Hunterdon Street, 1939

by Martin Bucco



A Newark Memoir


Martin Bucco

About the Author

Martin Bucco is Professor Emeritus of English at Colorado State University, where he taught American literature from 1963 to 2005. He was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1929 and attended public schools in Essex County. In 1948, he was graduated from Belleville High School, where he was senior class president and played varsity football. He attended Newark Rutgers for a year, but ventured to New Mexico, where he earned his B. A. from Highlands University in 1952. He returned East and received his M. A. from Columbia University in 1957, and he worked as an English instructor at the University of Missouri, where he received his Ph. D. in 1963. The author of many scholarly books, journal articles, and literary reviews, Martin Bucco has received numerous honors and awards for his teaching and scholarship. He lives with his wife in Colorado, where they spend much of their time conversing, reading, and commenting on the birds in their backyard:

About the Memoir

This memoir of Martin Bucco’s life as an imaginative nine-year-old boy living temporarily next door to his grandparents’ Italian-American grocery store on Hunterdon Street in the Clinton Hill Section of Newark in 1939 not only captures scenes from a vanished but vividly remembered past, but is an implied but durable bridge between the author’s childhood and adolescence, between nearly a decade of his earlier Sunday visits to Hunterdon Street from north Newark and nearly a decade of his later Sunday visits to Hunterdon Street from suburban Belleville. If the memoirist’s mature perspective plainly refrains from making sophisticated commentary on his 1939 Self, he makes his boyhood’s limited language and angle of vision in Newark as unequivocal as possible. “This neighborly small fry,” says the seventy-eight-year-old author, “has been popping in and out of my life for longer than I can forget.”

Copyright © 2007.
All rights reserved.

Hunterdon Street, 1939 For ten months we lived in Newark, New Jersey, next door to Grandma and Grandpa. We lived on the first floor of a two-family house on Hunterdon Street. Mr. And Mrs. Glick were the landlords, and they lived upstairs with their son, who played the trombone for a living. Avon Avenue was a half block in one direction and Clinton Avenue was a block and a half in the other. Bergen Street was one block up and Peshine Avenue one block down. Behind us on Peshine Avenue, you could hear the jingle of glass and metal in the bottling plant. The flat we rented was next door to 574 Hunterdon Street, Grandpa’s Italian-American Grocery in the center of the block. I was nine years old, and I lived with my father, my mother, and my two younger sisters, but I think I spent as much time next door with my grandmother and grandfather, who lived behind the store, and with my aunt and two uncles, who lived above the store. My grandfather, Peter DiSalvo, had a backyard with a big grape arbor, fig trees, roses, a bocce court, and a shanty I liked to play on. When you looked across Grandpa’s high fence, you could see the back porches of colored people who lived in flats on Peshine Ave.

North Newark My father was a barber, my mother a housewife, and my sisters were five years old and one year old. Before this, we lived on Grafton Avenue in a brick apartment house around the corner from my father’s Star Barber Shop on Broadway in north Newark, but we moved further into the city so that we could save enough money to buy a house in Belleville, a town next to north Newark. When we lived in north Newark on Grafton Avenue, and before that on Carteret Street, and before that on Summer Avenue, we’d drive to Grandma’s every Sunday for dinner at two o’clock. You could get there different ways. You could go across Branch Brook Park, past the Sacred Heart Cathedral that they were always building, and then over to Bergen Street, which was pretty dumpy in parts. Or you could go on this side of the park on Lake Street over to High Street, which also got dumpier as you went. Or you could just go down to Broadway and drive up past the Big Bear food store, the Elwood Theatre, and Mount Pleasant Cemetery over to Broad Street, where you’d see the Erie & Lackawanna Station, Washington Park, the library, the museum, the old churches, Military Park, Public Service, the big department stores, Loew’s and the Little Theatre and the Mosque, City Hall, Lincoln Park, and the Statue of Colleoni in Clinton Park. From Elizabeth Avenue, you could go up Clinton to Hunterdon or you could go up Avon. Anyway, the drive to Grandma’s was always full of things to see, but Mama always sat me in front so that I couldn’t tease my sister Dolores.

The whole family would be at Grandma’s, and sometimes other relatives or friends would be there or come later. We’d stay the whole afternoon and eat supper there, and then Grandpa would go downstairs and put the store lights on so that my mother could buy all her food for the week “at cost,” which would help us buy a house in Belleville. Since I was at Grandma’s every Sunday for years, I got to know most of the kids on the block long before we moved there. The problem with Sunday was that some kids could not play, and if you could play you couldn’t make much noise. I was baptized Catholic like my father, but he never went to church, and I don’t remember going to church very much with my grandmother and my aunt. When we lived in north Newark, my mother would take me once in a while to the Sunday School of some Protestant Church. The school was downstairs and the church was upstairs. Most of the time on Sunday afternoons I would go to the Avon Theatre on Clinton Avenue with Billy Clark and his year-older sister Margie or with Wilma Nemeraski or with Jimmy Higgins and his brother Beebee. That way I got to see movies twice a week, because on Saturday afternoons I’d go to the Elwood Theatre on Broadway with Johnny Milano and his sister. After supper at Grandma’s I would listen to the radio with Uncle Frankie. The only new thing for me in Newark was school. Instead of walking half a block up to Elliot Street School, I had to walk three and a half blocks up to Avon Avenue School.

Sundays Going to Grandma’s for Sunday dinner was simple as pie now, but I still had to look “spiffy”—a jacket-and-knickers suit and a white shirt and tie. If my hair stuck up, my mother would still brush it down with a dab of Lifebuoy soap. Instead of driving to Grandma’s in the tick-tickity-tick Model A Ford and waving hello to the kids on the stoops, the car stayed parked in front of our flat on Sunday afternoons, and we’d just walk next door. But we still had to kiss Grandma, Grandpa, and Zizi on Sundays. I liked kissing Grandma and Zizi because they had smooth faces and they smelled like roses. But I didn’t like kissing Grandpa because he didn’t shave on Sundays and he smelled like cigars. When I kissed his cheek my mouth hurt, and when he kissed my cheek my cheek hurt. If the smell of cooking made me hungry before two o’clock, Grandma would give me a little piece of Italian bread and a fried meatball on a saucer. After Aunt Sadie got married in 1938, she left Hunterdon Street and lived in a flat with her husband, my Uncle Anthony Nicolaro, who worked at Westinghouse. He bought her a Chevy, so one Sunday she’d drive to the DiSalvos and the next Sunday she’d drive to the Nicolaros. Every time they came to Hunterdon Street, Aunt Sadie would come into the kitchen first and say, “Happy New Year’s Day, Everybody!” or “Happy Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday Day, Everybody!” or “Happy Palm Sunday, Everybody!” Whatever holiday it was, she’d be ready for it.

Every Sunday we had insalata made with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, olives, oil, vinegar, and oregano, and every Sunday I would take out my pieces of onion and ask, “Who wants onion?” Somebody would always take it. Then we always had pasta and tomato “gravy.” My sister and I liked fat macaroni, but my father and Uncle Tony liked thin spaghetti, so Grandma and my aunt always boiled both kinds. You could drink beer, wine, birch beer, or cream soda. Usually I drank birch beer or cream soda, but sometimes I had a little beer or wine. Then we would have meatballs and sausages and chicken and cutlets with peas and Italian bread. Corn on the cob or stuffed artichokes came next. After this came a big bowl of pears, apples, oranges, bananas, peaches, and plums. Coffee and pastry came next. The last thing was pecans and walnuts and almonds and demitasse and anisette. I didn’t like demitasse, but I liked the taste of anisette. My aunt would sit at the table with everybody and get up now and then to serve, but Grandma would sit away from the table and munch on a piece of Italian bread. Every Sunday we’d tell her to sit down and eat with us, but every Sunday she’d’ say, “Stai moren”—Sicilian for “Sto morendo”--“I’m dying.” This was Grandma’s way of telling us that she ate too much while she was cooking.

Daddy When my father imitated Grandma saying “Stai moren,” everybody’d laugh, especially Grandma. My father was a good imitator, and I liked to see him “do” Charlie Chaplin. He acted out really funny stories about old silent films. My mother always had dinner ready by the time Daddy got home from the barber shop at seven o’clock six days a week, but a lot of times I ate earlier at Grandma’s. Anita was usually asleep when my father got home, but when the rest of us heard the tick-tickity-tick of his car coming down Hunterdon Street, we’d all shout “Daddy’s coming!” After we kissed him at the front door, I’d grab for the funnies in the Newark Star-Ledger and the New York Daily News, newspapers he brought home from the customers’ reading table at the barber shop six nights a week. My father also raised canaries as a hobby in the back room of the shop, and we always had his best singer in the house. He always went to work in a suit and shirt and tie, and he always wore a fedora because he was bald. On Sunday mornings, he’d shave, put on his pants, shirt, tie, jacket, and hat, and go to the shop to feed his birds. He’d always buy and bring back the same two Sunday newspapers. Sometimes I’d go with him, and on the way back to Hunterdon Street we’d stop at Branch Brook Park where I’d run as fast as I could across the grass to the refreshment stand and wait for him to walk up and buy me a box of Cracker Jack.

Every few days he’d bring home crusty Italian bread from a bakery in north Newark. Sometimes he’d bring home something you couldn’t get in Grandpa’s store, like a Chinese apple. He always took a chance on the Irish Sweepstakes, but he never won anything. Most of the time my father ate alone. Sometimes he cooked his own breakfast and left the flat before the rest of us got up. At the barber shop he’d heat leftovers from the night before in a little white pot, and then he’d eat alone in the back room with his canaries. Even when I ate dinner next door, I liked to smell my mother’s veal cutlets and potato pancakes, and I liked to watch my father eating. He’d cut his meat with a sharp little knife that he kept in his back pocket.

He’d ask me about school or he’d tell me what some customer told him or he’d tell me about something he read in the newspaper. Best of all, I liked to listen to his stories about his life in Sicily when he was a boy. The way he imitated people in the story made me laugh. My father had an Italian accent, but he always spoke in a soft voice. He called any loud, rough person a cafone. He liked to tell me about how he came to Ellis Island on the Rex when he was sixteen years old and about jobs he had in Jacksonville, Washington, D.C., Buffalo, and Providence before he settled down in Newark and married my mother. He had one brother in America, my Uncle Anthony, who lived in north Newark and had a barber shop in Belleville. My father wanted to live in Belleville but keep his barber shop in north Newark. He had two more brothers and six sisters and many nieces and nephews in Sicily. A few times a year he would send them clothes, things that our family and his customers didn’t need or want anymore. Daddy’s father died before I was born and his mother died when I was little, but I liked to look at pictures in our family album of our relatives across the ocean.

I once asked my father, “When you were a boy in Sicily, what did you get for Christmas?” When he said he got a few chestnuts and oranges, I told him I was glad I lived in Newark. Another time he told me why he went to Rome. My grandfather in Sicily raised wine grapes for an old retired general who lived in Rome but owned vineyards in Belvedere. His wife was dead but he sometimes visited Sicily with his daughter. When my father was eight years old, Mount Etna erupted and there were explosions and earthquakes all over the place. Everybody was afraid. The general told my grandfather that he and his daughter were going back to Rome and that he could take little Mario with them to their house in Piazza Navona. The general needed a new orderly and his daughter needed a helper. As a boy in Rome my father liked to sit by one of the fountains and watch the people walking by. In Rome, my father learned to speak Italian instead of just Sicilian, and the general’s daughter was his teacher. Sometimes he would tell me the name of a thing in Italian and Sicilian, and I could hear the difference. He spoke to Grandpa and Grandma DiSalvo and their relatives in Sicilian, so I came to understand that, but I couldn’t understand what Italian radio announcers were saying. My five-year-old sister sometimes made fun of Daddy’s accent. “Daddy, you should say, ‘Brush your teeth’--not ‘Brusha you teet.’” My father would shake his head a little and say, “Well, I try.”

