YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN
Thomas Wolfe’s short story, Only The Dead Know Brooklyn, appeared in 1935—just three years before his death at age thirty-seven. Wolfe, a native of the American South, wrote the story in dialect:
You ain’t neveh gonna get to know Brooklyn. Not in a hunderd yeahs. Dere’s no guy livin’ dat knows Brooklyn. It’d take a guy a lifetime to know Brooklyn t’roo an’ t’roo. An’ even den, yuh wouldn’t know it all.
There is no guy living that knows Brooklyn—therefore, only the dead know Brooklyn.
I grew up in one of the largest, most diverse cities in the world. At the same time, I grew up in a place that could hardly have been more small town or more homogeneous. Where Nick, who owned the corner grocery, knew every kid by name—as did Frank the barber and Audrey at the Laundromat and Mr. Baker at the candy store and Vito who sold fruit on the street out of a horse drawn wagon. Gravesend was exclusively working class, Italian-American, and segregated from other Brooklyn neighborhoods—and it was our entire world until we were old enough to brave crossing its borders. A baseball park in Bensonhurst, a high school in Fort Greene, a discotheque in Sheepshead Bay, a girlfriend in Bay Ridge—exploration—and savvy about the borough increased exponentially as we grew older, as we took to subways, buses and eventually automobiles. But most other neighborhoods—Park Slope, Canarsie, Midwood, Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York—remained mysterious, some considered off-limits. Brooklyn was a loose conglomerate of autonomous neighborhoods, too vast to ever fully know in a lifetime. Thomas Wolfe from North Carolina was on to something.
I left the bosom of Gravesend and Brooklyn in my early twenties, on an adventure in Ohio called graduate school—and from there my migration, for the most part, carried me further and further west.
By the time I wrote the first detective novel I was replanted—and Jake Diamond became a Brooklyn expatriate working out of San Francisco.
After three Jake Diamond mysteries, set primarily in San Francisco and Los Angeles, I felt compelled to write a Brooklyn story—return to my origins. The result was Gravesend, titled for the Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up. It was a more personal journey, and the setting was a very important character in that novel. I felt very comfortable writing Brooklyn—at home, at ease. Brooklyn is unique simply because it is Brooklyn—it is not like any other place—and it is a perfect setting for crime fiction because, admirably or not, it has such a rich history of criminal activity. I grew up around many people involved with organized crime—it was everywhere at every level—and at times I depended on some of these people to protect me from collateral damage. There is no shortage of mobsters in my Brooklyn stories.
Times have changed in Brooklyn since my formative years, but there is still a heritage that survives through generations of storytelling and family ties. Even today, there is still something recognizable in the words of Betty Smith from her seminal novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:
There's a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly—survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.
Brooklyn is where there are still Brooklyn Dodger fans more than fifty years after the team left for California.
Brooklyn is where the Brooklyn Bridge starts.
Brooklyn is where you can take your eight-year-old granddaughter on a rollercoaster you first rode when you were an eight-year-old.
Brooklyn is Junior’s Cheesecake, Nathan’s hot dogs, and L&B pizza.
Brooklyn is Coney Island.
Brooklyn is where the Atlantic Ocean defines summer.
Brooklyn is stick ball and slap ball.
Brooklyn is evenings on the stoop.
Brooklyn is refuge.
Writing Brooklyn gave me an opportunity to remember and reflect, as in this excerpt from Gravesend:
Murphy and his dog walk past John Paul Jones Park toward the Shore Road promenade. A heavy fog engulfs the ancient cannon and the stack of cannonballs left over from another revolution.
They walk down to the water’s edge.
Murphy can hear the scurrying of small animals in the dense bushes.
Ralph is all ears.
Murphy stands at the railing, gazing out at the bridge while Ralph chases shadows.
The massive, concrete piling is the tomb of a luckless construction worker who fell and disappeared into a molten grave. Another immigrant who came to build a new world.
Murphy looks out across to Staten Island, once only accessible by ferry. Beyond the island, New Jersey and California and all of those unknown places in between.
And beyond, the Pacific and all of those unknowable places that Murphy has only read about.
Murphy takes an unsung pride in the fact that people from nearly every foreign land beyond both seas have come here, have carried their children, their hopes and their dreams to Brooklyn.
The Narrows beats up against the rocky shoreline below.
It is a cold and cloudy afternoon, the first Friday in February.
The wind chill factor races across the rooftop.
Joe Campo turns away from Detectives Vota and Samson and the small body lying on the tar surface behind them. Campo gazes down at the street corner, directly across the avenue, where his wife stands at the door of their family owned and operated food market. A pair of teenage boys take turns slapping a rubber ball against the west brick wall of the grocery.
Campo’s Food Market is the only grocery, delicatessen, newsstand and produce shop remaining in the neighborhood that is not owned and operated twenty-four hours a day by Korean immigrants or owned by Boston or Canadian entrepreneurs and operated by Indian or Pakistani clerks. Not necessarily a bad thing. Just not the way things used to be.
