Thursday, September 29, 2011

Memories...and Unsolved Mysteries

When I was young boy of about six or seven years of age, I accompanied my parents to a party thrown in my father’s honor in the Marble Hill section of Manhattan, just a few blocks away from our home: Kingsbridge in the Bronx. I thought at some point in time the neighborhood had been ceded to the Bronx. While the street signs in Marble Hill in the late 1960s were Manhattan yellow and not Bronx blue, they eventually adopted the Bronx hue. Anyway, that discussion is another kettle of fish entirely.

As I recall, Mr. and Mrs. L—the hosts of this get-together—were genial enough. The man of the house once ran a successful bar business in the big city, and his Misses—I subsequently learned as an adult—was both his second wife and his niece. That, too, is another kettle of fish entirely. Anyway, reminiscences from such a tender age are typically confined to disjointed snippets from a wide-eyed kid’s unique perspective—of moments good and bad; important and unimportant.

As I saw it from my six- or seven-year-old eyes, the L’s house was located in an incredibly atmospheric slice of geography. It lorded over a piece of real estate everybody back then knew as "Shanty Town," a neighborhood with rows of old houses and some shacks, too—relics from a hardscrabble past. Some of Shanty Town’s residents raised chickens in coops, and even farm animals, in their front and backyards. But I was also a guest in a home not too far from a busy railroad, the Harlem River Ship Canal, and the elevated subway tracks of the Number 1 train. There was an intoxicating ambiance surrounding the L’s humble abode, with sounds emanating from nearby trains and boats. But beyond these rather general memories of welcome sensory sensations, I can recall only one concrete detail surrounding this Marble Hill experience of mine.

Mrs. L, the lady of the house, spoke in a throaty voice from—I’ve since concluded—one too many Marlboro's and an unquenchable thirst for the grape. She was pleasant enough on the surface, but—from my little boy’s view of the world—there was something of the night about her. She was quite petite, always wore bright red lipstick, and looked by day a little too much like the Joker from Batman—as played by Cesar Romero—for me to fully warm to her. By night, it got somewhat worse, and she resembled a vampire, which I know is rather hip now, but it wasn’t back then.

Here now is my only definitive memory of being in that house more than forty years ago. Mrs. L very graciously gave the youngsters on the scene free run of the place. She asked only one thing of us—that we keep our distance from an automobile tire flatly resting atop the stairs in her two-story home. I admit to being fascinated by this car tire in a spot where car tires weren’t usually found.

Flash forward three decades and I recounted this peculiar memory, so etched in mind, to a friend of mine. He said, “That’s probably where she kept her stash.” While it does make some sense that a person might hide his or her bottles of whiskey in a car tire—if secrecy is the name of the game—it seems rather illogical to do so in a tire sitting at the top of a staircase, where the logical question passersby would pose is: “What’s that car tire doing there?” But that's as good an explanation as any that I've heard before or since. Memories…and unsolved mysteries.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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