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
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
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!