When my father was through eating dinner, I liked to watch him clean the blade of his pocketknife with a little doughy part of the Italian bread he never ate, fold the knife, and put it back in his pocket. Before Daddy left the table, he’d always ask, “You sure you want nothing to eat?” As my mother started washing the dishes, my father would put a toothpick in his mouth, go into the living room, and sit down with one of the newspapers, the one he hadn’t read at the barber shop. If I said, “Daddy--” while he was reading, he would raise his head immediately, and softly ask, “What?” This always amazed me, because whenever I was reading and someone interrupted me, I’d say, “Just a sec…” and finish the sentence, the paragraph, or even the entire page. And when I’d say, “Goodnight, Daddy,” he’d raise his head immediately and ask, “You go to bed now?” I’d nod, and I knew what he was going to say next. “Okay, goodnight. Brusha you teet.”

Mama In 1939, my father was 43 years old and my mother 29. Mama was born in Harrison, New Jersey. Her real name was Nina, but everybody called her Anna, the same name as my grandmother’s. Mama told me that she was a devilish child and that Grandpa once put coal in her Christmas stocking. When she finished grammar school, she got a job in a factory. There was a nice picture of Mama in the family album with the name “Babe Smiles” on her bathing suit. She liked to enter beauty contests and dance the Charleston. She also liked to tell people that she once danced with Guy Lombardo when he was playing at a wedding in Newark. After she married my father and I was born, she went back to school and got a diploma from the Parisian Academy of Beauty Culture on Broad Street. When Mama was in school or working, Grandma and Zizi took care of me, because my mother always said, “Italians don’t believe in baby-sitters outside the family.” I called my Aunt Millie “Zizi” because when I was a baby I couldn’t say “Zia,” the Italian word for “Aunt.” When Mama didn’t want me to understand what she was telling Daddy, she’d speak Sicilian, but by 1939 it didn’t work with me, only with Dolores sometimes. Mama had only one book in the flat—Etiquette by Emily Post. She was always talking to me about manners.

She used to read stories to me sometimes on Grafton Avenue, but on Hunterdon Street she was always too busy with my sisters and with cooking and cleaning and washing. When she dusted the furniture she liked to sing “Hands Across the Table,” but her voice was not great. Her favorite singer was Rudy Vallee. When she wasn’t busy, she liked to have her lady friends from Grafton Avenue over for coffee and cake and fruit cocktail and chocolates. Mama liked candy so much that by 1939 she had several gold teeth. I liked it when my sisters were asleep and nobody came over, and she said, “I’ve got no more ambition than The-Man-in-the-Moon.” She didn’t read to me, but she listened to me. When she was cutting out a dress pattern on the kitchen table, I had to leave her alone, but when Mama sat down to sew we’d talk, and she’d tell me some interesting things. Brick City was another name for Newark….Another name for Broad and Market Streets was Four Corners.…Columbus’s three ships were the Santa Maria, the Pinta and the Nina….A lot of her school friends died of influenza….You should tilt your bowl away from you when you were finishing your soup….Things like that….

Sometimes I’d go downtown with Mama. Instead of yellow and orange trolley cars, you’d see jitneys and trolley buses there now. I liked the trees in Military Park and I liked to look at Old Trinity Church, but the tall buildings and the stores and the traffic and the people rushing around Broad and Market made me dizzy. I’d always need to take a drink of water at the fancy old fountain there, and Mama would say, “Don’t let your lips touch the metal part.” Mama loved the movies, especially if they had actresses in them like Bette Davis, Irene Dunne, Barbara Stanwyck, or Joan Crawford, or if they had actors in them like Ronald Colman, George Brent, George Raft, or Spencer Tracy. She named my sister Dolores after Dolores del Rio and my sister Anita after Anita Louise. I didn’t mind going downtown with her to McCrory’s for something we needed or to Schrafft’s for a ham sandwich and then over to the Loew’s, the Paramount, or Proctor’s to see a movie and a show, but what I hated was to “drop in for a minute” at Bamberger’s and Kresge’s and Hahne’s and wait around while she tried on about a hundred dresses.

Mama didn’t have an Italian accent, but she had some funny ways of saying things. She’d say, “Eat some grape,” or “The corns are ready.” Quite a few times a day, she’d say “I’m suffering” or “Don’t make me suffer now.” If you told her something she didn’t want to hear, she’d say, “You mean…” and then repeat what you said. If it was cold outside, and you said, “I’m going outside now,” she’d say, “You mean…you’re going outside now?” Once somebody asked her about something that happened in 1934, and she said “I don’t know, I was busy that year.” Mama used the word “disgusting” a lot—the car accidents on Hunterdon Street and Madison Avenue were “disgusting,” little kids who cried in department stores were “disgusting,” horses that did their duty on Hunterdon Street were “disgusting.” And whenever I was “making her suffer” or giving her a headache, I was “disgusting” too. But when I got Mama really mad, she’d bite her finger like some old Italian lady and hit me hard with her other hand--and then complain that she hurt her hand hitting me. Sometimes she’d tell Daddy when he got home, and after dinner he’d quietly give me a whack or two with the barber strop he kept behind the pantry door. But Mama always just hit me with her hand. I thought that Grandpa must have hit her that way when she was devilish, but I’m sure he never hurt his hand.

Grandpa My grandfather and grandmother came to America from Sicily before my father came over, but they didn’t know him there. They brought their baby Carmella with them, and she became my Aunt Zizi. Then they had my mother in 1910, and after that they had Frankie, who became my uncle. Grandpa's mother and sister lived Down Neck, but when Grandpa's brother died, his wife went crazy, and she was sent to Overbrook. So Grandpa and Grandma’s little niece became their daughter. Her name was Santa, but everybody called her Sadie, and so she became my Aunt Sadie. Grandpa was short and stocky, and his English was more broken than my father’s. He had straight grey hair, very blue eyes, and very strong hands. He wore a white apron in the store, and he could count in Greek. When I asked him once how he learned to do that, he said, “I always know.” Before he became a grocer, he was a plumber, and before that he was a mason. In Sicily, he was Catholic, but he didn’t like the nuns and priests, so when he came to America he became a deacon in the First Italian Presbyterian Church, but he didn’t go to any church now. Grandpa had a short temper, and when he got mad his face would turn real red and he’d swear a lot. That’s how I learned so many swear words in Sicilian.

You could smell Grandpa’s store before you got inside. It smelled like cheese and salami and onions and garlic. And it had a kerosene smell, too, because there was a big red tank in the back, and if you brought in an empty gallon he would fill it up for a ten cents or half-way up for five. He sold beets and potatoes from bins and he sold sugar and coffee beans from barrels. He had all kinds of pasta in big drawers with windows, and he had rows of olive oil and canned goods like tomatoes, tomato paste, corn, beans…things like that. He had loaves of American bread and little packages of cakes and pies, and he had cookies in metal boxes with windows. You could buy a pack of Camel, Philip Morris, Chesterfield, Lucky Strike, Kool, or Old Gold for a dime or you could buy one cigarette for a penny. If you wanted to make a phone call, there was a Bell Telephone booth in the back, and you could call anywhere in Newark for a nickel. When we lived on Grafton Avenue , Mama used to phone Grandpa’s number, BIgelow 2-9170, from a candy store on Broadway. Sometimes she’d put Dolores and me on a trolley car, and Grandma and Zizi would meet us at the stop on Clinton and Hunterdon.
Grandpa kept milk and soda in a big blue wooden icebox outside the store. We kids liked to hang around this “milk box,” but when Peter DiSalvo came out to unlock the box and get something for a customer, we’d all jump out of his way fast. When you bought things, Grandpa would take the pencil off his ear and write the prices on a brown bag. Then he’d mumble numbers in Italian, write down the total, and put the stuff you bought in the bag. The other thing in back of the store was Grandpa’s big roll-top desk, where he kept his bills and papers. When he was sitting there he wore his Nickel-&-Dime eyeglasses. Sometimes, when no customers came in, I’d see him reading the book he kept on his desk, the C-D volume of some old encyclopedia. He wondered a lot about stars and the moon and the ocean. He liked to asked people, “Th’ ocean, is it get lessa deep or more deep?”

The kids on Hunterdon Street said I was lucky to get free stuff from my grandfather’s store. But if I wanted a package of Tastee Cakes, say, I’d never ask Grandpa. I’d ask Grandma or Zizi. Sometimes a kid would ask me to hook him a cookie or a cigarette or something, and I’d say, “Nix.” If he said, “Ah, come on,” I’d say “Double Nix.” And if he said “Ah, come on,” again, I’d shout at the top of my lungs, “TRIPLE NIX!” and then he’d shut up. On hot summer nights Grandpa would sit outside on a chair by the milk box and smoke a cigar. I liked to sit on the milk box with the White Owl ring on my finger and watch the smoke rise up and slowly disappear in the light from the store.

Grandma When Grandma needed some money, she’d hit NO SALE on the big cash register and take what she needed. She laughed and cried a lot, but when she cried it was a happy cry. Once when I was sitting on the little back porch with her, she pointed to the red roses and cried, “Guarda questi belli fiori”—“Look at the beautiful flowers.” Whenever Grandma heard Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” on the radio, she would cry and say, “God Blesh Amer-riga.” The funny thing is, she never cried when she took me to the chicken market on Avon Avenue. When we got there, she’d point to the chicken she wanted, and the big colored man there would grab it from the cage, twist its neck, hold it in a tank of boiling water, hang it on a hook, pull out all the feathers, cut off the head and feet, clean it out, wrap it in newspaper, and hand it to me to carry home. Grandma would pay the man in front, and we’d walk back to the store, but I never ever saw her cry for the chicken.

Grandma was always very good to me, but one time she really scared me. I was standing on the back of my silver trike speeding down our concrete alleyway. At the end of the alleyway, I turned the wheel so I wouldn’t hit the fence in front of the weeds and sunflowers, but I turned too hard and went flying over the handlebars. I hit my forehead on the concrete and started to bawl. Grandma heard me. “What hap’a?” she asked from her back porch. “I fell off my trike and I’m getting a big bump on my head,” I cried. “Com’a here,” she said “I fix.” I went back up the alley and around to the front door. As I was going in, she was coming out with a big knife in her hand. I turned around and ran as fast as I could toward Avon Avenue. About half way there, I turned around and looked back. Grandma was standing on the sidewalk waving the knife in her hand and calling to me. When I got to the corner, I turned around again and looked back. Grandma was talking to my pal Billy. Billy came running up the block toward me and said, “Your grandmother wasn’t going to cut your bump open. She was just going to press the knife against your bump to help make it go down.” I went back with Billy and, sure enough, Grandma pressed the knife against my bump and helped make it go down.

