I was raised in my youth by a series of little known surrogate uncles and aunts. They all died years ago, on some varied anonymous dates, long gone from the specific life of a young boy I once was.
We all (the six surrogates and my Mother, Father, Brother and Sister) lived in a three story house in Union City, NJ. It was set as the fifth house from the corner of a six-hose tenement row. Each house shared walls with other houses. The address was 322-6th Street. The phone umber was UNion 3-6618.
That house was comfortable, and my cave, from the age of three to eighteen when I went off to college. (I visited there about a decade ago with my brother and sister. The same grooved hardwood door is still present, with the same stairway-stepped three six-by-nine windows gracing it. It made me cry, with poignant nostalgia.)
You entered the house the front door and into a small six by eight foyer. On the left wall of which was a radiator, and next to it, a door less curtain that led the ten-by-twelve living room. The foyer led down the hallway to the left; and as you moved down the hallway you encountered a door on the left side of which led to Mom and Dad's bedroom (with a crib and later a small bed for my sister). Further down the hallway, to the back, one entered the kitchen, the main room of the house, twenty feet-wide, the building's full width. If you continued on it extended ten feet more to a door to a back shack, where the furnace was located, and further back, a door which opened out into the small backyard.
On the right side of the foyer, six feet down from the door, was a full flight of stairs, fifteen steps, that led up to the second floor. On the second floor there were three bedrooms. There was also a bathroom. My brother and I shared the middle bedroom on the left side of the bathroom. Bill Holstrom lived in the room on the right side of the bathroom. Next to my brother's and my room, was the largest room of the house, other than the downstairs kitchen. It had two big windows and faced the front of the house. I had it's own stove, refrigerator and kitchen table. Millie and "Daddy" (his nickname even in the bar where he bartendered) lived there; without benefit of wedlock, I might add ("Daddy" was still married to someone else who lived nearby...although I never knew that in my youth.)
Joining these rooms was a second floor hallway, running parallel to the hallway below, which also ran down the length of the building. I led to another stairway; with only twelve steps, leading to a third floor, where there were another three rooms, and another hallway.
Leo Klunk lived in the first room off the stairs, facing the back; Lennie Coditti lived in the middle room; and Del (I have forgotten his last name). He lived in the smallest room of the entire house, facing the front street. The room contained only a narrow bed and a dresser, with no room for a bed stand or a side lamp. Del lived by sunlight, or overhead light, or nothing. However, he only slept in the room four nights a week; and paid the cheapest rent. On Fridays, he would drive down to Rumson, New Jersey, on the Atlantic shore, to spend the weekend with his family, which included wife and children; and return to our house on Monday night late after work.
Del was a dynamiter, who work for ten or more years blasting away at a big hill near Newark that impeded the building of the New Jersey Turnpike.
His next door roommate, Lenny worked the phones and hustled (legally) charitable subscriptions to attend yearly union parties and balls; Leo did errands for bookies, delivering bet sheets and picking up money; Millie visited her family, read books, occassionally baby sat my sister and me; and waited for Daddy to be off work at the bar. and to this day I don't know what Bill Holstrom did for a living...although I do remember he has a picture of bathing-suited girl on his bed stand that wiggled as you walked past her.
Leo, Lenny, Del, Millie and "Daddy" and Bill were roomers in our house. They paid weekly rent, came and went as they wished, but never ate with us (they were roomers, not boarders). They occasionally visited us in the kitchen or living room, but that was the extent of our social contact.
Each lived with us over at least ten years. Their presence around me and upstairs always made me feel safe. And as I said, they were my surrogate Aunts and Uncles, friendly, non-interfering (my Mother would never have allowed that) grown-ups, and as such, each in his own way, role models; lessons in community and sharing. With one bathroom in the whole house, and it containing a single sink and one toilet and one tub for eleven people, you learned to be patient, to share, and recognize and navigate who was neat, who smelled the best, and who smelled the worst.
It was an extended family in the truest sense of the word; kind to me: Millie and "Daddy", Bill, Lenny, Leo, Del...all dead now but forever alive in my memory, my character and my personality.