The Old Neighborhood
ard to imagine over forty years have passed since I moved out of the Fordham area of my old neighborhood. The memories are vivid and special. Those experiences molded me; prepared me for life in a profound way. Only those people who grew up in the Bronx, especially in the 1950’s, could really appreciate the unique and colorful existence. No matter what our ethnic background, we shared a common bond, an experience not limited to just one neighborhood in one section, but linked to the entire borough. Where does one begin with half a lifetime of memories?
I was born and raised on 184th Street between Washington and Park Avenues. This was your typical block, with massive apartment buildings, a row of private homes, even a sandlot smack in the middle. Around the corner was the Roman Catholic Church and Elementary School, which I attended. There was a sumptuous garden with a life-size stone figure of Jesus with outstretched arms. I always crossed myself passing in front of it. There I was, dressed in the school uniform with a white shirt and maroon tie with the monogram of the school’s name SOS (School of Our Savior’s). Under my shirt were my dog tags and scapula. Right across the street from the church lived one of my cousins and her family, the very same building where our family physician’s office was located. He made many a house call in those days. Surrounding our block was the usual diversity of stores all conveniently located within walking distance.
My apartment building was a five story, stylish, gray brick structure with a two-level courtyard separating two wings. There were around sixty apartment units, usually five to a floor. The families that lived here knew each other very well. We interacted daily and there were plenty of kids for me to make friends and play with. Our neighbors Connie, Netty, Muffy, Yolanda and Sandy were my mother’s close friends. My older sister had her crowd. My father, who worked a night shift at Bond Bread, played his usual weekend pinochle game at one of my uncle’s house. There were all these old men sitting around a huge oak table with elaborately carved legs and a finely woven lace tablecloth on top. There was never much conversation, just the occasional rap of knuckles on the table during the game.
The years growing up here were precious. And we grew up fast. We gave new meaning to the term streetwise. We played the standard street games that kids played throughout the city. You know them…Ringoleavio, stickball, Johnny-on-the-pony, Ace-King-Queen, Skully, Punch Ball, Curb Ball, Running Bases, Fly's-Are-Up, just to name a few. Books have been written about them. We improvised when we were short players. We learned the rules and chose sides. The one important thing that linked all these games is often overlooked. None of our games was played with a referee or umpire. None of them. In some cultures this would be unthinkable. Not in the city. Even kids from “rival” neighborhoods played by the same rules. We settled our own disputes, usually fairly and accurately.
Most of the children were nice kids, but there were an assortment of bullies that you’d find in any neighborhood. Ours was no different. Many times their victims would be limping home with a shiner, or bloody nose with holes in the knees of their pants, myself included. It was part of growing up in the Bronx. You got your lumps either in the street or at home. Normally we could handle ourselves and once a bully was confronted he usually left you alone. Every one of the kids was street smart, including Alphonse. He was the persistent target of these attacks, especially in the schoolyard. He managed to survive along with the rest of us.
During the course of the week, especially on Saturday mornings, there was a parade of horse-drawn wagons, carts, pony and amusement rides and other assorted vendors. My bedroom window was two floors up facing the street with the fire escape right outside, so I got a front row seat to the goings-on in the street, which began at 6:00am. Here came the man selling watermelons. He had a very long wagon loaded with watermelons. He’d wake up the whole neighborhood when he shouted, “WAAATERMELLLOOONNN.” Next came the vegetable man, followed by the junk man whose wagon was pulled by a tired looking horse. He didn’t have to shout. He’d slowly make his way up the block, while those three cow bells strung across the top of his seat sounded his approach. The kids had fun harassing him. He’d either ignore us or spit at us. Looked like he was a tobacco chewer! Once the horses passed, many people descended from their apartments with dustpans to collect the horse dung, which they used to fertilize their window flowerpots. Next up the street was that odd looking vehicle for grinding knives and scissors. How about the half-moon and whip rides. This went on all day long.
The iceman and seltzer man delivered direct to your door. When everyone had passed, the ultimate visitor to our street was the lone sanitation man with his barrel on wheels and his broad wired broom. He would sweep and manicure the curbs.
One other vendor worth mentioning was our very own Sweet Potato man. Now here’s a real oddity. How many neighborhoods could boast of an old codger selling sweet potatoes? He was somebody’s grandfather, real skinny, hunched over, mid-seventies, wearing tattered clothes with a crumpled fedora. He had the weirdest looking pushcart. It had extra large wheels on a body partly wood and metal. There was a stove built in and a chimney that extended maybe four feet up, with a cone-shaped cover. He sold half a sweet potato for 25 cents. In all the years I bought yams from him, I never heard him utter a word!
