Every night on the way home from work in
downtown Newark, I drive though Branch Brook Park. Sure, it's out
of the way, but it's my private way of relieving the day's tension
and remembering where I came from. I pass St. Lucy's and enter this
green oasis I still call home by Sacred Heart Basilica, not far
from where my grandfather settled in 1906 when he arrived penniless
in this industrial boomtown, from Manocalzati (Avellino), Italy.
Driving past Barringer High I recount my "Big Blue"
glory days, while mentally envisioning a montage of youthful faces
of friends, now probably scattered across the United States, and
most likely feeling the same aches and pains of middle age that
I do. I think fondly of those teachers who influenced my life and
to this day have my respect and gratitude. There are several still
alive I communicate with. I think also of gentle and caring Uncle
Tony, a janitor at Barringer and my own personal guardian angel,
making sure I steered clear of lurking dangers. Graduation night
is yet aromatic in my memory..... the humidity, the perfume, and
mother's tears mixing with youthful anticipation and false bravado-insulating
the scared, uncertain young man beneath.
Past the ice skating rink and over the lake bridge, my evening
odyssey continues. Memories of pink cherry blossom springs and boat
rides across the lake are brought rushing into the present as the
clattering City Subway makes it way along the edge of the park,
carrying its cargo to Park Avenue, Bloomfield Avenue and Silver
Lake-all station stops for my many aunts, and uncles, and cousins
who lived along this immigrant migration path out of the old first
ward. How I loved to drive my '57 Chevy along this route, windows
open, fragrant air swirling in my face, oldies on the radio, and
my girlfriend sitting close and warm. A boy and his car-American
steel-rusty now...... both of us.
On to the bandstand and memories of mom telling me of the fun
she had here. A little before my time, but probably pre-war swing
and big band-the real McCoy, with a younger lake imagined to be
shimmering in the setting sun. Perhaps a piece of small town America
captured in a town bent on stretching its girth.
The road loops now under the Park Avenue bridge and the remembered
smell of the Hooten's Chocolate factory greets me as I emerge, complete
with the happy laughter of small talk and friends who accompanied
me on so many walks home after school. Uncle Sal worked at Hootens,
always bringing mom big slabs of chocolate for the holidays-chocolate
that made its ways into cakes, desserts, and into our mouths when
no one was looking.
Along the ride to Bloomfield Avenue, I gaze at the ball fields,
reliving carefree summer vacations. Leaving the house at 8:00 with
a packed lunch, baseball, bat, and glove and a 4:30 date with supper
the only constraint on my life. Several times I was sure I saw the
mystical white lady of the park and her three old dogs walking by
the lake. Others were eager to corroborate the sighting. After dinner,
back to the ball fields, and later watching the bocce games by the
clubhouse, learning how to say a few choice words in the old tongue.
Next stop along memory lane, Bloomfield Avenue……my
original home for 30 years. Ting-a-Ling's, lemon ice, hot dogs,
pizza, sub sandwiches....the staples of life. This is where our
high school group rendezvoused in the morning for the long walk
across the ball fields to school; talking about girls, talking about
homework...mostly just talking….. sometimes singing a little
four part harmony-at least we certainly thought we were singing.
Waking sleepy pigeons to a morning's first flight, we would dodge
their floating feathers shaken loose, watching our shoes grow moist
in the early morning autumn dew. Retracing this route home from
early dismissal one late fall afternoon with tears in our eyes,
we were numb from learning about the President's assassination.
The park seems different after you pass through the echoes under
the Bloomfield Avenue bridge. It narrows down and becomes thinner.
Old circular Clark Pond is gone now, filled in years ago, but the
other big lake evokes many more memories.... this time of a youthful
father. Playing in the many small sections of open grass, chasing
flying toys he would launch for me to enjoy, and then just walking
along the edge of the lake, he and I would laugh and throw stones
into the water. I still find this stone throwing ritual irresistible
when I am near a body of water. Here in this part of the park, sometimes
amidst the memory of freshly cut grass, I can almost see Dad waving
as I pass, asking me if I want to stop for a lemon ice. I'd give
everything I own to be able to do that again.
Along the winding path to Heller Parkway, the memories grow a
bit hazy….. my old bachelor apartment on Elwood Avenue, some
scattered remembrances of ball games and quiet autumn walks. As
I emerge from the park and head up to Silver Lake, I feel the day
ebb, the evening call, and my memories are carefully re-wrapped
for another day.