Photo from vanishedamericana.com
(This is a draft chapter from a notional book I’m toying with calling “Tales from the Ironbound”. The Ironbound was my boyhood home, actually the east ward of Newark NJ, so named because it is surrounded on all sides by working railroad tracks. That neighborhood is also known as “Down Neck” because of its throat-like shape.)
It was a tin-lined windowless structure, ugly but sturdy, clad in weathered two-by horizontal planks. Neighborhood legend had it that Prohibition bootleggers used this place as a transshipping depot. Stories circulated for years that mobster rivalries escalated to retributive murder, right here in this dingy, musty place. It was said that one victim was a local boy who made the fatal mistake of stealing from his boss. It was just the kind of morality tale to excite the imaginations of adventurous young boys.
But for its size, a more apt description of the ice house would be a shack. An inelegant cupola vented the roof ridge, allowing unwanted warmth to escape. Sawdust once covered the slick and slimy wood floor. Essentially one large room, a small corner was thickly partitioned into an insulated office of sorts, containing, so far as I ever knew, nothing more than a rickety painted desk and a small cast iron coal stove. This corner also held a closet sized bathroom, its only fixtures a repulsive wall hung urinal and a tiny much stained sink. The building was more or less rectangular, with two long and two short walls, but they didn’t quite meet at right angles, giving the whole affair a lopsided look. It squatted heavily upon a concrete platform rising about four feet from the ground adjacent to a railroad siding. One pair of heavy cross-braced doors, hung to move on metal rollers, faced the train tracks. Through these doors, back in the pre-refrigeration heyday, great blocks of freshly harvested ice were offloaded from railcars whose journeys began somewhere up at the northern lakes or at various freighting points along the Erie Canal.
The roof beams held the crude works of a system of rails and pulleys, not unlike those used to move carcasses in a slaughterhouse. Once wrestled into the main storage room, the rough hewn bulky ice would have been cut into smoother, smaller, more manageable blocks. These would be then stacked man high against the clear, long north wall. Floor grates for several drains made apparent this had been the primary ice storage area, extending well beyond the center of the room. The principal tools for the job of moving and working the ice would have hung from the iron hooks stabbed hard into one short wall: tongs, saws, mallets, hatchets, chisels, picks and chains, all of a size that demanded large and powerful hands. Piles of rough burlap blankets for sliding and wrapping the ice were stored in huge bins, as were mounds of fresh sawdust. Gloves, rubber boots and oilcloth aprons would probably have been kept on the shelves above the slanted tops of the bins.
Opposite the train side doors, smaller hinged doors gave out onto a long narrow transfer platform where the dressed ice could be loaded onto horse-drawn delivery wagons queued up in threes. A turn-of-the-century sepia postcard thumb-tacked to the office wall showed a photo of this very arrangement. In it could also be seen narrow wooden chutes laid across the gap between the platform and the wagon beds to allow the blocks to slide neatly home.
Of course, by the time our gang took possession of the place, the ice was long gone. It was the 1950s and few if any homes still had iceboxes, although some businesses, mainly butcher or poultry shops and bars continued to cool some portion of their perishables with block ice. The door locks had disappeared, but the latches still worked. The few tools still hanging on their hooks were pretty well rusted and the remaining scraps of burlap were rotted where they lay. The sawdust had given way to just plain dust and a coat of ashy cinders that over time had blown up and in from the railbeds. Holes in the roof provided useable daylight, the electric being no longer in service. The entire site was impossibly overgrown with those uniquely urban weeds that defy every configuration of wood and masonry, almost obliterating the structure from view. In short, it made for a perfect clubhouse hideout.
First thing we did was to put our name on the place. One of the guys painted a board and we nailed it over the door: “The Royals.” That’s what we called ourselves even though not a one of us had ever even seen a royal personage, let alone had any royal blood in our veins. It sounded elevating, as though the name itself could somehow lift us right out of the grimy city and into a palace somewhere off in the lush clean countryside. But the other neighborhood gangs took to calling us the “Icemen” and that name persisted, much to our displeasure. We were about ten when in full number, but only four or five of us were diehard regulars, all living as we did within a few short blocks of the ice house rail spur.
