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313 DeGraw Ave. 1927

Sometimes, when I’m having trouble getting to sleep, I take six decades of my living and slide them aside, like a Japanese door, to open on the landscape of my childhood. I remember the house I lived in when I was five or six years old, trace its floorplan, walk out its door and wander the streets. What is most surprising is how much there is stored in the neurons, untouched for half a century, that can be re-animated. Each door I open opens into a room with new doors to open, that open on other rooms with other doors.

Mom, Sue and Stan as kidsAnd so, I remember the front room of the house where we lived with my grandmother, Nana, in New Jersey just after the war. It sat directly on the town boundary between Teaneck and Bogota at the point Degraw Avenue began its long westerly descent to the Hackensack River. It was the house where my mother grew up, where her father died when she was seven, where she then had to raise her younger brother and sister while her mother worked in Manhattan. It meant that my mother never really had a free childhood, and perhaps as a result, adulthood always seemed to feel like a burden.

313 degraw ave 1927 in snowThat two-family house divided at the front door. To the right was the front room of our apartment. Straight behind the front door were the stairs to the second floor, where Nana’s sister and her husband lived. Tante Esther and Uncle Gerry. That front room led through a wide arch to the dining room, at the far end of which were two spring-mounted swinging doors — one on either end of the wall — which led to the kitchen. Off the dining room to the left, underneath the staircase to Tante Esther’s, were the bedrooms and the hard-tiled bathroom with its claw-footed bathtub. At the back of the house, tucked behind the kitchen, was an addition my father had built where Nana’s mother came briefly to live and finally to die. She was a formidable woman, born Anne Gurina Kristiansen in Norway, but so old by the time I knew her she seemed almost like death already. The fact she died in what became my bedroom hardly registered on me. I was too young to understand.

Usually, I get drowsy by this time, and I descend into a nether world.
The basement, reached by the dark stairs behind the kitchen, was a dungeon in which a large beast of many white asbestos tentacles resided, sitting in the middle of the cavern roofed with rafters and ducts. A coal chute gave some light beyond the golem, and what was once a window to the backyard near the top of the wall was now dark, covered with the addition where the old lady died. A cat once gave birth to kittens in the crawlspace accessed by that window. My father hated cats. I don’t know what happened to the kittens, but it is unlikely he harmed them. More likely he called the dogcatcher to come and get them. At any rate, they disappeared as quickly as they arrived.

That golem, the furnace, played in the cast of the adventures I devised in the cellar, turning used Reddi-Wip cans into space ships, which I shot through outer space with noises I generated in my throat, shooting each other into oblivion. Some days later, my mother wondered what the bad smell was and discovered the remaining cream in the cans had soured, stinking up my cosmos. Reddi-Wip was invented the same year I was born.

captain video

Captain Video

That interest in outer space came from a mahogany box in a corner of the dining room, which had a tiny curved glass window in it on which I religiously watched Captain Video, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, to say nothing of Captain Midnight. Television was new, quality was dubious, reception iffy, and programming spotty. We all knew the familiar “test pattern” that burned into the cathode ray tube before the day’s schedule began.

My father aided and abetted my fascination with space travel by fabricating for me and for my younger brothers what we called “space boards,” which were masonite panels we could hold on our laps, filled with various buttons and switches we could flip and push, in imitation of the control panels of our space heroes. It is amazing how easy it is to amuse a young boy with an active imagination.

But it wasn’t only space that captured my imagination, it was also cowboys. Because there was so little programming available for the early TV stations, they recycled endless movie re-releases to fill up the time. Many of these, at least on morning TV, were Westerns from the 1930s. I came to know and love Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, Bob Steele — the “Three Mesquiteers,” and above all, Hopalong Cassidy. William Boyd had struck a coup by buying up the rights to his old movies and now refitted them for television, and later making a whole new series of TV adventures. Boyd was my favorite.

At the age of three or four — at any rate, before I began school — I remember my grandmother getting on my imaginary horse, Whitey, with me and riding her from the kitchen to the front door to see her off to work in the morning. Cap guns and cowboy hats were always the preferred Christmas presents.

Richard Newburgh 1949 copyThis isn’t about nostalgia, however, but about how a small boy experiences life. As an adult, one has a well of experience to draw on, a series of related moments forming a net, so that each new occurrence has some resonance with its past. But as a child, each thing is new and as yet unconnected to the rest. There are things taken as given: family, the house, the yard; later, the school, the way to the grandparents house. All these things ultimately mesh together, but those early memories are discrete; it is only as I pull them together while trying to doze off, that they begin cohere.

