I grew up in, for the most part, a white world. In the 50's and 60's, my Bronx neighborhood was a collection of several ethnic groups that were almost universally European. Irish, Italian, German, and others each had a presence in my life. I didn’t realize any major differences at the time among the groups, though, except for the accents of the old people. The grid-like blocks of houses and shops that radiated outward from Tenbroeck Avenue were my world, and all the buildings and all the people in it formed my idea of normal life. And normal meant white people.
There were just two or three black kids at my school; there were no black kids at my playground. I had seen many black people, of course, but really didn’t know any. I would most often see them as I ventured beyond my neighborhood for whatever reason. And yes, there were black people in my neighborhood from time to time—most often a delivery person in work clothes stepping off a truck, doing his job, then driving away. Black people didn’t live on Tenbroeck Avenue with one exception: Mrs. Harding.
Each afternoon just before six o’clock she would pass my house on the way to her own. Down the long, straight sidewalk from our end of Tenbroeck to the far end she would walk each day. An old woman. A small leathery very dark old black woman. All we knew of her was her name: Mrs. Harding. Everything else we knew about her was conjecture and legend. Each day as she passed she was dressed in large, loose clothes. She wore layers from her thick stockings to the oversized kerchief tied beneath her chin that covered her matted black hair. And she always, always carried shopping bags with her. Not just a grocery bag or two from the local store, but great shopping bundles sometimes two in each hand, each overstuffed with…something. We all wanted to know what was in those bags. I remember my mother telling me “She’s stocking up for the war.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I believed it. And I repeated it as if I knew. If our eyes met as she passed by, she would sometimes silently smile and show bright white gapped teeth without pausing on her way.
Mrs. Harding was the only black person who lived on Tenbroeck Avenue during all the time that I lived there. And even more mysterious than her shopping bundles was the house she lived in. It was on our side of the street, but near the opposite end, close to Arnow Avenue. Down at that far end of the block was a long strip of attached brick rowhouses across the street. And back over on my side of the street opposite those houses was Mrs. Harding’s house. It was a triple sized property, actually. Much, much wider than any other property on the block. There was a low, brick wall defining the start and end of her land. It was difficult to see everything because the trees and weeds and other green growth was so thick and wild that the place literally looked like a jungle. In the middle part of the property stood her actual house. We could see part of the front of the two-story brick building; there was a small path to the left of it. We had seen her enter though a small door towards the back of the house; the front steps and door were inaccessible due to the overgrowth.
To the right of her house was an empty lot. It was still behind the low wall that defined her property. It wasn’t cleared land, but there was no house there. I remember once seeing her in this place, her garden, tending to peach trees that grew close together there. To the left of her house was what made Mrs. Harding’s place the stuff of childhood legends. There stood a shell of a second house. A two-story brick building not unlike her own, but there were no windows in the openings, no installed doors. Branches and weeds grew out of some of the openings as it stood silent, dark and unfinished for years and years. Both of the buildings were built close to the sidewalk that ran from my end of the street to her end. And when we rode our bikes up and down the street we rarely would ride the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Harding’s. Tales of the woman luring children into her garden with fruit only to be dragged inside the house were not dismissed for their impossibility. We weren’t taking any chances. We didn’t know who she was, where she came from, what she did each day, nor what was in those bundles.
I remember a man saw me riding my bike up and down the street one day near Mrs. Harding’s house. A tall white man in a business suit. He asked me if I know who lived there. I was more than eager to share my knowledge with the stranger. Did she live alone? Sure! Did I know where she worked? No. Did I know anything about the abandoned house next to hers on the property? I sure did. I told the man what I had heard from countless retellings: Mrs. Harding started building the never-finished house for her daughter. The daughter died in some mysterious way years ago and Mrs. Harding just let everything go. She never mowed or trimmed, she lived alone in mourning for her lost child.
Tenbroeck Avenue had its own witch, as we children secretly called her, and she happened to be the only black person we knew, the only one we saw each day. I think of Mrs. Harding now and then and how strange and out of place she seemed living among us. I realize now, though, that whatever I thought I knew about her, I really didn’t know anything at all.