Can you remember your favorite sunset? My father had always wanted to see the sun set over an ocean. His favorite song appeared to be Red sails in the sunset (written in 1935 by Hugh Williams and popularized by Bing Crosby, and later, Nate King Cole). He seemed to recall just the title line, and would hum the rest of it.
My father knew that he would have been able to see some great sunsets on the West Coast, but he never had the time to make the trip. Then, finally, when they were in their late seventies, my parents flew to San Francisco to attend a family wedding.
They stayed for two weeks and returned with hundreds of photos. When I asked if there were any sunsets, my father explained that the ocean was too far from where they were staying. A few minutes later, I heard him humming, “Red sails in the sunset.”
I’ve never seen the sun set over an ocean either. But, then again, it wasn’t such a big deal for me. Maybe that’s because I’ve seen a couple of much more memorable sunsets. In fact, I was actually in Brooklyn when I saw them.
If you’re old enough, you can remember where you were and what you were doing on November 22, 1963. I was in Kelly Park playing basketball. Someone had a transistor radio, and we all stood around listening. We knew that the president had been shot and was rushed to a hospital.
The park was a few blocks from the apartment where I grew up. Depending upon whom you asked, the neighborhood was called Midwood, Kings Highway, Sheepshead Bay, Gravesend, Madison Park, or Flatbush. Only three years earlier, when John F. Kennedy was campaigning, he made a stop in front of Dubrow’s Cafeteria on Kings Highway, just three blocks from our house.
As soon as I heard the news, I rushed home. My mother was sitting at the kitchen table, listening to the radio. She was crying. I knew then that the president was dead.
A month later I was on an elevated train going from Jamaica, Queens, all the way across Brooklyn, and then over the Williamsburg Bridge to the Lower Eastside where I lived. It was, by far, the coldest day of the year. Passengers getting on at each stop were shivering. One girl was shaking. Her lips were blue.
It was the last day of mourning. Flags all across the nation were at half-staff.
The train had just made a right turn and was headed north. I looked out the window to the west. The sun had just set and the sky was a pale orange.
In the distance, I saw the metal frame of a five- or six-story building that was under construction. And visible through the frame was a flagpole silhouetted against the sky.
I memorized that image, knowing that in minutes it would be gone forever. There would be no going back. Not for me, not for anyone else on the train, not for our nation, and maybe, not for the world.
A few years later I moved from the Lower Eastside to Brooklyn Heights. I could afford only a studio apartment; but it was just two blocks from the Promenade, which provides a spectacular view of New York harbor.
One of the first people I met in Brooklyn Heights was Seymour, who lived in my building. At the time, he was a graduate student at NYU. He supported himself by teaching English composition part-time at a couple of community colleges.
Seymour was a mountain of a man, maybe six-foot-six, and close to 300 pounds. Truly a gentle giant, he was often apologizing for offenses that only he appeared to notice.
For months, studying for his oral exams completely consumed him. To relax, he would walk along the Promenade, often reciting poetry to himself. One beautiful summer afternoon, he was lost in his recitations as he strode across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Back in those days, the footpath was not yet clogged with tourists, although it had long been a magnet for Europeans and Japanese. As Seymour power-walked, his arms swinging wildly, a middle-aged German couple walked toward him. Seymour was spouting poetry in Middle English at the top of his lungs.
The couple suddenly turned, and began rushing off in the opposite direction. Seymour, who was horrified that he had frightened the couple, galloped after them, trying to explain that he was studying for his orals. They either could not understand him or perhaps were just not that impressed with his explanation.
The German man, growing more alarmed, yelled over his shoulder, “Please, just leave us alone and we will say nothing to the authorities!”
Seymour, almost out of breath, slowed down and whispered plaintively: “You don’t have orals in German Universities?”
But Seymour passed his orals, and defended his dissertation a year later. When he was offered a tenure-track teaching position at Jersey City State, he bought a seventeen-foot wide three-story brownstone near the college for just $28,000.
The only problem was that he missed the Heights more than he could have ever imagined. Once or twice a week Seymour would take the PATH train to the World Trade Center, walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and then continue along the Promenade.
Another friend I met soon after I moved to the Heights was Bob. He had grown up in the neighborhood and often proclaimed that he would never move away. Whenever someone asked if he had lived in the Heights his entire life, he had a ready answer: “Not yet!”
