Michel Martin Returns to Brooklyn Roots In a special broadcast from New York, Michel Martin returns to the Brooklyn neighborhood where she grew up. Martin gets a special visit from life-long friend Leslie Groves. The two take a walk down memory lane and share how it feels to be home again.
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Michel Martin Returns to Brooklyn Roots

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Michel Martin Returns to Brooklyn Roots

Michel Martin Returns to Brooklyn Roots

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I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. You are listening to the sounds of my old neighborhood, East New York, Brooklyn. Today, as we begin broadcasting in my hometown on WNYC, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to come home and meet up with an old friend.

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible) will turn into (unintelligible), which turns into (unintelligible). We will pass my house, actually.

MARTIN: And we'll pass my house. That's where I lived. That's where I grew up, right there.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah, Wyndham Plaza(ph).

MARTIN: It's one of those mixed income developments, where, you know, my father, he worked for the city. So they wanted to have people who lived with stable incomes. That was supposed to be the idea and there was a variety of rents based on what you earned.

GPS Speaker: Turn right on Berriman Street.

MARTIN: It's right there.

GPS Speaker: Arriving at address 447, on right.

Unidentified Man: I'll open the door for you.

MARTIN: There's Leslie. She's right there!

(Soundbite of car door closing)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LESLIE GROVES (Life-long Friend of Michel Martin): Mine are short.

MARTIN: I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Hey, Leslie.

Ms. GROVES: Hi, Michel. How are you?

MARTIN: Good. Leslie Groves. Leslie and I share a strange and special history. We were both raised here in East New York. We went to elementary and junior high school together. And then, due to a weird series of events too complicated to go into here, we both wound up going away to boarding school in New Hampshire.

Now Leslie is a nurse executive at Totten(ph) State Hospital in Massachusetts. And she's come home this weekend to visit her family and to get her childhood home ready for sale. And I've come home to visit family and visit with Leslie.

We're outside of her old house in Berriman Street and I have to say, it's hard to imagine anybody else living here other than Leslie and her family. This was always a special place for me. It seemed like there was always a pot of chicken and rice on the stove and a pitcher of her mom's special Kool-Aid concoction in the fridge. And Leslie's folks and everything, and I don't know, it's amazing to be back here. Can we go in?

Ms. GROVES: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of door opening and closing)

Ms. GROVES: My brother had to disable the stove because my father got a little out of hand. (Unintelligible)

MARTIN: This is all the original stuff. Wow.

Ms. GROVES: They never changed all the original cabinets.

MARTIN: It's just so funny again because that pot to me seemed bottomless. It seemed, like, magical.

Ms. GROVES: It was.

MARTIN: Do you know what I mean?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: It was like this magical pot where there was always more.

Ms. GROVES: Yeah.

MARTIN: And there was the magical Kool-Aid that there was always more.

Ms. GROVES: And she always made a big pot of rice and peas, too, on the weekend.

MARTIN: Yeah, right.

Ms. GROVES: And that would just - would never end because there was always two days' worth of food, you know, so...


Ms. GROVES: The food was like - it was never ending.


Ms. GROVES: It was always.

MARTIN: And it's funny, I think I spent like years trying to find that taste again.

Ms. GROVES: Yeah.

MARTIN: That rice and peas. I could never find anybody who could make it the way...


MARTIN: She could make it. And I never had the - you know, we were so little, I mean, it never occurred to me to ask her...

Ms. GROVES: How to make it.

MARTIN: How to make it.

Ms. GROVES: Yeah.

MARTIN: You know what I mean? I don't know, was it because you didn't ask adults things back in the day?

Ms. GROVES: Well, one day when you and I are hanging out over a stove, I'll teach you how to make it.

MARTIN: You know how - she taught you?

Ms. GROVES: Yeah.

MARTIN: Thank goodness, at least...

Ms. GROVES: My brother's a little better at it now than I am.

MARTIN: Really? Oh, wow.

Ms. GROVES: He sort of stepped into her shoes after she passed away.


Ms. GROVES: So he learned how to cook and it's all good. The seasonings up there.

MARTIN: Oh wow, that's great.

Ms. GROVES: (Unintelligible)

MARTIN: How did your parents come to live in East New York? Do you know?