In those first years, the world was largely circumscribed by the house and yard, with the rooms, the mystery of the understair closet, with its odor of dust and uncovered lathe, the cavern of the cellar, the apple tree in the back yard from which Nana made a yearly batch of applesauce, and the vacant lot next door, which was our cow prairie or our moonscape, depending on what we were playing that day. Or, for that matter, our jungle when we took our shirts off and “went native.”

Beginning with kindergarten, the world opened up. I walked the mile to school each day and the mile back, and the streets became tentacles of geography on which I built my picture of the world. Each street was a different reality. To give a summary picture of that geography: Degraw Avenue ran basically east-west; the few blocks on which our house sat was a plateau; down the west side, into Bogota and Hackensack, the road went downhill; and in the east, from Queen Anne Road on, it went downhill the other way toward the Meadowlands, Overpeck Creek and Fort Lee. That was the spine of my earth. Crossing it, almost like shoulders and hips, were Queen Anne Road and Palisade Avenue.

Home territory map

Our house was on the corner of Degraw Avenue and Farrant Terrace, which was the street that ran along the side of our house, took a 90-degree turn and continued down to Queen Anne Road as a kind of anastomosis, leading the same place as Degraw Avenue. My best friend, Tommy, lived in a house where Farrant Terrace bent. The Clems lived in the house next door to us; they were an older couple who treated us like an aunt and uncle. Their back porch had jalousie windows, a fact that much fascinated both me and my little brother.

The other arteries in this circulation all came off this main armature. It is difficult to express just how central this picture of the world was to one in the process of piecing together a whole self. At that age, I knew nothing of Nebraska or Timbuktu; it was the spine of my streets that were the core, the seed on which the crystal grew. From those first certain streets grew an internal sense of how the entire globe might be pulled together in a single flash of connectedness.

Ricky 20 mos copyOut the front door of our house and across the street was Crestview Place, which ran uphill steeply to Fourth Place in Bogota, where Nana’s mother-in-law, Aase, lived, upstairs in a house where her sister lived downstairs — Tante Marie. The two were very old, very wrinkled and very powdered. When I was still pre-school, Aase lived with her ancient husband Thorvald, who wore thick black wool suits with a vest and a pocket watch, had wire-brush whiskers and the distinctive smell of old man. He died early on in my life and Aase — whom we called “Bestemor (Norwegian for “grandma”) — lived on into her nineties. I spent many a day at Bestemor’s house, climbing into the attic to play with the toys she still had from the childhood of my mother’s brother, painted lead cars and airplanes.

Down the hill to Palisade Avenue is where my father had his hair cut by a barber named Dick, who wore a white coat and had one of those pencil mustaches one knows from Hollywood movies of the 1930s. It also led to Olsen Flooring Company, where my father worked as office manager and accountant.

Down the other way, to Queen Anne Road, led to the A&P, the delicatessen where we bought potato salad, and across the street from the deli, the bakery where we bought “mudballs” — a round, chocolate covered cupcake that we loved as kids.

At the point Farrant Terrace ended at Queen Anne Road was a tiny private grocery store whose floor was covered in sawdust — a common occurrence back then, now frowned upon by health codes — and a stationery we called the “candy store,” where I spent my nickels on Three Musketeers bars, Necco Wafers, and a particular favorite, a packet of five sweet jellies called Chuckles, whose flavors were cherry, orange, lime, lemon and licorice.

Chuckles Candies

By the time my mind wandered around to the candy, I would probably be asleep. But if not, if I still couldn’t drop off, I will wander around that circumscribed world as I did when I was in kindergarten and first grade. I walked to school every day and home afterwards, doubling that inner map of the world. A friendly policeman stopped traffic on Queen Anne Road to let me cross the street. I recall Mrs. Winters and my kindergarten class, the naps we took, the milk containers we drank from, the rhythm bands, the finger painting. I remember the playground around Longfellow School (now closed and turned into a church) and my Aunt Sally who was the school nurse, and little Willie Shydecker, whose fifth birthday party I went to in a house just two away from where Aunt Sally and Uncle Bernie lived. I sometimes wonder what ever happened to Willie.

former longfellow school streetview 1

Longfellow School today

But it was walking home from school that left its biggest mark on my being. I wandered. I didn’t always take the same route. I took what I called “short cuts.” These led me miles out of my way, exploring where other streets might lead. If I have traveled much as an adult, it was only a habit set in motion when I wandered down Fort Lee Road, past Amman Park with its small fountain, and up the hill and back down to Bogota and the broad mainline railroad tracks — at that time six tracks wide; now most of the tracks are ripped up and gone — which I would stand over on the bridge and watch the trains pass, shaking the ground. The boy is father to the man.

