Khoury's childhood world: Henry Street
Every one has a story to tell, but some tell theirs better than others. And if, like John Khoury, one grew up in South Brooklyn in the 1970's and 80's, well, one certainly has lots of wonderful anecdotes to share. Luckily for all of us, Khoury sat down and put them all down on paper in his self-published memoir "Go Sit On Your Own Stoop!".
In his book, Khoury takes us back to a time before Carroll Gardens was known by its yuppified name, long before it became the new "it" neighborhood filled with trendy restaurants and outdoor cafés, when it was the home of many Italian working-class families, where everyone knew each other, where three generations shared a home and where kids were allowed to stay out on the stoop or hang out at the corner till dinnertime.
John Khoury was born in Bensonhurst in 1967, but moved to Henry Street in South Brooklyn with his family in 1971, right around the corner from Mazzola's bakery and Nino's pizzeria, a few blocks from Ferdinandos on Union Street and close enough to the local candy store to drop by regularly for a piece of Bazooka. He attended PS58, then MS 142, before enrolling at Edward R. Murrow. Though he eventually moved out of the neighborhood in 1991, married, moved to Long Island, raised a family and pursued a career in television, it is obvious that he still has a strong bond to the place and to the people of his childhood.
"I inherited my love of storytelling from my father" Khoury told me a few evenings ago, when I sat down with him to talk about "Go Sit On Your Own Stoop!". His tales of his childhood spent in South Brooklyn always entertained and charmed co-workers and friends, he explains. It was at their urging that he started to write some of the anecdotes down. He passed around the manuscript to family and friends and then quickly forgot about it. He never intended to write a memoir, but when his mother Rose passed away in 2010, he found the manuscript laying on her nightstand when he emptied her apartment. This prompted him to complete it and to make it available to a wider audience. "I wrote the book with love, honor and honesty" he explains.
Khoury is indeed a great story teller. During the interview, he recounts his days at PS 58 on Smith Street. He seems to remember every teacher by name. There was Mr. Ringston, who visited him at Long Island College Hospital and brought him a milk shake every day, when he was hospitalized because of a ruptured spleen. There were Ms.Cavicchio, Ms. Adamski, Ms. Hogan, Ms White, Ms. Horvat, but most importantly, there was Ms. Nicholson, who, after his mother, he calls the most influential woman in his life. "She was feared, respected and beloved." (Ironically, my own kids had some of the same teachers at PS 58 in the 1990's.)
Khoury hoped that his stories will resonate with others. He reminisces about a simpler time, about his mother "who was a character in her own right," about teenage crushes and failures, and the church, which was "feared more than the mafia."
Khoury was careful not to romanticize the period. Crime was rampant in the 70s and 80s, the streets were dirty and the air was thick with racial tensions. There were good blocks in the neighborhood. Others were better avoided. Carroll Park was considered a dangerous place back then. However, when Khoury's local softball league played in the park, everyone in the neighborhood came out to cheer. "The crowd looked like at a Mets game" Khoury remembers.
I ask him if Smith Street in the 70's was really as bad as I had heard. He explains that the street was lined with one shoe store after another, including Johnny's Bootery, which just closed a few years ago. "Your mother would take you to buy a pair of shoes on Smith Street once a year and you got out as fast as possible." He pauses for a moment. "Things are better now in the neighborhood. I wish Carroll Park had been like it is now when I was a kid."
Yes, in recent years, newer, younger residents have brought about many changes in the neighborhood, but he finds that "every generation has its magic."
An excerpt from "Go Sit On Your Own Stoop!":
I grew up on Henry St. in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn, NY in the 1970s. I don’t recall hearing the neighborhood referred to as Carroll Gardens back then. I always thought I lived in Cobble Hill or more simply, South Brooklyn. Unlike today, my childhood was spent in a borough that had many links to Brooklyn of the 1940s and 50s. As big as New York City was, it had some “small town” or “mom and pop” elements that, amazingly, somehow still survived into the 70s.
For example, every morning we had a man delivering glass bottles filled with milk. My job, before leaving for school (which I walked 6 blocks to…alone!) was to remove the ice-cold bottles from the metal milk box in the foyer of the hallway and bring them to my father without dropping them. I was not always successful.
In the afternoon, all the neighborhood mothers (not called “stay-at-home Moms” back then…they were just “mothers”) would stream from their brownstones to look at the latest produce available on the fruit and vegetable truck that parked on the corner of Mazzola’s bakery. And Mazzola’s bakery was just that…a bakery. There was no coffee, no skim-milk lattes, no low-calorie cookies. There was nothing but Italian bread. And that bread was good! You could choose from plain loaves, seeded loaves, lard bread (loaded with salami and black pepper, but no lard!) or a Sinatra (long and skinny, just like Francis Albert was at the Paramount Theater in the 40s). It was amazing! My mother would give me 40 cents to buy a loaf and I would eat half of it by the time I brought it back for dinner and I only lived two apartments away!
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