Although I started out in the Bronx, and lived in Killeen, Texas while my dad was in the Army National Reserve (where my sister Suzanne was born in a military hospital), the first place that formed vivid early childhood memories was Howard Beach, Queens. Our parents bought a co-op there in Lindenwood. Apartment 5F. I imagine it was a real “we’re movin’ on up” moment for them. It was the suburbs compared to the small Bronx apartment we shared, in a Greek enclave near my father’s immigrant parents. Come to think of it, my mom must have been delighted to put some distance between her and our dour ya-ya, her mother-in-law.
I haven’t been back in the 45 years since we left for the real suburbs of Westfield, New Jersey, but Suzanne and I had been talking about a nostalgic trip back every year for the twenty that I’ve lived here.
“Wanna go get some Greek food in Astoria tomorrow and then go to Howard Beach?” she asked last Friday.
“Definitely. You must have read my mind,” I told her. “Flying in and out of JFK for Portland reminded me of how low the planes flew overhead when we lived there.”
So she, her husband Bruce, and I set out for the far away borough over the eternally clogged Whitestone and onto the perpetually congested Van Wyck in search of our past. New Yorkers endearingly never feel the need to say “bridge” or “expressway.” We just know.
We drove down 155th Avenue past the “garden apartments” where some of my friends lived – I so envied their small patches of grass – and pulled in to the same hairpin driveway where our dad would park our black VW Bug. Where the Good Humor truck pulled up in the summer. When we heard those bells ringing we pled like Pavlov’s dogs with our mother to throw down two quarters in a twist-tied baggie, and raced around from the playground in back to the driveway in front to catch him in time.
“Hello, Nancy!” He called all the girls Nancy. “What’ll it be today?” We’d order a Toasted Almond or Chocolate Éclair because we’d need $0.35 for the more deluxe chocolate-bar-in-the-middle Chocolate Fudge Bar.
I remember seeing him out of uniform in the Waldbaum’s once. Suzanne and I were dumbstruck. We thought he lived in that truck.
Our building, and the one directly across the driveway (where we attended nursery school in the basement before it was called Pre-K) looked much the same, if not better kept than I’d expected. But they looked shorter, too. I guess a six-story building looks taller to a six-year old thank to an admittedly short adult.
Back then the playground featured a surface of decidedly kid-unfriendly gnarled asphalt. It split my lip and chipped my front tooth when I slid down the steel sliding pond face first. My tooth is still yellow from that poor choice. It got so hot in the summer that it singed our already pre-sunscreen seared skin.
In those halcyon days, my sister, three years my junior, and I would play for hours unattended in that playground behind our building, or ride our bikes on the adjacent oval of rose-colored concrete that we affectionately called “the pink.” We could commiserate with Joni Mitchell over its having been paved over so they could “put up a parking lot.”
Our mom would hang out of the window now and then to check on us, or to alert us to an impending meal or bedtime. We’d argue futilely for a few moments before her voice rose to the decibel level that indicated nonnegotiability. Those twin buildings provided a gaggle of in situ friends, and an abundance of easily accessible Halloween candy.
We snapped a few photos, looked up at our bedroom window, and then drove down to our alma mater, P.S. 232. It, too, is in remarkably good shape. Suzanne and I sang our school song: Children, from P.S. 232, Children have lots of work to do, Working and then we’re playing, We’ll have lots of fun when work is done!
The mean Mrs. Martin picked relentlessly on Dennis Gibbons in third grade in that building, and I learned Spanish there with Mrs. Romano in the fourth. Back then, before the fear of predators kept kids on a short leash, Suzanne and I used to go across the street with $1 each from our mom (on the rare day she didn’t feel like making us PBJs) and sit on red vinyl swivel stools at the luncheonette counter and have a lunch of hamburger, French fries, and a Coke in a white paper cone sitting in a red hourglass-shaped plastic holder.
Through the miracle of Facebook, we have reconnected with many Howard Beach friends. It’s great to share memories like how our mothers would leave us, sleeping, with the front doors ajar, so they could listen for us (before baby monitors) while they played mah jongg in an adjacent apartment.
We didn’t stay long, and we didn’t do much besides touch the school building as if doing so would somehow reconnect us to that part of our history. It sufficed to be there and remember where we came from.
On the way home we watched a big papaya-colored sun dip behind the Manhattan skyline. It reminded me of The Cyrckle singing about the sun as “a red rubber ball.” I listened to Cousin Bruce, on WABC-AM, on a small transistor radio by the public pool. It reminded me of the pink Spalding ball we bounced on the playground: A my name is Annie and I come from Alabama, my husband’s name is Andy and we sell Apples, crossing a leg over the ball after every word starting with the letter “A.”
It seemed that just being back there, walking that same concrete path that we’d followed thousands of times, was enough to trigger a hit parade of memories. Maybe Thomas Wolfe was right in saying You Can’t Go Home Again. But it was sure nice to visit.