The Neighbors on Fifth Avenue
Growing up in Newark’s Weequahic section meant knowing our neighbors very well. Hardly anyone ever moved and when they did it was often with help from the local funeral home. Stability was so pronounced that today, many many years after my childhood, I can still tell you stories about the people in our neighborhood on Aldine Street.
When my own kids were eventually lovingly watching Mr. Rogers talk and sing about his own neighborhood, I could relate to his songs and stories better than they could. They grew up in the presumably safe suburbs but I always felt safer on the streets of Weequahic where there were no strangers. And, to surprise you, some of those people weren’t even Jewish!
But now I want to tell you about the all-Jewish street we lived on in my other happy place, Parksville, during those epic Catskill summers that are always available to me whenever a clue or a memory suddenly surfaces.
As is typical, in this story the house came before the occupants. Less typical, however, is that the house actually moved. The familiar little expanded bungalow with its comfortable front porch was physically relocated to the empty lot on the absurdly named Fifth Avenue, the lot between Minnie and Julius, the grocers, and Porky, the taxi-driver, directly opposite our own Bauman House. The name of Fifth Avenue, home of the rich and powerful in the much more exciting and cosmopolitan locale of Manhattan, was a misnomer of course. Our street had no glamour, no enormous penthouses, and no truly famous people.The only doormen were the occasional guests at Alex Weiner’s rundown rooming house. Parksville’s Fifth Avenue only had an exclusive sounding name, which was never supported or surrounded by other avenues with numbers for names at all.
We did, however, especially at the Bauman House, have people who would become famous! There was Louis, who was a director on New York’s WNEW tv station for many many years. There was Mom who had her own little column in the Liberty newspaper and called it Parksville Chatterbox.There was my sister who became a prominent textbook author in Israel, many times over. There was Eric who headed up the Los Angeles Democratic Party. And there was my cousin Jon who became a character named Bowzer in a group called ShaNaNa which had its own show on television. Not too shabby!
Yet, despite our little steps toward fame, none of us kids, or our parents I’m sure, ever saw a house move. Naturally it didn’t move by itself nor did it move due to a tornado or hurricane or earthquake. Much calmer strokes were needed for this move. It moved because of the new route 17 known as the Quickway, because it was quicker than the old route 17, and it was going to crash right through the living room if the little cottage didn’t get out of the way.
That was one exciting day when the house-movers arrived with their enormous trucks and their Paul Bunyanesque workers. This was no job for the weak or feeble. Danny, the home’s owner, weighed no more than 100 pounds. His companion, never ever his wife, Anna, a fierce and unrelenting smoker with straw like bleached very blonde hair and the deepest wrinkles I ever saw, was similarly ill suited to move a house!
I’ll never know why the State of New York, in its wisdom, decided to move the house rather than tear it down and pay off Danny and Anna. I never asked but that cottage stands there still more than 70 years later, more or less in the same condition it was when it was moved. It outlived its owners, two old Jews, who were replaced by two old non-Jews.
The house was situated next to a prefab house belonging to the Jewish grocers. Minnie and Julius. That house, itself today already more than 75 years old, was built in a few days, with all kinds of dire predictions, especially from Pop, my very doubting grandfather, from his outlook on our own porch at the Bauman House. He rambled on in Yiddish that the house wouldn’t survive, especially with the bitter cold mountain winters shedding piles of snow on the prefab roof. Pop, you cannot hear me now but I’d like to let you know that the grocers are long since gone but the house still stands and looks perfectly fine!
The grocers had wanted that particular location to erect what Pop considered a house of cards, but which surpassed the Bauman House in longevity, and still stands. The lure was that Minnie’s sister Hannah and her attorney husband Joe lived right next door to the then empty lot. The two sisters yearned to be next door neighbors and the prefab house allowed them to do just that. Both sisters each had two children, of similar ages, and both were blessed with children who were veritable geniuses, by any objective standards. All those kids were educated in the tiny two room Parksville school-house from which they went on to the mediocre local high school in Liberty, the adjacent much larger town, and thence on to ivy-league colleges and academic careers. They were never hurt by heterogeneous schooling and large classrooms.
The most striking feature of the house belonging to the attorney Joe, who was married to the sister Hannah, was his absolute love of his hedges. He was out there with a manual set of shears almost daily in the spring and summer months. Never did one branch stand up taller than any other. They were perfectly sheared and Joe clearly had a shear-fetish! For sure he would have loved to create a whole bonsai garden. Manicured and perfect.
He was also madly in love with his wife. When they were already married many decades the two of them could be seen heading for a walk in the direction of the falls, always smiling and holding hands. No doubt his were creased and callused from all the cutting, but she was never heard to complain.
And then, suddenly, she died. He was grief stricken, of course, but he continued to be absorbed by the bushes. Then he remarried, after an appropriate amount of time, and shockingly, she was not Jewish! This was an amazing bit of news for us neighbors to deal with. Everyone on Fifth Avenue was Jewish. Period.
But not any longer.
Wife number two outlived Joe and she became the owner of the bushes and the house. More incredibly than anything else in that relationship was that she allowed the bushes to grow as they themselves chose. Unmanicured. Uncontrolled. Wild. Joe would have demanded a divorce, had he only remained alive to do so.
What’s more, the last time I looked, about a year ago, those bushes had totally;reclaimed their diversity. They had lost their look of a Japanese tea garden and returned to the wild, uncut, unclipped, uneven. UnJoe!
Minnie and Julius mourned the loss of her sister Hannah but they remained in the grocery business as the town’s population dwindled and supermarkets in Liberty and Livingston Manor attracted the local shoppers. No more did I get sent to the store where Minnie would use the stretch and reach gizmo that old time storekeepers employed to retrieve items that were too high to grab. Self service shopping had become easier, faster, cheaper and more efficient. But it had always been nice to chat with Minnie and give her Mom’s list, and then observe her brilliant math skills as she totaled up the charges on the outside of a brown paper bag; faster even than a calculator I’m certain. She was always right according to Mom. I never checked.
In time, Minnie and Julius left us, as did all of our relatives and friends at the Bauman House. The house of the grocers was sold to non-Jews. As was Porky’s.
The Bauman House became a United States Post Office which needed no neighbors to chat with. So, in those nostalgic trips back to Parksville we are strangers to everyone. Those we knew are gone and we have no home with its big covered porch and years of treasured memories to return to.
We can, however, buy stamps!