I was 4 years old when I first met Marianne -- her indomitable mother Dolly worked in the same office as did my equally formidable Mom Sylvia. Dolly was a 1950's version of Cher, Elvira and Anna Magnani all rolled into one person. Tall and skinny, she favored slinky fringed dresses, smoked her cigarettes in a long cigarette holder, spoke in a husky voice tinged with an Italian accent, and was a force to be reckoned with. I was scared of Mom Sylvia and also had the utmost respect for Dolly. Dolly's husband Al, was a trim guy with white hair and a dashing white mustache.
Marianne, who was born a few months before me, looked so much like me (olive complexion, mop of dark hair, chubby little legs, innocent chubby face) that our mothers would get confused when looking at our snapshots. Maryanne was also a force to be reckoned with -- I guess you could say she was a Dolly-in-training. She also had an endearing habit of pronouncing "Spaghetti" as "Pasghetti".
As soon as we arrived, bearing gifts to appease the goddess Dolly (Shadow Layer Cake from Schrafft's!), Marianne, Ace (me) and Sis would go tearing out of the apartment in search of the day's adventures, while Mom and Dolly would sit at the little kitchen table in the dimly lit kitchen, smoke, gossip and, slice-by-slice, consume the cake. On warm summer days their laughter and gossip (tinged with sing-song bits of Italian conversation) would filter through the screen door, rollicking all the way down the courtyard.
Ah, the courtyard! Marianne lived on the 2nd floor of her massive building which was surrounded on 2 sides by a wide wonderful courtyard where kids could play all day. They would leave their bikes and trikes safely outside their doors. We 3 kids thought nothing of borrowing them, having fun, and then returning them safe and sound. When confronted by an irate mother, we'd simply say "We're just borrowing them", and somehow that would smooth their ruffled feathers. We never failed to bring the bikes back to the right door(s).
Sometimes we'd get tired of playing and we'd just stand by a window and look in on the neighbors. No one seemed to mind! But then the urge would hit us and we'd be back playing on the terrace or running up the el stairs again.
Marianne had an older sister, Dolores. One day we discovered Dolores' net petticoats; how colorful they were! Red, green, blue we cinched them around our waists over our play-togs, and ran all over Avenue S like demented ballerinas. Up and down the el stairs, into the sandbox at the local playground, and back onto the terrace. "Hey you in your underwear!" came a mocking voice from an upper floor window. "Shaddup!" three little voices chimed in unison.
If we tired of the terrace, we'd run to the playground and jump into the sandbox. How big it was to us back then! We would sit in it (all three of us) building sand castles and getting happily grimy. Of course a huge sign over our heads said "No water in the sandbox!", and we COULD read, but we ignored it, gleefully making trips to the water fountain and back until the inevitable happened. The playground matron, as big and boxy as a 1952 Plymouth, stood over us, looked at my sister sitting in the sandbox holding a cracked glass that contained a zoo of water, sand and floating things, and said "WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO WITH THAT WATER??!!" "I'm going to drink it" said my sister matter-of-factly. "OK, LET'S SEE YOU DRINK IT!" said the 1952 Plymouth. And Sis obliged. We, the terrors of the Terrace on Avenue S, watched with a mixture of horror and pride as Sis lifted the glass to her lips and drained it. The matron, satisfied at this spectacle, turned from us and strode majestically away, arms on formidable hips. We sat in stunned silence, waiting for Sis to go down. But she just looked at us, and on an unspoken signal, we all got out of that sandbox and went to look for the Good Humor Man (for a lemon popsicle chaser for Sis, I bet!). We never returned to the sandbox we knew our number was up. For weeks afterwards, Sis was the talk of Avenue S. And for once, I was PROUD to have her for a sister.
(PS-- I think that playground is still there - the Google Maps photo shows it-- including an area where the sandbox once was -- it's now a planter with a big tree in it.)
