Wrong Side of the Tracks
My mother remarried when I was almost eight years old. We had lived with my grandmother almost exactly four years. They were eventful years. My parents had divorced, my grandfather had died, I had started school, we had moved briefly to Niantic and then back, my grandmother’s sister had moved in, and my mother had started dating a policeman.
She married the policeman four days before Christmas. They didn’t have much of a honeymoon, but I stayed in with my grandmother, which was my home, while my mother spent a few days with her new husband at his rented cottage in Chalker Beach.
We were together at my grandmother’s for Christmas, but on Christmas Eve I visited what would soon be my new home. After Christmas, we moved into the house on Cranton Avenue. It was an adventure for me, but with one foot firmly in the familiar. I was in the same school. My grandmother was still in the same place. But more changes were afoot.
The first big change was that my best friend, Jonathan, moved to another town. Then my grandmother sold her house and moved to Old Lyme. My cat didn’t like the beach and ran away. When summer came to Chalker Beach, many new people came with it and there were lots of new kids, too. And soon we got a dog.
The biggest change was still in the wings. In the Fall of 1971 we moved to Clinton. My parents found a rental with an option to buy. It was a little ranch with three bedrooms and a quarter of an acre, conveniently located just off of route one behind a liquor store and a pizzeria.
The street was Bluff Avenue, and the neighborhood was known as Silver Bluff. It was basically three streets that ran from route one to the train tracks, with a few side streets. At the end of Bluff there was a cement step company and a tree nursery that was part of Grove Gardens. On the other side of the tracks is Clinton Country Club. Worlds apart.
I started in the new school before we were completely moved in. The bus had both elementary and middle school students on it, so it was my first exposure to kids in the 4th through 8th grade. It wasn’t long before I learned that I wasn’t in Goodwin School anymore.
The first friend that I made lived across the street. His name was Paul Rodriguez, and he came from a large, blue collar family. He had a lot of loud sisters and a brother with a smart mouth. They were fun to listen to even when I couldn’t understand them as they switched back and forth between English and Spanish.
Another of my close friends nearby was Carlos. He was in my grade and sometimes in my class. He was smart and his family had a pool table, but his life differed greatly from mine. His parents were from Argentina and had sacrificed a lot to get to America. They wanted their children to do well, and so they insisted on rigid study times, early bedtimes, and moderate separation from the most of the unsupervised children of their neighbors.
Our first year in the house went okay. The house had a few mechanical issues that the landlord worked out and when the first year of the lease was up my parents bought the house. A year after that, in the fall of 1973, my family was growing and my school changed again. When I was in 5th grade my status in the neighborhood changed.
The make up of our neighborhood was mixed. There were retirees, small business owners, immigrants, blue-collar workers, thieves, an arsonist, and at least one murderer. And then there was my step-father, the cop. At ten years old they labeled me a “narc” and treated differently, both on the streets and on the bus.
I guess it was not entirely inaccurate, from a criminal point of view. For instance, one summer night we were all sleeping, when my parents heard a noise coming from the empty lot across the street. Their window was open to catch a bit of a breeze, so the hammering noise was fairly loud.
My step-father tried to look out the window to see what was going on, but could see very little. Finally he pulled on his jeans and wellingtons and took his duty flashlight with him across the street. He found a young man sitting on the ground in the tall grass hitting a cash register with a screwdriver.
Shining the flashlight on him, he asked the young man what he was doing. Because he was stoned or drunk or both, he couldn’t speak coherently, but he got the idea that a flashlight meant cop. He staggered to his feet and attempted to leave. Being a police officer, my step-father was duty bound to hold the man for questioning by the local authorities.
After rendering the fellow prone, putting him in a half-nelson, and sitting on him to hold him down, my step-dad yelled back across the street for my mother to call 911. The struggle continued for ten minutes as the Clinton PD sent someone to the site.
The young man turned out to be an older brother of one of my peers. The cash register was from the pizzeria. Frank, the owner, was not happy to get his register back. He would have been better off if it was just gone. And all it had in it was the change.
If my name wasn’t mud in Silver Bluff before, it was now. I had slept through the whole thing, but somehow I was to blame. Later, I found some other kids who were outcasts, too. The Chapman children weren’t accepted in the neighborhood because their father worked at the cement step company and was constantly chasing off vandals from the property.
I became friends with Lisa, first. She was much younger than me, but she was forward and friendly and liked to come and see my baby sister. Soon I met her brother, David, who I had seen on the bus and knew he was a year older than me. Then I met her sister, Lori, who was two years younger than me.
For the last few years I lived in Silver Bluff, I went to a private school in Madison and only associated with the Chapman kids most of the time. That was fine with me. My family was growing, and I had friends at school, so I was not missing anything.
Parents gave me a sweet little sister when I was ten. My step-brother came to live with us when I was twelve. When I was thirteen, they added a little brother to round out the family at four kids. I went from ten years as an only child to being the oldest of four inside of three years. Thirty – two months, actually. It was a big change.
But bigger changes were coming. The year after my brother was born, my mother separated from her husband for a year. We moved across town and my grandmother joined the household. The separation lasted a year, and they got back together, but they sold the house on Bluff Avenue. I only ever went back to stand guard on Halloween and to help move things out.
Recently, I was visiting my old haunts with my kids and went to Silver Bluff. There were many changes, including new apartments across the street from the house, but the old place is still there and looks about the same. Even the rhododendron bush that my mother planted the year my sister was born is still there next to the steps. It has grown up nearly to the roof and I bet it is beautiful in bloom.