From the top of the bridge, in the distance facing due west, beyond the meandering industrial waterway known as the Gowanus Canal, Henry recognized from the logo on their letterhead the grandstands of Washington Park stadium, home of the Brooklyn Superbas.
He instantly registered the realization that during late innings in September (if he was lucky enough to still be playing) the angle of the sun could make picking up the ball from the pitcher’s hand tough, but as an outfielder he would appreciate the fact that the sun would be behind his back and not make fielding pop flies more of a challenge.
From over a mile away it didn’t look very big but he’d heard they had over 15,000 paying cranks for their season opener last year with several thousand more watching from the free area on the grassy hill beyond the outfield. Not quite as impressive as Chicago’s Westside Grounds but again, the biggest crowds assembled to watch his most exciting rivalries in Oregon paled in comparison, measuring in the mere hundreds. Henry grinned as he put it in perspective: There were more than twice as many people in Brooklyn than the entire state of Oregon.
Once he crossed onto Brooklyn soil Henry reached into his pocket for the address of the boarding house where he had arranged to stay. The Superbas had provided a list of potential housing in the area and Henry was able to reserve a fourth-floor room in a boarding house on 7th Ave. and Carroll St. in the adjoining neighborhood of Park Slope, just a ten minute walk from the field at Washington Park. A letter to Mrs. Fanny Goldfarb had secured the room for $6.50 a week including two meals a day.
Mrs. Goldfarb was widowed – her husband Marvin (whom she referred to as “My Moishe”) was the successful proprietor of Goldfarb’s Dry Goods store located on the ground floor of the building. Together they had lived with two, now-grown daughters in their modest first floor apartment above the store until Marvin passed away suddenly about four years earlier. Goldfarb had done well enough over the years to purchase the building so Fanny was able to manage comfortably on the rent she received from the store (now a haberdashery) and the six boarders she took in.
It was mid-afternoon when he arrived at Fanny’s place and she immediately took a break in her preparations for that night’s supper to greet Henry, show him to his room and make him feel welcome. Fanny preferred tenants who planned to stay a while – short term itinerants, as she liked to say, “just bring me tsuris.”
Speaking of trouble, Fanny briefed Henry on the house rules regarding noise, entertaining guests, when she expected payment for room and board, and so on. Several ball players had roomed with her in the past – they were good for a six month stay before heading back to their wives, families, and “day jobs” in home towns throughout the nation.
Baseball was quickly becoming the national pastime but professional teams were only located in a few select cities so the athletes often migrated back home for the off-season. The other advantage in having ball players as boarders was the fact that they are away on travel about half the time resulting in one less mouth to feed. To guarantee their rooms, the players paid the same weekly rent their entire stay, regardless whether they were there for meals or not. Fanny clipped the Superba’s team schedule from the newspaper at the start of the season and pinned it to her kitchen cabinet as an aid in determining how many diners to expect on a given night.
Of course the down side to having ball players in the house was their potential propensity for carousing. Grown men – mostly young – without their wives and families to assert discipline were easily distracted by the temptations of night life and there was no shortage of such temptation in Brooklyn or its sister borough of Manhattan in the newly merged City of New York, the largest in the nation.
Henry was surprised to learn that ironically, the tenant who occupied his room last season was none other than the pitcher he was traded for, Harry “The House” McIntyre – his nickname due to his rather large frame which was continually expanding as a result of his fondness for beer. Fanny later confided in him that McIntyre was particularly difficult – since he didn’t have to perform each day he seemed to be out late most nights, often returning in the wee hours in a less than discrete manner. The House frequently disregarded Fanny’s basic ground rules of common courtesy for the other guests including maintaining quiet and banning of visitors after 11 pm despite numerous reminders. She was contemplating asking The House to find another one in which to reside this season when he was unexpectedly traded to the Cubs. Henry speculated whether McIntyre’s off-the-field activities became too much of a distraction and led to the trade that brought him to Brooklyn.
Fanny was unlike any women Henry had ever met in Oregon. She was independent, smart, fluent in three languages and not hesitant to speak her mind. An avid reader, Fanny would go through several papers cover to cover each day including the New York Times and The Forverts also known as the Jewish Daily Forward (while he couldn’t make out the words, Henry recognized this as the same paper that was used to wrap his herring and Fanny explained it was published in Yiddish). Plus there were various political pamphlets and all sorts of books in the living room Henry passed on his way upstairs to his room. Fanny encouraged her boarders to borrow books whenever they pleased. She would often tell the boarders about the latest thing she was reading, talk about the political and social organizations she belonged to, or discuss an article in the paper that she thought was noteworthy as she served dinner or occasionally, if she sat with them for tea and dessert afterwards.
After settling in and unpacking his things into the carved wooden wardrobe cabinet in his room Henry used the common bathroom in the hall to shower and shave before dinner. That night Fanny was serving something she called flanken, a rather well cooked meat with boiled potatoes – the smell permeated the hall and stairway all the way up to the fourth floor. Henry would soon learn that Fanny was a passable cook – she didn’t have a large repertoire of recipes and most were ethnic dishes he was unfamiliar with – but he always seemed to muster up an appetite to finish his meals and often asked for a second portion.
That night Fanny served her long crescent-shaped mandelbrodt cookies for dessert that were hard as a rock and needed to be dunked in the tea to avoid breaking your teeth. The discussion was over the story that ran in the morning edition of the NY Times on Harry Houdini’s latest stunt. It was quite different than his usual tricks – he wasn’t chained in shackles, submerged under water or locked in a trunk – but this stunt was every bit as dangerous… a great escape of a very different variety from the strongest force on earth. And it took place about as far away from his New York residence as possible.
Houdini was an amateur pilot and flew the first recorded flight over Australia in a bi-plane he purchased in France and had shipped down under. He defied gravity and managed to stay in the air for seven and half consecutive minutes traversing a distance of six miles at a height of about 100 feet. One of the two young women boarders read out loud from the story in the paper which quoted Houdini’s reflections on his accomplishment once it was over:
“When I went up for the first time I thought for a minute that I was in a tree; then I knew I was flying. The funny thing was that as soon as I was aloft, all the tension and strain left me. As soon as I was up all my muscles relaxed, and I sat back, feeling a sense of ease. Freedom and exhilaration, that’s what it is.”
There was some discussion back and forth about whether any of them had the courage to attempt a ride in a flying machine and if they thought they had, whether the experience would be a relaxing or a horrendously scary proposition. Someone said they’d ridden the roller coaster in Coney Island and that must evoke a similar feeling. Henry did not weigh in but thought to himself the idea of leaving the earth’s surface in a flying machine (or cascading down a rickety roller coaster for that matter) made the hair on the back of neck stand up. Fanny had the last word. “He is a very brave man, this landsman Erich Weiss who calls himself Mr. Harry Houdini… but he is also a little bit crazy to always try such dangerous mishegas if you ask me!”
The other boarders including two school teachers, a traveling salesman, a barber, and a recent immigrant still seeking employment were friendly enough. That first night they seemed curious about his quest to become a professional athlete so Henry was peppered with questions which only added to his self-consciousness but he tried to make the best of it. Fortunately he was able to fashion an early exit on account of his laborious journey and the fact that he had to report to the stadium early the following morning.