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A long, long time ago, before the dramatic emergence of shopping malls – or even shopping centers – was the local business district. For many of us who lived in the Somerset section of Franklin Township, this consisted of businesses that lined Hamilton Street.

Memory doesn’t recall everything that was featured along that abbreviated strip, but a few stand out in my mind. There was John & Al’s grocery store (later sold and renamed, U-Shop) that was a prototype of the old neighborhood food markets. Compared to the supermarkets that would soon emerge and replace it and its kin, John & Al’s carried all the basics – bread, milk, cereal, canned foods, soaps and detergents. I still remember Ivory Snow detergent and its “99 and 94/100ths percent pure” motto. Why they couldn’t achieve 100 percent purity, I’ll never know.

My favorite part of John & Al’s was the meat department. None of the pre-wrapped, pre-cut meats we see today in every supermarket. When you bought meat there – ground beef, sausage, steaks, chops, lunch meat, chicken, or whatever – you talked with the butcher, told him what you wanted and how much, and he cut and wrapped it right there on the spot. In paper wrapping, not cellophane (as we called it then) or plastic wrap. The meaty aromas emanating from that section offered promise that dinnertime would be a special treat.

Next door to John & Al’s (or at least close by, on the same side of the street) was George’s Pizzeria, an establishment where my mother worked for a time as a waitress. The pies made there, from scratch, didn’t feature pepperoni, which is the most common pizza topping these days. No, along with the handmade dough and fresh cheese, we were served genuine sliced Italian sausage, all prepared by a baker named Tony, a native of somewhere in Italy. Boasting a genuine Italian accent, he took pride in his work – and we took pride in eating the pies Tony had baked.

Maybe the most fascinating little store, a bit farther down Hamilton Street, was Lorraine’s variety store, owned for many years by a lady named Lorraine. Hence the name. It was called a “variety store,” because that’s what they sold – gizmos and gadgets and doo-dads and what-nots – along with an assortment of toys, crayons and coloring books, cheap jewelry, and other items that were good for browsing eyes. It might have been called a 5&10-cent store, but hardly on the scale of Newberry’s and Woolworth’s, located in New Brunswick just a couple of miles away.

When I returned to Somerset in 2016 for my 50th high school reunion, Lorraine’s was still there, but they were selling T-shirts, uniforms and different kinds of embroidery. I didn’t stop in, but it appeared all the stuff that was fun for kids was gone.

One other attraction along Hamilton Street I recall was the Dari-Delite ice cream shop, one of the small, old-style walk-up establishments where you could buy soft-serve ice cream on cones or in dishes, and if you had been extra good, maybe dipped in chocolate topping and/or sprinkles. Hot fudge or butterscotch sundaes, with wet nuts, whipped cream and a bright red cherry, generally were reserved for special occasions.

Not sure whether this was a precursor of the Dairy Queen franchises, but it was a magnet for us on hot summer evenings. My family and I didn’t go there often, maybe once a week or so – but that’s what made it special. It wasn’t part of a regular routine, and wasn’t expected. A trip to Dari-Delite, even though it was a short drive, was a trip to sweet-tooth heaven.

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Growing up, there was a song called the “Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer.” These days young people find their summers consumed by Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, game apps and other forms of electronic diversion. In the 1950s and early ‘60s, summers didn’t necessarily equate to lazy, hazy or crazy. But they did mean stickball.

Technically, our “sticks” were bonafide baseball bats that got increasingly worn and scuffed up as summer slowly trudged toward fall and another school year. The ball might have been an old tennis ball with much of the air already beaten out of it. That way the ball didn’t have too much pop in it. We were playing in the street (Hawthorne Drive to be specific) in our neighborhood, and our parents didn’t want a fully pressurized tennis ball soaring through a neighbors’ window.

Sometimes we’d switch and play wiffle ball, using a white plastic orb with holes and slits in it, along with a skinny, yellow-colored plastic bat. A skilled “pitcher” could make a wiffle ball zig and zag as it approached the batter. Sometimes the breeze would send the ball sailing all by itself. The challenge for the batter was to anticipate the ball’s path, then strike the round ball with the rounded bat square. The mere description seems to defy some physical law.

