I thought I knew every bit of trivia there was to know about my old hometown of Yonkers, New York. Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born there. So was Ella Fitzgerald. So was Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. Son of Sam lived there. So did the great jazz drummer Gene Krupa.
But holy friggin’ God — I had no idea that Chip Taylor, the guy who wrote “Wild Thing,” grew up in my old neighborhood, off Lockwood Avenue near the Saw Mill River Parkway! What’s more, I didn’t know that he also wrote the great song “Angel of the Morning,” which was a big hit in the late 1960s for Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts!
OK, I knew that Angelina Jolie’s father, the actor Jon Voight, grew up in Yonkers. But I had no clue that Jon Voight is Chip Taylor’s brother, and that they grew up on Ball Avenue — about 15 years before moved to that neighborhood with my parents — just a few blocks from where my mother still lives and where I lived from age 11 until I went off to college.
I’m stunned. Learning this today….well, it just made everything grooooooovy!
Here’s Merrilee Rush singing “Angel of the Morning:”
Here are The Troggs doing “Wild Thing:”
Here’s Jimi Hendrix doing “Wild Thing:”
And here’s Chip Taylor himself doing a song he wrote, titled “Yonkers, NY,” in which he refers to several landmarks and touchstones of my childhood and adolescence in that city — including the old Getty Square business district (where my parents met, at age 15, at a movie theater where my young father was working as an usher); the Herald Statesman newspaper (which I delivered for about four years when I was a paperboy) and Roosevelt High (where I graduated — and did my first creative writing, in Mrs. Diven’s creative writing class for the literary magazine Reflections).
It may be that the economy’s on the upswing, but New York City’s homeless people might argue with that analysis. So, too, might the folks I encounter nearly daily in central New Jersey.
As my son and I walked along Canal Street and up Second Avenue in lower Manhattan, a few days ago, we saw more homeless people than I remember seeing in NYC for a while, including a young couple camped out on a sidewalk in late morning, the girl sleeping on a pile of blankets while her companion stayed awake and kept watch.
Next day, early in the morning, at a park along the Raritan River in central New Jersey, I saw what has become a familiar sight: three homeless men, wearing all of their clothing (including winter parkas in 80 degree weather, as they left a small, wooded nature preserve in Highland Park where they apparently spend the night and then headed toward a long-established encampment along the riverside in the shadow of the New Brunswick-Highland Park bridge.
I believe that many of us these days are so distracted by our own lives and other issues — that the problem of poverty, both urban and rural, has faded from our view. There’s a feeling, I think, even among well-meaning and caring people, that food pantries and government programs and volunteerism have got the problem under control. But, just walk around Manhattan these days, just visit rural Virginia as I did last fall, and drive around the old section of my old hometown of Yonkers, New York, and it’s clear that as the rich are getting so much richer, the poor are getting so much poorer.
Here’s Woody singing his “Hobo’s Lullaby” —
Here’s Dylan, singing Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” —
And here’s John Prine, singing his classic song about being invisible and lonely, “Hello In There” —
I love my childhood home — Yonkers, N.Y., a gritty industrial city on the banks of the lower Hudson River, where I lived from age 3 through the end of my college years. I’ve still got family there.
I’ve many fond memories of the place. Every time I visit, including last week, I take time to drive through my old neighborhoods in South Yonkers: Seminary Hill, where I lived in the now-razed Mulford Gardens public housing complex; Park Hill, the old Italian neighborhood, where I went to school and where my father grew up; Nodine Hill, which had many Eastern European families when I lived there; and Getty Square, where I spent many boyhood hours at the main branch of the Yonkers Public Library and fondly remember shopping at the three department/variety stores at the heart of that old business district, Green’s, Grant’s and Woolworth’s.
Getty Square and the neighborhoods have seen better days. There’s a lot of crime and poverty. Much of the housing is rundown and dilapidated. It wasn’t an affluent place when I lived there years ago. And it’s less affluent now.
The ethnic and racial make-up of South Yonkers had changed, too. Both Park Hill and Nodine HIll now have populations that are mostly Latino, the latest in wave in the waves of immigrants who have come to seek a better life in America — just like my Italian grandparents when they left their impoverished and isolated village of Scerni in the province of Chieti.
Deep racial and ethnic divisions in my old city resulted several decades ago in traumatic battles in federal court over housing and school desegregation and equality. Sadly, as I was reminded again recently, those racial and ethnic divisions — and the accompanying ignorance and hatred — still remain.
A few years ago, I discovered a Facebook page called South Yonkers Photos, which featured great old photos of my old stomping grounds — now-defunct movie theaters and stores, old buses I rode so frequently, buildings now fallen victim to the wrecking ball…great stuff…I don’t know who created and runs the site, but I’ve loved visiting the page and looking at the vintage images of bygone days in a city that, in a certain sense, no longer exists.
Recently, a photo of a school play at St. Mary’s School prompted a comment from someone who remembered taking part in those school plays — including one in which some pupils were painted in blackface and performed an Al Jolson number, and then had to work home through Getty Square while still wearing that offensive makeup.
Another “friend” of the Facebook site then opined (I paraphrase) that it was a good thing that back in those days African-Americans were still referred to not as black people but as “colored.” To which she added: “LOL!”
Then, a few days ago, the proprietor of the Facebook site posted a photo of thousands of Latino people, probably Mexican, celebrating Cinco de Mayo. The caption described the festivities as taking place in Getty Square.
The clear implication was that this was a commentary on the notion that Spanish-speaking immigrants have “taken over” or “overrun” or even “ruined” our beloved, old, used-to-be-mostly-white city of Yonkers.
I posted a comment on this thinly-veiled racism, calling it insensitive at best, bigoted at worst.