Zizi Zizi had no children, which was too bad. In some ways she was like my mother, but in other ways she wasn’t. Mama liked to cook and sew and have company, and so did Ziz. But my mother liked to do her hair, put on lipstick, paint her long nails red, wear short dresses, and get nervous and excited about everything. My aunt was plain, didn’t doll up, wore regular dresses, and was calm about things. Mama liked strong black coffee with a drop of regular milk in it, but Zizi liked White Rose Tea with about a gallon of evaporated milk in it. Ziz liked Alice Faye and Pat O’Brien, but she didn’t go to the movies much, usually only when my mother missed picking up a plate or a cup at the Avon on “Dish Night.” My mother was more modern than my aunt, but Zizi could tell good jokes, especially the “Knock-Knock” kind. “Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “Orange.” “Orange who?” “Orange you coming out tonight?” Mama could never “get” jokes, and if she did she could never remember them. Ziz was a good Checkers player, and she taught me the card game “Ace Picks All,” which we played a lot. I taught Mama “Ace Picks All,” but when we played she was always getting up or talking about something else.

Zizi had a nice voice and liked to sing popular Italian songs. Her favorite singer was Carlo Butti, and her favorite cartoon characters were “Betty Boop” and “Nancy.” Zizi’s favorite Italian expression was “domattina”—“tomorrow morning.” If somebody was taking too long doing something, she’d say softly, “Domattina,” or if somebody was selling something Zizi didn’t want to buy, she’d say, “Domattina,” or if somebody was promising something she didn’t believe, she’d say under her breathe, “Domattina.”

I really liked to go to Clinton Avenue with her. She belonged to Christmas Club, so Ziz had moolah to spare. If we went to Terzis’ she’d order delicious chocolate sundaes. If we went to the Five & Ten, she’d buy me a a lead soldier. Sometimes she’d buy me a Blue Plate Special. The great thing was, she never tried on dresses. But I think the biggest difference between Mama and Zizi was the way they made chocolate pudding. Mama’s pudding was dark and hard and Zizi’s was light and soft. I ate a lot of both kinds of chocolate pudding, so I guess I loved them both.

Uncle Tony Once Uncle Tony took Zizi and me bowling with his friend Larry, who lived next door to us. We watched him and Larry bowl, and then they watched Zizi and me play Duck Pins. Like my father, Uncle Tony DeMauro came over from Italy, owned a barber shop in Newark near the Passaic River, was good-looking, soft-spoken, and well-groomed. Only he came from Naples, had a full head of dark hair, and was a sportsman. He liked to hunt deer and he liked to fish from a boat, but he did not drive a car. He smoked Philip Morris cigarettes and wore a Masonic ring. Some evenings he would walk to his club after dinner, where he played cards and drank rye. He once told me a good joke in Italian-American. Washington is crossing the Delaware. He comes ashore and he says, “Brrrr, è che cazzo de freddo”-- “I’m freezing my balls off!” An Indian comes out of the bushes and says, “Putre tu parli italiano!” “So you speak Italian, too!” It’s funny, but for some reason it sounds funnier in Italian than in English. In Zizi’s living room, Uncle Tony had a little bookcase with big leather volumes of Bernarr McFadden’s books. They were all about being healthy, strong, and beautiful. I liked the first volume with the cut-out man best. You could lift up his skin and see what was underneath. Then you could lift off what was underneath and see what was under that. I looked at that man’s insides at least once a week.

On Saturday nights I listened to the radio with Uncle Frankie and also counted Uncle Tony’s tips. After he ate his dinner alone on the kitchen table downstairs, Uncle Tony would smoke a cigarette and drink his demitasse. Zizi would clear one end of the table and Uncle Tony would say it was okay now for me to count the heavy bag of coins on the chair. My job was to divide all the money into dollar piles: two fifty cents…four quarters…ten dimes… twenty nickels…three two-bits, two dimes, one nickel…until there were no dollars left, only coins less than a dollar total. Then Uncle Tony would ask, “Okay, how much?” I’d count the dollar piles and say, “Eight” or “Eleven” or “Nine” or whatever it was. “Okay,” he’d say, “Put the dollar piles back in the bag, and you keep what’s left .” Sometimes the dollar piles came out even or nearly even and there was little or nothing left, but sometimes there was a lot left over, and, boy, I was really in the money then. One time I asked Uncle Tony how I could pay him back for giving me so much money so many times. He said, “You can buy me cigarettes when I’m an old man and I can’t cut hair any more.”

Frankie Uncle Frank was a lot younger than Uncle Tony, and my pal, so I never called him Uncle Frank, just Frankie. He was still a bachelor and he lived in the little front bedroom on the second floor. I liked to watch him wash up when he came home from his job at Lionel, where they made toy trains. Taking off his cap and shirt in the upstairs kitchen-laundry room, he would wash himself at the big sink. He would keep his undershirt on and take plenty of time as he scrubbed his hands and arms with lots of Lava soap. Then he would make loud sputtering noises as he washed his face and neck with Lifebuoy. When he finished, Grandma or Zizi would hand him a clean towel and he’d dry his head a long time and rub the back of his neck until it was red. Then he would work on his arms, wiping his elbows carefully. Last, he would dry each finger one at a time. When I washed up, it took me about thirty-five seconds.

Then Grandma would bring Frankie’s dinner to his room, where he ate at a little desk. He would always drink Pepsi-Cola with his meals. He would always start with a big bowl of lettuce, with a little oil and lots of vinegar in it. Then we would eat a big dish of peas and rice or beans and rice or potatoes and peas or potatoes and beans or pasta and peas or pasta and beans. He’d end his meal with a fifteen-cent pound cake. My father would always wince when I told him what Frankie ate.

I always listened with Frankie to his three favorite radio programs, Your Hit Parade on Saturdays and Jack Benny and Walter Winchell on Sundays. Lucky Strike cigarettes sponsored Your Hit Parade, but Frankie didn’t smoke. He knew all about Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and Benny Goodman, and we’d try to guess which song would be the Top Song of the Week. Frankie’s favorite song was “I’m in the Mood for Love” and his favorite singer was Bing Crosby. His favorite actor was Gene Raymond and his favorite actress was Ginger Rogers. On Sunday nights we liked to say before Winchell said it, “Good evening, Mr. And Mrs. America and all the ships at sea.” I once told Frankie that going from Jack Benny to Walter Winchell every Sunday must be making our brains bigger. He agreed.

We had some good times in Frankie’s room. Every holiday, he would get the big American flag out of the hallway closet and hang it outside his window. Some Sundays Frankie’s cousin Dominic from Down Neck would dress real sharp and come to Hunterdon Street to see Frankie. Sometimes they’d talk about going downtown to a movie, and other times they’d talk about calling up girls and taking them to a movie downtown. But most times they didn’t do anything, and Dominic would just go back Down Neck. One day Frankie decided to paint his room. When I saw his first “sky blue” brush stroke on the “eggshell” wall, I couldn’t help saying, “Oh…oh….” But what the hell, I thought, Frankie knows what he’s doing. When he was younger he joined the CCC, lived in a tent, and fought forest fires for FDR. Frankie brought some great things to his room. One time a little Lionel train and tracks, another time a little movie projector that showed the Three Stooges, and another time a microphone that you attached to one of your radio tubes and talked into. One time he attached the microphone to Zizi’s radio in the living room, and when the radio was playing music, I pretended to be the announcer and said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, you are about to hear a great new singing sensation. Take it away, Frank DiSalvo.” And Frankie sang “I’m in the Mood for Love.” While Frankie was singing I sneaked over to the living room to see what was happening. Zizi hummed along, my father was laughing, my mother said, “It’s disgusting,” and Grandma said, “Where’sa Frankie?”

Sometimes Frankie would take me places. Once we hiked across Clinton Avenue all the way to Weequahic Park, where we ate bologna sandwiches by the lake and looked at some of the rich people who lived in the tall apartment buildings around there. Sometimes Frankie would take me downtown to see a Laurel and Hardy or a Ritz Brothers comedy. On the way we’d stop at Nedick’s for a dime hot dog and nickel orange drink. Sometimes I’d wait for Frankie at the stop on the corner of Hunterdon and Clinton when he got off work, and he’d take me into the saloon there. We’d sit at the long bar, and he’d buy himself a mug of beer and he’d buy me a mug of birch. He was my pal.

Avon Avenue School, Winter On Hunterdon Street, Billy Clark next door liked having fun and finding adventures as much as I did. We also liked having fun and finding adventures at Avon Avenue School. Soon after I got into 4B at Avon, I decided that I wanted my girlfriend to be Ruth. Her blonde hair was really nice. One day I came out of the boys’ side door and saw her walking up Avon Avenue. Instead of walking down the hill with Billy and some of the Hunterdon Street kids, I asked her if I could walk her home, and she said okay. “Where do you live?” I asked. “Avon Avenue,” she answered. “How far?” I asked. “Not far,” she said. It was really cold out, but I began telling her some good “Knock-Knock” jokes and making her laugh: “Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “Philip.” “Philip who?” “Philip the gas tank, please.” We got up to Farley Avenue, and I started acting a little goofy and making her laugh some more. Then we got up to Baldwin Avenue and I asked her, “How far do you live, anyway?” “Not far,” she said, and we walked another block. It was really cold. Then when we crossed Shanley Avenue I grabbed my throat and pretended that I was dying of thirst in the Sahara. She was really laughing now. “How far?” I croaked, “How far?” But she just kept walking on up Avon Avenue and laughing. Now the streets all had numbers like South 10th Street, South 11th Street, South 12th Street. “Is there a South 1000th Street?” I asked her, and that got her laughing really hard. Before we crossed South 13th Street, I said, “I don’t want to die of thirst—I’m going home to get a drink.” Ruth laughed and said, “My mother will give you a drink.” “Yeah,” I said, “but I don’t want to die before I get there.” Ruth laughed some more, crossed South 13th by herself, and went on up the hill, but she kept looking back. “It’s not far now,” she called. I really liked her, and she really liked my jokes, but I figured that she lived too far to be my girlfriend, so I went back down Avon Avenue to Hunterdon Street by myself.

One time I was having some real fun in 4B, and the teacher said I should buy a little notebook at the Nickel & Dime and bring it to her the next day. We all knew that another kid liked to have fun in class. He had a little notebook, and every day after class the teacher would write a little report on him for his mother to read and sign. I figured that if I didn’t buy the notebook the teacher would forget all about it. But the next day after school, she told me to give her the notebook. When I told her I didn’t have it, she cut some paper into a little book, made an orange cover for it, and tied it together with a string. Then she dipped her pen into her little glass inkwell and printed CITIZENSHIP and my name on the cover. Then she wrote a report on the first page. “Have your mother read and sign it,” she said, “And don’t forget to bring it back tomorrow!” When I got outside I read, “Marty has been fair today.” When I got home, I told my mother that the teacher made little notebooks for everybody in the class and wrote reports on everybody and that everybody’s mother had to read the report and sign it, and that everybody had to bring the notebooks back the next day for another report. Mama thought that the work they gave teachers these days was “disgusting,” but she signed the report and said, “Fair is not good!” I got so many “Fairs” on my reports that she stopped saying, “Fair is not good,” and just signed them. One time I got a “Good,” and Mama said “Good is better than Fair.” So I felt kind of bad when I got a “Fair” after that. Then I got quite a few “Goods.” One time I got an “Excellent,” and my mother said, “Excellent is better than Good”—and she gave me a Hershey bar.

The next morning outside in line I asked the other kid who had a notebook if I could take a look at it. He had a brown spiral from the Five & Ten, and he had a lot of “Fairs” and “Poors.” I wondered if I could make an adventure out of getting the teacher to give me an “Excellent” every day. I bought a brown spiral for a nickel at the Five & Ten, but felt bad that I had wasted an “Excellent” in the teacher’s old notebook. Well, I got one “Excellent” after another, but no more Hershey bars. Then one day the teacher ripped all the reports out of my notebook, threw them in the wastebasket, and said that she wasn’t going to write reports on me any more, and that I could do something else with my notebook. When I got home, I told my mother that the teacher wasn’t going to write reports on everybody anymore. “You mean she’s not going to write reports on everybody anymore?” “That’s right,” I said. “I don’t blame her,” Mama said. “That was too much work.” Then I went in my bedroom to my desk. I scratched out CITIZENSHIP on my notebook cover and printed ADVENTURES.

