Tuesday, February 03, 2009

167th Street

Growing up in Queens, on 167th Street, we were surrounded by Jews. My family was one of the few Gentiles on the block. There were three other goy families on our street: my babysitter Josette's family, the family with the twin teenage boys and the Greeks down at the other end with their three kids, everyone else was mostly Jewish and mostly old.

Next door though was my very best friend, Effa, and her family. They were Conservative and her parents let me call them Ema and Abba. Effa was a very elegant little girl who had no problem allowing her mother to set her hair in curls or dress her in frilly dresses while I wouldn't even sit still long enough to get a brush through my short hair. I joined ballet with Effa and promptly dropped out of class when the embarrassment of my uncoordinated prancing outweighed the thrill of the tutus. Effa continued and I think she became a professional dancer after she and her mom moved to Israel. She was allergic to, like, everything and she was far too delicate to be playing with someone like me but we forged a friendship despite these differences. We were the same age, too old to play with her brother and the other boys on the street but never really accepted by the other little girl on the block our age. To her we were "weird." I was weird because I was half Greek but barely Catholic and Effa was weird because of her Jewishness and her allergies. Together we found ways to keep ourselves occupied though, they usually involved intricate kidnap plots perpetrated against our favorite dolls. We learned to roller skate together, like we were in a three-legged race. She wore one skate, I wore the other and we pushed ourselves holding on to each others hip. Sometimes we would just spin on their tire swing until at least one of us was reeling and throwing up.

On the other side our neighbors were The Weismans. They had two grown daughters and a grape arbor in their backyard. Marty took great pleasure in teasing me mercilessly. I always took him very seriously when he pretended to forget my name, or played "gotchya" with my nose. His wife made dolls and in the odd moments of being inside their house collecting for UNICEF, Rosh Hashanah parties or washing off grapes, I remember it being a very unsettling place with all of those doll eyes starring at me. But they were a sweet couple and as I grew older it was much more endearing to hear Marty yelling "Hey Dolly!" at me as I passed his house. I think they ended up moving in with one of their daughters. I don't remember anymore.

Next door to The Weismans were the old ladies' houses. Faye was pretty hip for a sixty year old and she always threw great parties that everyone was invited to. On the other side of her house were Sylvia and her mother. I can't remember her name anymore but I remember that the mother fell down and broke her hip around the same time that the Life-Call system became popular. We were generally good kids but for a really long time we would crack ourselves up whispering "I've fallen and I can't get up" every time we rode our bikes past their house. And we went by there a lot on our bikes. Sylvia had a great, sloping driveway that allowed us to burn rubber off of our tires, screeching to a stop before slamming against the garage door. Of course sometimes we would totally bite it and scrape ourselves up. So every time she saw us coming, Sylvia would come out onto her porch and try to shoo us off. It never worked.

Across the street, in the little blue house, were Arthur and his wife Betsy. They had a coy pond where our cat liked to go fishing in good weather. Sometimes we would come home and find a fish flopping around on the welcome mat. It would be my job to scoop it up into one of the aquarium bowls left over from my failed attempts at goldfish ownership and bring it back to Arthur's house. He hated our cat. He would always tell my mom she should "do something" about her. To that end mom tried to ground the cat a couple of times. Ever try and ground a cat? It doesn't work, they'll just pee on your sofa. I remember when Betsy started wandering around the neighborhood not knowing which one was her house. It was very confusing for the kids on the block. We wanted to laugh because it seemed like it should be funny, like it should be a joke. But it wasn't. Once she wandered off pretty well and Arthur had us all out looking for her and the cops ended up bringing her back from a few blocks away. I don't think she lived very long after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and Arthur didn't live very long after she passed. It's probably better that way, they loved each other a lot.

Also across the street were Lou and Hannah. Lou was the "hey you kids, get off my lawn" guy and Hannah looked like Mrs. Claus, which is sort of ironic for a Jewish lady. Lou was great, possibly my favorite of all the old folks on the block. He would keep any ball that landed on his yard and yell at any kid who dared climb onto his porch for any reason but he was always good to me. He's the one who convinced my dad to take the training wheels off my bike the day after I got it and even though he always looked gruff and angry he always had a smile for me. Their son was an artist, just like my parents, and he turned out to be gay. I remember it was a big to-do and Lou wanted to disown him or something drastic. But my parents, who were friendly with the son, went over and talked to him and Hannah and then everything was OK. I don't know what they said, they probably don't remember anymore either. Whatever it was it was a good thing they said it because I think their son ended up dying of AIDS but at least they had all reconciled before that happened.

And that's how it goes, you know? People get old, move in with their kids or just up and die. We went from Purim parties to Quincerias pretty quickly on 167th Street. Jessica and her family moved in where my babysitter once lived. Her mother had plucked out all of her eyebrows and eyelashes and penciled them on every day. They also had a parrot, who sounded just like Jessica's mom and it would confuse their chihuahua when it called to him.

Effa's family moved out and a Chinese family moved in. They had a daughter named San San who was a little younger than me but was still more fun that the other kids on the block because I got to be The Boss of our games. She died too, got hit by a car. I got to go to her funeral and eat breakfast in Chinatown, which was weird because it was fish. So was the funeral...weird that is, not made of fish. That was after her brother came over from China to live with them. Siu Hang. He didn't speak English when he got here and I taught him a bunch of stupid jokes and made him play house with me and San San. Eventually the Greek boy from down the block took pity on him and started including him in their games. But you had to be good at baseball to hang with that family so sometimes it was just easier to play with me. I don't think any of us did a lot of playing together after San San died though.

That was totally our Stand By Me moment on 167th Street, the end of innocence and the beginnings of adolescence for those of us kids left on the block. Junior High, new school, divorce, the 90s. It was a weird time and I haven't really thought about it in a while. In fact, I'm not sure how I remembered all of the names I mentioned here, it's been that long since I thought about them. My mom sold that house when I left for college so I haven't been back in over 10 years. But I had a dream about Marty Weisman the other night. He was standing in front of his house on a bright, summer day. He was smoking a cigar and smiling. He called me Dolly.


Michael said...

Awesome post Jen - I really think that could turn into a novel or something - it's reminds me of my surprisingly multi-cultural neighborhood in C. springs - Mormans, Gay neighbors with resident nephew, Chinese family whose son we called Tom-cat - his name was Tom so ya know we weren't that creative... Afro-american family down the street - i had a crush on their daughter April for a while... ahh memories... Thanks for sharing yours!

Ray said...

I just finished reading your post and I want to say that
you are quite the "raconteur". I, too, am from New
york- Brooklyn and Massapequa, to be precise. As such, I instantly related to your memories and the
multicultural environment in which you were raised.
I have begun to take a look at some of your other posts. You seem to be " a voice crying out in the wilderness" with respect to your rants about Chicago
and the bureaucratic nightmare that people deal with
or, fail to deal with, on a daily basis. i know a little about Chicago as my daughter worked at the Shedd Aquarium for several years. I couldn't help
but notice that you stopped posting in November
of 2009. This is disappointing as I have begun
to enjoy the irreverent tone of your missives.
I hope you resume your writing in the near future!
you are obviously extremely well-read and you have
that "gift of gab"! The bagels that i had flown in from Queens have just arrived! It is time for a hot everything bagel and cream cheese! Raymond from California