With Character With a Few Characters
It was a street lined with multi-unit dwellings in a working-class section of Amsterdam, New York. Back in the 1950s we would have called the houses two-family, three-family or four-families. The street had them all. In length it covered a rather short distance. From Betz’s Funeral Home on the corner of Guy Park Avenue up the steep hill to Boice’s home at the corner of Major Lane, there were only about 20 houses. You wouldn’t exactly call the street treelined. Front yards separating each house from the sidewalk were tiny, leaving little space for trees. Sidewalks ran on each side and because driveways and garages were in short supply, cars parked on both sides, wherever an available space could be found. Jackson Street would not have won any House Beautiful awards, but it had character, or maybe it would be more accurate to say that there were a few characters who lived on the street.
I guess I’d have to admit that my grandparents, George and Ada Mae, were two of the many characters. They had lived in the house at 13 Jackson St. for many years and had raised five children, one of whom was my mother. George was a retired policeman who started a painting business after he retired. He had run for Alderman, but, although everyone seemed to like George, he lost the election. As it turned out, the painting business was his undoing. He had a habit of cleaning the paint brushes in a solution that contained benzene and, according to the doctors at Albany Medical Center, that’s how he developed a blood cancer many years later.
Both George and Ada were nice people. They helped the neighbors, looked after the kids on the street and during the Great Depression of the ‘30s they fed and sheltered homeless people on their back porch. In fact, to this day, I think George may be the nicest man I’ve ever met.
George was of German descent. Both of his parents were born in the U.S. but his grandparents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1870s-1880s. Still, he knew some of the German language and used to speak German to the two dachshunds in the house and sometimes to his grandkids when they visited. Although he had never been to Germany, he still liked strong mustard, awful-smelling cheese, blutwurst, and other foods from the old country.
George used to tell stories about being a cop. He and his fellow patrolmen often needed to deal with unruly patrons at the local bars. The rules governing cop behavior were not so well-defined as they are today. Jokingly, he said some men with really thick skulls were unphased by blows with the nightstick. His stories of barroom brawls between the Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants in the city in the 1920s and 30s kept his grandchildren, at least the boys, quite fascinated.
My grandmother was born Ada Mae Duncan, a Scottish name. Her mother, Ellen Kindon, had immigrated from England around 1890 and married a Scotsman she met in the new world. Maurice Duncan owned a silk mill in the east end of the city but died of a heart attack when a fire destroyed the mill. From old pictures, I see that my grandmother was pretty when she was young, but the years and the rearing of five children had taken a toll. Growing up with British parents, Ada Mae’s life seemed to revolve around tea. When anyone visited, her first question would be “Would you like a cup of tea?” By the time I knew her she had been transformed into a somewhat chubby woman of about five feet in stature, perhaps at least partly due to the pastries and cookies that were always available to accompany the tea. Still, she was an Aunt Bea-like prototype for a grandmother: jolly and kind, especially to her grandchildren.
My grandparents lived on the first floor of a two-story house. The upper floor was divided into two apartments. My parents, my sister and I lived in one of the apartments and my uncle, aunt and cousin George lived in the other. On the right side of the house was a driveway with a one-car garage at the end. The garage was always full of my grandfather’s tools, painting ladders and other equipment. The tools were moved in the winter so my grandfather’s blue Plymouth would fit in the garage.
The basement of the house was dark and cold. The wooden stairs leading to the basement creaked and were probably much too steep to meet building code standards today. At the bottom of the stairs was what would be considered a symbol of climate change apostasy today: about a half ton of coal piled in a coalbin and a coal-burning furnace. The coal was delivered through a window in the basement that opened to accommodate a chute from a coal delivery truck that parked in the driveway. Periodically my grandfather would make his way down the basement stairs to shovel coal into the furnace, stoke the fire or remove the old ashes, sometimes allowing one of the grandkids to accompany him. Many houses were heated with coal in the 1950s, but the furnaces were much larger than oil and natural gas units which required less attention from the homeowner and would become more popular in the next decade.
In the back of the house was a small yard and my grandfather’s chicken coop, complete with a rooster. In the 1950s city residents were allowed to own chickens and to keep chicken coops. My grandfather walked out to the coop every day to collect the eggs. Sometimes he let the grandkids go with him, which was quite a thrill for a five-year old. Scientists say that roosters crow to establish their territory or as a mating call, but our rooster had no competition and a harem of hens and nonetheless, he still crowed every morning. Although I never knew for sure, I suspect that the rooster may have irritated some of the neighbors. Adjoining my grandfather’s backyard was the backyard of a house on Brandt Place, the street that ran parallel and just east of Jackson. When I got a little older, one of the kids who lived in the house on Brandt Place always wanted to fight me and I never knew why. Years later the thought came to me that it may have had something to do with long-held bad feelings his family harbored about the rooster. Guess I’ll never know. The ‘kid’ from Brandt Place passed away many years ago, tragically choking to death in a restaurant. Or, I guess technically, dying of asphyxiation.
