I hadn't been to New Brunswick in quite a while when I decided to take a drive through the "old" neighborhood where I had grown up and gone to school. I was just coming from work and drove through the College Farm Road. So many years before, my father had taught me to drive right here. As I was driving down the road I began to hear his voice giving me advice and direction. I could hear him talking to me, with his reserved impatience, just as clearly as I had thirty years earlier. As I was thinking and driving along, I sat up straight and placed my left hand on the steering wheel to have both hands on the wheel. I adjusted my rear view mirror. At the stop sign, I put out my left arm and pointed to make the left hand turn. In my mirrors I could see the poor woman in the car behind me, looking confused at my using hand signals instead of my blinkers.
I drove down Sandford Street and missed the big old building that was a bus terminal when I was growing up. It had been abandoned long ago and, for a long time, remained an empty shell of what it had once been. Then it was demolished. Now there were tidy little condos in its place. (Who would have thought that someday people would be living in that space?! Did the people who lived in these condos know about the building that once stood there?) Amazing to me! Conspicuously missing was John, the crossing guard at the corner of Sandford Street and Commercial Avenue. He was the nicest guy in the world. What would HE think about these condos settled where the bus terminal had once stood??
I continued down Sandford Street to the light at the corner of Remsen Avenue. I stared at the light and big silver power box on the corner. I remember when they installed that traffic light. The big silver power box in front of Rosenthal Lumber was bright and shiny back then - not dull and old as it looked now. (It was also much smaller than we remembered it). It had looked "suspicious" to those of us whose play area it had invaded. We eventually got used to its intrusion. That traffic light was installed soon after the cobblestones of Remsen Avenue were paved over by blacktop.
Now Rosenthal Lumber, which had employed Jack, Tom, Willy, Tony and so many other guys who supported their families by working there, was closed down. It was just another lifeless, empty building in the area. It was so difficult to believe that the place, once such a booming thriving business, could be such a ghost haunt now. What ever happened to those guys who worked there?
Our house, a big grey four family house with an alley that separated it from the bungalow next door, was gone. There was just a vacant lot there now where the big grey house which had housed four families once stood. My grandparents had lived in our apartment before they bought Zio Alfio's house on Howard Street. Then another family moved in and lived there for a few years and then the coveted apartment in the prime location became available again. My parents jumped at the chance to have it.
It was from that apartment in the big grey house with the tin embossed walls and ceilings and the push button light switches, that I walked in my cap and gown to St. Mary's church to "graduate" from kindergarten on Saint Anthony's Day. It was on the big cement steps there that I had my picture taken in my white Communion suit and white bucks and walked to St. Mary's to receive my First Communion. My brother was born while we lived there. We had many birthday parties of our childhood there. Relatives (now long dead) had visited us there and only knew that apartment as our home. When President Kennedy was assassinated, and they let us out of school, that is where I ran home to. And right there on our big old Zenith black and white TV in the living room at 181 Remsen Avenue was where I saw Lee Harvey Oswald get shot, JFK's funeral procession and his burial at Arlington. That is where I lost my "innocence" about the safety of the world. That is where I realized that the world was an ever changing place. Now it was just another vacant lot you passed on the way to someplace else - no visible history.
I made a left turn at the light, after the car behind me beeped impatiently. I guess I didn't realize that the light had changed. The church grounds of St Mary of Mt Virgin church were still beautiful, though the pieta' in the grotto looked a little older and a little worn and tired - and like it needed cleaning. The fountain with the big eyed frogs that spit out water hadn't been turned on in years, but it was still there. It looked so thirsty these days.
I could hear the footsteps of the processions on the slate stone walk. I could hear the giggles of the school girls from my 4th grade class on the way to the 12:10 Lenten Mass. I hear the whispers of the nuns as we left the church services before going on our way to '64 World's Fair. I hear the clicking of the cameras and see the flash bulbs pop as our pictures were being taken on our way to the church for Graduation on yet another Saint Anthony's Day. I could almost hear "Pomp and Circumstance" from the church organ escaping from the stained glass windows. I can see Sister Irma's face as she leads the choir, her arms waving wildly. I hear the water in the fountain and I could see the coins at the bottom. I can smell the incense from Benediction and hear a "Tantum Ergo". I can see my mother cry. I hear the church bells as I watched the sky moving behind the twin befries.
I had pulled over on Powers Street and started to get out of the car. Why am I doing this? Why do I insist on being haunted? Who has time for this nostalgia when there are so many more "real" things to do with your time. I needed to stop at the pharmacy and get to the bank before it closed. I had laundry to do. I had to stop for cigarettes. I had something interesting to watch on HBO.
I stayed in the car and drove away. But on my way back to where I live now, I realized that my nostalgia had taken me back to the most "real" time in my life.