Saturday, April 30, 2011

Mrs. Vanotti -- Part Four

The house Mrs. Vanotti proposed my mother buy was a big house. Mom knew the house from her many neighborhood walks with me in tow. It was, as I said, three stories tall, sitting on a lot fifty feet long by twenty feet wide, with a small front yard, a bigger back yard, and an undeveloped half basement where coal could be stored for the kitchen furnace which brought water heat by pipes to the first floor and to the radiators in the rooms above.

Mrs. Vanotti suggested my mother could meet the mortgage payments by renting the upstairs two floors of rooms to renters--single men, Mrs. Vanotti advised, not women. Women were trouble, unless it was all women…but renting to only women would limit the desirable renter pool too much. She encouraged my mother rent to men only; working men; single men, men with steady jobs.

Our family could occupy the first floor--living room, bedroom and kitchen plus adjoining pantry room—and maybe an upstairs room reserved for Kurt and me. True, the house was run down, and, true, the economy had not fully sprung back from the Great Depression, but, whatever the circumstances, Mrs. Vanotti always believed in buying your own home, not “wasting” your money on rent. It would require work; the five ‘rent-able’ rooms, three on the third floor, two on the second, would require cleaning and bed-changing during the week. And Mom would have to make sure the renters (men) were courteous to one another. There was only one bathroom, on the second floor, one sink, one toilet, one tub, to serve what would be at least ten people. That would require total ‘community courtesy.’ But, she countered, Mom was stay-at-home Mom and I would be off in school in less than two years. And Kurt could help. We could get it done.

Mrs. Vanotti brought out from behind the counter some paper and a couple of pencils, and she and my Mom sat there all morning figuring rents-to-charge and bills and possibilities. They even figured in a sum for eventual improvements and repairs. Mrs. Vanotti had discovered from her inquiries the roof leaked and there was a problem with rats in the basement. But, she said, until we could afford to make repairs, we could put pots and pans out to catch the drips during the rains and Kurt and I could set the mousetraps with cheese nightly and remove the caught mice in the morning after breakfast and before going to school (which, in fact, we did for quite a few years of our youth, wrapping them in newspaper and depositing them in garbage cans that lined the community alleyway to the street that ran behind the six houses that made up our row).

My mother was quickly and positively convinced. She was ready for whatever work was required. But…the down payment; she and my father had no savings? Mrs. Vanotti told her not to worry. She would loan my mother the money ($100; a deal made on a hug and handshake). Furthermore, Mrs. Vanotti had already talked to a local merchant: the remaining $700 toward the purchase of the $800 house could be financed by the Hanrahan Mortgage Company, a local lender with a nearby office only a few blocks away on Seventh Street and Summit Avenue.

Within days, the details were worked out, and a firm offer for the house was made, and accepted. Within weeks, the paperwork was formalized and signed. The mortgage was made out completely in my mother’s name. My father would not be on it. Nor would his name be on the Deed of Trust. (Whether that was my mother’s idea or Mrs. Vanotti’s, I have no idea. Moreover, I do not know if my father was happy with that arrangement. But I do know that’s the way it was; and would be.)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Mrs. Vanotti -- Part Three

Mrs. Vanotti would greet me and my mother with a gleeful hug, and move from immediately from her chair at the counter to behind the counter to make Mom and me a chocolate cream fountain soda or a malted milk shake (or a hot chocolate in winter); and, while Mom sipped and rested, and I slurped and chomped (cookies were often part of the daily treat), Mom and Mrs. Vanotti, between Mrs. Vanotti’s duties waiting on customers coming in and out of the store, would sit on those swiveling stools for hours and chat.

During one such visit, Mrs. Vanotti hatched a plan for our family’s home-owning future. She told my mother about a house that had recently become available. It was located diagonally across from the candy store; a little down Sixth Street, across New York Avenue, on the northern side of the street. We could see it from the candy store front window.