The only response: The same woman who posted the commented about “colored” people replied with a sarcastic slur written in pidgin Italian!
When I checked back a few hours later to see whether the unidentified person behind “South Yonkers Photos” on Facebook had perhaps risen to the occasion, had maybe taken a stand on the side of tolerance and against racial and ethnic hate, what did I find?
I found that I’d been “unfriended” — blocked from access to the Facebook page.
Here’s a quote for these small-minded people to ponder as they seethe and stew and angrily snipe at anyone who doesn’t look like them or speak like them or believe like them. It’s the greatest commandment, the most golden of rules: “Love one another.”
Yes, I was a bookish boy. And I was a baseball boy, first baseman and outfield in the Park Hill Little League. That’s why, when I was 9 years old and discovered the majestic old main branch of the Yonkers, N.Y., Public Library, at the corner of North Broadway and Nepperhan, I naturally gravitated to shelves where I was soon afflicted with my first reading addiction: a series of old, 1950s-vintage sports biographies of New York City baseball stars for the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants.
The Dodgers and Giants were long-gone to the West Coast, but these books had stayed behind. I read biographies of famous Yankees like Yogi and Whitey, as well as Monte Irvin, Carl Furillo, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider (I still remember that he owned an AVOCADO FARM in California), Whitey Lockman…the list goes on, and I’m sure it still brings a twinge to the heavy hearts of jilted fans of the “Jints” and “Dem Bums” of those exotic mythical lands called Coogan’s Bluff and Flatbush.
I devoured each and every one of several dozen sports biographies. Then I moved on the books about the history of Yonkers, which fascinated me then and still does now, with its Dutch origins and its hardscrabble industrial past, with its waves of immigrants and its majestic setting on the Hudson River, my City of Seven Hills, with its glories and its tragedies, where my ancestors are buried, my City of Gracious Living.
And then I discovered the library’s fiction section — thousands of novels! — and my whole world changed.
Last week I had the pleasure and honor of giving a reading at the main branch of the Yonkers Public Library, offering excerpts from my novella “Rip,” signing copies, answering questions about my writing, and meeting some very nice people.
It’s not the library I grew up with, a majestic granite structure, built with Carnegie money, which was torn down for a highway expansion. The new main branch is a shiny new four- or- five-story state-of-the-art facility, complete with huge windows offering stunning views of the Hudson River and its Palisades.
But my visit still conjured memories of dark winter afternoons when I’d leave the library with an armload of books, heading home for supper, walking a few blocks up Nepperhan past the Polish Community Center to Elm Street, then trudging four blocks up steep Nodine Hill, the city water tower looming at the crest of the steep incline, passing grocery stores and dry cleaners and pizza places and the hardware store and the bread bakery, until my books and I reached Oliver Avenue and home.
I made that walk and carried books away from that old library so many times that I really can remember every step along the way — but not once, I’m certain, did it ever occur to me that I might write books, that people in my hometown might want to hear me read from my books, ask me about how I wrote them, ask me to sign copies…I never imagined that someday one of my books would reside on a shelf at the Yonkers Public Library…Maybe even now there’s someone walking home with an armful of books on a dark winter afternoon, and maybe one of those books is mine.
Seen on the street in Yonkers this morning, right there in plain sight, right there in the gutter: a BIG dead green lizard, which (not being a lizard expert) I’m guessing was someone’s escaped or discarded pet — perhaps an iguana. I looked at the dead lizard and had an epiphany…a realization…an awareness…
I thought: “Never in my life have I ever seen a dead lizard, in the gutter, in the morning, in the streets of Yonkers…”
Some of you have asked if I was surprised when Sarah Palin became governor of Alaska and then ran for vice president of the United States and then became a Fox News commentator. Was I surprised? You betcha! I mean, who wouldn’t be surprised? After all, this is little Sarah Palin, the cute and spunky little girl with the big eyeglasses who sat next to me in my kindergarten class at P.S. 9 in my old hometown of Yonkers, New York.
Not only did Sarah sit next to me in her little desk right alongside my own little kindergarten desk. She also lay down next to me at nap time when our teacher, Miss Crabtree, instructed us all to roll out our mats and take a 10-minute nap to rest up after our busy morning of learning the alphabet, learning to count, and learning to get along with all of the other kids.
You probably guessed, though, that Sarah didn’t nap. Sure, she rolled out her mat when Miss Crabtree told us to. But then Sarah just sprawled out on her back, eyes wide open, resting the back of her head on her arms, and just gazed up at the ceiling through those big designer eyeglasses, and smiled that big smile we’ve all come to know and love.
It occurs to me now that little Sarah Palin was smiling because she already knew that someday she would move to Alaska and become governor and then run for vice president and then become a Fox commentator and then maybe someday become the first woman president even though all of the so-called smart people thought the first woman president would be Hillary Clinton.
I’m thinking that I actually played a role in a somewhat historic event…It may well be that the first time Sarah ever winked that famous wink, she winked at me! Except she was probably thinking about the great life she had ahead of her — while I thought she was flirting!
Long story short, after nap time it was finger painting time, so we all put on our painting smocks and stepped up to our easels. Miss Crabtree looked at Sarah’s finger painting creation — the entire sheet was covered with gray paint — and asked Sarah was it was called. I’ll never forget Sarah’s reply: “Gee whiz, Miss Crabtree, can’t you tell”! It’s a close-up of a gray elephant!!”
That’s when Sarah winked at me. I melted faster than a glacier in the Bering Sea.
My own big sheet of paper was slathered with red paint. Miss Crabtree asked, “Nicky, what’s the name of your painting?” I replied, “Red.”
But what it was really called, although I was just too shy to say it, was “Valentine for Little Sarah Palin.”
Little Sarah Palin… Politically precocious. My first crush. Killer wink.
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.