One nice spring day after school I decided to go up behind the playground ramp and smoke the Camel cigarette that I hooked from Grandpa’s store. A man I didn’t know saw me smoking and said I should report to him on the top floor for detention after school the next day. This teacher wore thick glasses and was really scary. When I came in, he said, “Take a seat.” The eighth-grade desks were so big and the seats so high that my toes barely touched the floor. “Fold your hands on the desk, keep silent, and don’t move until I tell you to,” he said. He said the same thing to two big kids who came in. Then he sat at his desk and stared at us. Nobody moved or said anything. The big clock went tick-tock…tick-tock…tick-tock…and it took a long time for five minutes to go by. I kept thinking about the kids playing on Hunterdon Street. My fingers started to hurt, and I wanted to move them a little without the teacher seeing, but he kept staring at me. It took a really long time for the next five minutes to come. I tried to imagine myself having all sorts of adventures. I even imagined that I was walking Ruth up Avon Avenue again, but we got to Irvington in about two minutes. My nose started itching, and I wanted to scratch it, but the teacher always seemed to be staring at me. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any more. Like lightning I scratched my nose and folded by hands again. “Keep your hands folded,” the teacher said, looking straight at me. Tick-tock…tick-tock…tick-tock…. The teacher pointed to one of the big kids and said, “You leave now.” Tick-tock…tick-tock…tick-tock….Then he pointed to the other kid and said, “You leave now.” I was the only one left, and he kept staring at me. Tick-tock…tick-tock…ticktock…. Finally he pointed to me and said, “You leave now.” When I got to Hunterdon Street, I was really glad to see Billy, and I told him about eighth-grade detention. “Wow,” he said, “I’d like to try that sometime.”

Billy My best pal on Grafton Avenue was Johnny Milano, who was Catholic Italian, but my best pal on Hunterdon Street was Billy Clark, who was Presbyterian Scotch. Before I fell asleep at night I’d imagine the three of us having all sorts of adventures. On Grafton Avenue there was an old white wooden church between our apartment building and Johnny’s flat, but here Billy lived in the three-family house right next door, and Billy’s bedroom window and mine faced each other across the alleyway. When the weather was cold we held up signs and made sign language, but when the weather got warmer we would open the windows and talk to each other in low voices for a long time. Billy went to Sunday school and wanted to be a Presbyterian minister, and I didn’t go to Sunday school but wanted to be a Presbyterian aviator. Sometimes we ran little Buck Rogers rocket ships back and forth on a string. That gave us the idea of talking to each other through two tin cans on a long string, but it was easier just to open the windows and talk. One time late at night, I saw a light go on outside Billy’s bedroom. I saw Mr. Clark walking down the hallway in his underwear. After a while, I saw him walking back. Then the light outside Billy’s bedroom went out and we decided we were okay. I guessed Mr. Clark was just going to the bathroom. When the really warm weather came, Billy the Kid and Buck Jones would take shots at each other with our little black ten-cent water pistols. If our pajamas got too wet, we would call a truce until tomorrow after school and then have a wonderful water fight across the alleyway from our back porches.

On Hunterdon Street, there was always a lot of traffic. Peddlers with horse-carts and pushcarts sold fresh fruit and vegetables, but ice and coal trucks came through too. In summer the Merry-Go-Round truck and the photographer with his pony and cowboy hats came through. Cars came through all the time, so you were always jumping out of the way and playing around parked cars. When George, the colored rag-and-paper man, came down the street hollering “Rags!”…“Paper!”… he wasn’t selling but buying. Billy and I brought him a lot of stuff and he gave us each a penny. Then for the adventure of it, we asked George if we could help him push his cart. “Sure…sure,” he said. We got on each side of old George and helped him push his heavy cart down Hunterdon Street across Avon Avenue, and we all hollered “Rags!” “Paper!” When people called down from their windows, “Up here!” Billy and I would race up the back-porch stairs and get the stuff. We’d take half each and then run back down and throw it in the cart. Then George would give us a penny or two for the people. We took turns running back up with the money. Some people would say, “You keep it,” and some would say “Thank you.” We got pretty tired pushing George’s cart way down Hunterdon Street and running up and down stairs. Finally, we told him that we’d better go home now. “Sure…sure,” said old George, and he gave us each another penny. We only made about seven or eight cents each, but we said that the adventure of pushing George’s cart was worth about fifty dollars.

One day during the summer Billy said, “Hey, Marty, why don’t you come to Bible School with Margie and me?” “What do you do there?” I asked. “It’s fun,” he said. “You learn about Jesus and you learn about wood-shop.” “What do you do to join?” I asked. “Nothing,” Billy said. “We’ll take you tomorrow and get you in.” “Okay,” I said, “I’ll see if I can go.” “Fine,” my mother said, “you’re going to be a Protestant when we move to Belleville, anyway.” So the three of us walked a pretty long way down Clinton Avenue to Bible School. When we got there, Billy and Margie ran around talking to everybody. Then a tall man began talking about Jesus and everybody got quiet. Then we sang some pretty lousy songs. After that we all got in line in front of a nice-looking lady who sat at a table. Billy turned around and said, “We got her to put your name on the Gold Star Chart, so when you get to her she’ll ask you to say your verse, and you say, ‘Jesus wept.’ That’s all you have to say—and she’ll give you a gold star. Next time I’ll teach you another verse, but it won’t be as short as that.” “Okay,” I said, thinking “Jesus wept…Jesus wept…Jesus wept….” First Margie and then Billy said their new verse, and the nice-looking lady put more gold stars by their names. As soon as I got to her, I shouted “JESUS WEPT!” Everybody in line laughed and Billy and Margie clapped. The nice-looking lady smiled at me and put a gold star by my name.

Then Billy and I went down to wood-shop and Margie went somewhere else. In wood-shop you made jungle animals. If Zizi saw the man down there, she’d say he was a “skinny malink.” Anyway, he gave you a piece of wood and whatever animal cut-out you wanted to trace. Tigers were my favorite animals, except for pinto ponies. So I traced a tiger on the wood with a pencil. Then you clamped the wood to the big table and the skinny malink gave you a jigsaw. He showed you how to hold it and how to follow your pencil lines. It looked easy but it was really hard, much harder than saying “Jesus wept.” The next time we went to Bible School, I finished sawing out my tiger. I painted it orange and black and left it there to dry. The next time, I glued it to a little wooden stand and traced a giraffe and started to saw on it, but the neck came out funny and I didn’t finish it. Nobody wanted it, so I threw it away. But I kept the tiger. I liked Bible School, and the nice-looking lady gave me more gold stars, but what I liked most about Bible School was walking down there with Billy the Kid and freckled Margie and walking back home with them.

Sometimes Billy and I would go down Avon Avenue for adventures in the freight yard. The yard was swell because it always smelled like trains and coal. We liked to climb up a boxcar ladder and take a good look around, and then jump from one car to another like train robbers. One day we went down to the yard and after some good jumping around we climbed down and started looking inside boxcars with open doors. Inside one we found a box of old Victrola records. We looked inside the other open boxcars, but they were pretty empty. So we went back to the one with the Victrola records. We slid the heavy box out the door and carried it over to the ladder. We had a real hard time getting it up the ladder, but we finally made it. Then we got real excited. We each took a record out of the box, hauled back, counted “One…two…three…” and scaled them about a mile. It was beautiful to see those records flying high and fast over the freight yard and then zoom down and smash into about a million pieces against another box car. We scaled all the other records in the box, and it was really exciting and beautiful every time. On the way home we laughed a lot and talked about our great throws. One time Billy smiled at me and said, “I think that was the most fun in my whole life.” I smiled back at him and said, “I think the same for me.”

Wilma Besides Billy and Margie, four sisters lived in 578, the house next door to us. Mr. And Mrs. Nemeraski were the landlords and they lived on the third floor. Wilma and I were the same age, and played together a lot with Billy and Margie. Wilma’s little sister Shirley and my little sister Dolores were the same age and they played together all the time. Both Billy and Wilma had big sisters named Margaret, but everybody called them Margie. Wilma’s Margie was in high school, and her oldest sister, Sylvia, was in college. Zizi’s friend Julia and Uncle Tony’s friend Larry lived on the second floor. I spent quite a lot of time on the first floor, a little time on the second floor, and a whole lot of time on the third floor. Almost every day Wilma’s mother would stick her head out the window and holler, “Wilma…Shandalee…cum up and et.” Other times she’d stick her head out and holler “Shandalee…cum up and trink your cocoa.” Shandalee was Shirley’s Jewish name. She had dimples and curls like Shirley Temple and she giggled a lot. If Wilma and I were playing Go Fish or Checkers or something on our stoop, I’d go up with her and wait while she ate things like chicken soup, mazzo balls, gefiltefish, prunes, bagels, and rye bread. Everybody in Wilma’s family drank seltzer water, and their back porch always had stacks of filled and empty seltzer bottles with big nozzles. Wilma’s mother would always ask me, “You et somtink, yes-s-s, Marty?” Most of the time I’d say “No, thank you,” but sometimes I’d take a little seltzer, just so I could get the adventure of squeezing the nozzle.

Sometimes when I was in their flat, Wilma’s father would come home from his Esso station for lunch. He was bald like my father but he wore a cap and overalls. He would smile a lot while he ate. Margie was big and had a loud laugh. She was always singing crazy songs like “The Flat Foot Floogee” or “Bei Mir Bist Du Schöen,” and Wilma was always hollering, “Maaa, Margie’s picking on me!” or “Maaa, Margie’s hitting me!” Wilma told me one time that Margie was a “slob”--but not to tell her she told me that. When Sylvia was home, she usually wore furry slippers and a dark blue kimono. Wilma told me that Sylvia was “stuck-up,” but not to tell her she told me that. Sylvia was older than Margie but much smaller. I figured that Sylvia and Shirley looked like their mother, and that Margie and Wilma looked like their father, but I never told them that.

Sylvia had a typewriter and sometimes when nobody was around, Wilma would open Sylvia’s bedroom door and let me look at it. Wilma’s family even had a telephone, so when nobody else was in the flat Wilma and Billy and I would call up stores and ask: “Do you have Prince Albert in the can?” If somebody didn’t know the joke and said “Yes,” we’d all shout, “WELL, LET HIM OUT!” A lot of times the person on the other end would say “Yeah, Yeah, I know—let him out” or just get mad and hang up. Other times we’d like to play chopsticks on the player piano in the living room or put a roll of music in it and dance around.

Once Wilma told me that Sylvia was studying “psychology.” “What’s psychology?” I asked. “Learning how out to figure people out,” she said. That seemed like a good idea to me—figuring people out. Another time Sylvia and Margie were yaking, and I heard Sylvia say “reverse psychology.” When Sylvia went in her bedroom to type, I asked Margie, “What’s reverse psychology?” She laughed and said, “You get people to do what you want by telling them the opposite of what you want.” I thought about this for a while, and then decided to try it on my mother. “Mama,” I said, “I don’t really want to go to the World’s Fair.” “Well, don’t worry about that,” she said, “nobody’s taking you.”

