Ninety-one year old Lou Powsner’s beat up ’97 Mercury looks like one of the bumper cars he rode as a kid growing up on the streets of Coney Island. Banged and dinged from who knows what (OK, maybe I know, but I’m not saying) Powsner still drives the car regularly, surveying his home of close to 90 years, and writing about what he sees in a column he types and mails to this very newspaper every two weeks.
Twice a month, Powsner will “Speak Out,” just like he’s done for generations — preaching in print about the kinds of things you’d expect from someone who made his bones selling Stetson hats and Manhattan Shirts on ever-evolving Mermaid Avenue, which went from good to bad to worse during the 50 years that he sweat for every penny he earned from the early 1950s until 1994.
Coney Island sure comes up a lot, but so do other topics like meter maids, strip malls, public housing and the destruction of his beloved Main Streets throughout the borough — Mermaid Avenue included — at the hands of a system that stacked everything up against them and the mom-and-pop stores that kept them humming.
But right now the only thing humming was the engine of that old Mercury, and as I stood on the sidewalk admiring the “Brooklyn” baseball hat he’s been wearing for years, I was a little bit worried about what would happen next.
It’s not easy to get into a vehicle with a man who has outlived the brand he drives by nearly 50 years, so when my editor dispatched me to the People’s Playground for an afternoon ride-along with the legendary wordsmith, I agreed with one caveat — that Powsner let me get behind the wheel.
But their was something hopeful in Lou’s smile, and I begrudgingly hopped in the car. My reward: Lou immediately gave me a tip. Did I know, he asked, that the Abe Stark Rink, where hockey is played by teens from near and far during all hours of the day and night, has a never-used restaurant that overlooks the Boardwalk and the beach — and that the tables and chairs that the city purchased for use there are still stacked up behind locked doors?
Of course not. But that’s why it’s good to keep the numbers of guys like Lou in the old Rolodex.
Lou put the car in park and eased his foot off the brake. I breathed a little easier.
He launched into a detailed story about flooding in Mill Basin during the Lindsay Administration. His threw around names, from deep within his encyclopedic mind, of politicians and community activists that spanned generations. They were names that I may never have heard before — or probably will again — but I knew for the moment they rolled off his tongue they were important. Even if I had no idea what he was talking about.
We talked for half an hour, going over the history of Coney through Lou’s eyes, and discussing the continuing renaissance he’s sure he’ll be a part of.
Lou’s cellphone rang, and I took it as my chance to get out of the car before he stepped on the brake again and put it in drive. We said our good-bys, and I opened the door to get out.
He answered the phone with the same sign off he uses to end every column he writes in the Brooklyn Graphic.
“This is Lou Powsner,” he said.
I guess when Lou signs off, he’s really saying hello.