When I was a kid my family lived in a large apartment building in Brooklyn, New York. The neighborhood was very Jewish at the time and everyone on the block seemed to know everyone else. But this was especially true in my apartment building.
We all knew the comings and goings of every person in every apartment. Nothing was a secret; deaths, births, personal problems, what was being cooked for supper, who was going out, we all knew everything. Nothing was hidden from the people living in the building.
You may wonder how this could be. I mean, there had to be some secrets that were only whispered from person to person. Nope, never happened. And why was that? Because no one used the telephone. Why pay for a phone call when all you had to do was open a window and call out to the person you wanted to talk to?
Take Pearl and Hannah for instance. Pearl and her husband, Dave, lived on the third floor and Hannah, Pearl’s sister, lived on the fourth floor. Every morning Pearl would open her window and call out to Hannah. Pearl’s voice was very raspy due to years of smoking.
“Hannah, Hannah!” Pearl would shout through her window. Suddenly you could hear a window being flung opened and Hannah calling back, “Pearlie? What’s going on?”
“Not much,” Pearl answered. “I’m going to the store, do you need something?”
“Yeah, get me some bread, milk, a small juice, and a quarter pound of lox. I’m going to fry up some lox and eggs for lunch. I’ll pay you back later.”
“Okay. Hey, I wanted to tell you that my son is starting to intern at the hospital this week.”
“Good for him, Pearlie. How much is all this costing you and Dave?”
“A pretty penny, that’s for sure. But he’ll be a doctor some day and make a lot of money himself. Dave and I went to the restaurant in Sheepshead Bay yesterday. We ate some fish. It was supposed to be fresh but I don’t think it was. My stomach started to bother me on the way back home. I barely made it into the house on time.”
“Oy vey, Pearlie, you should sue!”
“Na, it’s not worth the trouble. Have you heard from your son lately?”
“No, I only hear from him when he and that wife of his need money! I’m a widow here, living off some social security and they want me to give them money.”
“I’m going now, Hannah. I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
“Okay, Pearlie. Are you going to sit outside this afternoon?”
“Yeah, after I eat lunch.”
With that you could hear one window close and then the other.
Imagine conversations like this going on all day out the windows in the building. That is why everyone knew everything about everyone else.
This was also the way the building found out when the man who sharpened knives pulled his wagon in front of the building.
A window would fly open and the call went out.
“The knife sharpener is outside.”
With that windows flew open all over with women shouting the news to the rest of the building. The wives would grab all their knives and run outside to have them sharpened. It’s a wonder no one was hurt with all those sharp objects.
Who needed a phone when a window was handier and cheaper?
It was also a great way for a little girl to learn what was going on in the building. I just sat quietly and listened.
To see more of my childhood memories go to S.A.K. Remembers on my blog.