It was 322-6th Street; a narrow row house, the fifth of six such row houses, built around the turn of the 20th Century, with a porch and a roof with a Corinthian cornice molded across the full expanse of all the adjoining six roofs.
A trolley track ran past the house, down the middle of the slightly sloped street. It was a connector track between the main trolley lines on New York Avenue and Palisades Avenue. There were cobblestones set between the steel tracks. At the other end of the street, perpendicular to Sixth Street, and parallel to New York Avenue, lay Palisades Avenue, and across the avenue, sat forbidding and foreboding the great limestone white Yardley’s of London cosmetic factory, its back loading doors and four story tall windows overlooking the shale palisades, the viaduct, Hoboken, the Hudson River, and New York beyond.
Mom had been dreaming increasingly of owning her own home.

From 1923, when, at the age of fifteen, she had run away from and her middle-class family home in St. Paul, Minnesota—and a school for wayward (incorrigible) girls—more pointedly away from her oppressive grandmother who had forced her to enroll in the school--to go to Detroit and fend for herself, my mother, by now thirty two years of age, had only lived in a series of tiny single, or one-bedroom rented apartments.
At first, she liked being footloose and fancy free. Whether when working as a teen-ager in the auto factories of Detroit, or subsequently upon moving to New Jersey where she married Dad and they lived happily and in a series of single apartments--Mom would stay up all night reading book after book waiting for Dad to return so they could sleep the morning and early afternoon away together--she always enjoyed the simple lifestyle; that was, until children came into her life.
She always said having children (Kurt, me and years later, our baby sister, Betta) was the defining event in her life.

Now, in her thirties, with two children, and with memories of her middle class upbringing increasingly flooding her mind, her desires and needs for living housing circumstances changed. She wanted more.

( be continued.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Mrs. Vanotti -- Part Two

My father was a waiter by profession. He worked nights, as he did all through my youth: the 10PM to 8AM graveyard shift, at a nearby Sunshine Restaurant, in the Bus Transfer Station section lower Union City, where many local bus lines converged within its three block radius and exchanged passengers.

He was a local favorite of many of his late night customers. He was known as Sam. His real name was Ismail, but he was always afraid his bosses, two Greek brothers, would fire him if they discovered he was a Turk. So he became Sam Adams; Greek. (He was able to maintain the fiction because he spoke fluent Greek as well as Turkish.)
Sixteen years into his job, he finally told them. They laughed, and nothing changed in the relationship.

At work my Dad was always smiling, and always in control of his job and the customers he served. He was super proficient at taking orders (he prided himself on never having to write down an order, even when a party of six or more was involved) and he swore he never making a mistake on serving the order. To insure tranquility with sometimes rowdy late night customers, especially those had flowed after closing time from the many bars serving the Transfer Station area, he made sure that a series of full Heinz Ketchup bottles were strategically placed under the U-shaped restaurant counter in case drunken customers got a little too frisky and/or physical. He rarely used them; his smile and professionalism as a waiter seemed always enough to defuse any threatening situation.

After finishing his ten hour shift, every morning, six days a week, my father would move from behind the restaurant counter, still smiling, start his exit amidst a handful of goodbyes, and place his slightly stained waiter’s apron on the hook in the kitchen area, put on his suit jacket and fedora that was hanging nearby, and walk home, arriving at our one-bedroom apartment at the latest by 8:30 AM, already having had (free) breakfast at the restaurant. He would greet us, kiss us good morning, see my brother off to school, and go to bed.

My mother made sure mornings and lunch were quiet time at our small apartment. During the school week, she would pack Kurt off to the nearby Thomas A. Edison grammar school, and soon thereafter take me, a typically rambunctious three year old boy, out of the house to the nearby Washington Park.

Washington Park was a four block-wide city oasis of swings and slides and trees, benches, hedges, play areas and ball fields located at the most southern end of Union City. It encompassed the width of the city from Palisades Avenue to the east to Central Avenue to the west. (Union City was—and still is--a narrow strip of land, only one square mile in area, forty eight clocks long by, at most, ten blocks wide. It is situated between the neighboring cities of Weehawken and West New York to the north and northwest, Secaucus and North Bergen to the West, Jersey City to the south, and Hoboken—which could be seen directly below Washington Park--to the southeast. The population was 50,000 people. The whole greater area was so contiguous that, unless you lived there, you never knew where one city ended and the other began.