My wanderings amazed my parents, who thought it odd that I would walk so far out of my way, but they never seemed to think it might be dangerous for me to do so. I think they were quietly proud of their boy for being able to find his way around so easily. They also showed me off to the adult world for my prodigy ability to name all the cars on the street by make from the time I was two or three. One Fourth of July at a fireworks display over the Hackensack River I was carried around by my father on his shoulders who showed me off to uncles and grandfathers by pointing at cars parked in the lot and having me name them: “Pontiac, Studebaker, Packard, Rambler, De Soto, Kaiser, Crosley …”

1949 Frazer sedan

1949 Frazer

Other times, he would test me, sitting on the front porch of the house and I named the cars as they passed on Degraw Avenue. From that time on, tests at school were never frightening; rather, they were a chance to show off again.

The odd thing remains that these memories of Teaneck seem to have a different reality from later memories, almost as if they were of a different person. I can draw a straight line from me at 68 back to me in fourth grade, me in college, me during my first marriage, me when I became a writer. But there is a kind of memory lacuna between that me and the me of these earliest thoughts. It is as if I have to dig down into the layers of soil separating me now from me then, like an archeologist, to discover this fragment or that, and then piecing together the shards into a full pot.

313 De Graw now

313 Degraw Avenue today

We all have a story-line in our memories, that continuous ego, that who-ness that we are. It is a novel told straight through. But these earliest memories are more of a collage, the bits and pieces reassembled in no particular order, the scents, the memory of being picked up and held, the doors swinging open to the kitchen, the golem in the basement. They are a preface to the story, oddly unconnected, yet, still of a piece. Tributaries to the river.

The box still has many pieces unrecollected here. I can take them out and play with them again next time a churning brain keeps me awake.

Mrs Semendinger's second grade 2
I recently came across a photograph of my second grade class and something odd happened.

I hadn’t thought of these young faces in more than 50 years. Yet, as I looked into their faces, their names popped into my brain. Where those names and faces had been stored, I have no idea: some forgotten warehouse in my mind, like the scene at the end of “Lost Raiders.” These were faces from nearly 60 years ago, and in their fresh-faced innocence, they barely show the traces that would line them even in their eighth grade graduation photo. 8th grade class 1961

I left behind my life in New Jersey four years after that second photo, going off to college and what seemed to me to be “real life.” I wanted to forget New Jersey — more exactly the banality I saw in the suburban stultification of my home state — and dive into the deep end of art, music and poetry.

But now, a half-century later, I saw the faces in that picture and names I have not uttered in 50 years reappeared magically, jogged out of the synapses of my brain like dust between the floorboards.

What connects, ourobouros-like, our lives now with our lives then? The disconnect seems immense: There is so little of then that survives into my now; yet, the person — the sensibility I am — is a continuous existence, a line drawn without the pencil once being lifted off the page.

There is a danger, when looking back, to fall into the miasma of nostalgia. You see it all over the internet: “Share if you remember when the milkman delivered milk to your door?” and “Remember when cars had running boards?” Rotary phones? Party lines? As the American population has aged, PBS stations ask for money to a soundtrack no longer of septuagenarians playing Glenn Miller standards, but now to septuagenarians singing doo-wop music and recalling, with a wistful gaze on their faces “the music of our times,” as if this shared experience created an us-vs.-them world in which we remain the good guys, who really knew the score, and they are the johnny-come-latelies who have ruined it all. Patti Page

So, it is easy to make fun of the elderly, watching reruns of Lawrence Welk and wishing music still had melody, like the tunes of Patti Page and Perry Como. Or the Beatles and Barry Manilow. Or, sometime in the future, of Nirvana and Coldplay.

Nostalgia is a trap we should avoid. The past was not better than the present; it was different. I, for one, would not wish to retreat to a time when segregation was enforced by police, when women had to wear girdles, and when everyone, everywhere, at every hour of the day, sucked cigarettes.

