Memories of a Bronx Childhood

by

01/20/2019

Neighborhood: Bronx, Tremont

 

I have reached that age where childhood memories have become as vivid as my adult ones. It’s not that my 1940s childhood was full of drama. I had few traumatic experiences, though I do remember, as an innocent, uncomprehending five year old, a queasy encounter with an insidious stranger who wanted to buy me candy. There are also no oppressive family dynamics, nor thrilling adventures, that I recall. Instead, what I can resurrect are countless everyday images and incidents.

What I remember are the street games– marbles, red light-green light, pitching and flipping baseball tickets, hit the penny, slug, box ball, off the stoop, the more daring ringolevio, and the more athletically demanding punch ball. We played in whatever space could be utilized–from ample schoolyards to oddly configured apartment building backyards. These games took up much of my spare time, when I wasn’t spending lengthy days at my airless orthodox yeshiva. The games may have offered little that was physically exhilarating, but they allowed me my own realm– free of parental watchfulness– while I played on a safe street with children from my own and neighboring buildings. I can remember many of their faces, but mostly the children were not friends, merely interchangeable playmates, who made me feel part of a world.

What’s easiest for me is to conjure up is the look of Bronx institutions, streets and inhabitants. I remember the red brick, substantial Tremont Library branch, built in 1905, located in a more dilapidated part of my neighborhood, which I visited regularly. The library had a white-haired, crinkly-faced kind librarian, who steered me to Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books of Many Colors, junior bios of historic figures like Garibaldi, Jefferson, and the Curies, as well as Scribner Classics of Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo and Three Musketeers.  This was my haven–a world filled with books and committed to the imagination– that provided an escape from a neighborhood life where literary culture barely existed.

The neighborhood streets ran from my own to Tremont Avenue–the area’s major shopping street. My street had a mixture of art deco apartment houses, sturdy red brick walk ups, tenements, and the Biograph Film Studios (that kept on inexplicably being abandoned and reopening). Tremont contained many large movie palaces (all long demolished) like the Lowes Fairmount and the RKO Chester where I went to see double features every Saturday afternoon. I remember being enthralled watching John Ford’s Fort Apache and the 1948 acrobatic version of The Three Musketeers with Gene Kelly. When I finally came out of the darkness into the daylight, my pleasure was often accompanied by splitting headaches, a childhood agony that mysteriously disappeared with the advent of adolescence.

In the forties Tremont was a bustling, working and lower middle class shopping street filled with large homey supermarkets including Moishe’s and Daitch’s, along with an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, a Thom McAn shoes shop, two well-stocked toy stores, fruit and vegetable stores with brimming outdoor stalls, the Pines Pizzeria (for after movie dining), an aromatic Jewish bakery, and even small dress shops serving some of the more well-heeled women in the neighborhood. Obviously, it wasn’t elegant, fashionable Madison Avenue, but until the mid-1950s this vital street served the neighborhood well. However, as the Bronx began its decline, the stores got shoddier, and bargain and pizza slice shops began to take over, and the street took on a seedy, desolate look.

The families in my building ranged from social workers and pharmacists to taxi drivers, but the majority of people in the neighborhood were workers (a number were leftists): salesmen, furriers, garment workers and post office clerks. And their wives, at least the ones who didn’t work, when the weather permitted sat outside the building with their carriages and strollers gossiping or shouting at their children. As a young boy, I was most interested in observing the neighborhood’s many marginal characters: a group of middle-aged men smoking cheap cigars and wearing loud colored shirts standing outside the candy store cum bookie joint, anxiously waiting for the race track results; an ancient, frail grizzled man who stumbled about the streets selling penny candies from a worn shoe box; and a young neighborhood tough and high school drop-out named Santo, whose mere scowling, muscular presence intimidated most of us.

The neighborhood conveyed something vaguely communal, but my parents avoided socializing with neighbors, and attending yeshiva cut me off from boys my age. My only choice was then to tag along as a mascot with older boys (Donny and Davey) from my building who I had little in common with– until I transferred to public school.

I can retrace the look of the streets and the local park that played such powerful roles in my childhood, but I have a hard time remembering what I felt at the time. I can’t recollect being particularly happy or unhappy, except for my indelibly deep hatred for my orthodox yeshiva. It was there I spent lengthy days (including Sunday) in airless and oppressive rooms where religion was force-fed and teachers didn’t hesitate to use rulers when punishing students for minor misconduct. My parents compelled me to attend, so that I would be inculcated with an enduring Jewish consciousness. That was until I discovered at the age of twelve that if I received low grades my parents would take me out of the yeshiva and send me to the more emotionally and socially expansive neighborhood public school, which itself was no intellectual idyll. Still, in public school, I felt freer with more room for my imagination, and I liked having girls, who were in my class, to fantasize about. 

Those childhood years left an imprint. I was as fascinated as a child as I am today in observing people and social worlds, though I was unable back then to articulate what I perceived. Even today, words for describing the plain prosaic truth for what I observe often escape me.

***

Leonard Quart is Professor Emeritus of Cinema at the CUNY Graduate Center and College of Staten Island, and a contributing editor of Cineaste.

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§ One Response to “Memories of a Bronx Childhood”

  • Barbara says:

    I am glad to have stumbled onto your neighborhood. Lovely piece, and I don’t believe your disclaimer about not describing prosaic truths, since you just did in the previous paragraphs.
    Looking forward to more. BBH

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