Fisher Fisher lived across the street, and he was the first kid on Hunterdon to go to the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows. None of the other kids I talked to knew where Flushing Meadows was, except that it was in New York. Some of the little kids called him by his first name, but the rest of us just called him Fisher. He lived next door to Grandma’s friend, Concetta, who lived in the white house straight across the street. Her husband had an old white horse and he drove an old white milk-wagon. Fisher’s house had a glassed-in front porch and was the only one on the block that had a driveway and a garage in back. His father owned the empty lot next to their house, but there was a wooden fence around it and a lot of tall weeds inside, so nobody played there much. Sometimes when we were playing Stickball, the tennie would land in the lot, and nobody wanted to get it, but the rule was if you hit it there, you had to climb over the fence and find it and throw it back.

Fisher didn’t play much Stickball, but he liked to play Giant Steps and Simon Says and sissy games like that. He also played a lot of Jacks, Pick-Up-Sticks, Hopscotch, and Jump-Rope. The rule was that it was okay for two guys to play Pick-Up-Sticks, but it was not okay for two guys to play Jacks, Jump-Rope, or Hopscotch unless you were playing a girl. If you were playing Hopscotch with a girl, and you needed a puck, Vito the shoemaker on Bergen Street would give you a great old heel for nothing. Anyway, when Fisher came back from the World’s Fair, he said that it cost fifty cents to get in. He said that he saw the Parachute Jump and Television, but that his feet hurt. When he came back from the World’s Fair, he was wearing a button that said: “I have seen the future.” I figured that if somebody like Fisher could see the future, he could have it.

Street Games Sometimes Fisher played Kick-the-Can or Stoopball, but he never played First-Around-the-Block, or Elephant, or Freeze, or Knuckles. First-Around-the-Block was my favorite because my ankle Keds made me run fast. In this street game, two guys run in opposite directions around the block, and the first one back to the starting line wins. In Elephant, one guy stands against a house and holds up another kid facing him in a “horse.” Then another guy runs and jumps on the “horse” and tries to make him fall. If the “horse” doesn’t fall, you hang on for dear life where you landed, and the next guy jumps hard and tries to make them both fall. You keep doing that until everybody finally falls. In Freeze, everybody stands in a circle around the kid who’s “it.” Then you punch the kid in the circle as hard as you can when you think he can’t see you. Then you suddenly “freeze.” If he sees you punch him, you’re “it.” Knuckles is a great card game to play on stoops. You count the loser’s left-over cards, and then you get to whack him on the knuckles with the whole deck as hard as you can that number of times. Except for Marie Big Sneaks up the street, only guys played these games.

Jimmy Jimmy and his brother Beebee and their little sister Honey Girl lived next door to Fisher’s weedy lot. Except for Billy and Wilma, I played most with Jimmy and Beebee Higgins. Honey Girl was nice, but she always had a drippy nose. Mr. Higgins used to be a Scoutmaster, and one time he told Grandma that I was an All-American boy, which naturally made her cry a little. Another time Jimmy said, “Let’s cook potatoes!” We each got a potato and took it up to the old trolley barn on Bergen Street, where we built a little fire out of an old crate. We wore handkerchiefs around our necks and pretended to be Boy Scouts, but we had real potatoes and a real fire! It took a long time for the potatoes to cook, and they were black and kind of hard, but I thought it was a pretty good adventure.

Beebee Jimmy was my age but Beebee was a year or so younger One time Beebee and I went in and out of a lot of stores on Clinton Avenue and asked for crazy stuff we knew they didn’t have, like cough drops in a shoe store or candy in a clothes store. Outside we couldn’t stop laughing. It got harder and harder to keep a straight face. We were having so much fun that I was sure somebody was going to call the cops. Beebee liked to hang around me because I could get him laughing so much. And he was always telling me that he wished he could run as fast as me. It makes you feel good when a kid tells you that. Another time I found an old rusty broken ice-pick, and I made a great new handle for it in Grandpa’s cellar. Mr. Higgins showed me how to wear it on my belt without stabbing myself. Beebee admired the way I could throw my pick at the side of a house and make it stick. But after Wilma’s mother told my mother that I was making holes in her house, Mama suffered with a headache. So that was the end of my great throwing and the end of my great pick.

Nationalities There were lots of different nationalities on Hunterdon Street. You could tell whose house you were in by the smell. The furniture looked different in different houses, too. Sometimes it looked new, but mostly it looked kind of old. Sometimes the father worked and sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes both the father and mother worked and sometimes just the mother. I once asked Mama when she was drinking coffee and not suffering how the family got money if the father or the mother didn’t work. “They go on relief,” she said. “What’s that?” I asked. “The city gives them money,” she said. “Can they buy a house with it?” I asked. “They don’t get enough for that,” she answered. “Oh,” I said, and saw how good everything was with us.

One time I was alone in the garden glider in Grandpa’s backyard and I saw a big colored kid looking at me over the high fence. I figured he must be standing on something. I didn’t do anything and he didn’t do anything. We just looked at each other. Then Grandpa came up out of the cellar and saw the colored kid looking over the fence. He grabbed a brick and threw it at the fence. It made a loud bang, and the colored kid jumped off whatever he was standing on. I sat in the glider a while to see what would happen. Nothing happened, so I went up into the kitchen and told Zizi what Granpa did. She looked at me and didn’t say anything. Then she said, “Do you want a glass of cream soda?”

Eugene Eugene lived in the house on the other side of Grandpa’s store, and his father and mother’s flat on the first floor smelled like Czechoslovakia. Nobody was home one time when I was over there, so we decided to wrestle on the carpet in the living room. It wasn’t a great carpet, but it was a lot better than wrestling on the sidewalk or on dirt. We grabbed each other and fell down. Then we rolled around for a while, and I got Eugene in my “strangle hold” from behind. He wriggled around a lot, but I kept my hold and said, “Give up?” “No,” he said. Then with my left hand I pulled my right arm tighter against his neck. “Give up?” I asked again. “No,” he said again. Pretty soon he stopped struggling, but I could see a little tear in his eye. “Give up?” I said. No answer, I pulled my arm tighter. The little tear in his eye got bigger. I kept my hold, and the tear got bigger. Pretty soon it filled his eye socket. He didn’t say anything and he didn’t struggle. Then the giant tear spilled over his eye socket and rolled down his cheek and his chin and onto my arm against his throat. After that, I let him go, and we both got up. “Nobody won, Eugene,” I said. “You didn’t say, ‘I give up.’”

Sonny Jacky lived across the street and next door to Jimmy and Beebee. Jacky looked goofy, but he was okay. His house smelled Polish. Sonny was older than the rest of us, and he lived next door to Jacky. Sonny didn’t look goofy, but he looked like a dumb bully. His house smelled German. Nobody played with him unless the rest of us were around. One day I was sitting alone on the milk box because nobody seemed to be around. Mama and Grandma were downtown. Sonny came across the street and asked me if I wanted to play marbles. “Yeah, okay,” I said. I had a supply of marbles upstairs in Zizi’s laundry-kitchen. I went up and told Ziz I was going to play marbles with Sonny, and went back downstairs with a pocketful. Sonny was sitting down in the dirt waiting for me. The dirt between the sidewalk and the curb under Mr. Glick’s big oak tree in front of our flat was a good place to play. We played Ring Taw, and at first Sonny won a lot of my aggies, but then after we played a while I won them all back. Then I won his four glassies. The only marble he had left was his big pearly shooter. At first he just stood there and didn’t say anything. Then I was surprised when he put his big shooter in the center of the circle. The rule was you never give up your shooter. Anyway, I knuckled down, took real careful aim, and CRACK—I hit his pearly real hard out of the circle. O, boy! I reached over to put it in my pocket when suddenly Sonny picked up a handful of dirt and threw it hard in my face. The dirt hit my eyes and my tongue, and I was blinded and choking. My eyes watered and stung. When I tried to holler, I swallowed dirt. I put out my arms and got back to the milk box, and then I felt my way though the front door and the stairway. I could hear Ziz in the kitchen. I felt my way in. I could only point to my face and say “Ahhh…ahhh….” Zizi led me over to the sink and gently washed my eyes and tongue with warm water. I really felt ashamed. “Sonny’s dirty,” she said. “Just don’t play with him any more.”

Duck Later I told Billy what happened, and he told Margie, and Margie told somebody, and pretty soon it seemed everybody knew. That night I was sitting on the top step of the stoop and feeling pretty low. Billy and Jackie and Jimmy and Beebee were sitting on the bottom step. Then Eugene came over, and Billy told him the whole story. Pretty soon Duck, Marie Big Sneak’s big brother, came by and went into Grandpa’s store. Duck’s real name was Donald, so everybody called him Duck. Duck was a good Italian guy, but he wore high sneakers, even on Sundays. And he wore his sweater inside out with the sleeves cut off, like a real Dead End Kid. When he came out of the store, he came over to the stoop and stood near where I was sitting and asked me what happened. So I told him, and everybody listened to the whole story again.

I was trying to figure out how I could get back at Sonny, that dumb cafone, when who should cross the street and walk slowly up to the stoop and stop there? I thought maybe Sonny came over to say he was sorry or to give me his shooter. “Hey, Sonny,” Duck said, “I hear ya like to throw dirt in people’s faces.” “I didn’t do nothing,” said Sonny. “That’s not what I hear,” said Duck. “Well,” said Sonny, “I didn’t do nothing.” Then good old Billy the Kid crept quietly behind Sonny and got down into a “horse.” “Well,” said Duck, suddenly giving Sonny a big shove, “I think ya did!” Sonny looked real surprised when he fell backwards over Billy and landed hard on the sidewalk. We all laughed and clapped our hands. Sonny put his head down and started to bawl. “CRY BABY! CRY BABY!” we all shouted. Sonny got up slowly and crossed the street. On the other side, he yelled, “You shits!” “CRY BABY! CRY BABY!” we all yelled back. Then big Duck shook my hand and said, “I take care of my friends.” Then Billy said, “So do I,” and shook my hand. Then everybody else said, “So do I,” and shook my hand. I was feeling really good again.

Marie Duck had a really nice older sister, Jeanette, but Mama thought that Marie was too “fresh.” She liked to wear a pair of Duck’s old sneakers. They were too big for her, but she liked to wear them anyway. That’s why we called her Marie Big Sneakers. One night that summer Marie was playing Knuckles with me on Mr. Glick’s stoop, and she told me my first really dirty joke.
“A man is selling insurance to a lady, and it starts to snow. The lady says, ‘You can’t go out tonight in weather like this. You’ll have to stay here, but I have only one bed.’ The man says, ‘Okay,’ and he takes off his pants and underwear. ‘What’s that?’ says the lady, and the man says, ‘That’s the White Knight.’ Then the lady takes off her blouse, and the man says ‘What are those?’ The lady says, ‘These are the Bells of Saint Mary’s,’ and she takes off her skirt and underpants. ‘What that?’ the man asks, and the lady says, ‘That’s the Black Forest.’ Then the man and the lady go to bed. But pretty soon the White Knight rides though the Black Forest to save the Bells of Saint Mary’s!”

I “got” it right away and laughed, but I wondered what kind of girl was Duck’s sister to tell me a joke like that.

Jeanette The year before we moved to Hunterdon Street, Grandpa and Grandma gave Aunt Sadie a big wedding. Before that, she had a bedroom upstairs next to the kitchen-laundry. Anyway, after they left the church, everybody honked horns all over the place. The limousines and cars came down Clinton Avenue and onto Hunterdon Steet, and then up Avon Avenue and onto Bergen Street, and then down Madison Avenue and onto Hunterdon Street again, and then over to Clinton Avenue again, and up Clinton to a big ballroom with colored lights.

