Just last month, New York City essayist and public relations consultant Bob Brody wrote a letter (which we published on BoomerCafé) to his 2-½-year-old granddaughter Lucia Antonia, who lives in Italy. He told her, “I’m coming over there. I just need to tie up some loose ends.” He’s done that now, and he’s on his way. To stay.
Within the next few weeks, I’ll be moving from New York City to Italy. There, I’ll reunite with my wife, son, daughter, son-in-law, and toddler granddaughter. But before I leave, I did something important to me: I visited my hometown.
My mother and father migrated in 1954 from the New York City’s Bronx to Fair Lawn, New Jersey, my baby sister and me in tow. In joining that vast post-World War II exodus from city to suburb, we graduated from a one-bedroom apartment near Yankee Stadium to a red brick split-level colonial three bedroom on a quarter acre near a former World War II Army base.
We lived catty-corner from the local firehouse. Any time the siren blared its alarm, volunteers rushed by car and foot from all over. They leaped over the surrounding wooden fence and scrambled to don uniforms and helmets to save the day.
I scheduled a visit with our home’s current occupants. I toured the kitchen where I once ate Twinkies, the bedroom where I first smoked pot while listening to Jimi Hendrix on my stereo, the den where I watched the “Superman” TV show, and the basement where I played my Ludwig drum set in a futile stab at being cool.
I strolled around my elementary school, where in spring and summer we played stickball against a strike zone painted white against a brick wall. Belting a shot over the shrubs straightaway bought you a home run. Nearby, I touched the trunk of the tree I once climbed, the branches thinning ominously the higher I rose. I stopped to pay my respects at the sacred spot where I first dared to kiss a girl. She had freckles, and to this day I have no idea if I kissed her right.
A mile away, I checked out Memorial Pool, the municipal facility where our family went all summer and every Fourth of July for the fireworks. With every boom from the pyrotechnics, I, ever the class clown– and inspired by movies I’d seen about war, crime, or cowboys– would keel over, hand clutching my heart, head flung back in agony, swooning as if gravely wounded. It always cracked everyone up.
I drove by the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, where I once played hooky, smacking a handball against a wall directly outside, only for the principal to come catch me in the act. In class, I stole coins from the tzedakah box, designated for charity. The teacher asked if I had taken the money and I lied. Here, against all odds– most notably my hardships learning Hebrew– I had my bar mitzvah.
Last, I ambled along Alden Terrace, around the corner from our house, where my friends and I played all day and into the dusk. Every Sunday afternoon in winter, with clockwork regularity, we gathered to play touch football out in the street. We were 12, maybe 13 years old. We came together magnetically, without even a phone call first.
Our playing field stretched from telephone pole to telephone pole, about 50 yards, with curbs as sidelines. As if inheriting a habit from our streetwise, city-bred parents, we competed between parked cars, even though a landscaped park up the block offered spacious open fields. We huddled and called our plays as if nothing else going on in the solar system mattered or ever would. We remained oblivious of everything else, our minds intent only on the next pass, the next catch, the next touchdown. No wonder. We had all the time in the world.
We boys all lived on the same block or two, attended the same school, took the same classes, had the same teachers. We went inside each other’s houses. We knew each other’s mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters. We kidded around and left pennies on the railroad tracks to be crushed by oncoming trains and held contests to see who could burp the longest.
So, back I came via the George Washington Bridge from this valedictory pilgrimage to my hometown. All through the 1950s and 1960s, my father drove our family of four over that bridge to visit our maternal grandparents in Manhattan. The bridge loomed tall and long, its steel and cable framework skeletal yet all muscle.
As we crossed, I always looked to the right, toward the south, because there, spread out along the horizon, lay the heroic skyline of Manhattan. I felt a gravitational pull as the city beckoned. It was Oz-like, promising everything I had seen in movies and read about in books. There, in those offices and apartment buildings, my career and life would bloom, bringing me to the present day.
As it happens, our house in southern Italy will give me a second chance at small-town life. It will feel safe. People will treat each other with trust and respect. Playing soccer with my granddaughter will restore my sense of boyhood play. Before long, it should all feel exactly like home.
Bob’s memoir is, “Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.”