I count myself lucky. By the time I was 10 years old, I had learned something that some people never get a chance to learn. I didn’t learn it because I did anything special. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
In fact, it might be more accurate to say that I didn’t learn it at all. I suppose I absorbed it through my pores. All I know is that when I was young, something happened which gave me a respect for people — all people — that has really helped me enjoy life, and has made it easy for me to understand a few things. Things I might otherwise have not have understood at all, or only dimly.
Both the neighborhoods I lived in on Staten Island in New York are ones that would be referred to today as “in transition,” which is a polite way of saying “on their way to becoming slums.”
Whether either of them made it all the way to becoming a slum, I don’t know.
We moved out of New York City when I was 11. I went back for a visit five years later when I was 16. When I saw them at that time, both the old neighborhoods looked the same as they always had. So either one could have gone up, or down.
Or they may have gone down and then made the trek back up. Big cities are odd places. They get involved with something called “urban renewal,” and you suddenly find old neighborhoods magically transformed into condominiums filled with people raking in six-digit salaries. So who knows?
I will say, though, that a friend of mine up here in Pine, who also comes from Staten Island, once said that many years after I left Staten Island he used to hunker down as he drove down Van Duzer Street — where I used to live — to “... avoid the bullets.”
That seems a bit indicative, doesn’t it, Johnny?
Oh, well. Either way, I’ll never know. I’m here in the Rim Country now, don’t plan on going back to check on it, and have already told my kids to scatter my ashes over this land I love.
So what was it I learned?
I’ve mentioned Ward Hill in the column before. Ward Hill is part of a range of Staten Island hills which includes the highest point on the eastern seaboard south of Maine. More importantly, Ward Hill is the northernmost of those hills. It ends just short of the part of Staten Island called St. George. You could walk out of my old neighborhood on one side of Ward Hill in Tompkinsville, go down to St. George, and walk around the north end of Ward Hill to Stapleton, my new neighborhood, on the other side of the hill.
Get the picture, Johnny? A tall hill, with a dirt-poor neighborhood on its east side, and another dirt-poor neighborhood on its west side?
And atop the hill ...?
Snob City, what else?
Up on Ward Hill lived my cousin Barry, son of a wealthy New York City district attorney. Mom used to send me up there once in a while. Why, I never knew. “Barry wants you to come up,” is all she ever told me. I didn’t have a clue why I went, I just went.
Barry had one — or maybe six or eight — of everything, at a time when most kids had nothing. So why Barry wanted me up there always puzzled me. I suspect it may have been to lord it over me, but I was too dumb to catch on.
So I trekked up the hill, enjoyed messing around with all the stuff Barry took for granted, ate lunch cooked by a maid — as often as not, something I’d never seen before — and went home with a happy heart and full belly.
But Barry! What a waste of good stuff! That kid actually got a sound-effects center for Christmas 1941 — like the ones radio stations use. In fact, he got a playroom full of new stuff that year. I had fun with it, but Barry called it a load of junk.
Part of what I want to tell you about, happened that same Christmas. Barry had gotten a brand new 26-inch bike, so he let me use his 24-inch one. I’d never ridden a bike before, and so it was fun! Barry and his rich friends ran circles around me at first, poking fun at me. But being more concerned about learning how to ride than about what the Pillsbury Doughboys had to say, I paid no attention, and as soon as I got the gist of the thing, it was easy to outrun that bunch. So the whole thing ended well — for me anyway.
I was stopped along a circular road that ran along the edge of Ward Hill, enjoying a view of Stapleton I’d never seen before. It was beautiful down below, a grassy field with a tiny thread of water, a school I’d never seen before, kids running around, the harbor off in the distance. The kids were too far away for me to hear them, but they sure looked like they were having fun.
Barry and his friends pulled up. “Oh, here you are,” Barry said. “I thought maybe you stole my bike.”
I was more interested in the war game the kids down below were playing. It looked like fun. “Ever go down there?” I asked.
You should have seen the shocked expressions. “Down there?” one of Barry’s friends asked. “With those kids? They’re bad kids!”
“Yeah,” another one said. “Real bad. Punks. Hoodlums.”
I listened to that stuff for a while, but then Barry said we had to go because it was time for lunch. After lunch I went home. There’s more to that day, but I’ve told it before.
Early in 1942, we moved from Brook Street in Tompkinsville to Van Duzer Street in Stapleton. I still went to Public School 16 back in Tompkinsville, but I don’t know why. What I do know is that there was a little blonde on my new block, name of Anita, who was the cutest thing that ever smiled. There were other kids too, pretty much the same as the kids back on Brook Street, but with different names. In a week I was having as much fun as ever.
One day we were playing war in a vacant lot near my house. Kids played war a lot back then. It was wartime and the war was on our minds because we all had relatives fighting in it. As we were finishing up that day, Henry, Anita’s brother, said we should go over to the “mountain” to fight the war the next day. So off we went the next morning to a wide, grassy field at the bottom of a steep slope. What a great war zone! It even had a river. Well, a brook. Well-l-l, a thin little foot-wide thing, if the truth be told. But it bubbled up out of the ground through pure white sand and tasted better than any city water I had ever tasted.
After an hour or so, we quit for a rest — and a cool drink of spring water.
Sitting there, I looked around and got a surprise, in fact two of them.
First I saw a school I had seen before, and then I turned around and realized that I was sitting right below the place where I had looked down from above at Christmas time.
I’m sure you can see the simple truth I learned that day.