Friday, July 2, 2010

Mrs. Skagan's Landlord

Me, Edith Skagan, and my aunt, Helena, at my grandmother's grave
in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery, probably in 1986.


It wasn't until the woman tossed a firecracker under the baby carriage that I exploded.

You see, she'd lit the illegal pyrotechnic before she'd tossed it.

Okay, let me explain.  Back when France had a conscience, it gave us the Statue of Liberty to grace New York Harbor, and Lady Liberty's centennial was in the summer of 1986.  Along with my aunt in Brooklyn and some friends of hers, I found myself that summer in Sunset Park, overlooking New York Bay with a front-and-center view of the Statue of Liberty and all of the anniversary festivities.

Chrysler Corporation's much-admired chairman, Lee Iacocca, had led a committee which developed a stunning panoply to commemorate the statue's 100 years.  My aunt and I had already been to Lower Manhattan and visited the enormous street fair celebrating the centennial in the canyons of the Financial District.  That evening, a fireworks show to outclass all fireworks shows had been scheduled, and Sunset Park, located along Brooklyn's high western flanks, provided one of the best vantage points anywhere.

Back then, that section of Brooklyn was still considered too dangerous and crime-ridden for normal white folk from Manhattan or the suburbs.  So, they pretty much stayed away.  Instead, the park filled up with some die-hard whites from Bay Ridge, a middle-class neighborhood nearby, and a lot of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans from the 'hood surrounding the park.  And my aunt and me, plus Edith Skagan, a retired Irish widow who lived on my aunt's block.  Plus a cute little Lebanese boy who couldn't have been more than four years old.   He was the son of the Lebanese mafia don who owned the building where Edith lived.

Yeah, I'll get to him in a minute.

Edith and the Lebanese Mafia Don

Edith was a plain, thin woman with stringy, shoulder-length gray hair, who wore mostly simple dresses typical of the city's cleaning ladies.  For decades, she had lived in the five-floor walk-up at the end of the block before a Lebanese, um, businessman bought the building.  And built a glass, climate-controlled one-car garage in the alley for his silver Rolls Royce.

To appreciate the absurdity it was to see a glass-ceilinged garage housing a mint-condition Rolls in dumpy, graffiti-smeared Sunset Park, try to imagine the best-looking house in your city with a smelly Dumpster permanently placed in its driveway.  What we saw in that Sunset Park alley was the direct opposite of the Dumpster image in your mind.

And how did that certify his mafia status?  In a neighborhood rampant with vandalism, nobody ever dared break any of the glass panes out of which his garage was made.

At any rate, this guy feigned a series of businesses in his building's ground-floor storefront, but none of them were legit.  For example, his real estate office featured blurred photocopies of genuine Realtors' homes for sale taped to the window.  Another time, he claimed to run a restaurant there, but with no kitchen or staff, the menu he pasted onto the window didn't fool anybody.  One evening, as my aunt came home from work, the Lebanese guy was standing on the sidewalk outside his "restaurant."  He called out my aunt by name, and proceeded to cajole her into the restaurant for dinner.

"We all know you don't have a restaurant here," my aunt protested, laughing. "Why are you telling me you can serve me dinner?"

"Hey, I've been tipped that the health inspector is coming here this evening, so I've gotta make this look respectable," he hastily explained.  Apparently, he had hired a caterer and really did have some gourmet food waiting inside.

My aunt turned down his invitation.

Sound wild and wacky? That was Brooklyn not too long ago.  And the father of the kid I was pushing in the stroller that night back in 1986 when a Puerto Rican woman tossed a lit firework underneath it.

Bombs Bursting Everywhere

There were amateur fireworks everywhere.  All illegal, of course, but cops didn't tend to stick around Sunset Park after dark back then.  Besides, there were thousands of people with fireworks; the noise deafening, the smoke gagging, the brazen defiance of law and order mind-bending.  My aunt, Edith, and I were frustrated - but not surprised - that so many people could hold the law with so little regard.  It almost made the Lebanese mafia don seem quaint in his desire to appease the health inspector.

And here was his kid - Edith was baby-sitting that night, but she had given up trying to navigate the stroller amongst the throngs of people, so I had taken over - with a lit firecracker within inches of his little posterior.