We lived on Jackson Street until my twin sister, Daryl and I were almost six years old. We both attended kindergarten classes at West Spring Street School. Our teacher, Mrs. Mau, was a taciturn old lady who had taught there for many years. I think she probably taught my mother. I don’t remember much about kindergarten, only that the cloak room was in the back and Mrs. Mau once slapped my hand and told me “No one plays the piano but Mrs. Mau”.
In 1957, when we were almost six, my grandfather on my father’s side was transferred to Mexico City to help start a new carpet mill. That was the beginning of corporate migration for cheaper foreign labor. My grandfather Stahl offered to let us live in his house on Lily Street while he and my grandmother were in Mexico. Lily St. was a few blocks away in a neighborhood where almost all of the houses were single family and had bigger yards, driveways and garages. Unlike Jackson St. that always seemed to have kids in the street looking for fun, there were fewer kids around on Lily St. My sister and I had to go looking for other kids on the neighboring streets.
Although we moved when I was young, I still remember Jackson Street because it was a fun place to live, at least partly because of families like the Redmonds.
At 15 Jackson St., a little up the hill from us, lived the Redmonds. The Redmonds had three kids – 2 girls, Bonnie and Paula, and a boy, Roger. I think they had two other kids after we moved, but I never met them. Roger was a friend of the same age. As I remember, he was always outside looking for something to do. That was good because I was too. Mrs. Redmond was a nurse and she once helped me when I had fallen head-first into a basement window well, striking my head and opening a deep gash. Mrs. Redmond dressed the cut and advised my mother to keep me awake that night, so I remember sitting up for most of the night.
Like some kids, Roger reserved much of his growing for his late teen years. After high school he joined the Marines and grew about six inches, transforming himself into an impressive- looking specimen in his uniform. In his later years he grew a prodigious beard and became an adventurous outdoorsman. Roger was very friendly and a good guy to have as a next-door neighbor. Although I lost touch with him after I moved from Jackson, he stayed close to my cousin George even in high school. I remember on one occasion in my high school years I was walking on Market Hill when a VW bug pulled up and offered me a ride. It was my cousin George with Roger riding in the front passenger seat. The two of them had been cruising around on this Saturday night, smoking menthol cigarettes and looking for something to do.
I was sad to hear that Roger had passed away last year. Although we had been out of touch for over 50 years, he was such a good soul I would have enjoyed reconnecting with him. Perhaps in the next life.
The Four Family
On the other side of our house at 11 Jackson was a large four-family.
In one of the four apartments lived the Bottomley family. I did not really know them but they had an appropriate name for that neighborhood. Although the families on the street were not at the very bottom of the economic ladder, we were pretty close. Funny but at that young age kids were mostly unaware of their family’s economic status. We were happy just to have a pair of sneakers and a ball to play catch. Money was not an issue until we grew older and wanted more stuff that the richer kids had.
The most famous occupant of the four-family and most famous resident of the street no doubt was Dusty Miller (aka Elmer Rossi). With his band, the Colorado Wranglers, Dusty played country music in local bars on weekends. I’m betting that neither Dusty nor any member of his band had ever been to Colorado, but it was a good name. Everyone in the neighborhood could tell when he had a gig because he would leave the house wearing a cowboy hat and carrying his guitar. Yeeha! Somehow his small stature and slight frame did not seem cowboy-like. More like cowboy lite.
Dusty owned a vicious chihuahua that terrorized the kids in the neighborhood when allowed to run unleashed. Jackson Street had a large dog population. Besides Dusty’s chihuahua, old Mrs. Boice, who lived upstairs from Dusty had a three-legged dog named Twinkles. Mrs. Boice spent most days sitting on her second-story porch chain smoking cigarettes, petting Twinkles and watching people on the street. My Uncle Dunk had a Doberman named Blitzen and my grandfather owned the two aforementioned Dachshunds, Fritz and Hans. In those days, there were no leash laws. Dogs could run loose, but Fritz and Hans were housedogs. They’d surely get beaten up by the bigger neighborhood dogs if allowed to run unleashed. Same with Twinkles.
Next to the four-family lived another Italian family, the Izzos, in a single-family house. Today the Izzo house has been transformed into a jerk chicken takeout restaurant.
A couple doors down the street was a two-family house where Tony Dargush and his cousins, Charlie and Jimmy Kristie lived. They were a year or two older than me. After high school, Tony played basketball at SUNY Plattsburgh and came back to Amsterdam where he worked for the U.S. Postal Service. An unconfirmed rumor on the street was that Charlie took steps to avoid being drafted into the military after high school. That was the time when many 18-year-olds were being drafted and sent to Vietnam. A few years later, Charlie had returned from Canada or wherever he had been and both Charlie and his brother Jimmy attended SUNY Oneonta along with Tim Selby who lived on Bayard St., the street that was just west of Jackson. I never heard what Charlie or Jimmy did after college, but Tim Selby became a high school teacher and coach and passed away a few years ago.
