Sheet music, George White’s Scandals of 1936

I saw it in Brooklyn.

I count it one of the great good fortunes of my life that I grew up with all the resources of one of the world’s greatest cities within my reach. Young kids of the present, I do devoutly pity you, stuck in your pasteurized suburban developments except when Mom chauffeurs you into town. I had the city streets, always exciting in themselves, and I had the subways.

Of all the modes of mechanized urban transport man has devised, the subway is the most nearly perfect. I love them all, from the creaky tiny cars of Budapest to the shiny streamliners of Toronto, under ground and above. Moscow’s is beautiful. London’s is marvelously efficient. Paris’s runs engagingly from the super-technological to the quaint. But first loves are best, and New York’s subways are what I grew up on.

In the days of my youth the five-cent fare was sacred, and so for a nickel you could be carried from the Bronx to Coney Island, from sylvan Flushing to Wall Street. If you were a young boy and willing to take minor risks (jail, electrocution, things like that), you didn’t even need the nickel. I was six years old when I learned that you could ride free from the Avenue H station of the BMT just by climbing over the exit doors. If I chose to visit friends in Sheepshead Bay, I could ride there free, and ride back at the same economical rate just by climbing an embankment, stepping carefully over the third rail, and entering the platform of the station there.

When we moved to Kings Highway, there was another embankment, equally easily breached. The Seventh Avenue subway station, near Grand Army Plaza, could be penetrated by winding oneself through the exit stiles. They kept adults out, but there was enough give in them to let a hundred-pound kid slip through. Of the major lines, the BMT’s defenses were the leakiest; the IRT was built on a less carefree plan, but you could take the BMT to Queens, where the two lines ran together, and thus enter the forbidden pathways of the IRT at only the small cost of an extra hour or so of travel time.

If you chose to go somewhere past the ends of the subway lines, there was a further natural resource of free transportation in the form of trucks and trolley cars. They weren’t as much fun. You were exposed to the weather, and there was always the chance of falling off. Or of being caught; while once you were into the subway system, you were as serene as any paying fare. But the whole city was open to exploration, and I explored it systematically from the age of six on.

I didn’t always steal rides. There were times when I walked because it was my whim to walk that time, as any lordly millionaire might wave his limousine away for a nice day’s stroll. Walking is the best way to know a city, which is why I feel quite at home in, say, London, and even now am a stranger in Los Angeles. And for most of my high-school career, my companion in exploration was usually Dirk Wylie.

Sometimes we explored geography, sometimes other things. Not a part of his Collection, but hidden behind the Amazings and the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, he had publications of another sort. They had titles like Spicy Western Stories and Paris Nights, soft-core porn that I had never seen and that inflamed my pubescent glands a lot. In return, I conducted him to his first burlesque show, doing the same for his.

It wasn’t my first burlesque show. Not by, even then, a number of years. ‘When I was a little kid, five or so, my parents had taken me with them to the Oxford Burlesque, near where Atlantic and Flatbush avenues met in Brooklyn. I liked the baggy-pants comedians, didn’t understand what the stripping was all about, but was thrilled to be included in something Grown-up.

I kept in touch with the Oxford, one way or another, all through my childhood. When my parents stopped taking me, as soon as I was old enough to pass the ticket taker’s scrutiny, I went by myself; and in the famine period between I would still skate down to the nearby Loft’s soda fountain, and often enough I’d see the chorus girls, makeup an inch and a quarter deep around their eyes, sipping sodas through a straw and gazing at themselves in the mirrored walls.

In our sophomore year at Brooklyn Tech, the New Building at last was completed and we moved in. How modern and grand it seemed! Five or six stories tall, with an athletic field on the roof, shiny, clean laboratories instead of the jagged zinc of the old factory, an auditorium with air conditioning and the fullest projection facilities; the thing even had a radio station of its own. Pretty Fort Greene Park was just across the street, and the concentrated heart of Brooklyn’s downtown only a five-minute walk away. The magnetism was too powerful to resist; Dirk and I walked there every afternoon, to go to a burlesque theater, or a movie, or just to explore.

Let me tell you about Brooklyn. For the first part of Brooklyn’s life it was not a conquered province of New York City, it was a competitor. Even after the consolidation, it still competed. Brooklyn had its own baseball team (the Dodgers), its own library system (better than New York’s in every respect, except for, maybe, the Fifth Avenue reference facility), its own parks (after Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park in Manhattan, he took what he had learned to Brooklyn and laid out the even more spectacular Prospect Park), its own museums, its own zoo.

Downtown Brooklyn had its own department stores — Namm’s, Loeser’s, A & S — and I still think they were nicer than, and almost as big as, Macy’s or Gimbels. Downtown Brooklyn had four or five first-run movie houses, including the Brooklyn Paramount, as lavish a marble-staired temple as any in the world, at least until the Radio City Music Hall came along.

