A few summers ago, my husband, Alan, and I were at a friend’s house on Long Island, having predinner snacks and drinks, when I heard the words “. . . in the Bronx,” said by Millard (“Mickey”) Drexler, whom I’d met for the first time minutes before.
“Are you from the Bronx?” I asked.
“I’m from the Northeast. Barnes and Arnow Avenues,” Mickey answered.
“You’re kidding. Which building?”
“The Mayflower,” he said.
“That’s unbelievable! That’s my building.”
We tried to figure out why we hadn’t met when we were kids. The Mayflower has ninety-six apartments. That’s a lot of people, but the age difference (I’m eleven years older) was probably the biggest factor. When I was in high school Mickey was a toddler. That age gap disappeared completely when we talked nonstop like long-lost friends at dinnertime, deciding that it would be fun to go back to the Mayflower together.
So a few months later we went, new buddies revisiting our old building. Alan, Mickey’s cousin, and a few of Mickey’s longtime friends from the neighborhood came with us. It had been well over fifty years since either Mickey or I had lived in the Mayflower and thirty years since I had last visited. Would Mickey be able to see his old apartment? (No. No one answered the doorbell when he rang.) What did the Mayflower look like now, seen with our grown-up sensibilities? (On the outside, the same as ever. A six-story, tan and brown brick building, taking up half a city block.)
Mickey, chairman and CEO of J.Crew, led the way inside, the rest of us following. The lobby looked stark—a big contrast to my upscale Manhattan apartment building, with its lobby furniture, area rugs, and walls hung with art. The simple Mayflower interior served as a pointed reminder of the unexpected turns my life had taken. Still, I felt totally at home seeing the familiar, worn terrazzo stairways and floor of the old building, which triggered vivid childhood memories. Energetic girl on a rainy day, running and jumping in the hallways. Bouncing a ball. Noises echoing. Typical working-class Bronx Jewish first-generation kid. Me. I clearly saw and heard myself as that ten-year-old girl again, tossing my beloved Spaldeen ball.
Mickey and I began comparing notes about our families and our oh-too-small apartments. I was fascinated by his stories—of his aunt Frances and how she became his renegade role model; of how, when he attended the Bronx High School of Science, he first started getting knowledge of lives different from his own. Lives where some kids even had their own bedrooms and where the family expectation was that the children, without a doubt, would go to college. Standing with Mickey, a picture of confidence and success, in our shopworn surroundings, both of us excited about comparing stories about our pasts, started me wondering about other interesting and accomplished people from the Bronx. What were their stories? What were their childhoods like? Who influenced them? How did they find a place for themselves in the larger world, the one beyond their own Bronx neighborhoods?
The idea for Just Kids from the Bronx was beginning to hatch.
I started out cautiously by interviewing only friends. Mickey was among the first “kids” I talked with. Two longtime pals of mine, the producers Martin Bregman and David Yarnell, were also delighted to be included in my project. Regis Philbin, both a friend and a wonderful storyteller who lives down the hall from me in our Manhattan building, eagerly said, “I’ll be happy to talk to you. I had a great childhood in the Bronx.” The enthusiasm they all showed for the project, along with the comic adventures described in those initial interviews, launched this book. Friends then recommended friends, and acquaintances mentioned names they had recognized but didn’t know personally—“Did you talk to So-and so?” I knew my growing helter-skelter list of names excluded many who were worthy and interesting, which meant this book was not to be a comprehensive history of all the great people of the Bronx. But happily, this informally gathered group hinted at the actual changing demographic of the borough over the years, which went from being predominantly Jewish, Italian, and Irish in the earlier part of the twentieth century to the current majority populations of African Americans and Hispanics, all of them sharing some pride in the borough that helped raise them. When I talked with Joel Arthur Rosenthal ( JAR), the only living jewelry designer to have a retrospective of his work at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, he said, “I’m glad that you’re doing a book about the Bronx. I’m sick and tired of hearing about Brooklyn.”
I edited the conversational interviews, taking care to preserve each person’s own wording. I arranged the material chronologically, so the differences and similarities in each person’s life, along with the changes in the Bronx itself, would be more apparent. As the volume of candid, personal stories grew, I found I was deeply touched and gratified by the trust these wonderful Bronxites had in me, basically a stranger to most of them.
I became riveted as the three graffiti artists of Tats Cru told of their exploits in the 1970s and ’80s, and what it meant to them to have people see their art on the outside of the number 6 train, rolling from the Bronx all the way through Manhattan, into Brooklyn, and then back again to the Bronx. I was transported by Al Pacino’s lyric description of the sounds of the world on his roof in the 1940s: “And at night—at night, there was this cacophony of voices, especially in the late spring to late summer. You would hear the different accents. We had them all. There were Italians, Jews, Irish, Polish, German. It was like a Eugene O’Neill play.”
