Sidewalks, Bicycles, Ice Cream, Barbecues...and Friends
My childhood home still stands and though it is no longer mine, I have visited my old neighborhood many timed over the years. It is bittersweet to see some places have changed but there is a smile of joy when I see some have remained, and even weathered the test of time and memory.
The cracked sidewalks with roots protruding from aged trees makes the neighborhood walk an adventurous obstacle and dangerous if you don’t pay attention. Those cracked sidewalks are ingrained in my memory and I walk confidently over each rooted rut and elevated crack.
I remember the day I got to ride my older sister’s 24” Schwinn bicycle over these very sidewalks. It was the day I’d graduated from a tricycle. My feet just barely reached the pedals so I couldn’t sit down on the monogrammed S seat; I had to ride standing up but comfort didn’t matter to me, I loved having big girl wheels and the freedom crystallized the memory.
That whole summer, I rode that bike day after day, all around the block, learning every bump and crack until I was old enough to cross the street. Then I got to map the sidewalks in my neighborhood and then began some amazing adventures. Eventually, I replaced that Schwinn with my first car, a used car, a Dodge, Dart Swinger, but that’s another story.
The houses on my childhood street are attached and well kept and stand locked in defiance against the changing neighborhoods around them.
The grocer on the corner whose aged sign shivers in the wintry New York winds has been there as long as I can remember. The establishment passed down through family, changing the owner but not so much the store. It’s still a throwback to the decade of its grand opening, wooden shelves line two narrow aisles and an open area for cold products stands at the back of the store. To this day, lunchmeats are cut to order at the checkout counter and fresh baked breads, rolls and bagels are in large wooden bins at the front of the store. I cannot describe with justice the amazing aromas that hit you as you enter, but mouthwatering is pretty close.
Across the street from the grocer, stands an open air fruit and vegegtable store with bins brimming with stock and signs with fair market prices hawking fresh local vegetables and fruit. I remember having to run to that store whenever my mom ran out of onions or potatoes or some needed vegetable for the dinner she was cooking. She’d call out my name from the 2nd floor window of our two story house and I’d leave the game of whatever we kids were playing and answer her call. She’d throw down money wrapped in a handkerchief and tell me what to buy, and school me again on what to look for on the vegetable or fruit to tell if it was spoiled. Sometimes I’d get it right but most times she had to cut away the bad parts, especially on the potatoes, but she loved me anyway.
Next door to the fruit stand there had been a luncheonette, I can remember many summer afternoons sitting at its counter with my friends. We’d order hamburgers, fries and shakes and grab a comic book off the overfilled bookstand to take back with us to sit on someone’s stoop and read while we ate our average kid's dream of lunch, at least it was average whenever our parents gave us the money for it, which may not have been as often as we’d have liked.
Most parents worked so usually we’d have to go home and make ourselves a sandwich and grab a glass of some beverage for our lunch. We'd meet back on someone’s stoop after but on that rare occasion, when your parent’s hadn’t yet shopped for the weekly groceries, they’d leave you money to buy lunch. We’d divvy it up so we had enough for the friends whose parent hadn’t left them lunch money that day, and we’d all go to the luncheonette. It was amazing how little you needed for a hamburger, drink and comic book back then.
Next to the luncheonette was a Laundromat where on Saturday’s every one in the neighborhood vied for the machines. While they waited patiently, conversations of life filled the dryer warmed air, neighbors being neighbors, interested in each other’s stories and families, and ready to snitch if they’d seen someone’s child cutting school. Unfortunately, my friends and I had been the stars of that conversation once or twice, or maybe more, hard to say, as here my memory takes a willingly forgetful turn.
Further down the street was a pizza place, it had a counter and booths and was where my friends and I gathered as we stepped into the upper teen years. This was the place we’d go to talk about the boys we liked and because it was the best pizza anywhere. I do understand how things taste better in memory however, I will say this: when I last visited the old pizza place, before it was sold, I had a slice of pizza and it held up to every one of those memories.
Two blocks down from the pizza place was an establishment that lit up every child’s eyes. It was a special treat when your family took you there. It was the neighborhood Ice Cream Parlor, and they made ice cream, soda and chocolates. But we’d only get those chocolate lollipops, bunnies and other assorted chocolate shapes only on special occasions, your birthday, your graduation and once a year on Easter. But all year round we went there for the ice cream. Behind a glass counter you could see the large bins of flavors, creamy and fresh and begging you to try each one of them, and over those years we did.
When my parents would buy us a couple of pints of ice cream to take home, me and my sisters would watch as it was scooped into white cartons and packed so full that the interlocking top barely closed over the large cold mound. You could see the ice cream peeking through the sides and we’d walk home as fast as we could trying not to let the ice cream melt before we could dole it out into bowls, and savor that first spoonful.
There were booths you could sit in at the parlor and they were high backed, dark leather and comfortable. There was a juke box in the corner and through the years older kids made it the place to be. Sometimes as an unexpected treat, my family would stay and we'd order Banana splits, or Sundays with toppings of fresh bananas, fresh pineapple, covered in cherry or chocolate sauce and homemade whipped cream and always with a cherry on top. I will never replace this memory with something better, there just isn’t one.
I remember when I was a bit older- old enough to go with just my friends and no parents- we'd sometimes order the cherry-lime rickeys thinking we were so grown up. I can see us sitting in those massive booths, sipping our drinks and giggling as the juke box played ‘Judy in disguise with glasses’. I’m not sure why that song is the background to that memory but it is; I guess it could have been the popular song of the day, or maybe it was the songs silly lyrics that made an impression on me and stuck there.
Several blocks down from the ice cream parlor was the shopping avenue and one store there was a Mecca for every teenager, at least back then it was.
It was the record store. I remember the first time I went in there with my mother and made her buy me a record, I was about five years old. I don’t remember the record but I do remember it was a record my older sister’s had talked about wanting to buy, and I guess I wanted to be like them. That may have been the first time I walked into that store but it certainly wasn’t the last. And I still have all those 45’s and every LP album I’d bought in my youth. I play my platters on occasion on my old record player and trust me, that’s a nostalgic trip back anytime I put the little diamond needle on top of the vinyl.
Rounding out my neighborhood, we had three movie theaters and two very large parks. The movie theaters are long gone, one is now a ridiculously large Starbucks but the two parks still remain. They’re only a mile from each other and at one time, one park had a pool, a beautiful pool that we’d spent endless summer days enjoying, as not many of us had pools in our not so large backyards.
But in those small backyards, we’d gather as our family barbecued and we neighborhood kids were always welcome at each others backyard barbecues and yard size never mattered. We'd grab our bounty and head for the front stoop to enjoy it anyway.
Parents knew that hotdogs had to be bought in cartons because you’d have to feed the neighborhood kids once the smell of that burning charcoal wafted over the street, and indubitably, company was coming to your door. Even now, when I smell the heated coals of a grill, I can see those T-shirts, shorts and flip flopped feet running, a pack of giggling friends scurrying to find which house that wonderful aroma was coming from…and I can almost taste the first heavenly bite of that crisply barbecued hot dog right now.
I’d kept the same tradition when my boys were young. Our first house was on a Brooklyn street across from one of those parks, the smaller one without the pool, and we came to know every family on that block, and soon we all knew the open door policy, if you fired up that grill.
My last walk through my old neighborhood was several years back but today someone is barbecuing nearby and the aroma of charcoal has wafted over the fence and into my memories filling me with nostalgia.
For all the hard times we've been through latley, I hope those crazy days of childhood and giggly days of teen years will rein in my heart forever and give me a better perceptive on life, and help me though the days that aren’t as warm and fuzzy, or as kind.