If you never saw Columbia Street before 1960, you missed a lot. The street is still there; the sidewalks, the street sign, but the stores, the people, the charm are all gone. That strip of avenue is unrecognizable, now lined with barrack type housing and no character at all.
The house where I was born no longer stands. 11 Woodhull Street. Next door at 9 Woodhull Street was my grandfather’s candy store, Ralph’s. I can still picture him in his canvas Daily News apron and metal changer hanging from his belt, a Camel cigarette dangling from his mouth.
Columbia Street was colorful, with old stores, old people, and lots of kids. It was a neighborhood of Italian and Puerto Rican poor people, produce, poultry and petty gossip; And everyone we encountered knew our names. My Mom might be known as Ralph’s daughter or Lefty’s niece, or Christina.
On the corner of Columbia and Summit Street was Mr. Bell’s Pharmacy. This is a vague memory, I was very young. But, I do remember Mr. Bell’s shock of white hair and the glass counters with old medicine bottles lined like soldiers. And the big scale, which cost a penny to use.
During a typical grocery-shopping afternoon with my mother, we’d first stop at the chicken market on Sackett Street, right off Columbia. As a kid I thought it was a pet store, hearing those live birds squawk, until my mother would walk out of that store, one hand holding mine and the other carrying the bag with a freshly killed chicken.
On the corner of Columbia and Union Streets was the open fruit market. The produce crates covered half the pedestrian sidewalk, skirting the entire corner. With her hands full of bags, my mother would squeeze the fruit and inspect the vegetables. She would meet a dozen other women going through the same drill.
Our next stop was on Union Street, to the original Mastellone for some fresh cut bologna and American cheese; orange, not white. Thick and delicious, slapped on Wonder white with mayo, it was our Saturday lunch routine. I grew up on it, no baloney.
On occasional Saturdays, my mother’s youngest sister Sophia, an aunt who is four years older than myself, would sometimes take me to the Happy Hour Movie House. We’d buy brown soft chocolate licorice, the kind with the two holes down each side. I’d suck the flavor right out of them. The concession stand was oddly located – down by the screen, just to the right. The matron was mean and you couldn’t make a sound. After the movie, we’d stop next door at Izzy’s for a Charlotte- Rouse. At a dime apiece, it was mini layer cake with whipped cream, topped with a cherry, wrapped in a white cardboard cylinder, easy to hold and wonderful to eat.
Everyone in the neighborhood eventually got framed. Anyone in the neighborhood who received communion or confirmation, got married and had a baby would all wind up hanging in Palmisano’s window, the local photo studio. I hated seeing my face up there, white veil, crossed eyes, and buck teeth framing a forced smile. The most beautiful photo to grace his window was that of my youngest aunt and future uncle, their engagement picture. Blue eyes sparkling right at you. Diagonal to Palmisano’s was the competition, Natoli Studios. Each of these two stores had their own loyal following of customers.
In those days, no one had money, at least not my family. My parents furnished their entire apartment from Sokol Brothers Furniture Store. Furniture on credit, a month, no interest, no contract, just an agreement kept track on a 3X5 lined index card. This was real old fashion mahogany, not the pressboard stuff passed off as furniture today.
There on Columbia Street near Union Street stood the BIG Clock. If you ever had to meet anybody, it was always under “The Big Clock”. That’s where the Shoe Box shoe store was located. Every end of August my mother would take me in for school shoes. I would always wind up getting smacked because I wanted loafers and she insisted on ugly laced oxfords. I never won, but I do have a closet full of shoes today, and none of them have laces.
My Easter outfit was always purchased at Mrs. Summers’, a small clothing store run by an elderly Jewish lady. Hers was another store I often got smacked in. I hated hats and every Easter my mother would insist I wear one, the most ridiculous assortment of bows and fake flowers. I looked goofy enough without that straw upon my head. On Easter Sunday, with my young aunt, we’d be on our way to Mass at St. Stephens Church, but when far enough from the house, I would pull the hat off and replace it with a tiny lace chapel cap.