The stars shine on Brooklyn
I'VE been on Hollywood rooftops of pink blossoms and jade leaves, of mountain views and piano bands, but never did they have for me the winged, radiant quality of those summer nights on the tenement roofs of Sack-man Street in Brooklyn. ``For everything,'' Papa said, ``God provides an answer.'' When the tiny rooms in our small railroad flats were boxes of heat, like angels ascending the 12 families in our house made an exodus to the roof. Dressed for sleep, in pajamas and nightgowns, the men loaded mattresses on wet backs, the women carried the linens and pillows, the children, the chess and checker sets, the musical instruments, even an occasional telescope. Tanta Pessimira, who lived alone, said, ``At last I can show off the beautiful nightgown my Sybil sent from Washington, D. C.'' And Mama said to Papa, with a wet eye, ``Only a stone should live alone.''
Wonderful nights, tar and brick and cool-breathing stars, and a moon that polished the roof with a white gloss. Every 15 minutes the Livonia Avenue elevated train sped by, an explosion of life in midair, almost level with the roof, and now and then I caught a glimpse of a boy and girl huddled together. My 11-year-old heart sighed for romance and I waited patiently. I'd stand looking, down on the earth, lit by yellow globes of light, at the spray of blue sparks in the wake of the clang-clang trolley down Rockaway Avenue. Then I'd turn, mesmerized by the life on the roof. ``A knife, a fork, a bottle, and a cork, and that's the way you spell N E W Y O R K'' some younger kids sang as they skipped rope. Rosie's grandfather, who always wore his undershirt and pants, sat davening over his Bible, his moonlit face like corrugated metal, his gray head bobbing up and down. Occasionally he stopped to blow his nose into a huge, red-checkered handkerchief.
Boys and girls stood around, singing or teasing. I could hear Joey. He flipped a coin. ``Tilly,'' he said, ``if it turns up heads, will you go to the movies with me? Tilly, it's heads.'' And Tilly never looked to see as she laughed, ``If you promise to be nice.'' It was a first date and someday they would marry. And Abie, who built radios, had his arm around Bessie and was saying, ``Bessie, if you let me kiss you, I'll help with your homework.'' Lucky Bessie! That year I had a crush on Abie.
Herschel played accordion. A couple of boys accompanied him with their harmonicas, and the kids danced around the skylight, ``Dinah, is there anyone finer. . . .'' Boys broke in and snatched up partners, ``In the State of Carolina. . . .''
There were always some fresh-baked cookies in a basket for us, and a nervous mother, calling, ``Stay away from the ledge. . . .'' The breeze had the gentle feel of water, and I'd think, if only I could live up here forever.
Down there was trouble and unhappiness: gang wars on the corners on Friday nights, empty stores, gypsies who could kidnap you.
Up here was pure joy. Later, falling to sleep I could watch the stars swim around on silver spines in the sky. And soon morning would come, fresh and sweet on my face like baby powder. An infant cry, an occasional cough, and then the quiet dispelling of the evening: the men carrying down the mattresses, all of us loading up, the tryst with the night sky was over, the sun coming up full of gold. Sadly I'd walk the stairs with my bundles, already missing the sense of camaraderie. And once, at show-and-tell time, I told the class of our journey to the sky, and the teacher, a small hunch-backed lady whose name was Madame Demerville, said, ``Remember always the darkest place is the cellar and nobody lives there.''
Then I thought about many things down here on earth, how happy I was when I could sign my name, and Mama took me to the library for my first card, and going to Coney Island, cavorting with green ghosts in the breaking waves, and Papa catching the brass rings for us so that we could get free rides on the merry-go-round, and carnivals at Nanny Goat Park, and the gush of cold water from hydrants on summer days, and sled rides and steel wagons in the winter, with barkers calling, ``hot dogs and sauerkraut,'' and steaming knishes and pony rides, and reading books on the fire escape late at night.
Once there was a fire on the block, a terrible fire. The sky was blacker than I'd ever seen it, ripped by a flare of hot blaze. A woman and her baby were up on the roof. We could hear the panicky cries.
``Jump!'' commanded the firemen, ``jump, the net is under you.''
``I can't,'' she cried, ``I can't.''
``You can, you must, drop the baby first.''
She hesitated, then, put her arms out full length and dropped the baby. We stood, silent and stricken, and gasped when the baby cried. Then she spread her arms as if she were about to fly, and stepped with one foot into a dip, a dance, and we all burst into tears when we heard the thud, and knew she was alive. I, the child of 11, understood that life is lived upstairs and downstairs, and we must live in both worlds to survive.