Across the Park
t was spring 1944 when we moved from Jennings Street to LaFontaine Avenue. Just a tripacross Crotona Park, but in many ways it was like moving from one country to another.
It was wartime, gas was expensive, and we were on home relief anyway, so we moved by horse and wagon. I still remember how my mother, baby sister and I bounced up and down in the wagon as the horse galloped on the cobblestones of Tremont Avenue, my mother anxious that my alcoholic father might be in pursuit. The nightstick given to her by a policeman rolled around in the bottom of the wagon.
In my new world I quickly learned to play a Sicilian card game and curse in Italian. In retrospect it seems that LaFontaine Avenue (between 178th and 179th Streets) was more like a Sicilian or Greek Village than a block in the Bronx. The hallways smelled of olive oil and peppers; Italian and Greek was commonly spoken. One Greek neighbor often asked my mother if I could spend some time with her son because he didn't speak English that well. She would take us to one of the beaches at Throg's Neck.
But if America was a melting pot, LaFontaine was a stew of sorts, where every race and creed was somehow represented. More than a few times I turned on stoves or lit candles for old Jewish women on Friday nights. They always wanted to tip me, but it didn't feel right to accept it.
However, no matter how many languages were spoken on LaFontaine, there was loyalty to only one country- America. One of the first images I have of LaFontaine was seeing dummies of Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo hanging from a lamppost.
Oddly, one side of LaFontaine was comprised of four-story tenement buildings, but the other side of the street was dotted with private homes. The kids hung out together but I never saw the adults mix.
On the corner of 179th Street was the Sun Laundry which still delivered freshly-washed clothing by horse and wagon. The drivers were white, and the laundry personnel, mostly African-American. Across the street from the Sun laundry was Ali's Chicken Market where you could get a fresh-killed, kosher chicken. It was hard to walk by the market and not notice the necks of the chickens draining blood into a metal trough. Later when I used to deliver them I discovered the warmer the chicken in the bag, the better the tip.
On Jennings Street I never had to worry about getting a fist in the eye, but LaFontaine Avenue was different. There were seemingly zillions of kids on that block, itchy to do anything, particularly to start a fight. Learning to defend myself did not come easy, but I managed. It seemed that people were always looking out for me as well: the older bobby soxers with their giddy-gee language, and the adults who hung out at the candy store and bought me a two-cents plain every once in a while. One person who didn't look out for my welfare was an older boy called Lawrence who asked me to hold a shopping bag while he placed things in it as we walked by the pushcarts on Bathgate Avenue. I was too young to figure it out.
But as hard as LaFontaine was, it had some extraordinary people, such as the D'Amato family. Although they had four or five children themselves, they helped raise a family of brothers in their building who had lost their parents. The brothers avoided being seperated by the bureaucracy of the social services and kept their apartment in the building as well. Two of them later went on to marry two of the D'Amato sisters.
The Mitchell family on the first floor of my building comes to mind immediately as well. Mr. Mitchell, who worked in the Sun Laundry, was a handsome, light-skinned African-American married to a beautiful woman of Italian decent. On summer nights he would organize jam sessions on the roof. Mr. Mitchell would play the trumpet accompanied by other African-Americans he worked with, and other musicians in the neighborhood. The whole neighborhood would perch on the brick walls that divided the buildings and watch. And I'm talking be-bop, not your hit parade. Once you heard Mitchell improvise it was readily apparent that he had given up a career in music to support his good-looking family.
The jam session sometimes included his two young sons who played sax and trombone. Mitchell, as I've mentioned, was a remarkable musician. It was from his family that I gained my deep respect for jazz. I was too poor to have a television at the time but I remember Mrs. Mitchell saying to me in an almost reverent tone, "Tonight, a performer called Ella Fitzgerald is going to be on television. You can come in and watch but you must be absolutely quiet, Earl."
I had never witnessed this kind of respect for a performer. As soon as Ella appeared the Mitchell family stopped all movement and watched transfixed as Ella sang. No one in the room spoke until the commercials. From that day on I had a profound respect for jazz artists, and to this day can't stand when people talk during a live performance.
There was the Concepcion family from Puerto Rico. Sandy Concepcion could do anything. He worked at a print shop during the week, and photographed weddings on the weekends and also did his own developing. The Concepcions started their life in America in a cellar at 2011 LaFontaine that used to store baby carriages. One of their sons is now a Professor of Romance Languages at a major university. I bet his students don't know how far he's come.
There was Andy Versoto who stole the hearts of boxing fans with his courage as a middleweight. And for sheer variety, we had a Duncan yo-yo champion whose wife had a walk-on part for the Broadway play Suzy Wong, a Venezuelan teenager who played with the Harmonicats, and a former RAF ace who worked as a janitor. Sal Mineo's aunt owned the local candy store and made our egg creams.
My impression of LaFontaine was, and is, of everyone during everything well from belting a "spaldeen" three sewers to hitting a high C. The pressure not to be second-rate was always apparent in almost anything that had to do with the block. It was quite remarkable, really. If anyone dropped a fly ball, forget it, he was picked last for the rest of the summer.
We had "Wise Guys" too, of course - lower-echelon, however. The "banker" from Arthur Avenue would come with an Indian River orange crate, sit on it, and the dice game would begin. There was always a lot of pressure for me when we played games like off-the-curb because I just had ordinary skills. I always used to wonder why the Wise Guys would always look at me until I figured it out. They were betting on the game, and probably how many errors I was going to make. One day I surprised them. I stopped being nervous and played a flawless game of off-the-wall, and made some great catches. When the game ended I noticed a lot of heads shaking in disbelief. Unfortunately I never duplicated that performance.
There are many things I remember about the summers, including Crotona pool to beat the heat, when the Johnny pump wasn't on, and free Popsicle's at the end of Saturday matinees at the RKO Crotona one Summer. But it is the people of LaFontaine I remember with great affection - these extraordinary people in ordinary surroundings.
As for personal friendships, they are, as you know, priceless. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I had actually grown up having three brothers. That's how close my mother and I were to a family in the next building to us. Many of you, I'm sure, had that same experience.
As I got older, it would turn out that some families were using the cheap rents of LaFontaine as a springboard to a better life. And they would just disappear one day. Others, like my family, didn't have much choice but to stay. But to most people who lived on LaFontaine at the time, the block was everything. Long before the word was fashionable at advertising agencies, this Bronx street - and I'm sure others as well - had attitude, a sense of style and personality that made you proud to be a part of the block.
In her autobiography Bronx Primitive, Kate Simon writes about growing up on this very same street in the 1920's. Somehow for me, LaFontaine still had a lot of magic going for it in the 1940's and 1950's.
Living on this Bronx street was a basic training course in being part of a larger world than just yourself, or even your family. You were personally involved in the lives of your neighbors, which, in my opinion, is what made streets in the Bronx during the 1940's and 1950's so special.
Years later, when I was an advertising writer for the U.S. Army account, I created the theme line "Be All You Can Be". Certainly the talented families and people I knew on LaFontaine Avenue were a major inspiration for creating those words.