Damon Runyon Redux

Scroll up or click on “home”to see Chapters 1,2 and 3 of my family’s history

The history of my family continues, here, with:

Chapter 4:  The Childhood Neighborhood

The best way to introduce my immediate family is to introduce the neighborhood where I grew up.

I was born in Hudson County, New Jersey.  My parents had tripped the light fantastic for a time after my father returned from World War II and had their fun before starting a family – me.  They traveled, took in the east coast nightlife and got re-acquainted after a long period apart.

In the last chapter I described how Dad resisted becoming a typical urban goomba, the vassal of a family enterprise, and decided to move his new family to the Bergen County, NJ suburbs, which at the time was way out there with more orchards and pig farms than anything else.  My mother was more than willing to be a part of the urban family business in order to stay near her own family who were mostly still in Hudson County.  She also didn’t want to leave their Hudson County apartment which was quite large and beautifully detailed and which she had maintained throughout my father’s time in Europe.  My father insisted and, not surprisingly, prevailed.  They bought a new, small Cape Cod brick house in a 2 square mile, south Bergen County town.  They had a small 3% mortgage on an $11,500 purchase. Don’t forget my parents were children of The Depression and this affected my mother most of all.  She was terrified of this debt and eventually made my father pay it off early.

Theirs was one of three identical new houses on the street, built by the same developer.  Mostly the whole town was a GI town – developed post war with many returning soldiers purchasing the newly built real estate.  To this day, you will be hard pressed to find many examples of traditional Victorian or early Colonial architecture in this little burb.  The post war Split Levels, Ranches and Capes dominated until the next wave of immigrants – from Asia – started knocking them down in the last 20-30 years and replacing them with McMansions.  The people who bought my father’s house (not Asians but Italians from Italy!) knocked it down – and bought the house next door and demolished that, too – and built 2 McMansions.  Much of the existing architecture was, also, what I call Old World Slum – that is, boxy, undistinguished structures, cheaply built and just as ugly.  I have sold a bunch of these in various towns in my real estate career and I marvel that anyone wants them.

Our house, originally, had a small cement front porch, a living room, 2 bedrooms on the first floor, no dining room, a small full bath, an eat-in kitchen and nothing on the second floor but an unfinished attic.  No garage graced the backyard.  There was no basement, just a dirt floor crawl space.  This would all change over time.  My father, by himself with just a couple of helpers, built a cinderblock and brick garage.  He wasn’t a builder – he was a retail window trimmer (more about that later).  When I sold the family home in 2004 the garage was crumbling, its brick façade cracking and sagging.  The cinder blocks comprising the garage walls were filled with beer cans and vodka bottles – a result of my father’s work ethic.  He also built a rear porch bigger than the house itself on two levels, separately heated and cooled as well.  Again, when I was selling the house and I had contractors inspecting it, one stood in a corner of this massive back room and said he couldn’t see a right angle anywhere – another testament to my father’s skill as a builder.  I’m not discounting my father’s effort.  It’s no mean feat to build what he built on his own as an amateur – even if it wasn’t level and didn’t last forever.  The second floor became 2 finished bedrooms and a half  bath. The floors upstairs were asbestos composite tiles – who knew then? – and the walls were covered with what was known as “donkey board”, a wood flake composite.  When I was in high school I was the helper charged with some building tasks while my father was at work.  This didn’t work out too well.  I was not an inspired builder and my mother – always at home – would provide many breaks with snacks and meals and Dad was usually unimpressed – sometimes furiously so – with my progress when he returned.

My father delighted in comparing his building efforts to the additions put on the other 2 identical houses next to ours.  He maintained that, even those other homeowners admitted that his work was superior.  He wasn’t satisfied with his accomplishments on their own.  He needed to feel they were a cut above the rest.

