Although Staten Island, where I was born, was one of the five boroughs of New York City, it was more like country than city. Boy Scouts from the other four boroughs used to come to Staten Island for hikes and campouts. A trip from our house in Tompkinsville, one of the districts into which the island was divided, to my Aunt Mabel's house in Dongan Hills, another district, was a long bus ride through open country. Aunt Mabel's house was as country as you could get -- on a dirt road, with a cherry tree in front, and a peach tree, pear tree and big garden in back.
One thing the kids in my Tompkinsville neighborhood loved to do, especially in springtime when the winds were up, was to climb the steep road to the top of Ward's Hill and fly kites from up there. The wind always blew off the hill toward the blue-green waters of New York's busy, ship-laden harbor, some 2 miles away.
I spent many idyllic March and April days up there on Ward's Hill, watching my kite sail straight out over Stapleton down below, another district of the island. With enough string -- we were always buying more kite string -- we could let our kites go out, out, out until they seemed to hover right over the bay.
They didn't, but it was a fine optical illusion and we all enjoyed saying they did even if we didn't really believe it.
If you took a piece of paper and poked your string holder through it, impaling the paper on the string, you could watch the paper travel all the way up to the kite, pushed along by the wind -- white paper rising upward against deep blue sky and scattered cumulus clouds. We called it "sending a message" up to the kite. What it proved we didn't know, but it was fun, so we did it.
Smooth stone outcroppings stuck out from the steep side of Ward's Hill. One of them resembled the curving neck of a horse and we used to climb down and sit on it and slap it and yell "giddyup."
If we had slipped on the way down to it or slid off the "horse," as we called it, we'd have become a greasy spot down below in Stapleton. But kids are immortal.
I went to Public School 16 in Tompkinsville. Down below in Stapleton, right where we could see it from our perch on the grassy windblown crest of Ward's Hill, stood a sullen pile of red bricks called PS 14. We could even see kids down there. Alien kids. Non-Tompkinsville kids.
The word was that those kids down there were "bad kids." It was a blanket condemnation. We shook our heads seriously as we said it to each other. Bad kids. Not our kind.
One day, when I was 9, my mother met a man called Harry Johnson, who worked in the Bethlehem Steel shipyards making liberty ships. Daddy had died when I was just 4 and I suppose Mom fell in love with Pop Johnson, as my brothers and I came to call him. She must have, I suppose, but I can only guess. I wasn't privy to such information. Too young or too dumb. Take your pick.
The house we rented in Tompkinsville for $16 a month was nice enough -- a two-family frame rental painted blue-gray. It had a kitchen, a bathroom, two bedrooms, a living room, an attic room where my oldest brother Billy slept, a cellar where I could row Daddy's old rowing machine exerciser, and a grassy, sloping backyard with three levels.
I don't remember thinking much about the house. It was just, well, home. I thought it was a good home, even though the boiler in the furnace, lacking fuel, froze one cold depression winter night and cracked and after that we had to heat the house with two small kerosene space heaters.
One day, Mom told me we were moving. I didn't ask why. I just accepted it.
That's the way things are when you're the youngest of four boys. People make decisions. You aren't consulted. They just get made, and that's that.
So we moved, from Brook Street where there were mostly frame houses to Van Duzer Street where there were some frame houses and some tall brick ones.
The one we moved into, first floor east, had real inside shutters on the windows facing the street, a small porch that overlooked a garden full of tomato plants, a dumbwaiter used to send trash down to the cellar, and an electric trash lift that emerged from the sidewalk with the building super on it, coming up through a pair of iron doors that hinged up out of the way. God help you if you were standing on them at the time.
It was a long walk to PS 16, but I still went there. Again, I had no input in the decision. It was made for me. You're going to stay in PS 16, Tommy.
Uh-huh. And that was that.
I began meeting the neighborhood kids. They were, well, kids, what else? We played stickball, a kind of baseball played with a broomstick for a bat and a tennis ball for a ball. It had the advantage of being easy on windows. We played war. It was 1942 and it was our patriotic duty to kill as many imaginary Germans and Japanese as we could. We did not kill Italians. Some of the kids were Italian. I was German, but somehow I never fretted over it.
One day, I went for a walk with the kids, not far, just a block or so. We were going to pay stickball in a school playground. We turned a corner and I could not believe my eyes, there was PS 14. I asked the kids. Yes, that was where they went to school.
Sometimes, if we took a moment off from stickball and war, we could look up and see the bad kids up on Ward's Hill, flying their kites.