Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Sunday Memory Drawer - Mount Vernon as I Remember It

There's a Facebook board called "I Grew Up in Mount Vernon, New York" that provides members with lots of photos.  Right now, there's some guy who is wasting a lot of pixels posting snapshots of stores and establishments currently in what was once my hometown.  Low class restaurants and cheap clothing stores all befitting the clientele now living in this once great town.  While I salute this person's desire to capture Mount Vernon today, most of this photographic effort is a large waste of time.  I couldn't give a Vaccarella (former crooked mayor, one of many) rat's ass what the place looks like now.   I did that photo essay several years and that's a Sunday Memory Drawer not worth re-opening.

But the historical picture above?  Pure gold.  It is Mount Vernon circa 1948.  I wasn't around for this, of course.  But, in my youth, the place didn't look that much different.  It was during my high school and college years that the town began to turn into a backed-up sewer.

This part of the downtown sector is called Gramatan Avenue.   Now, if you go south past the bottom of the photo, this thoroughfare becomes Fourth Avenue, which is where all the fun stores were.

Bromley's Dress Shop and Genung's for Mom.  

Ankerson's Drug Store for Grandma's White Cloverine Salve.  

Shipman's Toys and Brodbeck's Records for me.  

Plus the traditional "five and dimes."  H.L. Green's, where my childhood bestie Leo's mom worked.  H.W. Woolworth.  A Horn and Hardhart store that featured the most delicious take-home meals.  Beef stew and rice pudding.  Once again for me.

And, of course, the pre-Friday-afternoon-movie dining spot for me and my mother.  The glorious Bee Hive.

I never understood why the same street had two different names depending upon what side of the railroad tracks you were on.  You can see the New Haven Railroad tracks at the bottom left.  This crevice cut right through the city and effectively created two distinctly different parts of town.  The north side, which was predominantly white and borderline affluent.  The south side, which was much more diverse in both nationalities and race.  It was also unofficially poorer, probably because of its proximity to the Bronx.

Guess which side I lived on?  A little poorer, but always seemingly a bit happier. 

As I examine this wonderful photo, my mind races back to one memory after another.  Because, even though there was less shopping venues on Gramatan Avenue, it still offered some spots I will cherish forever.  As I point them out, you might have to keep scrolling up and down to see what I'm talking about.

Working from the bottom up, you see what looks like a guard booth.  That was a police post.  Why?  I have no clue.  Back then, there was little crime in Mount Vernon.  And, as a kid, I don't remember ever seeing a cop in there.

The big building just past the guard booth on the left?  That was the County Trust Bank.  Noteworthy only because my dad had an account there for a while and, before he started to work nights, I would go with him every Thursday night (everything was open on Thursday nights in Mount Vernon) so he could cash the pay check he just got.

Across the street on the corner is a camera store and that was still there when I was growing up.  During the five or so years when my father was dabbling in amateur photography with his Argus Technicolor camera, we would go there and let them turn the pictures into slides for the projector he dragged out at every family gathering.

Right next door was pure nirvana for me.  You can plainly see the RKO Proctor's Theater.  Four levels of seating.  They changed the double feature every Wednesday.  Depending upon what was playing on a Friday afternoon, my mother and I went either here or the Loews which was right around the corner.  After the required BLT sandwich and a milk shake at the aforementioned Bee Hive.

RKO Proctor's played the films of several studios.  They got all the pictures from 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Disney, and Universal.   We always sat in the second level which was the smoking section.  If the second feature was a boring one, I loved to run up and down the ramps that connected the levels.  Until, of course, the old matron with the flashlight told me to stop.  I remember one wonderful afternoon there when Bob Hope and Lucille Ball made a promotional appearance on the theater stage.  Lucy!  In my hometown, no less.

See the building right across the street?  Woo, memories for me there as well.  You'll notice on the corner a cigar store.  Well, it was really a luncheonette.  And one that carried the latest comic books.  Always a stop for me after my regular visits to the building that was attached above with the address "10 Fiske Place."  That's where my dentist, Dr. Paul Cipes, was based.  I had my very first cavity filling there.  And my first root canal when I was in college.  During the latter procedure, he set my shirt on fire.  Don't ask.

Of course, for several years in grade school, 10 Fiske Place was also a frequent stop for me when I was wearing braces on my teeth.  My orthodontist was there.  Dr. Arthur Ash Not the Tennis Player.  Seriously, that's how he introduced himself.  In a bizarre latter day coincidence, I now go to a dentist in the Pacific Palisades of Los Angeles.  The street that crosscuts the avenue my dentist is on?  Fiske Place.  Moving on.

In the same building, you have to zoom in to see a sign on the front that says 'Personal Loans."  Yep, I remember that place.  Mom was a frequent customer there when she over-extended her allowance at Bromley's Dress Shop.  One of my regular errands would be to make the drop of her latest monthly loan payment.  Always with the warning...."Don't tell your father."

Next to the cigar store on the way up Gramatan was Barish's Book and Card Store.  The only book store in Mount Vernon.  A popular spot for me during high school because they stocked up on all the Cliff Notes on those books you never wanted to read for English class.  I went to high school with one of the Barish kids.  I wonder if he got the Cliff Notes for free.

Next to the book store was a fruit and vegetable stand.  We never went there.  Grandma always said the stuff in the Bronx was fresher.  Another blanket statement of hers that never came with any concrete evidence. 

Further up Gramatan was County Appliance, where Grandma bought her new "black and white" TV.  The color on other relatives' sets never looked right to her.  Meanwhile, there was a small TV dealer where my dad purchased our first color television.  It was a huge Zenith console, because my father never would consider another brand.  We bought it from a guy who delivered it and then proceeded to sit in the kitchen with Dad and guzzled down a few cans of beer as Mom and I parked ourselves in the living room to marvel how Merv Griffin looked in color.  

There was also another "five and dime" on Gramatan that I cannot remember the name of.  But they stocked Colorforms so that would be a normal destination for me.

At the farthest end of the photo on Gramatan, you can see some trees.  There was a traffic circle there and a lot of the greenery also was provided by Hartley Park, which was essentially Mount Vernon's town square.  There was a bocce ball set-up there where every old Italian guy in the city met on a daily basis.  When I was really young, Mom would take me there to wait out the start of a movie at Proctor's.  Those were the days when the opening of a movie screen curtain scared me.  There are countless films that, to this day, I have missed the first ten minutes of.

Across the street from Hartley Park was Chicken Delight.

"Don't cook tonight.  Call Chicken Delight."

When both my parents were working, there were many a night when we did just that.

At the top of the photo past the trees, you can see a big building.  That was A.B. Davis High School, which had outgrown its usefulness by the time I would be in those grades.  The city had built a spanking new high school on the outskirts of town...translation: a two bus trip.  But, for one year, they had ninth grade classes at Davis, which was then called the Annex.  It was high on a hill and I might have bad knees today because of that daily climb up a treacherous staircase.

One photo can prompt a thousand words.  And the one above did just that. 

Meanwhile, since I am in New York at the moment, these memories prompted me to drive through Gramatan Avenue and Fourth Avenue Friday night with my best friend from high school in the car.  I was astounded all over again at the changes to this fair city. 

Mount Vernon today looks like Berlin after the Allies bombed it.  A testament to years of mismanagement by a city government that housed one political felon after another.  I hear the current asshole in charge, Mayor Ernest Davis, is under investigation for fraud.   

As I drove over the bridge in this old snapshot, I noted that the police booth from that span is totally gone.  Understandable.  Since there is nothing left to protect in Mount Vernon.

Dinner last night:  Steak au poivre at Isabella's Restaurant.

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