MARCO POLO DISCOVERS THE WEST BRONX
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Getting from the poor east to the rich west --- and back, in 1931.
Marco Polo and my brother Sid, (10 years old) are both cut from the same cloth: explorers and adventurers. (Besides, Sid had street smarts.)
Sid heard a wondrous story about a subway being built on the Grand Concourse that I had heard of but never seen. One summer morning he suggested that he and I go with to see this wonder and I agreed. I had unbounded faith in my role-model brother; he was ten years old and I was 7.
. He showed me where to find empty wooden boxes in the open market so we could make a fire with them in Crotona park: to roast mickeys (potatoes). He was able to steal fruit when the market was closed, and the fruit stands were covered with canvas.
I had been with him in a five and dime store and witnessed him stealing a small comb.
I adored his ability for risk-taking, initiative, improvisation and "chutzpah."
The distance from our house on Fulton Avenue and 174th St. to the Grand Concourse is about a mile but I was unaware of that. Sid enchanted me about seeing the subway construction site on the Concourse because on the way we would see a railroad, a super-wide avenue (Webster) with many different trolley lines; all I had ever seen were trolley cars; and I would see buses I had never seen before.
I stayed downstairs while he bounded up to our fourth floor front-facing tenement apartment to tell Momma that we were going "to play in the park". He got her approval and we moved out.
We started west, going down the steeply cobble-stoned 174th street hill, Then we heard the approaching El train coming into the station on 3rd Ave. Sid took my hand and we ran the short block to the station. The southbound, downtown local train came thundering into the overhead station. I had never seen the underbelly of the train and I looked up at its fascinating wheels and underside. Suddenly there was movement and the train slowly, noisily made its way out of the station.
The next block, Bathgate Avenue, there was a bustling open market; Sid said that we had no time to steal any fruit, maybe on the way back. Then we came to the to Park Avenue; it carried the channel coming and going from downtown New York City to upstate New York. We stood on a stone bridge that spanned the railroad tracks. A passenger train roared by pumping up a streamer of trailing white smoke, causing the bridge vibrations to ripple up through our sneakered feet.
We were fascinated by the comings and goings for about fifteen minutes. The climax came when a long freight train slowly approached; when the chugging locomotive was not far from our bridge the engineer leaned the upper part of his body out of the cab. We frantically waved to him and he waved back! We were part of the action.
Then we got to Webster Avenue; this major thoroughfare was three times wider than the street where our El and trolley line ran. There was a steady stream of horse and wagons, cars and trucks going by in both directions. There were no traffic lights and no bridge to cross safely to the other side. Sid tugged at my sleeve, smiled down at me, and then firmly took my hand. With total confidence he led us into the street and we zigzagged through the traffic until we were safely standing on the island sidewalk of a northbound trolley station.
A streetcar was just leaving and Sid told me to stay put. With no warning, he nimbly stepped on a metal strip on the outside rear of this accelerating trolley and firmly gripped a round metal box with two hands. This container held the rope that was attached to the metal pole that brought electricity to the vehicle from the overhead wires.
When I recovered my admiration for his daring I became frightened as I thought Sid was leaving me stranded. When he was half a block away he turned his head and waved a hand in a smiling greeting. When the trolley slowed down at the next corner Sid jumped off effortlessly. He waved again, crossed to the opposite side of the tracks and in no time was riding the back of a trolley to our station.
We continued moving west and now the going was uphill. The Grand Concourse was built on the highest hill in that part of the Bronx. The pull to reach our goal, to get to the top, spurred us onwards and upwards. For the last block I began to run and got to the top before the surprised Sid.
There were no streetcar tracks, no overhead electric wires. There were buses, bigger than trucks, and one was coming into the station near where I was standing. The driver was sitting high up front, behind huge glass windows turning a big black wheel. When it stopped there was a loud hissing sound that I recoiled from, and then the doors folded in and opened up. Magic.
A few people got on and off and I approached the open doorway, curious to see what was inside, but then again there was the loud hissing and folding and the doors closed. With a rumbling roar the bus was on its way, leaving behind it a trail of sour black smoke.
In 1931 there was not much vehicular traffic on this boulevard yet it had ten traffic lanes. There were trees planted on the traffic islands as well as on the sidewalks so that the greenery and open space made it look park-like. The buildings were all six floors or higher, many with colorful awnings with elegant names such as “The Mayflower", “The Belvedere", “The Highpoint.”
There was general agreement in the East Bronx that the Concourse was the unofficial dividing line between the poorer east and the richer west Bronx. It was the hope of the east Bronxers to make the American dream come true and to live on the Concourse, or at least on the west side of it: the right side of the "railroad tracks".
A half a block from where we were there was a huge hole in the ground that was fenced in by wooden horses and extended almost to the center of the Boulevard. There was a focused flurry of action in that area: trucks were being loaded with dirt and rubble; there was a wide assortment of machinery, equipment and men around the construction site.
We ran to the edge of the wooden barrier and ducked under it. The size of the hole filled me with awe; then I stared in fascination at an elevator cage rising from the depths. When its floor was on the street level it stopped with a rattling shudder. Wire mesh gates opened in the middle, one half rising and the other descending.
Several men got off, pushing in front of them a large metal wagon that was filled with earth and rocks. Then several others pushed an empty wagon onto the metal-screened elevator. The doors clanged shut and it was only then that I saw the operator sitting on a high stool. He turned down a big lever and the elevator began to descend and the men and machines disappeared into the hole.
