Fans of Ray Bradbury will surely remember The Time Machine, one of the more iconic stories in his wonderful collection Dandelion Wine. In that story, a group of kids break into an old, haunted seeming mansion to find the “time machine,” which turns out to be an old man who tells them stories about the Civil War.
As a writer and a journalist, one of my favorite things to do is listen to people tell their stories–especially older people. Bradbury is right: They are time machines, and I got a chance to hop in a virtual Doc Brown DeLorean yesterday.
There is a really good bagel shop a couple of blocks from my apartment, and on weekend mornings I often schlep my hangover down there to get a Lox Spectacular (which looks and tastes as good as it sounds and is totally worth the $10 it costs). Any time it’s sunny, while I’m walking to the bagel shop, I see on 7th Avenue, between 7th and 8th Streets, an old guy in a Korea Veteran baseball cap sitting in a folding chair on the sidewalk. On Sunday morning it was sunny and actually pretty warm, and I decided to stop and talk to the guy for a few minutes.
My time machine’s name is John, and he has lived in the same building in Park Slope for his whole life. His father came to America from Italy in the early 20th century and served in the U.S. Navy in World War I. (John followed his father’s footsteps in the service, and is indeed a veteran of the Korean War.) John’s father opened a fruit and vegetable shop in the ’20s, and the family lived upstairs. When John came back from the Korean War, his father took him to see a lawyer, and the lawyer had him sign a few papers and then told him to give him a dollar. When John said, “What the hell is this?” his father said, “You own the store now.”
John grew up a baseball fan–the Yankees in particular–and man, does he have stories to tell. He went to his first game in 1939. He says he was at the game when Lou Gehrig gave his famous “Luckiest man on Earth” speech. The first game John took his own son to was the season finale in 1961–the day Roger Maris hit his then-record 61st home run. But John’s love of baseball isn’t limited to the Big Leagues. He ran the little league in Park Slope for fifty years, and Diamond #2 in Prospect Park has a plaque with his name on it.
The history he has witnessed isn’t limited to baseball. John told me about the time an airplane crashed on 7th Avenue in 1960, and how he and his son went down the street to check out the wreckage. He chuckled when he recalled that the plane crashed into the Pillar of Fire church.
The fruit and vegetable store has been gone for ten years (it’s a real estate dealer now, because of course it is–$3 million brownstones, anyone?) but John still lives upstairs. On weekends, if you’re walking down 7th Avenue in Park Slope, you’re sure to see him sitting in his folding chair. Stop and say hello: He won’t hesitate to take you back in time.