Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Avenues

North Tonawanda, ten square miles of houses and fields and factories, bordered on the north by the Town of Wheatfield, on the west by the mighty Niagara River, and on the south and east by the Erie Barge Canal, halfway between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, has never been the place it used to be.

NT's nickname is "The Lumber City" -- the high school mascot is a lumberjack -- in recognition of our status as home to the largest concentration of lumber yards and lumber shipping facilities along the Great Lakes, if not in all of North America.  Raw timber from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Canada would come to NT, to be formed and fitted into the two by fours and four by sixes and laminated plywood that built America.

Only there is no more lumber.  There hasn't been, not to speak of, for generations.  A July 1904 fire consumed, according to the New York Times, between 12 and 15 million board feet of lumber.  A 1913 fire destroyed 9 million board feet.  Those fires, along with the careless over harvesting of the hardwood forests that once covered the Great Lakes region and the changes in shipping patterns brought on by completion of a deeper, wider Welland Canal, effectively killed North Tonawanda's lumber business.    

North Tonawanda is filled with these echoes, these reminders that It Used To Be Better.  There is someone, somewhere, who can remember how it used to be, can remember when everybody in the Avenues worked at Buffalo Bolt, or when every other building on Oliver Street was a bar and grill, serving drinks by the glass and the world's best fish fry on Friday nights.  They can remember when the Italian families went to Ascension Church for mass, and the Polish families went to Our Lady of Czestochowa, and even though the parishes were only six or eight blocks apart, the congregations did not mix.  They can remember football games at Vetter Stadium, or concerts at Melody Fair, or stopping at Demler's fruit stand for apples and a gallon of fresh pressed cider, and even though they love the place -- North Tonawandans are fiercely protective of their hometown -- they will be the first to tell you that it's not the same as it used to be.  I've heard people say that all my life.

My grandfather, the hail fellow, well met waving to you in the photo, worked at R.T. Jones Lumber Yard, after the fires, when R.T. Jones was the last big yard in operation.  He quit school to take a job there.  He was thirteen.

Grand-Pa (this is the way he signed birthday cards) lived in the Avenues, the mostly Polish section of North Tonawanda known for its steel mill, its bolt factory, and its big Catholic church, Our Lady of Czestochowa, OLC, the heart of the neighborhood's social, cultural and spiritual life.  Grand-Pa lived most of his life in the Avenues, from the time he was six, when his father moved the family from Medina, New York, to his late Sixties, when he retired to Florida.  He raised his children there, mostly in a second floor apartment on Oliver Street.  He and my grandmother had all the family over every Christmas Eve, dozens of us crammed into a tiny house on Sixth Avenue, pierogis and Pepsi and laughter and yelling and Grand-pa playing his fiddle.

I spent most of my childhood, the best parts of my childhood, in the Avenues.  That place, which Isn't What It Used To Be, was my favorite place.

Dad and Grand-Pa would take us bowling at Deluxe Lanes, Dad edgy and intense, never able to take lightly anything that involved winning and losing; Grand-Pa working us, working the entire room, like some refugee from Grossinger's, all wise cracks and silly noises and not-quite-off-color comments.  And when it was his turn to bowl, everything was wrong: he'd take too many steps, little Fred Flintstone twinkle-toe steps, and finish with his right arm high in the air, listing hard to his left, like a tipsy Statue of Liberty, and Dad, who was hard and fit and perfect in his form, would set his jaw and shake his head and watch this pudgy old man with the bushy brows and the giggling eyes knock down more pins than him, and he'd mark the score and mutter, "Wrong foot Louie," whatever that meant.

Down on the corner of Sixth and Oliver was Litwin's Bar and Grill, the place my great-grandfather started, the family business. Uncle Jumbo, the grinning banty rooster who ran the place, would give us little bags of Lay's potato chips and glass bottles of Pepsi and Kennedy half-dollars, and we'd take the money two doors down to Bonk's, and load up on comic books and penny candies.

Bonk's was the local deli, a place with hardwood floors and beautiful glass and wood display cases and cured meats hanging from the ceiling.  They sold the Buffalo Evening News and the Tonawanda News and a paper that I think was called The Am-Pol Eagle, which was published in Polish.  The guy who waited on us at the penny candies case -- Swedish fish and candy cigarettes and little colored buttons of sugar, glued to long strips of paper -- might have been 40, might have been 80.   He was quiet and solemn and moved very slowly, dressed in a dark green cardigan and a pair of old chinos. 

The Avenues was old ladies dressed in black coats and black babushkas, shuffling along icy sidewalks to morning mass.  It was The Third Warders Social Club softball team at Felton Field, dressed in their maroon and yellow double knits, facing off against the guys from Eldridge Bicycle Club or Saint Joe's. It was OLC's churchbells, and Bonks, and Francis Home Bakery, with its breads and paczki and rugelach.  It was the Skiba kid, practicing his drums, the sound throbbing down Sixth Avenue.  It was a neighborhood, my neighborhood, even though I lived two miles away in the white house on the canal.  

America was never meant to be a melting pot.  We weren't supposed to give up our identities, to dissolve into some bland depressing goo of sameness.  The Avenues aren't the same, because we have become the same:  we watch the same teevee shows and eat the same food and buy the same junk from the same manufacturers.  We don't know who we are anymore.

America at its best is a stew, the constituent ingredients held together by the binding agents of tolerance, respect and a shared commitment to representative democracy, but every ingredient retaining its distinct flavor.  Even if those flavors bleed into one another, you still know what's beef and what's potato.  You can tell a piece of carrot from a piece of celery.  I miss Bonk's, with its Polish sausages and its Am-Pol Eagles in a rack up front.  I miss walking down Vandervoort, and smelling eight different spaghetti sauce recipes bubbling in the pots of eight different Italian mothers.  I miss the feeling that we're all different, and all wonderful, instead of feeling like none of us matters, and we're all the same.

I miss my grandparents.



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