A Child’s Life on Grant Street: Memories of Camden

It all begins in a little row house (they call them townhouses now) on Grant Street in Camden NJ. I remember my mother telling me once that she and my father paid $3,000 for that house somewhere around 1952, when they married.

I slept in the same bed with my older sister Chris, who was only 18 months older than me, and later, my 5-year younger sister Cindy joined us in a crib added to our bedroom. There were only two bedrooms in the house: One, the front bedroom, where our parents slept, and ours, in the back.

My sister and I liked to look out our bedroom window, which faced the back of our house and from which we could see across the river into Philadelphia. We used to watch the PSFS sign flashing its red neon through the night. (Although my mother claims that building was seen not from our bedroom window but from the bedroom window in my grandmothers house; such are the imperfections of childhood memory) I remember liking that. It was a little haunting out there all by itself on top of that tall building standing among all those other tall buildings all lit up after the workers had long gone home from Center City. But, at the same time, it was comforting, because we were safe and snug in our cozy bed in our cozy room and our parents were right in the room next door, or just downstairs watching television. I mostly felt safe. I’m not so sure about my older sister, though. Just before going to sleep, she used instruct me to wake her up if I heard anything in the night, right before shed stick her head under her pillow. Now there were always sounds in the night in Camden: a wailing cat, a fire truck or police car siren, and the seemingly continuous sound, like a clattering or clacking noise, coming from the Hunt Pen factory. I don’t know how my sister breathed under that pillow or how she could sleep at all comfortably that way. I don’t recall how I must have felt about having to be the watchdog, but I don’t remember being bothered by it much. Maybe I felt good knowing that I was probably at least a little braver than my sister.

Play on the neighborhood street often involved sneaking down the alley which ran down the side of the strip of row houses and across the back of the houses allowing access to the tiny concrete backyards. I always liked the sound of our footsteps and voices in the side alley. Because large tall buildings enclosed it on either side, narrowly, an echo would be created by any noise made in that alley. It was kind of like a spooky tunnel without a roof. The alley running behind the houses was not like this, but it was full of interesting things to see. Peoples wash hung out on clotheslines, other kids toys abandoned in their yards, interesting curtain pulls. A man we always called Uncle Charley who lived next door had these cute little copper teapots for shade pulls. We always liked to look at those. The scariest thing was going down the alley as far as the house where it was rumored an old witch lived. Okay, we made up the rumor, but it took on a life of its own. I remember one of those big multi-room birdhouses (like a big birdie condo complex) in the yard of one of the houses, and I recall it belonging to the witch but I wouldn’t swear to it. We would dare each other to go down to the old witch’s house. It wasn’t just a scary dare because of our fear of the necromancy that might be perpetrated on us, but because the house was near the opposite end of the alley and it was a long way back if you had to beat a hasty retreat (which we always imagined we had to do, so we always did.)

We walked to our school (J.S. Read School), which was a few blocks away. When you’re a little kid, it seems longer than it really was. Probably in part because of interesting things that you would find and people you would encounter on your way there and back. I remember one morning there was a dead white cat lying in the gutter. It must have been run over by a car, because one its eyeballs were out and lying in the street next to it. One of the boys along our route to school picked up the cats eyeball and chased us girls with it. To this day, although I am a cat-lover, the mere sight of a white cat gives me the creeps.

Because I went to public school and my family was Catholic, in addition to going to mass every Sunday, I had to go to catechism classes in preparation for First Holy Communion. These classes were after school, one or two nights a week, in the Holy Name church schoolrooms. Now it was a slightly unnerving thing for a child of my tender age to walk to catechism alone and into that huge cathedral-like church, up the marble stair along the heavy wooden banister up to that classroom. There would be the nun, back then in full habit with starched white bib and long headdress and wimple. You’ve undoubtedly heard or experienced first hand all the nun stories you can stomach, so Ill spare you any detail. Besides, I really cant remember much except the ruler to the back of the hand (only to the bad kids, which I would never bet wasn’t crazy) and the repetitious recitation, sometimes as a group, sometimes when called on individually, of the memorized answers to the catechism questions. What is a mortal sin? A mortal sin is a deadly sin. Thanks for clearing that up.

More vividly I remember the walk home, alone, especially in winter, because in winter, by the time I got out of catechism, it would be dusk. It seemed as if the street was entirely empty except for my tiny self. My pace was always quicker then and I furtively glanced around me waiting for that stranger to pop out of an alley and kidnap me, or maybe that rocking-chair tiger who knew? It was always with such a sense of relief to walk into the front door of our house all warm and smelling of dinner cooking. I had survived another day out in the world alone!

Growing up during the Cold War was strange, only we didn’t know it at the time. It was all we knew. The continual, real threat of an all out, apocalyptic nuclear war with Russia was just something we were born into and had to get used it. My older sisters habit of burying her head under her pillow at night and asking me to wake her if I heard anything was similarly accompanied by her scurrying under our dining room table and putting her fingers in her ears and singing loudly every time a television program we were watching was interrupted by a special report. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, she was 9 and I was 7, so she understood far better than I did what was going on. I think that’s when the under the dining room table thing probably started, or at least, reached its peak, with her.

