Tuesday, August 10, 2010

a) Inheritance b) Neighborhood c) Heritage d) All Of The Above: Part 1

Another on-going series of New York stories



Joyce and Laurel’s father and his family grew up next door to my father and his family in the tenements on Henry Street. Not the hip, over-priced, badly renovated, tons of cache, faux-street-cred tenements of today but the rat-filled, roach-saturated, filthy, over-crowded tenements of yesterday.

Their great-grandfather and grandfather had the stables down the street. They were the blacksmiths.  Laurel and Joyce say it like it is, no bullshit.  Maybe that came from the horses because you know you can’t bullshit a horse.

My grandfather taught himself English, showed up to whatever work he could get, despite suspected depression and was pro-union (although there's speculation it was just an excuse to be self-righteous and punch other people besides his wife and kids).  I think workers should be fairly paid for their work and I’ve shown up to every job I could get despite suspected depression.  Yeah, I got a temper but unlike my grandfather I keep it in check.

After the co-ops were built and the tenements disappeared, our families all got new fancy apartments near one another.  In our world fancy meant elevators, hot water, toilets inside the apartment, no rats and less roaches. Trees too.

(Dana's husband, George was one of the couple of men who got those co-ops built.)

Every once in a while, Dolly their mother would say "Let's go visit Florence" and they would come over and sit at the kitchen table, watching the trains going back and forth. Both of them knew the plaid "lumberjack" jacket from LL Bean and the Kedd sneakers Florence always wore.  No one in the neighborhood looked like her.  So it made sense they would remember.

They also knew we all walked everywhere.  Spending carfare was a very serious decision and if it wasn’t necessary then we didn’t.  And by necessary, I mean if the destination was less than an hour away by foot, the answer was no.  Even if it wasn’t, like Gramma’s, we had to walk back. 

Laurel and Joyce still live in the old neighborhood that was built on top of the old-old neighborhood.  I come downtown for tea and talk.  As I walked in the door, Laurel said, "Betcha walked here."  Of course I did. And although I’m not wearing plaid, it’s clear to see from my sneakers to my jacket, I got Florence’s fashion sense.

Both of them point out the window to a new, ugly, blue high-rise rising on the other side of Delancey.  “Blue Smurf dick,” they both chortle.  Like I said, no bullshit.

Joyce reminds me they played with my hair during those visits.  I don’t remember.  But something inside me remembers more than what they did with my braids.  I will probably get details wrong and forget about dates and lose track of which family did what, but I don't get wrong the neighborhood.   Because, sitting at Laurel’s kitchen table, my lower east side accent returns full force and I talk like I was six and home again.

Inheritance. Neighborhood. Heritage.  All of the above.

5 comments:

bucko said...

great contrast of old and new, new on top of old, and old intertwined with new.

Alana said...

your memories are priceless and beautiful. The old always buried under the new, containing more lessons than the present ever could.

Goggla said...

I always envied my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, talking and laughing about the 'old' neighborhood. They grew up there, as did the rest of the family, all their friends, and their families. The neighborhood tied them together through the generations, creating an extended family that seemed never-ending.

I never had that and wanted desperately to have that kind of connection to a place and family, a home to which to return, both physically and in time.

City Of Strangers said...

re: Goggla's remark: Boy, do I know all about that. Every place I used to know, either as a child or an adult, has either been abandoned or had changed so completely that I can hardly make out WHAT I used to know. Reading CO's piece it's hard to even imagine that continuity, except as an abstract.

Interesting to see these layers still exist in NY, the most fluid of all cities . . .

T.

c.o. moed said...

C.O.S. and Gogla: thank you both so much for such fascinating comments regarding what I take for normal - a long inescapable history on every corner.