There was a Little League field less than a mile away, but we found the neighborhood street adequate. The houses were spaced out far enough, and none of us was strong enough to do much damage even with a solid hit. Every so often someone would bat the ball just right and send it soaring to the Abrams’ front yard. That was an automatic home run.

Since the road surface consisted of a composite of pea gravel and tar, sliding was out of the question. Our bases – usually panels cut from cardboard boxes – were placed in the accustomed diamond shape, although the width of the road didn’t allow for the right-angled diamonds we would see on TV when a big-league game was broadcast.

Stickball would follow breakfast most days, and continue all day – sometimes breaking for lunch, sometimes not – and conclude when dusk became so dark we could barely see the ball. Or when the mosquitoes became a bit too aggressive. Then we’d call it a day and retire to our homes, knowing we’d start the games all over again the next morning.

As I noted, we had nothing like Snapface, Chatbooks, Instagramma, or any other social media, and back then – in the “olden days” – TV consisted of just three channels, the New York City-based ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates. So, there was no reason to stay inside riveted to the TV; our only tablets were either pads of writing paper, or the contents of aspirin bottles. Stickball was the perfect way to pass the time, even on the hottest of days.

When I say “we,” I’m referring to my buddies of summer – my next door neighbor Mark (we usually called him by his nickname, “Mouse”); Eddie, my next door neighbor on the other side; Lenny, who lived across Hawthorne Drive from Mouse’s house; and Sy (hardly anyone called him by his real name, Sylvester, except his mother). A few other boys would join us from time to time.

But we also practiced “gender equity,” long before anyone had thought of the term or cared about such a concept. When they weren’t doing girl things, Ann (Mouse’s sister), Carol (Lenny’s sister), Susan, the little gal who lived around the corner, and Janet, who lived across the street on Poe Avenue, would join us. They couldn’t run quite as fast, hit the ball as far, or throw as well as the guys, but it was fun. Especially as we all inched toward puberty.

What if it rained? No problem. We guys had invented a game called “dice baseball,” in which each roll of two dice determined whether the make-believe batter made an out, got a hit, earned a base on balls, or suffered an embarrassing strikeout. We’d write real big league lineups on paper, keep score as with a scorecard at a professional game, then keep track of statistics as the season wore on through the summer.

In those days, the American and National leagues each had six teams, so it was easy to know all the players on every team. But since we didn’t regularly hear baseball broadcasts, especially for teams not playing the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants – and later the Mets, after the Dodgers and Giants had fled from New York City to California’s West Coast. So I pronounced the name of one of my dice baseball players, Julian Javier, “Joo-leeyun Jay-ve-er.” My years of studying Spanish in school were still far in the future.

It’s interesting how baseball back then occupied our minds. Football was a distant second or third in terms of fan interest in those days, along with basketball. Baseball was our year-round sport, with Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Willie Mays and Duke Snider among our biggest heroes.

Baseball was a slow-paced game, as it remains today, but when we were kids, life in general was much slower-paced, and attentions spans weren’t quite as short. So, whether we were engaged in a daily game of stickball, throwing dice for make-believe batters to hit make-believe pitches, or daydreaming about what it must have been like to roam center field at Yankee Stadium, that’s how we spent – or invested – much of our summers. Our version of lazy, hazy, crazy days.

Do you remember your first days in school? I vividly recall mine at Pine Grove Manor School in Somerset, N.J. (Franklin Township), a two-story, tan-colored building that could intimidate any five-year-old. It wasn’t referred to as an elementary school; I think the term we used was grammar school. (I don’t know whose “grammar” they were referring to. It wasn’t mine.)

The first picture in my mind is of dim hallways that seemed very expansive, at least to a kindergartener. Many years later I revisited the school – I think it’s there to this day – and discovered I could easily touch both sides of the hallway without extending my arms too far. But back then, the gap seemed huge. Perception is, after all, reality.

I walked into the classroom and saw a bunch of kids I didn’t recognize. What was I getting into? I wondered. But unless my memory tricks me, it didn’t take too long for me to get settled in.

My kindergarten teacher was Mrs. Aschenbach (I think that’s how it was spelled), a dark-haired, kindly woman who seemed the perfect match for inquiring five-year-old minds. I can’t recall what we did, however. I’m sure we did the usual – colored pictures, had our first introduction to letters and words, worked on counting. That kind of stuff. We also had toys, and recess was a big deal.