The first neighborhood character I was exposed to was Pippi who lived up the street.  I’m not going to make up names here.  It’s too much trouble and – who cares, anyway?  I don’t owe anything to these people’s memories.  Pippi was some sort of contractor – a very pickled one – who was my father’s teacher, mentor, muse and drinking buddy in his building career.  Between the two of them it’s no wonder everything they built was leaning – just like they were from time to time.  I visited Pippi’s  property often and would marvel at the incredible collection of junk in his large backyard and garage.  Don’t forget, this was a residential area and he was running a junkyard and contracting business in the middle of it.

He wasn’t the weirdest.  The Vendolas down the other side of the street were carnival people and had carnival rides and portable concession stands parked on their property.

The Vokaturas further down the street were excavators with dump trucks and earth moving vehicles on their properties and lived in an Old World Slum style house that would have made Tobacco Road proud.

I should pause to mention the ethnic makeup of this town at the time – and, no, I’m not going to name the town.  I don’t want angry letters from their town council.  It was pretty equally made up of Italians, the Irish and the Polish.  There were 3 Catholic churches – the Italian cathedral, Sacred Heart, was a typical medieval, scary, old stone pile which would have been happy in Palermo, Sicily or Naples.  Mount Carmel, the Irish church, started life as a small Sacred Heart branch office and was eventually conceded to the Irish population.  It looked like something you’d find among the corn fields of Iowa – small, wooden, simple.  The Polish church was St. Michael’s, much newer, big and more modern than the others and very pleasant.  My parents would attend Sunday Mass there from time to time just for a treat and to get away from the somber, incense filled ceremonies of Sacred Heart.  There were a number of Protestant churches, all pretty modern, and I’m told there was a synagogue but I don’t remember ever seeing it.  The population was dominated by white, ethnic Catholics.

I never saw any local African-Americans growing up.  I overheard adults saying there were none allowed and the local realtors were enforcing the ban.  I have no proof of this but it’s a pretty good bet that in mid 20th century small town New Jersey this was the case, especially with a blue-collar, immigrant, ethnic population in place.  As a matter of fact, in my Catholic high school, the one Caribbean black girl enrolled had to quit the school in the face of torment from her white, female peers.  Oddly enough, my mother would make the distinction between us and “the white people” which gives you some insight on how the Italians were not looked on as mainstream Americans at that time.

The town had 2 named neighborhoods – The Hook and The Hill.  The Hill was on the eastern tip of town near The Meadowlands and was – as the name implied – on a hill.  The Hook was on the western edge of town near the river.  Back in the day, murder victims were hung by hooks from the streetlights.  I won’t speculate on the perpetrators but I’ll bet you can guess.  My neighborhood was in The Hook.  The adjacent Meadowlands were another favorite criminal dumping ground.  In later years, the part of town in these wetlands was developed into a powerful business, corporate and financial area known as Wall Street West.

The main street was dotted with Italian restaurants and bakeries and specialty stores.  I held my father’s funeral lunch at Angelo’s Restaurant – one of his favorites – and right out of The Godfather.  It was small, family owned and operated with just a few tables and good, solid, Old World Italian food.  I must have had 25 people at that lunch and the bill came to only $300, including drinks.

When I was a kid, most occasions resolved with some kind of edible purchase.  After church, there was the Italian bakery across the street, after work at the parish center – I sold coffee and food at the bingo games – there was a trip to Rutt’s Hut for a deep-fried hot dog.  After a visit to the cemetery we purchased one of those cardboard tasting Italian cheesecakes.  Whenever we visited anyone or entertained guests there was always a delicacy brought as a gift.  You didn’t just visit with coffee and cake – there was a large, complicated meal, always.  Whenever I played Little League on the ball fields down by the river, the team would go to the local diner and eat afterwards. There were espresso bars in the town before it was hip.  We attended regular barbecues at the town parks which I remember as huge affairs.  These were the ultimate expression of suburban living for the ethnic urbanite refugees.  The Knights of Columbus where my father belonged had a bar where the drinks were 50 cents and a full kitchen causing every event to dissolve into a feast afterward.  The Knights or the church sponsored Saturday night events – themed galas – which were just an excuse for more eating.   I worked the coat check and the clean up jobs at these affairs and, of course, would go out to eat afterward – even though they also fed us at the event.  In grammar school I always detoured to the candy store across the street from the school as I walked home.  As a matter of fact, my mother used to give me money to pick her up a pack of smokes at that store on my way home and gave me money for a little treat for myself.  If a parent did that today they’d be arrested (along with the store owner) and be on the nightly news.  In those days, no one thought anything about it.  In 7th and 8th grade we took shop class at another school and walked back to our school afterward.  We were under strict orders not to stop anywhere but to come straight back to school.  We would stop at 2 delis and a candy store every time.  In high school I dated the daughter of the Chief of Police.  We would get a snack somewhere and she would quote Supreme Court cases to me and I’d pretend to understand what she was talking about.

