There is nothing better than coming out of a movie on a summer night when the sun is still in the sky. I would take the train back to 174th Street and wander through the neighborhood, past the Chinese laundry, druggist, newsstand, smoke shop, deli, with scenes from the movie flickering in my mind—gun battles, chases, immortal bits of dialogue. I'll get you, you dirty rat. I would toss off my coat as I came in the door, overwhelmed by the smells from the kitchen, where my mother was cooking one of her great Eastern European dishes. It gave me so much, just knowing she was back there, at home, worrying and waiting; a sense of security; a sense that the world has order, and will continue tomorrow as it is today.
When I was very young, we lived in an apartment house at 47 Featherbed Lane. Later, when my father made some money, we moved to a place on the Grand Concourse. Once a month, the landlord drove up in his Cadillac to collect the rent. There were very few cars on the streets in those days, the causeways and lanes being left to hooligans and mothers and rollicking kids. Which made the arrival of the landlord, this scary man in the long black car, as dramatic as a scene in a movie. I mean, there we were, out playing ball, when all of a sudden, here it comes, shiny and metallic black, a block long, with the landlord inside. He was a German and spoke with an accent. We could see him through the glass, with his account books and change purse, puffed up with this huge, godly ability to collect and reject and toss you out of your house. He may have been the nicest man in the world, but we feared him. At the first glint of his grille, we ran into our homes and hid under our beds.
We lived on the second floor because my mother was afraid of heights. I spent hours on the fire escape watching the traffic, the people in the street. I had relatives all over the neighborhood. I used to lie awake after bedtime, listening to my uncles tell stories about the legendary gonifs and bootleggers who ran the Bronx long ago. I had one grandfather who was a communist. He used to stand on a soap box in Union Square decrying the fat cats and was arrested once a week. I had another grandfather who was a union organizer. He wore a suit and a tie and smoked a cigar. All my relatives talked all the time but it was always the same story: the old country, the crossing, the struggle, the dream.