Known as “the mayor of Brooklyn Heights,” Bob wrote a humor column in The Heights Press. But for a living, he sold steel and other metals to construction companies on Long Island and in Connecticut.
When I asked if he liked his job, he said that he’d much rather be the full-time mayor of the Heights. Regretfully, that position did not exist.
I spent a lot of time on the Promenade and especially enjoyed the sunsets. These attracted some serious photographers, who set up their tripods, perhaps hoping to capture the world’s greatest sunset, even if it wasn’t over an ocean.
After living in my tiny apartment for a couple of years, I caught the break of my life. A great apartment on Hicks Street, across the street from the Hotel St. George, had just become available. It was a floor-through, with fourteen-foot ceilings, a working fireplace, and even a sauna.
To this day, I can say that living there were the happiest years of my life. The rent was fairly high but still affordable, and the landlady, who occupied the third and fourth floors, kept to herself and was away half the year.
I held huge parties and often had friends and family over for dinner. But mainly, I loved coming home and enjoying all that space.
But as they say, “all good things come to an end.” My landlady, spurred on by her friend Mindy, a local real estate broker, decided to sell the building. This was in 1980, when the Heights was becoming a hot new neighborhood.
Mindy could get my landlady at least $400,000 if she could deliver the building without any tenants. I was an easy mark since I didn’t have a lease. The couple in the ground level apartment, Tony and Vern, who had spent hundreds of hours fixing up the backyard, also had no lease. The landlady didn’t even offer to compensate them.
There was an elderly couple on the second floor who still had almost a year to go on their lease. They refused to move. But Mindy persuaded my landlady to make them an offer they could not refuse. Grudgingly, she forked over the money.
We were heartbroken, but within a few months, all of us were gone. A friend and I bought a fixer-upper building in Downtown Brooklyn, about a mile from the Heights. Still, I never reconciled to living there. I was back in the Heights once twice a week, often on the Promenade. I was another Seymour, albeit a scaled down version with absolutely no facility with Middle English.
One day I ran into Bob.
“Did you hear what happened to me?” he asked.
I just shrugged.
“I had a heart attack!”
“I still don’t know how it happened. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. OK, I’m not in great shape, but I was just ten pounds overweight.”
“Were you under any kind of stress?”
“Not at all. But I did take on a new line at work that was causing some problems.”
“Bob, maybe that’s what it was.”
“Yeah, maybe. Anyway, I have a great cardiologist, I go to cardio rehab three times a week, and I walk a lot.”
“What about that new line you look on?”
“Yeah, maybe I should get rid of it.”
I still ran into Bob from time to time. He’d be walking in Cadman Plaza Park, or on the Promenade. He knew that I had moved, and was glad to see that I still came around. I confessed to him how much I missed the neighborhood.
He told me that it was becoming increasingly unaffordable.
“How much do you think my old house would go for?”
“Why? Are you thinking of moving back?”
“I wish I could afford it.”
“How much did your landlady get for it?”
“I think slightly over $400,000.”
Bob started laughing.
“What’s the joke?”
“If she would have held on to it another couple of years, she would have gotten almost double that.”
Now I was laughing too. It served the greedy bitch right!
A few months later, I was watching the sunset. It was the second or third week of September. Bob was holding court with a few friends and acquaintances.
He had recently started swimming in the pool at the Hotel St George and was looking forward to going the next morning. He declared himself one hundred percent recovered from his heart attack.
After the sun set, the sky remained a deep, deep red. Then, very slowly it faded to a blackish red. Almost an hour later, there was still a bit of color where the sun had gone down. It was as if the sun knew how much we enjoyed watching, and had only reluctantly disappeared.
The next afternoon I got the news. Bob dove into the pool and evidently had another heart attack. He was dead before they could call an ambulance.
I am writing these words thirty years later. I still miss Bob and Seymour. I still miss the Heights. And I still miss the sunsets. I checked Zillow.com the other day. My old house on Hicks Street just sold for almost four million dollars.
But the Heights that I miss no longer exists. It’s become an entirely different neighborhood. Only the upper one percent and long-time residents with rent-stabilized apartments can afford to live there. I doubt that I would feel at home there anymore – even if I could live in my old apartment.
For years, like Seymour, I was in denial. I was no longer living in Brooklyn Heights, but I couldn’t help going back. Until, one day, I stopped.
What happened? When did things change? When did I stop going back there? After that last sunset, there was no going back.
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