I grew up on the Lower East Side.
Of the Coytesville section of Fort Lee. Coytesville was like the gum on the bottom of Englewood Cliff’s shoe; the Hooterville to their Petticoat Junction. In its heyday, Coytesville’s saloons were like Korean nail salons—one on almost every sidewalk-less street corner. In 1965, I was brought home from Holy Name Hospital to a small house on a street with no name, just a number--5th Street. To my right was Interstate Park; to my left was the road that led to Jim’s Candy Emporium where my life-long love affair with everything confectionary began.
My father was a union man, and in the ‘70’s union jobs were like Wonka’s golden ticket—the decade before Reagen sounded their death knell; the decade before debt was handed out like lollipops at the bank. Everyone’s dad was a union man—police, fire, postal, teacher, iron worker, teamster, laborer; and everyone seemed to make ends meet. Like most moms, my mom stayed at home; like most families, we had two used American cars parked in our tarred driveway (yes, tarred; pavers were men who paved streets and not decorative driveway bricks); a house with no mortgage; and a week down the Jersey Shore every summer. All accomplished on one paycheck.
The doorway to my world opened onto Sixth Street Park. If I close my eyes I can still see the sharp prism of sunlight reflecting off the jalousie glass windows of our aluminum porch door distorting the colors of the brightly painted merry-go-round into kaleidoscopic blobs of yellows, reds, blues and greens.
Within the perimeter of the playground sat the shallow hole of the blue-painted kiddie pool lifeguarded each summer of my childhood by Fritz, the ageless ancient German immigrant who lived next door to the playground. I’m not sure how to describe Fritz except to say that he always looked constipated. All summer long Fritz would bullet German-infused commands at us kids from the perch of his sagging nylon-woven lawn chair atop the small grassy knoll above the pool. When he ejected you from the pool, you asked no questions—you goose-stepped to the bench and served out your sentence in silence.
Sitting faithfully beside Fritz was his brown and black German Shepherd who made Cujo look like Morris the Cat. The same commands Fritz shouted at his dog, he shouted at us. When he yelled, I never knew whether to sit, growl, or attack one of the Carney boys. I swear he had to have been a former Scoutmaster in the Hitler Youth. Somewhere there’s a book in me screaming to get out, “Fritz’s Guide to Childcare—Sitz! Platz! Halt die Klappe!” (Sit, Stay, Shut Your Mouth!)
When I was around five, the Kempf’s rented the old Sweeny house across the street. The Kempf’s were the Walton’s without a conscience; at least the boys were. They shaved cats with straight edged razor blades; hoisted them up trees in rusting crab nets; fed spoonfuls of dirt to unsuspecting neighborhood kids; even pushed a Volkswagon Bug down a ditch. My old man swore the Kempf’s were moved in as a way to force us to sell, but eventually they were the ones who left. Oddly, with them went the neighborhood.
The wrecking ball knew no rest back then. Turn-of-the-century houses were replaced by quadrangular brick McMansions; familiar names moved out; new architecture and cultures moved in. By the end of the decade the old neighborhood was well on its way to becoming unrecognizable, and so was I.
Everything changed the summer I turned 15. I bore within me a restlessness that I never felt before, and would never feel again in quite the same urgent way. All that mattered were my friends; being confined at home for any significant amount of time gave me a mental rash. When I wasn’t working, I was sitting on the cliffs of the Palisades imagining the life I would someday live on the sky-lined side of the Hudson.
On August 18th, 1980, I wrote: “I can’t wait to be gone. Gone from this place; gone from this town where everyone knows everything about everyone. In this place nothing ever changes; people only die.”
To Be Continued…