Before we begin, you need to know that I’m not the most reliable narrator. I’m old, my memory is not as good as it once was, and the story that I’m about to tell you began very long ago. On the bright side, I may be the only person alive who remembers what happened here in Brooklyn Heights years before you were born.
Let’s start with the name of our street. Back in the 1880s, the City of Brooklyn had put up street signs, and what became Middagh Street – as well as Cranberry, Orange, and Pineapple Streets — had been assigned very different and less imaginative names.
One morning, the residents of the northern end of the Heights woke up to find these street signs had been replaced. Within days, city workers restored the original names. But a few mornings later, they had all been replaced again with Middagh, Cranberry, Orange, and Pineapple.
This cycle of change went on for a couple of months until the City came to its senses and bowed to the inevitable. But it was never discovered who had changed the street signs, or why.
I happened to know a man named Bob Side, who wrote a weekly column in The Heights Press. Titled “Five Minutes from Wall Street,” the column appeared in the sixties and seventies. One of the most knowledgeable people in the neighborhood, he was known as “the Mayor of Brooklyn Heights.”
Bob told me that a Mrs. Middagh had been responsible for the sign changes. Evidently, cranberries, oranges, and pineapples were her favorite fruits. And, one can assume, she was a bit of an egotist. Bob had heard that some old-timers claimed they had seen her on a step ladder, replacing the signs. But by the time he had moved to the Heights, these witnesses were long since dead and buried.
Bob, himself, was not the most reliable source if he were judged by the veracity of some of his columns. In one, he wrote about a Revolutionary era small wooden fort that stood just off the Promenade, a walkway that provides perhaps the finest view of New York Harbor. A few readers, old Heights residents, wrote to the paper to thank Bob for his discovery.
There was just one problem, Bob confided to his friends. That “fort” was actually a tool shed used by Parks Department employees. The Heights Press never printed a retraction.
Another of his columns, which drew many comments, was written during a time of fiscal austerity in the United Kingdom. Bob informed readers that the Royal Family had been forced to sell its last possession in North America. That property was located on Montague Street, the main business thoroughfare of the community. Bob reported that Queen Elizabeth had teared up when she signed the papers. She had sold King George Pizza.
So again, be warned that I may not be the most reliable narrator. Not with such sources as the Mayor of Brooklyn Heights.
I lived at number 32 Middagh Street for five years. There was a very old wooden building across the street, with a tiny storefront on the first floor. I soon learned that it had been built in 1820, and was owned by the Schuckers, an attractive couple in their late sixties or early seventies. One day, when the owner saw me taking a photo of her house, she invited me inside and gave me a quick tour of the house. Her husband, who was pouring paint on a canvas, was too engrossed to even notice us.
Maggie was what you might call “a character.” She and Charlie had lived in this house for almost thirty years. “We bought it from the original owners,” she confided, watching my face for a reaction.
“When I asked if they paid in dollars, shillings, or beads,” she burst out laughing.
“Maggie, what I just said wasn’t that funny!”
“I know that, Steve. No, of course not. I was laughing at what I had said.”
Now we were both laughing.
“You must come to dinner on Sunday. I promise you that Charlie will be much more friendly, and you’ll meet some other artists from the neighborhood.”
I agreed to come, but I was afraid she thought I actually was a photographer. The only reason I had such a nice camera was because of a deal I had made with a friend. Perennially short of cash, he had pawned it, and the usurious interest charges quickly doubled his debt. If I paid off the loan, I could use the camera as long as I wanted. It was a top of the line Nikon with a long telephoto lens.
Charlie taught painting at Pratt, and was a fairly prominent artist, regularly exhibiting at the Max Hutchinson Gallery in SoHo. I still have one of his pieces, which looks like he just let the paint flow down the page of its own accord. To this day, I’m not sure whether he meant it as a joke. Clearly, my grasp of abstract art was right up there with my knowledge of photography.
Charlie had needed a head shot for one of his shows. But instead of letting me take just a few conventional shots, he and Maggie clowned around. She even went through a few costume changes, wearing an array of dresses that might have dated back to colonial times, perhaps left behind by their home’s original owners. But Charlie stuck with a black turtleneck and jeans. In one shot, he stood like a batter at home plate. But instead of holding a bat, he wielded an upside-down broom.
It was never clear exactly what Maggie did, if anything, although she sometimes alluded to dealing antiques. She maintained what she called “the boutique” on the first floor of their home. I was never inside, and I don’t remember ever seeing it open for business. Perhaps the boutique was, like I suspected of some of Charlie’s paintings, just another elaborate joke.
