Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Block

One thing I love about the block  where we live is that it’s unique. I don’t think I’ve seen anything else like it to tell you the truth. Not in Boston, or New York or Philadelphia or the many other east coast cities I’ve visited or lived in. Maybe there’s something like it in another part of the world, but I’ve not seen one in my travels yet. Even in a town of historic brownstones and varied row houses, we’re different. 

“Oh!” a policeman I’d met recently said to me, “You live in the little houses.”

We were serving jury duty together in Jersey City, and I’d only gotten a few lines in about the place before a light of happy recognition came into his eyes: 

“One of the oldest blocks in Hoboken ... cobblestone street ... used to be the workman’s houses for Stevens Institute ...”

BINGO. He knew it. He could picture it. It was like discovering a mutual friend or distantly related cousin - we had something in common. He let me talk about the block all through the lunch hour. He didn’t get tired of asking questions. 

Mostly he wanted to know if they were really as small as they looked. 

“About twelve feet across,” I said, “and three stories up - there’s no backyard.”

He acknowledged with a shake of his head that was small. 

“Don’t think I could live like that,” he said wanly, “Too small.” 

It’s not an unusual reaction. Most people love to look at our house - we get people who stop and stare at the block all the time. But it’s usually just that - looking only. This place can be just as small as it looks; and just as inconvenient. 

But when my wife and I were looking for a home ,we’d passed over the newer units and the brownstones (which we couldn’t afford) for this place. We bought it after just one look. You might even say it was meant to be. 

“Someday, I’m going to live there,” my wife had reputedly said to her brother years ago. 

My wife likes to tell the story of how she used to walk by our block as a young woman just out of college. 

She and her brother shared an apartment in those days with some other friends. It would be years still before I’d meet her in my hometown of Boston, and even more years still before we’d move back to New Jersey and save enough for a down payment, but with just one look at those little cozy row houses - with their imperfect, patch quilt look - she fell in love.  

“Put in an offer,” she said the night we sat down to dinner after seeing it for the first time. 

We did. We never looked back. 

Making the dream come true didn’t lessen her love of the place either. We’ve found that the appeal goes well beyond the looks. We’ve gotten to know practically everyone around us in one way or another. There are people on our block who have lived here since childhood. There are also many people who have come her as adults. And their are children - lots of children - which makes the summer days and evenings full of wonderful sounds. 

Not that it’s perfect - there are many inconveniences. 

We’re just a block over from a popular pub in town and every Saturday night many of the patrons stagger, sing or shout their way down our block. Parking is limited and for those of us who live on the block, we often have to grit our teeth when we miss the last parking spot to a fellow resident. Also, the city doesn’t plow our street in the winter either (I'm told it's the cobblestones) and the cars will often sit for days before the snow melts sufficiently for the to be moved.

But I think that’s what makes the times that we share the fun that much more enjoyable; evening parties, get togethers with the kids, helping an older neighbor or shoveling out a stuck car. You just can’t stay a stranger. You have to join in. 

But there are other challenges. 

It’s also going to be tough for my son when he’s old enough to walk - three flights of stairs. Depending on our luck with his walking and balance, we don’t know if we’ll be able to stay. When it comes down to it, we may have to choose between all the little friends that he and my daughter share and the prospect of a house with a single floor and a back yard. I’m not looking forward to that choice. I’m glad it’s a little way in the future. I’m not ready to leave. I love so much about our life right now. 

It's quiet now. I like our block best at night when things have quieted down. There’s a little noise but not too much. 

It’s so different from the quiet country like suburb that I grew up in. So much more life and noise, even at rest. I feel, sometimes, like we’re living in another time when the lights are down and the sounds of people come through the dark. I turn out our own lights and try to imagine this city in its past; or any city or place where many people lived together. I think about the people who’ve lived here and will live here when we’re gone. 

Sometimes I think it’s more than a place to live; more than a home even. Sometimes I think our block is a memory. It's like the long, long memory of someone whose lived their own way. And when I step out of the main road and onto our block I’m carried to that distant and unique place. 

No comments: