Crossing 161st Street: Doing Things We Weren’t Supposed To

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I was asked to tell a true story of my growing up in The Bronx at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. If you haven’t been there, you should. They host a number of wonderful evenings, and the art in the museum (this current exhibition) has many moving pieces.

Here’s the story I told on March 4th, 2011:

How many of you, when you were younger, did something you were not supposed to? How many of you still do that? Keep your hands raised…I’m taking a count.

I grew up on Gerard Avenue, just south of 161st street (around the corner from the REAL Yankee Stadium) in the early to mid 1960’s. This neighborhood was like a very small community. Everyone knew each other (and yes, this was all apartment buildings). All the adults and the shopkeepers knew all the neighborhood kids. WE could not get away with anything (well, most of the time).  This was one of those times.

Crossing the street without an adult was forbidden to us until we reached a certain age. That distinction didn’t really seem to vary. I think all the Mothers got together and had charts and plans all set up for us until we were 18, if not older. It took a loooonnnnggg time to get my mother to allow me to cross Gerard Avenue by myself, and it was a one way street where the only time we had a lot of traffic was when there was a Yankee game. Then, I could forget about it.

I definitely could not cross 161st street by myself. If you are not from The Bronx, or have never gone to a Yankee game, let me try to explain: it’s an eight lane autobahn type of road, with cars whizzing past and turning and coming at you from umpteen million directions. The two outside lanes are “local” lanes, and they have a small island of concrete to hold pedestrians between lights. This was in a time the majority of people (cars and pedestrians) obeyed the traffic lights. I don’t even want to think about what it’s like now.

It was Comic Book Day! The new comics were delivered on Tuesdays (I think), and the local candy store (look that up), the ONLY one on 161st Street, that got comics, let ME unsnip the tightly wrapped bundles (which destroyed a lot of the comics)…if I was there when they were delivered. I not only got to do this, but I got to (1) put the comics in the slots and (2) get the first pick of the comics. No smushed up ones for me! I paid for my comics, but for doing this job, I got a free Chocolate Egg Cream Soda, straight from the fountain. Bliss, on so many counts.

I asked my mother if we could go. I had my allowance. She said, for whatever reason, “No.” This was the non-nudging, non-budging type of “NO” that I knew so well. “Go out and play” was her command, and I did. But…not so much to play, and to get what I wanted.

Making my way towards the corner of 161st & Gerard, I looked everywhere to see if ANYONE I knew, or who knew me, was around. I checked up and down the street, looked to see if anyone was watching me from the stores until I finally got to the corner. Checking both ways (even though this part was one way up towards The Grand Concourse), I took my first chance into forbidden territory.

I got to the first island with no problem. Again, looking around, I saw no one. I waited and waited and waited for the lights to turn in my favor and when they did I RAN RAN RAN full out to make the next concrete safety island before I’d get smashed and run over and bleeding all over the place and the drivers laughed at the little kid splat on the road. My heart was racing, but I was safe. And cocky. I didn’t wait for the next light like I should have, to cross that small road that was left to reach the other side of 161st…and got honked for my chutzpah.

I waited for the light to turn.

Finally crossing over, I went to the comic shop, did the comics, got my Egg Cream, got asked where my mother was (“she’s in Addie Valens”..look it up), took my comics and left.

The crossing back was easier. I had already done it. I didn’t see why my mother was so strict. See? I could do it.

Entering the apartment, I walked towards my room to put away/hide my comics. “Stuart, Sweetie,” I heard. “Where have you been?”

“outsideplayinglikeyoutoldmeto” I answered.

“You didn’t cross 161st Street?” she asked.

“no.”

Well, she had gotten a phone call from someone who was looking out her window ONTO 161st Street, and saw the whole thing. She saw me cross to the other side, go to the candy store, come back and cross back home. Then she called my mother and asked her “Edie, are you letting Stuart cross 161st Street by himself now?”

Well, that answer was yelled into me for what seemed like five hours. I had to give up my comics, and if that wasn’t enough, I heard those famous last words:

“Wait until your father gets home!”

 

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