(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.
Follow me on Twitter: @FredZilian
Thanks, Fred, for the home update. The last time I was there, it seemed HH had been Disneyized, all cleaned up and freshly painted. Yes, there was no one of color nor do I remember as a freshman or sophomore playing against people of color until I entered The Record paper boy basketball tournament.
Great commentary Fred, you painted a great picture of our little home town. I too worked at the Pork Store, delivering orders on my bike and also worked at Henry’s Deli as a stock boy. I was there with one of my sons and my daughter in January when we were there for my brothers funeral and I drove them all around doing the same thing you did with your grandson. Again, good job! Ray
Thanks, Ray. Did not realize you had also worked at the Pork Store. Given the rise of China, it is quite fitting that it is now a Chinese restaurant!
Exeremtly helpful article, please write more.
How interesting that you would go back to see all those changes. My Mother Vee was best friends with Fred and Denis mother Jean. She was a feisty lady with a big heart and Dad Fred had his massaging business right in the house. Mama Jean made the best pressed cookies. I still have her recipe. The boys Mother was a type of woman who could build a house. She would go to endless supermarkets to get her sale items. Humorous in ways both ladies had a very long lasting frienship from young to old and that’s hard to find in this day and age. Louise A. Micci
Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comment. I am glad you enjoyed the essay.
Fred, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your essay. It brings back many memories. I worked with your brother Denis for many years and just got of the phone with him. He and I would discuss HH for hours. We both aren’t doing well but always enjoy the time. Fred in the spring of 1966 I remember you standing on the bench in the baseball locker room explaining how we should wear our baseball socks. I really enjoy your writings, thanks for the memories.
Many thanks for your message and for the kind words about my writing. I appreciate you keeping in touch with brother Denis. I call him every few weeks and check in. He has managed to stay in remarkably good spirits through his trials. Good luck to you and thanks again.
I don’t think we ever met, but I do remember Terry Gascoyne who my best friend while attending Euclid School. We used to organize touch football games in his back yard, and yes also would go to the pizzeria where you could actually buy by the slice. We moved from Hasbrouck Heights to Summit in the summer of 1960 where I attended Junior and Senior high school. Our name was changed form Pueblita to Pueblitz when we became American citizens (for some odd reason, my father decided to take on the original Eastern European spelling of our surname instead of the Spanish version; we are originally from Mexico). Terry and I kept in touch for a couple of years. I even went back to Hasbrouck Heights to see him a couple of times, and he visited me in Summit one summer. But you you know how it is, keeping up a friendship at a distance at a time in your life when so many changes are occuring is difficult; eventually Terry and I lost touch, but the affection for my old friend was always still there. Thanks so much for bringing back that memory. Your description of Hasbrouck Heights created a deep nostalgia, feeling that, as often happens when we recall something special in our lives, is at once happy and sad, bittersweet, so to speak. Take care of yourself. Thanks again.
Siegfried “Timmy” Pueblitz
I just found your comment in my spam folder.
Thank you for your message and your kind words about my essay. Hasbrouck Heights was a great town to grow up in during the 50s and early 60s. I am glad that the essay brought back memories for you. I still have a brother in Ramsey whom I occasionally visit. When I do, I generally swing through Heights for old time’s sake. I hope Terry attends our class’s 50th Reunion in October. Not sure he will make it as he now lives–I believe–in Puerto Rico. I do have his email address if you would like it.
Kind regards, Fred Zilian
I do not know if you will get this email, I am sure that it will most likely go to your span box. However, if indeed you do receive it, I would like you to know that your brother was a kind soul with a great sense of humour. It was in Euclid school, do not remember what year, that Denis and I walked to school together each morning. I also live on Columbus Ave. but the other side of the Boulevard. I would walk to your home on Terrace and your Mother would be by the door with Denis to say goodbye to Denis and wave to me with a big smile wishing us a “GOOD DAY”………………. Denis and I remained friends in Euclid School and then in junior high we lost touch. I always thought he was such a nice, kind person with a great sense of humour,and a great laugh and “always” a smile… When i read that he had passed away, I was looking at us in a photograph of Mrs. Coyles (fourth? grade class)…………… What a coincidence……
Thank you for your message and for your kind words about brother Denis. I can clearly remember your name although I had to look you up in the 1965 Coronian to remember your face. Hasbrouck Heights was a good place to grow up in those years. I cherish my memories of the place and the friends I had. I look forward to our 50th High School Reunion which will take place in October. The last time I visited Hasbrouck Heights and Columbus Avenue, I succeeded in meeting the current owner of our old home on the corner. He invited me in and showed me around the house which seemed so small to me now. Great memories.