Juergen and Claudia’s and the Houses Down the Street
Across the street lived a family that had immigrated from Germany. The mother spoke with a heavy accent. She had two kids, Juergen and Claudia. Poor Juergen was confined to a wheelchair. He had been disabled from polio or muscular dystrophy, I don’t remember which. I felt sorry for him. As I remember, Claudia was pretty and kind of feisty.
In the same house as Juergen and Claudia lived the Beauchamps. They had two kids, Alex and his younger sister. Both were about my age, but I don’t remember seeing them much.
The house was owned by an old guy named Pop. I don’t know Pop’s real name. I don’t think anyone knew his name because no one talked to him. He always seemed a little angry. Pop spent much of his time in his pigeon coop in the backyard. Some of the men who raised pigeons used to enter them in races, but I’m not sure what Pop did with his.
In another house lived the Countermines. They owned a bait, tackle and boat launch business on Mussel’s Harbor at Great Sacandaga Lake. Their granddaughter, Michelle Pisarzyck used to visit frequently with her cat. She and my sister were good friends.
Next to them, at 16 Jackson, lived the Abballe family in a single-family house. Tommy Abballe was a few years older and didn’t pay any attention to kids my age. The Abballe house was most famous for a murder that took place there in 1937. William G. Serviss, 45, had killed his elderly aunt Mary Enders, 81, in a dispute over money. Murder on Jackson Street
Down the street lived Danny Palmieri, who was about my age, and would sometimes come up the street to hang out with kids around us. He was always welcome in our yard. I think he lived in the same house as his cousins, the Ingalls. My mother told me to stay away from Spike Ingalls. He was a couple years older and Mrs. Redmond said he was a tough guy who would beat-up smaller kids. The name Spike alone was enough to scare other kids.
At the bottom of Jackson, on the corner of Jackson and Guy Park, was the Betz Funeral Home. The funerals of my parents and grandparents were handled by Betz. Mr. Betz knew our family well.
The Local Candy and Grocery Stores
Around the corner from the Betz’s was Patterson’s Candy Store. It was a tiny shop that looked like someone had converted their garage into a candy store. Kids used to go there for penny candy and popsicles. Across Guy Park was Butterfield’s, which was a small grocery store. Today we’d call it a convenience store. There was no parking for Patterson’s or Butterfield’s. Customers lived in the neighborhood and walked there.
To get a major order of groceries, other than just a few items, people in the neighborhood walked a few blocks west on Guy Park to the Grand Union. It was a bigger grocery store with a parking lot. Later, in the 1970s, it would be converted to an Off-Track Betting parlor. My mother used to take my sister and me to Grand Union to go shopping. I remember on one occasion when I was about 3 or 4 years old I asked my mother to buy me a pair of scissors for cutting out paper figures. She refused and I put up a fuss. Later after we had walked home I snuck out of our apartment and walked back to Grand Union to take the scissors. When my mother realized I was gone she came looking for me and found me on my way home with the scissors. Of course, she made me bring them back to the store, but I remember she thought it was funny that I would want the scissors that badly.
The best candy store in the neighborhood was Hill’s, which was west on Guy Park and across the street from West Spring Street School. Hills sold all of the normal penny candy and popsicles and fudgesicles but they also sold homemade candy. My uncle especially liked their chocolate spiders. Hill’s version of the recipe consisted of chocolates with shredded coconut that stuck out on the sides and looked like legs.
Sixty-Five to Seventy Years Later
Most of my memories are from the mid to late 1950s, but in 2022 things have changed. My grandparents and parents have passed away. My uncle, aunt and cousin George are gone. George was only one year older than me, but he died while travelling Europe with his family a few years ago. Roger and his sister Bonnie are gone. Juergen died in his late teen years and his sister Claudia, just a few years ago.
Dusty Miller and the Bottomleys are gone.
The survivors include the Kristie brothers (according to Google, one in California and the other in Connecticut), Tony Dargush (who lives near Amsterdam), Paula Redmond Sumigray (who also lives near Amsterdam), Danny Palmieri (who lives in Rochester) and Michelle Pisarzyck (who lives near the Great Sacandaga Lake). And, my sister who lives in Arizona and me in New Jersey.
The Betz Funeral Home is still at the corner, and it has expanded. The Izzo’s house is now the Spice Island Caribbean takeout restaurant. Patterson’s, Butterfield’s, and Hill’s are long gone. West Spring Street School where we attended kindergarten was knocked down and replaced with a dental office many years ago.
Someday Jackson Street may return to its former prominence but sadly without George, Ada Mae, Dusty Miller, Pop, Mrs. Boice, Twinkles or the rest of the old characters.
Endnote: Thank you to Paula Redmond Sumigray and Danny Palmieri for helping me recall many of the details about Jackson Street in the 1950s and for supplying old photos and tips on finding former Jackson Street residents on Facebook.