I grew up in New York City’s East Village during the late 1960s before moving to “the suburbs” – Elizabeth, N.J. That’s Exit 13 on the New Jersey Turnpike to you. Yeah, the one near the refinery, the oil tanks and the “God, that’s awful” smell. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My kids were born and raised at the Jersey Shore in the ’90s, pre-Snookie and company. It’s remarkable that we even speak the same language today.
Everyone knows about the ’60s: Vietnam War, civil rights movement, the counterculture and social revolution. Protests on college campuses, fighting in the streets, free love, marijuana and LSD.
But I was 9, going on 10, in 1968. The six o’clock news, morning and afternoon newspapers, and radio news broadcasts were better left to the adults. Everything was changing, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t aware. I just didn’t know why.
We lived in an old, beaten-up four-story tenement from where we watched longtime neighbors move away one family at a time. In their place came a mixture of young, oftentimes racially-mixed couples and even younger college students.
Some of my earliest memories are the flat top hairstyles favored by my father and most of the older men in our building. They wore dress pants and white cotton shirts with narrow neckties. Their leather shoes were always spit-polished. And that was just when they were going for a walk in the neighborhood.
Soon the uniform of the day in our building became tie-dyed T-shirt, bell-bottoms and sandals. Men grew their hair long and their beards shaggy. If you were black, you probably had an Afro. If you were a woman, it was a good bet that your wardrobe included miniskirts and knee-high boots like the ones Nancy Sinatra sang about.
And the strangest thing of all? Everyone lived together. Whites, blacks, men, women. My mom called them “hippies.” My father, who had arrived here from Sicily less than 10 years earlier, just shook his head.
The truth is that these were kids trying to get through college, forced to pool their resources to rent out a few relatively cheap apartments. (This was well before Yuppies took over the neighborhood in the coming decades, driving rental prices beyond what these students or families like ours could afford.)
My mother lived in that building on East 5th Street between First and Second avenues for more than 25 years. She saw a lot of people come and go during that time. Two apartments per floor, four floors in all. They all were our neighbors throughout the years. The ’60s were no exception.
My grandmother and two of my uncles were still living on the top floor while we had the front apartment on the first floor. That meant everyone had to climb at least one set of stairs and pass by our place before they got to their own apartment. Our door opened into the kitchen, where my mother cooked dinner and her three children played at the table or on the floor while we waited for my father to return from work.
If we were home and still awake, our door was always open. Some of the older neighbors who struggled to climb the stairs would stop and rest at our table before continuing their ascent. Others who just wanted someone to talk to before returning to an empty apartment could always count on my mother and a cup of coffee or two.
I was very fortunate growing up in the city. More fortunate than some of my friends who didn’t always have enough to eat, a warm apartment or a loving family to go home to after school.
When my mother made dinner for us there was always enough to go around. Especially if one of the neighbors who “didn’t have time to eat” that day stopped by on the way to his place on the third floor.
“Come on in,” my mom would say, pulling out a chair. “Sit down.”
My uncles never knew who they would find sitting in our kitchen when they came home from work. They’d stand in the doorway thinking, “Mare, what are you doing?” Then they would join us at the table after my mom drew up a couple of chairs for them as well.
I asked my mother about her open-door policy all those years ago. She smiled when she remembered how one of the “young boys” had told her that he was from Ohio, and this was the first time he had ever been away from his family. He said her cooking reminded him of home.
We both laughed, because my mom would be the first to tell you that she wasn’t the greatest cook in the world. Not bad, but we all knew that my grandmother was the real cook in her family.
No matter. I know what that “young boy” from Ohio was talking about. Sometimes everyone just needs a helping hand now and then. It doesn’t have to be much: a safe place to rest on a journey; good company to pass the time of day; or a home-cooked hot meal to fill stomach and soul.
I will always remember how my mother lived her life. How she was always there for us when we needed her. How her spirit is still there for us today. It’s why I decided to write my debut e-book, “One Christmas Knight.” It’s fiction, of course, but real people and simple deeds stand behind it.
My mother influenced this book, but so did my father. And the couple who ran the neighborhood luncheonette, as well as the butcher, the baker, our eccentric barber and many more. One Christmas Knight is filled with the people who define a neighborhood. Those who provide its heart and soul, something that makes this story worth keeping in mind all year-long.
“We don’t change water into wine, and we can’t raise the dead,” Pop’s mentor tells him when he first joins the worldwide organization. “In every instance that I know of, a Christmas Knight has simply been there for someone else at an extreme time of need. If someone wants to call that a miracle, so be it. But I believe that we’re all capable of this … at any time of year.”
Check out “One Christmas Knight” at its Amazon page