(Continued from MEMORIES: The Big Move—Part One)
Growing up in “The Projects” in Brooklyn, my brother, Gene, and I had friends of every ethnicity and color. The majority were white (mostly of Italian and Irish descent), but there were also some who were “colored” (back then, that’s what we called African Americans) and some who came from Puerto Rico. I remember having a crush on a colored girl named Gloria, who sat in front of me in fifth grade. I also had a colored friend named Alan, whose family introduced me to clams on the half-shell for the very first time. They liked to eat a lot of fish, and I remember Alan showing me how to remove the scales with a homemade tool, consisting of a board with bottle caps nailed to it.
Our next-door neighbors on one side were Puerto Rican. The family included a mother, and her two daughters named Carmen and Elba, who had been born with vestigial arms (similar to those of the unfortunate “Thalidomide Babies” of the late ’50s and early ’60s). They were about the same age as we were, and we often spent hours playing with them in their apartment next door. Their deformity never seemed to impede their ability to do pretty much everything that we could do. Their mother smoked incessantly, and I can still see her squinting, with a cigarette dangling from her nearly toothless mouth, and a wreath of smoke encircling her head. I had another colored friend named Ronald. In those days, I just loved comic books, and he and I would hang out for hours on end at his house, reading, and sometimes trading comics with each another. I guess you could say we were “color blind” in those days when it came to people of color. When we moved to New Jersey, that all changed—not deliberately, of course, but simply because there were no people of a different color in our new town. (In the coming years, that would all change. But at the time, it was quite a shock to not to see anyone of a different color than our own.)
The house we moved into was a rental property. The address was 374 Kinderkamack Road. (Imagine having to learn how to spell that street name. Believe it or not, we did!) The house was approximately seventy five years old and in poor repair, but to us it might as well have been a Newport mansion. We were living in the country, and we had our own yard (actually, there were three of them: one in the front, one in the back, and one on the side). There were trees, too: one a quince, the other a pear, and wisteria bushes. I built a tree house up in the branches of the pear tree, and I would sit up there for hours, devouring anything written that I could get my hands on. The yard also contained a wooden arbor, filled with grapes that grew on vines that traveled up from their roots in the ground, to weave their tentacle-like stems around the wooden pieces of the structure. (The fruit was the sourest I ever tasted.)
Our landlord was a pharmacist by trade, and he owned a drug store that was located just two properties over from our house. His name was Mr. Karanfilian, and he was Armenian, which was an ethnicity and a word that we had never even heard of before. He and his family lived about two blocks away, up the hill from our house, on the street where our elementary school was located. Mr. Karanfilian’s brother and his family lived two doors down the street from us, in the other direction from the pharmacy. That family was always hosting company in their backyard, complete with belly dancers and Shish Kebob. (I recall having a mad crush on one of the many cousins who visited them quite often.) Ironically, I married an Armenian woman, Becky Giragossian, following my divorce from my first wife. It must have been destiny, because she and I have been married for nearly thirty four years.
One of the first things that became apparent right away to my brother and me, was the fact that, compared to most of our neighbors and classmates, we were relatively poor. This was something we had never been aware of when we lived in Brooklyn. We would soon understand exactly what the ramifications of that condition were, however, when we were introduced to the concept of social classes—and the stigma attached to being Italian, poor, and from Brooklyn.
(To be continued)
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