A Story From My Life, Part 5 Orange Street
I lived on Orange Street in Albany with my brother Louie for the first semester at Albany State University. I didn't live in the dorms.
My brother Louie's house was a HUD house. It was in an older, Italian section of Albany, where the streets were narrow and the women called the children in to supper from their front stoops, hollering down the street in Italian, or sometimes Yiddish. "HUD" stands for "Housing and Urban Development" , and was a government program to give qualified first-time homeowners a chance at a very low mortgage and low down payment in urban areas, with the understanding the new homeowner would improve the property.
My brother Louie worked on his PhD dissertation at this time; he also worked at a Wendy's fast-food restaurant as a groundskeeper, part time, and he was also a house-husband. He took care of their daughter Stephanie, who was three years old.
His wife Hilda, after getting her Master's degree from Albany State University, took a Civil Service test, and became employed at the W.A Harriman campus in Albany, working for the State of New York. She had a fairly good paying job, and was the main bread-winner of the family.
It was a strange situation for me. Hilda and Louie were having marital problems. The little girl, Steph, was hungry for attention. The household was very disorderly, and Louie, who was Stephanie's main care-giver, couldn't bear to discipline her. I could well understand why. Louie and I came from such a harsh background; such a cruel upbringing. Not one of us could bear to visit that sort of harshness, or even a hint of it, on their children.
Ah, Orange Street. I remember it well. It had an atmosphere, as older streets in older cities do. It was urban; I went directly from the boonies to the center of a sizable city. What an experience that was for me! I was oddly homesick, for the trees and fields and space around me. I missed the open sky; looking up to the sky to gauge the weather there. I missed the long white blankets of snow lying cleanly on the open fields. I missed my pine trees; the way they smelled so good; their cones to hold in my hands. I missed being able to ramble around outside, and see the squirrels playing in the trees, and hearing the bird calls, first thing in the morning.
I was lost and confused.
An urban street isn't so beautiful as the countryside. I didn't realize until I changed venues, how much more beautiful the country is than the city. I took all the beauty around me for granted, because I knew nothing else, until I left home.
This urban street had it's own enchantment, though. I loved the way the older Italian women would sweep their stoops, early in the morning, as I set off for the college campus, chatting to each other over their wrought iron railings, in Italian or English or a mixture of both. How they'd rest the broom against the railing and throw up their hands, talk with their hands, expressing amazement or horror or scorn or surprise. They'd pick the broom up again, and sweep, sweep, sweep, until the next coda in the conversation, when the broom got a rest again and the hands came into play.
I drove my old beater of a car, the Crate of Wrath, back and forth to the college campus. It was a mistake to have a car in the city. There was no place to park it, except on the street, and by the time I got back from the college campus, all the parking places were filled. I got so many parking tickets, just because I kept getting stuck on the wrong side of the street. The houses were so close together, and it was an older street--there were no driveways between houses. When these houses were first built, the automobile era hadn't yet begun, so instead of driveways and garages, an urban neighborhood would have a mews behind the houses; a stable. That area had been converted to flats (apartments), and there was no parking garage withing forty blocks.
There were only nine inches, on each side, between the houses. (I measured it with a ruler, one day.) When I helped Louie out by doing the dishes or cleaning up the kitchen, I could hear the neighbors in their living room, even with the windows closed. I was not used to having neighbors so close by. In the country, it was three miles to our nearest neighbor.
I was at least a little bit fascinated by what was going on in the adjacent house; but I didn't intentionally eavesdrop. I couldn't help hearing, really. They had loud voices, over there. They just did everything loud. They played their music loud; they listened to their television loud; they spoke to each other loudly. It was like having houseguests, that were very audible but invisible.
I went to the college campus early in the mornings and didn't come back to Orange Street until later at night--sometimes eight or ten at night. I wasn't too comfortable in the house. The campus seemed more spacious to me; the library was very beautiful and very quiet. I needed to do a lot of work to keep up with my studies, because college was a whole new level of concentration. I'm afraid I coasted through high school, and wasn't academically challenged until I got to college. I was lost and confused on campus, too, trudging against the bitterly cold wind, scrambling from building to building; class to class. I wasn't prepped for college, and the maze of buildings, students and staff confused me. The lack of individual attention on the part of the instructors was at once a relief and somewhat unhealthy for me--I'm afraid I never had formed truly good study habits. The work in high school was too easy; and repetitive. I'd shuffle through it quickly then turn to the latest fiction book I was reading.
I avoided the Orange Street house during the day, as much as I reasonably could.
My brother Louie would talk about his marital problems, and make me his confidant. I had so much sympathy for him. I knew where we came from; there was a lot about Louie that I understood completely and loved very much.
The problem was, I knew absolutely nothing about marriage. I hadn't even had a date yet! How could I help him? I felt at such a loss. All I could do was listen, and Louie was very depressed. He felt his wife didn't love him anymore, and lost respect for him because she was the breadwinner and he was working on his dissertation and being a "house husband". I felt my dear brother wanted something from me, wanted me to help him and heal him, and turned to me because he knew for sure I was 100% for him, always. But what he really wanted was that same unconditional love from his wife that our mother had never provided. He wanted the security of unconditional love, from his wife, Hilda, whom he loved unconditionally.
It was an impossible situation. I liked Hilda; I was especially enchanted by her voice. She had the most mellifluous voice, the best-moderated voice, I had ever heard. I responded to that, myself. I understood Louie's lifelong infatuation, his lifelong loyalty to her. She had a way about her, oh yes she did.
I didn't want to get between Hilda and Louie. I knew somehow that was wrong. I shouldn't be involved in their marriage. I truly didn't know what to do. I also could sometimes see Hilda's side of the issues. After all, I'm a woman. Hilda was getting disenchanted with Louie just because of his insecurities; also, I'm afraid she had fallen in love, inadvertently, with someone else.
It was a strange and memorable time for me. I'd drive the Crate of Wrath to the college campus, early in the morning, to get a parking spot in the student parking nearest the Humanities building. I'd get lost in the shuffles between classes, sit in the overheated lecture halls and classrooms, then head out, with only ten minutes and quite a hike across the campus, loaded down with books, to the next class in a building far away. That campus was so cold in the winter! But it never snowed. It was actually too cold to snow!
In the early afternoon, I had a long break between classes. I'd go over to the Student Union and get a cheeseburger from the cafeteria, eating alone at a little table with my nose in a book. Then the hike over to the library, that beautiful haven of refuge, and work on all my assignments. I'd hike over to the last class of the day, then back over to the library, where time would stop as I got immersed in trying to pull together a term paper or reading three or four chapters of Sociology, or struggling with Discrete Math.
Before I knew it, it was night.
I'd rescue the Crate of Wrath from the Student parking, and drive back home to Orange Street, our own little version of Peyton Place.