Ms. GROVES: We lived in Bed-Stuy. We lived on Putnam Avenue, that house is still there. It's a - you know, four-story brownstone owned by one of my mother's older sisters who - the way it goes is that you come from another country and then you sponsor everybody that comes after you. So she and her older sister bought houses in Bed-Stuy. So, when my mother came here...

MARTIN: From Costa Rica.

Ms. GROVES: From Costa Rica. And all of my Aunt Linda's siblings lived in that house. And my father had already lived in the Bronx with his - I think his godmother. And they knew each other when they were kids in Costa Rica. And then my father found out my mother was here. He tells me he dropped the girlfriend he had.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GROVES: And that was the end of that. Wrote my mother a letter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GROVES: And next thing you know, they started going out. They get married, and then probably when I'm about - I think maybe about three or four, they finally have up enough money together to buy a house of their own. Because we were living in an apartment on a top floor, I remember. And my brother and I had to share a room. That's what I remember about it. But the whole house was filled with my family. So it wasn't like, you know...

MARTIN: See, I lived the same way, and we weren't immigrants from anywhere accept from the South, right? (Unintelligible) but we lived in the triple-decker...

Ms. GROVES: Yeah.

MARTIN: My grandmother lived on the first floor and my aunt and uncle lived on the third floor and we lived in the middle.

Ms. GROVES: Yeah.

MARTIN: It's the same deal, we were kind of - you know, crammed in there, but then they moved. My aunt and uncle moved to the Bronx with my grandmother, and then we were kind of on our own.

Ms. GROVES: Yeah.


Ms. GROVES: Yeah.

MARTIN: Anyway, you were saying.

Ms. GROVES: Oh. So, they got enough money to get a down payment, I guess, for this house. This was a new, brand new development. All the houses that look like this, on this street, were all brand new. There was a little bone of contention - my father's aunt wanted him to buy a house that he could rent out apartments and make money off of that. My mother wanted nothing to do with tenants. And they had been the only people ever to own this house.

MARTIN: And when did you mom pass away?

Ms. GROVES: My mother died October 26th, 2001.

MARTIN: And then your dad and your brother stayed on here.

Ms. GROVES: Yeah.

MARTIN: Did your brother move back in to take care of him or to live with him and keep him company?

Ms. GROVES: My brother originally started just coming over every day to keep him company, and my father couldn't boil water on a good day. You know, I mean, he was kind of frightening in the kitchen, and we used to tell him to back away from the equipment because it wasn't a good idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GROVES: So my brother used to come over and cook for him and - but then as his illness progressed, my brother actually started spending more time here and started spending the night with him and wound up actually living here with him for quite a while.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm back in my hometown, East New York, Brooklyn, talking with one of my oldest friends, Leslie Groves.

I remember - you know, it's so interesting how - I'm just curious what it was like for you now because at that age, I remember this house as being such a place of sanctuary. I don't know if you remember it this way, but I remember there was a point at which - you know, schools could be kind of rough. And it wasn't easy for us as good students always. And I remember your mom would pick us up from school, give us the summary of what had happened on the stories...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: During the day, acting out all the voices.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And we'd come over here after school. I don't remember how I got home after that. I lived like five minutes from here. I don't remember, but I remember coming here. Did I come here every day after school?

Ms. GROVES: I think so. I think she picked up. Who? She picked me, you - I forget who else up.


Ms. GROVES: But after school, and I think we came here. I don't know how you got home from here.

MARTIN: Yeah, I don't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Did I take a bus? Did someone pick - I don't remember.

Ms. GROVES: I don't.

MARTIN: I do remember being here just about every day.

Ms. GROVES: Yeah. I don't remember.

MARTIN: Did you mind that I was in your house every day?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GROVES: No, no, no. Not even a little bit. Because you know, I spent a lot of time - see, the house was a little different for me because I had to live here. So I spent a lot of time in this house by myself. Because, you know, I had working parents, you know, and I had a brother who had extra after-school stuff, so I wound up spending a lot of time by myself, you know, waiting for people to come home so I could go outside and play and that kind of stuff. So when I had people come over and actually stay with me, then I liked it.

MARTIN: It's funny now because I wonder - I hope that I would be as gracious to my children's friends, now that I'm a mother, as gracious to my children's friends as your mother was to me and to our other little posses that hung out here.

