Pomonok and Getting Old
In a few months, I’ll be eligible for Medicare. Scary! Why then do I still feel a compulsion, though I no longer live in Pomonok, to look out the window to check out who’s outside playing stoop ball or skelly in the court?
I think the reason is obvious. Most people who grew up in Pomonok never grew up. It was the Never Never Land of housing projects. In the movie “Pomonok Dreams”, former resident Steve Newman sums it up: “It was almost as if no one was allowed to move into this project unless they had children.”
Looking back, it seems like Pomonok was built for kids and anyone else who happened to live there was merely incidental. But of course there were plenty of older folks in the project, and now that I’m on the cusp of old age, I wonder how life was for them.
My grandmother Becky, for example, who was widowed when I was very young, moved in with us from her apartment in Brooklyn. Eventually we managed to get her into her own apartment in the building across the way. Becky, just before WWI, had emigrated here from Minsk, Belarus (then Russia) with her sister, who died a few years later in the world-wide flu epidemic.
My grandmother would tell me stories about the cossacks and the pogroms in Russia. She would also recite Yiddish fairy tales that began with “amol iz geven” (once upon a time). Her favorite soap opera was “ As the Vorld Turnit” and she would reminisce about going to the “moon pictures” in Russia with her sister. When I went over to her apartment on Friday nights, she would light the Sabbath candles and cry for her dead husband, my grandfather Abe. It made me feel awful.
Then Becky died at the age of 73 just before my bar mitzvah. I remember my mother rushing off with her to Booth Memorial Hospital and returning a few hours later in tears. It was my first experience with death. My mother covered our mirrors with cloth and we sat shiva in our apartment. One night I was looking across at my grandmother’s empty apartment and I thought I saw a light burning in the window. I had nightmares of ghosts for a long time.
My grandmother, and the elderly in general, were foreign to me as a kid. They spoke with thick accents and wore babushkas. They would sit on the benches in the summer with their stockings rolled down to their big black orthopedic shoes. They yelled at us all the time for playing football on the grass beneath their windows, and would often call the maintenance men and cops on us.
At least, that’s how I remember it. Looking back, us kids probably tortured those poor old folks with our continually shouts and screams. We had no idea about their rich past, their myriad of experiences, their lost hopes and loneliness. Jars filled with borscht (beets) or schmaltz (chicken fat), the odor of prunes, this is what remains in my sensual memory of the elderly.
Now I’m there, getting out of bed in stages, like in an arthritic ballet, collecting Social Security, looking forward to my Medicare card, and, yes, buying prunes. I watched my parents grow old and die in Pomonok. They lived there for 60 years and refused to leave, shunning the more upscale assisted living apartments in the area. Cheap rent, elevators, stores close enough to schlep a shopping cart – and a lifetime accumulation of possessions and memories – why leave?
When kids get out from school in the town I live in, they shout and scream, but then move on. Not like in Pomonok, where we would play and yell for hours under some poor old lady’s apartment while she was trying to watch “As the Vorld Turnit”. I wish I could somehow go back in time and apologize.