That’s my house over there. It’s white with an attached garage. My room is the room upstairs with the window that faces the front of the house. Ours is the fifth house, north of Front Street.
The name of my street is Merrick Avenue which is somewhat of a main road but it’s not too busy. Then again, it’s not the kind of street that one can play a game of stickball on or anything like that. No, ours was a main road that ran north and south through our town. There was a steady flow of traffic which was never too bad; but again, there was no playing in the street.
None of the homes in our neighborhood were overwhelming or large. Ours was a modest town, middle income, working families, and we were a regular, average neighborhood which, to me, was the only place in the world. To me, this was the world at the time. Any place else seemed like another world or a different country because, at the time, my world was so small and the idea of travel was more than I could consider.
Let’s take a walk together. . .
Across from my home was a large open field. This was part of an old air base which I didn’t know much about. There were some old, abandoned fire hydrants and old, cracked up roads that ran through an otherwise grassy field.
There was a six foot high mound of dirt which acted as a border and encapsulate the vacant property.
I used to dig for buried treasure here. But I never found any.
I used to have ideas that I could find ancient American Indian artifacts here, but I never found any.
There were times when people dumped some garbage here, but this wasn’t too often. There were a few occasions when someone drove a stolen car over the mound of dirt and left the car here.
To be clear or to paint a better picture, the lot was very large and there was always a promise that a developer was going to come along and change this to a place with homes.
This lot was on the edge of our town and, for the most part, the area was clean and happy to a child like me.
We built clubhouses in the fields. We tried to build a few treehouses here too. However, older kids who were less-than innocent would come to the vacant lot too. This meant they’d drink beer here and inevitably, the forts and the treehouses never lasted very long. Then again, when it came to my small group of friends, I’m not sure how great our young carpentry skills were either.
We had a few supermarkets in town, like Waldbaum’s. See it over there?
It’s by the cross street of Front and Merrick.
This was a big shopping center with a Fleet Bank, a card store, and there’s a pharmacy in the strip mall too and a kosher deli, which I seldom went to. And over there is MAB liquor which is a place for discussion when it comes to our later chapters.
There’s a Carvel on Merrick and a bagel place. Up the road a little is a diner and across from this is a fork in the road. In one direction is Merrick Avenue that continues further south. The left fork is Bellmore Avenue. By the way, see that little strip mall where Bellmore Avenue begins? This is where I landed one of my first jobs. I worked in a luncheonette which didn’t pay much. I think I made a whopping rate of $3.50 an hour.
But this story comes later.
There were a few different schools in my town. I suppose the school you went to somehow distinguished who you are or identified you differently from someone who went to a school that was less than a mile away. But again, a mile to a child is like a lifetime away which, again, a mile away might have been like another country to us.
There were a few parks which, of course, these are places that hold a few memories from my teenage years. There was a bowling alley. There was a Knights of Columbus hall.
There was a firehouse next to the town’s library, which was quaint and small. There was another strip mall here too.
Can you see it?
This one has a Pathmark in it, which was a popular supermarket. There were also some pizza places around the town. There was Peitro’s and Rose’s and then there was Pizza King in the Modell’s shopping center. This was huge and while my memories of this place are faded – I can remember when Modell’s had a supermarket as well.
Otherwise, our town was simple with simple homes and, of course, many of the homes displayed the American Flag on their front lawns or at their doorsteps.
We were typical of the time. There were never too many questions about who other people were or how other people lived. Our town was easy. There was certainly nothing complicated or complex about us.
We had a few places to eat. There was never much trouble, at least not yet.
Our town was safe enough that you could leave your home with the door unlocked and not be worried that someone might sneak in.
Oh, and springtime was interesting.
The start of the little league season always kicked off with a parade which began over on Prospect Park.
This was the town’s pool, which was also a place to play basketball or handball. There were two tennis courts here as well.
The parade would start from the large parking lot of the town’s pool. The parking lot was fenced off by an eight-foot tall wrought iron fence which was locked when the park was closed. There was a marching band and there were baseball teams. There were the little kids and the t-ball teams and the older kids and then, of course, there was me dressed in my little baseball get-up.
Can you see?
This is the best display of innocence.
