I was born.
The big event took place in Reading, Pennsylvania on May 29, 1951, a birth date shared with Patrick Henry, Bob Hope, John F. Kennedy and millions of other schmucks. I was probably an accident, my parents having knocked themselves up the previous year, having hastily married and moved into an apartment over a gas station in nearby Fleetwood PA, where my Mom's family lived. With one squalling brat barely three months old, my old man went at it again. Poor Mom had little rest, but here I am, so who can complain?
Good thing I can't remember too much of my early life. Lawrence and Minnie Stahler were reluctant to let their oldest, Shirley, go off to Atlantic City the summer following high school and work in a cafeteria. Their worst fears were realized when she came home pregnant, thanks to a wiseguy from Newark stationed in A.C. with the Coast Guard. Apparently it was love or something at first sight. After taking in a show at the Steel Pier they headed for the Boardwalk. Or under it. So that was my brother James Paul Crowley, and they were all now living in a little shithole not far from in-laws who were, shall we say, disappointed.
The Stahlers were Pennsylvania Dutch, a misleading appelation. More accurately, the term was Pennsylvania Deutsch, for they were German. I remember them speaking some weird language around us kids when they didn't want us to know what was going on, and later I caught on about the German thing. They both spoke good English, though. Grandpa Lawrence was a mechanic and body-shop guy who worked in the Fleetwood Auto Works. Deliberate, easy going, muscular, a bit enigmatic, he was a good grandfather and spoiled us when my brother and I visited. Minnie (Stump) Stahler was a formidable woman, a large woman, not fat but solid, who took complete control of everything, but in a way that didn't make waves, for all around her were used to going along.
She was a fine cook who put on a great spread when we dropped by, and her house was always immaculate. Neat, cool, sweet-smelling. Doilies. Quality furniture. The house they had built themselves, brick by brick, and it was first quality throughout. A swinging bench hanging from a basement joist was a standard attraction, as was the vintage Victrola in the spotless attic, prominent among ancient doll carriages and antique furniture stored there.
I spend a little time describing Fleetwood because when I was about one we moved to Newark, and the little Pennsylvania town became a treasured getaway. In contrast to Newark, going to Fleetwood meant fresh air, fields to play in, a spacious graveyard across the road to wander in, riding roller-coaster roads in Grandpa's big Chrysler, great meals, cousins, and of course trying to figure out what our grandparents were talking about in German. But our home was in Newark, and the first few years were rough.
Vincent dePaul Crowley was an accountant or something born around 1900 to a recently arrived Irish family in New York City. His old man was an usher at St. Patrick's Cathedral, a position of no small merit. How Vincent met Helen Marie Tormey, a Newark girl, is unknown to me, but they married and took up housekeeping in the Tormey home at 204 No. Sixth Street, Newark, and soon produced my Uncle Paul, who turned out to be a no-good bastard, but more on that later. A few years down the road, in 1929, they produced my old man, Robert Emmett Crowley. They stopped there, partly because there was a Depression going on, and by 1940 Grandpa Vincent was dead from a heart problem, I believe. Sorry about the imprecision of my information; I should have asked more questions and taken more notes. But you get the idea.
Grandma Crowley was not happy either with her son Robert's decisions. In 1946, when he was 17, he joined the Coast Guard, not having finished high school. He traveled to the Philippines, as I have seen from snapshots of the time, and wound up stationed in Atlantic City in 1949, where he met the aforementioned Pennsy girl and did the dirty deed. But if her parents were irritated with those developments, his mother was devastated. Grandma Crowley was a fierce Catholic, and her son's new bride was -- gasp! -- a Protestant!
Hard to believe in this day and age that a marriage between different religions would be such an issue, but back then it was apparently not much better than armed robbery or buggery. I found their 1949 marriage record in the rectory of St. Rose of Lima Church, and a notation read "disparity of cult." After the wedding they fled to Fleetwood but within a couple years headed back to Newark for reasons unclear. I imagine work was slow in Fleetwood and the atmosphere chilly at the Stahler house. So in late 1951 my old man moved his wife, his two squalling brats and himself into 204 No. Sixth Street, into a third-floor room with tiny bath, next to a room that Uncle Paul, well into his 20s, was still occupying.
Like I said, it's a good thing I can't remember too much of my early life, because those couple years at 204 were hell for my parents. Grandma Crowley was exceptionally cold to my mother, never a hug or kiss or a kind word. Her sister-in-law, Nell, lived in the house and thankfully was nicer to the young couple, as was a spinster nurse also boarding in the house, Mary Collins, or Coll, as she was called. But other than that it was rough sailing. Uncle Paul was constantly giving them shit, and over dinner one Sunday, he made a remark that sent my father bolting across the table with a knife to his brother's throat.
Dad had found work in a garage and after a year or so the family was able to move out of Grandma Crowley's and into an apartment a few blocks away, on Roseville Avenue, no details of which I can recall, and then to an apartment on N. 4th Street, a brick-paved, tree-filled street lined mostly with two-family homes. It's from 136 No. Fourth Street that my first memories surface.
I can't describe Fourth Street without sounding like some old codger at a cracker barrel, but the memories are clear: coal trucks delivering their goods down metal chutes into basements, milkmen carring their rattling glass bottles from house to house; garbagemen dragging the cans through alleys; the civil defense sirens going off every Saturday at noon, signaling the start of "Sky King" on the black-and-white TV taht also brought us "Robin Hood," "Queen for a Day," Steve Allen and Sandy Becker. I wouldn't see a color TV until the Italian restaurant at the corner, Vulcania's, put one in, and only then I'd see whatever show was on until our pizza was ready to take home.
Down at the other end of the block was Sally's Luncheonette, where I sampled my first Italian hot dog, smothered in french fries and ketchup. Around the corner was Lerner's drug store, where I developed a love of chocolate egg creams. Up on Orange Street the merchants all knew us.
SHAPE UP OR SHIP OUT
BACK IN JERSEY
BACK IN JERSEY AGAIN