It’s funny… whenever I beam back in my mind to my childhood growing up on Stockholm Street, between Seneca Avenue and Cypress Avenue; across from what we used to refer to as the “new” St. Aloysius Elementary School, I seem to remember the smells first! My older brother, dad and mom lived on the third floor of a 3-floor apartment building in what was called a “railroad” apartment because of the way the apartment was laid out – all in a row. The building was situated right next to a textile factory on the corner, so when the wind was blowing right, our apartment smelled like the chemicals of the factory. Trust me, more than once I pondered the possibility that I may have contracted the cancer with which I was diagnosed from inhaling those chemicals all those years. The suspicious thing was that in that one 3-apartment apartment building, my Grandmother lived there and died of breast cancer, my Aunt Rosie lived there and died of a rare blood cancer, my cousin Carmela developed breast cancer and I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma – that’s a whole lot of people to have been stricken with cancer from one little apartment building… but I digress. This series of articles that I wanted to write is about growing up in Ridgewood, not about cancer.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Ridgewood, it’s what is referred to as an “immigrant neighborhood.” Ridgewood has been the first place for many immigrants to live, when they came to the U.S. The Germans and Irish were the first to live there, and then came the Italians. We were looked at with disdain especially by the old Germans as poor “ginnys” and by the old Irish as greasy “wops” (WithOut Papers). By the time I was born in 1963, Stockholm St., between Seneca and Cypress was pretty much split between Germans and Italians, with the vast majority of the Italians being Sicilian. We were Napolitano which meant that while the rest of my friends were ready to stab you in the back, we were stirring the gravy while singing “Vicino al Mare.” I think we Italians brought real color to the neighborhood. I can still remember the knife & scissors man coming up our street when I was a little boy with his cart to sharpen all the knives and scissors; the Bodese ice man delivering blocks of ice for the old ladies like my “Ziadalina” (translated is “Aunt Adeline”) who still owned “ice boxes” instead of refrigerators; and the “Biancalina” Man aka the man that delivered bleach in big glass jugs.
My brother and I are really only ½ Napolitano because my dad was not Italian at all, he was French and Spanish. There were hardly any French that we knew of in Ridgewood and although we were Spanish from Spain, it was better in those days NOT to make it known that my grandmother’s name was Carmen and that I had an Uncle Ramon and Uncle Jose. When referring to my dad’s mom, she was simply Grandma and the Uncles became Uncle Ray and Uncle Joe. Italians and Puerto Ricans (who were the next wave of immigrants into Ridgewood) did NOT get along and I didn’t want my young life to become the second coming of “West Side Story,” so we made sure everyone considered us Italian. That was pretty easy because my mom was 1st generation Americana and our last name “de Marigny” was always mispronounced as “de-mar-IG-knee,” so it sounded kind of Italian.
My memories of Ridgewood in the 60’s is hazy, partially because I was so young and partially because of all of the pot being smoked all over the neighborhood. I can still remember teenage boys going to Viet Nam and either not coming home at all or coming home “men in uniform.” The first thing most of them did upon being discharged was to grow their hair long, put on a tie-dye shirt and put beat-up sandals on their feet (that was how my young mind perceived it). I watched my elementary school, St. Aloysius being built across the street from our apartment building, when I was 4 years old. I also watched the World Trade Center being built from that same apartment window. We all referred to it as the “twin towers” …it was a doubly-sad event for me to see those towers fall, because I saw them built and because I lost a friend in the towers.
Over the next few blogs, I’m going to do my best to remember all I can about this very unique place, “Ridgewood” at a very unique time, the 1970’s. A time when the country changed a lot but our neighborhood didn’t change very much at all. In fact, when I look back now, the sixteen years that I lived in Ridgewood was the most stable time of my entire life, in terms of change …or more precisely, the lack of change.
I know, I started slow here, but it’s all starting to come back to me …like the sound of air conditioners in the windows, in the summer… the church bells ringing on Sunday followed closely by the procession of the old widows dressed in black walking up my street to go to church. The constant sound of the fire engine and police sirens echoing all over the neighborhood day and night …sometimes in the background and occasionally so close we ran to the window to see… the sound of the garbage truck stopping on my street and those metal cans being slammed to the ground… the sounds of kids… so many kids, playing all sorts of games from the girls jumping rope and playing hop scotch to the boys playing stickball and boys and girls both playing street tops, skelzie, ringolerio and johnny-on-the-pony. Nothing was better than hearing “Mike the ice cream man” coming up the street in his Good Humor truck, the one with the 4 bells that he would ring mounted over the windshield… or the sound of Mr. Freeze, you remember that song that stayed in your mind forever. Da-dum da da da da dum da da… The smell of barbecues going in everyone’s back yards in the summer and the smell of all the different ethnic cooking inside people’s homes… Italian food, German food, Polish food… buying and selling fireworks… carrying around two or three tow truck cards so we could call them if we saw an accident and get paid a commission… collecting hubcaps and then selling them to the car places down by Summerfield St. …which reminds me… Summerfield St. and the Italian restaurant that used to be there, “John’s of Summerfield St.” where you had to walk through the store to the back where there were a few tables and this nice Italian lady who would serve you (we used to order from there on Friday’s and the food would all come in these aluminum trays with the white lids ...mm-mmm, I can still taste the chicken cutlet parm! So many memories – most were fun, some were sad – but all was uniquely “Ridgewood!”
I’ll leave it there for now. I got myself hungry!