For every individual, there is a transformative moment that alters the course of that person’s life forever. For me, it was our family’s move from a federal housing project in Brooklyn, New York, to a rental house in suburban New Jersey.
The year was 1955, and I was ten years old. My father was working two jobs: full-time as a steel expeditor (whatever that was) at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and part-time, pumping gas at an Esso service station. My elementary school (PS 67), our church (St. Edwards RC), and the public library, were all less than a full block from our little apartment at 110 Monument Walk. If my brother or I needed a stitch or two (as we often did on numerous occasions), the ER Room at Cumberland Hospital was conveniently located no more than three blocks away, at most. The elevated subway (the El) ran past my bedroom along Myrtle Avenue. Down a few blocks was the Raymond Street Jail.
All of my father’s relatives lived somewhere within the five boroughs of New York City. Grandma and Grandpa Natali (my father’s mother and stepfather) lived on Rugby Road in Flatbush (also home to the Brooklyn Dodgers, at the time), in a beautiful three-story house with two porches. Also in residence were my two aunts, Marie and Tess, their respective husbands, Bob and Joe, as well as Aunt Marie’s daughter, my cousin Eugenia. Uncle Ferdi, Aunt Chris, and their three children, lived in an apartment building not far away. I can’t remember exactly where my Uncle Albert, his wife Mary, and their seven children, lived, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t too far from my grandmother’s. Virtually every major holiday was celebrated with all of my father’s relatives—and always at Grandma’s house
My mother’s side of the family was not very much in evidence—at least that’s how it seemed. They mostly lived in Virginia, which is where I was born, and where my parents met during World War II. A few years before our move, Uncle Ferdi and his family left the city for greener pastures. They crossed the Hudson River, via the then single-level George Washington Bridge, into New Jersey, and settled in a little white-collar town called Oradell (also the home of future NFL Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells and his family). Uncle Ferdi’s house was a mansion (at least that’s how it appeared to us at the time). It sat near the top of a long hill, overlooking a field, with other houses below. We visited it once or twice before our own transition, and even weathered Hurricane Diane there (with no power for several days) the summer we moved.
The day of the big move, my father picked up the rental truck, and my brother and I helped him load it. (I’m sure there were some men from the neighborhood who helped, too.) Also, if I remember correctly, Uncle Al helped by driving my mother and brother out to New Jersey, while I rode along with my father in the truck. I don’t remember much about the move itself (it’s all kind of a blur), but one memory I do have is carved in stone. My father took me to a Chinese restaurant in the neighboring town of Westwood, and I had my first “authentic” Chinese food. Our family had been used to having Chow Mein from a can for years (I think it was Chun King brand), but this was my first taste of the freshly prepared kind—and I fell in love with it! To this day, the aroma of onions cooking in a pan brings all the memories of that day flooding back.
(To be continued)