Before Progress Messed Things Up

“Intensity,” by flickr user Nicholas_T / licensed by Creative Commons

(Strawberry Hill, Woodbridge, N.J.)

Wasn’t one damn berry on that hill
in any season, shape, shade, or size.
And that sluggish-greenish thing
they called a stream?
Had nothing but a concrete bridge
prettied up with some punk’s art
and years of pigeon drops.

Five churches rescued Sunday best
from bobby pins and overalls.
Each prayed their own way fine –
until the parking lot behind the Cookie Jar
when fender bumps put all that holy talk
of turning other cheeks on hold.

We had one public school,
Jackson’s Drugs, an A&P,
a five-and-dime whose dusty shelves
sold sundries and magazines
rated mostly clean.

And down the street, Mr. Gerrity
packed up the weekly dead,
hearsed them off to old clay pits
revived into a graveyard park
where angels, lambs, and all such masonry
resembled nothing of the person underneath.

Friday nights, Mayer’s Bar on 35
served up that new Italian dish:
a saucy-cheesy-thin-crust thing
they called tomato pie. Ask any one
who halved a slice, it dripped
the finest grease down fingers,
hands, and wrists. The price was worth
the moans and another round of beer.

Wasn’t much, this low-brow ’burb
yet, for growing kids, it worked all right.
Until, that is, Woodbridge Center Mall
out-seduced Main Street’s easy charm
and big boxes smashed the small ones down.

But long before damn progress
messed things up, we owned the Hill
south of town. Worked hard
at earning fun, learned more
in our backyard than any book could tell.
Half-soused uncles, doting aunts came to chew
the day and gossip through the night.
No locked doors. No invites.
Family, this ridge.

And, if we stretched the word a bit,
add the Spics, Micks, Brits, and Krauts;
Russians, Poles, Honkies, Portuguese
who shared their meals and worn-down clothes
and counted every kid their own.

Which meant they wouldn’t hesitate
to rat us out – smokes behind the chicken coop,
feeling-up under cherry trees,
any slighted rule – we always knew
whose side they’d take.

But if one slight off-handed slur
– meanly sent or misperceived –
seeped through a neighbor’s fence,
all loyalties were off.
We came here first.
We suffered worst.
We deserve … a that or this.
For kids like us – mostly green –
we’d yet to learn what some words meant,
what some were worth.

Like take that early spring
when chocolate boys
from Fulton Street sauntered
by our baseball field, wanting
nothing more from How y’all?
than an easy pick-up game.
I never stood so close
to Deep-South-sounds that dripped polite;
to smooth-skinned boys so lanky-sweet.
Before my heart could melt,
the party line went hot – would not retreat
until my father hid my glove
and words I could not wrap my mouth
around flew up and down the hill.

But that’s the way it was –
before the plowing down
of Mrs. Monek’s vegetables,
the Schuberts’ apple trees,
the Mysejkos’ musicals;
before they sold us out and razed
Puente’s gray duplex,
the Vasquez bungalow,
the baseball field without a fence
we played our dramas on.

Today those college-breds
who call the Hill their home
bus to Port Authority,
train to New York’s Penn,
eat gluten-free,
brush with Tom’s of Maine.
They boutique-shop and stop for lattes
costing more than one tomato pie.

And I suspect on humid-heavy nights,
they ignore the red-light show
at the Parkway interchange:
ten thousand cars or so,
filled with itchy bathing suits
and aloe-lathered skin,
crawling-stalling-overheating
inch-by-sunburned-inch,
northward home
from the Jersey shore.

 

Carolyn Martin is blissfully retired in Clackamas, OR where she writes, gardens and plays with communities of creative colleagues. Her poetry has appeared in such publications as the Naugatuck River River, 5/Quarterly and Stirring.