We had no hierarchy. While we thought of ourselves as a gang, we were nothing like what people normally associate with the term. We weren’t criminals (except in the most petty sense), we didn’t battle other gangs, we weren’t vandals (at least not deliberately), and we didn’t hurt anybody other than ourselves. We had no jackets or uniforms, although we did all wear flat top haircuts with buzz cut sides. We were little boys, none of us yet in our teens, come together in carefree juvenile fraternity that became only slightly more formal with time, but with no purpose other than to have fun of our own making.
We set about furnishing our clubhouse from the discards of nearby stores. A few produce crates and wooden milk cases made for our chairs. The old desk and stove, once we yanked them into the large main room, made for our tables. That’s about all it took to make the place ours, except for the rats with whom we had no choice but to share tenancy. Fortunately, the rats preferred meeting at night.
One of our pastimes, and I suspect a common one for kids in cities everywhere, was exploring vacant, boarded or tumbledown buildings. We were lucky to have more than a few nearby. Ours was a thoroughly industrial precinct, but a number of smaller factories that had been humming with wartime production went dead silent after the peace. Here and there an abandoned fire ruin would poke out from between occupied properties, beckoning us like some promising treasure map. Whatever strange or interesting trophies we took from our many architectural excursions invariably wound up back in the ice house. Old tools whose purpose eluded us, shiny copper thing-a-ma-jigs, vacuum tubes, intricate small pieces of shattered machinery, embossed metal signs, even a bright red fire alarm bell, all found their way onto the shelves and walls of our clubhouse. Whatever glinted or caught our eye as we explored the recesses of some gloomy dead structure. Perhaps we had more in common with those rats than I realized, scavenging odd little bits of the outside world and bringing them back to our nest.
We really struck it rich one day while stumbling around inside a nondescript brown brick factory, finding scattered on its floor dozens of empty brass bullet shell casings of various lengths from about 2 to 4 inches. We convinced ourselves the place must have been a machine gun manufacturer and those shells came not to the ice house but home in our pockets. When I showed mine to my father, telling where we’d found them, he explained that the brown factory once housed a pencil maker who, after the war, also made army surplus shells into pencils. Needless to say I was disappointed, but I saved them anyway.
The ice house became our home away from home. Most weekdays, we’d be there between school and dinnertime. I probably learned more interesting and diverse things in my few tender years there than at any other place and time in my life. Smoking, for one. We coughed our way through more unfiltered Camel and Lucky Strike cigarettes than I can recount. Gambling, for another. We learned to shoot craps and play poker, the old fashioned kinds, draw and stud. Briscola, pronounced breeshk in my family’s Neapolitan dialect, is a traditional Italian card game and was one of our favorites. Pitching pennies and baseball cards were, too. I developed a pretty good technique for pitching cards and could knock down and top a leaner nine times out of ten. I built quite a nice collection from our contests. In any of our games, cheaters were not tolerated. Anyone caught cheating was given a choice: either take a whooping from the group or take off, never to return. I don’t remember whooping anyone.
While we all had toy guns, often using them to play “Cops and Robbers” or “Cowboys and Indians,” we did have one real pistol between us, a .22 caliber revolver, courtesy of the father of one of the guys. We practiced with it by shooting at targets we chalked onto the walls. Sometimes we’d line up old bottle targets and, once we had the hang of it, we would shoot the occasional rat. I don’t know if that father ever knew how often we borrowed his gun, but we sure did go through a lot of his ammunition. It never occurred to us there was any danger involved. The boy who owned the gun had been well trained by his father, and we took his solemn instructions quite seriously. This experience, plus a few years of rifle instruction at summer camp, led me to join the NRA at age twelve.
