Lost New York

FOODSTORE

If you sit through the bitter end of a movie filmed in New York City, you’ll see that the closing credits contain a little circular logo from the New York Film Commission:  it says “Made in New York” in white letters on a blue ground.  Me, too: I am a native New Yorker from a long line of native New Yorkers, people who were truly Made in New York.

2474 Grand Avenue, Apartment 18 C, third floor, Bronx, NY 10468, halfway between Fordham Road and West 190th Street , was my family’s home.  My grandparents moved there in 1939, remaining until the mid-1970s.  It’s where I came after leaving Fitch Sanitarium where I was born early one October morning in the late 1950s. At just over 7 pounds, with black hair and indigo eyes, I was the only girl in a nursery populated with squalling baby boys. Fitch, a private hospital founded in 1849 by Dr. Charles W. Fitch, was peculiarly placed at the intersection of West 183 Street and Sedgwick Avenue at Loring Place, within walking distance of our apartment, or taxi distance, if one happened to be in labor.  I was escorted into the world by Dr. Daniel Martuccio, with the assistance of Mary Crean, an ob-gyn OR nurse who was such a good friend to my grandmother she was practically family.  To me they were always Dr. Dan and Aunt Mary.

Immediately upon meeting me that rainy midnight, Aunt Mary tied a string of beads to my wrist: black ink on white glass spelled my entire name, the same first and middle names as my grandfather’s mother, each letter closely following the other, no spacers: the unlettered beads alternated pink and blue.  I imagine Aunt Mary squinting as she poked through the wooden box containing the letter beads, her glasses perched on the tip of her nose, the same way my glasses do now, as I have long since passed the age she was on the autumn night when she strung them. Family lore says that after Dr. Dan tied the cord, Aunt Mary wrapped me in blankets like a papoose and said, “You finish up, Dan; I got what I came for” and promptly carried me into the waiting room to meet my father and grandparents.  My older sister, at home with my teenaged cousins, had to wait a few days to meet me.  Interestingly, she’s never complained about that.

I haven’t been back to 2474 Grand Avenue in years, not since the day in the early 1990’s when, on a pre-zoo detour, I saw that the entire front of the building was changed, added on to, blown out like a boil.  The addition paid no homage to the building’s original architectural classification; it was that ugly, more–room-inside-so-who-cares-about-outside style.

“That’s progress,” my husband shrugged, shifting the car into Drive, completely acquiescent of construction in a city that never stops rebuilding itself.

I scowled.  “Humph.  Desecration, more like.”

“Of what?”

“My childhood.”  What did he know?  His grandparents’ original Tudor house in Forest Hills Gardens remains unchanged to this day: no one has opened a tarot-card-reading shop where he used to play.

When I was little, 2474 Grand Avenue was big, not huge like buildings now, but normal-people big, like buildings in Greenwich Village.  It was a lot like every other building on the block in size and tenancy, which means it was nowhere near as grand as those on the Grand Concourse, but you could never have convinced me of that.  In reality, 2474 Grand Avenue probably wasn’t an especially large building, even when new in 1926, but it and its two identical siblings were distinct from their neighbors by the addition of roomy courtyards created by having the lobby situated back several feet from the sidewalk, bordered by stone balustrades and up two sets of steps: raised flowerbeds then framed the steps and paths.  On ordinary summer days, I played Barbies and jacks in there with my sister or by myself; occasionally my cousin Carl came over and Barbie’s pink world was stretched to include olive-drab GI Joe.  On days when Joe stayed home (Carl said he was “on maneuvers”), Carl and I played Go Fish or Old Maid, sitting opposite each other at the edge of a single step and using the flowerbed wall as our card table.  Neither my mom nor our grandmother had any trouble keeping an eye on us from the windows upstairs.

When it was time for a bathroom break or a drink, the lobby was reached easily through heavy glass doors decorated with black iron scrolled into a curly Italianate design.  The floor was black and white checkerboard-patterned marble and a pastoral mural was painted on the back wall. The lobby was cool and dark and had twin staircases at either side that always reminded me of our cousin Nicholas’s sticky-outty ears.  I recall ascending those stairs to 18 C many times, my little legs climbing, climbing, climbing, while clutching my mom’s hand.  At our landing, the doors stood, all alike, shiny and black.  What they lacked in individuality, however, they made up for in locks, seemingly dozens of locks, locks to be opened just in time  – or not  – when a little girl really had to potty.  On those days when I was on the inside of the door, the clinking and jangling of these locks were like Christmas bells to me, heralding the arrivals of my mom, my dad, or my grandfather.