Don’t ask me what attracted my parents to this odd, little municipality.  Maybe it was because it was pretty remote from Hudson County.  Maybe my father felt safe on the other side of The Meadowlands – despite the gruesome hangings down by the river. Maybe it was because it was cheap with old-school touches. Around the corner from our house was a small A&P, the size of a modern convenience store and next door to that was an Italian butcher.  At our favorite barber shop you could get a haircut for a quarter and a shoe shine from the mentally challenged kid who worked there whose concoctions would rip the shine right off your shoes.  In this town and our neighborhood, in addition to the ice cream truck that regularly visited in the afternoon, there was a portable carnival ride called “The Whip” on a truck that plied the streets. 2 people sat in small gondolas which were propelled in an oval track on the back of the caged truck and “whipped” around the corners.  From time to time you’d also hear a bell ringing from a patrolling truck where you could get your knives sharpened..Maybe my parents recognized there was an entrenched Italian population.  I’m guessing that urban Italians considered this “the country” and Shangri-La.  Whatever the reason, there we were, surrounded by neighbors right out of Damon Runyon who I will continue to describe.

On the eastern corner of our street was the San Carlo Restaurant and catering hall.  It was the upscale palace of the town and visits there were very special occasions.  The family who ran it lived there also.  I don’t remember their names but their daughters were very pretty and the young, female aristocrats of the neighborhood.  On the opposite corner was an apartment building and this corner was a favorite haunt for the a capella doo-wop kids who would gather around a barrel fire in winter and sing.  A scene right out of Rocky, Goodfellas – or Jersey Boys.

Next door to the restaurant parking lot, starting up my street, lived the Carbones.  Gary, their son, my peer and playmate was on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour on television as an Elvis-type lip synch artist when he was in grammar school  His father, owner of the worst hair-piece ever, was grooming him to become a singer and performer.  His father reminded me of my Uncle Andre – remember him? the one with Thyme in his tomato sauce? – always ready to explode with the next big idea.  Gary was a miserable playmate and always stole whatever hat I was wearing.  They moved to California, I suppose to seal the deal on Gary’s performance career.

Next to them were the DeLullises.  The nickname of my classmate from this family was Doop – Doop Delullis and he was just as dumb as that sounds.  He had a few brothers – big, tightly wrapped monosyllabic and very scary.  I was always afraid to go into their house and was never absolutely sure how many people lived there – it seemed like a lot.

The Abates continued the population down the street.  The father ran a candy store near my school and my playmate Joey became the town’s School Superintendent in later life.  Their house was the epitome of the modern Ranch Style house.  A bunch of my pals from grammar school stayed in the town and sought their fortunes there.  When I was selling my father’s house I went to the Building Department to arrange a C of O inspection.  The inspector was a grammar school acquaintance and I thought that would help me.  Quite the opposite.  This putz made me remediate a large punch list of things just to show me what a big shot he was.  So much for old friend loyalty.