In the ballroom, I danced with my sister and Uncle Anthony’s niece, who were the Flower Girls. And I danced with some other girls about my age. I was only eight and pretty small, but I danced with Mama and Zizi and some other ladies who bent way over. I liked dancing best with Jeanette, who was one of Aunt Sadie’s friends. She’d pick me up and hold me against her with her right arm. I’d put my left arm tight around her neck, and she’d hold up my other hand and dance me around the hall like I was one of her boyfriends. We’d do fox trots, waltzes, and tangos.

Not too long after Marie Big Sneakers told me my first dirty joke, I told her a good one I just heard. I knew all about Luckies, of course, from listening to Your Hit Parade. “How is your sister like a Lucky Strike cigarette?” I asked. “Oh, everybody knows that one,” said Marie. “She’s ‘so round, so firm, so fully packed.’” Well, anyway, it was a good joke—and true! I remembered the way Jeanette danced me around. So the next time I saw Marie, I thought I’d try again. “Your sister really has nice Bells of Saint Mary’s,” I said. Marie Big Sneakers laughed but looked at me funny. When I saw her again, she said, “I told Jeanette what you said about the Bells of Saint Mary’s—she said you’re fresh and she’s never gonna dance with you again.”

The Avon Theatre The kids on Hunterdon Street were always surprised to discover how much I knew about movies. I started going to the Elwood on Broadway twice a week after school when I was in first grade. The manager would let me in free because Mama was a real moviegoer, and she’d be there waiting for me. She’d be in the last row on the far aisle where Dolores would be sleeping in her carriage. I would see the ending of the first feature and all of the second. One time at the Elwood, we were watching The Petrified Forest with Bette Davis and Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart. Mama said, “You see how happy she is? Later she’ll be sad.” After awhile Mama said, “You see how sad she is? Later she’ll be happy.” So I really learned about movies from Mama.

Then when I was seven I went to the Elwood Saturday afternoons with Johnny and Marie Milano. But here on Hunterdon Street I went to the Avon on Saturdays and on a lot of Sundays too with Billy, Margie, Wilma, Jimmy, Beebee, Eugene, and Jacky. I could never figure out why the Avon Theatre was on Clinton Avenue instead of on Avon Avenue. When I asked people about this, they just shook their heads and said things like “Hey, wadda ya’ gonna do?” or “Aw,they’re all nuts.” Usually I bought a nickel box of Jujyfruits at the movies because they lasted longer than other candy. But sometimes we’d get five- or ten-cents worth of penny stuff at the candy store between the tailor shop and the delicatessen on the corner of Hunterdon and Madison. Or sometimes Billy and I would go into the delicatessen and buy a nickel pickle because it would last even longer than the Jujyfruits. On Saturdays for ten cents you’d get a newsreel, coming attractions, a short subject, two feature films, a cartoon, a serial, and sometimes a door prize.

My favorite actor was Jimmy Cagney. On Grafton Avenue my favorite actress for a long time was Shirley Temple, but on Hunterdon Street my favorite was Ann Sheridan. I liked to do impressions of Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Peter Lorre, and everybody said that they were pretty good, especially my Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto. I saw some great movies at the Avon--Golden Boy with William Holden, Gunga Din with Cary Grant, Jesse James with Tyrone Power, and The Son of Frankenstein with Boris Karloff. I also saw some pretty bad ones. Movies with lovey-dovey stuff or guys in white tuxedos and dames in flowing gowns singing and dancing up and down big winding staircases all the time. I hated Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, but Wilma loved those two drips. Billy’s favorite actor was Dick Powell and his favorite actress was Sonja Henie. They were okay by me, but I liked Dick Powell best when he wasn’t singing, and I liked Sonja Henie best when she was spinning around.

Who I really liked were the Dead End Kids, especially Leo Gorcey as Spit. I also got good laughs out of Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy. Andy’s father in those movies was Lewis Stone, who was Uncle Tony’s favorite actor. I also got a kick out of Arthur Lake as Dagwood Bumstead and Penny Singleton as Blondie. “Popeye the Sailor” was my favorite cartoon. I liked to impersonate him saying “I eats my spinach,” and I ate a lot of it too, because I really liked the way Mama made spinach soft in olive oil with pieces of bread soaking in it.

When we left the Avon, whoever was in the gang would always talk about the best parts in the movie or about his favorites. I liked Frankenstein better than Dracula. And I liked Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan better than Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon. Sometimes we even talked about the newsreel. We saw King George’s daughters a lot. We talked about which one we liked best. I liked Princess Elizabeth better than Princess Margaret. One time we talked about Franco, but nobody knew who he was. Another time we talked about who we were for, Japan or China. “Made in Japan” stuff was all over Hunterdon Street, so most of us voted for Japan. Another time somebody asked, “Who are you for, the Germans or the Polocks?” Jimmy said, “I’m for the Germans!” and Beebee said, “I’m for the Polocks!” Jacky said, “I’m for the Polocks!” and Wolf said, “I’m for the Krauts!” Jimmy and Beebee were Irish, but Jacky was Polish and Wolf was German. I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, so I said, “I’m for Mussolini!”

One time I was sitting on the milk box when some man in a brown jacket came up to me. “Hello, young fellow,” he said. “I want to show you something.” He reached into his jacket and took out something from the newspaper. He showed me a picture of a man with a big mustache…he was smoking a pipe…he was wearing a uniform…he had a nice face. “Who’s this?” the man in the brown jacket asked me. The man in the picture looked to me like the man in the newsreels who was always watching soldiers on parade and smiling and waving to everybody. “That’s the leader of the Russian people,” I told him. “That’s right,” the man said. “He’s my Uncle Joe.” Then the man put the picture back in his jacket pocket and said, “Goodbye, young comrade.” Then he shook my hand and walked toward Madison. I thought, “That man must think I’m pretty damn smart….” Then I got to thinking, “…I bet that wasn’t a even a picture of his uncle.”

Reading Besides reading the funnies in the two newspapers that my father brought home every night, I made sure each Sunday morning that I spread the newspapers on the floor of the living room and read “Bringing Up Father,” “Smilin’ Jack,” “Joe Palooka,” “Lil’ Abner,” “Mutt & Jeff,” “Dick Tracy,” “Our Boarding House,” “Blondie,” and “The Katzenjammer Kids.” Besides these papers, he also brought home month-old copies of Life and Look from the reading table. I didn’t read the articles, but I looked at all the pictures and I read all the captions. One time Daddy brought home a copy of the Boy Scout Handbook. I read some parts, but I looked at the illustrations all the time, especially the one showing a boy in street clothes entering Boy Scout camp and putting on more and more of the Boy Scout uniform as he passes more and more tests and winds up at the end of the road an Eagle Scout. One time I sent for a bunch of Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books for a nickel apiece. When I went with Mama or Grandma or Zizi to the remnant store on Clinton they would buy me a ten-cent Big Little Book. One time I bought a Pocket Book at the Five & Ten for two bits. It was Lost Horizon by James Hilton. It had a plane on the cover, so I thought I’d try to read it. The counter lady said it was a brand-new book and that there would be a brand-new book out every month. “I’m gonna buy every one that comes out,” I told her. I bought one on Lincoln and another one on Ben Frankln, but after a while there were so many brand-new books that I gave up the idea. And besides, they cost twenty-five cents apiece.

Wolf liked his last name better than his first, so everybody called him Wolf. He lived on Hunterdon and Avon over the saloon. He was in the sixth grade, so he didn’t hang around with me and Billy too much. He was really smart, and read a lot of comic books. And he made some good stuff. Once he made a go-cart out of a crate he got from Grandpa’s store and out of baby-carriage wheels he got from somewhere. We’d go down Avon Avenue like the blazes. He’d steer with a rope, and I’d give a big push and jump on the back. One time a wheel came off and we cracked up turning into Peshine. So we pulled the cart back to Wolf’s yard for repairs.

When we got there he said, “Hey, wait a sec. I wanna show ya somethin.” He went up the back stairs, and then came back down with a comic book. “Take a look a’ this,” he said. “It just came out.” I looked at the cover. There was a picture of a man in a blue costume and red cape flying though the air. The comic was called Superman. “Hmm,” I said. Never heard of him.” Wolf looked at me funny. “Never heard of Superman? Don’t you read Action Comics?” “No,” I said, “I mostly read Big Little Books.” “Who ya’ got?” he said. “I got Tarzan, Dick Tracy, Popeye, and Tom Mix,” I told him. “Hey, he said, “I’ll trade ya’ a Lone Ranger for the Dick Tracy. “Okay,” I said, “let’s see it.” Wolf ran back up and got it and I looked at it. I went home and got my Dick Tracy and came back and we traded. Then we fixed his go-cart and went down Avon Avenue like the blazes.

One day not long after we first moved to Hunterdon Street, I was playing Stoopball alone on Mr. Glick’s steps and listening to his son upstairs practicing the trombone. A man driving by saw me and stopped his car in front of Grandpa’s store. He motioned me over and asked if I wanted to sell magazines. The back of his car was full of them. I told him I did, and he said, “Okay, you make four cents for every Saturday Evening Post you sell for a dime, and you make two cents for every Liberty you sell for a nickel. That didn’t seem like much to me, because anytime I needed some money I could take my shoeshine box down to the saloon on Avon Avenue and do low shoes for a nickel and high shoes for a dime, though one time I did a little colored kid’s high shoes for two cents. Anyway, I liked the smell of the magazines in his car, so I told him I’d do it for the adventure.
“So,” he said, “how many magazines do you want?” “How many can you give me?” I asked. “You can have as many as you want,” he said. “It will cost you six cents for every Saturday Evening Post you take and three cents for every Liberty.” “You mean I have to pay you first?” “That’s right,” he said—then you keep what you make. A higher class of people buy the Saturday Evening Post.” “Okay,” I said, “ let me ask around.”

I asked around, but the people I asked said they weren’t buying magazines—and, besides, their own kids and other kids had already asked them. Zizi’s friend Julia was the only one who said “Yes.” She said I could bring her a Liberty every week. When the man in the car came back the next day and asked how many magazines I wanted, I said, “One Liberty.” He had what my mother would call a “disgusting” look on his face. But every week he’d sell me a Liberty for three cents and every week Julia would buy it from me for a nickel.

One day I went over to deliver and collect, and a nurse was there taking Julia’s blood pressure at the kitchen table. I watched as the nurse pumped and the needle went higher and Julia’s big white arm turned red and then turned white again. The nurse read some numbers, and Julia looked a little sad. I must have had a funny look on my face, because when Julia reached into her apron pocket and handed me a nickel, she laughed out loud. When I left the new Liberty with her, I felt that she belonged to the better class of people.

Radio On Hunterdon Street I lived most of the time in the world of make-believe. My favorite radio programs were Gang Busters, The Shadow, The Green Hornet, Death Valley Days, The Lone Ranger, Eddie Cantor, First Nighter, Lux Radio Theatre, and Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy. Besides doing impressions of the Lone Ranger and Tonto and Charlie McCarthy for Billy and Jimmy and Beebee and the rest, I could give Uncle Tony a good impression of little Johnny the Bell Boy when I hollered out, “Call for Philip Mor-r-riss-s-s--!”
I was really interested in heavyweight championship fights, and I really looked forward to listening to the Joe Louis-Tony Galento fight. I cut out pictures and stories of the boxers from the newspapers that summer and kept them in my desk. Everybody on the block had the radio on that night and wanted “Two-Ton” from Orange to beat the “Brown Bomber.” Galento knocked Louis down once and everybody started cheering. But then the “Brown Bomber” got up and really started cutting “Two-Ton” to pieces. Louis TKO’d Galento in the fourth, and you could hear all the colored people on Peshine Avenue cheering for the still heavyweight champion of the world.

