Thursday, January 26, 2012

You Can Never Go Home Again

Moving from the East New York section of Brooklyn to the Ozone Park section of Queens, approximately six miles, was a lot more traumatic than the distance might indicate. Geographically, socially and culturally, Brooklyn and Queens were as different as London and Paris. I was in my late teens when my father decided to sell our house on Somers Street (making sure it had already lost most of its value) and relocate the family to a nicer neighborhood. We moved to a small home on 109th Street off 107th Avenue. That we were just a short walk to Aqueduct Racetrack may have had some influence on my father's decision in this matter. "Tony Boots", you may remember, had a penchant for slow horses and investment stocks that were about to collapse.

I was already familiar with the new neighborhood, having spent the last year of high school at John Adams H.S. just down the block from our new house. Since we were still living in Brooklyn, I had to take the 'A' train to my new school. I would get off at the elevated Liberty Avenue - 104th Street stop and walk the few blocks to John Adams. Compared to my old High School, Brooklyn Tech, a huge, squat, inner-city brick building that housed 6,000 boys and no girls, John Adams looked like Beverly Hills High. The campus, off Rockaway Boulevard, looked park-like, with its grassy lawns and tree-lined entryway. The building itself was in the architectural style known as 'Public School Ugly', but they had something that made it beautiful to me...girls!

I knew a few students who attended Adams; they had already made the move from our old block to the suburban streets of Queens. This helped some, but I still felt like an outsider since by senior year all the cliques had been formed and transfer students were eyed suspiciously. I had played varsity baseball at Tech, but never thought of trying out for the John Adams team. I was bitter about being booted out of Tech (entirely my fault) and not really anxious to start over again in a new school. I was down on school in general; I just wanted to get my diploma and get out. It didn't help that I adopted the sulky persona of a rebel who didn't quite fit in with the preppy types at Adams. See link below for details.  
 The Preppies vs. the Hoods

The new neighborhood was so different from where I had grown up. The streets were lined on both sides with neat, single-family houses fronted by postage stamp-sized lawns. There was also a shared driveway leading to garages at the rear of the yard. It was this shared driveway that drove my poor mother nuts. The neighbors we shared it with were low-lifes, commonly known in Italian as 'cavones' or cafones...rude, ill-mannered peasants. They had a dog that pooped all over the driveway, and no amount of pleading by Mom could get them to control their mutt. Dad was not a confrontational man, and so we endured the mounds. This situation figured prominently in the family's decision to move back to Brooklyn at a time when everyone else was moving out, another of Dad's bad real estate calls. 

Also, unlike our old block where every kind of store imaginable was a short walk away, Queens was different. Most people used their cars to run errands. My Dad never got his driver's license, so it was left to Mom to get around as best she could, taking buses and trains when necessary to do her shopping. Dad left for work every day, but Mom felt cut off, not just because she couldn't walk to get what she needed, but her friends were gone. The women she met on the street and talked to every day weren't there for her. She felt alone and isolated, but not being a complainer, I don't think my father ever fully understood how she detested that house and how badly she wanted to leave it.

Thomas Wolfe is remembered for the quote: "You can never go home again.' That's because 'home' is not so much a place as it is a place in time. Only a few years after we left Somers Street in Brooklyn, it ceased to be what it had been for us...the place where we grew up and where our hearts were. I once made the mistake of driving down my old street to see the house where I spent my childhood. It was a mistake. I barely recognized the old place. The stores were all gone. Tacky aluminum siding covered the elegant brick row houses. No kids played in the street. It was truly a sad experience. Lucky for me, despite Wolfe's assertion, I can go home again, if only in my mind.


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Joseph Del Broccolo said...

How is it that the old neighborhood shrinks somewhat when you go back? Everything looks smaller.

Jim Pantaleno said...

It looked so different I couldn't believe it was the same block. Should have stayed away.