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Rekindling Marble Hill memories, and a remarkable twist of fate

I was deeply moved to have discovered the Marble Hill Reunion site which inspired my own cherished memories of the projects in the Bronx where I romped during my childhood and early adolescence.

My family moved from Featherbed Lane near Tremont Avenue to Marble Hill when I was about four. It was quite a notch up from a one room flat that had roaches, rats, and an ice box, barely containing enough food for a week. The iceman cometh. My parents needed the space, and rents were reduced for wartime veterans, so the projects were a perfect match.

During the early years we watched the construction of the Major Deegan Highway and P.S. 122, but having spent my first year of school at P.S. 95, I had a painful memory of being lost in the school yard with a dog tag around my neck. Fortunately, I managed to find my bearings with the help of a third grader who led me to my class line.

I played marbles in the projects and shot bottle caps around a designated square in the little playground near building 5. I bounced a ball off the logs and climbed the concrete fort. My big brother, Russ, hung out with “Joe-Joe” Gonzales who was the projects hell-raiser. They both spoke in whispers about rumbles that never happened, but I think Freddy S. went to prison.

We bounced our Spauldeens into the night, and jumped over the chain links into the grassy oval at the risk of being nabbed by the housing guards. I remember the bike rides around the periphery, making believe I was on the open road, in some fantasy place. The projects had secret hiding places, stairwells, back entrances, tender young bushes, and immature trees waiting to blossom.

Lost parakeets swirled through oaks and maples never to be recovered. I took walks from the projects to the Isaac Raboy Jewish school near the Amalgamated, and put those sticky, gummy tree fallen residues on my nose. I loved the brisk romp back to Marble Hill where I would look forward to the evening TV line up of Howdy Doody, Ozzie and Harriet and Lassie. I managed to be in Bob Smith’s radio studio peanut gallery, but missed my chance to be on the “Merry Mailman” show. I became sick with a head cold, and my mother never told me about the ticket that had arrived in the mail.

From our ninth floor apartment I could hear soap operas playing out through transparent, paper thin walls and bathroom pipes at the projects. I witnessed them if I put my ears to forbidden places– A nasty breakup with all the juicy detail of adultery and betrayal. I couldn’t stop straining my ears to listen. And one day, I had the audacity to string up a banana, and lower it in front of the neighbor’s window down below. Someone snatched it while the little rascal above us tossed a bowl full of chicken soup and noodles overboard that landed as a splattered mosaic on our window. The toddler’s mom never suspected that he dumped his dinner.

When I practiced on my Sohmer 1922 studio upright, my first dream piano, it would elicit nerve-racking thumps from the neighbor in apartment 8L. To my embarrassment, I would meet up with him from time to time in the elevator, and he would leer at me and shout “shad-up,” in a harsh tone of voice. His thick German accent made me cower, and thankfully his wife would put her hand over his mouth to spare me further embarrassment.

I remember some of the family tragedies and the postings about them in the lobby. A young father stricken with a heart attack; a mom who lived on the third floor died of cancer and left behind a 6-month old baby, and two school-age daughters.

Some names I didn’t see on the Marble Hill reunion roster from building #5: Gary Gindick, Michael Hershkowitz, Louise Chotras, Mona Koenig, Mark, Bob, and Lenore Wolin, Gertie Stamler, Susan Wolfskehl, Fran and husband who owned the Pizza place on Broadway.

And who cannot forget the elevators stalled on various floors spelling panic!!!

Nights were intolerably hot in summer. It was unbearable to be encapsulated in a project apartment with no air conditioning.

And what hankerings some of us had to own pets but couldn’t. Tanya Nickel who lived in 12L, building 5 had an illegal cat that jumped out the window and perished.

I had my very first pet, Terrance the turtle that I picked out at the circus. Most Marble Hill residents had fish. (guppies were very popular)

My mom threw ice cream money out the window from the 9th floor, and too many times the carefully wrapped dime and two cents landed in the bushes. I remember “John,” the wandering ice cream man who didn’t have many teeth and pushed a modest cart. I loved my favorite, a vanilla ice cream sandwich.

I went to PS 122 when it first opened, and took the sweet walk to Bailey Avenue. I was a tomboy who played stick ball with the kids from St. John’s in the school yard. (I located some memorable pics of the playground that are contained in Lehman College Archives)

Some of my classmates left school during released time, and when they came back, they talked about confession, the devil, heaven, hell and limbo in between scaring the likes of most of us, Jewish kids. (me, included)

The most pleasant project memory I hold dearest to my heart was of my parakeet, Tykie swirling about my bedroom landing from time to time on the Sohmer’s keyboard, leaving little bird droppings in his wake.