Ms. GROVES: Yeah.

MARTIN: I have to wonder now. I feel sad that I never got a chance to thank her. And so I'm grateful that I have a chance to thank you. But I just wonder what she thought about us, it's like - you know, there wasn't a literature for little girls that hung out together back then. There was no "Cheetah Girls" back then.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What did she think about all that?

Ms. GROVES: I think that my mother liked - you know, I think she welcomed all of our friends. I mean, I think that she was, as you put it very nicely, as gracious with all of our friends, my friends, my brother's friends, whoever wanted to come into our home because it was her home. And I think that she welcomed anybody that wanted to come here just - you know, to just sort of hang out and have a good time and feel welcome. She wouldn't turn anybody away. That's the way she was. You know, that's the way they both were.

MARTIN: Why do you think they were that way? I mean, you could see it with her having grown up with so many kids in her house, would have just wanted it to be her family and just like that. I wonder why? They were both so - you know, your dad - always remember him with a smile on his face. I'm sure he wasn't like that all the time but that's what I remember.

Ms. GROVES: I think that they were happy, and I think that they had an experience of life where they were happy with their lives. And it's really kind of funny you asking me that question because I was just thinking about that before you all got here.

I really will have to believe it's because - you know, they had that mythical thing that people run around searching for, you know, they were happy. They were serene, you know, they were peaceful, you know. That's - this was their life. You know, this is what they wanted. They wanted to be together, they wanted their kids to have a life that they didn't have, and they wanted to just work and do the best they could. That was it.

MARTIN: Classic, you know, taking it from a distance. Of course, growing up, this was just normal. You know, your mom was a nurse. Your dad, as I remember, was a tailor.

Ms. GROVES: He was a clothing cutter.

MARTIN: A clothing cutter. And I remember that sometimes one of the reasons your mom always had food on the stove was because she would adjust her shifts, right? So that somebody would be home or that she was constantly working in different shifts.

Ms. GROVES: No...

MARTIN: She worked nights?

Ms. GROVES: She worked the same shift. She worked 4 to 12.

MARTIN: Four to 12, that's right. She worked 4 to 12. That's how come she could pick us up from school.

Ms. GROVES: Right.

MARTIN: Right.

Ms. GROVES: So she still did all the house stuff, you know, you had to food shop, you had to clean your house, you had to cook dinner. You had to do all those things. So all those things were already done. You know, like the food was already ready by 10:30 in the morning and then house was already cleaned by 1 o'clock in the afternoon because by 2 o'clock in the afternoon she had to start getting ready to go to work.

MARTIN: It was that classic immigrant success story. You know, you wouldn't describe it that way at the time but they worked very hard to buy this house, to make their stake so you and Conrad, your brother, could you now do what you wanted to do.

Ms. GROVES: Right.

MARTIN: Was it - I mentioned earlier that you and I both went to boarding school, which is kind of the first step in having a very different life. I don't know if you remember, but when you and I were growing up, I don't remember too many kids who went away to school. I mean, generally, it was because you did something wrong. You know? You know what I'm saying?

Ms. GROVES: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: So it was this weird thing, but for us to go to boarding school it was like - it was the way it was presented was if you go to this place then you're definitely going to college. That's kind of how it works. Was it hard for them to let you go?

Ms. GROVES: Yes, it was. It was hard for them to let me go, but I think that they also saw it as a road toward a better life. What my father and what he repeatedly said after that didn't count on, was that I never came back. And he said that over and over again, that I - you know, he would tell his friends, ah, she never came back. You know, that was the risk that he took. He understood that but he was sorry about that.

MARTIN: What about you?

Ms. GROVES: I think I did the right thing. I think I did the right thing to keep going in the direction that I went in. I've come back to Brooklyn now, you know, it's overwhelming to me. There's too many people here. You know, no offense, it's a lovely place but it's - they live on top of each other and it's just different for me now. I just don't necessarily feel like I could live here again.

And I thought about it, you know, before we started selling this house. I thought about it. I thought it would be perfect. I'd come back, live in the house, fix it up. I mean, you know, I'm a nurse and I could get probably a job any place I want. I mean, it's not like I'd have to struggle to find work or anything like that. But it's so different for me now that I can't - I don't know that I could make the leap at this stage of the game. You know? It's just hard.

