Regarding Brooklyn

Legal documents indicate that I arrived into the world at Jewish Memorial Hospital in Brooklyn a few hours after Adolph Hitler blew his brains out in Berlin.  There was a time in my insensible youth when I would tell people this, comb my hair off to the side, use two fingers to narrow my moustache, adopt a manic expression and try to get a reaction.  But the resemblance was marginal and the idea that the Great Monster of the 20th Century would be reincarnated as a Jewish tenor saxophonist is intolerable.  My life, though somewhat disappointing, is far too gentle a consequence for the perfect embodiment of evil.  He killed my grandparents and decimated my family – not to mention the Six Million.  He should be sentenced to watch film clips of the most precious moments of every family he destroyed until his black heart breaks, then Bruce Lee should be there to rip it out of his chest, spit on it and reinsert it for the next clip.  He should see his failures too, for instance my exquisite aunt, who escaped with her two children in 1938 and became, with her British South African husband, a world-class recording artist, the two of them performers of international folk music worldwide.  What can I say about Hitler?  He should drink Drano in the morning forever.  Selah.

My father was a Dutch classical violinist, my mother a budding American popular singer whose career was nipped in it by her marriage to Dad.  But my second cousin Andre may have done the most for my personal development.  Despite being a European emigre, he’d made himself one of the country’s top radio and TV announcers and had married a legendary big band vocalist.  Then, in 1954 he was handed a job he’d dreamed of: helping to call play-by-play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, teaming up with baseball’s smoothest, most articulate announcer, Vin Scully.  He kept the gig until the Dodgers left Brooklyn for L.A. in 1958.   Those four years were like no others for me.

One Saturday morning in June of ’54, when I had just turned nine years old, Andre pulled up in his new Packard in front of our brownstone on Harrison Street and called up to the second floor bedroom I shared with my older sister.  “OK up there, who wants to go see the Bums play St. Louis?!”

Dad had told me the night before that Andre might come by.  I had hardly slept.  I’d been to Ebbets Field just twice before, once with my grandfather Harry, a frustrated comedian who, with my grandmother, ran a smoke shop on the west side of Manhattan, and once with my Dad, who barely knew a double play from a pop-up.  I was down the stairs, glove in hand in less than 30 seconds.  “Hop in, Arnie, batting practice starts in half an hour,” Andre smiled.  I clambered in next to his son Wayne, a year or two older and what seemed like a foot taller.  I was the shortest kid in my class.

Andre had his own parking spot in the narrow lot behind the left field grandstands.  The three of us walked down Lakewood Avenue to the main entrance, then climbed the stairs to the announcer’s booth.  Scully was already there and gave us a brief, “Hello, boys, you enjoy the game, now!”  in his dulcet Southern tones.  Andre showed me the microphone and his scorecard from the night before.  “Roy Campanella two hit homers, right over there by the Camel sign.  He’s been real hot lately.”  Scully took the cigarette out of his mouth.  “Andre, why don’t you take these boys down and get them set up so we can go over a couple things before air-time, all right?”  Andre said OK, and we followed him down to a couple of seats right behind the Dodger dugout.

Paris, the Great Pyramid, the Seven Wonders of the World, forget it.  For a nine-year old Brooklyn kid, this was heaven on earth.  Twenty feet away, there was Campy warming up the young Carl Erskine.  In the batting cage, Gil Hodges was taking his swings, lacing liners wherever he chose.  There was Jackie Robinson chatting with Pee Wee behind the cage, and everyone knew the story of how Reese had put an arm around Jackie that day in Cincy when the going had gotten really rough for the only Negro player in the majors.  Now had come glory days: they were in first place more often than not, fighting for the pennant every year and only the Yankees, the unbeatable Yanks remained to darken their Octobers.  From time immemorial, Brooklynites had moaned, “Wait til next year.”

Little did we know in 1954 that Next Year would be just that.

In the moment, the World Series was not my concern.  Just six feet away, here came a figure wearing a big 4 on his back.  The Duke had emerged from the the Brooklyn dugout.  “Hey, Duke, how ya doin?” Wayne cried.  Snider turned toward us, his bat resting comfortably on his shoulder and smiled.   “Morning, Wayne, how’s your dad doing?”

“He’s okay I guess.  You gonna hit one out today, Duke?”

“I just try to hit the ball hard, son.  Hard to know what’s gonna happen next.  Who’s your buddy?”  I gulped.  He’d noticed me.  I existed.  “Duke, this is my cousin Arnie.  He’s a big Gil Hodges fan.”

I could have killed Wayne, but Snider remained affable.  “Well, that’s a good choice, Arnie,” he smiled.  “We couldn’t win very often without Moonie.”  That was Hodges nickname.  His face looked like the man in the moon.

“You’re the best, Mr. Snider, it’s great to meet you,” I mumbled.  It was like talking to God.