I got my share of badges, decoders, and rings by listening to Tom Mix, Jack Armstrong, Little Orphan Annie, and Dick Tracy, but I hated Ralston, Wheaties, Ovaltine, and Quaker Oats. The first time I sent to Battle Creek, Michigan, for a Jack Armstrong airplane, I knew it would be much smaller than the TWA planes that flew in and out of Newark Airport, but I really believed it would be big enough for me to sit in and fly up and down Hunterdon Street. The little balsa glider that came in the mail one day was a real gyp. My best box-top prize was a shiny skull ring with red glass eyes. When it came in the mail, I told Wilma and Shirley that it was solid silver with ruby eyes and worth about fifty dollars. Shirley believed me, but Wilma told her not to.

Sometimes you had to send a dime with your box-top for handling and mailing. One time I slit the bottom of the envelope. This was something I thought Leo Gorcey might do, to make it seem as if someone stole my dime. It worked, and I even told my mother about it. “Don’t tell anybody--” she said, “they’ll think you’re a crook!” When I told Billy about my trick, his red eyebrows went way up and his big blue eyes bugged out. “I’ll try it,” he shouted, “the next time I send for something on the radio.” The next time we both wanted the same thing—a treasure map. So we sent our two box-tops in the same slit envelope. After waiting a long time, we finally sent Battle Creek a penny postcard and explained that if they didn’t get our two dimes maybe somebody slit the envelope and stole them. We waited a long time…but nothing ever came. So we stopped doing business with Battle Creek. I told Frankie, and he said that if you send a postcard to Washington, D. C. , the government will send you all kinds of books and maps for nothing. So Billy and I each put in a nickel, bought ten postcards, and were back in business.

Cherry Sundae I liked the fifteen-cent chocolate sundaes at Terzis’ on Clinton better, but you could get a very good cherry sundae at the candy store on Hunterdon for only a dime. That’s where Billy and I bought our penny candy on Saturdays. For a penny you could even spin the little arrow on the top of a big round wooden candy box, but you had to take what the arrow pointed to. Most of the time you just got a piece of penny candy. If you were lucky, you’d get a five-cent candy bar, but f you were not lucky you got just one lousy jellybean.
I went in once with a dime to buy a cherry sundae, but for the adventure of it I spun the candy wheel before I sat down at the ice cream counter. The arrow landed on some penny chocolate. The owner of the store said, “Where’s my penny?” “I don’t want candy,” I said. “I want a cherry sundae.” “Yeah,” he said, “but if the arrow landed on a Baby Ruth you’d want it for a penny.” “If I give you a penny,” I said, “I won’t have enough money for a cherry sundae.” “Okay,” he said, “ give me the penny you owe me for spinning the arrow, and I’ll give you a nine-cent sundae.” I handed him my dime, and he handed me the square of penny chocolate he owed me. Then he started making my nine-cent cherry sundae. He put a lot of cherry syrup in the bottom of the tall glass. Then he put a small dip of vanilla ice cream on top of that. Then he put a big dip of vanilla ice cream on top of that. Then he put a lot of cherry syrup on top of that. Then he put marshmallow cream over the whole thing. So far it looked to me like a regular ten-cent cherry sundae, but then he said, “The nine-cent sundae doesn’t get any cherries.” He left out the four cherries the ten-cent sundae gets--three around the sides of the big dip and one on top. “That’s okay,” I said, “I’ll just put my penny chocolate on top.”

Concetta One time I was showing Billy how I could holler like Tarzan and then jump from Mr. Glick’s fence to the ledge of the back porch. I’d swing on the ledge for a while, and then drop on my feet to the little concrete backyard below. Then Billy tried it. He made a good Tarzan call and jumped, but he missed the ledge and twisted his ankle a little when he fell. I did some more hollering and jumps while Billy watched me. One time I hollered and jumped, but I missed the ledge and saw the concrete….
…I woke up in Grandma’s bedroom. Old Concetta from across the street was praying in Italian in front of a little candle burning in a little red jar. Grandma and Zizi were standing near the bed. I could hear the breeze in the big elm tree in the corner of Grandpa’s yard, and I could hear Dolores in the kitchen playing with Anita. Then Concetta came over to me and put her fingers in a little saucer. She said more things in Italian and put her oily fingers on my forehead and cheeks and chin. I guess I was okay after that, except that Mama got real nervous and excited when Grandma told her what happened.

Another time Concetta told Grandma that her son didn’t want to drive his father’s milk-wagon around Newark for a living, but that he couldn’t find a good job either. She told Grandma that her son wanted to be a movie actor. He was tall and handsome, and he liked to wear his shirt collar up when he walked down the street. One day Concetta told Grandma that her son was out in Hollywood getting a job in the movies, and that she prayed for him every day. But about two weeks later, Concetta told Grandma that she had to send him money so he could come home. After he came home, he still didn’t want to drive the milk-wagon around Newark, and he was still looking for a job, and he still liked to wear his shirt collar up.

Sammy Big Sammy lived across the street next door to Concetta. In the summer, his mother sat in her slip while she made things on her sewing machine under the front window. Sometimes she would even walk across the street in her slip and buy a soda or something at Grandpa’s. Her son Sammy had a good job somewhere and was the most popular guy on the block. Not because his mother wore a slip outside, but because he was in charge of the fire hydrant in front of his house. I once asked Grandma, “What’s Sammy’s real job?” “Fatica,” she said. “I know, ‘work,’” I said, “but what kind of work?” “Fatica,” she said again. To Grandma, all jobs were the same.

On hot, humid days, we’d ask, “Turning on the water today, Sammy?” Most of the time, he’d say, “Sorry, Pal, no word yet from City Hall.” But when he came bare-chested and barefoot down his alleyway onto Hunterdon Street in his light brown shorts and carrying a heavy sprinkler head in one hand and a big wrench in the other, we scattered in all directions to get into our old shorts or swim suits. We all got ants-in-the-pants while Big Sammy slowly unscrewed the cap off one of the outlets, slowly tightened on the sprinkler head, and slowly turned the valve with his wrench. Out of the fire plug came wonderful water, a little at first, and then more and more until the spray made a high rainbow and reached the opposite curb in front of Grandpa’s store. Our smooth red brick street really looked beautiful when it was wet. Little kids like Dolores and Shirley and Honey Girl stood in the gutter in their sun-suits near the end of the spray, but the rest of us ran around like crazy in the middle or tried to see who could stand closest to the sprinkler head.

If they were home, a lot of the mothers and fathers on the block would come out and watch, and some would even get in the spray with their kids. Mama got in a couple times. Grandma and Zizi would sit on chairs next to the milk box and watch. Sammy’s mother would watch from her window. Mr. Glick and his wife would sit on the stoop and stare. Even their son stopped practicing his trombone and came out to watch. One time Big Sammy picked up one of his girlfriends who screamed and kicked and laughed when he carried her close to the sprinkler head and gave her a little “shoulder sting.” I tried to pick up Wilma and give her a little “sting,” but she kicked so much and yelled, “Maaa” so much that I let her go. When the time came for Sammy to turn off the water, the rainbow over the street got smaller and smaller and then disappeared. We’d stand around moaning and groaning and dripping and watch him carefully unscrew the sprinkler, tighten on the cap, and then slowly carry the heavy sprinkler head and the big wrench back up his alleyway until the next time he heard from City Hall.

Claire One summer day a new kid moved into the second-floor flat of Sammy’s house. She looked about seven or eight. For the first few days she sat alone on the front stoop. Sometimes she talked to Sammy’s mother through the window. Then one day she started singing, and everybody outside stopped to listen. “Wow,” said Frankie, “she sounds like Ethel Merman.” The next day Honey Girl and some of the other little kids on that side of the street sat on the stoop with her, and she sang for them. She was small for her age, but she was ten years old. Pretty soon Claire was singing to the rest of us. “Sing ‘Red Sails in the Sunset,’” we said. “Sing ‘Ol’ Man River,’” we said. “Sing ‘When the Moon Comes over the Mountain,’” we said. One day Grandma caught Claire and me having a “movie kiss” in Mr. Glick’s alleyway. Grandma hollered and looked up to God, but she didn’t tell anybody.

When the night of the summer street dance came, I started dancing with Wilma and Margie and with some girls I didn’t even know because they were from other blocks. I danced with Mama a few times, and one time I even danced with Jeanette, but she didn’t pick me up. After I danced “The Beer-Barrel Polka” with Claire, I said, “What great dancers we are!” One time we ended a dance in front of the chairs next to the milk box. “Sing us a song, Claire,” said Ziz. The band in the street started playing “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” and little Claire sang the song in her big-lady’s voice. When the song ended, everybody on the street who heard her clapped a long time and said “What a great voice!” Then the music started up again and Claire grabbed my hand and we danced every dance after that.

Tillie Another girl I liked, but not for a girlfriend, was Tillie, who wore eyeglasses. She and her younger sister lived a few doors down from Eugene. Grandma told me that Tillie was americana, but Zizi told me that she was English. I used to call her “Tillie the Toiler” and “Silly Tillie.” She was tall and thin, so sometimes I called her “Olive Oyl.” She was really pretty nice, though. She let me ride her little two-wheeler a lot.

Lorraine Lorraine was tongue-tied or something. She lived up the street on our side, near a big kid named Jonesy. People said that she needed an operation. She didn’t play with the kids down around the store, so I never knew how old she was. I didn’t even know if she went to school. She was dark and thin, and she wore the same dingy dress every day. She would come into the store every day and say things like “Fi’ thents thugar” or “Thee thlice thalami.” Some of the little kids were really afraid of her. Lorraine understood everything you said to her, but you really had a hard time understanding anything she said to you.

Cookie Girl One day I was in Grandpa’s store, and a big man walked in holding the hand of the prettiest girl I ever saw. I felt funny when I looked at her. She had long blonde curls and big blue eyes, but she was more beautiful than Shirley Temple. She made you want to kiss her rosy cheeks. I guessed she was about eight years old—perfect for me. The man told Grandpa that he was out for a walk with his daughter and that he brought her in the store for a cookie. “The cookies are here!” I said, pointing to the metal boxes. The beautiful daughter came over to the cookies and looked through the glass tops. Then she looked at me and pointed to one. I opened the top, took out the best one I saw, and handed it to her. “Thank you,” she said. Her father gave Grandpa a penny, and she said, “Thank you.” Grandpa said, “G’bye, lil’l gurl,” and she said, “Goodbye. Thank you.” I wanted to know where this nice beautiful girl lived, so I followed them out of the store and down Hunterdon Street. The man held the girl’s hand while she ate the cookie with the other. Near Madison the man stopped, turned around, and looked at me. I felt ashamed and started to cross the street. Then the man and the girl reached the corner and turned down Madison. I turned around and came back to the store, hoping that I would see the nice beautiful girl again. But I never did.

