Often with my tongue firmly planted in cheek, but not always, I am wont to make reference to “simpler times.” However, in this particular recollection of what was, the jury is unanimous: Simpler times indeed.
Kingsbridge in the Bronx’s last remaining victory garden on the northwest corner of W232nd Street and Tibbett Avenue survived the tumultuous 1960s. Simpler times—in the antithesis of simpler times for the country at large—were still possible back then. It’s just the way things were, beginning with the real estate agent who gave my grandfather and a few locals permission to grow a garden on multiple empty lots up for sale and owned by two different people. "Keep the place clean" was all he asked of them.
So, yes, these men with the green thumbs had carte blanche. They could erect a fence around their desired garden space. It could be made of bits and pieces of everything and anything imaginable—and it eventually was. They could even dig a well that tapped into the waters of Tibbetts Brook flowing several feet beneath the surface. Utilizing a fifty-gallon barrel with its bottom cut out, my grandfather knew just how to bring the water to ground level without it ever spilling over. They could build tool shacks, a horseshoe pit, and a bocce court, too. They could bring in myriad metals and woods to construct benches, tomato-plant cages, and other structures like bleachers for horseshoe-game spectators. They could relocate old furniture and a non-working refrigerator freezer to accommodate liquid refreshments and big blocks of ice. And, yes, they could throw festive parties there during holidays and on summer weekends with free-flowing alcohol on the premises. Without question these were simpler times, when no city bureaucracies interfered with any of this, and no slip-and-fall lawyers advertised on television. Today, the mere whiff of lawsuits would not permit all of the above on one’s own property—let alone on somebody else’s in a densely populated urban milieu.
I recall one of the garden men, the genial Mr. Brady, maintained his own personal shack, which was painted green. It was practically a little cottage with an old leather easy chair and couch inside, and a glass picture window of some kind. Attached to the Brady shack in back was the garden’s “bathroom,” a makeshift Portosan that consisted of a toilet seat atop a wooden stand with the proper sized hole and a bucket down under to capture liquids and solids alike. With ample beer, wine, and spirits available during summertime parties, the bathroom was a busy place, and not for the faint of heart. And, yes, the bucket had to be emptied out on street level and into the city’s sewer system every now and then. A local who lived down wind of the garden often complained that she smelled more than marigolds and tomato plants wafting in the humid summer air. As a young boy, the less than savory aspects of the garden didn’t bother me in the least. Everything was an adventure. In fact, my friend Johnny and I made a concoction on the garden grounds, if memory serves, consisting of our urines, rotten tomatoes, and other truly disgusting stuff found in the garden—and the more awful the better.
It was simpler times at this Bronx locale when, during the daylight hours, I often heard horseshoes clanking against their stakes, and occasional cheers rising for the ringers. And after sunset, with a party still going strong on garden terra firma, I would gaze from my vantage point directly across the street into a pitch-black canvass punctuated by only a few flickers of candle light and lit cigarettes. And, every now and then, I’d hear a local bus driver named Jean singing to the night: “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” Jean was renowned for crooning the songs of Ireland, and also for the time he picked up my father in a snowstorm while navigating his Broadway to Riverdale bus route, and dropped him off at our front door—on a Kingsbridge back street a couple of blocks off his prescribed course. Yet another action, I daresay, lost to simpler times.
(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)