The Day I Became A Bronxite
ugust 16, 1956: my ninth birthday. My mother was pregnant with my youngest brother, her sixth child, and we had to find a bigger apartment. My parents decided that you get more for your money in the Bronx than in Manhattan. So, my ninth birthday was celebrated by moving to the Bronx.
We started early and my dad borrowed a truck and we all helped load the furniture and the boxes. He drove the truck while a friend who came to help and I rode along with him. My mother gathered up my two brothers and sisters and took a cab from “the city” to the Bronx. Our adventure had begun.
The day was warm and sunny, with blue skies and low humidity. The truck arrived in front of the building on Tremont Avenue, a rather wide street, one of the Bronx‘s main thoroughfares. In Manhattan, we lived on a narrow cross-street on the upper east-side. And now we were on this big street, and being nine, it looked enormous. I helped carry the boxes, pillow, and the light stuff while my dad and his friend moved in all of the furniture.
It all got to be too much for my mother, with five kids and one on the way. So while my parents setup the apartment, she sent me and my brother across the street to the Jerome Theater, where we saw The Great Locomotive Chase with Fess Parker for the whopping price of fifteen cents each. It was the very first time I went to the movies by myself. Man, this is great. You turn nine and you get to go to the movie without an adult.
While at the movies, I made my first friends, a teenage redheaded girl that looked to be about thirteen and her six-year-old younger sister. It turned out that they were my neighbors who lived in the same building, one floor above ours. How encouraging that was for a frightened nine-year-old who just moved to the “country”. The thirteen-year-old became one of my first real crushes as I got a little older. The six-year-old grew to be one of my sister’s best friends..
We moved from a three-room apartment into a six-room apartment on the corner of Tremont and Jerome Avenues. It was laid out in railroad style, with the roof from the corner bar and adjacent stores right outside some of the windows, and the IRT elevated subway outside of our front windows. The roof became our “back yard”. We even cooked out on Sundays, when the furniture store was closed. It was a child’s paradise. Back in 1956, you did not have bars on your windows or worry if someone was coming in from the roof. Everyone had neighbors, and neighbors had eyes. We all looked out for one another.
The neighborhood had some of the most wonderful art-deco buildings, with rounded corners and courtyards, especially on Walton Avenue. I marveled at the Grand Concourse; I had never seen a more beautiful street up to that time in my life. Its majestic buildings, islands of trees, and wide lanes rivaled anything in Europe. 121st Street in Manhattan never looked like this.
The innocent days of 1956 stand clear in my mind. No major U.S wars, Elvis hits number one for the first time, President Eisenhower would be re-elected in November, the Yankees ruled baseball and Mickey Mantle would win the Triple Crown that year. Don Larsen would pitch the only perfect game in World Series history as the Bronx Bombers took their revenge on the upstart, cross-town rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, who had so rudely beaten the Yanks the year before. New York Giant fans over at the Polo Grounds were marveling at their center field sensation, Willie Mays. How could anyone live in New York in 1956 and not be a baseball fan when they had Mickey, Willie and the Duke?
1956, the year I became a bronxite. We moved from the canyons of Manhattan to the borough of Jonas Bronck, Van Cortland Mansion, the New York City Reservoir, the New York Botanical Gardens, the Bronx Zoo, the Grand Concourse, the Concourse Plaza hotel, the Bronx Municipal building, City Island, Orchard Beach, the New York University Hall of Famous Americans, the Louis Morris apartments, the Loew’s Paradise, Alexander’s, Krum’s, Jahn’s, the brand new Major Deegan Expressway, the Bronx High School of Science, which had a decrepit building on 184rd Street and Creston Avenue (which later became Bronx Community College) DeWitt Clinton (my alma mater), whose famous alumni include Robert Klein, Ralph Lauren, Charles Rangel, James Baldwin, Garry Marshall, Bob Kane, Nate Archibald, too many more to mention, and of course, Yankee Stadium.
The Bronx, where most of the subway lines ran above ground. I can still hear the #4, Woodlawn-Jerome train rattle on the elevated tracks outside my bedroom window. The rumble of the train, playing the city lullaby as I would lie in bed, drifting off to sleep. Here I was, in a new place but strangely feeling at home. Many years later, on my first night in the Navy, trying to sleep in the eerie silence, I was wondering when the train would come by. It took a long time to get used to going to sleep without the noise of the #4.
I became a Bronxite that day in 1956 and I have never looked back. To this day, when someone asks where I am from, I look them straight in the eye, stick out my chest and proudly say the Bronx.