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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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Housing my Dream Pianos

I grew up in the Marble Hill projects of the Bronx and lived on the ninth floor. The walls of our housing development were so paper thin that when I practiced on my Sohmer 1922 studio upright, my first dream piano, it would elicit nerve-racking thumps from the neighbor down below. 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.

Years later, when I was a single woman living on the corner of Amsterdam and 74th street in Manhattan and practicing on my rebuilt, 1917 Steinway M grand, a dream piano that replaced my first, I no longer harbored a worry about music-hating neighbors because most of the residents in our building were musicians. Nineteen year old Danny lived at the end of the hall and was the youngest member of the NY Philharmonic’s cello section. The apartment dweller to his right, David, was a flautist and Rutgers law student who would occasionally bring me accompaniments to his Mozart concerti. From my sixth story window that overlooked Needle Park, I could hear the unabashed outpourings of professional opera singers who were preparing auditions, and if I walked over to the Ansonia, a more imposing edifice located on the other side of Broadway at 73rd, I would experience a muted chorus of voices intermingled with strings and piano. It sounded like the cacophony of symphony orchestra members warming up before a concert.

On the occasion of my moving to Fresno, California in 1979, a city with never-ending strip malls and fast food outlets, I inhabited my first private home that afforded my practicing day and night without intrusion. I had even added a fancy, oak paneled glass-enclosed, sound insulated room in order to teach and play without waking my stair step children.

By the time they were approaching school age, they would whiz down the hall on skateboards causing a ruckus that drowned out my pp’s (pianissimos) and those of my students.

When I sold my house a few years ago, the new occupants gutted the piano room and replaced it with a caged sanctuary for stray animals awaiting adoption. It was, unfortunately, a somber transformation of an area designated for a musical treasure of a dream variety.

I came full circle when I left the privacy of this two-story home to inhabit a very small room attached to a large condo. (I slept on a futon stored under the piano)

In exchange for services rendered to a wheel chair bound senior, I paid no rent. But with this relocation came restrictions on my practice time and a gross scale down of space. The studio was so small that my students would trip over themselves to get to the piano that was smack up against a book shelf making the area right behind the bench too narrow for anyone’s comfort. In one of my unguarded moments, I did an inadvertent back flip with my feet landing up in the air. If this was not enough of a personal embarrassment, a new student and her prim and proper mother entered my sanctuary just at that moment, and caught me in an uncompromising position. Needless to say, I had a lot of explaining to do.

This rent free housing opportunity, plagued by space problems was short-lived. Continuous infringements on my teaching and practice time forced another move.

My final relocation was to a townhouse nestled among mature pine trees in a quaint neighborhood known as Old Fig Garden. My newest spacious living room area amply accommodated not one but two Steinways (the latter being a studio upright) and an antique Aeolian “table style piano with three leaves.” It provided an envious acoustic because of its high, vaulted ceilings.

The only down side of living in this new abode was that the neighbor to my right had quickly informed me that the sounds of my nocturnal playing reached into his infant son’s nursery, with unpleasant consequences. So rather than uproot myself once again in the face of complaints about my unorthodox practice times, I had devised a plan that would satisfy everyone within earshot of my piano. At exactly 9 p.m. each night I would don a pair of earphones and pound away on my Casio digital keyboard until the crack of dawn. At 9 a.m. I would shut down my keyboard and re-awaken my Steinway.