For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Bronxites

A Bronx Irish Catholic Remembers Her Bronx


by Pat Gurrell Conway

I

was born in the Woodlawn section of the upper Bronx. My first memories were of running wild and free in Van Cortlandt Park across the street. This area was once known as the Irish area of the Bronx. In 1950, my family then moved across White Plains Road to the Wakefield neighborhood. We lived on Digney Avenue near Barnes and Pitman.

When I first moved to Digney Avenue, we lived in a three story walk-up. My mother made me sit downstairs to "get to know kids." Well, I got to know them fast and hard. I was all of five when the kids in the neighborhood would initiate me by throwing rocks. I rang the bell for my mom to buzz me up, but she just quietly looked out the window. That day, I sat and cried for about two hours. Every once in awhile I was hit by a rock or stone. I looked up to the window and saw my mother's Irish red head looking down. Finally, I got so mad at her and the kids that I ran out into the street, picked up all the rocks my small hands could gather and started throwing and screaming. That afternoon, I was playing jump-rope and Hit-the-Stick with the same kids who threw the stones. Nothing personal, just testing. Mom, who had grown up in Hell’s Kitchen, later told me she was trying to show me how to understand life. Today, I understand. Those were wonderful days full of warm summer evenings, walks to P.S. 87 where there was a penny candy store down the block, not too far from Mount Saint Michael’s.

I went to St. Frances of Rome grammar school. Oh! Those uniforms and berets - and my mom would always have me in braids. The boys were upstairs and the girls were downstairs and never the twain did meet.

About five years later, we moved to Ely Avenue between Bussing and Edenwald Avenues. Just walking down the street was like being in Little Italy. The area was a mixture of Italian and Irish cultures. When I was ten, my good friend was paralyzed with polio. All the kids in the neighborhood got together and held a bazaar to raise money for her family. During the evenings in the summer all the small gardens had roses and it seemed that there was always a beautiful smell of both roses and bubbles in the air.

When I was twelve, the Italian landlady who lived upstairs began calling me up on Sunday for Italian pastries. She was always trying to fatten me up and told me I had legs "that went up to here," here being my ears.

After graduating from St. Frances, we moved back to Woodlawn and I went to St. Barnabas High School, where Bronx Irish Catholic girls were called BICs (no connection to the pen). I soon enjoyed some of the most precious memories of my life. I met girls from Hull and Decatur Avenue. The “Mount” (Mount St. Michael’s) was our brother school. Jahn's Ice Cream parlor became our hangout. The fact that the Valentine Theater and Fordham University were nearby made it nice too. I was a regular on the number four bus from Woodlawn to Poe Park. I had my first cigarette behind the Poe House and I still remember throwing up. I had company, as three of my friends were all experimenting with cigarettes too. That was the hardest drug we had to deal with in l959.

City Island, Freedomland, Alexander's Deptartment Store, cold Thanksgiving days at Mount St. Michael's football field where no one dared to admit we were freezing - we loved it all. One of my favorite getaway spots was Van Cortlandt Park by the tennis area where I would sit overlooking the Major Deegan Highway wondering where my life would lead. Another favorite spot was Bronx River Road. I would start at McLean Avenue and sometimes walk into Mount Vernon. I soon discovered Saturday skating with my friends in Mt. Vernon, where the organist would light up the "couples only” sign and my friends and I would play it cool; yet, all the while waiting for some boy to come and ask us to skate. I can still remember the butterflies in my stomach.

Many years later, I was in college and the drug culture was in force. We were reading Ferlinghetti’s "Pennycandy Store Beneath the El." The younger generation said he was on drugs when he wrote it. Maybe he was, but I wasn't when as a child I had spent hours at Shakey's beneath the White Plains El and picked from an LSD-like array of colors of wonderful candy - all for a penny. What a trip!!

Soon, the children of Ike (President Eisenhower) became the teens of Camelot and things began to change, oh so very slowly. In l963, the King was dead and so was my redheaded mom, and I had to face the real world. There were no stones, but many boulders to face, but thanks for growing up in the Bronx, with its wonderful neighborhoods and families and friends, I went into the world very prepared. My children grew up in Western Maryland in the mountains and they grew up well; but in a way, I feel sorry for them. There were no neighbors yelling at them to get home, no stickball, no “I declare war on Russia” or the smells, those wonderful, wonderful smells of roses, pasta and summer evenings on the stoop.

Now, when hard times hit, my own therapy is to go back to the Bronx in my head. I run to the park or take long trips through the streets of the Bronx I once walked. I stop at Claire’s house and we giggle about boys. I run to Gerry's house on Bussing Avenue and remember learning to dance. I laugh when I remember that I had such a crush on Tommy Walsh that when he finally called me, I chickened out and told him I was babysitting. Later he saw me sitting on my stoop and that was that. I definitely grew out of my shyness thanks to the Mrs. Constantinos who would praise me, or the first boyfriend from 236th street who said I looked like a model (even though I thought I looked like a carpenter’s dream).

I revel remembering my first protest, arguing with a priest in front of 163 other classmates that he was full of shit when he said that only people who received the sacraments could get into heaven. I was thrown out of the assembly. Later, an enlightened nun told me she wished she had said it. I thank the Bronx for your variety, your mixed cultures, your neighborhoods within neighborhoods, the gentleness and the toughness you taught me. I thank my dad, who, though he enjoyed the local pubs, also loved photography. He has left me with hundreds of pictures - some in scrapbooks and some in my head - to remember my Bronx.

As a youth, I would listen to my mom and dad tell stories of the depression and the Roaring Twenties. They would always seem to be so happy going down memory lane. I confess I thought this was old age. Well, here I am telling my oldest grandchild about life in the Bronx. Occasionally, his eyes glaze over and I stop. However, he loves the story of mom locking me out of our apartment when I was five. So do I. Thanks Mom!




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