There was a constant bustle of activity. The Scooter was a popular and inexpensive substitute for a bike. Made from a four–foot long, two-by-four plank of wood, a crate would be nailed at one end with iron skate wheels underneath. Wooden handles were attached and the crate was adorned with bottle caps, flags and anything else that gave it distinction. We stored these great works of art in the basements of our apartment buildings. Roller-skating was a pastime enjoyed by younger kids. Remember those adjustable steel roller skates? There was a vice grip on the front to secure your sneaker or shoe. Of course, the key was indispensable. The noise these skates made was deafening, but we’d skate for hours round and round the block. I finally strung the key around my neck so I wouldn’t lose it.
Baseball Card flipping was a preferred activity among the boys. Remember the term ‘larry’? It meant you flipped last. One variation was holding the card flat against the apartment building wall and letting it flutter to the ground, usually inside a courtyard so the wind wouldn’t affect it. I wish I had all those Ferris Fains, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra cards I used to flip. What mother wasn’t guilty of throwing out a couple of boxes of baseball cards?
Kids were playing all the time on every corner, in every street. Marbles, Hit-the-Stick, on and on. Skully was a game we played in the middle of the street usually on our bellies, flicking bottle caps around a painted board. We’d wax our bottle caps to give them extra weight. A vital edge was needed to win. Even though the traffic up the street was constant, no one ever got struck by a car.
There were many individuals I especially remember. One was our Super, Junior. He was either Irish or Polish. I never knew his real name. He was a strapping 6’ 3”, built like an ox. His hair was straight and forever dangling on his forehead. Sweat was always pouring off him. He had one missing front tooth. He always wore the same outfit, a white T-shirt with dark trousers. I never forgot the day he came to disconnect a faulty radiator. It was at least a twelve-rib, cast-iron monster. It had to weigh a ton. He actually carried the thing out of the apartment with little effort, almost like he was cradling a baby. He replaced it with another radiator later that day. My mother always gave him a shot of whiskey at the end of every job. I guess she figured it was a good way to tip him.
Junior would be everywhere throughout the building and around the grounds, fixing things, cleaning, putting out the garbage, and filling other tin cans with coal residue from the furnace. No heat? Just bang on the pipes and Junior would oblige. Next you’d hear the pings and hisses as the steam heat came through the pipes. On certain days our dumbwaiter bell would ring and I’d run to the kitchen and place our bags of garbage on the open wooden elevator. Junior would sometimes shout up the shaft and we’d ring our bell to let him know he could haul it down. The contraption was hand operated with a rope.
Junior was a great guy and a topnotch super. It was strictly a one-man operation. Looking back, I don’t know how he handled all the work in such a large apartment house.
Joe Baker owned the local hardware store on 183rd Street and Bassford Avenue. His store was not only dimly lit but cluttered with all sorts of hardware items. It was difficult walking down the aisles, the merchandise was spilling over the counters. There was Joe behind the cash register , a tall man with horn-rimmed glasses and a mustache. He knew where everything was and pulled it off the shelves in a jiffy without the rest of the stuff falling off. He had a bad habit of short-changing unsuspecting customers, especially us kids. I was warned about him early on and recounted my change before I left the store.
Barney’s was a local soda fountain joint on 183rd just up the block from Joe Baker’s. There were several Barney’s over the years, but one in particular made the greatest egg creams, not to mention the usual ice cream sodas and milk shakes.
Jerry ran the local deli on the northeast corner of 184th street. He was a friendly short fellow with a round face and a bald head. Everyone in the neighborhood owed him money, even Ozok the Bum, who was always in his store. Jerry never seemed to mind. He’d write the debts in his black ledger and go on to the next customer. I never knew you could buy groceries on the lay-away plan! Many times he’d tally the bill on the brown grocery bag…a real lost art! He had a nickname for all the kids on the block. Mine was “the little gigolo.”
Ozok the Bum and Drunken George were the area’s vagrants. Ozok was a black man probably in his late fifties. He had hardly any teeth, his voice was raspy and he spit whenever he talked. He’d roam through the neighborhood sleeping under stairs or in the back alleys. He kept out of the way mostly. I recall one day he was at Jerry’s grocery store, buying napkins. I was standing next to him when he asked the counter clerk, “Gimme them napskins.” Yes, he did say “napskins.” A real charming fellow. Drunken George was a white guy early fifties. There was nothing especially notable about him except everyone in the neighborhood knew him. You’d find him asleep on flattened cardboard boxes right above those steel door shutters on the sidewalk. Usually his favorite spot was near Tobin’s Bar on the corner of 182nd Street and Washington Avenue. There he’d be chugging down a Sneaky Pete or Muscatel. Tobin ran the local pub, which was directly under a two-story private house. It wasn’t a rowdy place. The blue-collar workers met there to play pool and socialize. Tobin was a red-faced Irishman who had a joke for the kids hanging out in front of the place. Some of the teenagers milled around there with Tobin’s heavy-set daughter.
