For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Bronxites

Merriam Memories


by Lloyd Marks

T

he ship Renssalaer Victory docked in Boston on December 5th, 1945, and I was back inthe United States. We New Yorkers traveled by rail down into New York, through The Bronx and Manhattan, and through the railroad tunnel to New Jersey. Our destination was Fort Dix, where we were processed for our return to humanity, and sent on our way home.

I arrived at the corner of Merriam Avenue and 170th Street at about 7:00 AM the morning of December 7th. I was truly home again. My Mother was walking the dog when I got out of the cab, and tearfully greeted her one and only son back from the wars. I was 20 years old.

We had lived at 1340 Merriam since 1936, and I was ten when we moved there. That’s where the action was in that part of Highbridge. I attended P.S 11, which by 1936 looked as if it were a hundred years old. The Principal was Mr. Hawkins, an elderly, scholarly man with very white hair and glasses. He left within a year or two of my arrival, being succeeded by Samuel Olchin, who ruled the roost for many years thereafter. I walked to school on Ogden, back home for lunch, and then back again until dismissal at 3:00 P.M.

Merriam Avenue between 169th and 170th Streets was a beehive of activity. From one end to the other, kids were playing various games, from three until dark, when everyone disappeared into the bowels of the apartment buildings for the night for supper, homework, and radio-listening. We had Buck Rogers (in the 25th Century), Tom Mix, and of course, The Lone Ranger.

Our outdoor activities, depending upon the time of the year, included Ringalevio, Johnny-On-the-Pony, Hide-and-Seek, War ( “I declare war on...”), Stickball (“Chickie....the Cops”), and Touch Football. We played a game we called "Lots Ball" in the vacant lot between 1304 and 1340 Merriam. We also played "Garage Ball" in the driveway alley halfway between the corner of 170th and Ogden and the rocks on the corner of Merriam.

Graduation from P.S. 11 was a big deal. The boys wore blue jackets and white flannel slacks. I recall having a picture taken of me all dressed up for graduation, standing in front of a brick wall on Merriam.

High School for us started just about the same time as Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. From that day onward, our lives would change forever. Many of us went to Clinton, some to Roosevelt, girls went to Walton, and other schools. When Taft opened in 1941, we, in most cases, were transferred there due to sectionalizing by districts. I went from Roosvelt to Taft, which was within walking distance of Merriam Avenue. We hiked back and forth to and from school. When you’re a teenager, and a nickel buys a lot of candy, walking is no problem, so we walked. Down 170th to Edward L. Grant Highway (then Boscobel Avenue), across the big intersection at 170th, over to Jerome, up the hills to The Concourse, and down to Taft. In bad weather, we rode the bus.

If I recall correctly, there was a deli on the last hill up to the Concourse on 170th. They made great knishes. That was a treat.

Then of course, there were the Movies. We had the Ogden Theater, and further down Ogden was The Crest. I recall seeing a flick named "Blood and Sand" at The Crest. It starred Rita Hayworth and Tyrone Power. Boy, did I wish I was in his boots, except that he got killed by a bull at the end of the picture. Mostly, I visited The Ogden. I saw "The Wizard of Oz" there. Like many theaters in that day, The Ogden had Game Nights with prizes being awarded. I once won five dollars, a lot of bucks in 1939.

Almost all the boys on Merriam went to the local barber shop on Ogden, next to the saloon, just below 170th on the East side of the street. It was owned by a Cuban named Chico, a dashing, handsome guy who looked like a typical Latin Lover. He later sold out to Jerry, who would rather watch the girls passing by on Ogden than cut your hair. A nicked ear was not unusual, but it was probably a badge of honor, like a Purple Heart, for daring to have Jerry cut your hair.

Wintertime, when it snowed (snow seemed greater then), we belly-whopped downhill on 170th from Ogden to Plimpton, as far on 170th as momentum would allow. It was a good ride, but not nearly as daring as the hill coming down from St. Lawrence to the good old 44th Precinct. I had one heck of a ride one time when I couldn’t stop soon enough, and went under a parked car (they were higher off the ground in those days) and ended up on the sidewalk near the entrance to the 44th. I had my Flexible Flyer for a long time. I can’t recall what happened to it later on.

In the Summer, with a quarter or half-dollar for expenses, we trod the old viaduct bridge with the water tower on the Manhattan side, to Highbridge Pool on Amsterdam. I learned to swim in that pool. I always bought a frozen Milky Way at the concession stand. I recall four or five of us getting mugged by two toughs on the hill going up to the pool. They had knives and were threatening us with bodily harm if we didn’t turn over our cash. They looked very determined, and I got hit in the face for hesitating, while my "buddies" sat and watched. We went back to The Bronx side and reported it to the 44th Desk Sergeant. What else could we do? These cops chased us for playing stickball in the street, so I guess maybe they were tired. But the pool was great. We went there very often, and never had any more problems.

I have no recollections of gang-fights, or confrontations between the few clubs we had on Merriam. Later on, we organized into some baseball and football teams, but rivalries were friendly, and the clubs were mostly from different age groups. I don’t recall that ethnic backgrounds counted for much. You could be Jewish, Protestant, Catholic. It made no difference. There were Italians, Irish and Jews of various origins, and no friction that I recall. We lived together, played together and got along with each other. And when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, we all went off to the greatest adventure of our lives; and when it was over, we came back to Merriam Avenue, as I did that morning in 1945.

That was 57 years ago, now, and I still think of those days. You might call them "Days of Our Youth." I think that fits pretty well. A lot of history was made in those days.

The World indeed changed while I lived on Merriam Avenue between 169th and 170th. Youth was no more, and those "Days of Our Youth," the fun times, the young times, have become distant memories of the street which still remains. We of that time are now the roots of Tom Brokaw’s "Greatest Generation" . We are the ghosts of the past, fondly recalled once in a while.

I came back in that cab, back to Merriam Avenue, and it was my first step into my future.




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