For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Bronxites

Hitching the Ogden Avenue Bus


by Bob Abate

I

grew up in the Highbridge section of the Bronx - that portion just north of the Yankee Stadium, bounded on the east by Jerome Avenue, on the west by the Harlem River and on the North by 171st Street and the Edward L. Grant Highway. It is now considered part of the South Bronx although I never heard it referred to in that way when I was growing up.

Growing up in Highbridge in the late 1940's and early-mid 50's was a time of great freedom for youngsters like myself, ages seven and up, and we pretty much had free reign of the streets. They were very safe and there was little or no fear of trouble except for the occasional dogs and some automobiles. There were trolley cars in the early 40's and the fare was a nickel. In the late 40's or early 50's they were replaced by big busses but the old tracks were still in the ground - ruts - about two or three inches wide and set into the street about an inch deep or so.

One of the bus lines was the Number 37 Ogden Avenue route. It would start at 161st Street and River Avenue - diagonally across from the Yankee Stadium - and proceed west to the foot of 161st Street and Ogden Avenue and then turn up a steep hill and continue north, through Highbridge, to the end of Ogden Avenue at about 173rd Street. At that point it would make a swinging turn heading west across the Washington Bridge, over the Harlem River, into Washington Heights and its last stop at the Northeast corner of 181st Street and Broadway, across from the RKO Coliseum movie theater.

A bunch of us would often "ride" or hitch to the back of the bus by standing on our toes on the top of its large rear fenders which would extend out about two or three inches from the rear of the bus. We would hold onto the metal molding of the rear windows which were barely wide enough for us to jam our finger tips into. All this while inhaling large, black clouds of diesel exhaust fumes. The bus would travel block-to-block, stop-to-stop at a relatively slow speed, about ten miles per hour or so - but it would speed up pretty fast going over the Washington Bridge and going to and from the 3/4 mile run between River Avenue and the foot of Ogden Avenue.

We would often hitch the bus after school and during the summer, to go to the movies or just ride around - a poor kid's sort of taxi-limo service. This was before there were many automobiles in the area.

We couldn't afford bikes but we had steel roller skates, and when the skates broke or got too small for our growing feet, we used the front and rear skate wheels to make scooters made out of old, disposed, empty wooden crates (compliments of the local supermarkets) that had been used to deliver oranges, grapefruits, or whatever. They were laid out and assembled so that the scooter was about three feet high and a foot and a half wide, nailed onto a wooden, narrow floor board. But they weren't built for any kind of speed or distance.

One rainy day after school in early May, one of my best friends and classmates - Danny Walsh - and I decided to go riding around. We met at 163rd Street and Ogden, and hitched a ride north in the late afternoon. Danny was a very funny and mischievous jokester, always cutting up and wise-cracking. We were eleven years old at the time and in the fifth grade.

Danny started telling some dirty jokes, as young guys were wont to. As the #37 made the turn to proceed west over the Washington Bridge to Washington Heights, I was laughing so much that I started to shake and lose my grip on the rear window. I told Danny what was happening and to stop telling his jokes because if he didn't, I was going to lose it altogether and fall off. Well, he thought that was just about the funniest thing he ever thought could happen and he said he was going to keep it up until I fell off.

By now I was screaming at him to stop but I was also laughing like hell. We were also travelling pretty fast across the bridge, maybe twenty or thirty miles per hour, and I was slowly losing my grip, finger by finger, every few moments or so on the rainy, slippery window sill. About halfway across the bridge I could hold on no longer and managed to say something like "goodbye, so long" before tumbling off the back of the bus onto the roadway.

Luckily, traffic wasn't heavy, and I was able to scamper onto the sidewalk and brush myself off. Deciding to start all over again, I walked back east across the bridge to Ogden and 171st Street to await my return ride.

About fifteen minutes later the #37 bus appeared, and there was Danny on the back, laughing and calling me all sorts of chicken names, but he was also a bit contrite and he didn't tell any more jokes. We rode to the end of the line at 161st Street and River Avenue. We then crossed the street, directly across from the Yankee Stadium in front of Nedick's, and waited for the old reliable #37 to circle the block, making a U-turn for the return trip home.

It was now late in the afternoon and just as we were about to jump on the back of the #37, a crowd of people returning from work was disgorging from the D Train and coming up the stairs from the underground station while the bus driver waited for them to reach his bus. Danny and I were in position, balancing on the rear bumper, waiting for the driver to start up, when out of nowhere I simultaneously heard a woman's high-pitched, shrill voice, screaming, "Young man! Get off of that bus!" and felt a sharp jabbing in my rear! She had just come out of the subway on her way home from work and shoved the end of her umbrella unceremoniously in my butt, and at the same time she was screaming for the bus driver to stop the bus and come to the back. I jumped off the bus with a howl and as the bus took off, there was Danny, beside himself laughing uncontrollably in fiendish delight.

I hit the sidewalk for the second time that day, my pride wounded but none the worse for the wear and tear. But there was a message somewhere in all this. This was my strike two for the day and I now think it was rather prophetic that in the late afternoon shadows of Yankee Stadium I learned a fundamental baseball lesson that transcends the field: three strikes and you're out!

I decided to walk home, and that was moment I retired from riding on the back of busses. I didn't realize it at the time, but another large lesson was soon to follow.

The next afternoon, I was sitting in class when all of a sudden my teacher told me to go downstairs immediately to Brother Patrick's office, the school Principal. I thought, "What is this all about?"

Brother Patrick was a tall, lean and trim, stern man with piercing eyes who rarely smiled. He was no-nonsense and then some. As soon as I entered his office he glared at me, and pointing with his extended forefinger asked, "What did you do after school yesterday?"

Geez, I felt like a deer caught in the headlights and was wondering if he knew what I knew and if we were thinking the same thing. I certainly had no desire to get too specific and thought for a fleeting moment that maybe I'd get lucky and could avoid the looming storm. But something told me that this was no time to play dumb or cute so I told him everything

He looked at me somewhat incredulously and suppressing a small, shrewd smile, said very sternly, "Young man, I didn't expect you to tell me the truth and I was going to have you bring your father in tomorrow. You see, yesterday, I was walking along Ogden Avenue in regular clothes and I saw you two guys on the back of that bus. But since you did tell the truth I'm not going to do that. However, I want you to promise me right now you'll never do anything like that again and, if you do, I will immediately expell you from Sacred Heart. Do you understand?"

I quietly murmured, "Yes, Brother, I do," and I graduated three years later, having never hitched a bus ride again.


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