Former Canarsie Resident Revisits Roots in New Book
By Tess McRae
Growing up, it can be hard to imagine something as trivial as abandoned beach houses becoming the inspiration for a book. But even 3,000 miles away in sunny California, Stephen Charnow, who grew up in Canarsie, couldn’t shake the image of a dozen wooden shacks on stilts along the Jamaica Bay shoreline.
“No one knew who built them or lived there, so as kids we had all kinds of stories and urban myths,” said Charnow, whose new book, “Charlie Fig and the Lip,” centers around two Canarsie boys who explore the marshy area of the bay. “Even to this day, I never learned who built those homes, but the image stayed with me. That was the first thing that came to me when I sat down to write the book.”
Though readers and reviewers describe it as a “young adult thriller,” Charnow describes “Charlie Fig and the Lip” as a coming-of-age story wrapped in a mystery.
The book tells the story of Charlie Figatelli and his friend Aaron “The Lip” Lipstein, who sail into Jamaica Bay in the late-1950s to find out what became of Figatelli’s father — whose bullet-ridden delivery van was pulled from a canal.
Though the story embellishes on parts of Canarsie — Charnow gave the beach houses a spooky back story involving ghosts — the author stayed true to the feel of the neighborhood at that time.
“It had such a small town atmosphere,” he told the Canarsie Courier. “I remember being able to leave P.S. 115, where I went to school, for lunch and eating at a luncheonette where I would get a vanilla malt. I have wonderful memories of riding my bike down to Floyd Bennett Field and seeing vegetable gardens in all the front yards.”
While many writers might otherwise put a lot of themselves in a first-person narrative, 72-year-old Charnow said The Lip is almost entirely fictionalized.
“He’s made up of myself, other people and then I just expanded outward,” he said. “It’s not autobiographical. In the book, Aaron goes to the Bronx High School of Science. I probably wouldn’t have even passed the test.”
Charlie Fig, however, is based on someone Charnow remembers.
“He was a bit of a juvenile delinquent,” the author said. “I think the worst he did was steal a car. I wasn’t friends with him, but I noticed him. With the character of Charlie, there were certain requirements. The character had to be a certain way in how he thought and behaved. I didn’t know anyone else like that, who acted and saw life in the same way.”
Even though Charnow only stayed in Canarsie until he was 14 years old — he later moved to Bayside, Queens — the area always had a special place in the writer’s heart. He attended Samuel Tilden High School in East Flatbush until transferred to Martin Van Buren High School in Queens in his sophomore year.
“This was before Canarsie High School even existed,” he laughed.
“Charlie Fig and The Lip,” was published in December and is available in paperback on Amazon.
“I’d really like to know how Canarsie residents see this book,” Charnow said. “There was one woman who lives in L.A. but originally lived in Canarsie and after she read the book she said, ‘You just nailed it, how it felt living there,’ but I’m trying to get some of the independent bookstores in Brooklyn to stock it so I could maybe do a reading. I’d love to get some feedback.”
For now, Charnow said, he is relying on word of mouth and articles like this one to expose Canarsie residents to the existence of the book.
THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS AND RESPONSES ARE EXCERPTED FROM AN
INTERVIEW WITH STEVEN CHARNOW AT A READING OF CHARLIE FIG AND
THE LIP BEFORE MEMBERS OF IWOSC (INDEPENDENT WRITERS OF
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA) ON NOVEMBER 13, 2014. THE EXCERPTS
HIGHLIGHT THE PARTICULARS AND HISTORY OF THE SETTING –
CANARSIE, BROOKLYN – AND ERA – LATE 1950’S – OF THE BOOK.
Q: How did you come to set your story in Brooklyn, specifically the Canarsie area?
