By Henrik Krogius
Upstairs/Downstairs keeps exerting an appeal. To be fully middle class was to have a live-in maid. A rung above that meant having two or more servants. Alice Davidson Outwater, growing up in Brooklyn Heights before World War II, enjoyed both comfort and glimpses into the lives of servants, as she tells in 82 Remsen Street, a collection of reminiscences that were published in monthly installments by the Brooklyn Heights Press before and after the turn of the millennium.
The charm of the book is that the author stays true to the awareness and judgments of the child. Whether her prosperous lawyer father fulminated against “that man” in the White House or supported the New Deal, we can only guess at. Politics, and the travails of the Depression, were outside the concern of the young girl. Not that she was oblivious to sights of poverty — a vegetable seller’s malnourished horse collapsing on Montague Street or a band of rag-tag gypsies parked under Brooklyn Bridge – but she witnessed these with a childish detachment that she doesn’t try to excuse or varnish over.
“We were fascinated that the gypsies could barely read or write and that none of the children went to school,” Dr. Outwater writes of the reaction of herself and her friends, who then imagined telling fortunes for a living and found the gypsies “exotic and mysterious.” Her own group attended private school at Packer Collegiate Institute and were carefully taught the three R’s and more.
Also mysterious to the little girl and her younger sister Louise were her “Grandmother Hiles” and companion “Auntie Pasco,” who lived across the street at 69 Remsen. These two ladies enjoyed traveling together and taking long walks, but in the house Grandmother Hiles seemed “unfamiliar and spooky.” However, Dr. Outwater does not subject them to the psychological speculation, which, in her later life as a practicing psychologist, would certainly have occurred to her. She stays within the child’s framework.
She gives us an affectionate portrait of the Irish nursemaid Bebe, who so easily shared in the life of the two small girls, and the heartbreak it meant for them when Bebe married a New York policeman from near her Irish hometown, and left. Of the likewise Irish Bessie, whose “domain was the upstairs pantry,” Dr. Outwater writes, “I loved Bessie as only a child could.” She remembers hearing Bessie in her brogue scold a new cook who forgot to serve bacon to her father at breakfast: “Ye know Mr. Davidson always has bacon with his eggs and shouldn’t be walking the Brooklyn Bridge to the [Wall Street] office without it.”
Shopping excursions with their mother to A&S on Fulton Street and Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan were a special excitement for the two girls. And there was the time that 6-foot-6 “Grandfather Hooker,” no mean magician, wowed Harry Houdini and other visiting prestidigitators with “Hooker’s rising cards.” Houdini was merely incidental compared to the wonder of her grandfather’s act.
A hint of the outside world breaking in comes with the hiring of German Eva as a substitute cook in December 1941, three months before Pearl Harbor. Eva is overheard speaking rapidly in German to unknown men, and on her day off two men from the FBI arrive to talk with Mrs. Davidson. Eva is dismissed the next day. After the United States enters the war, the consequence for the Davidsons is to move for the time being to a farm in New Jersey, where Mr. Davidson buys black-and-white cows to complement the big white farmhouse with its black shutters. Still, as the war progresses, some austerity creeps into the Davidsons’ lives, and they are relieved when a favorite cousin and friends return safely home at war’s end.
Alice Outwater has succeeded in recapturing a time and a way of life we can at the same time envy and shake our heads at. Her book, 82 Remsen Street, is published by Wind Ridge Publishing of Shelburne, Vermont, close to where she now lives. At 160 pages and illustrated with many photographs, the book retails at $18.95 and is available from the Brooklyn Women’s Exchange, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com.
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