For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Bronxites

My Bronx - The Farewell Years - 1939 to 1968

by Joseph A. Constantine


rom my birth in 1915 to 1968, The Bronx remained the center of my universeduring my life there, and remains so in my fondest memories.

Bettie and I were married in1939 by Father Bassi, the Pastor of Our Lady of Grace Roman Catholic Church on Bronxwood Avenue. We settled into a small apartment near my parent’s home. We were still in the throes of the Great Depression, so Bettie had to maintain her position as a teller for The National Bronx Bank on Freeman Street. The rent for our apartment was $38 a month and my job as a route driver with Pioneer Restaurant and Bar Supplies on Brook Avenue was inadequate.

The very first visitor to our new residence was one of my favorites, our family dog “Bozo”. We rewarded him with a sumptuous meal for being so loyal to us, and attached a tag to his collar with a message. It read “Please don’t feed me I ate at Joe’s.” Well, when he arrived back at my parent’s house, he precipitated a riot. My father Anthony was running around the house looking for his eyeglasses, at the same time yelling to my mother, “Lizzie, Lizzie, I warned you not to let that dog out, now he came home with a summons!”

My Dad was quite a character, He was influenced by his exposure to the film industry during the silent movie days. As a young man, he had worked as a projectionist in a theater on Coney Island. Jimmy Durante had worked with him, playing his piano as the background music for the silent movies. All this glamour influenced my Dad’s sartorial taste. He wore a derby hat, spats, and a vest with a gold watch and chain across his chest and a diamond stickpin stuck in his tie, á la Diamond Jim Brady. Naturally, the jewels were of the ersatz variety. When Dad started to lose his hair - not to worry - his photos always exhibited a full luxurious head of hair, thanks to his artistic ability.

My mother, Elizabeth, on the other hand, was an unassuming person who lovingly raised seven children, five boys and two girls, me being the eldest. We were really blessed with two diverse, loving parents.

My wife Bettie and I lived at our first apartment on 222nd Street for one year, when we were fortunate enough to obtain a four-room apartment in the Hillside Homes, across the street from P.S. 78 on Hicks Street. This section of the Bronx evoked many past nostalgic memories. Before Hillside Homes were built, this was a wooded area with a swampy section running through the center of it. Kids had used this area for rafting, reminiscent of Tom Sawyer, during the 1800’s. All our side streets were still unpaved.

During prohibition, the house on the corner of Fish Avenue and Hicks Street was raided by the Internal Revenue agents and tons of fermenting mash were dumped into the streets, as well as the large copper still. Although the students of P.S. 78 were among the brightest kids in the Bronx, they were now certainly by far the highest until the mash lost its potency.

A steep dirt hill behind the school was the scene of many, many snowball fights, one side led by the Assistant Principal Mister Lewis, and the other by Mister Bullman, the school Janitor. These extracurricular activities gave us an incentive to attend school.

Bettie and I had our first child, and now our little family looked down from our fourth floor apartment upon my childhood memories. During this period I was working as a machinist for Maxon, a defense plant on 34th Street and 10th Avenue. It was there that we learned about the vicious Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 when President Roosevelt declared it “a day that would live in Infamy”. The U.S. became involved in World War II, and the drafting of young men into the military became necessary. By virtue of being a father, and my work as a machinist in a defense plant, I was placed in an exempt category (3A), which remained so until the U.S. emerged victorious on VJ Day, August 6, 1945.

Our last child was born in 1945 on New Years Day. She was our third daughter and ended our quest for a boy.

At last the old Constantine compound on 223rd Street was coming into the twentieth century. They now had a refrigerator, city water and a sewer system. The street still remained a dirt road. My brother Nick, who was my best man and best friend, became a butcher and worked for Jerry’s Meat Market on Boston Post Road between Eastchester Road and Fenton Avenue. Nick was very popular in the neighborhood and built up a side business selling parakeets. His hobby was raising these birds and he became very successful at it. He was known as “The Birdman of Hillside Homes.” Unfortunately, his hobby met with disaster. He was raising the birds in my father’s cellar, where dear old Dad had his altar with his perpetual votive light going. The house caught fire, and two hundred parakeets perished. Fortunately, the Fire Department promptly extinguished the fire with a minimal amount of damage and no injuries to the family.

The family dog Bozo became a neighborhood favorite. In the morning he would come upstairs from the basement of my Father’s home for his breakfast of stale Italian bread soaked in coffee. After breakfast he would escort the children to school. Then he would roam around until lunchtime, when he would visit Oscar’s Deli, where he was fed the baloney ends. After lunch he felt the need of a dessert, so he visited Red’s Candy Store on Fenton Avenue and Boston Road. He would pluck a candy bar from the display, go outside, take the wrapper off, and calmly munch on his O’Henry or Baby Ruth. (These confectionary thefts came to light at the end of the month when my sister Chris went to settle her credit account.) Bozo, with an uncanny ability of telling time, would be always be waiting outside the school at the end of the day, ready to escort the children home.

After the war my little family was struggling financially, and my beloved wife Bettie helped out by working part time at Alexander’s on the Grand Concourse. I had a second job working as a cashier for Harry Stevens at Yankee Stadium and the old Polo Grounds. Later, I finally obtained a decent job on Long Island as a machinist for Sperry Gyroscope in Lake Success, and Bettie went to work as a Teller for Manufacturers Trust Bank across Boston Road on Fenton Avenue. These sacrifices were necessary because two of our daughters were attending Catholic School and all three of them were taking piano lessons.

At this point in time, my Dad retired from his position as an electrician for the City of New York, still lacking two quarters to become eligible for Social Security. My brother Nick solved this problem by graciously opening a pet store on Seymour Avenue, appropriately named C-More Pets. It was right next door to the Violet Park Jewish Center, off Boston Post Road. Nick installed our Dad as manager. This was a dangerous move, considering that Dad had wiped out Nick’s previous parakeet business. However, he acclimated pretty well with a few minor glitches. He would feed the big two-pound goldfish, which was the center attraction of the store, from a coffee spoon. One day a young lad came into the store and made Dad an offer he couldn’t refuse: the boy’s big tropical fish for two small ones. Dad was proud of his new acquisition, but when Nick came in at the end of the day, he found the fish tank decimated. Our father had bartered for a fish that was a carnivore. Now I ask you, how could anybody not love our Dad? In fact, if you visited him in the store, he would offer you a cup of his famous coffee filtered through a fishnet.

We later moved to Whitestone in Queens to be closer to my job, and also eliminate the bridge tolls. The Bronx was just a stone’s throw away. Within our view and our hearts, across Little Neck Bay, we could see Fort Schuyler and Silver Beach.

With the development of Long Island, and houses selling below $10,000, almost all my brothers and sisters bought homes on the Island. My brother Peter still resides on City Island in The Bronx. We are still a very close-knit family and at family gatherings we often reminisce about Dad, Mom, and Bozo. Those were the “good ole” Bronx days.

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