Note: In an attempt to get back to writing, I’m thinking about a series of essays and short stories about growing up in my North Buffalo neighborhood. This is my first effort. We’ll see where it goes…
Where I grew up, you did not so much breathe the air, as you ate it. This was solid air. So full of big sounds and smells for most of the day and then, at night, white noise from crickets and a drone of evening traffic that wafted through the night air from Elmwood Avenue on the other side of that field. Kids on my street learned about punctuation from the sporadic outbursts of noise. Half a century later, the noises still echo inside me.
We lived in the fourth house from the diamond-shaped “Dead End” sign where the pavement gave way to the railway easement that got its nickname “The Fields” from the tufts of long, yellow grass and cattails that managed to survive there. We played “army” alongside those tracks. Rusty old railroad spikes could be found in special places. They were our weapons, our currency. My dog played, too.
The dog followed us to and from school, breathing the same air we did along the twelve-minute walk. Miraculous that she survived for nearly fourteen years. Who knows what we were breathing. Just a couple of hundred yards from our house, at one corner of the fields, stood a furniture plant famous for having created suites of custom furniture that presidents had ordered for various rooms of the White House. Diagonally across the street from it was the metalworks. The place was scary fascination: Huge cannons firing smoke straight toward heaven; contraptions of steel that dwarfed men, huge magnets and pincers, conveyor belts and engines. They sometimes would pick up metal beams in those pincers, or with those magnets, and move them, and drop them. When metal hit earth, you felt the impact all the way across The Fields. You could hear them grinding and milling the metal, and imagine all the particulates being flung into our air, into our diets. It always smelled like burning alien flesh in the neighborhood where I grew up. I learned to like the smell. It was a smell that meant “home.” Strange to be home in a place that had mighty ways of showing a 6-year old boy how small he was.
In my neighborhood, you could tell the time by the shift whistles of the furniture factory. My favorite was the afternoon shift whistle, because it meant that in less than half an hour, school would be over for the day. It sounded like a five-second blast of several unrelated notes at once from a calliope gone mad. You couldn’t get away from it, even inside the school building. In the next few seconds, you’d hear competing blasts from more distant factories, as if they were trying to answer. Those other whistles were sissies compared to our furniture plant’s whistle.
Among all the sounds that vied for supremacy, nothing compared to the trains at the foot of my street. The tracks had fallen upon hard times; so too, from the looks of them, most of the rail cars we’d ever seen in The Fields. The rails, or maybe it was the wheels, protested loudly when the tracks were put to use. We moved into the neighborhood ten weeks before Kennedy and Dallas, in 1963. Back then, trains still lumbered through The Fields several times per day. What a comical commotion! The tracks were laid at an odd angle that slanted against the layout of the streets, so from our perspective, the trains always appeared crooked. You could see them sway from side to side as they struggled to keep from derailing. There were two tracks, and the one closest to our street could only handle very low speeds. But oh, those shrieks of metallurgical protest.
Whether one was inside watching television, or outside, cursing and yelling at the noise (as one of the neighbor dads was known for) one always knew when the railroad tracks were in use. Imagine arriving early at a grand symphony orchestra event, before the conductor calls the musicians to order. Everyone is warming up in the same room, giving no heed to what the other is playing. Imagine that these random sounds are being produced by big, loud, rusty machines that were never intended to create anything that human beings would listen to. And imagine the noise is loud enough to be heard for city blocks in every direction.
Our orchestra even had crashing cymbals – or a cannon blast, like Tchaikovsky worked into “The Nutcracker.” Our “Nutcracker” was when the railroad cars were coupled, an engineering feat that required them to collide at a sufficient speed. At my end of the street, the whole world shuddered when those cars were married together.
None of this though, defined the neighborhood quite like The Antenna. The Antenna is what made us famous; or at least as a first grader just moving into the neighborhood from the lower West Side, that’s what I thought. It was easily the city’s tallest structure. It stood in an opposite corner of the field from the furniture plant. It was created to transmit television signals, but I knew its real job was to prevent us from getting lost. We just needed to look for The Antenna, and we could find our way back to our street. Its flashing red lights, which came on every night, were not only for the airplanes but for Rudolph and Santa. And God, and his angels.
The biggest and most powerful thing in my neighborhood was winter. A big winter storm could shut down the factories, erase the traffic from Elmwood Avenue, make the trains stop. There was a low place in the field, in between the “V” formed by those Erie-Lackawanna railroad tracks. Every fall, it would fill in with water and become a pond. Every winter, that pond would freeze over. I was in second grade when my brother and I became the first kids on our street to receive skates, sticks, and pucks for Christmas. That frozen pond became our arena. Soon, a dozen of us were on the ice, every day, after school. The shift whistle might have been signalling that it was time to go home for dinner, but all we could hear was the cheering crowd.