- Posted September 28, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The written word: Your personal essays
Going Home: A Virtual Trip Back to the Old Neighborhood
Despite what they say, you can go ‘home.’ I did…last night, in fact…to the streets and neighborhoods of my old hometown, Milwaukee, WI. No dream, this. Nor was I there physically. This visit was courtesy Google Earth®, a virtual global, mapping, and geographical information program available free on the Internet. Swooping in from outer space, I pounced on the intersection of North Oakland Avenue and East Locust Street, landing a block from Riverside University High School, my alma mater.
[Photo 1: Milwaukee Streetcar; © Don Ross] Pushing the map’s slider to the upper-most extent of its reach and holding it there brought me, upon release, to a ‘street view.’ There I was, as if waiting for the traffic light to change so I could proceed north, as I had done so many times in my youth. Gone were the streetcar tracks and overhead wires for the #15 Oakland-Delaware trolleys I used each month to reach the barber shop near my father’s manufacturing plant on Milwaukee’s south side. And though many familiar places and landmarks had fallen victim to the ravages of time or the impersonal wrecking ball called ‘progress,’ enough of the charm and ambiance of the old neighborhood remained to rekindle memories of a quieter, gentler time I remember from the late 1940s and ‘50s.
Using the computer’s mouse to push north, I still could see vaguely familiar images of the homes and businesses I remember from my walks to and from high school. A detour west on East Newport Avenue brought me to my grandparent’s home, a place I visited often on my heavy Schwinn® bicycle. There lived my maternal grandfather, Joshua, who used to regale me with stories of his life as an immigrant on the streets of Manhattan’s Garment District during the 1890s, a small Singer® sewing machine strapped to his back as he trudged about, looking for piecework.
“Tell me that story about the horse again,” I would plead. No matter how many times I heard it, the story of Yaakov’s horse always sent me into convulsive laughter.
It seems that while walking through the Garment District one morning, Joshua came across his friend Yaakov, a rag man by trade, whose tired fly-aproned horse had lain down on the cobblestone street and refused to get up and pull the merchant’s overladen wagon. Nothing the man did, which included beating the horse with a stick, could get the horse to budge!
“So, Teddy, I called to him in Yiddish: ‘You call this a problem, Yaakov?!’” Grandpa Joe had the habit of issuing statements or answering questions with a question.
[Photo 2: Rag man and horse; © Paul Townsend]“I can’t get this damn horse to stand up,” shrieked my grandfather, imitating Yaakov.
“If he doesn’t start pulling thiswagon soon, I’m going to lose an entire day’s work.”
“You don’t think I fix that?!” intoned Joshua, laughing, as if he were back in Manhattan on that fateful day, talking to Yaakov. And with that, he would tell me again how he took a fistful of hay out of the horse’s canvas feed bucket, pushed it under the animal’s left flank, took a white phosphorus friction match from his vest pocket, and scratching it on the pavement, lit the hay. Well, Grandpa Joe said he wasn’t quite sure what changed the horse’s mind—it might have been the acrid smell of the phosphorus smoke, the sight of the flames, or the heat from the fire . . . perhaps all three—but whatever it was, the poor animal exploded from the pavement like a skyrocket taking off on the Fourth of July!
Nostrils flaring, eyes wide open with fright, and rear feet kicking the wind (not to mention the front of the wagon!), the horse twisted and bucked in its harness until Yaakov and Joshua heard a sharp, dreadful snap as the harness’s belly-band tore open, allowing the shafts to break loose and sending the wagon almost on its side. According to Grandpa Joe, Yaakov, poor fellow, hung to the bridle for dear life while my grandfather attempted to cover the animal’s eyes with a rag. Finally, after what must have seemed an eternity, though in truth it surely must have been only a matter of minutes, they brought the animal under control, leaving the hub on the left front wheel broken and the contents of the wagon spread all over the street.
“You know what, Teddy?!” Grandpa Joe would say, slapping my knee, “Yaakov told me years later—after he would talk to me again—that his horse never laid down again until the day it died!”
I still get tears in my eyes thinking about that story.
[Photo 3: Motor launch home;© MKEimages.com] Pushing on to the end of East Newport Avenue and turning south on North Cambridge Avenue brought me to the intersection with East Hampshire Street and one of my best ‘finds’ as a boy . . . a house built in the shape of a motor launch, with an adjacent lighthouse off its port bow! The home and lighthouse were built in 1922 by a traveling salesman named Edmund B. Gustdorf, perhaps in memory of Gustdorf’s father, a former member of the Finnish Merchant Marine. As you might expect, this motor launch has never been to sea.
Discoveries of such strange and wonderful homes were rare! (There’s even a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright located near my old house.) But search we did for the unusual and unique. After all, these were the days of ‘free-range’ children…the days when most of us were allowed to be, well, children. Our every move was not choreographed; our every minute was not scheduled. When not in school, we were on the streets from dawn to dusk, and then some, free to run and play, ride our bikes miles from home, and even, at times, use the city’s busses and trollies without giving a thought to the possibility that someone might want to do us harm. Under these conditions, we explored not only our own neighborhood but nearby ones as well. It didn’t take much to pique our curiosity, and each of us lived to see what was beyond the next hill.
Guiding my computer display back to North Oakland Avenue, I continued north past what formerly had been The Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company’s streetcar barns and storage yard—now a beautiful baseball park—to the intersection with East Capitol Drive. There, on the northeast corner, once stood Labor’s Pharmacy, site of my first job. I landed that part-time evening and weekend gig on the evening of my 16th birthday. It paid the princely sum of 50 cents per hour. More important, perhaps, was the fact it provided numerous opportunities to deliver prescriptions to homes and apartments in the surrounding area using my newly minted driver’s license and my mother’s 1948 black Dodge coupe, aka the ‘Sherman tank.’
[Photo 4 – Grade school class picture; Courtesy Wayne Loving]
Turning around, I sprinted south on the computer to Hartford Avenue, turned east, and rapidly climbed the hill to the intersection of Hartford and Maryland Avenues. There, I came face to face with my old grade school, Hartford Avenue Elementary. I still can see in my mind’s eye those many June, end-of-school-year outdoor ceremonies hosted by Mr. Mansky, the principal. On those occasions—flanked by the school’s student safety guards and with the PA system blaring martial music—he proclaimed what we all considered to be the official start of summer.
Heading south on Maryland Avenue and venturing a short distance down the street brought me to where my boyhood home once had stood. Alas, it’s long gone, replaced by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Urban Studies. But at least when my cursor alighted on the map where our home had been, the screen displayed our old street address, apparently recorded for posterity.
How many of us wouldn’t love to drive the streets of our youth again, to see for ourselves how they look today, even given the changes that have occurred over the years? I certainly can’t speak for you, but for me, my old neighborhood will always be my ‘home.’ Thoughts of that area and those times cushion me through life’s ups and downs. They are and always will be a comfort.