By Grady Carson
Folks I have met along the way often exclaim, “You grew up in Greenwich Village?!” As it is just where I grew up, their amazement has always struck me.
The Village was my little world, isolated from the rest of the Big Apple and everything else. When left to my own devices, I didn’t go above 14th Street, rarely made it past Fifth Avenue, and never got much past Leroy Street; and we had to stop at the water (back then it was so polluted that we joked that you could walk across it). Those are the boundaries of the Village, which I didn’t know then.
My parents bought our house on Jane Street in 1964 and they brought me home in 1966. They were in the theater. Our proximity to Broadway, a 10-15-minute cab ride, was important. My father worked as a stage manager and my mother was an actress/understudy/stay-at-home mom.
As I walked, ran, skateboarded, and rode my bike through the angled/non-conforming Village streets, I was in my world. While passing the Corner Bistro, Bill (with his huge cigar) would come out and say, “Hi!” or wave me in to ask about how my mom was. I knew the pizza guys at Joe’s on Eighth Avenue, I made deliveries for Pops at La Marionetta, or on the way home from school Simone or Victor would wave me in to Walter’s Meat Market to run a meat delivery (or for a slice of bologna). I house-sat and walked the neighbors’ dogs. My first summer job (age 14) was offered to me by Hugh Malone, who owned Division Water Systems, after he rang our doorbell and introduced himself. On Thanksgiving, I always wanted to take the plate fixings to Ray, who worked in the garage across the street. We looked out for each other…it took a Village and it was our Village.
Small in territory, the Village was big in experiences for kids to explore and to watch out for. There was politics, art, music, crime, and social revolution all around. I was just a kid doing kid things, and thought nothing of the older couple who rode their bikes in their flowing purple outfits, the lady with the 7-10 pug dogs you could hear coming from over a block away, eating dinner out next to Ed Koch, spotting John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in a local movie theater and getting a wave from them, or zig-zagging my way through the freedom revelers as I crossed Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue.
I learned to play sports on cement, roller hockey (garbage cans as goal posts), touch football (“Button Hook at the blue car”), running bases (the manhole cover and the blacktop patch were bases), and stoop ball (over the cars was a homerun). At PS 41 we climbed the fence to play basketball and stick ball. One day, while playing out front, a bloodied man came out of nowhere and grabbed me. Before I could register what was happening, three neighbors were out and shouting from windows, coming to my aid.
As all things do, the Village started to change. “They” were taking my Village from me without my consent. I was outraged at Benny’s Burritos replacing Walter’s Meat Market and Heller’s liquor store closing (no more check cashing, but a Chase moved into where Wendell’s magazine store was). The Greenwich Market turned into a Blockbuster Video. One day there was a line to get into the Corner Bistro. And on and on. But eventually, I had a burrito, opened an account at Chase, rented movies, and waited on line for a burger.
I moved out of the Village 26 years ago. When I visit, I still stop by the old haunts that remain: a burger at the Bistro (Bill’s not there) and a slice at Joe’s (all “new” guys). If I’m lucky I get to say “Hi” to my former neighbors who are holding out in rent controlled apartments, and they never fail to tell me that they loved the sound of us playing out on the street. I’m still in touch with a few of the “old” neighbors/life-long friends, like the Bahms who we shared a backyard with and open back doors for over 30 years, and my dear friend and mentor, Robert on Horatio Street.
The Village was weird, it was important, it was real, it was fun, and, yes, it was where I grew up!!