What I remember from the neighborhood primarily was my grandparents’ apartment, which was in a five-story tenement building called the Mildred. (In 1917, the exiled Trotsky had an apartment there.) My grandmother was morbidly obese, about five feet tall, and arthritic. They lived on the third floor, and there were these old marble swaybacked stairs, barely lit, and just going up those stairs with her, resting the grocery bags on every step, listening to her ululate with misery, took about half an hour. I also remember going to the movie theaters, to see triple-feature horror films with her. I was 9 or 10, and everyone else in the audience was from my age up to maybe 16. These were tough, hard-core street kids, my grandmother being the only person who was old enough to vote in the entire theater, and she would stand up and start shouting at the screen, “Good for ya, ya bastid!” whenever Rodan, Gorgo, or the giant spider in The Incredible Shrinking Man would get torched or impaled or something.
I remember spending all Saturday with my grandmother in that neighborhood—which involved, first, sitting with her in beach chairs by her open kitchen window and looking down on Vyse Avenue and listening to her running commentary on every junkie, alcoholic, slut, whorehound, and wifebeater on the block. She was like the Walter Winchell of the windowsill. And then, about noon, we would pack up an enormous shopping basket of food and go to those all-day movies, and then we would come home, up the wailing stairs, and watch roller derby and pro wrestling. And then once again, we would watch horror movies on Zacherley’s Shock Theater on WOR, channel 9, until one of us finally passed out. She was a very lonely, very high-strung person, who just happened to love my ass. She had no respect for my age and talked to me like we were two middle-aged sisters who had both been around the corner a few times too many, even though I was 8, 9, 10. I dug it down to the floor.
A few years ago, I took my future wife Lorraine Adams back to Vyse Avenue, hoping to impress her with how rough it was, and melodramatize my not-very-tough upbringing. But she had wandered around Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan a few times on her own, and so when she delivered her judgment, “I love it,” I felt crushed. But then basically had to admit, “Yeah, me too.”