I never figured to find myself standing out on the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Avenue U in the middle of the night but there we were, my sister Phyllis and I. It was probably 1963 or so, our first day of high school. For those of you familiar with that corner, there was no Kings Plaza then. There was no anything. It was on the way to Breezy Point and that was about it.
We were bewildered for two reasons. We had just moved out to Marine Park from the Flatbush section, which was in the middle of everything. And we were both starting at new schools, me at St. Augustine and Phyllis at Bishop McDonnell. Both were Diocesan high schools — scholarship schools. We had to ace an extensive daylong test to get in.
But with my older brother at St. John’s Prep, there was no room in the household budget for any more tuition. We would qualify for the Diocese school, and we would go — our mother willed it, and she made it happen.
We were told the Flatbush Avenue bus rolled out to Avenue U, turned around, and went back to The Junction, Nostrand, and Flatbush, where we could catch the IRT train west. Truth was, since there wasn’t anything at Avenue U, the bus drivers oftentimes didn’t bother to come all the way out.
Finally one of the kids in the schoolyard hipped me to how things in the new hood went down: commuters took the Avenue R bus up to Kings Highway and then caught the D subway all the way to DeKalb. Part of it was even above ground.
So the next few mornings, I schlepped out to Avenue R, carrying about 40 pounds of schoolbooks. Nothing. I finally confided that I had to walk all the way to Kings Highway to one of the guys. “That’s because the Avenue R bus runs on Avenue S,” he told me point blank. That’s Brooklyn for you.
I never mentioned these little tortures to my mother, or the times I was afraid to go to school because I was gonna get beat up or whatever other little drama all kids faced. She had gone back to work as a nurse when we started high school, and if we didn’t go to school she didn’t go to work. She felt guilty leaving us alone.
We get older, but some things never change.
Deep down all of us know when we’ve done something wrong, whatever the age. You know it because of that feeling you get when you are calling home. You know that she already knows, and she already passed judgment.
“Hi Mom, it’s me.”
“What’s wrong? You lost your job again, didn’t you? How many is that now? What’s the excuse this time? OK, how much do you need? You know we won’t be around forever. You’re killing your father, you know.”
That was her hello. Even if you didn’t do anything wrong, you felt guilty.
I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was fun loving. I still am. No one ever accused me of not having a pair, that’s for sure, because one thing I have plenty of is nerve. Kids like me walked the line — we are good in school, we were kind to others, but we were spoiled enough to believe the world was our plaything. That’s because our harsh, stern, admonishing mothers spoiled us rotten and loved us so desperately we wore it like a gold star.
Those freshly ironed dress shirts in my closet every morning were matched to the suit jacket and tie. I just assumed they would be there every day. It never occurred to me that my mother would walk over to O’Sullivan’s Funeral Home on Parkside every night after work and get paid $5 to fix the hair of corpses scheduled for a showing.
I was lamenting how hard it was to get out of bed every morning at the crack of dawn all those years. But I had four pillows and clean cotton sheets and a big quilt to cuddle up in and fend off the demons. No wonder I didn’t want to get up.
Everything was subject to her scrutiny. It wasn’t necessarily harsh or damning, but she wanted me to know she was watching. She liked my column, a lot, and would read it to her friends. But she would admonish, “I don’t like when you make fun of the church,” or “Where does all that crazy stuff come from? Not me!”
This is the first one she’ll never read. But if she did, she would probably say with a twinkle in her eye, “It’s not very funny. What’s wrong with you?”
Rick Murphy is a six-time winner of the New York Press Association Best Column award as well as the winner of first-place awards from the National Newspaper Association and the Suburban Newspaper Association of America and a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.