Knives figured in our recreation, too. We all carried penknives wherever we went and counted them among our most prized possessions. Some of us, including me, had several. My favorite was a Sicilian stiletto with an olivewood handle, hung handily from by belt loop. The ice house floor was untreated pine; enough softened by age to effectively yield to our spirited mumblety-peg matches. Nobody ever lost a toe, although we had more than a few sneaker cuts. We tried throwing the knives at our pistol targets, but learned pretty quickly that penknives aren’t meant for throwing. So we whittled a lot; nothing remarkable, nothing useful or even attractive, just big sticks that we inexorably whittled into small ones while shooting the boyhood breeze. Of course, we also carved our initials into the exposed wall studs, sometimes paired with those of a girl who probably never knew she’d been so honored. But I do recall having had a grander carver’s notion. Back then, I had a wonderful stickball bat that I’d cropped from a nicely dense old mop handle, and my notion was to someday carve a complete set of chess and checkers pieces from it. Not sure why, but I never made the attempt.
Needless to say, we played a lot of chess and checkers in that clubhouse, and the competition was fierce. If we weren’t playing for money, the loser would have to perform a boon to benefit the group. It was just such a loser who got hold of a fine dartboard set for the club. He “appropriated” it from a neighborhood bar’s backroom while sorting and stacking empty beer bottles for the owner. We similarly acquired an oak teacher’s chair from a nearby school, and a small, well studied library of comic books plus a few girlie magazines pilfered with no little nervousness from the neighborhood barber shop. I guess we had some larceny in us after all. But for the record, I never lost a chess or checkers match, so I never had to personally wrestle the acquisition dilemma.
And while all this was going on, we didn’t neglect our physical education. After all, the place was big enough to be a gymnasium, too. The inevitable arguments would sometimes turn into an exchange of insults. The insults would sometimes ignite fistfights. Whenever that happened, we immediately imposed certain rules. The combatants would be given a limited time frame of five minutes. They could punch or slap, but no wrestling, grabbing or kicking. Either opponent could “give up” and call the fight over whenever they felt like it. Opponents had to shake hands afterward and pledge their friendship. If they couldn’t do that, they couldn’t stay in “The Royals.” With no little creativity, we also invented an indoor ball game, or so we thought. We called it “Wallball,” using the ubiquitous pink rubber Spalding “HiBouncer” known colloquially to every kid as a “Spaldeen.” It was years later when I was surprised to discover the rest of the world already knew this game, in essence, as Handball.
The ice house also served as our makeshift garage. Here is where we brought our bicycles to make repairs, grease chains, patch innertubes, paint the fenders and chain guards in our “Royals” red and blue colors, and in general fit them out with neat accessories like wheel-generated headlamps, cool new reflectors and fox tails. We cared for our bikes then as diligently as we would care for our cars in later years. The money for these things came from our allowances and the odd jobs we always picked up, like mopping store floors or hauling apartment house garbage cans to and from the curb. And we built stuff here, too, like racy scooters from discarded wood and old roller skates, studding them with bottle caps we’d collect from neighborhood bars and candy stores. Once, we even tried to build a float for the feast day parade of our church parish. It was a wagon based rig that turned out to be an unstable disaster. It never saw the light of day.
Portable transistor radios were hot new items in those days, and we’d sometimes sit around listening to late afternoon broadcasts of Yankee games, thrilling at the mention of the slightest heroics by Yogi, Moose, Mickey or Whitey. Had we been older and more animated by the surging popularity of rock-and-roll, we might have used the marvelous echo-chamber effect of that tin-lined place to harmonize a cappella. But, singing … well that’s for another story.
I moved to the other side of Newark when I was about eleven, and I never saw any of “The Royals” again. I know that two served in Viet Nam where one of them was killed, one was ordained a Roman Catholic priest, and one became a police officer. I heard that one went to prison, but could never confirm that. However, it wouldn’t surprise me. He was the kid who brought us the dartboard.
There are days when I miss the old ice house. Heaven only knows what molds and miasmas I inhaled from that dark and dank place; a place that surely spent more years wet than dry. But it was nonetheless a special place in a special time. I can still smell it, still feel how the floor gave subtly beneath my bounding Converse high tops as I’d chase the ball from one wall to the other. At some point during the 1960s it was torn down and paved over for a supermarket parking lot. Much of my boyhood city disappeared that same way, although the Ironbound remains an unusually vibrant neighborhood. Whenever I go to a restaurant today, you know the kind, the ones with antique junk hanging decorously from every square foot of wall and ceiling, I always look around for something familiar, something like that fine old red alarm bell.