Kickball and dodge ball were favorite games at recess, although I doubt we played those in kindergarten. As much as I liked sports, I was never much of an athlete, so when teams were chosen I always had to wait awhile before someone called my name. I do remember the day I kicked a homerun in kickball. Our team captain that day – I think it was Billy Bittay – even presented me a note to take home in honor of my great athletic achievement.

Seems to me my teachers in subsequent years included Mrs. Clark, Mrs. Boso, Mrs. Varney, Mr. Mazzochi and Mr. Grow. (Again, I’m not certain of the correct spellings of names, but I can’t find a spell-check for teaching alumni of Pine Grove Manor.) Not sure, either, whether all the female teachers were Mrs., but back then no one was Ms., and we kind of presumed that if you were an adult, you must be married. Mr. Grow, as I recall, was a fairly short man, so he didn’t live up to his name.

Of all my teachers at Pine Grove, Mr. Mazzochi probably made the greatest impact on me – and it was in a very indirect way. As I recall, my mom had attended a PTA meeting and at some point my teacher told her he believed I was “college material.” Mom, proud to hear such a kind remark, came home and informed me of it. That brief comment implanted an idea in me that I aspired to all the way through high school. It also was probably my first experience with the positive power of words.

My grandparents all had immigrated from Hungary, and both grandfathers had labored in the steel mills of McKeesport, Pa. College was not a thought that ever crossed their minds, I’m certain. They were just happy to be in the United States, which back then was truly the land of opportunity.

And my dad spent more than 20 years in the U.S. Army, including deployments in Europe and Africa during World War II, and also serving a stint in Korea. He was a very intelligent man, and a good writer – at least in terms of writing letters – but the closest he personally ever got to college was working a few years as a campus security officer at Rutgers University after he retired from the Army.

So the idea of attending college wasn’t something that was expected in our household. My uncle, Joe Tamasy, had graduated from Rice Institute (now Rice University) in Houston, Texas, and later earned a law degree at Southern Methodist University. But in our home I was the first to even consider going to college. And it was largely because my fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Mazzochi, had declared me to be “college material.” Talk about casting vision! I hope that I’ve helped someone else through the years in a similar manner.

Gathering at the Hydrant

It seems important for young people to have a place to congregate, somewhere convenient to “hang out” as we commonly say today. In cities it might be a street corner; in the country it could be a barn, maybe even a communal fence post. For my friends and neighbors in the Hamilton Gardens subdivision of Somerset, N.J. in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, it was the fire hydrant at the corner of Poe Avenue and Hawthorne Drive.

No matter what went on during the day, there was an unspoken expectation that after supper, by early evening we’d all gather by the friendly hydrant and talk about who knows what. Mark and Lenny and Eddie and Sylvester (later just “Sy”) and I would just stand around, passing time and talking.

I have no recollection of what our conversations were about, but probably a sizable percentage of them had to do with the Yankees and Mets, or if in the fall the Giants or the Knickerbockers (now just the Knicks). College football wasn’t the all-consuming passion back then that it is today – Rutgers and Princeton had an annual rivalry then, for goodness sake! But I suspect the Scarlet Knights, football and basketball, eased into our discussions from time to time.

The fire hydrant had no particular magic. It even was painted different colors through the years, but it served as a central location for everyone to assemble. As time passed and we boys came to the realization that, contrary to previous belief, girls didn’t have “cooties” after all, we were joined by Ann and Janet and Susan and one or two other members of the female gender whose names I can’t recall.

Winter evenings, however, the fire hydrant maintained a lonely vigil as we huddled inside our homes keeping warm and choosing from the limited range of TV programming in those days, sometimes in black and white and sometimes in “living color.” But during the spring and summer months, when light lingered longer, our parents never needed to worry about where we were. They could glance out the window and see us congregated around the fire hydrant, kids being kids thinking kids’ thoughts and saying kids’ things.

One summer evening was a bit different from all the rest. We noticed a bright light up in the distant sky, a light we initially thought was an airplane passing overhead. Except it seemed to stall, holding its position in the gathering dusk. Then it seemed to divert from its horizontal course and shoot downward for a few moments – and again hover in place. Finally it resumed its path across the sky, heading wherever unidentified flying objects tend to go.