I yelled at the woman who had thrown it.  In 1986, I still remembered most of my high school Spanish, and I communicated to her my displeasure at her actions.  I stretched my foot under the stroller and stomped out the firecracker, the woman who had thrown it looking at me in disgust.

When Iacocca's massive fireworks spectacle erupted over the bay, on Liberty Island, and on Manhattan Island, people throwing their cheap personal fireworks in Sunset Park soon realized how outclassed theirs were.  Fortunately, we were able to watch the splendor unfolding across the water in relative sanity.  It seemed as though rockets were being launched from every square inch of land around the Statue of Liberty and the tip of Manhattan, with barges in the water also adding to the dazzling display. I have never seen another fireworks show like it, and actually became a fireworks snob after that evening, since nothing else can compare to it.

Eventually, the fireworks ended, and many of us in Sunset Park decided to head home.  I'm sure there was a sizable crowd that stayed on in the park until who knows when, doing who knows what.  But Edith had to return her charge, so we made our way past the park's derelict bath house (since remodeled, after years of vandalism and decay) and the park's eastern gateway, to our block, which mercifully, provided a distinct respite from the cacophony.

Moving On

My aunt hasn't seen their Lebanese friend for a number of years now.  Neighborhood scuttlebutt said he lost his influence in Brooklyn's Arab community and returned to Lebanon, where he had sent his son to live not long after our adventure in Sunset Park.  The glass garage is only climate-controlled now by virtue of cracks in the glass and seals that have lost their weatherproofing, and the silver Rolls Royce disappeared even before its owner did.  (Update: recent images from Google Maps appear to show that the glass panes are pretty much gone, as are the garage's doors.  A Chinese coffee shop currently occupies the storefront.)

A couple of years after the Statue of Liberty's centennial, however, after an exquisite crystal chandelier and a grand piano were placed in full view of the street from his apartment, the Lebanese don phoned my aunt to say that he hadn't seen Edith for several days, and he suspected the worst.  Both he and my aunt knew Edith hadn't been well lately.  He had a key to her apartment, but would my aunt come up with him to check on her?

He unlocked her door and they both went into Edith's apartment, only to find her corpse, fully dressed, and her sparsely-furnished rooms immaculate.  EMS workers believed she had probably passed away quietly, suddenly, and without pain.

Her Lebanese landlord graciously took care of all the arrangements.

1 comment:

  1. I understand that this is more "literature" than history, but i still kind of have trouble with even "ancient" descriptions of Sunset Park as "graffiti-smeared" or a community that even the cops wouldn't stay in after dark. Yes, Sunset community took a serious hit from the late 60's until the early 90's, but it was more the victim of sensationalism in the press, then reality (all nyc neighborhoods were suffering - even bay ridge where i ended up taking a knife in the chest).

    There were gangs, very vicious gangs, there was graffiti, and there were drugs. But Sunset Park always had an incredible base of owner-occupied housing (maybe the highest rate in the city) and these individuals and their families were decent hardworking people - many were middleclass. But unfortunately the media coverage of Sunset Park missed telling their stories - about the gardens they planted in front of their homes, or the thousand or so sidewalk trees planted in the community at their urging, or the great quality of life residents provided for themselves and neighbors.

    The cops could have done more, but this was the era of no cops in any neighborhood doing anything. Sunset Park, even in its darkest hours, had a handful of residents who worked long hours volunteering to keep the neighborhood afloat and not let it become a dumping ground for other communities (ok, we failed on some counts - bay ridge still houses its garbage trucks on our waterfront).

    But the vision and energy of the volunteers kept the needed youth programs and drug programs from closing when they were sorely needed. And during this period, Sunset boasted the most block associations of any neighborhood in the world - with nearly 100 active blocks.

    The good news is that Sunset Park is back - with a new host of neighbors - but still keeping in the tradition of the area being an immigrant community - now they come from Asia (mostly China) and take their place following the Irish, the Scandinavians, the Italians, the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Scots (yes), Indian and others. And now, most recently, the hardest working immigrants to hit our shores have begun calling Sunset home - Mexicans, South & Central Americans. They come, often as whole families (like the Irish did) with strong religious beliefs and no fear of working hard.

    The future for Sunset is bright. By the way, 5th Avenue is graffiti free and is often modeled by city agencies for other communities.


Thank you for your feedback!