A City Is Not Asphalt, Steel, And Concrete; It's People

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In this column I've often spoken of New York City, the place where I was born, and I've made it plain that I wouldn't want to go back there.

But having reread some of those columns, I see I've done something I didn't intend to do.

I've made the giant city at the mouth of the Hudson River sound like something it wasn't when I was a boy, isn't now, and never will be.

I've made it sound like nothing more than asphalt, steel, concrete, which it isn't.

Taken as a whole, a giant metropolis like New York City seems cold, empty, even lifeless.

But that image fades very quickly if you focus in on a single district, neighborhood, or street. Asphalt, steel, and concrete fade into the background, replaced by the sights and sounds of human activity.

Our street on Staten Island -- Brook Street -- was less a quarter of a mile long.

It angled off Victory Boulevard, right across from the spot where the old Victory Theater stood, and it ended a hundred feet past Pike Street, where the city had torn down the trolley yards and erected bus barns.

Our house, 53 Brook Street, stood in the middle of our block. I call it our house, but it was only ours as long as we paid the $16 a month rent, and our block wasn't really a block either, because a city block is bounded on each end by a street and our block included three cross-streets.

Didn't matter to us. We called it "our block" and anyone who lived on it was one of us, instead of one of them.

We were the Garretts, Mom and her four sons: Billy, Frankie, Charlie, and me. Daddy died before I was old enough to know him.

Next to us lived the Disarros: Dominick Senior, Pete, Marie, Lindy--named after Charles Lindbergh--and Dominick Junior, my best friend. Then came the Heins: Mrs. Hein, Lloyd, Herbie, and Bobby.

On the other side of our house lived Mrs. Reid, who seemed a bit odd to the rest of us on the block because she actually owned her house.

My girlfriend Eleanor lived in the rented second floor apartment in Mrs. Reid's house.

Up and down the street were the Sucorellis, the Goldmans, the Kellys, the Lombardis, the Osterbergs, the Haywoods, and many others whose names I no longer remember, except for the Batiglias and the Shirleys.

I remember the Batiglias well because Muzzie Batiglia was named after Benito Mussolini, who was before WWII a hero to the Italians living on our block.

And I remember the Shirleys, one of three or four black families on our block because Sam Shirley was our resident capitalist.

A wonderful mechanic, and a man who was loved by the kids on our block, because of his smile and his generosity, Sam Shirley owned a one-bay auto repair garage on Pike Street.

I've forgotten a lot about our block. In fact, most of what I remember about it are things that, like me, were small and unimportant.

One thing I remember well was the day I ate breakfast and lunch at Mrs. Hein's house.

It was the first time I ever had packaged cereal for breakfast, Kellogg's Corn Flakes, a great treat compared to the monotonous bowl of cream-of-wheat I ate every day. And I remember lunch, too, hot, steaming New York style clam chowder with tomatoes in it.

I came home from Mrs. Hein's that evening proudly carrying a small Shirley Temple milk pitcher that I had admired and she had insisted I have.

I still have it. It wasn't until I was over 50 that I belatedly put two and two together and realized I had stayed over there that day because it was the day that Mom buried Daddy.

I'm sorry, Mrs. Hein; I hope you really wanted to part with that pitcher.

I also remember standing with Bobby Hein at a point where a steep cobblestone road made a T-intersection with another street.

The cobbles were smooth and slick that drizzly day, as they always were when they were wet. Bobby pointed out a spot near the curb where his father's milk truck had overturned and crushed him.

My mother and Mrs. Hein were best friends for more than years.

Other small things stick in my mind. One of them is a blind violinist who showed up once a month and filled our block with the plaintive strains of his instrument. I can see him as clearly at this moment as I saw him then.

His quiet face.

The small 48-star American flag sewn to his cap.

The name tag sewn to his chest that said Chateau Thiery. The melted-over place where there should have been eyes.

Mom always sent me out to him with a shiny, real-silver dime.

I was eight or nine before I learned that Chateau Thiery was not his name, but the name of the place where he gave his eyes so that I could grow up in a free country.

Other people came to our block regularly.

A pushcart showed up twice a week pushed by a bent-backed little Italian who called out "two pair for a nick"--meaning two pairs of shoelaces for a nickel.

I never saw anyone buy his shoelaces, but he never quit coming.

A scissors grinder showed up once or twice a year carrying his heavy wheel on his back. For twenty-five cents, he would set it up and sharpen every knife and scissors in your house.

A man with a pony and a large box camera made the rounds, too. And another man showed up now and then with a pushcart heaped with clothing.

One vendor always showed up after dark, why I don't know. That was the peanut and popcorn man, who could be heard coming a long way off because of a steam whistle that beckoned every kid within earshot to his cart.

Every time we heard him coming there was a mad dash in two directions: half of us toward the cart, and the other half toward home to see if a nickel could be cadged for a bag of fresh popped popcorn drenched with real melted butter.

I often think of the old block, but I'll never go back there.

I went back once when I was sixteen, five years after we moved to Connecticut.

The block hadn't changed much. The street, the houses, the buses were the same, and though Bobby, and Muzzie, and J.R. Goldman had aged, Eleanor still kissed just as well.

I won't go back there again, though. The streets may still be there. And the houses. And maybe even the old bus barns.

But the block is gone.

The block was people.

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