When I was about 10, I spent most of my
outdoor time on one square block of Newark. Bounded by Broadway
on the east, Second Ave. on the north, Summer Ave. on the west,
and Van Wagenen St. on the south, this block was unlike any other
I knew of in North Newark-óit had no houses, apartment buildings,
or corner stores. It was shared by just three institutions: Summer
Avenue School, Essex Catholic High School, and the Protestant Foster
I would only visit the grounds of the Protestant orphanage when
I had to, mostly to retrieve home runs blasted over the tall fence
of our official stickball court, a narrow alcove in the Summer Avenue
School playground. We kids knew that orphanage wasnít our place
and tried to avoid it.
But we claimed the grounds of Essex Catholic and the Summer Avenue
School playground as our own.
We knew every inch of these places, from the fire escape landing
that no child was meant to find, with its sheer 30-foot drop to
solid concrete below, to the copper drainpipes, hard-wire mesh window
screens, and toeholds in the brick we used to climb wherever we
wanted to like monkeys.
But, to me, the defining feature of the block was a solid brick
wall that ran straight from Broadway all the way to Summer Ave.,
dividing the block into two zones: Essex Catholic on one side, everything
else on the other.
Letís walk it.
It began (or ended, depending on your viewpoint) at Summer Ave.
The first stretch was particularly difficult to maneuver, because
the top of the wall was wedged-shaped, like a prism. You had walk
this section by angling your feet on its sloping sides, the sharp
concrete edge positioned directly below your groin. Step by careful
step, as if practicing some advanced yoga walking exercise, you
moved forward, ankles painfully stretched to the max, legs bowed,
totally mindful of the disaster that would strike should one foot
slip. This was my least favorite part of the walk.
Happily for us, after an initial 15 feet or so, that section ended;
after a short jump down, you'd land on a flat walking surface about
a foot wide. From this point on, as you moved away from Summer Ave.,
the wall grew taller with every step. A schoolyard fence hampered
free movement for awhile, but it broke to the right about a third
of the way out, at the dividing line between Summer Avenue School
and the orphanage. Then began the glory part of the walk, high above
the world, orphanage grounds to your right, and the long concrete
driveway of Essex Catholic to your left. Step by step, it required
total concentration. And nerve.
The final leg of the journey began with a jump down to a lower wall;
this part could be completed with an easy, relaxed, even careless
stroll*we were closer to the ground with nothing but soft grass
and dirt on either side, so the pressure was off. Ahead lay our
goal: a great climbing tree at the wall's termination point just
off Broadway. There, a limb conveniently extended outward, smooth
from the hands of so many kids grabbing it in a motion that became
second nature to me as well: crouch, jump, grab, swing. Executed
properly, you'd land firmly but softly in the safety of the tree's
Conveniently, the tree would also take our carvings (it must have
been a beech, although I didn't know it at the time). For that reason,
we called it the "initial" tree. The first thing I would
do upon arriving at the initial tree was to check--with great pride--my
name in raised, smooth wood.
The tree wasn't huge, but it was leafy enough to shield me, unseen,
from the rest of the world. It kept me shaded and cool in July;
in January, from my perch on a limb, I sometimes watched the snow
But just being in that tree was a joy in any season because it
grew tucked away in the corner of an unlikely inner-city oasis*a
large, enclosed, peaceful, lush green spread that looked like it
had been lifted whole from some exotic rural locale*say, Boonton,
or maybe Ireland--and dropped into Newark by mistake. We kids called