I grew up in the first-floor flat of my grandmother’s house on Willow Street in New Haven. It was a neighborhood of stout, three-story shingled houses a mile or so from the ivy-covered neo-Gothic halls of Yale University. It was a tight-knit community of immigrant families, mostly Italian, Irish, and Jewish, the kind of place where everyone knew everyone else, or acted as if they did. Two blocks away, College Woods, with its gnarled oaks, weedy playing fields, and cracked cement tennis courts, was our all-purpose playground.
Old Mrs. Lutz lived next door in a dilapidated house overrun by feral cats. Every morning “the cat lady,” as we called her, trundled out to her sagging back porch and set out bowls of milk and kibble for her feline friends. The bedraggled crew of strays emerged from their various hiding places, quickly devoured their meal, and just as quickly disappeared.
On Tuesday afternoons Pete the fishmonger came around in his battered green pickup truck, his glassy-eyed goods displayed on a bed of ice. The iceman cameth once a week, lugging a big block of ice up the back stairs and heaving it into Nana’s icebox. On summer evenings the jingling bells of the Good Humor truck brought the neighborhood kids gleefully scurrying out of their houses.
Just about everyone I knew lived within a few blocks of our house. My best friend, Philip Greene, the soft-spoken, cerebral son of a Yale English professor, lived around the corner on Livingston Street. Richard and I had a friendly rivalry with our neighbors Johnnie Heffernan and the Iaccarino brothers. We would fashion Go-Karts out of the rusted chasses of old Radio Flyer wagons and discarded orange crates and race them down the sidewalk, steering with ropes tied to the front axel. In late summer and fall we waged pitched battles with acorns; in winter, the weaponry shifted to snowballs. During one afternoon skirmish Richard got hit in the forehead by a rock concealed in a snowball and had to be rushed to Yale-New Haven Hospital with a nasty gash requiring several stitches to close. We never found out who the culprit was but our parents ordered an immediate cessation of hostilities.
Our backyard was a narrow rectangle of hard-packed dirt with a few patches of grass. A row of purple lilac bushes lined one side of the yard and a ramshackle wooden garage stood in the rear. Spring was announced each year by the intoxicating sweet fragrance of lilac blossoms wafting through the house. Richard and I liked to shinny up a tree next to the garage to survey our kingdom from the roof and have pissing contests into the neighbor’s yard.
What I loved most about our yard was an azalea tree that stood just beyond the back porch. Every April it burst into a glorious pink bouquet like a peacock proudly displaying its plumage. That tree was the backdrop for many family snapshots. The one I cherish most shows my mother sitting in a folding chair with my brother and me standing on either side of her and the azalea fanned out behind us. With one arm draped around Mom’s neck and my head tilted toward her, I was a picture of blissful contentment. Mom’s arm is wrapped tightly around my waist as if she were afraid I might run away before the picture was snapped.
After Nana died and we moved to Hamden, the suburb directly north of New Haven, a slumlord bought the house on Willow Street, bulldozed the azalea, and paved over the backyard for parking. It was my first lesson in the harsh realities of capitalism. How could someone destroy such a beautiful tree in the service of off-street parking? Whenever I visit the old neighborhood, I can’t resist walking up the driveway and gazing mournfully at the spot on the black asphalt where that wondrous azalea once stood.
Top: Me, Mom, and Richard, Willow Street, New Haven, ca 1958.