Wycliffe Stiffs stickball player Mel Zupnick Delivered
the Brooklyn Eagle in East Flatbush in the early 1950s
By Palmer Hasty
Mel Zupnick was born in 1940 at Beth El Hospital in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. His family lived at 1050 Wilmohr Street until he was 6 years old when they moved in with his grandparents at 101 New Port Street in Brownsville. Zupnick lived there until he was 21.
After a successful career in the furniture business in New Jersey he retired to Wycliffe Golf and Country Club in Wellington, Florida, where he plays golf with his wife of 55 years and stickball with the Wycliff Stiffs stickball league every week with his retired friends, many of whom are also from Brooklyn.
His grandparents on his father’s side were Russian and his grandparents on his mother’s side were Austrian. Zupnick has a distinct, deep voice, with a heavy classic Jewish-Brooklyn accent. When talking about something that includes a two-way conversation he will frequently use the phrases, “So I says to him” or “So he says to me.”
Zupnick is the third Brookyn native in Florida we have interviewed who delivered the Brooklyn Daily Eagle during his childhood to earn extra money. In a recent interview with the Eagle Zupnick talked about why he retired to Florida, how he got involved in the Wycliffe Stickball league, and about some of his Brooklyn past.
BE: When did you deliver the Brooklyn Eagle?
MZ: “In the mid-50s. I had my route in East Flatbush when I was fourteen. I had a four block area. I think it was 93rd and 94th Streets between Church Avenue and Ditmars. I would start up one way and turn around and come back the other way. It was a lot of houses, a lot of papers”
BE: Did you carry the papers on a bike?
BE: How many days a week did you deliver the Eagle?
BE: What else do you remember about the paper route?
MZ: “I can’t remember the name of the candy store where I picked up the paper. There was a storefront and the truck would come by and throw down the bundles of papers and they would distribute them to the delivery boys. Depending on how many houses we had, if we had sixty houses we’d get 60 papers. We’d put them on our bikes and take off.
The Brooklyn Eagle was a popular paper back then. Of course, it was the Brooklyn paper, I mean, compared to the New York Post, the Daily News, and the Daily Mirror. They weren’t national so much as they were New York, Manhattan papers.”
BE: Did you throw the papers at the doorsteps from the bikes like you see some of the old movies?
MZ: (Laughing) “Yes, exactly. Except on Friday’s when we collected money for the subscriptions. Anything over what we collected was ours. And we turned in the money each week in front of the candy store where we had picked up the papers.
We would make, I don’t know, $7, $8, maybe $9 a week, something like that.
The paper was around $3 or $4 a week and if you got a quarter or a half-a-dollar tip you were doing great. We didn’t get paid directly from the Eagle. We had to pick up the money from each stop, and anything over what we would pick up would be our tip. So we wound up making, like I said, on average about $8. If we made $10 or $12 in a week we were making a lot.”
BE: So what did a kid your age do with that kind of money in the 1950s?
MZ: “To be honest with you, I lived with my grandparents. When we moved out of Wilmohr Street we moved into my grandparents’ house. They had a two story house where they lived on the first floor and we lived up on the second floor. I would give my grandfather about $3 a week to put in his pocket. My grandmother would take whatever he earned and she would hold on to it. So, what I did, I would give a few bucks to my grandfather so he could have money in his pocket. So I would end up with about $5 or $6 for whatever I wanted; comic books, the movies, whatever.”
BE: Did you play stickball back then?
MZ: “I did. We played in the schoolyard and we played in the streets. We played ball where ever we could. Since there was a lot of traffic on our street most of the time we went to the schoolyard.”
BE: What schools did you go to?
MZ: “From one through six I think it was PS 183 and Middle School was PS 219. Then I went to Tilden High School.”
BE: Did you know that another one of our other Wycliffe Stiffs interview subjects, Harry Klaff, taught history at Tilden high school for a long time?
MZ: “At the time I didn’t. I didn’t know Harry Klaff until I moved here. The first weekend I moved in my wife and I decided to go play golf and who did they hook us up with? It was Harry and his wife. The first thing he says to me on the first hole was: When was the last time you played stickball? I looked at him, I was 65 at the time, and I says to him Fifty years ago. And he says to me Would you like to play? And I’ve been playing ever since; for 12 years now.”
BE: You’ve been married 55 years. Sounds like a good marriage. Where is your wife from?
MZ: “Yes it is. She’s from Jersey. I was working as a draftsman for Bendix. We were contracted by Grumman to work on the schematics for the B-2 bomber. I was in my early 20s. The family was going to New Jersey to visit relatives. I met her there.”
BE: How did you get into the furniture business?
MZ: “After we got married my father-in-law convinced me to try my hand at sales and join the family furniture business. At Bendix I felt like a tiny cog in a giant wheel, so I made the move and I worked for Grant Furniture 44 years until I retired.”
BE: When did you retire and decide to move to Florida?
MZ: “It was2006. In 2005 we closed on the house down here. I went back up to New York to close out all the stores and sell everything off and move down here. We chose Wycliffe because I had a cousin who had already lived here for 25 years.
One day he told me to check out a house that was part of a new development across the street from him. They were closing out and they were including the golf and everything. We took a look at the spec house and my wife said that was just what she was looking for.”
BE: Sounds like you didn’t have to think much about the decision?
MZ: “Hell no. By then I was tired of going back a forth like a snow bird. (Laughing) I wanted one house, that’s it. I said to my wife, I don’t want two houses. I want one place I know where I got everything. Cause I had things down here and things up there. Every time I wanted the mustard, it always seemed to be in the other house. I thought my closet was on this side, no, it’s on that side. I thought I had that shirt here, no, it’s at the other house. Forget that, I wanted one place.”
BE: You were a Dodger Fan, right?
MZ: “I was a big Dodger fan. It was the mid-50s. My friends and I used to walk to the games from Brownsville. Always up Uttica Avenue toward Crown Heights. It was about an 8 mile walk. I was 13 and none of us thought twice about walking 8 miles to see the Dodgers play. We had G.O. cards that costs 50 cents. We could get into the bleachers for $2. My mother would make me a salami sandwich wrapped in wax paper. She put it in the brown paper bag. By the time I got to Ebbets Field the salami oil would have seeped through and the bottom of the bag was soaked with oil. We’d eat our lunches in the bleachers and wait until game time. During the warm ups if we yelled loud enough, Duke Snyder would turn and wave to us from center field.”
BE: So you fell in love with a Jersey girl?
MZ: “I did. After I met my wife I fell head over heels in love. I couldn’t wait until the weekends when I would travel to Jersey and see her. I would take the train to the Port Authority…take the bus out to Rockaway, New Jersey, which took about an hour. That was on Friday night. On Sunday I would come into the Port Authority, take a subway, walk 4 or 5 blocks to the house at about one in the morning and I never worried about where I was. That was 1960. I was 20 years old. It shows you the difference in the times. You would probably never do that now.
BE: Are you enjoying retirement in Florida?
MZ: “I am. I’m 76 and I play golf 4 times a week and play in the Stickball league. By the way, what Marty and Harry do with this league is amazing. And you know what else is amazing? (Zupnick starts laughing) I’m recalling all this stuff, these details going back 50 or 60 years ago and half the time I can’t even remember, I mean, like we went to the movies the other night and I can’t even remember what movie we saw.”
Photo courtesy of Wycliff Stiffs.