And, of course, there were the civil defense drills. As Billy Joel sang Cold War kids were hard to kill, under their desks in an air raid drill It was sheer lunacy to think that we children might survive the nuclear holocaust if only we got under our desks or out into the hall against our lockers, in time. But there was some feeling of safety and security once the shades were drawn over the windows and we were steadfastly crouched under the metal school desk. I was well trained. Anytime I was outside alone and I heard a siren of any kind, I would press my back tightly against the nearest wall and wait for the wailing of the siren to stop. I started to realize that everyone else around me was just going about his or her business as usual, so I was probably overreacting to a fire siren or something and I stopped doing it. Maybe we all just got complacent.

We were very close to my mothers parents whom we called Nana and Pop-Pop while growing up. My dad was in the Naval Air Reserve and when he’d go to do his two weeks active duty for training in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, wed all go and stay with my mom in my grandparents house which was on Louis Street in Camden where they remained until the city got taken over by the ravages of poverty in the form of crime, drugs, and physical decay. Growing up Polish-American was interesting and a source of great pride today. The neighborhood in which my grandparents lived and the church community of which they were a part was mainly Polish. While we grew up hearing Polish being spoken by our grandparents it was usually when they didn’t want us kids to understand what they were saying. Although food was prevalent in the house of my grandparents, it wasn’t as much polish food as you might think. That was primarily reserved for holidays. There would be the occasional galumpki (ground meat wrapped in cabbage and cooked in tomato sauce), fresh kielbasa, and a chicken broth based noodle soup called kluski and oso, but generally the Polish dishes were reserved for holidays. On Christmas Eve, when we celebrated the traditional Viglia (vigil) where no meat was eaten, the fare was sauerkraut soup, pierogies stuffed with cheese, potatoes, or sauerkraut, and salmon cakes. We would break the bread (opoetek) with each other, making a wish as we did so, for the other, such as good health in the new year, or some particular fortune we knew the other was seeking (most of my adult years, my relatives wished for me to find a husband which should settle once and for all any question as to the effectiveness of that ritual). On Easter, it was hot beet soup into which we put slices of hard boiled egg and fresh kielbasa, beets, and torn up pieces of rye bread. After the soup were ham sandwiches (both red and white i.e., fresh, ham) and an array of deli salads such as coleslaw, potato salad, and macaroni salad. Also at Easter would be the traditional breaking of the opoetek, and the breaking of the hard-boiled eggs with each other (end to end to see whose would crack).

Visits to Nana and Pop-pops often involved a walk down to the corner park (Whitman Park) where we would chase or feed the squirrels despite admonitions of the rabies they carried, and make daisy chains from clover flowers. Around the corner on Mt Ephraim Avenue was a bakery where we loved to go and see the Felix the Cat clock on the wall as its eyes and tail switched back and forth from side to side with the ticking of the clock. There we could get cookies, or powdered cream filled donuts that were delicious.

One of the things I remember well from my grandparents time living in Camden was the Polish American Citizens Club (PACC) . In its hall was held just about every wedding reception I had ever been to as a kid and probably all the wedding receptions of the members of the local Polish community. If you recall the scene of Michael and Angelas wedding reception in the movie the Deer Hunter, you have an idea of what those receptions were like. Mostly I enjoyed just going to the PACC with my grandfather on a weekend afternoon and sitting on a bar stool next to him while he had a beer or two and chatted in Polish and English with other bar patrons. I would sip a coke with a cherry in it, or, if I wanted to feel really grown up, a ginger ale, through a straw as I breathed in the aroma of stale beer and played with the pressed cardboard coasters with the Ballantine Beer logo on them.

There are memories that come to me in bits and pieces of the eight plus years of my life in Camden. The music that began the TV show Sea Hunt that my father liked to watch. Going with my father to see my grandmother in Ablett Village on Moms Bingo nights. The Late Show back then didn’t star David Letterman, but rather was a late night movie, that always began with a photo of a clock tower while the music of Percy Faiths The Syncopated Clock played. The red bricked schoolyard ringed by a black wrought-iron fence in which we played tag and dodge ball and other games at recess. Watching fireworks in Pyne Point Park. My sister, Chris, and my cousin Larry and I would lay on our backs in the grass and pretend the sparks from the fireworks were going to fall upon us like tiny arrows of flame. Near Pyne Point park was also the school where we went to line up to get our oral polio vaccine: a sugar cube in a tiny white fluted cup. Visiting Nana and going to Whitman Park and chasing squirrels and making daisy chains of clover flowers. The bakery around the corner where the Felix the Cat clock flicked his tail back and forth, back and forth in time to the ticking of the clock as his eyes traveled side to side. The powdered sugar cream donuts were my favorite and the powdered snowflake rolls made delicious sandwiches. Molotskys candy store on the corner where my sister one day got a Chunky candy with a tiny white worm in it!

We moved to Cherry Hill in December of 1963 for a better life, more space, and to be closer to my fathers job at the Hussmann refrigerator plant. But I will always remember and treasure my memories of Camden and the little house at 716 Grant Street streets.

Linda Boris, unknown date


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