The Newark House

by Ralph J. Chin


When my family moved into the house at 342 Clinton Place in the Weequahic section of Newark, New Jersey we were all excited to have our very own home in a good neighborhood. I was about six when we moved in and that made my sister, who is three years my senior, about 9. She would tell me how Mom and Dad struggle to save for the down payment on this house so that my sister and I could grow up in a better neighborhood with better schools. Despite the fact that it was a relatively old house at the time, it did have its own peculiar charm.

It was a gray, three story house with a basement but no attic. It was one of only two houses in the area like it. The rest of the residences were mostly single or two family houses. Even though Dad had it painted a nice light brown color, it still wasn’t a particularly good looking house but it was home for the next twenty five years.

The front hallway was rarely used because most of the traffic that came in and out of all three floors was through the back hallway. Dad had family on every floor. His sister’s family lived on the second floor and his brother’s family lived on the third floor. I would listen to my cousins going up and down the stairs as they pursued their lives while I was eating lunch or dinner in Mom’s kitchen. I could always tell when my oldest cousin Ronald was going up the stairs because he was the only one that managed to repeatedly trip on his way up the stairs!

On the first floor in front of the house there was just an open front porch with a little garden next to it. The porch then led to the outer entrance doors and when you opened them a small hallway greeted you. There were three brass metal mailboxes mounted on the wall directly in front of you and between the two inner doors. The right inner door opened into my family’s house and the left inner door led to the front hallway which went up to the front doors and porches of the second and third floor, it also led to rooftop door. The front porches each had an entrance door that isolated them from the hallway and big, swing open windows that surrounded you on three sides. These porches were used mostly as a storage place for holiday decorations and relics from the past. My family tried to make them a little cozier by putting in some old sofas but no one really used them except me. I would shut the door and savor the quiet peace that they offered at least until I opened the windows! Then the noise from the car traffic would make its way in but sometimes it wasn’t too bad. I would then open all windows to allow the cool springtime breeze to come in and float around me. This, in addition to the sun peeking through the leaves of the tree that was out in front of the house, would make for a relaxing afternoon. A good place to play a guitar or take a nap!

The floor plan of all three houses was the same except for one minor difference. In our house we had a foyer with a coat closet when you opened the front door but other than that, every house had a living room, dining room, three bedrooms, a kitchen with a closet and a bathroom.

The back hallway was accessed by walking down the driveway to the backyard and turning left to climb up the four steps of the back porch. At the top of the back porch landing, you would turn left and open the outer door into the back hallway. To your immediate left was the cellar door and two steps in front of you would be the back door to my family’s house. Turning left once again would put you onto the back stairs that would spiral up to the second floor landing where there was a window to your right and the back door to my Aunt’s house to your left. Continuing to your left the staircase would again spiral up to the third floor and the same arrangement would again appear but now you were at my uncle’s back door! The spiral stairs went two more steps up from there and stopped in a hallway cabinet.

When we first moved in the house it had a coal burning heat furnace in the basement that had to be fed with coal in the winter and had big, cast iron radiators in almost every room of the house. There were large wooden bins in the cellar that held the coal and a metal chute was mounted on one of the basement windows to direct the coals into the bins when a delivery was made. Dad later converted this to an oil burning unit and put in smaller, less intrusive radiators in the house. With the basement clear of the coal bins, Mom then put a washing machine down there and used to carry the wet clothes up to the back porch to hang the clothes up on an outdoor clothes line in the backyard. Later on she got an electric dryer that made her life a lot easier. So now the basement was completely empty and I used it for parties, band practice and my very own experimental lab where I built the things that came out of my imagination.

Since it was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, there were mezuzahs on every doorway except for the bathroom in the house. I didn’t know what a mezuzah was at the time and they puzzled me. As a result, I began noticing them in every home that I entered in the area but I said nothing to my Jewish acquaintances. My curiosity went so far as to remove one of them as my parents were redecorating the house and take it apart. The mezuzahs in my house were encased in a metal housing that bulge out along most of its length in a semicircle and had dog ears at each end of it with mounting holes in them. This semicircle held the Torah and when I uncoiled the small but densely pack piece of paper I was exposed to my first glimpse of Hebrew. Since I couldn’t read it, I stashed it away in my desk for later examination. I knew it was something special. Later on, my Jewish friends told me exactly what it was, the first five books of the bible written in Hebrew. I was amazed that they could fit all of it in such a small space!

Then my adventurous soul made me push the boundaries and explore the rooftop. It was extremely dangerous but being so young, I was without fear. A spectacular view of Beth Israel Hospital was to be had from this rooftop vantage point! I took numerous pictures of it and even entered one of them in a school photo contest. I didn’t win but the creativeness that it sparked has stayed with me throughout my life. I still enjoy photography to this day.

The backyard and the driveway of our house were all concrete with a small patch of dirt along the apartment house wall that bordered our property. There were three small garages in the backyard that were most likely built when cars were relatively small compared to the cars of the 1960’s. I had a small Rambler American and there was no way I could ever get that car in any of those garages. As a result, they became another storage space for the family but Dad was the only one that really used this garage space. I remember he built a bench with shelves in the middle garage and used it when he would work on his car. He kept all his tools and supplies in there which I thought was great because I found the garage useful for working on my bicycle especially when it was rainy or windy out. All the tools I ever needed were in Dad’s garage. I remember being scolded when I left his tools full of dirty grease and I was told that if I didn’t clean them, then I couldn’t use them!

The only bicycle that my Dad ever bought me was a used one from a police auction somewhere in downtown Newark. It was my first introduction to the term “elbow grease” and it was such a prize possession at the time that I would work on it for hours in the garage. I completely disassembled the entire bike to clean, grease and polish every single part of it. The results were chrome fenders (Yes, bikes had fenders back then with wide tires!) and wheel rims that looked like mirrors. The drive train, pedals and front handlebar axle were also cleaned and lubricated so that they worked smoothly when they were put back together again. I would then turn it upside down so that it was supported by the handle bars and seat. I would then turn the pedals very fast so that the rear wheel would spin and the sound that the chain made when I did this was a silky smooth mechanical whirr!! Then I saved for new tires, a seat and then added the bells and whistles that included a light, a bell and tassels to the handlebar grips! A really sweet deal! I was very proud of it and then one night after riding it through the neighborhood I came home to get a drink. I parked it in the backyard and went in the house for a few minutes. When I came out to ride it again it was gone………stolen…….I couldn’t believe it, not in this neighborhood! But so it was…all that work, never to be seen again!


Email this memory to a friend.
Enter recipient's e-mail: