Sunday, August 16, 2009

Going Home Again

What if you drove through your home town and there was almost no one and nothing much left there you knew? It wasn't quite that extreme for me yesterday when I wended my way through Mount Vernon, New York (in our callowness we always referred to GW's place on the Potomac as "the other Mt. Vernon") but it was close.

Most of the infrastructure is still standing--all the schools I attended, most of the stores but just about all doing different kinds of business, none of which appeared to be aimed at customers like me, and the three different apartment houses where I lived from age 5 to about 22. We stopped at the pizza place near my old grade school that a classmate who lives in the area rated as the world's best and I recalled that now, just as then, it was good pizza but not world class.

The population demographics had kept on changing over the years. As I was growing up and finishing high school, the city was becoming less WASP, Irish Catholic, and Jewish, and becoming more Italian and African American. It's still heavily African American but now there's a big Brazilian contingent and some Hispanic nationalities too. Even the Italian stores in my old neighborhood, which was largely Italian, have diminished, though, with serious losses including the nameless place that ladled out sausage-and-peppers on sub rolls for us at lunch (a concoction only known as "the hot stuff"), the Italian pastry shop where I first feasted on cannoli and baba al rhum, the German delicatessen, and, of course, the candy store/lunch counter where I spent half my life.

Mt. Vernon was once the ideal leafy suburb less than a half hour on either the New York Central or the New Haven Railroad from Grand Central where E.B. White grew up in Chester Hill, a part of town with huge old houses--they are still there--and the usual run of future celebrities spent their school days. We always heard about Art Carney and Dick Clark and today the community celebrates Denzel Washington and Ken Singleton. I wouldn't say there was a ton of interracial socializing but Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee did appear in scholarship fund-raising shows.

Found one of those little paperback potted histories that are now appearing about many places in the U.S. and one might conclude from it that Mt. Vernon is moving on to greater glories. True, the main shopping streets--probably the first ones wrecked by the move to malls, since nearby Cross County Center was possibly the first big shopping center in the country when it opened in the early 50's--had relatively few vacant stores and there was a lively fair going in the large, still-green park near where I lived.

But it's the kind of place where everyone I knew or grew up with is gone, their families, their stores, their churches or synagogues (all are now black churches). I saw mention of a high school African American classmate who had been on the City Council and I've often recognized names on the obit page of the now-county newspaper--our old all-seeing Daily Argus is gone--when I've perused it. As with most of my classmates and friends who have moved up-county, or even so far as Putnam County, high school reunions happen at hotels in Tarrytown or White Plains. Not exactly light years away but culturally, yes. Probably for different reasons, Thomas Wolfe was right.

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