Besides the locks, the only other really interesting thing about the front door was its proximity to the enormous coat closet.  I loved the coat closet; its dim interior smelled like the polish for my dad’s shoes and the traces of My Sin by Arpege clinging to my mom’s out-of-season wool coat. My grandfather’s red metal toolbox resided in the closet.  The heavy, glass seltzer bottles lived there, too, napping in their wooden crate, rousing themselves drowsily only on Fridays when Mr. Schmuckler, the seltzer man, took away the empties and left full ones in their places.

By city standards, the apartments in 2474 Grand were huge, with up to three bedrooms, a black and white tiled bathroom, and a living room that ran the entire width. Each living room on the street side had three large windows. The front window closest to my grandfather’s favorite chair had a wide sill, and like the old men in “Prufrock” or a solitary house cat, I hung out that window observing the opera of the street and looking for my sister, for my cousins, for my mom and dad, but mostly for my grandfather coming home from Grand Central Station, where he worked days as a Ventilation Cleaning Gang leader (essentially, a supervisor in charge of the crews who ensured the air quality in the station and its tunnels) or from the business he and my grandmother owned at 178 West Fordham Road, where he worked evenings repairing televisions and radios.  I sat on that sill a lot, playing with Colorforms plastic shapes and cutting paper dolls from old Montgomery Ward catalogs.  Sometimes I colored or connected-the-dots.  One day I accidentally knocked my sister’s souvenir Statue of Liberty out the window from that sill, breaking her torch.  (The statue’s, I mean, not my sister’s.)  Ironically, Miss Liberty currently stands on a bedside table in a guest bedroom in my own house looking perfectly content; unlike my sister, she got over it.

The kitchen in the back was narrow but not too small; we had a table and chairs in there and we all fit around the table at the same time.  The table was placed next to another big window with another big sill, wide enough for a child to lean on and unobtrusively stack peas, while hoping for pigeons or my grandfather’s parakeets to swoop down and eat the evidence.  My grandmother, who had lost her right leg from the knee down due to a childhood playground accident – an unsecured wrought-iron school gate swung into her from behind slicing her leg and damaging it irreversibly – perched on that sill, too, while she hung laundry on a line connected to our building with a pulley.  The pulley had a companion across the way, attached to someone else’s building, just outside someone else’s window.  I was surprised when my dad told me a few years ago that my grandfather had hung that clothesline; when I was little I believed that my grandmother knew the person on the other end of the rope, the person who utilized the line on days when she did not.

Walking the five or six blocks from our apartment to my grandparents’ business with my grandmother on summer mornings brought one of my life’s enduring highlights  – approaching Shields’ Bar and Grill on the corner of Grand Avenue and Fordham Road.  On summer evenings, the air around Shields’ formed its own cumulous cloud of appetizing scents like onions and hamburgers frying: raucous laughter and jukebox music spilled through its open windows, sparking my imagination.  In the clear morning air, however, it sat quietly, looking somewhat squinty and unkempt and smelling vaguely of yeast.  Nevertheless, every day on the back step rested one of the biggest pieces of ice I had ever seen; each day the block was uniformly square, about three feet by three feet, resembling an ice cube plucked from a giant’s lemonade glass. When I asked my grandfather how that was possible – our refrigerator didn’t make anything that big – he took me to the icehouse near Yankee Stadium.  Dating from the 1920’s, it made ice for the Bronx Terminal Market and other places.  I stood on the sidewalk, amazed: who’d’ve believed there really was a place that did nothing all day and all night but make enormous ice cubes?

In my imagination, huge aluminum ice cube trays, held by six burly men, were balanced under a massive tap and filled with water.  When the flow stopped, the men staggered to a big freezer and slid the trays into position, one by one. Then, when the cubes were solid, the huge handle cranked back, popping out the cubes, ready for delivery to places like Shields’.  Daily, inches from that massive block, I’d balance on tiptoe and attempt to peer into the screened back door, searching the gloom for the sources of the smells and the mystery of who exactly used that big ice cube and for what, but the dimness inside always prevented it.  My grandmother prevented it, too, tapping my right ankle with her crutch and saying, “Come on.  There’s nothing in there for you.”  Really?  I bet there was, if only I could have finagled a way to get in and find out.

My grandparents’ business was an electronics sales and repair store called DeVoe Radio & Electric (named by my dad, after the park situated just across the street), dating from the days when people still needed specialty stores and it was cheaper to repair than buy new. My grandfather fixed small appliances, like radios, and later, televisions, in the back and my grandmother ran the front of shop and kept the books.  Although DeVoe certainly wasn’t the only electronics store in New York or even in the Bronx at the time (an advertisement for the new General Electric vacuum cleaner placed in the May 19, 1949 edition of The New York Times lists dozens of them), it was one of only two on Fordham Road, and thus, well-known with a loyal clientele.  My grandfather ensured this by stocking cutting-edge products for his customers to try.  (Decades later, a waiter at Smith & Wollensky made me cry by relaying how he saw his first televised World Series baseball game playing through the front window of my grandparents’ store in 1947 when owning a television was uncommon.)

