There are times I wish I could go back. For some reason, probably because I grew up there as a kid, I can’t help but want to go back. I know it’s too late for that; it’s always too late to return once you’re gone, but that doesn’t stop the occasional tug on my heart.
They say that we should never look back for that’s not the direction we’re going, but when it comes to my former home in Melrose Park, I can’t help it. I spent my formative years there, soaking in the neighborhood—there are so few of them left—that part of me will always be there. Corny? Maybe, but part of who I am is because of my time spent there.
I grew up on the north side of Melrose, at one time affectionately known as the ghetto because we were not the “upper crust” of Melrose on the south side. We didn’t get the services like street plowing or salting that the other section did, but we didn’t care. We made due—skitching, playing street hockey behind the apartment buildings on 18th ave, running the roofs at Amlings or the factories on 17th. We’d shimmy up the drain spouts to get there but all of that stopped once the factory owners got wise and started greasing them.
We’d walk to Winston Plaza, wonder if there were really millionaires dining at the Millionaires Club and make plans to make enough money to get in. We’d always get chicken from the Chicken Bowl and my mother and Aunt were at Madigan’s seemingly every week.
On our way to “The Plaza”, we’d cut through Riviera Bowl, the sound of pins knocking off the ball permeating the place upon entry. We’d have to adjust our eyes because it was so dark, and then squint as we exited, the sun hurting our eyes. The place smelled like stale beer and shoes, but we loved it.
There was Hasty Grill on the corner of North Ave and 18th. Greasy burgers with grilled onions, pickles, ketchup and mustard. They were the best, along with the fries and a coke. I used to ride to the corner and get four or five along with fries and drinks and try to make my way home with the bags. Dad loved those burgers. Across the street from Hasty was the Melrose Park Animal Hospital with Dr. Ali Naqvi where I took two dogs for their shots and their demise. I’ll never forget Dr. Naqvi’s kindness and tenderness as he put down each animal.
There was Stereo City, and on 19th, of course, the still going, and still fantastic Tom’s Steak House. We used to think Sinatra ate there, and for all I knew, he did.
We played “lob league” at the baseball field on 17th as well. The number of summer afternoons trying to hit a ball over the two-hundred foot fence must have numbered in the thousands. We’d ride the neighborhood—three blocks surrounded by factories on 17th, and Jewel Food Stores central hub to the west on 19th—and “pick up” as many guys as we could. We’d knock on doors and see how many wanted to play on any given afternoon.
“Hi, is Mark home?”
“Sure, I’ll get him.” Mark would come to the door and see a smiling face carrying a baseball bat or glove or something.
“Hey, wanna play lob league? We’re all gonna be at the field. The Tuley’s will be there, and so will Banahan.”
“Yeah, I’ll play. Let me get my glove”
We’d ride our bikes or jog over there as quickly as we could. Sometimes arguments would ensue, but most times not. Whenever Al Tuley batted you knew it was a homer. We all knew. He was like Dave Kingman or Richie Zisk to us. Sometimes he’d hit the ball so far over the fence it would bounce off the building behind it. I was always in awe.
I learned the game at that field, learned to hit, run, catch, and how to be a teammate. I’d come home and inform Dad and Mom how I did that afternoon and they’d always listen to my emotion filled recap, smile and tell me “good job” or something like that.
We’d play “fast pitching” against the factory walls, using a painted on box with an “X” through it for the strike zone. Rubber balls in those days were only .60 or so, so we’d pick up three if we were lucky enough to have two bucks on us. If we had two dollars we thought we were rich, but the money never lasted long as there were rubber or whiffle balls to buy.
After a time, if the rubber balls were hit too much or thrown against the wall enough times, they got too soft, but we learned you could throw a wicked curveball when they got that way. One batter, one pitcher, and one guy in the outfield which consisted of a lone player standing in the weeds that grew in the spaces between the buildings. Make three outs, the batter went to the outfield, the outfield guy became the pitcher, and the pitcher became the batter. If there were four, we just divided up teams.
Once in a while someone would hit the ball on top of the roof of the factory on the other side of the field and that ball would be gone for good. If we were really having a good day, we’d find a lost ball in the weeds between the two buildings—like finding a chunk of gold as then we could keep the game going. There were no pitch counts and our arms are still attached to this day.
We played football in the outfield of the baseball field or on the patch of grass by the fire station on 15th. Tackle, of course, as we didn’t want to be “fags” or anything like that. Victor got his collarbone broken and I broke my wrist, but it didn’t matter. We got fixed up and played some more. Split lips were normal as were bruises and cuts. Who cared? We just wanted to play.
I learned a lot playing…just playing…with friends on the north side of Melrose Park.
There were fights, but most of the time those fights were over a game. Someone got hit too hard, mouthed off too much or something like that. We fought and it was over, back to the game.
Sometimes our fights were challenges. You didn’t back down from a challenge and no one did. There was a winner, there was a loser. No one “jumped in” either, that was taboo. Just two guys duking it out until one guy quit. No hard feelings but a definite pecking order was established, something today’s kids will never understand in this organized, over-involved parent world we live in. Oh, and no one initiated a lawsuit either.
I fell in love in Melrose Park for the first time with a girl down the street from me. I didn’t know it back then as I was too busy trying to be a goombah, and the very mention of the word love for a girl was something we didn’t do, but it was love. She was a neighborhood girl as I was a neighborhood guy so it was a good fit. We grew apart as people are wont to do as teenagers, but we still stay in touch on occasion as long time friends do too. We’ll talk about those days in Melrose Park with a sprinkling of fondness as we reminisce throughout the conversation.
I remember riding my bike near Mount Carmel Church to get something to eat at the Feast, stopping to get a “zazeech” from one of the vendors. I didn’t like green peppers so it was plain but it was fantastic. Just enough spice in the sausage sandwich along with the right amount of firmness to the bread to make it just about the best thing I ever had—at least that day.
My cousins and I went one year and I rode the “zipper”, met Maria and her friends, and just wandered around bathing in my Italian heritage. It was about being Italian, being around the old-timers and loving the neighborhood.
Every once in a while I’d go to Veteran’s Park and watch the old Italian men play Bocci. My father said my grandfather was outstanding at the game so I went to see how it was played. I was always off to the side, keeping my distance from them, and I always went alone. I’m not sure why but I did. They’d swear at each other in Italian on occasion and I knew just enough to laugh to myself. To me, it looked like those old men in their collard shirts and dress pants were simply enjoying life, and maybe, trying to remember what the “old country” was like. It was romantic in a way, and I can recall squinting my eyes thinking I could get a glimpse of the grandfather I never knew.
I think about where my children were raised as I recall Melrose. A nice community with nice amenities and a good school system. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Provide those things? We did, my wife and I, but somehow I can’t help thinking I did them something of a disservice by not raising them where I was raised. I know things are different now, much different, and I know that one can never go back to their youth. Those that try to relive those days do little more than appear foolish.
But I do know that despite all the things I’ve done, all the places I’ve travelled and all the homes we’ve lived in, nothing and nowhere is home to me more than Melrose Park.