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A Boy Grew in Brooklyn

Illustration for article titled A Boy Grew in Brooklyn

So goes the title of this memoir piece that Arthur Miller wrote for Holiday back in March of 1955:

Nobody can know Brooklyn, because Brooklyn is the world, and besides it is filled with cemeteries, and who can say he knows those people? But even aside from the cemeteries it is impossible to say that one knows Brooklyn. Three blocks from my present house live two hundred Mohawk Indians. A few blocks from them are a group of Arabs living in tenements in one of which is published an Arabic newspaper. When I lived on Schermerhorn Street I used to sit and watch the Moslems holding services in a tenement back yard outside my window, and they had a real Moorish garden, symmetrically planted with curving lines of white stones laid out in the earth, and they would sit in white robes—twenty or thirty of them, eating at a long table, and served by their women who wore the flowing purple and rose togas of the East. All these people, plus the Germans, Swedes, Jews, Italians, Lebanese, Irish, Hungarians and more, created the legend of Brooklyn's patriotism, and it has often seemed to me that their having been thrown together in such abrupt proximity is what gave the place such a Balkanized need to proclaim its never-achieved oneness.

But this is not the Brooklyn I know or was brought up in. Mine was what is called the Midwood section, which now has no distinguishing marks, but thirty years ago was a flat forest of great elms through which ran the elevated Culver Line to Coney Island, two and a half miles distant. My Brooklyn consisted of Jews, some Italians, a few Irish—and a Mr. Dunham, whom I remember only because he was reputed to carry a gun as part of his duties as a bank guard.

Children going to school in those days could be watched from the back porch and kept in view for nearly a mile. There were streets, of course, but the few houses had well-trodden trails running out of their back doors which connected with each other and must have looked from the air like a cross section of a mole run; these trails were much more used than the streets, which were as unpaved as any in the Wild West and just as muddy. Today everything is paved and your bedroom window is just far enough away from your neighbor's to lea\e room to swing the screens out when fall comes.

My aunts and uncles, who moved there right after World War I, could go to Manhattan on the Culver Line for a nickel (although my cousins always climbed around the turnstile, which was easy, so long as you didn't mind hanging from iron railings a hundred feet or so above the street), but they had to buy potatoes in hundred-pound sacks because there was no grocery store within four miles. And they planted tomatoes, and they canned fruits and vegetables, and kept rabbits and chickens and hunted squirrels and other small game. The Culver Line cars were made of wood, like trolleys hooked together, and clattered above the cemeteries and the elms, and I must say there was something sweet about it when you got aboard in the morning and there was always the same conductor who knew you and even said good morning.

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