East Orange Life - Melancholy  © 2000 Pete Smith

     I look back with what I can only describe as "melancholy" on those days in East Orange. There was something about it; something extraordinary; something lasting. After all, we only lived there for a bout 7 years and I'm 35 years old, so why then does 1/5th of my total years have such a strong impact on the other 30?
     And the feelings that I, and I know my brothers have, are not exclusive to just our family and our little colonial house on Fulton St. It's more than that. I've talked with several of the old neighborhood kids over the past few years; the Kinney's; the Yate's; Kenah's; Conway's; and others, and they all seem to have the same "hard to describe", fond memories of life in that area at that time.
     It was the mid 60's. I can remember walking along in the side of the street; thick, strong trees towering beside me lining the sidewalk. I was holding my first AM transistor radio close to my ear and it was playing "...Those were the days my friend", and "...Smile a little smile for me, Rosemary", and "...Red rubber ball". The radio was special. I had won it in a poster contest about not polluting. I was in the second grade at Holy Name. Mom and Bob really came up with the idea, and did most of the work. It was an honor to have won. I was really so proud. That we could do something like this. Our FAMILY won! "Give a hoot, don't pollute", it read, with a big, old, colorful owl. I think a picture may have made it into the paper. So I'm walking along the street; and it had just rained; and the air felt so clean.
     Sometimes now, I'll lie down to take a nap in the afternoon and I'm transported back to those days, and I feel so safe and happy; I can almost hear kids playing outside as a gentle breeze pushes the curtains slowly back and forth. Spring and Fall are still quite magic for me, and they carry me back.
     It's funny too, if at night now, I close my eyes to say a prayer; The Hail Mary, or The Our Father, or An Act Of Contrition; again, I'm immediately transported back in time and place; standing in the Helmstetter's or the Warner's backyard; or sometimes out in front of the Helmstetter's house. It's really weird. It used to freak me out and I would try to say to myself, "I want to say my prayers somewhere else; like in the here-and-now", but as soon as I would close my eyes to say these prayers, I would be back there. It may have something to do with the actual learning of these prayers. I can remember the priest or the nuns once teaching that you could not just rattle-off your prayers without understanding them and thinking about the meaning while you saying them. So it's quite possible that this is where I walked around one afternoon for a few hours practicing, over and over, line by line, all of these prayers, until I had a handle on them.
     Speaking of the front of Helmstetter's house, one time we took Vin and covered him with ketchup, and had him lie down on the side of the curb with his bike lying next to him. The next car that drove by slammed on his brakes to see what had happened and Vin jumped-up and started running and laughing. We all came running out laughing and having a good old time.
     Or the time Tommy, or someone, set his room on fire. I can remember standing outside and looking up at the room glowing bright orange. Or the time Tommy and I played with our mom's pocketbooks; we really wanted some money, so we decided we'd carry pocketbooks, and hey, if you carry a pocketbook you need something in it, so I stole a dollar from mom. She was quite pissed.
     Or in the Helmstetters parlor, where they had these "jesters"; relief scultures that were hanging on the wall. We were told that at night they would hop off the wall and come to life and dance around the room; making "sleep-overs" difficult if not impossible. Even to this day, occasionally I'll drive by that area after getting off work in the morning. I've taken pictures of our old house; going so far as up the back driveways to the garages. Searching for ghosts or Angels.

     And as the 60's progressed, so did we. My mom, who was very cool, went out and brought us all bell-bottoms; real crazy striped ones. We would draw Peter Max-type stuff on the walls of our attic, in paints and markers. Our baby sitter, "Trippy" Warner, did acid and smoked pot. Some of  our other babysitters were really "cool chicks" who worked at the Last Straw (a head-shop in Bloomfield center, filled with black-light posters, fringed vests, pot paraphernalia, peace signs, etc...) and played guitar. I can remember we all played "spin the bottle" with one of them one night. We had "Cool-Nick" living next store; he had a drum-kit in his bedroom and he would put on his black-light and tell us dirty jokes. The world was rapidly changing and we were going right along with the flow.
     And there were families, full of kids, EVERYWHERE! Our house was the place to be. 10 or 15 kids from other families hanging around our house was typical. My mom, raising seven little boys by herself, was by far the most liberal. And she was quite beautiful. It's no wonder the husbands in the neighborhood were so willing to give the "poor widow" a hand every now and then. Lots of our friends, especially the ones that felt estranged or outcast from their own families, would come to know and love my mom, They would spend a great deal of time at our house, coming over at any time and hanging-out with whoever might be home.
      No one could touch us. If something happened, like a broken window or a fight, my mom would ALWAYS take our side. She'd stand-up to the Devil himself in our defense even when we were dead-wrong. Like the time the tough guy with the blue suede shoes came by with his friends looking for a fight with Joe. My mom nearly kicked his ass right down the street saying something like, "I'll stick those little blue suede shoes right up your ass, you fairy."  We were one; the seven of us and mom. One tightly-knit, well-oiled unit; ready to do battle, anywhere, anytime. You did not fuck with us.
     Yes, "those were the days, my friend..."

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