Jonesy One summer evening, Ziz and Grandma were sitting on chairs next to the milk box, and I was showing them yo-yo tricks. Big Billy Jones from up the street came by. He was wearing his white sailor’s hat and catching little white mints in his mouth. Zizi asked about his mother and sister, and so Jonesy sat down with us. Then he gave a loud laugh and said, “Okay, I’ll perform for you!” He threw a mint in the air, opened his mouth wide, and the mint dropped right in. Then he changed the shape of his hat, threw another mint in the air, and again the mint fell right in. Every time he changed the shape of his hat, he tossed up a mint, and then caught it in his mouth. The next day I bought a sailor’s hat and a bag of white mints. For the next week or so I practiced being Jonesy. At first my mints hit me on the nose or on the cheek or on the forehead. Sometimes they missed me completely. I’d pick up the ones that fell on the sidewalk and keep tossing them up until they fell in my mouth. After a few days I almost believed that I was Jonesy, changing the shape of my sailor’s hat and catching mints in my mouth. One time Jonesy saw me being him, and he said, “Pretty good.” But after a while I got tired of changing the shape of my hat and of tossing mints in the air and of pretending that I was Jonesy, so I started looking around for somebody else.

Lover Jonesy had a beautiful older sister named Lover. She had a job downtown, and all the kids on the block said that she had about a hundred pairs of shoes. Mama and a bunch of us kids were sitting around the milk box after dinner one day, and we could all hear the click-clickity-clack of high heels up the street. We all looked up at the same time and said, “Lover!” Then Jonesy’s sister came breezing by in a nice short dress, and she flashed us a million-dollar smile. She was wearing a little white hat and white gloves. “Going downtown, Lover?” Mama called out. “Yeah, Anna,” she said over her shoulder. “Going downtown to see a movie with my girlfriend.” We watched her going down the street toward Clinton Avenue, and I listened until I couldn’t hear the click-clickity-clack of her high heels any more. And I wondered who her girlfriend was and what movie they were going to see.

William One time when I was sitting in the garden glider in Grandpa’s backyard trying to read Lost Horizon, Grandma came out on the porch and said that the tailor’s son was coming over to see me in a few minutes. She meant the tailor on the corner, next to the candy store and delicatessen. I didn’t know that the tailor had a son. “What’s his name?” I asked. “Wil-liama,” she said. “How old is he?” I asked. “Come tu,” she said. I was surprised that I did not know him. Pretty soon Grandma came back out on the porch and said “This’a Wil-liama.” I thought that a giant was coming to see me. He came down the steps slowly and walked over to the glider. He held out his hand and said politely, “Hello, my name is William.” I held out my hand and told him my name. “May I sit with you?” he said. “Sit down,” I said. He sat across from me. His black hair was combed, and he wore a white dress shirt and a dark tie. “How tall are you, anyway?” I asked, politely as I could. “I’m roughly five-foot-ten—rather tall for my age.” “How old are you, anyway?” I asked. “I’m twelve years old,” he said. “Oh, my grandmother thought you were my age—nine.” William grinned, “Hardly.”

We swung back and forth for a while. Then William said, “I remember when I was nine.” “What do you remember?” I asked. “Episodes,” he said. “Did you play First-Around-the-Block?” “No,” he said, “I didn’t play that.” “What did you play?” I asked. “I played the piano,” he said. “What did you play?” I asked again. I didn’t know any he said. “How come I never saw you before?” I asked. “Don’t you live on Hunterdon?” William said, “I live on Hunterdon Street, but not around here. I live near Weequahic Park.” “Oh,” I said. “I know that place.” “Yes,” said William. Then Grandma brought us some cookies and soda. We talked some more while we ate the cookies and drank the soda. Then we swung back and forth a little on the glider and talked some more. He told me all about the bar mitzvah he was going to have. After a while William said that he had to go now. He held out his hand and said, “Goodbye, I enjoyed talking with you.” Then he went up the porch steps to say goodbye to Grandma. I never saw William after that, even though his father was the tailor down the block.

Mr. Glick One Saturday morning in the fall, I got up early to water my lima bean. I must have been moping around after that, because Mama said, “Why don’t you sweep the leaves out front?” That was the thing that old Mr. Glick did every day now, but it seemed like it took him about five hours. “Okay,” I said, and grabbed the broom on the back porch. I swept all the oak leaves on the sidewalk into the gutter in about five minutes. Then I set the pile on fire and enjoyed the smell and smoke of the burning leaves. After breakfast I sat on the milk box and waited for Billy or somebody to show up. Pretty soon Mr. Glick came out of his alleyway with his old broom worn half way down. He looked around. There was only one leaf on the sidewalk now, but Mr. Glick saw it. He took a lot of little steps and got behind it. Then he swept it a few inches closer to the gutter. Then he took another short step and swept it a few more inches closer to the gutter. After a while, he reached the gutter and swept the leaf right into it. Then he looked around again. He took a lot of little steps and went back down the alleyway.

Relatives and Friends Quite often relatives or friends would came to Grandma’s for Sunday dinner. Sometimes after dinner in the winter we’d all play Bingo or Penny Toss, but summer was even better, when the men drank wine and played bocce under the grapevines. They would always let me throw the pallino to start each round. The relatives who came to Hunterdon Street most often were Grandpa’s sister and her husband. They lived Down Neck. They had their own children plus a lot of grown sons and daughters from before Aunt Mary’s first husband and Uncle John’s first wife died. Uncle John was very funny, and he made everybody laugh. He and Aunt Mary always pretended to be fighting at the table. He once told everybody that he was afraid of mice. When he saw one, he would jump on a chair and tell Aunt Mary to get the broom and kill it! Which she did. Some Sundays we’d go Down Neck to Adams Street. I had some good times with Mama’s young cousins, Johnny and Frankie. Mama’s old Grandma—La Nonna—lived with them, and one time she gave me a dime wrapped in toilet paper. A lot of times Daddy would ask Uncle John where he got the good cold-cuts or the good bread or the good pastry or the good something, and every time Uncle John would point his thumb and say in a loud voice, “Chancellor Avenue!” He wanted Daddy to know that if you wanted really good stuff you had to go to Chancellor Avenue!

Sometimes Gumba and Goumada Campagna would come on Sundays. That’s Sicilian for Godfather and the Godmother from the Country. Gumba was a tall quiet man who smoked a pipe. Goumada was a squat lady who laughed and waved her arms a lot. Daddy liked to drive to Cranford, and so did I. Gumba and Goumada lived in a big house, and they had a grown son who played football and four grown daughters. They talked about weddings, but nobody got married yet. The youngest was Julia, who would run around in the front yard with Dolores and me. Gumba had a big garden, and he’d let you pull up a carrot if you ate it all. Goumada always served nice little ham sandwiches and coffee. When I was in Cranford I read the funnies in the New York Times, but it did not have all the same ones as our Sunday papers in Newark.

Sometimes Grandma’s cousin from Brooklyn came to Hunterdon Street with her husband. Grandma’s cousin was not like Grandma, but she looked like her. After dinner, Pepina smoked cigarettes, told Sicilian jokes, and played cards with the men. Once in a while, we’d take Grandma and Grandpa to Brooklyn. In the Holland Tunnel, Mama would always get nervous and say, “Daddy, you’re going too fast!” But the men who worked in the tunnel always motioned us to go faster. They wanted us to go at least twenty-five or thirty miles an hour.

Once in a while Uncle Tony’s brother Paul and his wife would visit him and Ziz. Paul smoked little smelly curly Italian cigars. Sometimes Paul and his wife would bring their two sons and daughter. Joe and Vincent were big guys and really handsome, and I liked the kids on Hunterdon to see me walking around with them. Louise was okay, but she had so much hair that it made her head look too big for her body, and when she was standing in the sunlight, you could see little black hairs growing on her face so that they looked like a mustache. We never drove Uncle Tony and Ziz to wherever Paul lived in Newark, but one Sunday we all went down the shore to Keansburg in two cars. After our whole day on the beach, nobody wanted the one hard-boiled egg that was left, so Paul finally took it and broke it on his bald head. Then he peeled it and said, “Abbasso!”—“Down the hatch!”—and swallowed the whole thing.

Side Trips Besides driving down the shore once in a while, Daddy would sometimes take Grandma and Grandpa or Zizi and Uncle Tony with us to Echo Lake, where Daddy would tell Dolores and me to “Standa straight” and then take pictures of us. We’d watch the little sailboats and get gallons of free spring water from a pipe in the hill. Sometimes Daddy would drive to Newark Airport, where we’d watch the planes coming in and taking off, but Mama said the swampy Meadows stunk, and the way the people out there lived in Hoover tents and tin shacks and cardboard boxes was “disgusting.” Sometimes Daddy would just drive us out to the farms and the woods in Union, and we’d walk around and look at the cows and watch the birds, but Mama said that waiting with the girls in the car for Daddy and me to come back gave her a headache. Mama didn’t take me to the World’s Fair, but before school started again she did take me to Olympic Park in Irvington, where the gals there all screamed like hell when the giant Roller Coaster went down and when the Fun House air blew their dresses up.

Avon Avenue School, Fall When school started again, I really liked Miss Berlin’s 4A. The first day she asked the class, “Who knows what a philosopher is?” I raised my hand and said, “A man who sits in the dark and thinks.” “Very good,” she said, and told me to sit in the front row right in front of her desk. After that, she was always asking me to do something for her and calling me her “Little Scientist.” Once we got a new book for our corner bookcase. Miss Berlin asked me to open Discovering Our Environment the careful way she taught us. Then she asked me to look through it and tell the class what it was about. Another time the class got a microscope, and Miss Berlin asked me to look through it first and tell the class what I saw. Miss Berlin also put me in charge of poster pictures. About once a week I took a note down to the storeroom, where the teacher there would give me what the note said. When I brought the posters up to the classroom, I’d untie them and put them around the room. After the unit was over, I’d tie all the posters up again and take them down to the storeroom with another note. The best adventure though was an experiment. Miss Berlin gave another kid and me little flower pots. He had black dirt in his and I had sand in mine. Miss Berlin told us to take the pots home in the boxes she gave us, and to put a lima bean in the pots and water them. Then she would tell us when to bring them back, and we would see which lima grew best. I asked Grandma to give me the best lima bean she had, and I planted it in the sand. I watered my bean a lot, and I took it out in the sunshine a lot. After a while I saw a tiny green leaf in the sand. When Miss Berlin asked us to bring the pots back, I thought for sure that I lost the lima-bean race. The class stood around us as we opened our boxes at the same time. I was amazed and happy to see that the kid with the black dirt grew nothing.

Belleville One day Mama and Daddy came over to Grandma’s and told us that they bought a house in upper Belleville. Mama said it was near a beautiful street called Greylock Parkway, where rich people lived, and that I would go to Greylock School around the block. Daddy said the house had trees in the yard and lots of birds. Mama said I would be in fourth grade there, and Dolores would start kindergarten. There was a Presbyterian church on Union Avenue just two blocks away, and I would become Protestant. Before we moved from 576 Hunterdon Street to 63 Preston Street, we made little trips to the house. From the attic, you could see the Empire State Building over in New York. Daddy drove us up and down and around Belleville a few times, and I saw the Passaic River, a good dirt road, a swamp, and some woods. They looked to me like good places for adventure. I was happy about moving to Belleville, and I knew that I’d make new pals there. But the great thing was, I’d still see everybody on Hunterdon Street every Sunday, and even at other times. I was sorry though about leaving Avon Avenue School, because I really liked Miss Berlin. Anyway, as things turned out, the moving truck came on Halloween Day, and they moved everything from the flat in Newark to the house in Belleville. Mama was nervous and excited, but she let me go back to Grandma’s that night. This Halloween, I just had to go Trick-or-Treating with the gang on Hunterdon Street.


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