we waited outside in the frigid December night for the bus that would take us the rest of the way. We were headed down the street to the Bayview Houses, where Dad lived with Grandma, Grandpa, Uncle Jack, Uncle Frankie, and Aunt Kay, way before I was born.
“We waited on a list to get in, and it was a very big deal in our family when we were accepted,” Dad told me. “I remember Bayview was the new, fancy tenement at the time. We were so excited. I mean, my mom was so happy when we moved into Bayview. For us, it was very fancy.”
Waiting for the bus that December night, shivering in our jackets, we wondered if the bus would ever come. It felt as if we were waiting forever, which I still can’t determine if it was because we were so cold or because the bus really took that long to come. It was late, and I can remember standing there, leaning against the wall with one foot up against the fence, in a line with about seven other freezing souls, all of us waiting in the dark for a ride. And I remember questioning if the bus was really coming, or if somehow it had just decided to stop working that night, because it was too cold and no one should be outside in weather that freezing anyway.
Finally, our chariot arrived and it felt like we were saved. Once seated on the bus, we rode past delis, churches, and shops until we reached our stop, the red brick tenement building just before the Canarsie Pier on Rockaway Parkway. Dad looked nostalgic as we climbed off the bus across the street from Bayview. He wore his black leather jacket and jeans, and he was in his element that night, brimming with excitement and anticipation.
As he made it across the street and into Bayview’s parking lot, Dad pointed to an open area of asphalt near the street and showed me where he’d worked on his black Lincoln when he’d lived there. Then he kept moving toward the building in front of us, pausing just long enough to take a breath outside his former home. Then, he took me inside. Dad was smiling from ear-to-ear, and he was intent on showing me where he’d lived. Just inside the first floor of the building, a couple apartments down, there it was – our family’s apartment – where they’d lived, played, argued, and done all the things people do in the privacy of their own spaces.
Memories flooded into my dad’s head, and he shared stories of his life here with me while we stood outside the door that was no longer his, but the entry to another family’s home. Dad seemed at peace. He was happy to be back in Canarsie after all these years, and seemed comfortable, as if he’d come home. There was no one else around that night – it was a quiet evening, at almost midnight in late December. I can still close my eyes and picture our adventure as if it happened yesterday.
While we stood there in the aqua-tiled hallway staring at the brown metal door, I imagined, and Dad remembered, what life was like for the Carroll family when they lived here decades ago. After we stood there long enough, Dad walked me back outside to the cold air and lit a cigarette. The apartment building was brand new when his family lived here, and my dad and his three siblings were almost grown at the time. Grandma possessed a sweet demeanor, and by all accounts was always cooking and doing what she could with the money they had available. I’d heard stories of lentil soup being served on a regular basis to save funds and stretch a dollar, and it was the reason my dad never ate lentil soup as an adult. But there were other, more appealing meals made here by Grandma Carroll, including my dad’s favorite, her homemade sauce with different types of meat simmered in the sauce all day long. Grandma was also famous for finding bargains on clothing for her four kids, keeping them looking stylish on a budget.
While she was managing the household, Grandpa had worked as a New York City police officer, among other things, for a time. Dad said Grandpa was well-respected in the neighborhood for one reason or another, and he left it at that. Grandpa seemed imposing, at least in the pictures I’d seen of him, and I could imagine that he probably had been well respected back then.
Uncle Jack, Dad’s oldest brother, looked like Dad, but just a little older with sharper features. They were both tall like Grandpa, as was Aunt Kay. The three of them – Dad, Jack, and Kay – were tall, stylish, and slender, with that signature Carroll face. Grandma was the opposite, shorter and stouter, with a slightly rounder, softer face and features. Uncle Frankie was a mixture of the Busch and Carroll family, being tall and stout at the same time with softer features like Grandma. He kind of looks like Steve Wozniak of Apple fame to me, except that he’s tall and a tad less round.
Uncle Jack had gone into the Army for a time but then returned to Brooklyn and worked in the post office. My dad had gone into the Air Force, then returned to Brooklyn and home, while Aunt Kay and Uncle Frankie hadn’t yet left home. Tempers were rampant in the Carroll household and in the family bloodline, and the gene would plague the family throughout their lives, causing rifts and unnecessary fights among the Italian-Irish Catholic family. It would only be the relationship between me and my dad that finally would break that cycle. We were the best of friends, sharing our thoughts and feelings with each other and navigating the tempers we’d come by so honestly.
