Bernie Sanders Returned to a Brooklyn Where I Grew Up Playing Stickball and Territory

I grew up three miles from Bernie in a Brooklyn that is enjoying another moment in the sun, not that it was ever truly dark. Lately, however, the cognoscente have seemingly rediscovered my native borough, driving up real estate prices and populating the byways with exotic fare.
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Last week Bernie Sanders stopped by the street where he grew up in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, where he played countless hours of stickball and punchball and boxball on the sidewalk. I grew up three miles (and seven years younger) from Bernie in a Brooklyn that is enjoying another moment in the sun, not that it was ever truly dark. Lately, however, the cognoscente have seemingly rediscovered my native borough, driving up real estate prices, populating the byways with flavorful, exotic fare, building skyscraper apartment houses, even turning the once tallest structure in the county -- the Williamsburg Savings Bank on Flatbush Avenue -- into a co-op with multi-million dollar penthouse units.

Truth be told, the parts of Brooklyn mostly and longingly portrayed in the book and Oscar-nominated film Brooklyn -- areas such as Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Fort Greene, Brooklyn Heights -- are far removed from the Brooklyn of my childhood, the northern part of Sheepshead Bay along Avenue W between East 18th and East 19th Streets, a block west of Ocean Avenue. It was on the southern side of this tree-lined street of attached single-family row houses with the occasional (to my knowledge, illegal) ground floor tenant where I enjoyed a pleasant, if not idyllic, upbringing.

Small things now evoke long-cached memories.

The other day I spotted a tennis ball atop a grated storm sewer cover. I was transported back to the street stickball games I played. The leafy maple and sycamore trees along Avenue W posed one type of hazard to be overcome -- if you caught a ball on its way down from a tree you recorded an out, but if it fell to the ground you would call "hindoo," and a do-over was in order.

The trees, however, were not the biggest obstacle. Balls, usually pink Spaldeens, falling into storm drains could wash out any game. Unless you had a wire clothes hanger you could stretch out and, lowering the hook end into the sewer basin, fish the ball up from the murky bottom.

My grandson Finley loves playing with toy trucks, usually in his home's carpeted basement or living room. I, on the other hand, played "dump truck" outside, on the dirt edge of the grass of our tiny front lawn.

As we got older, my friends and I shifted our play spot to the dirt under the trees between the street and the sidewalk. Our choice of toy also "matured" into pen knives. We'd play a game called "Territory." You would start off with equal plots of land. By throwing your knife into your adversary's dirt adjacent to your plot, you could claim more territory, but only if the blade stood the knife upright with at least two fingers' worth of clearance from the ground.

Oh, I neglected to mention an important part of the game. When your foe threw his knife you were required to stand astride your territory, an act of courage made all the more challenging as your territory diminished in size. I don't recall any foot injuries, though I would not be surprised to know I am repressing memories of mishaps.

One doesn't see any yellow Checker cabs anymore, but they were the preferred and common conveyance when our mother took us to the beach back in the 1950s. Their back seats were deep enough to accommodate two round jump seats that folded into the floorboard when not used. We'd go to Brighton Beach, eat cold meatloaf or hamburger sandwiches our mother made and buy cool orange drinks in short, cardboard containers from vendors who pushed through the sand with hot ice boxes slung over their shoulders while wearing safari hats to shield the burning rays of the sun.

Sometimes, Saturday nights during the summer, our whole family would go to Coney Island. My favorite ride was a train ride on a track that circumvented the entire kiddie park. When darkness veiled the night, we would sit on the sand and take in the weekly fireworks display. Afterward we'd bundle back into the car and as we approached home our father would sing one of the few American western songs he knew, "Home, home on the range/ where the deer and the antelope play/ where seldom is heard, a discouraging word/ and the sky is not cloudy all day."

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