Dolly had a baby boy, Al Jr. When he was old enough, we had to roll him in his huge baby carriage thru the neighborhood (I hated it I wanted to play, and here was this crying kid in a huge baby carriage and no Shadow Layer Cake). So we played "Family", complete with the roles of arguing parents and defiant kids. I don't think we really ever did much for poor Baby Al, other then to keep him quiet so we could play. That baby carriage was huge, had springs (which we'd bounce up and down) and had to be pushed by two of us, each one of us acting as a lookout we couldn't see over it so we'd each have to peer to the sides and pass bulletins to one another to make sure we didn't run over anyone. I remember the streets as being happily crowded with kids playing and adults hurrying.
When Al Jr. was old enough to walk, I guess Dolly decided it was better for him to stay home with her than to go out with us (VERY wise move). So out to the Terrace we'd run, our little Spaldeen or Pinkie in hand. And one day, that's where the trouble with The Fig Tree started.
I was 5 years old. I had just learned where the best wild blackberries grew in the Bronx (near JHS 135). I knew that plums and Peaches came from Arthur Avenue or Grand Union. I had never met a fig yet. And then we almost lost the ball over the terrace fence. I grabbed it just in time, coming face to face with a huge tree on which were growing large lumps. I plucked one, hefted it, and threw it over the terrace fence. Marianne and Sis came over and started to help me. What fun we had throwing these things off the balcony down to the grassy backyard 50 feet below!! Once I bit into one, I decided that I'd throw a few, eat a few. Marianne and Sis followed suit.
Now imagine you live in a house on that backyard, and you look out the window in time to see your precious figs raining down and bouncing on the grass. What would you do?! You would probably run out the back door, fists in the air, yelling "HEY YOU KIDS!! GET AWAY FROM MY FIG TREE!!!" Well, we looked at this very angry guy, ate a few more figs, surely we yelled something at him, and then we decided we'd be happy to see how our moms were doing. End of story until the next week.
The next week was Al Sr.'s birthday Mom brought her usual Shadow Layer Cake, placing it next to a beautiful white cake that Dolly had baked and iced. The 3 of us gathered around those cakes, knowing we'd be killed if we took a slice. Seeing the over-abundance of white icing that had gathered at the base of Dolly's cake, we were "inspired" to give ourselves Al mustaches. We artfully wiped the icing on our upper lips and then ran out to play on the Terrace. This time we lost the ball over the terrace fence, watching it fall onto The Back Yard of the Dead Figs. We stared at the only human being down there who could help us a very skinny ancient old man with a shock of white hair and a white beard down to his knees. Wearing a stovepipe-straight black suit, he was sitting on a chair and dozing in the sunlight. "Look at that guy he's dead!" one of us said in awe. "No he's alive! I just saw him move!" "No, he's dead!" Our argument was interrupted by the Fig Tree Owner who stepped out of his house to look up at us."Hey mister, we lost our ball!" we said, REALLY thinking he would toss it up to us sweet kids. He just stared up at us. That ball was gone forever....
Well, we had better things to do -- the party was ready to start and we ran back inside to wash off our mustaches before Al could see them. However, our exertions in the hot sun had dried them to our faces, and we had to confront the adults with the truth. I never saw Al laugh so hard!
Time passed. Al Jr turned 5. We lost touch with Dolly and Marianne. The last I heard, they had moved to the Bronx -- Mom called Dolly once in a while, but they never got back together again. Then we moved to Virginia.
I miss Marianne. I miss Dolly. I miss Flatbush and Avenue S.
And I still love figs, which are now too expensive to throw at anyone.
I don't remember her actual street address, although I can say with certainty that it was not far from one of two elevated stations that were close to Ocean Parkway. I do remember walking next to Mom Sylvia who was holding me and sis by the hand, and the thrill of seeing once again the long avenue of bright green trees, brown brick apartment buildings and green lawns that preceded her apartment on Avenue S in Brooklyn.