Sid told me to wait where I was and he approached the elevator landing. When it came up and disgorged its load of dirt, equipment and workers, Sid asked the operator if we could ride with him. His brazen request brought forth a cursed response from the operator: "Scram, you rotten kid. If you don't beat I’ll have a cop run you in". Sid retreated back to where I was. We stood there for a while longer, watching the action and then a tug at my sleeve and Sid was telling me that we have to move on.
We walked north on the Concourse until we reached the Lowe’s Paradise movie house. This theater was the best the Bronx had to offer: gigantic in size, with a carpeted lobby, marble stairways and a balcony that was so high you could almost touch the sky. The ceiling of this huge hall showed a starry sky and the stars moved! It was the only theater in the Bronx that had a combination of a first-run movie and a vaudeville show, all for the price of one.
Beneath the marquee there were several uniformed ushers controlling the long box office line which snaked halfway down the street. At the outer lobby entrance there was a tuxedoed ticket taker standing in front of a series of highly polished brass doors that were open. In the entrance lobby there were gigantic standing cutouts of Hollywood stars; on the walls were large, colorful posters, glass enclosed, which advertised the movie and coming attractions.
I had been to Saturday afternoon films in my neighborhood and had been enchanted by the cowboy movies and weekly "chapters" of "The Perils of Pauline." The "Deluxe Theater" on Tremont and Belmont Avenues was a loved treat but this "Paradise" palace was overwhelming. I thought that I would never be able to get in there no matter how much money our family had.
Sid thought otherwise; he led me towards the open, unguarded door on our side. Just as we were about to cross under the velvet rope barrier a uniformed usher appeared out of nowhere. He was wearing a pillbox hat on the side of his head, strapped under his chin; he had a frown on his face. No word was spoken as Sid led me out of the lobby into the glaring sunshine.
Suddenly, I was aware of being hungry. I mentioned this to Sid and he told me not to worry. We moved back down the Concourse to the construction site at Claremont Parkway. Down towards the east Bronx, on Claremont, there were stores and Sid looked for one he could steal something. There was none of the turbulence and tumult as in the Bathgate market. Sid was not able to steal anything.
Maybe now I thought we would go home. Besides my hunger I began to miss Momma. I made the move in the direction of Fulton Avenue but Sid was holding my sleeve and I looked up at him in surprise. He said that we still had to ride in an elevator before we go home. I forgot my hunger and yearning for Momma and we moved back to the Grand Concourse.
Sid chose a very tall apartment house not far from the corner, without a doorman. It also has an automatic elevator. We rode up and down in it, thrilling each time to the powerful acceleration and deceleration that caused our stomachs to rise and fall accordingly. In the fifteen minutes that we rode so happily, several people got on and off but they said nothing to us. We would have continued even longer were it not for a curious resident of the building who asked us if we live there. We didn't answer him and when the elevator stopped on the ground floor we rushed out of the building.
I was again sharply aware that I was hungry and missing Momma. I began to cry, tugged on Sid's sleeve and told him that I wanted to go home. He agreed. Taking my hand we began to walk back to the east. I had no trouble keeping up with his long strides. The walk back was brisk, at times we even ran for short distances.
We were unaware of what was waiting for us: our anxious mother, our older brother and sister, and some people from the neighborhood. (Poppa was unaware of the drama since he was at work.) As the hours of our disappearance passed Momma began to wonder what happened to us. She shouted from the front room window, in the direction of the park; she got no response but she didn't worry. She was sure that we were around the neighborhood somewhere: in the back yards, playing in open lots, around the corner. When lunch was ready she again called us from the window and when we didn't respond she began to worry.
She sent our older brother Herby and sister Nettie to look for us and they returned without us. Now she was nervous and worried. She went to the street to look for us at the usual places we played and then she moved to the outer reaches of the block and in the park. She was sure that something terrible had happened to us. By the middle of the afternoon there was another search, this time with the help of neighbors. No sign of us.
My frantic mother decided not to wait for my father to come home and was about to go to the police when we showed up. She was on the sidewalk in front of our house when we ran crying into her soft, secure embrace. She tearfully and gratefully gathered us into her massive, soft being, hugging and moaning her gratitude to God that we came home safely.
Our siblings, standing on the stoop, were excited and relieved that we had returned. Very quickly a large crowd gathered and there was a good deal of happy talk with some of the mothers also blessing God for our safe return. Holding each of us by the hand our mother led us up to our 4th floor apartment. As we passed our sister on the stoop she said: "You are crazy, both of you. Lunatics. You could have been killed. We ought to put you both into Bellevue hospital for observation.”
Momma looked grimly at them, silencing them. We went into our apartment and Momma gave us something to eat, without saying a word. Then the punishment began: she began to "talk" to us. This was her way of punishing us for being bad children. She never hit us. She began to speak in a loud, stern voice, angrily telling us how much she almost died of fright because she was worried. She repeated these phrases over and over, emphasizing how we had made her suffer. We were blamed for being the cause of her premature demise.
In no time both of us were crying and begging her to stop and pleading for her forgiveness. When it seemed that we had been forgiven and adequately punished, she would start all over again. She became more hysterical, and we repeatedly promised that we would never do anything wrong again. Finally it stopped. At last it was all over and we went to bed, with full stomachs and our minds and hearts filled with guilt, shame and repentance.
I lay awake for some time with these powerfully negative emotions and thoughts cycling through my mind. From time to time there would be a break in the cycle and I recalled some of the days wonders. I knew deep in my belly and mind that the day had been one of greatest of my life.
The last memory I had before drifting off was of that skyscraper on the Grand Concourse where we had ridden the elevator. I relived the joy I felt on the express getting to the top. It made everything worthwhile.