The butcher was a real character. He had a genuine talent for placing his thumb on the scale when weighing meats. Many of the women customers always seemed to catch him in the act. They’d shout at him, “Take your finger off the scale!”. He’d deny it of course and never seemed embarrassed. He reminded me of Ernest Borgnine who played the butcher Marty. He looked a lot like him.
The barber had his shop on Webster around 179th street. The kids called him Scamatch. Don’t ask me what it meant. The Metro Theatre was just down Webster, so sometimes my father and I took in a movie after the haircut. Scamatch gave me a real slick haircut, grease and all. In those years the barbers used a hot lather machine. Scamatch would apply it to the back of my neck and sideburns and shave it with a straight razor. He’d nick me every time! And always in the same spot, right behind the ear! He’d then would rub his thumb in some brownish ointment and apply it to the cut. It burned like the dickens..
The candy store was the mecca of the kids. Glands or was it Glance? This was a mom-and-pop operation on 183rd near Park Avenue. They both had thick Eastern European accents. I’d buy the usual things there, caps for my cap gun, Pez refills, and sports cards. Remember those wax coke bottles? After biting off the top and drinking the juice inside, I’d chew the wax bottle and spit it out later. How about the phony Lucky Strikes? One puff and it was used up. The cigarettes looked like the real thing. Don’t forget the Dots…those round candies pasted in rows on a strip of white wax paper. There were sundry other sweets and a myriad of toys and novelties.
We weren’t confined to this immediate area. We went everywhere from Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse to East Tremont and Webster...and beyond. There were Saturday night dances at St. Nicholas of Tolentine on University Avenue. The plush and opulent Lowe’s Paradise was the pride of the whole area. It was rich in ornamentation on a grand scale. Its capacity was around four thousand with a balcony. We saw all the epic films at the Paradise, like The Ten Commandments, The Robe and Ben Hur. You sometimes needed reserved tickets for some premieres. But what was really special about the place was the ceiling that replicated a night sky. It looked real with twinkling stars and moving clouds. The other theaters paled in comparison: the RKO Fordham, The Valentine and the seedy Savoy theatre off Arthur Avenue. We went to see the grade-B movies at the Savoy, films like The Tingler and Creature from the Black Lagoon.
I must mention the Botanical Gardens and the old Snuff Mill Restaurant. The dark woods there reminded me of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and headless horseman. We played sham battles in the park - war games played among adolescents with toy rifles and rubber bullets. We’d play in the woods and the open fields of the Botanical Gardens. French Charlie’s was another favorite spot to have our football games. It was a grassy field with a concrete grandstand right off Webster around 204th street.
Most of my relatives lived in the Bronx. We were a rather large family. There were six aunts and seven uncles in my immediate family. They all married and raised their families in the Bronx. We were close in those years growing up in the fifties. Many weekends were spent taking trips in long car caravans to some of our favorite spots, like Mohansic Park in Upstate, New York or Long Beach . Sometimes my father took us on solitary trips to Mount Kisco along the Bronx River Parkway just for a Sunday ride. In the wintertime we’d get together indoors and have big parties.. My Uncle Vito took 8mm motion pictures of all the events.
It was a tradition in my family to eat dinner at two PM on Sundays. This was popular during the 1950’s and early ‘60’s. My mother would usually have a huge pot of meat sauce simmering for hours on Sunday mornings. After attending church we’d head home for dinner. In those years Roman Catholics had to fast before receiving communion, so we wouldn’t eat breakfast. By the time I got home I’d be starving.
In 1961 we moved from Fordham to Throggs Neck. I still came back regularly to the old neighborhood to reminisce, play with my many friends there and visit relatives. I’ve subsequently moved around the borough over the years until I moved out permanently in 1979. but the Fordham area will always have a special place in my heart. I spent my formative years there. It’s like a precious treasure stored in the attic of my mind. I rummage around from time to time selecting memories, casting my mind’s eye on sights, sounds and smells so unique to my childhood. I will never forget them…
From sleeping out on the fire escape on a hot and muggy night to bathing under a Johnny Pump and washing the passing cars. From riding the rickety Third Avenue El alone at eight years old, to shopping with my mother on Arthur Avenue. From flipping baseball cards to roller skating round and round the block. Along with these and countless other memories my link to the past is strong and inviolate. For those of us who have lived in the Bronx, worked, played and grew up there, we all share a common bond, one truly unique experience. We are a breed apart. And when I say, “I am from the Bronx,” I always say it with pride and a little twinkle in my eye, because those years will always come alive for me.