We lived nomadically during my first eleven years, from Maine to Florida, seldom settling longer than a year or two in any one place. I remember vividly, and with fondness, a neighborhood called Montclair, in the town of Quincy, near Boston.
This neighborhood consisted of small one and two family houses, gray with age, not lack of care. Paltry lawns, some manicured and green, others pathetically yellowed, fronted most of these houses. Useless wire fences outlined and connected the lots like crossword puzzle squares. Maples and elms speckled potholed Montclair Avenue where we resided.
Montclair had a rambunctious nature, although nothing much ever happened. Family members seemed to be forever yelling at, or for, one another; teenage boys used fistfights as calling cards. Probably the most exciting event to ever happen there began when my sister sent a threatening ransom note to a local store owner. This mischievous act of a 16-year-old, influenced by too many cops & robbers TV shows, instigated a surveillance by several plain clothed detectives hiding in hedges, while unmarked cop cars cruised conspicuously around. The note demanded that a large sum of money be deposited in a plain brown paper bag at the corner of a nearby intersection. A hapless bystander came along, saw the “drop,” and unwittingly picked up “the bag.” Detectives pounced, apprehending the “suspect.” All this, while my sister and I watched, giggling from her bedroom window.
Each season impacts New England distinctly. Come spring, lilac bushes erupt into purple blossoms of intoxicating sweetness. Summertime brings sudden cloud bursts that steam up the streets, creating a delicious aroma of rain on asphalt. Sleepy summer evenings get whittled away on porch swings or in backyard chaise lounges. For weeks during autumn, sky-high piles of fallen leaves send off billows of smoke that curdle low-lying clouds. The air becomes as crisp as a Macintosh apple. Jack-O-Lanterns on every porch mark the beginning of the holiday season. Soon after Thanksgiving—but never before—people string colored lights around homes and on trees, while others labor long transforming front yards into Christmas inspired themes. Winter never fails to reinvent white magic. Frequent nor’easters forced school closures, to every child’s elation. In the mind of a seven-year old, the “ching-ching” sound made by tire chains became bells on Saint Nick’s sleigh. And nothing would be more fun than whirling down a snow-covered hill on an aluminum cylinder.
In Montclair, dogs ran free all day, chasing cars, following kids to school, checking out garbage cans. Cars passed by slowly, allowing time for children to clear a path, or retrieve their toys and bikes. We walked to school, came home at noon for lunch. Local celebrations and special events, like May Day festivities, seem simply innocent and so very safe, in retrospect. Doors were seldom locked, except maybe during a hurricane when everyone “battened down the hatches.” No one ever heard of—let alone needed—a deadbolt. Still, problems existed, mostly of our own making. But I didn’t know that then.
During the years we lived in Montclair, I made a number of friends whose faces I still recall. My best friend, Janice, lived across the street. Janice’s father had left — by route of divorce or death, I don’t know. Never thought to ask. Her mother worked, unlike all the other neighborhood moms, and spent little time at home. This, coupled with the fact that Janice’s older sisters wore eye makeup and tight-fitting Wrangler dungarees, caused my father to label her family “wild.” Although a year older than me, Janice didn’t pose any real threat so Dad allowed our friendship to continue, with the stipulation that our guard dog, Randy, always accompany me (Randy wasn’t really a guard dog though he did, in fact, look the part). My mother walked me back and forth across the street during the first year of our friendship, her concerns being quite different from Dad’s. Despite these embarrassments, our friendship thrived. She lived in the biggest house on the street situated on a triangular lot where Pope Street collided with Montclair Ave. A huge tree, an oak perhaps or possibly an elm, stood in the middle of a wild, overgrown backyard. One summer we hung a tree swing made from prickly rope and a piece of wood. I remember Janice achieved a 360 degree loop on that swing, something I never dared duplicate. The summer before we moved away, Janice taught me how to ride a two-wheeler sans the training wheels. She also told me things about boys I never would have figured out on my own.
