The tenement basement I lived in was midway between Public School 63 and Crotona Park. I walked to P.S. 63 at an early age and, given the distance, my brother and I were allowed to go to the park on our own. Mom would often take us to picnic in the park. She would pack sandwiches, salads and the Sunday paper in a shopping cart and off we’d go. She would spread a blanket on the grass and we’d spend pleasant afternoons napping under a tree. She’d keep an eye on us from the nearest bench because she never sat on the blanket. She dreaded insects but didn’t miss an opportunity to take us to the park. It was “outside” and a stark contrast to living “under the steps” of our apartment building. When, we were older, one of us would carry her folding aluminum lawn chair with the green and white vinyl webbing. The park became my private Sherwood Forest and I pretended to be all manner of people while playing there.
Crotona Park was enormous to us as little kids. I learned years later that it covers 127.5 acres (0.5 square miles). The park is known for its variety of trees and the 3.3-acre lake is home to fish, turtles, and ducks. There are 20 tennis hard courts (clay when I was a kid), five baseball diamonds, eleven playgrounds (up from nine) and a 300-foot pool, the largest pool in the Bronx. The pool was in the next park section over as were the baseball diamonds, tennis courts, and Indian Lake. I would have to cross additional streets to get to those areas on my own and, when small, that wasn’t allowed. That meant I couldn’t go to the pool. Heck, I couldn’t swim anyway.
I had a lot of freedom as a child, but there were some simple rules:
Don’t play in the street.
Never cross more than one street.
Never go around more than one corner.
Come home when the street lights come on.
I had considered breaking the street rule, but I still wouldn’t be able to get into the pool without an adult. Any adult friend of my mother would surely ask if I had my mother’s permission. The idea of asking a stranger to escort me into a public pool was such a moon-like thought I’m not sure it ever occurred to me.
When I was a kid:
Kids spoke when spoken to.
Kids didn’t talk to strangers.
Kids didn’t interrupt adults when they were speaking.
Kids didn’t do things without permission.
The older you got, the more rules you broke.
There was a playground in Crotona Park with a park house where you could borrow balls, bats, and board games when you were no longer swinging, tagging and climbing. Across from the playground, behind a fence, with two wishing wells with weather vanes, was the Farm Garden. My brother and I knew the difference between flowers and vegetables, but we didn’t have any plants at home. We never really thought about growing stuff. We didn’t get much sunlight.
One bright, warm day I spoke to the woman who managed the Farm Garden. Well, she actually spoke to us first. My brother and I, tired of the other things we could do, had peered through the gate at the strange things growing behind the fence. Rob and I watched as the woman went to and fro carrying tools and watering cans or vegetables. Every now and then, she would glance over at us. When she began to walk towards us, we considered running off, but adventurous, we held our ground. She greeted us with, “How are you boys today?” We responded politely, as taught, with, “We’re well Ma’am.” We were brave, but not enough to ask her what she was doing. It looked liked gardening, but there weren’t any flowers.
We knew about flowers, even thought we were “city” kids. Mom, a H.S. graduate, worked in an office in the garment district and the evening she came home with an orchid corsage, I learned several things. Grandmother was a housekeeper for a baby doctor on West End Avenue and brought home just-past-fresh cut flowers sometimes. We were poor kids but wore chinos and striped tee shirts from Woolworth’s on Bathgate Avenue. We never wore denim. We didn’t own a pair of blue jeans. Field and factory folk wore dungarees. We were being raised to be something else. When she asked if we would like to come in, neither of us budged. When she asked if we’d like to know what she was doing, neither of us said a word. I guess we wore her down because finally she just smiled and said, “Come on in.”
She ushered us in and stopped when we were inside the gate almost as if, now that we were in her domain, we couldn’t get away. She said her name was Mrs. Xxyyzz, but we should call her Mrs. O. We were simply Chuck and Rob. Mrs. O, said, “Can you help me?” “You see that bush near the gate?” We half-turned and were surprised we had not noticed the remarkable plants flanking the gate. She took us towards them and, almost gleefully, asked me if I would pick one of the aspirin bottle cotton “flowers.” As I reached for the closest burst bloom, she pointed to a huge blossom well inside the plant and said, “No, that one.” I thrust my hand into the bush only to be scratched on the hand, wrist, and arm. I was genuinely wounded when I withdrew the boll.
Mrs. O reached for me and I thought to move away from this trickster but, before I could, she gently touched my shoulder and said, “Baby, now you know what it’s like to pick cotton.” “Let’s grow some vegetables!” I gave her an 8-year-old’s glare as she pulled a handkerchief from her apron and took off her hat to wipe her forehead. Her hair was white and braided in the same way as my grandmother. Except for the 360 degrees of pigment between them, they could be sisters.
I let her lead me toward the vegetables, Rob following, looking for any sign of trouble. I watched her carefully, after the incident with the cotton, as she pointed out this thing and that. In a blink, I ate vine-ripened, red tomatoes and discovered they were cousin to green peppers and purple things called eggplants. I found out peanuts could be eaten raw and potatoes, beets, and turnips grew underground with fascinating things called radishes.
I had heard of radishes. I knew they were one of the things Mom liked in her salad. Mrs. O pulled some up and washed them off under the faucet inside the wishing well. I recall asking Mrs. O, “Do kids eat radishes?” She said, “They do if they like them.” “There is only one way to find out.” Sitting in the shade, on the edge of the well with my feet dangling under cool running water, surrounded by vegetables, Rob and I enjoyed eating radishes.