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Review: Novelist recalls boyhood in post-WW II Bronx in 'My Old Neighborhood Remembered'

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"My Old Neighborhood Remembered" (Barricade Books), by Avery Corman

Before Brooklyn became a hipster haven with pricey real estate and the Bronx became the poster child for urban blight, neighbourhood life in those outer boroughs was pretty much the same.

That's the recollection of Avery Corman, who grew up in the Bronx during the 1940s and '50s and went on to write novels that became the basis for the hit movies "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Oh God!" In a later novel, "The Old Neighborhood," the hard-driving protagonist reconnects with his childhood neighbourhood in the Bronx, rediscovers his roots and finds inner peace and contentment.

Now Corman has returned to that same nostalgia-laden turf, this time with a charming and lyrical memoir, "My Old Neighborhood Remembered," about his Bronx boyhood in a nontraditional working-class household with a divorced mother, an older sister, and an aunt and uncle, both of them deaf mutes.

With few organized activities and no hovering parents to schedule them, kids took to the streets to create their own fun. It was a world of punchball, Johnny-on-a-pony, Ringolevio and, of course, stickball, in which players would keep an eye out for an approaching police car and roll the bat under a parked car before a cop could confiscate it.

An iconic element of street life was the local candy store, a neighbourhood hangout where youngsters might sip an egg cream while reading a comic book off the rack. They could buy a notebook and a protractor for school, or a Spaldeen, the pink rubber ball used for stickball. Some candy stores had a resident bookmaker and might sport signs outside reading "Cars to the Track" to lure horseplayers.

With television in its infancy, movie theatres were everywhere. None was more ornate than the famously baroque Loew's Paradise, a 3,855-seat landmark on the Grand Concourse, a short walk from Corman's apartment. Stern-faced matrons dressed in white and armed with flashlights patrolled the children's section, ready to pounce on kids who might commit such infractions as noisily humming through their candy boxes.

As Corman progressed through grade school, junior high and high school, his mother worked her way up from a $14-a-week stock clerk at Alexander's, the big department store that was essentially a discount operation but "offered the illusion of upscale shopping." She eventually became a buyer at J.W. Mays in Brooklyn, swapping a long subway ride each day for a job that secured her status as solidly middle class.

The author goes on to describe the mystery of his father's disappearance, the impact of college basketball scandals that implicated Bronx sports heroes and the travails of Hebrew school in preparation for his bar mitzvah. He managed to stumble through the ceremony but then didn't set foot in a synagogue for 23 years.

After high school, Corman studied business at New York University but failed to land his dream job as a copywriter on Madison Avenue. It was the start of the "Mad Men" era and agencies tended to exclude Jews, other "ethnics" and applicants with degrees from non-Ivy League colleges.

People tend to romanticize their childhood, but the post-World War II Bronx was a time and place that conveyed a sense of community and vitality to those who grew up there. Many have moved on but still carry fond memories that Corman's quick read is sure to evoke. His anecdotes and reminiscences are likely to resonate most strongly with fellow Bronxites, but readers unfamiliar with the world of his childhood are sure to be charmed and entertained by this delightful account of city life more than a half-century ago.

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