What interests me in that second-grade photograph is not a warm, fuzzy nostalgia, but a hard, difficult and confusing problem: How much of that is me, is still me? How complete is the link between that little boy and this old, bearded senex? What is the mechanism of selfhood? How come a flash glance at an old picture can fire off a neuron after a half century and cough up the name of a Linda Muth or a Lenny D’Angelo. Why do those names persist in the neurobiology of a 67-year-old writer, who has left them all behind? And what else is buried under a lifetime of experience, ready to be excavated by a chance trigger?

A few years ago, my wife and I were visiting her hometown in North Carolina. We stopped at a gas station to refill the car and she got out to go into the quickie-mart. Inside, while standing at the cash register, a voice called out behind her, “Carole Steele, do you remember me?” She turned around and saw an old man, cue-ball hairless, nearly toothless, with a vast beer belly and dressed in denim overalls — clearly an old farmer. “Thomas Bullins,” she said, in instant recognition. “What happened to your red hair and your freckles? And how did you recognize me?” Carole was now 70 years old. “Your hair,” he said. When they were in the first grade, little Tommy Bullins used to steal the ribbons from Carole’s pigtails.

He smiled that toothless smile, and Carole reached up and kissed him on the mouth. Some vast and unnamed chasm had been spanned in an instant.

What traces of the six-year-old Tommy Bullins remained on the wrinkled, pudgy, puffy, weathered face that Carole could see so immediately? “There is an X on the faces of all the Bullinses,” she says, “that I saw in the gas station.” Not an actual X, but a lineup of features that suggested an X there, that signaled that this was Tom Bullins.

I don’t know the mechanism for memory. I’m not sure anyone does. But I know its persistence, and I know that somehow that persistence is necessary for the development of a self — that sense that the boy is truly father to the man, that the me in New Jersey 60 years ago is the same me in the mountains of North Carolina now, despite all the midden of experience that has piled on in the intervening years. Would my mother recognize the little boy in me now? I know that Carole recognizes the little girl in her 50-year-old daughter; in fact, she hardly recognizes that Susie is all grown up.

We push through time like snow plows, leaving a cleared path behind us. That wake is our selfhood. Longfellow School Teaneck back

Through Facebook, I recently reconnected with a boy (now man) I first met in kindergarten at the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Elementary School in Teaneck, N.J. He now lives on the other side of the continent. When my family moved from Teaneck to Old Tappan and I began the second grade at Charles De Wolf Elementary School in Old Tappan, he was there, too, his family having also moved. This makes him the person outside of family that I have known the longest.

The contact brought up a welter of memory, of playing in a rhythm band in kindergarten, of taking those daily naps on the classroom floor, of seeing him and other classmates singing “Sailing, sailing, over the bounding main,” and of walking every day — at five years old — the half mile from home to school, and later, walking back. The entire geography of my tiny life was back before me: the A&P I passed on the way, the firehouse on Morningside Drive, the ballfield outside Longfellow school, the deli, the stationery store, the old grocery with its sawdust floor, the Italian pushcart merchant that wandered up Farrant Terrace calling out his wares, the two collies that lived down the street that scared my younger brother, who thought they were lions — the inside of the closet in my home, with its lathe-and-plaster walls. A whole world wells up. Where has it been sitting? Why is it all buried in there?

A few years ago, I began an autobiography, not for publication, but to share with my brothers in a group project: They would write theirs, too, and we would get to know each other better — what they had done after leaving home for college, and we lost daily contact.

The thing that most astonished me about the writing was that every memory I retrieved was a room with three other doors, and behind each of those doors was another room with three more doors, on and on, like some Borges story. I was dumbfounded at the amount of information that was still there to be recovered. Many were not anecdotal stories, but rather, sense memories, bits of things and locations that fell back into place when recalled.

It must be the same for everyone. I know that when I ask my wife to tell me about her childhood, she can go on for an hour and we have to stop, but the next day, we can start again and there is an endless stream, an bottomless well of material. In her case, it sounds all like a Faulkner novel and I have tried to write it all down. A fool’s errand: There can be no “all,” because it never seems to end. I write it into my laptop as fast as she can speak it, but I’ll never have the time to go back and edit the notes, because the next time, there are all-new stories, and another cast of characters.

I want to save as much as possible, not for publication, but for the sake of our grandchildren, so they can have some sense of their grandmother. If her stories can become part of their memories, then their interior lives can retreat five generations, back to Carole’s grandparents, who were so central to her life.

