f ever there was a “Bronx Guy,” I surely qualify. I was born in HuntsPoint Hospital, attended school in the borough through college (with the exception of three years in Manhattan for high school) and spent thirty-five years teaching in three different Bronx schools. For the first fourteen years of my marriage, I lived in the Bronx, where all three of my children first lived. In fact, I even got married at Temple Zion, located smack dab on the Grand Concourse.
Now nearing seventy, I often look back with nostalgic fondness at those years, particularly those of my boyhood on West Farms Road, between Boone Avenue and Freeman Street. For those who recall the area before buildings were razed for the Sheridan Expressway, that neighborhood was dominated by the towering smokestack of the Fox Square Laundry at the intersection of Boone and Freeman, a short distance from the Whitlock Avenue station on the Pelham Bay line. I describe the locale with some specificity because it is often confused with West Farms Square, about a mile away near East Tremont and Boston Road.
My apartment building consisted of four wings of walk-up apartments, each with a separate flight of stairs we called stoops, and which surrounded a central courtyard planted with privet bushes. Each of the four wings in turn had ground level apartments which were called private halls, although privacy was certainly rarely achieved. We could leave the premises one of two ways. The primary route was through a wide staircase leading from the courtyard down to the street below. The other means was via the garbage room, the odoriferous, enclosed passageway in which trash was stored for pick-up, which in turn led to a back yard, and eventually to the street further up the block from the main staircase.
During the years between the late 30’s and mid-40’s, street singers and musicians would perform in the backyard, often standing under clotheslines in hopes of having coins wrapped in paper dropped to them. One of my great pleasures as a little boy was wrapping a nickel or dime in the coarse brown paper ripped from a grocery bag and letting it fall down to the singer or musician below. Others appeared in my back yard, including the I-Cash-Clothes Man who bought used clothing, men who sharpened knives and scissors, and still others whose wares and services I can no longer recall. More traditional salesmen appeared on the street, ranging from fruit and vegetable vendors using horse-drawn wagons, the seltzer man who lugged cases of seltzer and soda to apartments, returning with the empty bottles, and the Dugan’s Bakery delivery man whose pink frosted cupcakes raise my blood sugar even as I now contemplate them.
Until I succumbed to the siren call of the schoolyard at nearby P.S. 66 with its choose-up games of softball, touch football and basketball, my world was confined to the block, its residents, and the local merchants. The block itself ran from east to west, with two grocery stores, a pharmacy, a beauty parlor, a barbershop and a candy store book-ending my building. A couple of small brick private houses were somehow sandwiched in among the larger apartment house and storefronts. Those buildings and businesses were the permanent sites on the block, but in late spring, summer and early fall, when the weather permitted, the street became what I now retrospectively call a kind of informal reviewing stand. In those pre-war and early post-war years, there were few cars on the block. Horse droppings were more of a hazard than speeding autos. The few cars that were around had prominent fenders on which the tenants of my building sat, unless they had a canvas beach chair or convenient milk crate for that purpose. Whether seated on curved fenders, slingback chairs or squat milk crates, people congregated after dinner each night to converse, argue, kibbitz and to my self-conscious alarm, comment sotto voce, or a lot louder, about people who passed by.
This, then, was the gauntlet through which I had to pass. If I passed by, I’d be teased about my rabid devotion to the Yankees as a neighbor tried to convince me that Buddy Kerr was better than Phil Rizzuto. Others might tell me that I’d gotten too fat, or too skinny, and, if I came too close, I would have my cheek pinched by an over-friendly yenta. On hot summer nights, conversation mingled with the voices of Mel Allen, Red Barber or Russ Hodges whose mellifluous voices emerged from heavy, boxy, battery-operated portable radios which resembled small suitcases. Whichever direction I came from, unless I ducked into the backyard and made my way through the fetid garbage room with its omnipresent stray cats and occasional rats, I had to pass in front of this reviewing stand, which also included my parents and grandparents. On my luckier days, this jury of my non-peers was otherwise engaged, so I could fly up the front steps two steps at a time to my second floor apartment.
Painfully shy with girls, I spent most of my free time reading or playing ball, hoping to work up the courage to ask a girl out. Finally, at sixteen, in my last year at high school, I arranged for my first date. To be technical, it was really my second date, since I had taken a girl to the RKO Chester and then for a soda following my compulsory attendance at the Herman Ridder JHS senior prom. Had I not been a cad at the age of fourteen, it would have been my third date. At that age, in an uncharacteristic burst of courage, I arranged to go ice skating with a pretty classmate on whom I had a crush. We were supposed to meet at the Freeman Street station, but, no pun intended, I got cold feet at the last moment and stood her up. When I next saw her, I pretended to be angry and asked her why she hadn’t shown up at the 174th Street station as we had arranged. Thinking it her error, she apologized. Now, nearly fifty-six years later, I offer my belated apology to Annette Duboff and am retroactively ashamed.
These earlier attempts at dating notwithstanding, my first real date was to be with a dark-haired beauty who lived across the courtyard from me. Although I had to overcome my nervousness to ask her, the truly hard part was yet to come. In order to leave for the subway, we would have to descend the front steps and risk the comments of the sidewalk jury who were ever-vigilant in observing the comings and goings on the block. To sneak out through the garbage room, of course, was out of the question. Like the condemned man walking his proverbial last mile, I walked down the front steps with my date. To this day, I don’t know what comments were directed at us or about us, because we both just wanted to leave the block and escape the inevitable comment, whether critical or favorable. We had walked the gauntlet and come out unscathed.
Shortly after that experience, as if on signal, people stopped sitting in front of the building. Uncle Miltie and Lucy, and televised baseball games replacing the radio broadcasts were more alluring than mere pedestrians on the street. The sidewalk jury was now sequestered in their own apartments. It felt great to be free.