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Yeah, I got a beef. I got a big beef with the numbers.

I remember when the prefixes came and attached themselves to phone numbers. All of ’em Yeah, they just came up there to the front of the line and stuck ’emselves in front of everyone.

I mean, there was always just seven. 626-8545, 929-5678. Ever since God created phones there was just seven numbers. A nice little septagonal family digging their own infinite possibilities. You remember. 484-2626, 995-9573, 686-9578. What the fuck, even 111-1112. They were such solid things that they were all up in our brains like little gangs. Little gangs of sevens talkin’ shit all over East Flatbush.

"The march of progress reveals itself in the seemingly benign way shapes change and alter their basic character." That’s a quote from Mr. Frompkin, my 8th grade science teacher at Ditmas. The teacher I never really had. Dumb Eyes Kenny Eliaz said he disappeared into a haze of nostalgia, whatever that means.

Anyway, in comes the split. 718 and 212. 212 and 718. Just like that. Frompkin used to love to use that word, obfuscation Fixing what ain’t broke. Clouding shit all up. All of a sudden it’s all a blur of 201s, 914s, 415s, 718s. Before you knew it there’s the 917s and 646s up there too. A new whole crowd. Just standin’ up there at the front of the goddam line at the candy store. Like they were meant to be there.

Of course, I’d already left Brooklyn by then. Yeah, before those new guys came in we’ed cut out in the back of our ’58 Dodge with me bawlin’ my eyes out. My brother and sister and mother and father had a kind of glazed stoic thing going on but I was 13 and I made a little river out of the back of that old Dodge. Yeah, it might’ve been 100 years ago but folks still talk about it. How that kid cried a river down Foster Avenue. How quarter pound packs of muenster cheese, Wilner’s drug store bags with sucrets and Corisidans and A&P bags filled with milk, eggs and enemas all floated down Foster towards Coney Island Avenue. How all the kids from East 17th street jumped on a broken down old dishwasher and floated on my tears all the way up to Newkirk Plaza.

Oh Yeah, 718

I can’t remember the exact date.

I’m not good with dates.


I don’t really even know when it happened. I was gone. Way gone. Maybe down south. Or up north. Somewhere, because when I came back, I’d call old friends and some lady’d say "You must use an area code first when placing your call. Please consult the operator or your phone book for the proper prefix for your number."

"Loss is a kind of empty building that either reinforces itself or crumbles over the passage of time. It’s durability rests solely on environmental factors and certain elements of chance." Mr Frompkin fairly yelled this through the door when we locked him in the closet for the 8th grade science test. It was very sad in that it would have been my only opportunity to actually see the man. His great scraggly side hairs hanging off his bulging skull. The perfectly rounded bald top framed in baby hairs. Like a sparrows’ nest in a giant oak on East 19th street. That Stalinesque black mustache covering the weak top lip then fading down to the badly trimmed snow white goatee. Big, soft brown eyes that still begged for the same deep understanding. "The illusion of time is circular and can be experienced through the three dimensionality of overtones," he yelled. We just kept the door shut. Who knows if he ever got out.

Fuck the prefixes I say. If you’re really stuck on nostalgia, don’t forget that those first 2 digits actually came from whole names. Names like Cragmore 8-4444. Ulster 9-2629. Real fake quasi-Victorian names representing distinct Brooklyn areas. Ulster was Ocean Avenue to East 16th between Beverly and Glenwood. It came from the Duke of Ulster. Danny Kaye. Danny Kay was the Duke of Ulster.

"When Shanghai becomes a post-industrial giant, old men’s coalfires will alight under viaducts and the tears of gulls will no longer douse their flames."

Mr Fompkin wrote stuff like that that Mr. Cisco the gym teacher inexplicably printed in the basketball programs. I heard somebody whisper how all his blah-alah would turn out to be very prescient.

So, ok, your feet are getting’ tired already from this little stroll down memory boulevard. My condolences. Maybe you shoulda’ used powder. Maybe some of that fancy crème’ll do the trick.

"The finality of return is an insult to the cyclical nature of chronology." That was the only intelligible thing Mr. Frompkin ever said. It was published as a posthumous letter to Whitman at the Brooklyn Eagle.

Great. You figured out where I’m goin’ with all this. A regular Sherlock Columbo you are. Three big fuckin’gold stars. That’s right, I came back and now I’m a 718 again. I got driven out of 212 on account of a criminal affection for noise. Kids yelling, saxophones honking, dogs barking. That kind of stuff. 212, they’re getting’ rid of all the riff raff. So here I am.

Glad to be back. Oh, for sure, definitely. Glad to be back. All well and good. But none of the old streets really do it for me. for me. None of that Woody Allen/ Sholem Alechem/ Tree Grows in Brooklyn shit. Doesn’t make it for me. No beckoning me to the Whitmanesque bosom of the boro or any of that stuff. Na ah.

Only one block really feels…I don’t know…just good. 4th Avenue. 4th Avenue. Never had any real deep relation to it. But that’s the street I like in 718—4th Avenue.

It still starts at the ungainly Williamsburg Bank building, home of my childhood orthodontist who took my braces off when we ran out of money. Sadly there are no more hookers around the Pacific/Dean/Bergen part but there is still a nice healthy sense of bleakness. Wide, big old street with lots of parked cars and a blurred shabbiness. The calm blessing of old factories and fast night traffic.

Late at night I once found myself driving a taxi all the way from the bank to 86th Street. Fairly flying through the perfectly timed lights. Radio blaring. Speed increasing exponentially in direct proportion to the static nature of the flats fixed places and the red brick Botanicas. Accelerating up and down the hills to fantastic breakneck speeds. 40 even 50 miles and hour. Part of a fluid stream of cars whizzing thru the fall fog. A regular little cosmic runway. Faster. Higher.…A way out for the Duke of Ulster. A way up really. A place to rest in transit. A kind of home.

Of course the phone booths on 4th are all broke. And they got no phone numbers on ’em anyway on account of the hooker/pimp crackdowns in the ’90s. You probably couldn’t even read the 718s if the numbers were there. They’d probably be all smudged up.


Roy Nathanson

Roy Nathanson is the leader of The Jazz Passengers.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2004

All Issues