Revisiting my boyhood neighborhood seemed like a good idea at first, but nostalgia is one thing, personal safety another.
Here I was, in June 2001, with an unexpected departure delay at Newark Airport and my hometown, Roselle, within earshot of the glide path for runway 4-E. Six hours to kill and a white Hertz rental car paid up until midnight.
So what’s a sexagenarian with a sentimental streak to do? I could picture the swing set in the back yard of 614 Spruce Avenue, the henhouse across the street and Jimmy Benson’s roadster with the rumble seat. No jets overhead in the early ’40s for sure; air travel was a rarity back then, even in a prop plane. The main sound I remembered was the drum patterns of the high school marching band, practicing formations in the schoolyard just three blocks west. I especially remembered one blizzard with snow up to my bellybutton, which isn’t all that high when you’re only four.
Out of habit I drove down Amsterdam, not really thinking about why. I’d work my way over to Spruce, which was mostly white then. The “Negro” section started just across Sixth Avenue over on that road; anyway people all got along back then as long as we stayed in “our place.” We kids played street stickball fine together, but somehow were never invited into each other’s homes. Never saw each other in church either. Never thought to ask why. I wonder why I didn’t. I wonder what the answer would be. Wonder, wonder, wonder.
Rekemier Florists was still there on Second Avenue, but I was too busy switching lanes to notice the grillwork covering every pane on the greenhouse. First Pres church, where I’d spent more Sundays than I wished, was also still in place on Chestnut. I noticed the razor wire fence surrounding it as well as the bulletin board lettered in three languages, one of them with an odd alphabet.
At the turn onto Walnut, I began to realize that most of the once-vacant lots were crammed with multi-family homes in varying conditions. My situational awareness kicked in. Some houses had boarded-up windows and front stoops scrawled with graffiti. Black youths hung out in numbers that, truth be told, made me more uneasy at first than I cared to admit. No problem, I told myself. Changing neighborhood; been there, done that.
Even so, Spruce Avenue came as a shock, more built-up yet more run-down than I could possibly have imagined—almost urban. Dented cars, more in primer than paint, crowded bumper to bumper along both curbs, making it a one-lane street. No stickball here anymore. No room for it anyway. Four cocky teenage boys scowled at me like I didn’t belong. The lanky one could have been twenty.
There was room to pull in at the driveway cut in front of 614, where I could immerse myself in the past and maybe snap a photo or two. The bungalow looked so much smaller than I remembered, dwarfed by the multifamily house next door where my woods used to be.
As I opened the car window and pulled out my smartphone, the four young men surrounded the car and began to rock it. “Jerome and Jasper, you take the back!” the leader shouted. “I’ll do the front with Ty-Ty.” All the while, they just glared. Oddly it didn’t bother me. Maybe I was more in the past than the present.
“What you doin’ here, Whitey, white car ’n all?” the older one demanded, pounding on the roof.
That sure woke me up.
“You’re late, neighbor,” I replied without really thinking. “I was here first.”
The rocking stopped. Silence for a beat, then a surly, “Here first? What’re you talkin’ about?”
“See that house? I lived there seventy-five years ago. See that maple tree out front, with the rope swing? I planted it in 1942 when I was six, got the sapling in the woods next door. It was no more than a foot tall.”
“What woods?” Reuben interrupted. “No woods ’round here.”
“It was solid woods then, from the next lot all the way to the corner where those two new houses are.” I pointed that way. “Plenty of little tree saplings to pull out. Even a snake. Too much poison ivy.”
The boys started to chuckle, and it dawned on me that those ‘‘new” houses had about as many years on them as all four kids put together.
“Anyway, I caught such a case of poison ivy digging up that tree that my mom could tell I’d been in the woods, which was a no-no. My rash was so bad, she had to paint me in calamine—while bawling me out a second time. I was grounded four days.”
“Guess that calamine made you whiter than you already was,” quipped Ty-Ty, with a wise-guy grin.
I caught his drift. “A little on the pink side, actually.”
Murmured chuckle all around.
Reuben, obviously the leader, spoke up. “Jerome, this dude says he once lived in your house.”
Jerome got up in my face. “Yeah? Which room was yours?”
“In the back on the left, upstairs, with the drainpipe next to the window. Once I shinnied down it when I awoke from my nap to see a wasp crawling on the ceiling.”
“A ‘wasp?’ Exactly what you look like now,” Jasper said. “I don’t want a wasp in my room, never!”
