A Corner of the Bronx
grew up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood, rare for the 1950’s, located in anortheast corner of the Bronx. I can still recall the names and faces that represented each house as Sexton Place made its way down from Gun Hill Road.
First came the Nicosia house. On the top floor lived the ever- religious Mrs. Nicosia, of the Nicosia Bakery family. Mrs. Nicosia had a tradition each Easter season. On Good Friday she would hold a mini Passion Play, using the neighborhood kids playing key parts. The plum part was being Jesus, for which you got fifty cents. All others got a quarter. After the Play, which was held in her apartment (yes, the very same apartment where Mrs. Nicosia was regularly visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary) we all would walk up to Holy Rosary Church and stay with her as she completed the Stations of the Cross. This would take quite some time, but we didn’t get our “Easter Gift” until all religious obligations were completed.
In the basement apartment lived the Sullivans. I can still taste the fresh-squeezed lemonade that Mrs. Sullivan made to cool us off after a rough game of stickball. On occasion, Timothy Sullivan would allow us to sneak a peek at his dad’s collection of autographed baseballs, with the likes of Joe DiMaggio and the Mick. Heaven help us if big John Sullivan came home and caught us.
Next in line came the Newman house. We made a specialty of ringing her doorbell and running. She never figured out that if she just ignored us a few times we would have stopped. After all, it was the thrill of the chase that brought us back time and time again.
On to the Carone house. My grandfather actually built this and our house in the early 1930’s. It was a typical brick block house, three stories high, consisting of three separate apartments. When I say “built”, I mean by hand. My grandfather did all the work except the mechanical trades himself. Well, he had my uncles to help. They would tell stories how “Pop” would hide their shoes on Friday night so they couldn’t go out, so they would be ready for a full day of work on Saturday. The Carones were great people and I have many fond memories of being their neighbor, especially of one of the offspring of the family, Valerie, my first love.
Further on down the line came my house - the Cerami Family. Well, actually I’m a Pottberg. You see, my mom and her siblings had a habit of not marrying Italian. My mom and her sister Ann married German, my uncle Frank married Irish, my Aunt Martha and my other uncle John married Jewish, and also Aunt Ann, known to the adults as “Jewish Ann”. This was all quite unusual for that generation. Only my Aunt Kay married Italian. She and Uncle Caesar, along with my cousins Greg and Neil, moved to Arizona in the late fifties. I was always jealous when they would send pictures of my cousins on horseback, dressed as cowboys. Dreams of Spin and Marty.
We shared the house with my Grandparents on the first floor, and my Aunt Ann and Uncle Gary along with my cousins Judy and Wayne on the second. My immediate family - six of us - Mom, Gloria, Dad, my older brother, Glenn, myself and my younger brothers Richard and Robert, occupied the top floor. There were seven large rooms, except my bedroom which, if I recall correctly, was about six feet wide and ten feet long. The good thing about it was that it had a window facing front that I spent many a day staring out of. My brothers shared two bedrooms facing the back of the house looking out over the Gun Hill Road train station of the Dyer Avenue train line.
Next came the Scalia family, followed by a house that was host to many families over the years. The earliest I remember was the Bransteters. I recall being in the house when Christmas was approaching and the baking of “the thousand cookies” in German tradition. When they moved out, the Giatino family took possession and new friends were quickly made with the addition of Sal and his brother Tommy.
Then there was the Rodriguez home, another two-family house shared by the same family. Victor and his wife, daughter and son lived upstairs and Mrs. and Mr. Rodriguez Senior lived downstairs with their son Louie. Louie was a few years older than I and was very generous, especially when it came to sharing his boxing expertise. He would always offer me gratuitous boxing lessons, wanted or not. I learned a lot from him, especially in the art of track and field, as I was always running away when ever I saw him coming. One time he cornered me and I had no choice but to “learn.” Through no real ability on my part, I was able to land an uppercut square to his chin, knocking him down flat. Shortly after, I set a new land speed record, running home in five seconds flat. The next time I saw Louie he came up with a new game called “catch.” He would toss an object at me to test my reaction time. Once I reacted slowly to a can of corn and I still have the scar on my lip to prove it. All in all they were a great family. Victor was a commercial artist and I loved seeing his work.
Then there was the Caccavelli house - very large, big yard and Grandpa Tony, a real spitfire with a heart of gold. Just don’t get caught picking figs from his trees. I can still see him hurrying down his driveway in his sleeveless tee shirt waving his arms and cursing in Italian. Fear at its greatest. Run away!
It seems we did a lot of running back then. I guess it was part of the “code” that all parents were equally responsible for all the kids in the neighborhood, and a reprimand and an occasional smack in back of the head from anyone’s parent was okay. Just don’t tell your own father or else it was double trouble, because you must have been doing something wrong, otherwise there would be no reason for Mr. So and So to whack you. The same went for school teachers. If I told my parents that one of the nuns at Holy Rosary School hit me, then I was letting myself in for additional discipline at the home front. Mum was the word.
As we progressed further down the block, we come to the second Carone house. It was another branch of my next-door neighbors. Following closely was the Schumann residence. Then came the three homes of the black families that lived on my street. I don’t recall the first two families’ names, probably because there were no children our age growing up. However, the last of the three was occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Libert. Mr. Libert was always walking up and down the block offering a hearty “good morning boys” and a “hi-ya boys” to us. He would always stop and check out our touch football or stickball games, offer a word of encouragement, and then move on.
Next in line was the Miranda house, home to my friend Carlos and his family. Carlos’ father was a merchant marine and was always off on some exotic cruise somewhere. Mrs. Miranda was always pacing up and down the street keeping an eye on Carlos and his younger brother and sister. It was in Carlos’ kitchen that I got my first taste of Café Bustello. WOW. It made my Grandfather’s espresso taste watery. I’ve been a strong coffee drinker ever since. Years later Mrs.Miranda lost her life to an intruder in that very kitchen.
Then came the Taffelmeyer house, one of the biggest houses on the block, complete with swimming pool and cabana. It was home to some of my “best friends” growing up: Richie Dawson, Kenny Smith and John Parisi. They were foster children of the Taffelmeyers who had four children of their own. John Parisi introduced me to “seeing stars” one time when he socked me in the eye in a fight about a girl. We remained friends despite our common “love” interest, even going to the same high school.
As we approached the end of the block we came upon the Vanderhoff residence. The Vanderhoffs were the largest family on the street with nine children, including my friend Eddie.
The rest of Sexton Place consisted of a multi-cultural mix of Irish, German, Dutch, Jewish and Italian.
The very last house on the block was owned by a close friend of my Grandmother. I can recall visiting there when I was very young. It was like stepping across the ocean and landing in Sicily. There was a white stucco house set back high and away from the street. There were grape vines and vegetable gardens everywhere. Fruit trees abounded, and I can remember feeling very far away and at peace being there.
I feel very fortunate to have grown up in such a diverse neighborhood. I realize that my perspective was clouded by the optimistic eyes of youth, and that there were some problems. But looking back, I feel sorry for other people who tell me of their growing up in homogeneous areas of New York. I think they missed out on a great learning experience. Thanks, Grandma and Grandpa, for choosing that particular street to settle.