I still wonder how I ever survived childhood. A lot could have gone wrong for a shy little girl in New York city. I lived in Belmont, Bronx, situated on the outskirts of wealthy neighborhoods like Riverdale and Westchester and on the northern border of South Bronx. It is affectionately known as “Little Italy,” famous for authentic Italian food, but over time, few Italians actually reside in the area. Now the streets are predominately Hispanic, allowing my father to learn the Spanish word amigo before the English term “acquaintance.”
My first homework was to memorize my address and telephone number. It was for safety sake, and had I known the perils of forgetting, the process would have been more somber. Instead, I cheerfully chanted “2383 Belmont Avenue,” and the perpetual melody of “718-561-2381” rang in my head for weeks. As I ingrained the letters and numbers into my memory, the associated apartment building became mine. The repetition made me possessive, as if the remembrance of my home’s label made me its sole owner. The fact that the apartment was rented to my family made no difference. My two small chairs were sprawled on the living room floor, my stuffed animals sat on the bed, my bedroom smelt of me. I naively believed that life would stay this way because this little Bronx neighborhood was all that I had known. I had no remembrance of my birthplace, my parents’ hometown, nor extended family. Our apartment, first floor of a four story building, with orange paint peeling by the building door, wired fences surrounding an empty lot, and sour grape vines hanging by the fire escape ladders, was my home. One lunch period in 1st grade, I looked across at all the other students seated in the cafeteria, and made one wish: that time would freeze, and I could be six years old forever.
Thirteen years later, my former address is still ingrained in my mind, but I am no longer six and the sense of possessiveness has vanished. The apartment is inhabited by another family, and no longer mine. The present town is not the same one I grew up in. My old neighborhood exists in grainy memories, sometimes so distant that it feels like a lifetime ago. Places, like people, are unable to be possessed. They are dynamic, ever-changing entities that wither and mold with time. Our homes are how we perceive them, reflecting more of ourselves than the place itself.
As I revisit my childhood home, forgotten memories flood back. In addition to nostalgia, my feelings are tinged with a different perception of the neighborhood. Either my former home had changed, or I had. Now all that exist are fragmented excerpts of a past life.
I learned to ride a bike without training wheels on narrow, irregular streets. I felt confined by the buildings and believed with certainty that riding a two-wheel bike would lead to my demise. During school, I learned to write on dotted lines, concoct gum using tissue paper, and countless hand-games. On the weekends, my mother and I became friends with an old lady who always fed the stray cats on our street. She knew the cats by name—there was old Orange who was old and tough, with a scar above his eye, Peewee, my favorite—a tortoiseshell female always friendly with humans, Blackie who gave birth to kittens one morning. There was also a newcomer, evidently a former housecat, with beautiful orange markings and a refined demeanor. He would always follow people into our apartment building and sit contently in the walkway. One evening, my father and I were waiting for my mother on the front steps. I passed the time observing and “communicating” through realistic meows with the new cat who was outside at the time. When a young resident of our apartment opened the door, the cat immediately jumped behind him to enter. Unfortunately, the door slammed too soon and trapped him by the neck. My father immediately opened the door, and the cat backed away. Lucky one, he would have died if we weren’t outside, dad had commented. I stared at the animal in shock, imagining it suffocated by the doorstep. My first encounter of mortality was through a homeless cat.
Little did I know how close my own family had been to death. Most apartments in New York city have second “front doors” as additional safety precautions against invasions, and ours was no different. One late night after work, my father entered the apartment building as usual. But this time, he felt a strange breeze behind him…a hooded man had followed him in. Holding a knife in a threatening manner, the stranger demanded for money. After my father emptied his wallet of cash, the thief ran off. Not wanting to frighten me, my parents did not tell me about the incident until years later.
Unaware of that brush with violence, I was facing fear of another kind: keeping secrets. I had started attending a public school in Manhattan, and the rule was that only residents of the borough could partake in its school system. My parents used a friend’s address and enrolled me anyway. The secret was guarded carefully, and I never told my friends where I actually lived, for fear that the teacher would overhear and report my situation. To me, being caught meant jail for my parents, and the end of a “normal” life. The danger of criminal charges looming on me, I attended class with the vigilance of a spy, keeping my home a hidden part of my identity.
Nature created its own dangers. There was that snowstorm that my parents still recount as being the most dangerous road condition they ever experienced. The car in front of us became invisible amidst the white, and the highway was so iced that our car could barely break. Although we never made it to that Christmas party, we did return home alive.
But snow had its beauty too. My father taught me how to build snowmen at the playground near Chase bank. His snowmen were not decked in symmetric round shapes like traditional American snowmen. The figures I learned to create were rotund at the bottom, gradually thinning at the top, until the head was a lopsided mass connected to a lumpy pyramidal shaped body. Stability—it gives it stability—my father would comment proudly, as he added two twigs for the eyes. Worshipping everything he said, I firmly believed that our snowmen were comparable to Michelangelo sculptures.
Since then, I have realized that art is not my father’s forte. And that the beloved streets of my former home are imperfect, speckled with debris, dirt, paper, trash-bags. The old public library is not as tall and domineering as I remembered it. Now it appears small and weighted down, with an aura of deterioration. The golden church whose bell rings every hour is not majestic, but rather an antiquated brown color that blended with the surroundings. Although most buildings are worn-out and antiquated, my former apartment sticks out like a sore thumb—our old landlord had repainted the building and outdoor trashcans a new salmon orange, and posted a paper by the door: “Neighbors and friends forever.” Below the message, he left his phone number. Maybe we should call him, my father suggests. I think it is a futile attempt to reconnect with old memories, and do not reply. Sometimes, it is best to leave the past untainted with the present.
I will never see Little Italy, Bronx as I did ten years ago. And the neighborhood will never be the same one that I lived in. We have both grown older, adapted to our circumstances, and changed, for better or worse. I am now an outsider, no longer integrated in this neighborhood. I survived childhood in the city, but my adolescence has been mellowed by southern suburban life. Instead of talking “slang,” I have learned to speak in wordier sentences. I smile at passerby, instead of walking with a stone fierce demeanor. I attend a world-renowned University with manicured lawns, tall exquisite architecture, surrounded by people of various backgrounds—privileged, first generation, international—all of which stand in stark contrast against my former home and community. No matter how well I knew it, this neighborhood was never mine— I have no right to own such a dynamic being that breathes and ages under cracked sidewalks.
Nevertheless, I will not forget that time we coexisted, a curious youngster and disordered streets. I will remember the random details—like the year-long Christmas decorations, and the ones with broader implications— like the homeless man who earned his living by recycling trash. I will recall that distinct smell of laundry detergent, the thin sliced pizzas, the ice cream truck’s melody. And above all, I will be forever indebted to Little Italy, Bronx, for welcoming me in, watching me grow up, and giving me a place to call home.