In the end, this has given me a powerful sense of the onflow of life, of the piling on of detail, of the continuity, not merely of selfhood, but of family, of history: a line that Carole calls “the long man,” which reaches back past Eve and Adam, past Homo habilis, back to our reptilian life, back to our eukaryotid beginnings, all a wholeness. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. The author, age 20 months

I see the scrubbed face of my old picture, holding my favorite ball, and I see myself now, aged and worn, and there is an odd reversal: The baby photograph is now six decades old and the ancient me is brand new. And in some inexplicable way, they are the same.

 
 
 
 

moviola 1

We travel in time as much as in space.

And just as there are moments when you stand on the top of a rise and see grand vistas and the lay of the land suddenly becomes clear, there are moments when you climb up out of the hollow of local time and the years spread out in front of you as one vast temporal landscape.

I had such an experience this summer in New Jersey.

I was born and raised in the Garden State in several communities between the Hackensack and Hudson rivers. I left for college and have rarely been back in the intervening quarter century — family and friends had all died or moved away.Old Tappan 2

But on this trip my wife and I passed through Bergen County and managed to stop by some places I knew well as a boy.

Now I’m not about to wax nostalgic. I abhor nostalgia; it is a kind of morticians’ wax applied to the dead face of the past, distorting everything we once knew. Times were not better then and never were.

But things clearly have changed.lein's grove

The first change is purely psychological: Everything has shrunk. The landscape that was so sprawling to my boy’s eyes is now condensed to a few tight city blocks. What seemed like an expedition is now walking distance. Skyscrapers are now bungalows.

Many people have experienced a similar sensation.

But the second change is more profound: The snapshot of New Jersey in my brain has remained static while time has bounded forward, so that when I revisit Teaneck or Old Tappan, I’m seeing what is in effect time-lapse photography: All the changes are accelerated so that what has moved invisibly day to day is now telescoped into a rush.

It isn’t just that there is more development. Bergen County has for a long time been the very model of suburbia; there are tract homes everywhere and more spring up every day. But nature has somehow kept up with the construction: Housing developments that were raw muddy wounds 30 years ago are now green and shaded under sprawling trees. For all the decay of time, there is a matching fecundity.

And when a quarter century exists between frames in your movie, it is a small step to move back yet another quarter century and then another, so that the history you learned in school no longer sits inkbound on the page of a book but begins to breathe as another scene in the movie you are a small part of.eisenstein

So you can slide the film back and forth in your mental Moviola only a dozen equal frames and you are in the era of Peter Stuyvesant and Dutch colonialization. It’s a blip from now to 1655 on the time line.

Frederick Haring HouseThe Old Tappan I grew up in was dotted with farms and old stone houses, built during the Dutch era. The houses are thick-walled and covered in lichen, moss and ivy; they are overarched by spreading oaks. They have, as it is said, settled.

Such houses were constructed of brown sandstone quarried by slaves.

It isn’t often remembered that slaves are a part of New Jersey’s history: In pre-Revolutionary times a settler was given 175 acres of land for every slave he imported. By 1737, slaves accounted for 8.4 percent of Jersey’s population.

Slave insurrections — in Hackensack, Raritan and Elizabeth, among other places — were a continual occurrence and citizens felt themselves stuck with the damnable institution. In 1772, a law was proposed ”obliging owners of the slaves to send them all back to Africa at their own expense.”

The law came to naught, but by that time free labor began to replace slavery and indenture.

I mention all this because when my boyhood home was built in 1956 in Old Tappan in northern New Jersey, the excavation turned up the stone foundation of slave quarters. It had been buried in woods for centuries and was now opened up to the sun for the first time.

It seemed little more than a curiosity then, and it was soon buried once more under the landscaping in our back yard. Its reawakening was brief.

Old Tappan 4The house has had two or three owners since I lived in it. I doubt that any of them knew what was buried under the Zoysia grass. But I thought of it again as I visited on vacation and saw how much the old house had changed: new paint, grown-up trees that were once bushes, a new bridge over the creek that cut through the property.

You play the film through the Moviola: The whole of northern New Jersey was once covered by a forest of oak and hickory. That was cut down for agriculture; the slave quarters behind my childhood home was evidence of that. But the fields grew once more into trees and were once more cut down to build the house.

The field next to the house was still pastureland when I was a boy. Now, it is dense with willows, birch and maple, on its way once more to growing oaks. If I look into its future, I can see more housing.

Time is fierce; it consumes the world.