I laughed, with total surprise, when David Yarnell told me about his risky exploits in the ’40s, secretly growing marijuana in Bronx Park. Teenagers did things like that then? And then there was the eight-year-old Ken Davidson, in the ’50s, playing with his young band of buddies in the rocky, empty lot next to their apartment house, setting fires—literally playing with fire, despite his mother’s warning, “You could burn your eyes out.”
I was moved and informed by Neil deGrasse Tyson’s descriptions of his experiences with racism when he was an innocent and unsuspecting preteen. Similarly, I was appalled by the not so subtle racism that Joyce Hansen encountered in high school when her college guidance counselor said college was for smart kids and therefore not for her.
And who knew that the Bronx River was home to an important population of giant snapping turtles? For Erik Zeidler, born in 1991 and still living in the Bronx today, exploring the Bronx River “was like opening presents when you’re not sure what the present will be, whether it’s going to be something you really want or nothing. Seeing and finding these giant turtles in the river is a present I’ll never forget.”
Hearing Erik talk about the turtles in the Bronx River reminded me that there is more parkland in the Bronx—25 percent of the place—than in any other borough of New York City. I was lucky enough to grow up about seven blocks away from Bronx Park, where the Bronx River flows, and which is also home to the world-class Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden. I was naively happy then and am humbly grateful now that, although I lived in a more or less urban community, I could explore the park, which first sparked my abiding love of flowers.
Sometimes out-of-town friends ask, “The Bronx. Exactly where is it?”
“You know,” I say, “the Bronx is up, the Battery’s down, like in the Comden and Green lyrics.”
The Bronx is the northernmost of New York City’s five boroughs. It was incorporated into the city at large in 1898, and it is the only borough on the mainland. The other four boroughs are either islands or attached to Long Island.
The Bronx got its name from one of its first settlers, a seventeenth-century Scandinavian named Jonas Bronck, whose lineage has been traced to Sweden and Denmark. He arrived in New Netherland in 1639, farmed some six hundred acres in what is now the Mott Haven section, and his tract was known as Bronck’s Land. The river ran south of Bronck’s Land and, with a change in the spelling, the river and eventually the whole borough were named after him.
The separate Bronx villages that arose long after Jonas Bronck’s life and times evolved into neighborhoods . . . communities that were like hometowns. And as in other hometowns across the country, the dwellers knew most everyone and most everyone knew them. Though the people whose stories I listened to for this book came from many different neighborhoods and grew up in different decades, all of them came from places where parents and neighbors, schools and teachers, stores and storekeepers, houses of worship and clergy were important parts of their lives.
By the time I finished editing the more than sixty interviews, from ninety-two-year-old Carl Reiner’s to twenty-three-year-old Erik Zeidler’s, I was delighted to see an additional narrative emerging, one of changing decades and disparate times linking arms with one another. Children of Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrants giving way to children of African American, Puerto Rican, and Dominican newcomers, and I felt moved and connected to them all.
During World War Two, Avery Corman played stickball in the streets, using the simple treasures of a Spaldeen ball and a broom handle for a bat. Even though I was a girl, and girls didn’t play stickball then, those were my years of carefree playing in the streets too. Years later, similar games continued with even poorer kids creating their ball out of recyclables. As hip-hop’s Grandmaster Melle Mel, born Melvin Glover, told it, “We’d take a milk container and a soda bottle and wrap the soda bottle in newspaper and stuff the soda bottle inside the milk container and shape it like a football.” Yes! I could imagine doing that as well, if I had to.
For more than a hundred years the Bronx has been associated with the Yankees, the Bronx Bombers. And across the generations so many Bronx kids, me included, cheered them on, with many of the boys dreaming of playing pro ball. Bobby Bonilla, who spoke of his “indescribable love” for his supportive father, was able to realize his baseball-player dreams. And Michael Kay, fueled by an intense love of the Yankees and by his own resourcefulness, figured out early on how to get involved. “I was practical and rational, even as a nine-year-old,” he told me. “If I’m gonna be part of the Yankees, I’m gonna be that broadcaster! So I’d interview my friends with a tape recorder.” Michael Kay himself hit a metaphorical home run when he grew up to become a sports journalist and Yankees broadcaster.
The bronx storytellers in this book have found their niches in the fields of religion, law, education, entertainment, business, finance, science, medicine, government, politics, sports, acting, music, drawing, photography, architecture, graphic design, journalism, cartooning, writing, and dancing. Both in spirit and in fact, with their contributions to the larger community, they exemplify possibility. I am so grateful for what started out as a lark, just a fun trip back to the Mayflower. It led to one of the richest experiences of my life: the meeting of the people in and the making of Just Kids from the Bronx: Telling It the Way It Was, An Oral History.
Copyright © 2015 by Arlene Alda