Skipping down the street, opposite our house was the Patti family.  They occupied the whole house but only, really, lived in the basement – not uncommon in those days.  My father always said if you see a bouquet on the stove in the kitchen you know the family lives in the basement.  Many houses had what are called “summer kitchens” – basement kitchens, very popular among ethnic groups for cooking when the house is too hot or when the occasion calls for a gigantic meal and an extra stove.  The Pattis had 3 enormous daughters my age – I think they were my age – who could tell?  There were cherry trees flanking their driveway and my playmates and I used to climb those trees and eat so many cherries we’d be nauseous and couldn’t eat dinner when called.  Those were the days when you left the house in the morning – if there was no school – you stayed out and played and your parents would call you for meals and that would be the extent of their supervision.  And, speaking of being on your own, I attended grammar school around the corner from our house from kindergarten to the 8th grade.  I walked, alone, there and back, every morning, lunchtime and after school.

Next to the Patti house was another Abate house, relatives of Joey, the future Superintendent.  My contemporary there was Bobby who was as bad a kid as Joey was good.  Bobby was always in trouble and would try to entice the local kids to join him in his nefarious schemes.  Somehow I resisted.

Moving right along down the street lived the Barberas – I called them the Barbarians.  Dumber, more troubled kids you’d be hard pressed to find.  These were the boys my smokin’ hot bad girl cousin – from my mother’s family chapter – decided to strip for in our window.  There were a lot of choices of bad boys on the block and she picked the dumbest.

Jumping to the other side of the street, our side, was the home of the Nazaires – my contemporaries were Vinny and Raymond.  Vinny was shot dead through his open front door one summer night while lying on his living room couch.  So much for the safe, boring suburbs.  Raymond was the local Fonzi – too cool for school, as my daughter would say.  When we were in the sixth grade our teacher took us on a camping trip to Stokes Forest for a week.  I was not great camper and had never been away from home.  I was very homesick.  Raymond was a hilarious fish out of water in the woods with only the trees to be cool for.  Their mother had the same sad, defeated air my mother’s mother had.

Next to Pippi, moving down our side of the street were the Veluzzis.  They started renovating their home when I was a kid and when I returned in 2004 to settle my father’s estate they had not finished.

Next to them, in an identical house to ours, were the Deckers.  Mrs. Decker would take me and her 2 grandsons to Palisades Amusement Park.  She was a nice woman.  Mr. Decker was tall and thin and old and taciturn.

Our next door neighbors on the east side – also in an identical house – were the Hodsons, Tag and Helen.  He was a rather secretive man and she was a busy-body and the neighborhood gossip.  She would pump me for information – about my family or anyone else – right up until the day she died when I was an adult.

Our westerly next door neighbors were the Trotters.  Their house was what has been described as a “barracks style” home – simple and wooden.  My mother had a blood feud with the Trotter woman who she called “The Nooge” (soft G) – a nooge is someone with shady behavior or a pest who nooges you.   I never knew the genesis of this dislike and I always thought it was too bad our closest neighbors were our enemies.  They had a daughter my age who had the haunted look of an escapee from a horror movie and her father was a little man who I could find no fault with.  I never saw The Nooge woman out of the house so I’m not sure what she looked like.  My mother made my father install hedge bushes between our properties that eventually grew to about 10 feet tall.  In later years after my mom died and the Trotters moved, their house was demolished and another McMansion took its place.  My father complained it blocked the sun and his view – of what, he didn’t say.

Amid all these colorful people there were 2 annual Italian feasts on our street.  If you’ve never been, a feast, or festa, as the Italians call them, is a religious celebration and block party centered around some saint or holy person.  These yearly events go on for days and have rides, music, games of chance, processions, and food, food, food.  The Feast of San Gennaro in New York City’s Little Italy is probably the most famous.  In our neighborhood, the feast of Saint Anthony was on my side of the street and was the smaller of the 2 local events.  The other, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel took up the entire other side of the block, all the way down to the river.  For a kid these were magical events full of lights, fun, noise, crowds and chaos.  I remember them vividly and fondly. Once, during the feast of Saint Anthony a girl I knew told me she loved me – I was, maybe, 11.  I don’t remember my response.  Probably a mix of awkwardness and terror.

If where you come from largely determines your path in life, I must have made a Herculean effort to negate this neighborhood’s influence in order to realize any bigger ambitions in the world outside – a world not quite as absurd.

Next time:  “A Half Century” – Mom and Dad.


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