[A note one year later, in March 2007: I've gotten a rash of hits on this entry, but no comments. Is there a groundswell of interest in my little chronicle of Little Neck? And would anyone like to share their recollections of yesteryear there, or their opinions of the changes? Your thoughts are welcome! ...especially if you are the current owner or occupant of the Ur-Stable, below...]
Yes, there is an Ur-Crazy Stable. This is where I grew up--in Little Neck, in the northeasternmost corner of Queens...but this picture, taken last Friday, shows a very different-looking house in a very different neighborhood. When we moved in, in 1962, this was Boo Radley's place.
Boot up your mental Photoshop, and replace that mint SUV with a 1940s-vintage Buick up on cinderblocks. Erase the posh landscaping and replace it with waist-high grass (but also insert a mighty oak and a shaggy cedar in front, along with a gracefully battered weeping cherry in the center of the half-circle lawn). Instead of brick, paint the driveway with gravel--and so much broken glass that a family of three was still sifting it out well into the Johnson administration. The front entryway was an open patio with four cement columns, each of which was a particular sort of "base" in complex games of tag at twilight, or a particular "room" in the castle for games of Princess. The sunken carport (barely visible to the right of the SUV) didn't exist, but a similar entrance, walled in, led to the terrifying unlit recesses of the cellar/underground garage from behind the house, accessible by a rickety wooden stairs and dubbed the "Snake Pit." The entire house was broken up into five apartments, and ours was the ground floor, right; the current owners' tarrying Christmas wreath hangs over what were our living-room windows.
My parents were moving us out of an "Archie Bunker house" in Woodhaven owned by a landlady so evil my mother feared she might poison us. What they wanted was a good school, pretty streets, some outdoor space...and a cheap rent. The ground-floor apartment in this tumbledown house in Little Neck offered all that (I think our rent was $90 a month for many years) plus more...the opportunity for my father, the Handy Guy, to singlehandedly renovate, not just our four rooms, but the entire exterior property...bothered not a whit by the fact that, as renters, we had not one cent's worth of investment in these labors. He loved fixing and gardening, we needed a place to live, and the absentee owner (an eccentric Daddy Warbucks-lookalike named Bryce Rea, whose eponymous real-estate agency is still a neighborhood fixture) was more than happy to give him free reign.
Thus began nine years during which my dad brought the place under cultivation, basically by devoting every free hour to its care. There was painting, spackling, lawn care and bulb-planting, to be sure...but there was more. He walled off the old French doors between the living room and my parents' bedroom (the "sunroom"-like projection at far right), creating a superb built-in closet and drawers on one side and a planter--complete with lights and a pebble-filled hand-forged copper tub--on the other side. (This unit also contained my succession of aquariums and terrariums and their populations of fish, newts, and anoles.) He built me an alcove bed, and retiled the bathroom. He stripped paint, composted, and installed mountain laurels from the Poconos in the backyard, where they bloomed profusely. And he cheerfully did small repairs for the batty collection of little old ladies who occupied the other units--Mabel and Neysa and Edith. A pair of "bachelor girls," Lois and Louise, lived in the attic apartment; sometimes he and chain-smoking, boyish Lois would whip out their power tools and have a bash at a project in tandem.
[The house, by the way, was also robustly haunted; stories for another day. Remind me.]
Eventually, Bryce Rea died; no more would we receive occasional visits from the old cheapskate, who chuckled at our efforts with feudal noblesse oblige before folding his tall frame back into his white Cadillac. When we were subsequently evicted on short notice, his successor at the real-estate office requested that my father keep the lawn mowed until our departure. To my mother's fire-spitting fury, Daddy did so; he still had pride in where he lived however long we remained there, he explained simply, and besides, it was good exercise. (My mother's response would tell you a lot about the origins of my passionate dependence on creative profanity.) I thought moving away from this house--still big and wild enough to contain my Shire, my Fangorn Forest, and my Lothlorien--would break my heart; but a new life in high school, far from my childhood bullies, quickly assuaged the loss.
[If you are thinking, "Gosh, so that is where she got the notion that a penniless, well-intentioned little family could turn a big, ghastly old house into a cozy home!" ...well, then, we have not blogged in vain.]
Little Neck in my "Wonder Years" was remarkably like that dear sitcom of recent vintage, except that Tudors and colonials predominated instead of ranch houses as the set-dressing of my Sixties childhood, most of them brimming with families of at least four kids, the yards bedecked with Tonka trucks, Barbies, Sting-Ray bikes and rusty wagons. "Luxury" was a paneled basement or a blue-plastic-lined above-ground swimming pool; "landscaping" was buying a shrub and a gnome at Garden World. Hence the biggest shocker about going "back home": the McMansionization of my past! I knew it would be bad when I turned up Marathon Parkway and saw this monstrosity capping a row of modest little capes on, I believe, Thebes Avenue:
You've gotta love that balcony, no? Romeo, Romeo! And not one balustrade, but two! (For a sense of scale, see the poor grey house cowering at the right under the third-floor bump-out.) But as I nosed the car along the familar streets, frosted with snow (yes, this part of Queens is distant enough to have different weather than Flatbush), it got worse.
Next in the "you-can't-go-home-again" saga: vanishing houses, vanishing children, and a Catholic funeral where I mourned everything but the deceased...