We marched through the town from Prospect, down to Front Street and all the way up to the ball fields.
People would come out from their homes and sit along the side of the road.
I can remember families and the town’s elderly, sitting on their outdoor folding chairs, waving and cheering and some would wave little American Flags.
I would say that ours was a predominantly white, Roman Catholic/Irish Catholic town with a few Greek Orthodox, sprinkled in the mix. This made being Jewish a tough one for me but this too is a story for later. Otherwise, the only other ethnic infusion was from the military housing.
We weren’t altogether integrated but we were not “all white” either.
But there was tension. I admit to this.
There were certain bands of racism and as a matter of fact; there was a racist attack against my neighbor once.
Did I tell you about this?
His name was Mr. Praus. He lived in the fourth house, north of Front Street. His skin was dark and his accent was thick but Mr. Praus was a kind man. He lived in the home with a woman named Laura. I believe the house was owned by her and since I was very young – I never knew or thought much about their connection or if they were actually lovers or anything like that. Laura was from From Germany, or maybe I’m wrong – but I remember hearing stories about Belgium and Germany. Oh, and Laura was shite. She was kind as could be and generous.
All I knew about Laura and Mr. Praus is they lived in the home together and they cared for their gardens and their house and landscaping. One night, a group of kids (assholes if I’m being direct) lit a small cross on fire in front of their house.
See it there?
That’s Laura and Mr. Praus, right there, standing on the bottom step of their stoop, in front of their red-bricked home which was a nice place. There’s the news who showed up. And there’s the firemen who put out the burning cross and there’s the police who arrived to take a report. The lights on the trucks and the police cars were swirling.
The Old Man had this expression of disgust on his face. At my young age, I never saw emotion like this before. We initially saw the commotion through the living room window but The Old Man decided to go outside.
That’s him, The Old Man, standing on our front stoop.
And that’s me, as usual, standing next to The Old Man looking on as a witness.
The Old Man took my hand; his youngest son. He walked down from the steps at our stoop and onto the sidewalk. Then with severe determination, we walked past the policeman and the firemen, passing the reporters who were trying to get a statement for the paper and then The Old Man walked me up to Mr. Praus.
The hour had already passed the sunset, which was about the time when I would be going to bed.
The Old Man reached his hand out to Mr. Praus and said, “Not everyone feels that way!” and the two shook hands in a way that I have yet to see again.
I can remember the sad look of pain in my Father’s eyes and the relief this brought to Mr. Praus. I suppose this is because my Father welcomed him as a neighbor and not as a color.
I was young but old enough to know that the cross had something to do with God.
But wait, if this had something to do with God, then why would someone light this on fire?
I asked The Old Man why this happened.
“It’s because some people are stupid,” he told me.
Then he said the usual, “You’ll understand more when you get older.”
In fairness and in loyalty to this event; I am 50 years-old and I still cannot seem to grasp the benefits of hate.
I say this to you as a person who has been reformed of my hate.
I say this to you as a man who has witnessed both amazing cruelty and unbelievable amounts of love. I have seen unthinkable acts of kindness and miserable attacks of hatred that spewed from red-blood and violence.
I learned this:
There is beauty wherever you go.
You just have to look sometimes.
But . . .
There’s hatred too, which is easy to find.
It’s abound and all around.
I know this because I was so wrapped up inside of an inaccurate hatred for much of my life; thus, my life took a different and horrible spin.
But all in all, awareness is something that comes in a unique and time-released form.
There was so many beautiful things to see – I just couldn’t figure out why someone would want to ruin this with a burning cross.
But I guess some people are stupid – At least, that’s what The Old Man said.
By the way, The Old Man has a bristly kind of stubble on his face. It’s been decades since I had a hug and a kiss on the cheek from him. When I was little, the stubble used to stick me a little bit. His whiskers were certainly sharp and this hurt a little but man . . . there are times when I see heartbreaking things or acts of cruelty. There are times when i see ugliness step in to rob us of our view.
At times like this, I could use a hug from The Old Man and a kiss on the cheek.
Maybe this never made it all better but I learned a lesson here.
I say this because life is this way – even beautiful things and beautiful places comes with doses of pain.
But that doesn’t have to make everything ugly.
(Know what I mean?)