It’s the holiday season, a time for good will toward men, so let’s not laugh at the notion that the city of York, Pa., actually had its own poet laureate.
No, let us instead debate whether the poet laureate of York, Pa., 86-year-old Gerry Meisenhelder, chose the right Bob Dylan song to be the soundtrack for his passing, which took place on the day after Christmas at York Hospital after a battle with leukemia.
According to an article in the York Daily Record, Mr. Meisenhelder, as he lay dying, dictated one last poem to his grandson — as Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” played in the background.
Sorry. I feel sorry that York, Pa.’s poet laureate has moved on to the Great Literary Salon in the Sky. But his choice of Dylan songs was rather trite.
How about these titles? “Are You Ready?” “Dead Man, Dead Man.” “Death Is Not the End.” “Dirge.” “Desolation Row.” “Going, Going, Gone.” “In My Time of Dyin’.” “See That My Grave is Kept Clean.”
I could go on, but I won’t, except to say that my choice would be “I Shall Be Released.” To wit:
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east.
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.
Now that would be a lovely Dylan song to have echoing in my ears as I head to the highlands, as I rage against the dying of the light, as I travel beyond the horizon, when it comes time to say my restless farewell.
Why does it make me just a bit melancholy to read that the old Mulford Gardens public-housing projects in Yonkers, N.Y, is finally being demolished? Because I grew up in Yonkers. And because I lived in the Mulford Gardens complex with my parents and my sister — we moved there when I was four years old and left when I was eight, apparently because my young father’s income had passed some maximum threshhold that made him no longer eligible to live in public housing.
You would think that was a good thing, and I suppose it was. We moved to an apartment in Nodine Hill section of the city, in the shadow of the city’s landmark water tower, to a neighborhood that was then largely Ukrainian, Russian, Czech and Polish with a considerable number of Italians who had spilled over from the adjacent Park Hill neighborhood.
We lived on Nodine Hill until I was about thirteen years old, when my parents bought their own house in solidly middle-class/working class neighborhood called Bryn Mawr about midway between the Saw Mill River Parkway — which serves as Yonkers’ “tracks” to live on the other side of, which became a focus of much sorrow and strife about ten years later, when the city was torn apart by battles over housing and school desegregation).
So what is it about the demolition of Mulford Gardens that makes me melancholy? It’s nostalgia, I suppose. The place as actually kind of nice when we lived there. The units were three-story brick buildings (with a ground-floor basement) with four, five or six units to a building — for instance, the block we lived in began with 10 Mulford Gardens and ended with 13 Mulford Gardens; we lived on the third floor of unit 12; there were seven apartments per unit (two on each floor, and one on the basement level). Mind you, it wasn’t luxurious. The walls — the interior walls — were painted cinderblock. The stairways in the halls were made of steel. Our apartment was small — four small rooms (kitchen, living room, two bedrooms, bathroom). But outside each unit people had flower gardens. There was a park, Grant Park, nearby. It was a 10-minute walk away from Getty Square, the old downtown commercial district.
And, best of all, and I can remember this so clearly even though I was so young — the apartment building we lived in was high atop Seminary Hill, at the very highest section of Mulford Gardens, which had hundreds of apartments spread over the hillside, and from our kitchen window I could see the vast sweep of the crowded city of Yonkers spread out before me. I could see the cupola of St. Joseph’s Seminary to the east. I could see straight ahead the water tower at the peak of Nodine Hill, I could see church spires all over the city, and apartment buildings and small houses crowded together on the hills and in the ravines of the city. To my right, looking west, I could see the distant Palisades cliffs along the Hudson, and (as my mother remembered last night when we spoke about the old days at Mulford Gardens), I was a precocious, observant little boy, and I would sit at the window, looking out at the lights all over the city, and I’d point out that in the distance, to the south, there was the Empire State Building, and there, those flickering, glittering lights strung out in a row, that was the George Washington Bridge!
Mulford Gardens became a different place in the years after we left. It was about 25 years old when we lived there and it’s now more than 60 years since the place was built, replacing a poor neighborhood that I believe was mainly occupied by poor blacks and Irish immigrants who had jobs at the nearby Alexander Smith carpet mills.
The buildings at Mulford Gardens deteriorated and crumbled. The place became fertile ground for crime, drugs, gangs, poverty, you name it, and probably the only good things that came out of the Yonkers projects in the last twenty years were a couple of folks named Mary J. Blige and DMX.
You know, even when we lived there, people were relatively poor — you had to be kind of poor to live there, after all. And I do remember things — like constantly burning my leg accidentally on the exposed radiators in those spartan apartments.
But I also remember one winter day, and there was huge snowstorm, must have been a blizzard because my father stayed home from work, and we had no food in the house, and my young mother and father left me with an elderly neighbor who came upstairs to our apartment to babysit me while they were gone, and my young parents bundled up and trudged out into the storm, and I watched as they made their way down the hill toward the Ashburton Market about four blocks away, and I watched and I watched and stared into the swirling snow and finally, finally, I spotted my father and mother, both carrying bags of groceries, leaning into the wind and slowly returning up the hill, and I remember clearly that I moved forward a little and, sure enough, burned my leg on that damned steam radiator, but that was alright because it was warm in that little apartment at Mulford Gardens and that made the windows steam up, but I wiped the window pane with my hand and there were my young parents looking up at the window, and they were waving to me, and they were just in the mid-twenties and still so much in love, but that was long ago, and my father died six years ago, and so now it’s time to wave goodbye to Mulford Gardens and the steam radiators and the steel stairways and the cinderblock walls and the cold and impersonal brick buildings.
But my parents will always be walking up that hill through the storm, and the Empire State will always loom on the horizon, and the lights of the George Washington Bridge will twinkle and sparkle forever, off there in the distance, glowing forever in my mind.
Every December I sit down for an hour and once again savor Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” — and think about my cousin John.
When I was about nine or ten years old, John gave me probably the best Christmas gift I ever received (not counting the birth of my son, twenty years ago this week, just two weeks before Christmas!):
John gave me a collection of paperback books, the first books I ever owned, and for that I will forever be in my cousin’s debt.
John was a very cool guy, one of my early role models. He was well-read, sang and played saxophone, dabbled in experimental theater, seemed to always have good-looking girlfriends, dodged the draft, grew a goatee for while, introduced me to “Mad” magazine…I could go on and on. John died young, of lung cancer – it’s got to be more than ten years gone by now — and I never did get around to telling him what he did for me with that gift. He turned me into a reader and, eventually, a writer; simply put, cousin John changed my life.
The books were “Kidnapped” and “Treasure Island,” both by Robert Louis Stevenson; “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” by James Hilton; a single volume containing “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang” by Jack London; “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain; “The Little World of Don Camillo” by Giovanni Guareschi; “Captains Courageous” by Rudyard Kipling; “The Hound of the Baskervilles” by Arthur Conan Doyle — and “A Christmas Carol.”
All of them still rank among my favorites, books I still reread now and again. And every year I hold in my hand the actual paperback my cousin gave me long ago — a small, almost square edition with a dark blue cover, with a red rectangle in the center of the cover containing the words “A Christmas Carol” and the name Charles Dickens. A closer look at the book reminds me that this Christmas present truly represents Christmas past — the cover price is 35 cents!
And after I once again reach the end of Dickens’ wonderful ghost story, and the narrator reminds us of the words of of Tiny Tim, who did not die — “God Bless Us, Everyone!” — if there’s a glass of rum-spiked egg nog in my hand, or a Bailey’s on the rocks nearby, I toast the Yule, and close my eyes, and remember my cousin John.