East Twenty-Second Street in Paterson, New Jersey was part of a healthy, working-class community in the nineteen fifties. Everyone on the block knew each other, with no distinction between the Italians, the Irish, the Protestants, and the Jews. We all played together, our folks shopped at the same mom and pop stores, and went in and out of each other’s homes. The houses were all two and three family structures. Many of the Italians lived as extended families, occupying all of the apartments in a building as well as adjacent buildings.
We lived on the third floor of a wooden apartment house owned by the Teshon family, Paterson manufacturers of upholstery and drapery fabric. The two upper flats had a front porch and each flat had access to the back yard where pulley clotheslines were strung one apartment above another from back windows to a telephone pole at the rear of the yard. There was a pair of slanted wooden cellar doors angled against the back of the house, great for sliding down.
Angie, my idol eight years older than I, lived beneath us with her family. She was a kindly and sometimes bored teenager who in my imagination had the figure of Marilyn Monroe. Her dresses were calf length, unlike mine that displayed my often-scraped knees.
After school, spelling sentences written or math facts completed, I tromped down the two narrow staircases and rapped on her door. The aroma of Italian seasoning exploded from the cracked door. I peeked inside to see her mama, apron tied securely over her prodigious behind, standing over the porcelain Wedgewood stove and stirring a gigantic pot of tomato sauce. Wish I could stay for dinner. I knew it would be better than forcing down my mother’s shepherd’s pie with lumpy mashed potatoes piled on top.
“Can you play?” I asked when Angie poked her head out.
“OK. Wanna play Jacks?”
Angie sat me down in a corner of the spacious kitchen, the linoleum floor swirly black and white. I ran my fingers along the seam, trying to be inconspicuous while dreaming of spaghetti with meat sauce and waiting for Angie to come from her bedroom with the Jacks.
Hers were the ‘good’ kind. They were sturdy and colorful while mine were tinny and grey. She was a master at whisking up a specified number of jacks, and never made allowances for my age. I didn’t win a game, but I didn’t care. I was with Angie in her mama’s luscious smelling kitchen.
“I can only play ‘til dinner,” she said.
“That’s OK,” I said.
Angie’s Mama snapped her head around. “Hey, you stay here for the dinner?”
I grinned and nodded.
“You telephone to you mama.”
Now playing Jacks without the tantalizing aroma taunting me was possible. I spread the skirt of my new cotton plaid dress over my bent knees. My skinny arms stuck out of the baby doll sleeves, and I recalled my mother’s comment that it might be better to wear a sweater to cover my bones. The dress cost $2.99, and I knew my mother wouldn’t want me to soil it, because she had removed the three single dollars from her billfold one by one, leaving me to wonder if she might actually change her mind.