Two of my childhood cohorts, Hank and Mary, are easily my oldest friends, going back well over 55 years. It is amazing how an accident of geography placed us together and yet we were such a perfect fit. Mary was one of only a handful of children who lived in our large apartment building, but we were made for each other, both of us mad for animals, horses especially, and yet content to spend an afternoon reading side by side or playing paper dolls, even if the weather outside was fine. She lived on the top floor, I lived on the ground floor. I was sturdy and tough, she was tiny and delicate and we were inseparable.
Hank’s aunt lived in the building next door and every summer he was sent to stay with her. He, with his chipmunk cheeks and adorable, mischievous dimple (which he still has), arrived in late spring and left in the fall, but oh the fun we squeezed in for those few weeks every year!
We all romped, first, directly in front of our respective apartment buildings. Then, as we got older, we branched out to frolicking around the entire block and into the wilds of the space in the center of that block, behind the buildings. We called it the Back Lot and I have to laugh at how barbarous and rough that sounds, because this was a lovely, middle class neighborhood. It makes us sound like grubby, neglected urchins, when we truly were closely supervised and strictly raised. But children love leafy, mysterious places and that is what the Back Lot was. It was filled with boulders, ailanthus trees and weedy shrubs, shot through with rocky paths, shortcuts through the block from one street to another. A perfect setting for all sorts of adventures. When I think of the kind of misadventures we could have encountered I shudder. But we never did. It was our own personal playground. The park was off limits for us at that time, too far for us to go alone (although I, defiant and fearless, frequently sneaked down to the park that bordered the Harlem River, often dragging my hapless brother along). The Back Lot suited us just fine for the most part.
(All the greenery in the middle is our "Back Lot", the wilds of University Heights. The yellow line is the route I took every day from my front door to school.)
There were actually four of us, not just three. Our dear Noel rounded out our particularly close quartet. He was in my class at Holy Spirit. He was quiet, smart and made funny faces that made me laugh. I adored him. We adored him. It is one of my life’s great sorrows that none of us have seen or heard from him in over forty years. We have searched online and found no trace. There have been tantalizing clues here and there, including the possibility he entered the priesthood, but otherwise there is nothing. His full name is relatively common in England, where he was born, and in Ireland, so that complicates things. We miss him terribly.
One of our favorite games was acting out scenarios based on 1950’s TV shows, especially the Superman TV series. (We watched A LOT of television!) It is so funny to think of now, because both Noel and Hank were sweet and gentle little boys, certainly not aggressive or in any way dominating, but they were our Supermen, taking turns in the role. And Mary and I would take turns as Lois Lane. Maybe I am being overly nostalgic, but I don’t remember ever quarreling in our weeks and weeks of playing together every single day. When the other kids were added to the mix there was inevitably rivalry and, sometimes, tears. But the four of us always got along on our own.
Both apartment buildings had roomy courtyards ideal for running around in and my building had a vast lobby and great open hall on the first floor that we also took great advantage of. We always had some fantasy we were acting out, we were a particularly imaginative and creative bunch. We also were bookish dreamers, which is why I think we were so close. The other kids on our block were not bad, but they could be bullying and bossy. The neighborhood at large had a hefty population of Irish Catholics with big families, but, ironically, our side of the block had a very small proportion of children, I can only think of maybe ten all together, including our siblings. That was it for two large apartment buildings.
Our building alone was a great big L-shaped that contained probably about 50 apartments. My side of the L had the address of 106 W. 179 Street and the other side of the L was 1944 Andrews Avenue. But the majority of tenants were older people, primarily Irish Catholics and Eastern European Jews, and many of the later were Holocaust survivors. When the 1940 Census was first available online, you could only access people by address, not name. So I looked up my Bronx address because it was easy to find. Incredibly, several of the wonderful older people I grew up knowing had lived in the building since 1940, including the couple who lived in the apartment over ours, the Hartmans. I was so lucky, because these were like an extended family and they were all very, very kind to me. They really shaped the person I became.
The 1940 Census shows our upstairs neighbors, Mr. & Mrs. Hartman, were living there 14 years before my parents moved in. Mrs. Hartman's mother was gone by then and they had no children. They were very, very nice to me, and I shamelessly dropped by for visits with embarrassing frequency. They always treated me to cookies and milk.
Mrs. Clune lived upstairs with her little dog, who she walked, it seemed, constantly. She was a teeny, delicate lady, very sweet, always with a smile. I have no memory of Mr. Clune, who must have died before I was born. Their son was probably in his thirties when I knew him, but I thought he was an old man.
But back to us...our idyll only lasted until we were about 12. My parents moved our family to the wasteland of rural New Jersey in 1966, where there was literally nothing but our hideous, cracker box development and cornfields. My mother didn’t drive and there was nothing within walking distance, not friends, school, shops or, worst of all, the library. I don’t think I have ever gotten over it, going from independence and my cherished friends to trapped isolation.
I wish I had pictures of Hank, Mary, Noel and I together, but we don’t. Almost all the pictures I have of the neighborhood are as it is today. A few exceptions are snaps of me in my mother’s arms outside our building, but facing the apartment house across the street. That was a sumptuous complex with gardens, sunken living rooms and multiple bathrooms. Now it is boarded up. Although now the neighborhood is more family oriented again, the terrible, crime-ridden days seem to have passed, they left an appalling legacy. The courtyards where we ran and played our games are locked up, with some gates topped by barbed wire. The cement steps between the buildings that we used to access the Back Lot have crumbled. The decorative limestone balustrades that lined the front steps of our apartment building have been demolished and replaced with cinder blocks. Crime is less, but shabbiness and poverty exist where pride of place ruled before.
|The building I grew up in; no gate or barbed wire in my time. The first two windows to the left were my bedroom.|
|The other side of the building. There used to be grass and decorative wrought iron fencing where those concrete slabs are now.|
|The space between our building and Hank's; the steps are all crumbled and broken now.|
|The gate enclosing the courtyard of Hank's building.|
|The beautiful building across the street from ours, the gardens are now all boarded up.|
My mother and I took a trip in to see the old neighborhood about 14 years ago, with a friend from the Internet who had gone to my grammar school and his wife. We had such a nice day exploring, even got to go into Holy Spirit school, as CCD was being taught that day and the school was open. It was like a time capsule, absolutely immaculate, from the shining wood floors to the bright, windowed classrooms. It was so good to see, and I am glad I had the chance, as the Dicosese of New York is shutting it down this month. It is a disgrace that a school which has been in operation for almost 100 years is being closed and the education of inner city children, who are the most vulnerable, is being sacrified. For shame.
It goes without saying that Hank and Mary grew up to be just as wonderful as they were when they were kids. Mary is a devoted mother of a large extended family. She still has a big, sensitive heart and a special love for animals. Hank is a loving, loyal friend and he works hard to make a difference in this world (here is a link to his website). Life and geographical distance prevent us from seeing each other as we would like, but, especially since I have been sick, they never fail to remind me how important I am to them and how I am in their thoughts and prayers. One cannot ask for much more than that.
I am so grateful for how my sweet friends enriched my life and I thank you all, Hank, Mary and Noel. I believe somewhere in the universe there is a faint echo of the laughter and pure delight in life that four children shared together a long time ago. There is no way that joy, that simple pleasure in each other’s company, could ever fade away.
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