Thursday, December 22, 2005

"We Weren't Poor. We Just Didn't Have Any Money."

Yesterday, I walked from 170th Street in the Bronx to 70th Street in Manhattan. It was day two of the transit strike, and I needed to get from my school to my second job. I could have taken a taxi at least part of the way, but once I'd walked 50 blocks, I got stubborn and figured why not walk 50 more? The best part about the walk was that I took some side streets and saw a whole different side of the South Bronx. It didn't seem so harsh without all the buses and above-ground trains roaring past. Pedestrians were everywhere, and there almost (almost) seemed to be a brotherly love on the sidewalks. I even walked past the building on Willis Avenue that my dad grew up in over half a century ago. It was recently renovated and actually looked really cute. There's a barbershop on the ground floor with old-school red, white, and blue barber poles. I emailed my dad about my visit to his old home, and he sent me this:

Thanks for the trip through time ... I lived on the 5th floor of 372 Willis Ave. with my Uncle Rich and Aunt Sadie from 1943 to 1949. There was no heat except for the big kitchen coal stove and no elevator of course. The building originally had no electricity. My Jr high was on 147th and grade school on 138th, both between Willis and Brook Ave. Started Stuyvesant while still living there. The rent was $28 per month until central steam heat was installed, when it went to $35. We weren't poor. We just didn't have any money. I was categorized as underprivileged but didn't know it. The store in the building was a toy store. Feliz Navidad.

My dad now lives in a much different environment - a nice house with a Pacific Ocean view in California, where I grew up. How did I end up back on the sidewalks of the South Bronx, gazing up at that old brick building, imagining that I'd been transported back to 1940's NYC? It all seemed somehow beyond my control. I chatted with a few men who were hanging out on the sidewalk outside the building. They were super-impressed that my dad lived there so long ago. A sweet kid walking into the building overheard me, stopped at the front door, and looked on with interest. I wondered how similar his childhood has been to my dad's. He probably goes to the same middle school on 147th. Hopefully, he'll get a chance to go to a good high school and college like my dad did.

I had been getting off the subway in the Bronx every day for a year without realizing that I was just six blocks away from my dad's childhood home. I was always in such a rush to get to work, and I still had to transfer from the subway to a bus to get to my school. When I came to Willis Avenue during my strike-induced walk home, the name of the street rang a bell. I got out my notebook, where I'd scribbled my dad's old address months ago, intending to someday pay a visit. I always knew that my dad grew up in the area, but visiting the actual building he lived in really made history come alive for me. So even though I don't agree with this transit strike, something positive did come of it for me.

It all feels fateful. My dad's older sister - my late aunt - actually graduated in 1941 from the high school at which I now teach. I didn't know this before taking the job. My dad would have gone to the same school too if he hadn't passed the test to get into Stuyvesant, which is New York City's finest and most competitive public high school. Getting accepted there was my dad's first real shot at making something of himself outside of the ghetto.

It really seems like more than a coincidence, literally following my dad and aunt's footsteps. There are hundreds of schools in New York City that I could have ended up in. Why did I end up here?

(Props to Carl Hurley and Hazel V. Hall, both of whom wrote little-known books entitled We Weren't Poor, We Just Didn't Have Any Money. Both are on Amazon.)


Anonymous JaneBlue said...

Hi There, My dad grew up in the South Bronx too, but I've never been there. I live in Arizona. It was nice to vicariously experience where my pop grew up. Good luck with your teaching career and your writing!

12:15 AM  
Blogger pablo said...

Hi Miss Dennis,

I grew up in the So. Bronx, many yrs ago. I am in the process of getting reacquainted with the old neighborhood (my memories of it) & street names are starting to come back. Thanks for the stroll.

I even started a blog about my childhood memories of the Bronx.

Good luck.

2:12 AM  
Anonymous Bugsybee said...

Hi Miss Dennis! I am a retired teacher from the Philippines. I discovered your blog because I subscribe to Yahoo's Pick and I'm really happy I checked out your site (of course the magic word was "education" under which they classified your blog). Your stories are heartwarming. This story about your dad and how you reconnected with his old neighborhood is inspiring. It's like the stories of many of my students (I taught accounting in college). One of them will soon be working as a CPA in New York. Thank you for your wonderful stories.

10:07 PM  
Anonymous Grace said...

I know I'm a little behind to have read this post 6 months after its birth, but I was really charmed by it. Oddly, I had a similar experience. When I was a toddler, my family lived in Queens, but we left and I grew up upstate. I got a job teaching at a high school in Corona this past fall and as I described its location to my father, he told me where we had lived a few blocks away. Also, I take the bus from Forest Hills everyday, which is where he used to work, so I now do his old commute in reverse. I like to say that in 20 years I've gotten nowhere, but there is something cool about it, I think.

3:23 PM  

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