On Fulton Street, it even had legitimate theaters, with the same sort of bills as theaters in Boston or Chicago. Road companies of Broadway shows played there after the New York runs had closed, and sometimes Broadway shows opened there for tryouts before risking the metropolis across the river. (I saw a preview of “George White’s Scandals of 1936” there weeks before it hit Broadway. I was no big White fan, but that one had been advertised as having a sort of science-fiction theme, something about how the Earth looked to Martians. The science-fiction part was contemptibly unimaginative, of course, but I rather liked the songs, and may be the only living person in America who still knows the words to “I’m the Fellow Who Loves You.” It was lucky I saw it in Brooklyn, because when the show hit Broadway it folded at once.)

And all these marvels, stores and shows, bookshops and burlesques, parks and playgrounds, were within our grasp. If Brooklyn palled, New York was just across the bridge; often enough we walked across the East River and up Broadway as far as Union Square to check out the second-hand book and magazine stores on Fourth Avenue. School could not compete. Outside it, we were learning the world.

Which was changing.

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9 Comments

  1. Sylvia says:

    Hey, some moms still leave their kids to explore the city on foot and bicycle (sadly not subways other than for trips to London, though)

  2. Stefan Jones says:

    It would be hard to get too many stories about NYC kidhoods.

    Keep them coming.

    I’m just old enough to remember ten cent subway fares; I was really little but I do remember that from visits to family friends and relatives who lived in Greenwich Village, where my grandparents once had a restaurant.

    Also remember great big civic swimming pools that I recall costing a dime . . . there was one a few blocks south of my cousins’ apartment on Carmine street, near Bleecker.

  3. dubqnp says:

    Thanks for writing an interesting blog Frederik.

    I really enjoy your stories about growing up in NYC. I spent a couple of years on Long Island myself and also didn’t graduate from high school. My brother introduced me to your science fiction stories, made me a fan of the genre and you are still among my favorite writers. (PKD might beat you – but it’s a close call).

    Thanks for making me remember roaming NYC as a kid even if it were 50 years later.

    /an European fan.

  4. Jeff says:

    I’m afraid that, had you been growing up today, you would have been removed from your parents’ custody and put in foster care.

  5. Joe Fodor says:

    The Avenue H station on the BMT line is the city’s only shingled wooden cottage turned transit station house– also one of the only ones that is a registered historic landmark. Just last week the Coney Island-side was closed until late next year for renovation….one hopes that the decades-old scourge of six-year-old fare evaders has finally come to an end!

  6. Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey says:

    Wow. Rudy Vallee, Bert Lahr, and Ukulele Ike on the same stage! Wish I could have seen it with you.

  7. George Berger says:

    Dear Mr Pohl–I was born in Far Rockaway (Queens County, NYC) in 1942. It was a great place to grow up, as I’m sure you know. The Subway–A Train–arrived there in 1958, having been extended from Euclid Ave. right across Jamaica Bay, where it split into 2 branches, one with Mott Ave (Far Rockaway) last stop and the other 116th St (Rockaway Park). I became a subway fanatic, just as you did earlier. What a fantastic system. I was thrilled not only by the various routes but by all the passageways, e.g. at 42nd street. It was a delight to discover some new connection between lines and even, I’ll admit, an underground barbershop or restroom. I was dismayed when I heard that the 5 cent price would be hiked upwards. So we have something in common.
    Another common element is my devotion to the best in SF since 57 or perhaps 56, and that includes many of your works. I discovered SF and Astronautics in the great Carnegie Library of Far Rockaway, when I had only a card for the Children’s section. So I was stuck with Heinlein’s juviniles, which did not excite me. Later on I got an Adult card and was able to read Stapledon, Asimov and Clarke. I have written about this briefly here: http://www.farrockaway.com/georgebergerlibrary.html . I am now retired, after an academic career spent almost entirely in Europe. I live in Uppsala Sweden, whose fans follow your work, especially the fine Johan Anglemark, who told me about your blog last night. I shall now attempt to post this and then read on. The book whose title partly graces your blog is my favorite memoir in American SF. It’s as interesting, elegant, and evocative as Alfred Kazin’s “A Walker in the City.” Indeed, I admire both so much that I bought them online earlier this year. I lost them during one of my moves, which have taken me farther and farther from NYC and its subways. I don’t mind this too much, since the few friends I have who live there all tell me that its soul has been taken out of it. I have thought that since the 8th Street Bookshop closed.

  8. Al Bogdan says:

    My grandparents were in Queens and the Bronx, and I spent every summer wandering New York. It\’s one great city. My grandfather never owned a car. He took us everywhere on subways, buses and foot. My uncle Richie was also a subway conductor, so I have memories of riding up front with him.

    I would always fall asleep on public transit coming home late at night, only to wake up one stop before I had to get off. It\’s like you could feel your destination approaching. Never got lost, which is something I can\’t claim driving around in a car.

  9. M.E. Staton says:

    Love to read about growing up in Brooklyn. Myself, I was born in Spanish Harlem in the early 70\’s but we moved to Park Slope when I was in second grade. I\’ve spent many years in and around the environs of South Brooklyn and many of the places you mentioned. I live in London now (I\’m an SF writer although still a damon knight toad and no yet published) but when I go back to NYC I always go to Brooklyn to have pizza and walk around the old neighborhoods I used to haunt as a child. I actually got into Brooklyn Tech but opted for Brooklyn College Academy instead.