“Don’t you fellows eat too many hot dogs,” he smiled.  The Duke turned away toward the batting cage.  When Hodges had taken his swipes, he came back to the bench and we exchanged friendly waves with him.  Meeting Snider was about all I could take that day.  We settled back and watched Brooklyn slowly take apart the Cardinal pitchers.  No homers, mostly singles and doubles and Reese and Robinson stealing the Cards blind.  I got to see that Enos Slaughter looked less frightening than I had imagined him on the radio, and Stan Musial’s coiled presence at the plate was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever witnessed.

That summer I was at Ebbets five more times.  When 1955 rolled around, I was 10, and we came to the park so much that most of the Boys of Summer would automatically wave hello to Wayne and me in our regular spots behind the dugout.  In those days they weren’t millionaires – several of them lived within a few blocks of Ebbets.  But that didn’t detract from their allure.  Just to be known by these deities, I figured I was destined for something special in life.  Millions of kids all over country would have given anything to be in my shoes.  I knew I wasn’t bat boy material – too small, a step too slow.  Fred Cameron and Chris Shafter were older and better connected to the players.  I did have one moment of glory in ‘57, when I was twelve.  Hodges swung late and stroked a screaming foul ball right at my head late in a game against the Giants, and I just stuck my glove up in self defense and the ball stuck.  The fans around me gave a big cheer, and Hodges looked up at me with my glove in the air, triumphant, and threw me one of those big smiles of his.  As if that weren’t enough, he took Sal Maglie deep on the next pitch for the three runs that settled the game.

I got in for just one game of the curse-breaking World Series in 1955, with Grandpa Harry, way up the right field line.  Sadly, the Yanks won that one.  But Wayne was with his Dad in the booth at Yankee Stadium when Johnny Podres shut New York out in the seventh game.  I was at home watching with Dad and Mom and Harry and the rest of the family.  That was okay, I had no complaints.  I actually knew those guys dancing around in grainy black and white on the pitcher’s mound after the last out.  And my friends at school knew I knew them too.

Actually, that was sometimes a problem.  When you’re the smallest kid in the 6th grade class at Public School 191, you don’t want to attract a lot of attention.  I got leaned on some after I made the mistake of bragging about my spot behind the Dodger dugout.  Once, a pair of brothers – Italian kids – decided to slap me around after school, not a real ass-kicking, but enough pain to bust up an eleven year-old ego for a few weeks.  The next day, Saturday, I headed down to Ebbets alone to wait for Wayne and Andre in the parking lot.  I was on the ground slumped against the fence, staring at tire marks in the dirt when I heard a voice I knew, the one with just a tinge of the South in it, very clear and calm.

“What’s eating you, Arnie?”  It was Jackie, with that cool, edgy smile of his.  “Somebody give you a hard time?”

“No,” I lied, “I’m just waiting for Wayne.”

“Come on, man, what happened – tough day at school?”

I caved in and ran the slap-down by the Italian boys by Robinson.  The great Dodger third baseman looked hard at me for a couple seconds, and as he did, the irony –though I couldn’t identify it as such at eleven – and then the understanding sunk in.  I saw it in his eyes, saw how much more he’d been through than I had.  He lifted his eyebrows and said, “Look, Arnie, it gets tough sometimes, but one day you’ll be somebody and those clowns will be parking cars somewhere in Flatbush.  Maybe it’s gonna come to punches, and then, well, do not run away.  But however it ends up, keep doing good in school and you’ll be okay.  How’s your grades anyway?”

I smiled up at him.  “Mostly A’s,” I beamed.

“Well, there you go, slugger!  I figured you for a bright one.  You’re gonna wind up at Columbia or NYU and leave the rest of us in the dust.”  Jackie reached down and tousled my hair with his big black hand.  “Come on, you can come in with me, let Wayne catch up later!”  So I strolled into Ebbets with Jackie Robinson that day and never forgot either his kindness or his words.  I steered clear of trouble after that somehow, and when I finally picked up a saxophone in the 8th grade, I knew I’d found weapon to assert myself and speak my peace in the world.

Brooklyn’s no-nonsense world insulated me against the facile love-peace-and-brotherhood illusions of the Sixties.  I knew that in the music business it was every man for himself, and I dedicated myself to constant practice, emulating the achievements of Coltrane and Henderson and the other players who, by the time I reached NYU, were blowing withering cascades of notes through the clubs of Manhattan – the Five Spot, The Village Vanguard, the Half Note.  From Jackie Robinson to Coltrane, Snider to Cannonball, the memories are rich and….

Well, not quite.

In reality, our family left Brooklyn in 1946.  I was just nine months old when they moved to Los Angeles.  Cousin Andre was just a shadowy, distant relative back East.  I didn’t learn about his  job with Brooklyn until much later in life – I’d known he was an announcer on TV and radio, but somehow my parents never told me he announced for the Dodgers, for whom as a boy I had rooted from faraway Los Angeles.  So it was long years later I realized — saw with certainty — that of course I would have gone to Ebbets Field with Andre and Wayne, that I would have met the Duke and PeeWee and Gil in an amazing alternative universe.  But it was not to be.  Those guys were in Brooklyn, and I was living in Eagle Rock, three miles from Pasadena.

Until the Dodgers came west to Los Angeles in 1958.  I was thirteen years old then.

That was the year my dad moved the family to Oakland.

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