A young boy my own age named Henry Strong lived further up the street. Henry had platinum blond hair cut in a fashionable crew, light blue eyes, a silly smile, and just a few freckles for interest. I loved Henry. We shared classrooms during first, second, and part of third grade; we played catch and other ball games, sledded, and entered into snowball combat. Later, we engaged in games like “doctor” and “house.” Henry and I often ventured into a nearby marsh which seemed filled with living wonder. He once slathered swamp stuff all over his face and jumped out at me, just for the fun of it. Naturally, this added to his appeal, sparking my interest to explore those things Janice only talked about. Henry didn’t respond to my amorous overtures with enthusiasm or cooperation at first. In fact, when the time seemed right for us to kiss, I had to wrestle that kid to the ground and sit on his chest. He eventually started catching on, but by then our time together had nearly run out.
My brother Johnny, eight years older than me, had a friend named Alvin whom I considered a friend of mine, too, seeing I often tagged along with them. Alvin egged me on the day I wrestled Henry for that kiss, coaching me and cheering when I finally succeeded. In retrospect, lanky and bespectacled Alvin seems strange. He captured birds. Alvin would stand on his back porch holding a large woolen blanket. With unwavering stillness and abnormal patience for a kid his age, he’d wait for a bird to land in his back yard where he had scattered seed. As soon as a bird came close enough, he’d fling the blanket onto the bird, scramble down and gather it up. Alvin’s basement became a dark, dank prison for robins, sparrows, jays, black birds, and the like. I now consider this cruel, but back then I held only admiration for Alvin’s cleverness in pursuing his unusual hobby. I even attempted to capture a bird or two of my own, emulating Alvin’s technique. My blanket fell far short of my intended avian victims due to lack of strength and accurate aim.
For fun and fright, especially around Halloween, all the kids would gather around the neighborhood’s token haunted house. A towering, three-story gabled structure, it looked every bit as creepy as Norman Bates’ home—only a lot closer. It had the requisite uneven brick pathway winding up through a weed infested front yard, and missing and cracked wooden steps which supposedly got you onto the dilapidated front porch. A porch swing hung crookedly off to the left of the porch, and a tattered screen door flapped senselessly to-and-fro when you looked at it. No one lived there, of course — hadn’t for years, but you’d see lights late at night, dimly flickering in an upper level window. At least you thought you did. Kids would dare one another to go in and spend the night, or an hour. My delicate youth and overly protective mother gave me two incontestable declinations for which I am still grateful.
We rented the upper part of a two family home; our landlords, the Hewitts, lived in the lower half. Four people made up that family: Mrs. Hewitt, her husband Whitey, their puny, effeminate, five-year old son, Jay-Jay, and a toddler daughter whose name I never cared to learn. She cried a lot. Mrs. Hewitt usually wore floral house dresses, called “muumuus,” which she filled in fully. Pink foam rollers seemed permanently screwed into her bleached blond head. A loud, obnoxious and generally unpleasant woman of middle age, you’d hear her blocks away, yelling at Whitey or calling for Jay-Jay. Poor Whitey. I don’t remember this frail albino man ever speaking or smiling or doing anything other than driving in and out the garage. I do remember one particular screaming session which he evidently incited in doing nothing. While banging pots and stomping around, Mrs. Hewitt screeched, “I’m king and you’re NOTHING.” Over and over she shrieked this litany, while I plugged my ears, and Dad established odds on the ruination of her vocal chords. I can only imagine that poor man sitting at the kitchen table, watching her rant and rave, hunching over a can of beer. And I never did figured how she could be king and Whitey nothing, gender meaning so much to me back then.
I didn’t know this then, but my dad one day decided to contrive an argument between the Hewitts and himself over how much money he should pay for using half of their two-car garage. He knew (my dad always knew how things would play out) that in provoking Mrs. Hewitt by withholding rent until the dispute settled, she would evict us. This played right into my dad’s hands, or so he later bragged. The dispute went on for a couple of months, during which time Dad, either snide or conciliatory depending upon mood, never warned of our impending upheaval. Eventually, it all played out just as Dad had planned.
So we left Montclair quite abruptly one day, not entirely unnoticed, and headed for the Catskill Mountains and many new neighborhoods. I never got the opportunity to bid farewell to Janice or Henry or Alvin. I wonder if any of them, maybe even Henry himself, might on occasion wonder what ever happened to that little girl, with the goofy blond braids, who once lived on Montclair Avenue. I know I do.