This tale started soon after sunrise on December 31, 1937 in Greenpoint, a place old timers refer to as the end of the pickle, Brooklyn’s northernmost bit of land bounded by the Navy Yard and Newtown Creek. At that time, many Italian immigrants lived there and feared La Mano Nera (The Black Hand) long before Cosa Nostra and Mafia became television fare.
A dark green 1929 truck with no distinctive markings coughed to a start and wended its icy way ten miles South to Coney Island where the fifty-something driver and a young helper overloaded the truck until its tires seemed about to burst. Then, they drove four miles northwest where they made numerous stops while carefully distributing the truck’s contents.
All of the stops were in Bay Ridge, the neighborhood that many seamen of Scandinavian descent called home. The Narrows, the channel that ocean-going ships had to passage in order to enter New York’s Inner Harbor, could be seen from all streets aligned east to west. The young helper was especially watchful of what was happening on the waterway.
When the tired pair finished a bit after midnight, they drove northeast toward the center of Brooklyn. Their destination was where Crown Heights abutted Brownsville, just a few blocks from where members of the board of Murder Incorporated were celebrating the arrival of 1938.
I was helping my Swedish-Irish uncle restock Bay Ridge’s bars, no insignificant task! The load consisted of the ginger ale and carbonated water needed to keep Scandinavian tonsils from burning up. I had stayed the night before in Greenpoint where my aunt and uncle lived, in order to facilitate an early start. The bottling plant was located in Coney Island, and I was dropped off where I lived in Crown Heights.
Bay Ridge, it seemed, featured a church on every other corner with gin mills in between. My Uncle Frank was naturally endowed for a soda-water route there. His nose tilted up, unmistakably Swedish, his family name was Nelson, and he was gregarious to a fault. Each stop was an event. When he passed through a saloon door even the glassiest eyes would turn toward him, and a sustained shout would go up that could be heard in at least two churches.
There was no need for an ad agency, such as Madison Avenue’s Batton, Barton, Durstine & Osborne. Uncle Frank did his own advertising by shouting in every pub, “Drinks on me!” He knew everyone by name and told stories that reduced those who could still hear, to tears of laughter. He managed to sustain good will even while beating every local champ at shuffleboard. Uncle Frank never ate during work, drank only beer, and never got tipsy. My Aunt Liz had asked that I help Uncle Frank because he might, for once, get home before the New Year was heralded in.
For me the challenge was a mixed blessing. The chances were slim that we would be home before midnight, and the weather was very cold. At age fourteen, I would be one of the few in Bay Ridge without a radiator full of antifreeze. But, I enjoyed helping my uncle because many of the people in Bay Ridge were seafarers. Ships were my innate interest.
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo