Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sometimes, You Don't Want to Go Home

My brother recently sent me something that got me thinking. It was a picture of the house where we grew up. I’ve told you about that house. My father used to joke that we had to do $10,000 in improvements before they would condemn it. That is the house where we were not allowed to answer the phone because it was probably a bill collector.

The picture brought back memories of course, which I immediately considered when studying the photograph. I saw the tree in front of the living room window that my mother and I planted. I noticed they never replaced the boxwoods that were under the bedroom windows, which I removed in 1984, much to the chagrin of my family after they asked me to remove them then forgot they asked me to remove them and raised hell when I did. Twenty-eight years later and there are still no bushes in their place. I saw they painted the shutters back to their original color – brown. They were painted green in 1967. I remember the painter drove a Ford Econoline – the Falcon-based van. The crap that is stuck in my head. Vaysmir.

In the 1980s, my mother had them painted gray by a painter who would take his shirt off the minute he arrived and worked with his sister and brother-in-law. The got paint everywhere, and some of it actually landed on the shutters. My brother and I painted the brick because Mother said she would pay us. We still have not been paid.

Let me tell you a little about this house in the Ivy Farms Neighborhood of Newport News. First, the neighborhood was one of many to pop up in the late 1950s and early 1960s to accommodate the families with their cute little baby boomers. I am one of the last of the cute baby boomers, but I have never been little.

What few people knew at the time was that the neighborhood was built on the old city dump. What made it even more special was that the builder used scrap to build each house. My father once worked for him and told how the man would stop his car to pick up nails and other scrap then use it in a new house. Whenever you wanted to replace a window or door, you would find out nothing was a standard size and no two in your house were the same.

Like most of the developments of the day, there was a mixture of about four or five different models. There were two single-story layouts or in some cases a split ranch with the same layout as the one story; in the split ranch, the bedrooms were located “upstairs” – a total of three steps up. We had one of those. The others were two story houses.

The homes had modestly large rooms, usually a separate family room, and one and a half baths. My nephew upon seeing the house as they drove by said, “It looks small.” I never thought of it as small. My brother explained my nephew never had to share a bathroom. We were four people using one shower. Not at the same time. This was Newport News, not West Virginia. Today, I live alone with two full baths.

Of course in the era of McMansions, these homes look like mother-in-law cottages, but I still prefer a modest ranch to an overpriced McMansion.

We spent the better part of two decades fighting mold inside and out especially since the brick was painted white. That white brick is an interesting story … or not.

When my mother became pregnant in 1962, a surprise to all parties involved for reasons that could fill an entire book (read my novel, Michael’s Secrets – shameless plug), my parents decided that an apartment would not cut it anymore. They didn’t want to live near the other Jews, who always knew each other’s business, so my mother picked out this lovely neighborhood when they chose to leave Stewart Gardens. Aunt Anita and her family had already moved there, and three other Jewish families moved there after we did. The bulk of the members of the tribe moved to Hidenwood.

Apparently, my mother spent a great deal of time picking out a burnt orange brick for the house. The two houses on either side of ours were being built at the same time, and the one on the left had red brick, and the one on the right had pink brick, or the other way around, or one had orange, who can remember as I was in utero. Anyway, pregnant Harryette and her two-year-old son drove over to the house in their brown 1958 Ford Country Squire to check on the progress, and all the construction workers were standing in front of the house shaking their heads.

As it turned out, they had bricked up one side of the house with the brick from the house on the right, and the other side of the house with the brick from the left, but never even used the brick my mother picked out. The foreman, upon seeing my expectant mother and little son, suggested they just paint the brick white and for all their trouble they would fence in the back yard for free. Mother took the deal, and she always said she was an idiot for doing so because they could have easily knocked down all the brick and started over. I always wanted to sandblast the white paint to see what a house with two different colors of brick looked like. This story always fascinated me because if I were having a house built and something like this happened, I would get out of the deal as soon as possible.

My parents were never accused of being shrewd.

We had the only house on the street with white painted brick for many years, and white brick shows mold. My brother said it still does.

The house was not insulated either. You could actually see someone’s hair blowing when they sat by one of the windows. Nana’s wig would even shift while she would struggle to light a Kent cigarette in the breeze. In the summer, it was an oven with only two window air conditioning units. When we had central AC installed, it never cut off from May to September.

As crappy as that house was, it did have a very nice layout, and the galley style kitchen was its best feature. Four people could prepare a meal in that kitchen without even bumping into each other. There was no exhaust fan, garbage disposal or even a dishwasher, but many a holiday meal was prepared in that kitchen, and hours were spent cleaning up afterward.

The main draw for the neighborhood was the elementary school, South Morrison Elementary, where I was the fifth grade valedictorian in 1974. Thank you. Oh, you didn't congratulate me. My bad.

And that is where this story becomes depressing.

South Morrison, an award-winning elementary school, is now an abandoned building, which once was a haven for crack whores, or so I have been told. The city is trying to decide what to do with it. Surrounding it are abandoned, boarded up and in some cases, burned down apartment buildings. I used to deliver papers to the tenants of those apartments, many of which would not pay their bills.

Remember when the newsboy would knock on your door to pay your bill? My mother once paid our newsboy with my penny collection. I had an Indian head penny in that collection, which I found out thirty-five years later was worth $1,650. I can only laugh now.

The bank at the top of my street, where I opened my fist checking account, is now a police substation. The community pool has been filled in, and the rest of the neighborhood looks like a set from an Eminem video.

Jack Carter used to joke that he grew up in such a bad neighborhood that you had to go six blocks to leave the scene of a crime. Well, that is my old neighborhood now. One childhood friend relayed how crime has completely taken over with people being shot on a regular basis.

I don’t have many great memories of growing up there, but it was my childhood home, and I find it sad that what was once a decent neighborhood with a great school is now a place you wouldn’t want to visit at any time of day.

Ironically, that was the only stick-built home I ever lived in, and now officially in the worst neighborhood from my past. That is saying a lot considering all the apartments I rented in many a dicey neighborhood.

And the best neighborhood? The one I live in now as a Gay Jew in a Trailer Park.

Life is full of ironies.

If you have lived in bad neighborhoods, follow me, join me, tell your friends.

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