MARTIN: I know exactly what you mean. I know I went all through college and just assumed I was coming back to New York and never did. I worked in New York for three seasons when I first started in television. Never lived - always commuted. You know, had a place here, a place there but never came back and I feel like my family is not thrilled with that.

Ms. GROVES: Yeah.

MARTIN: Why do you think we never came back?

Ms. GROVES: I think it was hard from the start. I think that it was hard for me - when I used to come back from boarding school it was hard. It was hard because once I got used to Concord, New Hampshire, and once I got a relative sense of independence from my family, it was very hard for me to come back to being the daughter that they knew because I wasn't that kid anymore.

And I mean, I went to nursing school in New York. I was here for two years. And you know, it was fun, you know, going out in Manhattan and doing it but that is not how you live in New York, and you know, I couldn't live here. So I got an opportunity to go back to New England to start working, I took it.

MARTIN: My father told me this story years later, as you might imagine it, when he dropped me off at school for the first time, he stood in the parking lot for half an hour staring out the window and couldn't leave. And he said - you know, for me, I was like, bye, daddy, see you in Thanksgiving.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And literally, I turned around and never looked back, and he kept waiting for me and he said - what he said to me, and this was - I was a grown woman when he told me this story. He said, had I looked back, he would have taken me home because he would have taken that as a sign, but I never looked back. And now, of course, I see that as this metaphor. Never did.

Ms. GROVES: I actually had a different experience. I followed my parent's car on foot all the way to the gate of the school from my dorm, and my father drove slow because I kept up with him. You know, but when they got to the gate I stopped and they drove away.

MARTIN: You were homesick already? You didn't want to go?

Ms. GROVES: No - I was homesick - when I went away to school - when I was in boarding school I was homesick. Every weekend I would call and say, come and get me, but they wouldn't do it because they thought - they knew that it would lead to something different so they were committed not to have me not have this chance.

MARTIN: That is so hard.

Ms. GROVES: Yeah.

MARTIN: That is really hard.

Ms. GROVES: Yep.

MARTIN: And now another journey.

Ms. GROVES: Yep.

MARTIN: You know, let go of this place of so many memories after so many years.

Ms. GROVES: Yep.

MARTIN: I don't know. When you think ahead to how you're going to feel maybe a year from now, how do you think you're going to feel two years from now?

Ms. GROVES: I think that right now probably this is the most emotion - probably today, this weekend, that I've had regarding this house and regarding letting it go. I think I'll feel good because I don't like loose ends. I like things to close, and I kind of know that things need to move on, you know. Relationships change, people get older, things happen, life goes on, and this is part of that. And for me, it's a part of my life that will never go away completely. It will just be another chapter kind of closed. And I've really got kind of a strong sense of that today.

MARTIN: It's funny being from a place that so many people are trying so hard to get to, isn't it?

Ms. GROVES: Yeah.

MARTIN: Not quite sure what to make of that?

Ms. GROVES: I don't know, but I just kind of - I kind of look at them and marvel, it's like, well, you know, take my spot.

MARTIN: I'm so glad to have found you again.

Ms. GROVES: It's good to see you, too.

MARTIN: Leslie Groves, my dear, dear friend. The original "Cheetah Girl." Leslie Groves is a nurse executive at Totten(ph)State Hospital in Massachusetts, friend, former classmate, yours truly. She was kind enough to let us visit her at her childhood home in East New York for one last time. Leslie, thank you so much.

Ms. GROVES: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up, the creator and star of the Tony Award-winning musical, "In the Heights," takes us on an imaginary trip to another New York neighborhood, Washington Heights.

(Soundbite of play "In the Heights")

Mr. LIN MANUEL MIRANDA: (As Usnavi) (Singing) Bartender! Let me get an Armaretto Sour For this ghetto flower How are you so pretty? You complete me You had me at hello,you know you need me Truly, madly, deeply, let's get freaky Oh I get it you're the strong and silent type Well, I'm the Caribbean Island type And I can drive you wild all night But I digress Say something so I don't stress

Unidentified Actress: (Singing) No hablo ingles.

MARTIN: That's next on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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