"OK, which of us is getting out to take the pictures?"
"Well, since you're driving, I'll do it."
We were a few blocks east of Prospect Park in Brooklyn in what I used to euphemistically refer to as a "questionable" neighborhood. It was a scorcher of a day in July and there were only a few people around, all of them dark-skinned. In the bad old days of NYC's past I would have been very nervous watching him get out of the car in such a community with a Nikon camera and then start taking pictures of a plaque that provided the only formal tribute to the site's illustrious history.
Today my old urban reflexes were largely absent due to many recent experiences that have taught me how few truly unsafe places there are in New York these days. There is no doubt that some of this is due to a sea-change in the city itself. Activist and interventionist policing, heroic efforts to stabilize the housing stock of the outer boroughs, a huge influx of motivated immigrants and the terrible events of 9/11; all helped create an environment where the racial and social polarities of my youth have largely been extinguished. I find the City today to largely be full of people who consciously appreciate what their metropolis offers them and respect their neighbors for also choosing to be there.
But I'm sure my positive experiences are also due to the fact that two middled-aged, greying white guys running around the distant and unfamous corners of the city while investigating forgotten history is a sight that definitely reeks of eccentricity, if not outright lunacy, and onlookers may simply not know what to make of us.
A very familiar look of perplexity crossed the face of a young mother with a stroller as my friend passed her, focusing the camera to get the shot of the plaque we had come so far to see. He and I love to deride the "train nuts" who frequently accompany us on rail fan trips as they drool over the ancient equipment used on such occasions. As painful as it may be for me to admit, we might be engendering the same response in others as we execute our "field trips".
Today's itinerary included searching for any remains of the long-lost and lamented ball park enshrined in the memory of every Brooklynite born before WWII. There is precious little still extant. When it was torn down in 1960, replaced by the aforesaid apartment complex, some seats went to Hart Island for an inmate ball field, some lights reused to illuminate Downing Stadium (now also demolished) on Randall's Island, and the partly smashed cornerstone went to the Baseball Hall of Fame Museum in Cooperstown. The seats have long since disintegrated from exposure and lack of maintenance and I'm not really sure what happened to the lights.
A bunch of memorabilia is still in private hands; the result of an auction held on April 23, 1960 for the benefit of the Little League in the then still-standing stadium rotunda.
And, oh yes, there is a flagpole.... I think.
After walking over to the front of the apartment complex's garage and photographing the large sign which broadcast the development's name, my friend returned to my car to show me the prizes we had obtained from this expedition.
As I previewed the pictures in his camera's rear screen he pulled some papers out of his backpack.
"So do you think we can check out the flagpole?"
"The one that used to be in Ebbets Field. I did some research and I think I've figured out where it is.""
A half-hour later and we were staring at our destination in disappointment. There was a flagpole in front of the American Legion hall but it couldn't have been the one from Ebbets Field. An artifact of such importance to Brooklyn would at least have a plaque or two commemorating it. This one sat unadorned in the middle of a lawn.
We both jumped onto the Internet. A mere 20 minutes later we had definitively determined that the flagpole was sitting either in front of the Canarsie Casket Company, a VFW Hall or a church somewhere on Utica Avenue.
We headed south on Utica until its southern terminus with no sign of our goal.
Where's the friggin' flagpole??
Just like an Agatha Christie novel where Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple trade theories concerning the murderer's identity with a denizen of Scotland Yard, we took turns trying out scenarios that might explain the disappearance.
"I think the casket company must've sold it when they went out of business. Probably a secret deal to a wealthy collector who wanted to remain anonymous. I bet it's sitting in some Emir's palace in Abu Dhabi or somethin'."
"How'd they remove it without anyone noticing?"
"He's an Emir! He's got tons of money. They just pretended they were taking it away to restore it and then never brought it back."
"That's ridiculous. I know what happened: some fanatical Dodgers fans decided to rescue it when the casket place closed. So they dress up like commandos in blackface and black outfits, they go there in the middle of the night and use equipment invented by the CIA to remove it without attracting any attention."
"OK, if you're so smart, where is it now?"
"In an abandoned subway station of course! No one would ever find it there."
"Nah, it's in the Emir's front yard."
Actually, the abandoned subway station theory was pretty clever but I wasn't going to admit that. I mean, my reputation as an authority on NYC trivia is at stake!!
We continued to debate our respective theories as we drove back north along Utica Avenue retracing our steps. Then we passed a church that looked like a recent occupant of an older commercial structure.
"Hey, I wonder..."
I turned around and double-parked in front of the house of worship. My friend took one look at the building and grabbed his phone.
"That's it! That's the same building in the background of this photo of the flagpole. See??"
He handed me the phone. Sure enough, the pediment of the structure I was parked next to looked identical to the top of the building behind the flagpole.
"OK, but where's the flagpole???"
I looked around for any clue that the flagpole had once stood in this location.
"Hey maybe those guys'll know somethin'."
I pulled up a car length or two until we were parallel to a parked car with two formally dressed young men in the front seats. I rolled down the passenger window and shouted over to them.
"Excuse me, but do you happen to know if this building was ever used by a casket company?"
The two men looked at each other with that familiar "look at the crazy white guys" expression.
"I wouldn't know. We're with the Church."
That much I already figured.
"Well, do you know if it was ever used as a VFW hall?"
Their faces brightened and they nodded vigorously.
"That's what it was when we bought the building."
"Was there ever a flagpole in front of it?"
"I don't think so."
What does that mean? How could you not recall a flagpole?
"Well, thanks anyway, you've cleared up part of the mystery."
We then resumed our northwards trek. The streets of Brooklyn were packed and we moved at a glacial pace which gave us plenty of time to put the pieces together.
"I think all three places we've been looking for were all in one building. First it was a coffin maker; then a VFW and then a church!"
"But how could those guys not have noticed a flagpole sitting out front?"
"I told ya: the Dodger fan commandos removed it so secretly that everyone just forgot it had ever been there!!"
"Oh please, you and your commandos!!!"
A few days later the current whereabouts of the flagpole was finally revealed - maybe. My friend did some more research and found an article in the New York Times which stated definitively that the flagpole had been moved to the grounds of Brooklyn Borough Hall.
"But why was it moved there?"
"The commandos got worried that the flagpole wasn't safe in the abandoned subway station so they reassembled it in the cover of darkness at Borough Hall."
"No, the Feds found out that the Emir had it and insisted it be returned otherwise we would invade to reclaim it. The Emir relented once the Feds agreed not to disclose that he had ever had it."
"Oh please, you and your Emir!!"
But here's the weirdest part of this story. Although we both saw the NY Times article definitively mentioning the flagpole's current whereabouts, neither of us have been able to find the reference since!!! So I can state definitively that I still have no idea where that flagpole really is.
I'm currently pricing two round-trip tickets to Abu Dhabi.