(This essay was originally published as a letter to the editor–abridged– by The Record (North Jersey) on July 24, 2014.)
There is something both comforting and disquieting about returning to one’s home town after many years. With voices both pushing me and restraining me, I—with my nine-year-old grandson in tow—returned to Hasbrouck Heights where I grew up in the 50s and 60s and graduated the High School in 1966.
Beginning on the Boulevard, I was very happy to see some of the old anchors of the avenue still remaining: Corpus Christi Church—our family parish, Spindler’s Bakery, Henry’s Deli, and Lovey’s Pizzeria. With many of the older trees gone, the Boulevard overall looked brighter and still exuded a certain community feeling. The trees in the Passaic Street Circle stood very healthy.
I noted a number of new eating establishments such as Sofia’s Mediterranean Grill—with outdoor seating no less. As an Italian-German-American, I was very happy that The Risotto House has replaced Chicken Delight. Gus’s Sweet Shop is now an Italian restaurant.
Other changes were evident. Franklin School, where I attended junior high, has been converted to senior apartments, and the high school now incorporates the middle school.
I was sad to see a Chinese restaurant in place of the Boulevard Pork Store. At twelve I began to work there when Helmut Wildermann owned the store. Once I began studying German with Ms. Rechnic at the High School, I could practice the language with customers and also with the new owners, Hans Gartner and Alois Lipp. Little did I know that 25 years later I would use the language to study the unification of Germany in 1990.
The most striking change I realized was that the town now has people of color. As a teenager I remember playing sports against African-Americans from other towns; however, they were not to be found on our streets and in the high school, something which puzzled me. In the summer of 1963 Martin Luther King led the March on Washington and gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” In the summer of 1964 we white teenagers danced to black groups like Martha and the Vandellas singing “Dancing in the Streets,” and the following summer to the Four Tops singing “I Can’t Help Myself;” however, we did not have black classmates or teammates. In those years I assumed some type of conspiracy kept the town white. This contrasted with what I saw on my visit. I noticed people of color on the streets and behind the counters at the stores. It seems that my home town has indeed entered the 21st century.
Traveling down Franklin Avenue, I visited the athletic field and little league fields which all looked in very good shape with the athletic field now having artificial turf, suggesting the continued value the town still places on its athletic teams. On Route 17, Fat Mike’s, Jiffy Burger, and Dairy Queen are long gone.
Slowly I drove down Columbus Avenue pointing out to Vincent the houses of Mrs. Bear and Ms. Hoag where I tended the lawns and gardens, friend Jimmy McKenna’s house where we played basketball, and friend “Speedy” Wall’s house whose cousin set the garage on fire.
Most of the old trees whose shade I played under were gone; newer, younger trees lined the street. Midway to Terrace Avenue I pulled over, and I asked Vincent to follow me. I had to show him where we spent many summer hours playing stickball in the street, a game played with a broom stick and a pink rubber “Spalding” ball. I pointed out the location of the bases and especially of the home run line. After my friends and I had painted the line and marked it “Home Run,” a very angry woman left her adjacent home armed with a pail and wash broom. As she leered and cast angry words at us, she tried furiously to remove our home run line—in vain.
Adjacent to my former house on the corner of Columbus and Terrace, I identified the Finks’ house. It was on this property brother Denis and I agitated a hornet’s nest. Mr. Fink left his home to investigate and drifted a bit too close to the nest. The hornets attacked and drove a tumbling Mr. Fink back into his home.
I was comforted to see my former home at 75 Terrace Avenue still standing and in good repair, especially since I found my wife’s former home at 318 Henry Street demolished and replaced with two new homes. Although most of the sidewalk was new, I did find a segment made up of the original pieces of the uneven blue slate which made shoveling snow so challenging. Our lamp post, which once had my father’s name and “Massaging” on it, remains with the number “75.” I was also happy to see evidence of a young family living there—a portable basketball net stood in the driveway and a trampoline stood in the side yard where I played endless hours of catch with brother Denis and climbed the cherry tree. Reflecting the heightened concern for children’s security in our society at large, the most striking change was the fence around the property. The neighborhood in my time had very few of these, allowing much free-for-all through back yards and across property lines.
The highlight of the return was lunch at Lovey’s Pizzeria in the heart of town. As a teenager this was where I would go with Terry Gascoyne and Bobby Wildermann for a slice of pizza or a hero sandwich, perhaps the occasional eggplant parm sandwich. One of these tasty items with a soda and we were sitting on top of the world.
Choosing lunch was a tough challenge, but in the end I went with the eggplant sandwich with a side of broccoli rabe. We met the current owners Corinne and Duke Seidel who very patiently listened to my stories of the old days. It was Corinne’s father, Jimmy Longo, who always was to be found behind the counter throwing pizza dough.
My return to Hasbrouck Heights proved to be, on balance, very rewarding and comforting. I embraced my home town as a source of constancy in this world of increasing ephemerality.