When thinking about the six members of my family living in that apartment at Bayview, I can’t help but think that there was so much life lived in that building, so many stories shared and emotions experienced. Loves were gained and lost, spirits strengthened and formed, and futures were started within those walls. Dad always said he’d raised me with Brooklyn values, and I always picture him here, honing his dad skills, although it was unbeknownst to him at the time.
As Dad smoked his cigarette just outside the red brick tenement building that December night, we talked about his life growing up in Brooklyn and how it shaped him. I’m thankful for his Brooklyn background and I am proud of my family and our history. To commemorate the occasion and our visit to Bayview, I snapped a picture of Dad standing outside the building, smiling in his black leather jacket. His eyes are sparkling in the photo, and it’s one of my all-time favorites.
We began our walk down to Canarsie Pier, the place where the family, but especially Grandpa, spent many of their days. It’s probably more accurate to say that Grandpa spent most of his days at Canarsie Pier, including his last. In fact, on the last day of life, he’d been fishing at the pier when he suffered a heart attack and died in the place he loved. As we walked on and neared the pier, Dad told me the story of Grandpa’s funeral.
When the funeral procession filed through the neighborhood and entered the pier’s parking lot, all the people from the neighborhood at the pier that day stood and saluted the man they’d known as their own one final time as the hearse carrying Grandpa passed through. It was Grandpa’s last trip to the Canarsie Pier, and my dad told me it was a memorable one. As we walked the perimeter of the pier that night in December, I remember silently speaking to Grandpa and saying a little prayer for him there.
After paying our respects to the pier and Grandpa, our trip to Dad’s old neighborhood was complete for the night, but we’d worked up an appetite walking down memory lane. We decided to take another bus, one that would drive us across Brooklyn to Coney Island so we could indulge at Nathan’s. Our bus trip was long enough for my mind to wander as we made our way through neighborhoods, stopping every so often so other passengers could get on and off. As my mind meandered, I remembered a story Dad had told me from when he was a little boy.
He’d been with his mom out and about shopping in Brooklyn, but when it was time to leave and go home, he hadn’t followed her. At the time, in the late ‘40s or very early ’50s, she’d wanted to teach him a lesson to not do that again, so she just left him. They were close to Coney Island but didn’t live anywhere close to there, so Dad needed to figure out how to get home, except that he didn’t know how to get home or what to do.
After pondering his situation for a little bit – as a six- or seven-year-old – he figured out he could trace the subway line back to his neighborhood and find his way home from there. So, he found the nearest line that he remembered taking and walked along the route, eventually making it home in time for dinner later that day. His mom was mad when he finally arrived home, but she was proud of him for figuring it out. Luckily, my dad never taught me how to get home that way.
As my mind drifted back to reality, dark streets and closed shops passed by as we got closer to Coney Island. When we finally got off the bus, Dad and I were both tired from the journey, but even more so, we were hungry. Plus, it had gotten even colder outside since we’d boarded the bus back in Canarsie. As we walked toward the bright lights at Nathan’s, though, we perked right up. Dad was craving frog legs and a hot dog, and I wanted a hot dog and cheese fries so bad my mouth was watering. After a short wait, the food was in front of us and it was delicious. There’s something to be said for a classic, especially when that classic is always open to help hungry New Yorkers fill their bellies whenever hunger calls.
After our late-night dinner and some more laughs and stories, we decided to call it a night. We both were tired and fulfilled from our adventure, so we trekked to the nearest subway station and hopped on a line that would take us home. That night with my Dad stands out to me as one of the best nights of my life.
The night itself was so simple – a subway ride, a couple of bus stops, and a special walk around the old neighborhood – but it was magical to me. To be able to see my Dad’s former home through his eyes while standing by his side is something that I’ll never forget. It was the last time Dad ever went to Bayview or Canarsie again, and the last time he ever saw his beloved Brooklyn before he died.
But that night, that night we lived the memories together and explored Brooklyn together as a family. And for that, I’ll always be grateful.
I love you, Dad.