He paused a beat. “Oh, you mean the bu-ug!” Good timing. He could be a stand-up comic someday.
Out of 614 strode an elderly woman, petite and weathered but definitely in charge. “Jerome, what exactly is going on?”
The young man’s demeanor changed instantly. “Nana, this man says he lived in our house as a kid.”
“I was in the area. Just wanted to see the first house I ever remembered. You know…”
“Finding his ‘roots,’” Jasper the Jester chimed in. That brought another chuckle, Nana’s included.
Introductions all around, finally. I extended my hand to Jerome, no reaction. “Fist bumps ’n dabs, dude, that’s how we do it now.” Ty-Ty, Jasper and Reuben took their turns with very elaborate routines.
“Grownups still actually shake hands,” said the woman, pushing her grandson aside to extend her hand. “Hi, I’m Florence. I guess this place must look a whole lot different.”
“The surrounding neighborhood is so much more built up,” I replied. “Across the street, Mr. Reninger had a chicken coop. That’s where we got our eggs, and an occasional chicken.”
“Ty-Ty lives there now,” said Reuben. “Hey, Ty-Ty, maybe you were born in a chicken coop. Would ‘splain a lot.”
Again Ty-Ty pretended to stay cool but couldn’t quite pull it off.
The conversation turned warmer. I described my ride as a three-year-old in the rumble seat of our neighbor’s roadster, then had to explain what a rumble seat was. Then “What’s a roadster?” Reuben asked.
Jerome allowed that he had trouble picturing that stout front-yard maple as a sapling no taller than a six-year-old. But they all agreed about hearing the marching band on autumn Fridays, “’cept when the planes fly over for a landing,” said Jasper. “Then we can’t hear anythin’ else.”
Florence turned to me. “Well, come on out and take your pictures. We really should be flattered.” The young men stepped back to make room. Reuben noticed my arthritic difficulty getting out, hesitated a beat, and then lent me a hand.
When I finished snapping photos, Florence invited me inside for a look around. The interior seemed alien until Jerome headed up the stairs. The third step gave a loud squeak in protest. I couldn’t hide my grin.
“My dad promised to fix that squeak for Mom’s thirtieth birthday. That was 1943. We can all see how well that went.”
Walking out the back door, I caught the familiar scent of fresh mint. Florence noticed. “Sure proves you can’t kill mint,” she said.
Jerome pointed to a mound of freshly-turned earth next to a rock in the shade of the back fence. “That’s Magic.” He paused to gather himself. “My dog, had him since I was three. Buried him a couple of weeks ago.”
“Good resting place for pets,” I said. “My pet canary Petey rests just on the other side of that rock, in a Buster Brown shoebox.”
“What’s a Buster Brown?” Ty-ty asked.
“Big brand name for kid’s shoes back then.”
He still looked puzzled.
“Like Air Jordans for you guys,” I added lamely.
Over iced tea and Gatorade in the cramped front room, Florence said, “When you first pulled up by our driveway, I believe you were more comfortable around the boys than they were around you. Doesn’t that tell us something about changing times?”
The boys took in her words quietly. So did I. No response was necessary.
Time passed more quickly than anyone realized. “I’ll miss my flight if I don’t leave now,” I said.
We all headed for my white Hertz car. I asked them to squeeze in real tight for a selfie. It took three tries to squeeze all six of us into the frame.
“Send me a copy?” Ty-Ty asked.
“Here, punch in your number.” I handed him my phone. His thumbs danced faster than mine ever could. With thanks he politely handed it back.
Except for Florence’s firm goodbye handshake, it was all fist bumps and elaborate dabs.
“Safe trip—homeboy,” said Ty-Ty, deadpan.
While waiting to board for the flight home, I texted Ty-Ty the selfie with a note that said, And welcome to MY ’hood.
Doc Ardrey enjoys writing more today than in his previous seventy years, dating back to sixth grade. His career credits total more than 5,000 published articles in global business and technical publications – plus ESQUIRE, NY TIMES and the CONGRESSIONAL RECORD. “That was to sell stuff and ideas; this is for enjoyable reads.” Doc gravitates toward edgy short stories and topical poems with quirky characters. His short stories have appeared in CONCEIT, FABULA ARGENTA, TROUT (a fish story), ULTIMATE WRITERS QUARTERLY and local anthologies. He also received honorable mention in the GLIMMERTRAIN 2017 new writer contest.