My hometown Bayonne, N.J.?
I couldn’t wait to leave it after college.
I couldn’t see what the city bordering Jersey City had to offer me, except bars with great names like Kosakowski’s Koral, pizza with great thin crust at places like Napoli’s and, of course, a 40-minute trip to New York City.
Except for the occasional visit – to funerals for relatives, a reunion of old pals and to drop off a friend at the new port for cruise ships – I haven’t been back much in the last 35 years.
But through a recent series of coincidences – or fate - I’ve come to appreciate all that the peninsula city gave me, and how much Bayonne, and its people, got into my bones.
I’ve also realized how much of the life we once took for granted has vanished.
It started when my wife’s relative married a Bayonne woman.
We talked about how they and their young son could walk to the park or store in this city with numbered blocks and avenues named “A,” “B” and “C.”
How some of the spots I remember, like Hendrickson’s restaurant, are still there.
And, of course, we talked about Bayonne’s political machine, which I discovered as a copy boy for the now-defunct Bayonne Times who would go to the corner candy store for coffee and cigarettes and see cops and politicians sitting at the counter, winking at the illegal numbers being played.
We also talked about Bayonne’s diversity, reflected in its huge – 3,200 students then – high school.
That was a big plus when I got to college, since most of the other kids had gone to prep schools or fancy public schools and didn’t know the world consisted of blacks, Jews, Italian, Spanish, Irish and Polish kids.
As we talked, I remembered how I could walk to my grammar school and high schools; how I played basketball with kids from all sorts of ethnic and economic groups: in the street, schoolyard, Parks Department and Jewish Community Center leagues.
This was an education no formal schooling could give you.
This was an education of community – an education disappearing in our suburban world where kids rarely play on the street, corner stores are disappearing and commutes are so long that folks don’t have time to know their neighbors.
But my appreciation of Bayonne really came into focus this month at an art show opening of my oldest friend Jim, who I met 50 years ago in Mr. Kaplan’s creative writing class in Bayonne High School.
That’s where I also saw a couple of Bayonne friends I hadn’t seen in decades – Jeff Kapec and Joe Feczko.
And I remembered how I used to walk to Jeff’s house on 31st Street, hang out with pals like Jim, Ray and Joe and discover all sorts of albums, like Pharoah Sanders’ “Karma” and the Mothers of Invention’s “Hot Rats” that would change my life forever by making me want to write about music.
When Jeff talked about my mother, who was his history teacher, and how she made him think, I remembered teachers I hadn’t thought of in years, like kind Mrs. Harelick, whose Great Books class introduced me to Joyce and Dostoyevsky and opened a world of literature that I’m still exploring today.
And now, when I look back on Bayonne, I realize it had something to treasure that’s so rare in today’s computerized, commuter-centric world - a community of diverse people and places that helped make who I am today.