My brother and I grew up at 290 West 12th Street in a piece of magic that was Greenwich Village in the 50’s and 60’s. Now it is home to millionaires and I can’t afford to buy a beer there. It is like most of New York city today. Then it was a neighborhood.
A neighborhood for working class people of less than modest means. The stores, restaurants, bars all were independently owned; the idea of a chain store was yet to be realized. You went to Jersey for those- Howard Johnson’s, Wetson’s ( a hamburger joint before McDonalds), and Sears Roebuck. Within walking distance of our apartment was Gus’ grocery, the Beatrice Inn (a local red sauce Italian place), a liquor store, Horatio Street park, the Lowes theater, Zito’s bread shop, Faicco’s pork store, and John’s Pizza. Some have actually survived and are still in business. But they are not the same. Can’t be.
Memory won’t allow it. They all existed in that specific and particular moment in the city’s history and our childhood dreams. They have become mythical. You could walk to Bleecker Street and buy fresh produce from pushcarts; there was an old man who pushed his strawberry cart through the streets, and one who sharpened your kitchen knives. Their calls would echo through the close buildings: Strawberries! Get your fresh strawberries! Knives sharpened while you wait!”
Once a week a dirty big truck would deliver coal, yes coal to a chute that connected to the basement of our building. Its how we all stayed warm on those sacred winter nights. And did I mention the ice box? A real ice box that kept food fresh and cool; porcelain bowl underneath to catch the melting. The ice man, a burly fellow with iron tongs would deliver a perfectly cut slab of ice that fit exactly into the top compartment of the ice box.
Glimpses of another age, hanging on past their time.
Television was still a novelty, black and white your only choice. We had a small white and green Admiral model that brought us flickering images of the Howdy Doody, Jerry Mahoney, Wagon Train, M Squad and the hilarity on Chauncy Street in Brooklyn where Ralph and Alice lived real lives, ones that mirrored our own, but were a lot funnier.
Laughter was a necessary medicine, then and now. Some things don’t change. Thankfully. Our little neighborhood was a world in itself, as far removed from “uptown” as it was from Neptune. Insular and protected, defined and secure. The world was out there somewhere and we glimpsed it from time to time via the World Journal American newspaper (not the Daily News which to this day still touts itself as New York’s hometown newspaper). The world was across the river in Jersey or far out on Long Island, it was upstate, or in Aunt Mildred’s Connecticut compound but it wasn’t where we lived.
We lived in a neighborhood. It was our world and for many many years it was enough. Like I said…..beginnings.