A: I lived in Canarsie for a few years when I was a young boy. Canarsie is on Jamaica
Bay. I’d seen a group of shacks on stilts in the marshes of the bay. About a dozen of
them visible from the Belt Parkway, a highway circling Brooklyn and running along the
bay. The shacks were long abandoned, and no one knew who built them, or had lived
there. Various stories about the shacks circulated through Canarsie. Kids saying it was a
village inhabited by cannibals, a crazed family like the one in The Texas Chain Saw
Murders. Parents telling their misbehaving kids that’s where the boogeymen lived. Like
the story of L’uomo negro described in the book by Aaron’s mother, who grew up in a
fishing village in Italy. The image of those shacks stayed with me and the characters and
story grew out from that memory.
Q: L’uomo negro?
A: boogeyman in Italy wearing a black cape, a wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his
face. He would emerge at night from the sea with a sack of nightmares coming for
children who wouldn’t listen to their parents.
Q: In your novel it is 1959, the year after the Dodgers have moved to LA.
In fact, near the beginning of the book, the owner of an Eldorado is in his living room listening to Vin
Scully, a young Scully at the start of his career, on the radio announcing a game – Wally
Moon hitting a Moon Shot into the left field seats – while Aaron and Charlie are stealing
the car. Okay, Walter O’Malley moves the Dodgers to L.A. What was the reaction?
A: At the time Walter O’Malley became the most hated man in Brooklyn, if not all of
New York City. The man responsible for Brooklyn losing their beloved Bums. A joke
often repeated said it all. A Dodger fan is asked if he had a gun with only two bullets in
it and were facing Hitler, Stalin and O’Malley, who he would shoot. The fan hardly
pauses before answering, Walter O’Malley…twice.
Q: The Dodgers first play at the LA Coliseum. When Dodger Stadium opens in Chavez
Ravine, the Dodger Dog is introduced. Was there any precedent for it at Ebbets Field?
A: Peanuts, popcorn, cotton candy, Crackerjacks, and of course, hot dogs were sold in
Ebbets Field. The hot dogs were never branded. That first happened in LA. By the way,
during WWII, meatless Tuesdays was put in effect. Part of the wartime rationing. The
way the story goes a fan at the game on a Tuesday at Ebbets Field buys a hot dog from a
vendor. A woman, another fan at the game, yells at him that it’s unpatriotic to eat meat
on Tuesday. The man yells back, don’t worry lady, there ain’t no meat in these hot dogs.
If there was any food I’d associate with Ebbets Field it would be cheesecake. After a
game, fans would leave Ebbets Field and go to nearby Junior’s Deli on Flatbush Ave. for
its cheesecake considered the best in NY.
Q: Aaron Lipstein, nicknamed the Lip, is about to graduate from the Bronx HS of
Science, an elite NYC public school. Is that the high school you attended?
A: (laughs) No. Admission to Bronx Science is based on an exam open to all eighth and
ninth grade New York City students. Of the thirty thousand who take the exam about
twenty thousand check off Bronx Science as their first choice. Brooklyn Tech and
Stuyvesant High are the other two choices. The exam covers math and verbal skills. Of
the twenty thousand, or so who want to be admitted to Bronx Science, just over one
thousand are accepted. About 5%. I never even thought of taking the exam, not even just
to see how I would do. By the way, Bronx Science has produced eight Nobel Laureates.
More than any other high school in the U.S.
Q: In the book, Canarsie, a section of Brooklyn, comes across as a small town,
seemingly apart from the rest of the borough. Canarsie, a place at the end of the line.
A: It was very much like an isolated, small town. Avenue L, Canarsie’s Main Street,
USA. The butcher shop, fruit and vegetable store, movie theater, fish market, hardware
store, a candy store/soda fountain. Now, there’s Canarsie High School, but back then, in
the year the book is set in, you had to travel, take two busses to attend high school, Tilden
High in East Flatbush.