Thank you again and stay well,
Fred–My name is Bob Soel ,class of 63 and member of the football team , and I remember you and your brother as great football players. I was looking up an old friend who died, Vera Gernert Sayers, class of 65, who married my classmate and still good friend Fred Sayers and noticed your brother died. I am saddened. I lost my brother Kenny Soel when he was in 8th grade to cancer. He might have been a classmate of yours. I also have a brother Doug. I really enjoyed your story about the old home town.
Thank you for your message and your kind words. I was sorry to hear about your brother. Brother Denis waged a valiant fight against cancer for seven years, giving us much more time than the doctors predicted. I see that he and Vera Gernet were classmates. I am class of ’66 and will visit our home town in ten days for our 50th High School Reunion. We have about 75 people attending, so it should be quite a celebration. I believe Bob Barrows was in your class. He married my classmate Lorrie Stassi, and they are both attending. All best.
Fred thanks for the walk down memory lane. I too grew up in HH class of 67 and enjoyed your comments about the good old days. I found your blog while searching for German star cookies and thinking the pork store would have them, only to learn it’s long gone. Good memories but sad realities. Nice to have enjoyed it with your grandson.
Dear Jacqui, Thank you for your kind words. We just had our 50th High School Reunion at Graycliff in Moonachie. We were able also to tour the high school. About 50 classmates + some spouses attended. Greta fun.
All best to you and your family for the holidays.
Hi Fred. We didn’t know each other but I can relate to the story of your visit “home”. I was in the class of ’64 and had a classmate, Danny Gascoyne, who I think was Terry’s older brother. We lived in a couple of homes in town and were on Franklin Ave. until I was about 7 years old. We lived about 1/2 way up the street from Lovey’s Pizzeria. Cruising the boulevard was great fun in the 60’s and the Heights truly was a classic small American town back then. On Friday nights we always found our way to Jif Jiffy’s for a burger or hung out on the stoop of Gus’s sweet shop. Thanks for the memories.
Bob, Thanks for your kind message and your remembrances about Hasbrouck Heights. I am glad that you enjoyed my essay. It was a great town to grow up in back then. The town, the high school, Corpus Christi, and my family grounded me well for my career at West Point and the Army. My wife, formerly Geri Maida (Henry Street), and I are now retired and living in Rhode Island. We are currently snowbirding in Florida. On our way home in a few weeks we shall spend some time in Charleston and visit our classmate Linda Zydel Rinaldi and Frank Rinaldi. I believe Frank was class of ’63. Yes, Danny was the brother of Terry, my good friend back then. Danny and I overlapped at Ft. Benning, GA, the in the 70s. Stay well, my friend, Fred Zilian
Remember your running backs from 1964?
Larry, Good to hear from you. In 1965, as I recall, they were you, Joe Corso, and Bobby Roth. How are you doing?
Fred, I really enjoyed your commentary about visiting HH again. This is Bob Meisch, by the way, and although I was a year ahead of you in school, we crossed paths quite a few times in athletic endeavors. I hope you remember me. I married a contemporary of yours, Lynne Zecchin of Cleveland Avenue. She remembers you very well. We moved to GA about 35 years ago, but I have been back to NJ and HH specifically many times. I always ride past the house I grew up in (123 Madison Ave) and some other “landmarks”. I too had a lunch at Loveys several years ago when Jimmy was still there. Amazingly, he remembered me. The last time I drove through HH was in 2015 when I was up there for my 50th high school reunion at Bergen Catholic HS. Of course, Lynne and I had to stop at Spindler’s Bakery to get a crumb cake. We also went to Mills Bakery in Wood Ridge to be a 7 layer cake. HH was a great place to grow up in the 50’s and 60’s in spite of the lack of racial diversity. It was a difficult to leave that part of the world and move to the south, but we’ve adjusted well, and haven’t really regretted the move.
I have doubts, Fred, that you will see my note, since it is being written so long after your original article. But, if you do receive it, you can reply to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
All the best…Bob