It was at one of their dinner parties that I learned from Maggie that their daughter was a Chinese empress. OK, I admit that this was ridiculous, if only because Maggie and Charlie were about as WASP as you could get. But no one raised any questions, perhaps because we all had put away very large quantities of wine.
Maggie had been absolutely insistent, although she made one concession which did lend a sliver of veracity to her story. Her daughter wasn’t born an empress. She had married the grandson – or perhaps he was the great grandson — of the last emperor of China.
Now you know and I know that China no longer has emperors – although it can be said that its communist rulers, and as well as their predecessor, President Chiang Kai-shek, may have lived like emperors.
Admittedly a little fuzzy on the details, Maggie would repeat the story from time to time. And if any of us looked at all skeptical, she did not appear to notice.
But then, the game apparently changed. Her daughter and son-in-law would be visiting toward the end of December, and they would be happy to answer any questions about their royal lineage. In fact, they might even do this over Christmas dinner.
“How long will they be staying?” I asked.
“Just through the first week in January,” said Maggie.
I almost blurted out that surely their royal duties would take them back home for the two weeks of Chinese New Year festivities.
As soon as I arrived, Maggie took my arm and walked me over to a very handsome couple. I would have loved to have photographed them. They were tall, slim, and even seemed quite regal. Tom was Asian, very likely Chinese, and had what appeared to be a military bearing. Of course, I thought to myself. Under the communists, not even the offspring of emperors received draft deferments.
Cheryl, who actually wore a tiara, was stunning. She had long light brown hair, deep blue eyes, and was a much younger version of Maggie. Their bond was almost palpable.
Maggie was immensely proud of her daughter. I caught something about designing and buildings, but I wasn’t sure if that had anything to do with Cheryl. She had attended PS 8, just down the block, played in Cadman Plaza Park, grew up, and went to college in California.
As Maggie introduced us, I bowed to each of them, and they burst out laughing. Clearly, they had been through these introductions countless times.
So, I decided to get right down to business. “You know, we seldom get to meet royalty here in Brooklyn.”
“That is so true, Steve!” said Maggie.
“I guess you two get this a lot.”
“Would you believe,” said Tom, “this seems to come up only in Brooklyn?”
“Yes! And only when we meet friends of my parents.”
“Now, now Cheryl. You are just too modest!” said Maggie.
Cheryl didn’t say anything, but I caught the mischievous look they exchanged.
Even as a child, she must have played along with her mother’s eccentricities. She was Maggie’s comic straight man – a role that required suspending reality.
Just then, Charlie joined us, an empty wine glass in his hand.
“So, Steve. I see you’ve met the emperor and the empress.”
“Indeed, I have.”
Maggie then rang a little bell and called everyone to the dinner table. A more complete explanation of the couple’s royal lineage would have to wait.
After dinner, I sat for a while in a corner of the living room with Tom, while he gave me a cram course on 1930s and 1940s Chinese military history, and the role his own family played. His grandfather was a general in Chiang Kai-shek’s army, which had been engaged in a long-running civil war with the communists. Tom’s grandfather and a fellow general had been urging Chiang to enter into a truce with the communists, so both armies could concentrate on battling the Japanese forces that had occupied large swaths of Chinese territory.
After repeated rebuffs, the two generals kidnapped Chiang in 1936, and held him prisoner for two weeks, until he agreed to their plan. Upon release, Chiang, to a large degree, did keep his word. But one of the generals was later executed, and the other, Tom’s grandfather, was arrested and held prisoner for decades.
After Chiang’s defeat by the communists in 1949, he took the remnants of his army to the island of Taiwan, one hundred miles off the coast of the Chinese mainland. Tom’s grandfather was brought along, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Tom’s family, along with thousands of other wealthy Chinese, was able to flee to the United States. He grew up in Southern California and became an architect. In fact, he and Cheryl met in college, and were now partners at the same firm.
When he finished, I asked him why Maggie insisted that he was the descendant of emperors. He smiled, and then suggested that Maggie was a romantic. He then turned the conversation to me. “So, I heard that you’re a world-famous photographer.”
A few years later, I moved out of the neighborhood and eventually lost touch with the Schuckers. But over time, I came to realize that Maggie was right after all: Her daughter was indeed an empress, albeit not of Chinese lineage. That had been just a silly subterfuge.
Cheryl had not become an empress through marriage. Thinking back all those years, I pictured her standing next to her mother. And that was when it came to me: she had truly inherited her title.
A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math and economics books.
His first short story collection, “To the City, with Love,” was recently published.