In some films of the thirties and forties, cop drama films, Canarsie’s remoteness would
often be joked about as in this line of dialogue: A police sergeant upset with a
patrolman’s performance warns him, “Screw up again like that, O’Hara, and you’ll be
pounding a beat at midnight in Canarsie.” “Canarsie” was used as the punchline in more
than one Three Stooges movie. Borscht Belt comedians performing at a Catskills hotel
would work “Canarsie” into their acts. Just saying “Canarsie” would elicit at least a
chuckle, if not a laugh from the audience.
The L train from Manhattan across Brooklyn descended from an overhead EL and ran on
a right-of-way into Canarsie with a grade crossing just past the 105th Street Station. The
last remaining crossing in NYC. The 105th Street Station and then the end of the line,
Rockaway Parkway, a wooden platform that could’ve been taken for a whistle stop on an
interstate railroad somewhere in Iowa.
Q: In your book, Aaron and Charlie are marooned on the islands in Jamaica Bay, where
they stumble upon an abandoned amusement park. Did such a park really exist?
A: Not on an island in the bay. There was an amusement park in Canarsie, built near the
beginning of the 20th Century on the shoreline of the bay. There were hotels and even a
casino. An attempt to rival Coney Island as a destination for New Yorkers to come to the
shore. The amusement park closed down, I think during the Depression. A few years
later, it burned down. The Canarsie Pier was built on the site where the park had been.
In my book, I moved the amusement park out into the bay and created a lot more islands
than are actually out there.
Q: The trolley line too? The abandoned line in your book that ran from Canarsie to the
amusement park on an island in the bay?
A: That trolley line never existed. But there was a line built about the time of the Civil
War that carried passengers through Brooklyn into Canarsie, where they boarded a
steamboat that sailed across the bay to the Rockaways.
Q: The descendants of the Dutch who established a settlement in lower Manhattan
appear in your book, living in a village hidden deep in the marshes of the bay. They are
descendants of the original settlers who supposedly purchased Manhattan for a handful of
trinkets worth twenty-four dollars.
A: The story of the purchase, accurate or not, is generally believed to be a true account
of one of the greatest real estate rip offs in American History. Europeans exploiting
Native Americans. The Dutch buying Manhattan for $24 of beads. It was a rip off, but
not of the indigenous people living there. The Canarsee Indians, the tribe that sold
Manhattan to the Dutch didn’t own it. They lived in what is now present day Canarsie.
Somehow they were in Manhattan, maybe hunting, or on a foray against a tribe that lived
there and did own it. So after the Dutch bought it they were attacked by the tribe that did
own it. The survivors fled across the East River and built a settlement they named
Breuckelen after a town in the Netherlands. When the British invaded the name was
changed to Brooklyn.
Q: Aaron takes the L train, the Canarsie Line, home from school. He’s in the crowded
car gazing at the ads above the windows but particularly at the poster of the current
month’s Miss Subways.
A: The Miss Subways posters were there to attract the rider’s attention to the ads for
gum, funeral homes, cigarettes, and stenographer’s school. And in Aaron’s case, it
certainly accomplished that.
Q: Aaron was staring at Miss Subways, wondering about the size of her breasts.
A: Aaron is 16 years old. Hormones raging. The posters were never intended to be
provocative. A studio portrait, usually a head shot, or from the waist up. A list of Miss
Subway’s hobbies, education, career goals. Young women, or a family member, or their
boss would submit a photo and a brief bio. The poster first appeared sometime in the
Q: In your book, the Miss Subways Aaron stares at is studying for a B.A. at Hunter
College, but would prefer an M.R.S.
A: That wasn’t meant to be a joke, or, at the time, seen as sexist. Women, it was
generally believed, went to college to get a husband, then raise a family. Some me of the
women crowned Miss Subways aspired to a modeling career, or success as a singer, or
dancer, but no one, as far as I know, succeeded in turning their time as Miss Subways
into a major career.
Q: Is Miss Subways still there?
A: No. A more enlightened view of male-female relationships brought the Miss
Subways campaign to an end in 1976.