Certainly it was an optical illusion. Perhaps our observational capacities had been influenced by “Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits,” or some science-fiction movie, but for a few brief minutes we shared a sense of certainty that we had just witnessed the appearance of a UFO. (Cue the weird music.)

Then, just as quickly our thoughts reverted to the Yankees or Mets, our summertime dice-baseball competitions, or whatever else had been occupying our minds that night. If any green men had been inhabiting that strange, unexplained light afar off, they certainly didn’t stop to visit us in Somerset. They might have proceeded to Piscataway, or Highland Park, or Woodbridge. Maybe they even went for a night at the beach 

We’ll never know.

It’s important to point out my mom was very protective. She rarely let me go with friends to explore the woods nearby that surrounded our housing subdivision. She always wanted to know where I was going – and how long I’d be gone.

So it amazes me to this day that Mom regularly allowed me with my friends to walk from our home in Somerset, N.J., down Hamilton Street and into New Brunswick – a trek of about two miles or so – to go to the movies.

Today, with the rise in urban and suburban violence, child abductions and other acts of mayhem, such a thing would be unthinkable. Parents allowing their adolescent children to walk that far unsupervised would be considered irresponsible. Child neglect charges might even be forthcoming.

But the late 1950s and early ‘60s were different. We didn’t have “Amber Alerts” then. No need. And even my ever-vigilant, keep-son-tied-to-apron-strings mom never feared I wouldn’t return home in one piece. “Enjoy the movie, Robert. Don’t be late for supper.”

Many lazy, crazy days in summer, my friends and I pocketed money our parents provided and headed for “downtown” and either the RKO Rivoli, Albany or State theaters, owned the RKO Pictures film production and distribution company. There was one other theater, the Strand, but it showed movies we weren’t allowed to see. (Once on the Strand’s marquee I saw a couple of photos from films that were showing. Today, people probably wouldn’t blink, but those images seemed very racy then.)

At the acceptable theaters, I and my buddies would buy our tickets and enter, eager to view the latest James Bond film, a shoot-em-up western, a war movie like “Tora, Tora, Tora,” or action flicks like “Jason and the Argonauts,” “Hercules” or “Ben-Hur.” Back then showings began with a cartoon or short feature, and often we got to see not one movie but two, back-to-back. All for one price.

Popcorn was a must. Often a box of candy too, like Raisinets or Good ‘n Plenty. (On TV, Jon Hall, the actor that portrayed “Ramar of the Jungle,” made us yearn for Good ‘n Plenty, licorice with a candy coating.) And we couldn’t eat all that stuff without a Coke chaser. Today a movie ticket and such cinematic delicacies can cost well over $20. As I recall, we got the movies, snacks and drink for two or three bucks, tops.

Of course, another difference at that time was we had no “multiplex” cinemas. One theater, one screen, one main attraction. If you wanted to watch a different movie, you went to another theater. But we got to see a cartoon and a double feature too, so that was more than enough.

Sometimes we’d walk straight home after the movie, but other times we’d stroll around the retail district of New Brunswick, stopping in the F.W. Woolworth or J.J. Newberry department stores. We called them “five and 10” or “5 and dime” stores because you actually could buy some things that cost only a nickel or a dime.

The stores had soda fountains where you could get a milkshake or cherry Coke, along with a hamburger and French fries. The shakes weren’t thick, no spoon necessary, but yummy. The only times I remember eating at the soda fountains, however, were with my mom and sister. After-movie visits were just to pass time, not to further gorge ourselves! I guess the walks home worked off calories we consumed during the films.

And just think: We had no cell phones back then. So Mom couldn’t call to check up on us. There were pay phones, but we never had any crises so we just enjoyed our hours of independence. Maybe Mom did, too.

I’m not a believer in things like fate, destiny or kismet. The idea that all we are in life are puppets, and that we have no choice but to follow the strings, doesn’t resonate. But at the very least, it seems fitting – given the course my life and career have taken – that I was raised in a housing development with streets named after classic literary figures.

Hawthorne Drive, named after Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables), wrapped around the subdivision. Three streets bisected Hawthorne: Whittier Avenue, named for poet and abolitionist James Greenleaf Whittier; Cooper Avenue, named after James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans); and my street, Poe Avenue, named for Edgar Allan Poe, best-known as an author of Gothic fiction.

