We made our semi-annual pilgrimage to my hometown of Cleveland and took a ride into the old Tremont section on the near west side where my parents grew up. 75 years ago the neighborhood was populated by poor, but proud, Italians, Polish, Germans and Slovaks. Robust, hearty European-types. Men and women with good, strong backs.
I drove down Buhrer Avenue past my mother’s childhood home. It’s amazing what the mind locks away for another day. I had completely forgotten that my father grew up across the street from her. That’s how far removed my dad is from my consciousness.
Buhrer Avenue is what I picture when I read To Kill a Mockingbird. There are plenty of houses with that Boo Radley vibe. I slowly drove past Grandma Meyo’s old, tiny, doll house and was suddenly hit with a wave of remembrance. Across the street, just a few houses away, was Grandma Polack’s house where dad, Aunt Reggie, and Uncle Marty grew up.
As children, we visited the grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins regularly. The streets were paved with red brick. There was a fruit peddler named Tony Ameto who would walk his fruit and vegetable-laden wooden cart through the neighborhood. One time, my cousin Kenny saw him urinating behind a garage. Thereafter, we would hide in the bushes and torment him with a ditty Kenny made-up to the tune of The Mexican Hat Dance:
My name is Tony Ameto
I live in a bowl of spaghett-o
My name is Tony Ameto
I pee behind garages!
And then we’d run. At the end of the block on the corner of Scranton and Buhrer Avenues was the Scranton Road Tavern. Grandpa Meyo had a drinking problem. Each evening, he’d walk the half block with his dog, Brownie, and take a seat at the bar. After a night of too much drink, Brownie would guide him home. As a reward, Grandpa would give him an Eskimo Pie. Brownie died overweight and of diabetes. An Eskimo Pie a day will do that. My mom said that after we were born, Grandpa stopped drinking. I never once saw him with a drink in his hand.
A few blocks down Scranton Road is St. Michael the Archangel; a 140 year-old Catholic citadel. That’s not old by European standards but there’s a lot of family history in that building. It’s where my mother and father went to elementary school and, much later, were married. My sister and brother-in-law were married there as well. See those two crosses on top of the spires?
They’re copper-covered wooden crosses. Each is 9 x 6 feet. They’re a beautiful shade of aged-green. That’s an old photo above. They’re not up there anymore. You can see one just inside the entrance of the church.
The church is locked during the day because the neighborhood is crime-ridden. The only reason we got inside is because we lucked upon the caretaker and he unlocked the door for us. [My sister insists that mom put him there because we needed him.]
The old Europeans never would have shot holes in that cross. To what do we attribute this change of attitude? Is it a symptom of societal and family derogation? I think we can rule out economics because the neighborhood has ALWAYS been poor. Dare we suggest it’s cultural? Anyone?
Asbury Park, August 18, 2014, 2:30 p.m.