Little was as it used to be in Gravesend.
Lieutenant Samson stares at Joe Campo’s back and waits patiently.
Joe Campo remains at the ledge, silently.
“Mr. Campo,” says Samson, just above a whisper.
“When we were his age,” Campo says, referring to the boy on the roof, “we would sneak up here to fly a kite; my friends Eddie and Carlo and me. The kite set us back ten cents at old man Baker’s Candy Store across the avenue. We would pick up a bag of penny candies while we were there, when penny candies actually cost a penny, or two for a penny. Tiny wax Coca-Cola bottles filled with brown-colored sugar water. Giant fireballs. Pink and white sugar tabs stuck on strips of waxed paper. Chocolate-covered marshmallow twists. And then we’d pick up hero sandwiches at Nick’s salumeria, before it was Angelo’s and then Vito’s and then ours. Ham, hard salami, Swiss cheese and gobs of yellow mustard on half a loaf of seeded Italian bread still warm from Sabatino’s Bakery on Avenue S. Twenty-five cents each.”
Vota is about to interrupt; Samson stops him with a hand gesture.
Joe Campo looks out toward Coney Island, at the 250-foot tall steel framed Parachute Jump ride that had been moved from the 1939 World’s Fair to Steeplechase Park in the forties. The landmark attraction has not carried a passenger for more than thirty years.
“This apartment house was one of the tallest buildings in the neighborhood. Still is at that,” Campo goes on. “We thought if we started up here we’d be closer to the sky. One of us would have to run down to Baker’s every ten minutes or so for another ball of string, two hundred fifty more feet for a nickel. We would watch the paper kite sail toward the ocean, followed by a long tail we had made out of strips torn from one my father’s old handkerchiefs. We were sure we could fly the thing all the way to Europe, wherever we thought that was. When the long pieced-together string inevitably snapped we were positive that the kite would eventually come down to land somewhere in France or Germany.”
And from Brooklyn Justice:
At ten the next morning I sat in my office which in turn sat above Totonno’s Pizzeria on Neptune Avenue two blocks from the beach and the ocean that separated me from a thousand places I had only read about.
My great grandfather and Antonio Pero had been childhood friends, since the days at the Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village when it was the neighborhood grade school for the children of Little Italy before it was a cost prohibitive private school for all but the new upper class. Pero bought the property on Neptune in 1924, a three story brick apartment building attached to a one story storefront, and opened a pizzeria with a coal-fired brick oven that would become legendary. It was considered by many aficionados as among the best pies in New York City, never sold by the slice and never traded for anything but cash. When my grandmother died, and my grandfather Giuseppe Ventura refused to be moved into the home of any of his children, Pero’s son offered him two small rooms above a Beauty Salon in the apartment building adjacent to the pizza shop. Antonio’s grand-daughter, who had been like an aunt to me growing up, now ran the pizzeria and still burned coal. When Giuseppe met his maker, and I needed a place to set up my PI business, ‘Aunt’ Carmella let me have the rooms for the same monthly rent they had charged the old man. I knew she could get a lot more for the space and I told her so.
“Think of it like a grandfather clause,” Carmella had said, smiling, and we shook hands on the deal.
An ancient window fan was noisily trying without success to battle the elements. The dog day temperature had already soared into the low nineties and the humidity was off the charts. I stripped down to what was referred to as a white ribbed tank top by the youngsters and a wife beater t-shirt by the old-timers. I had given the Widow Lincoln my business card. After Freddy’s little history lesson I was hoping she wouldn’t call. I checked the voice mail on the office answering machine. Nothing cooking. I phoned Tom Romano, an old sidekick who had connections, and asked for a favor. He said he would get right on it and we set up a lunch meet for one o’clock at Clemente’s in Sheepshead Bay. I went through the mail. All bills, no payments. I leafed through the sports section of the Post, which took up nearly the entire back half of the rag, looking for any news that might offer hope for the Mets. No luck. As it approached noon, I was so hungry I was about to run the two blocks to Nathan’s at the boardwalk for a hot dog appetizer when there was a light rap on the office door. I threw on my white button down Van Heusen and tucked it into my black Haggar pleated slacks.
Standard advice for writers has long been: Write what you know.
I would add to that: Remember where you came from.
Writing Gravesend and the latest work, Brooklyn Justice, were edifying experiences.
Thomas Wolfe wrote, You Can’t Go Home Again.
Rather, as T.S. Eliot said:
We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
J. L. Abramo was born in the seaside paradise of Brooklyn, New York on Raymond Chandler's fifty-ninth birthday. Abramo is the author of Catching Water in a Net, winner of the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America prize for Best First Private Eye Novel; the subsequent Jake Diamond novels Clutching at Straws, Counting to Infinity, and Circling the Runway; Chasing Charlie Chan, a prequel to the Jake Diamond series; and the stand-alone thriller Gravesend. Abramo’s latest work is Brooklyn Justice.