Almost the entire strip of Union City lays on the rock hard shale plateau of the southernmost part of the great Hudson River Palisades, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River valley, almost directly east from New York, across the NY-NJ Lincoln Tunnel connecting it and surrounding cities to mid-town Big Apple.

Union City sits 200 feet above the city of Hoboken, itself also a flatland mile-square city of 50,000 people. Weehawken, where on its bluffs Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, part hillside, part flatland, is to Union City’s northeast. Both of Union City’s sister cities nestled between the black hard shale palisades cliffs and the Hudson River to its east. A cement viaduct—starting at Washington Park--ran down the hill from Union City to flatland Hoboken, connecting the two cities.

During the school week, fall, winter or spring, whether the day was hot, rainy or snowy, Mom would take me to play in Washington Park, where we could view Hoboken and beyond that, the Hudson River. Beyond that grey or blue--depending on the weather--rib of water, one could see the tall, great towers of the skyline of New York City majestically punctuating the sky. (My lifetime dreams of success and fame began with that every day morning visit to Washington Park and its view of New York.)

After an hour or more releasing most of my energy in the park, Mom would daily take me, my little legs churning with somewhat tired eagerness, a straight shot along New York Avenue, which bisected the park, to Mrs. Vanotti’s candy store, four blocks away. Once there, Mom would plunk herself down at one of the four round stools at the soda fountain, with its marble counter and dizzying array of machines and faucets dominating the central area of the candy store. To the left of the fountain stood two large glass enclosed candy displays; the magazine and comic books racks were to the right, near the front and side windows.

( be continued.)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Mrs. Vanotti -- Part One


Part One

Mrs. Vanotti was my surrogate Grandmother.

She owned the neighborhood candy store at the corner of Sixth Street and New York Avenue, in Union City, the northern New Jersey town I grew up in. I was three years old when Mrs. Vanotti, already middle-aged, entered our family’s life. The year was 1940, just prior to America’s entrance into World War II. She soon became my family’s benefactor, enabling my mother, father, brother and me to own our first home.

Mrs. Vanotti was average height, and “pleasantly plump” (the phrase she liked to use about herself). Beautiful of complexion, she had milk-white skin, reddish cheeks, and lovely, round, twinkling eyes. She had velvet steely grey hair; always well coiffed, piled high on the top of her head. She spoke sweetly, with a lovely, alluring sing-song British accent. She was for me Billie Burke, the good fairy godmother from The Wizard of Oz.

Mrs. Vanotti had been in her native Great Britain a theatrical dancer, a “showgirl,” a “dance-hall girl,” as she laughingly liked to say. From pictures of her my mother showed me from her youth, she was slim, beautiful and sexy.

When I first met her, Mrs. Vanotti was firmly ensconced in America, married to an artist, Frank Vanotti. She had met him many years before, on one her dance troop visits to America. He was a very successful Italian-American artist, reportedly designed some of the murals in the lobby of New York’s Rockefeller Center. He was excellent in other art media as well: charcoal portraiture and copper etchings prominent among them. On the wall of our living room, displayed proudly by my Mom, was an original charcoal self-portrait. Hanging next to it was an exquisite copper etching he had made of the New York City skyline. The etching was intricately graceful, smooth, precise and detailed; the self-portrait, black on off-white, was dark, brooding and powerful.

At the time of our initial family involvement with Mrs. Vanotti and her candy store, my father, mother, I, and twelve year old brother Kurt lived in a one-bedroom apartment on Fourth Street and Palisades Avenue, in Union City, three blocks from Mrs. Vanotti’s candy store.

(to be continued...)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Freedom is exhausting.

He was born to greatness, but lacked the emotional structure to support it.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Operate out of need, not greed.