Friday, July 10, 2015

The Old Neighborhood

I escaped it in the spring of 1990. The old 'hood. After nearly fifteen years.  Honestly, I couldn't wait to bolt.  The reasons are numerous. My childhood was generally happy, but I spent a lot of it witnessing my parents' marriage fall to pieces.  Hearing their arguments while I tried to nod off to sleep.  In the last year or so, while still in college, I remained with my father following my mother's departure.  Things were fine until the last few months.  The deterioration was dramatic. His bitterness, tough to take. The anger against my mother and grandmother seethed until I couldn't even be around the man any longer.

But not just that.  The neighborhood itself was ancient and modest.  It never suited me.  It seemed sad and defeated.  Most of my friends lived in more affluent areas.  There were times during childhood when a pal would remark how small my house was.  First grade: Charlie was a sweet kid as I remember but he did let out a comment or two to that effect.  I shrugged it off.  I've usually been good at shrugging things off.  Then in fourth grade my friend Jeff began explaining how much nicer his house was.  He was a bit of a brat.  I got more defensive.  But I did agree with him.

The area was and is an interesting potpourri of classic architecture and post WW2 wooden "box houses".  There were really cool Spanish mission style abodes, in one of which I lived in my freshman through senior years in high school. I did like that place, and would love it now.  Some homes in my old 'hood were very well manicured and others reflected their owners' apathy.  Here and there was a newer one-story.  Even in the 70s and 80s, several of our neighbors spoke little English, though it did not stop them (or us) from being neighborly.  That was a good point about the 'hood, granted.

But a pity about that strange couple to whom we lived next door for seven years.  The wife was a prototypical busybody, endlessly fascinated with every move about on our street.  She probably had a pair of field glasses. Boy, was she pissed when my father erected a fence between our back yards!  I learned later that her first husband was a convicted child molester. He had a shed in that yard and lured children there for ice cream.  These events occurred before I was born. One potential victim was the older brother of my friend down the street, the one who I've recently gotten back in touch after three decades.

One typically scorching day about a year ago I parked on Garden Avenue and walked around my old streets. I stopped in front of the three places I had lived between 1976 and 1990. New paint jobs.  A gardenia bush was missing. The garden apartment behind the first place was still there.  I remembered these guys who lived there when I was 9 or 10.  They had smoked marijuana and made faces at me. Then I passed that formerly estranged friend's house (where his mother, now a widow, still lives), reminded of all the football games on the front lawn, the games of "Marco Polo" in his pool.  Secretly pining for his older sister.

Unlike back in the day, my old street now dead ends into a nice park that was built in the early '90s. I circled it a few times.  Long before its existence the school bus would to turn off Parker and chug down to stop in front of my house.  When the headlights would come into view my stomach would churn.  One day in 1977, snowflakes landed on my jacket as I climbed the steps.  Riding the bus was a wild experience.  Having eighth graders and kindergartners in the same vehicle was an amazingly bad idea.

Beginning with third grade, I transferred to the more local public schools, all within walking distance.  On the way home, we'd stop at convenience stores for Slim Jims or RCs.  Throw rocks at the water tower because they made a cool sound.  Sometimes the high school kids would scream or pretend to lunge at us as they walked by.  They looked like friggin' giants.   There was also a huge St. Bernard that chased us down the block.

I headed back east down my street, thinking on all the neighbors of the past.  Most memorable was a wealthy woman who always invited everyone for a New Years' Eve party.  Great food and Dick Clark's countdown.  Her house was as ornate as any of the other House Beautiful candidates down closer to the Intracoastal.  She was a godly, generous woman who took care of her husband, reduced to unintelligible utterances after a stroke some years earlier.  One day she told me that her insomnia was managed by the assurances of the New Testament.  Several years ago I began a short story based on this couple, one I've yet to revisit and complete. Hopefully soon.

I had other friends and classmates in the neighborhood, some a block or two over.  I walked by their houses and recalled how I felt about them, and vice versa.  There was one who was like a sister.  In later years, I had a serious crush on her but was too stupid (maybe shy) to act on it.  I chat with her on Facebook and she is still the same genuine person as she was in elementary school.  There was another girl on another street with whom I never was friends - she was snotty and unpleasant.  I heard she moved back to her homeland: Greece.  Her old house looked like hell. Wonder what she would say if she saw it now?  I bet she never thinks on the old hood, at least not the way I do.  She probably acknowledges it with contempt, maybe denial.

And for years I did the same.  But in recent times I've grown to appreciate it. Funny how that happened.  Maybe it's natural, a part of aging to long for the past, good or bad.  There is comfort in its presence, knowing it is still there, largely intact.  Aside from a few signs of progress and reshingling it appears much as it did thirty plus years ago.  Being there is like stepping back in time. It's fun (and occasionally necessary) to visit. In a way, it's like a recalibration of my mind and soul.   When I drove through the old neighborhood earlier this year there were even kids on skateboards and playing basketball in a driveway, just like during my childhood  They have no idea what played out there once upon a time.  But then, neither did I when I was younger.  If those houses and trees could talk......
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