I was riding the bus on Amsterdam Avenue the other day and we passed the Trinity Cemetery. Immediately, it brought back memories of a time when my adopted grandparents used to on a street across from the cemetery.
My biological great-aunt Lillie Magnolia and her common-law husband, Samuel, were superintendents for an apartment building on 153rd Street. Aunt Mag, as our family called her, was one of the first black residents on that street in the 1950s. During that time, this section of Harlem, Sugar Hill, was predominantly white. But that was long before I was born. When I was growing up, our street was filled with mostly black and Latino families.
I remember early morning drives to the store for a few groceries and the daily newspaper with my grandfather, or Uncle Sam as he was called by everyone else. He always read the Daily News and we would sit in his blue Ford Taurus down on Riverside Drive, only one block away, and watch the sunrise. I vaguely remember standing on the blue leather seats and hearing the song, Just The Two Of Us by Bill Withers, playing on the radio. It was almost like it was our song.
In the daytime, I played on the sidewalk with the neighborhood children. Games of tag, double dutch and red-light-green-light were our favorite games to play. Chewing gum and eating sunflower seeds were the highlights of our day. We were grateful when the ice cream truck stopped on our street and we were given scoops of our favorite ice cream: chocolate for me, always with sprinkles. My grandmother hated to spend money for ice cream. There was always a half-gallon of Breyer's Vanilla or Cherry in the ice box, after all. But she bought the ice cream for me, spoiling her only "grandchild."
I had a friend in the building by the name of Mickie. She was a lot of fun and a little bit of trouble, always straddling the line between good and bad. My grandmother didn't particularly like me to play with her because she thought Mickie was "too wild." She always blamed Mickie for the trouble the two of us would get in. She could never picture me being the "bad one."
She much preferred that I play with the older Puerto Rican girls that I was crazy about, Nancy and her cousin Milagros, whom everyone called Milly. They were originally born in Puerto Rico but were living here in New York; kind of like the best of both worlds or so I always thought. Nancy had long dark pigtails and wore braces. Milagros was the stunning beauty, tall and willowy with long sandy brown hair. All the young boys loved her. We all wanted to be like Milly. Nancy and Milly would knock on my grandmother's door to ask if I could come out and play with them. They would take me to the little bodega on the corner where we would get our favorite sweets and of course sunflower seeds.
At night, salsa and merengue music blared from the car radios and I would watch the men play percussion instruments as they sang along. It was a very vibrant experience and one that taught me so much about diversity. (It also taught me a little about my Puerto Rican heritage which comes from my father's side of the family.)
But what I remember most is spending time with my grandparents. They doted on me and made me the center of their world. My grandmother had been childless and so I was the "daughter" she'd never had. My grandfather had his own biological grandchildren, but for some reason he spent more time with me. In my child-like mind, it led me to believe that I was his favorite, whether this was true or not.
I spent a lot of time with my grandparents when my mother was at work or at school. My grandmother would brag that I started spending days with her when I was only nine months old, her hands outstretched to measure the length of my body at that time. I always thought this was funny as I could never remember being that small. This did not change when I began attending school either. I would still spend the afternoons and summers on that street with my grandparents. And everyone in the neighborhood, and even at my elementary school, P.S. 200, knew that they were my grandparents.
My grandparents lived in an old railroad flat on the first floor of a prewar building that overlooked the sidewalk and the cemetery across the street. From our living room window, we looked out onto our living and ghostly neighbors. The cemetery was always a curious spot for us children in the neighborhood, especially for the more adventurous kids. I guess it was the beautiful stone tombs and headstones, the winding paths and greenery that kids found attractive. Whatever it was, I noticed its beauty from afar. My grandmother had warned me many times not to play there and I had learned from the burning bottom I'd gotten from a "switch" (a thin tree branch picked right on that street) not to disobey her. Of course she was right. I remember when a teenager from the area died in the cemetery, the result of a toppled headstone or tomb. I wondered then if his grandmother had warned him about playing in the cemetery. I was only seven years old.
At the edge of the cemetery was a large mulberry tree that ripened in Spring. Aunt Mag would take me across the street to this mulberry tree and we'd pluck some of the berries together. It was probably the closest I would get to the cemetery. I remember staring off at the headstones, trying to count them and trying to read the names on the headstones closest to us. Some of the headstones were so ornate that they were almost like the sculptures I'd see in parks around the city. I wondered aloud why we couldn't just play in the cemetery, it looked so nice. I can remember my grandmother shushing me. It was hard to explain to a child that had not really experienced death before that cemeteries were not places to hang out and play. Though there are some who may disagree with that school of thought.
The cemetery was a living contradiction to the vibrancy found on our street and I could see that even as a kid. On one side of the street, children played and laughed loudly while the adults sat in chairs on the sidewalk or on the stoops of the buildings watching and talking among themselves. In the summer months, we had cookouts and block parties in the middle of the street, our ghostly neighbors in silent attendance.
As I began to grow older I began to understand more the borders of life and death and how sometimes they co-exist side by side. I believe our street was living proof of that.
I have so many good memories of that old street. My grandmother was pretty popular amongst the neighbors. She loved to cook and share with people on that street, she'd even share a drink with them while sitting out on the stoop. And our neighbors, of all heritages, social and economic backgrounds appreciated that about her.
As her granddaughter, they were always sweet to me. Especially one of my favorite couples on our street, Miguel and Butchie. They were two gay men originally from Cuba and had landed in New York City sometime during the late 1970’s or early 1980’s. We would drink Maltas with them on our building's stoop on warm summer nights. One Christmas they gave me a beautiful little teddy bear, with a blue knit sweater and cap with the name "Dakin" embroidered into his tag. I still have him tucked away in my closet somewhere sans the little knit sweater.
Unfortunately our days on that street ended in 1988 when a disgruntled tenant set fire to our building. My grandmother was in the hospital at the time and my grandfather had to escape with the clothing on his back and a small bag of personal affects. He slept in his Ford Taurus parked on the street for a day or two before staying with relatives.
Rumors flew that the arsonist was being evicted and was going to have to leave his apartment. Others said that he was angry that his boyfriend had broken up with him and asked him to leave. I never did find out the truth.
A few months later my grandparents moved into another building a few blocks away. Our old neighbors, Miguel and Butchie, landed in a brownstone across the street. Though our time on the old street had ended in flames, our memories and our ghostly neighbors remain...