On most summer mornings I sat high up on the counter and played with the receipts poked onto a little brass pole, the receipts from in-store sales or from home repairs that my grandfather would pull from a leather folio when he returned from a call.  Sometimes I’d sit on my grandmother’s lap drawing or crafting paper clip chains (lacking the fine dexterity required to braid the more difficult chewing-gum-wrapper chains that so captivated my adolescent sister and teenaged cousins) or playing Hopscotch on the sidewalk until I felt like a melting Popsicle, and dragged myself next door to Mr. Pigola’s candy store for a cherry Coke.  This was a real cherry Coke, made with two kinds of syrup, cola and sweet cherry, tapped from soda fountain optics into a clear, ice-filled glass with the word “Coke” etched onto the side in script, and stirred with a long, twisted metal spoon.  It tasted cold and sweet and fresh.

Sometimes my grandfather invited me join him on an evening repair call. He would grab his heavy repair case and we’d be off, me trotting beside him on the wide sidewalk, clutching his free hand, and chattering.  If the location were farther than a few blocks away, we’d drive in his red Chevy Impala station wagon.  When we reached our destination, I’d follow him upstairs to the apartment; I always sat quietly where directed while he slid out chasses and changed tubes.  Occasionally someone would offer me a cookie or a glass of soda.  One elderly lady gave me a pocket-sized teddy bear to keep.

My summer days passed this way: all were virtually identical, like running those paper clip chains I made through your fingers, observing each clip’s uniformity in size and shape, with only a minor variation in color and contour.

One variation involved my mom leaving her job in Manhattan early and meeting me at the store rather than allowing me to walk home with my grandmother. I never knew when she planned to do this: hearing the shop door’s bell, I would look up and see her enter.  One such day, after re-braiding my hair and helping me pack away Barbie and Skipper, she said she and I were going for a walk.  When I asked where, she shook her head.  “Mm-mm.  It’s a surprise.”

We exited DeVoe Radio to the left, popped into the liquor store to say hello to Mr. Jacobson, waved to Mr. Applebaum as we passed his pharmacy, and continued walking along the pavement toward Sedgwick Avenue.  We stopped at the corner and didn’t cross, even when the lights changed. I waited with her, holding her cool, dry hand with my little, sweaty one and used the rubber toe of my left Keds to scratch a mosquito bite on the back of my right calf, a mosquito bite I had gotten “up the country” – my cousins’ and my name for my grandparents’ weekend house upstate.   I looked around – apartment houses, the Berenson’s grocery store, Louie Carbone’s fresh fruit and vegetable market, the butcher shop – all places my dad had worked as a teenaged delivery boy – Ralph Camera’s Gulf station, and long, long Fordham Road with the rushing highway at its base.  As the minutes passed I began to grow restless; I’d seen all this before.  Were we ever going to move?  Where were we going, anyway?  This was the wrong direction for the zoo or Aunt Fay’s house. We’d already passed the park so we weren’t going to the swings and we’d passed Piggy’s so we weren’t going to have a soda. To ride the Staten Island Ferry or see the Balto statue or the Alice clock – both in Central Park  – required traveling to Manhattan first and we were nowhere near the subway. Pretending to ignore my shifting weight and unasked questions, my mother merely gazed through her cat’s eye sunglasses at a distant point downhill.  Seconds passed.

Finally she nudged me gently and gestured with her head.  “Look. Look.”

I turned my body slightly to the right and there was my grandfather, climbing the hill from the railroad. Before my mom had even released my hand, I burst away like a dog chasing a squirrel.  My grandfather, laughing, let his Daily News fall to the pavement and caught me just before I crashed into his knees.

My mom had followed me; she bent to retrieve the paper and tuck it in her big basket purse. We walked up the hill in the fading sunshine, the three of us holding hands with me in the middle.  We stopped at Mr. Pigola’s for a packet of cherry licorice and continued along Fordham Road to meet my grandmother, just locking the front door of the store.

The workday was sighing to a close.  My dad would be home soon, and my sister.  There were groceries to buy at Daitch on the walk back to 2474 Grand Avenue, groceries that would contain the inevitable Breyer’s chocolate ice cream so beloved by my grandfather, my dad, and me. There was chicken to roast, potatoes to mash, and peas to stack on the back windowsill.  There were saltines to poke through the bars to my grandfather’s parakeets, and finally, just before bed, scoops of chocolate ice cream to eat from clear, pressed-glass bowls while watching Perry Mason, curled in my grandfather’s lap, in my grandfather’s favorite chair as the sun set behind the water towers on the city rooftops.

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