He and I spread our musical wings as I traveled through the piano repertoire as a beginner playing Diller-Quaille, next advancing to intermediate level pieces in Burgmuller’s collection of 25 Progressive Pieces. I was practicing “La Chasse” just before the little bird succumbed to pneumonia on a sultry afternoon.

Such was life in the projects, ephemeral but full of treasured reminiscences tucked way in a safe place, to be retrieved at the right moment.

Footnote: Less than a year ago, as I was traveling home by Amtrak from the Bay area, I overheard two women at the Richmond station, speaking with heavy Bronx accents. Being the extroverted ex-New Yorker that I am, I impolitely intruded upon their conversation, asking if they were from the Bronx. (Both spoke in the well recognized dialect.) Wouldn’t you know, by a twist of fate, they not only hailed from my neighborhood, but lived beside the old Music School off Kingsbridge Road where I took my first music lessons.

A sixth degree of separation? I discovered that they had known Mrs. Elston, the eccentric Director of the magical music haven that sat atop a hill.

What a small world!!!

LINK: Marble Hill Reunion Site


http://s411089181.initial-website.com/

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Teens, popular music then and now, Taylor Swift, throw in Five for Fighting “100 Years”

Today was by no means a first for me, a long-haired musician raised on Bach, Beethoven and Brahms teaching a teen some pop tunes by John Ondrasik and Taylor Swift while I sailed through the universe of “Liz on Top of the World” with another student. Videotaping portions of piano lessons was the natural result of these explorations. If nothing else, it had historical value.

I’d been born into the cosmos of popular music, a member of the Rock n’ Roll generation and my big brother Russ, four years older, plugged me into Alan Freed at the Paradise, Bill Haley and the Comets, Johnny Mathis, Paul Anka, and the Everly Brothers, among others. The music of this era could be movingly Romantic, especially the ballads. Presley singing, “Love Me Tender,” a tear jerker, and the Penguins crooning “Earth Angel,” a lilting, bittersweet melody, filled with heartfelt emotion.

Melody permeated the most rhythmically driven songs, like “Rock Around the Clock!” And “Little Darlin,'” another ear grabber, drew me instantly into its harmonically engaging universe beside its catchy banjo strumming beat.

Many of these “pop” favorites intermingled with the great Classical works of the piano literature, making me quite a well-rounded listener. It was well before my musical preferences were set in stone. Throw in Peter Seeger, Marais and Miranda, Edie Piaf (“The Street Singer”), Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and all the marvelous musical theater selections from Brigadoon, Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Man of La Mancha, and I was in seventh heaven!

In the late 50’s, Van Cliburn was riding the crest of his victory in Moscow, performing his winning selection, the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto in Bb minor, a victory that inspired a ticker tape parade down Wall Street. I was in the throes of a full-fledged crush on him. Meanwhile, my teenage peers were exchanging “Kookie, Lend me Your Comb” pics, casting me out of their inner circle. They wanted their real friends to conform, sharing the initiation rite of fainting in the presence of heart-throb, Fabian. Or later, it was the Beatles.

I loved the Beatles, but not in the same way my peers did. “Yesterday” was for me a melancholy, heart stopper. “Hey Jude,” rocked in the Gospel style. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” had the surreal, contemporary sound with amazing, lush, sometimes dissonant sonority. I knew nothing of the LSD connection, and it didn’t matter because my love for the music prevailed. In truth, I tuned out the words of a song in my personal listening experience, but I was amazed me by how my brother and his friends memorized all the lyrics of a particular favorite, regarding words at the focus of their appreciation. I wanted to feel the melodic and harmonic contour to the exclusion of all else.

My brother had also been exploring Classical, Romantic and Expressionist music during his intense Rock ‘n Roll phase. For hours he would blast LPs of Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor, Rimsky Korsakov’s the “Easter Overture,” Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture played on our modest phonograph. These works were his obsessions alongside Alan Freed’s rambling radio commentary.

So it was not surprising that I would emerge from my childhood and adolescence with a propensity to love a diverse menu of music that included popular, ballad, folk, symphonic, and anything that communicated a memorable melody and compelling harmonic mosaic.

Flash forward: Today, Allyse, a 16 year old high school junior at Clovis North, practiced “100 Years” by John Ondrasik, and Taylor Swift’s “Forever and Always” in a slow and steady tempo at my home studio.

She had brought both these favorite pieces to me a few months ago, desperately wanting to learn them. Her older brother, Alex, likewise dropped off “Liz On Top of the World” from Pride and Prejudice which I had to finger and practice in short order.

Both of these endearing piano students were members of the NOW generation, separated from me by decades. Yet despite our age difference, we were on the same page, practicing music that had meaning and evoked emotion. That’s what brought us together.

Roll the video!