Comments left on one of my earlier posts have led me to a point I’ve been trying to get to for a few months now: “Describe the town where you grew up.”
Makes me think a little of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which was about a small New Hampshire town — ironic, when you consider that Wilder was from the South, and even more ironic when you consider that although I now live in a small New Hampshire town, the town I actually grew up in is in the Borough of Queens, in New York City. Yes, New York does have small towns. In fact, it’s really just a collection of small towns cobbled together into one large entity, and I never did find out how that came to be.
When I was growing up, it was just making the transition from a farming community to a City suburb. In fact, there were still dairy farms in the next town over, and a large part of my childhood memories focus on the clank of milk bottles being delivered to our doorstep at around 4:30 in the morning (I’ve been a Morning Person from, oh, the day I was born — at 6:30 a.m.).
In our town, you not only knew where you belonged, you knew where you didn’t belong, and heaven help you if you were caught in a part of town where you didn’t belong. Not that you’d get beaten up or anything, but thanks to the village grapevine, your mother would find out. “What were you doing over on 79th Avenue?!” my mother would demand suspiciously, and of course, I’d wonder how on earth she’d found out. In fact, I still don’t know. We didn’t know anybody in that part of town who would have called her. It wasn’t a bad part of town, not at all, but it Wasn’t Catholic.
The part of town where I belonged was very strictly defined. I could walk the half-mile to school. I could walk the half mile between home and the public library. I could go around the corner to my aunt’s house. I could walk over to the next street where my cousin lived, and I could walk a couple blocks past that to where my grandmother lived, along with her two sons and their wives (who were cousins of my mother’s). That was it. On no account was I to walk up The Avenue past the library, or near the cemeteries that defined the western and eastern boundary of town, and actually, I first ventured past the library when I was a teenager and wanted to purchase records at Bill’s Radio Shop. My mother would purse her lips when I told her I was going to Bill’s. Only when I was in my 40s did I learn that Bill, along with half of Metropolitan Avenue, was a frothing Communist.
Apparently there was a lot of Communist activity in our town in the 1930s. My dad had a part-time job working at a hardware store at that time, and once casually mentioned that he covered the store on Wednesday evenings when the owner held his Communist-cell meetings in the back room! If had known, when I was a kid, I think I would have called the FBI myself! There was Bill’s, there were a number of haberdashers on the main drag, there was the movie, the toy store, a couple of drug stores — all, apparently, owned by Communists or Communist sympathizers, which was not a good thing to be in the 1950s, and heaven alone knows how those stores avoided being closed down: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg weren’t neighbors, but they certainly could have been.
I always felt safe in our part of town, at least till after I was grown and New York became such a hotbed of crime. There was always crime in other parts of the City, but it never seemed to touch our area, which was completely blue- and pink-collar. The cops used to hate being posted to our town; they called it “the Little Old Lady Precinct.” But that was probably because, as I look back, the whole neighborhood was inhabited by cops. There were two on my block alone, four or five around the corner, my uncle who lived one block over, one of the uncles who lived with my grandmother, and there was another cop on his block. Then there were the neighborhood kids who grew up to become cops. In later years, the Mafia would take credit for keeping the neighborhood safe, but long before there was the Mafia, there were cops.
And in those days, there wasn’t any of this nonsense about “bribing” cops. You took care of each other. The cops didn’t patrol in cars, they walked beats, and if you invited the neighborhood cop in for a cup of coffee on a cold winter’s day, he didn’t take that to mean that you were looking for extra protection, and that wasn’t why you were offering him a cup of coffee. It was cold, and the poor soul was half frozen, that’s all. The whole dynamic of New York City changed when people began accusing cops of being “on the take”; it wasn’t neighborly anymore.
Was there discrimination? There must have been. In a town that was half Jewish and half German, where the Jews employed Gentile teenagers to work for them on the Sabbath and the Germans employed Polish farm workers, during the immediate post-war era — not to mention our little half-square-block of neither-here-nor-there Italian and Irish families — how could there not have been discrimination? But we knew how to practice civility towards one another, and we knew that Jews didn’t speak to Christians and vice versa. (And Catholics didn’t socialize with Protestants, and vice versa.) The rules were never, ever spoken, but they were widely known and accepted.
As the Jews died off and the Germans moved out, the Italians moved in, and the neighborhood changed again. One of my most vivid memories is of visiting my old neighborhood with my two children — actually, we were visiting my aunt, who still lived around the corner from where I grew up — and I wanted to take them on a trip down Memory Lane. It was summer, and as we rounded the corner, we came upon a scene familiar to me from my childhood, all the housewives sitting out on the steps of their houses, chatting with one another. As we walked down the street, all conversation stopped dead. All the women stared at us, and the silence, and the stares, continued as we walked down the block and out of sight. We had become the strangers. Home wasn’t home anymore. It was a powerful lesson in neighborhood dynamics, and I finally understood an event that had taken place not too many years earlier, when a black man was badly beaten in an Italian neighborhood (Bensonhurst). Everyone assumed the beating took place because he was black. But that day, I learned that it was because he didn’t Belong.
Now the neighborhood has changed again. My aunt tells me that Romanians have moved into the neighborhood. In a way, I wish I lived there again; I’ve had good experiences with Romanians locally, and being an Orthodox Christian, if I lived back home, I’d be attending the Romanian church, since it’s the only Orthodox church in town — down the street from where my grandmother lived, in fact, in a former synagogue. (Frequent seismic activity in the area suggests a lot of Jews rolling over in their graves at the very thought.) But in truth, I probably never will see Home again. And if I did, it wouldn’t be Home; it has changed too much. And so have I.
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