Poe’s most famous short stories included “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” His best-known poem was probably “The Raven,” a haunting rhyme with the famous line, “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’”

I don’t know whether it was due to living on Poe Avenue, but I read the works of the tortured author voraciously, while I didn’t pay much attention to the writings of Hawthorne, Whittier and Cooper. It wasn’t until my adult years that I learned Edgar Allan Poe’s private life was apparently as dark and mysterious as many of his fictional tales. All I knew was he had an incredible way of crafting a narrative, building suspense, and finishing it off with a not-so subtle twist.

My own writing never followed that path. I suppose my parents provided me with an ordinary enough life so that I never needed to release any anguish and despair through the written word. But I do remember writing, almost from the time I learned to spell and form sentences. I wrote little reports that I had researched about dinosaurs, birds, mammals and reptiles. At other times I wrote about historical figures, like Presidents and explorers, as well as famous athletes.

I piddled a bit with fiction, fancying myself as a budding science-fiction writer, but never stayed with a story long enough for it to amount to anything. It all was just a hobby back then, a way of pleasantly passing time, never imagining I’d become a professional writer – a journalist – one day.

When I wasn’t writing, I was reading. Mostly fiction, anything from Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates and Treasure Island to Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Fictional series like the Hardy Boys, brother detectives; ballplayers Mel Martin and Chip Hilton, and boy inventor Tom Swift kept me spellbound for countless hours.

Even when I started college, writing for a career wasn’t a consideration. I’d read that journalism was not a lucrative vocation – as proved to be true – and I had different plans as I embarked on my freshman year at Houston Baptist College. But I guess all the years of reading and writing had made words too much a part of my being, maybe even engrained in my DNA. In the end, becoming a man of words – a “wordsmith” some have called me – was inevitable.

Hopefully, when it’s all said and done, someone will assess that at least something I’ve written was of value greater than self-indulgence. 

It’s interesting how many of my childhood memories seem to revolve around food: freshly popped popcorn from the pan on Saturday nights; sundaes at Costa’s ice cream; frothy milkshakes at Newberry’s and Woolworth’s 5&10 department stores in downtown New Brunswick, N.J.

Another such memory is having food delivered directly to our door, by the milkman and the bread man. I remember a slight fellow that brought our milk and placed the glass bottles in a special metal box on our back porch a couple times a week. Seems to me the dairy was Borden’s, and the image of Elsie the Cow adorned the side of the milk truck.

For some reason I think the milkman’s first name was Roy, but I’m not sure why I’d recall that. Seems he wore a white uniform with a black cloth belt (no, I don’t think he was a karate expert) and a bowtie. During the winter, of course, we had to make certain to bring the bottled milk in promptly so it wouldn’t freeze and shatter the glass.

He would bring whole milk, but sometimes he would also leave a bottle of chocolate milk or buttermilk. Cottage cheese and sour cream might have been part of the delivery from time to time as well. No skim milk or one percent fat milk in those days. And no one knew anything yet about lactose intolerance. Maybe people were more tolerant then.

The guy who drove the bread truck – I have no idea what his name was – actually would bring the bread into our home on shallow trays. The brand that he brought in was Bond Bread, even though the most popular brand of that time – at least to me – was Wonder Bread, with the bright red, yellow and blue balloons featured on the wrapper. Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob Smith did wonders for Wonder Bread on their weekly shows, but when the bread man came, it was Bond Bread.

The best thing about these weekly visits was they weren’t limited to just bread. We could select from all kinds of snacks as well – iced cupcakes, some of them cream-filled, little donuts, and assorted other sugary delights. He’d bring in a tray loaded with the baked goods and we’d select what we wanted.

I vividly remember snack cakes like Twinkies, Hostess Cupcakes and Sno-Balls, but don’t think they accompanied the bread man when he visited our home. Wrong bakery. But like any good bakery, the Bond people provided plenty of viable alternatives.

Think of it – a personal visit from the bread man. Seems such an alien concept these days. But back then, it was a time when you didn’t fear letting strangers into your home. There was no worry someone would “case the joint,” or afflict all manner of mayhem on you and your loved ones.

It was simply the way business was done. Everyone was doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and for some that meant paying regular visits to private homes, whether you were selling milk or bread, or were the Fuller Brush salesman – which is another story for another day.