By Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts
Here’s what Bayonne, N.J., was like when Steve graduated from the eighth grade at No. 3 School in 1956. He lived two blocks from the school, in the same house his mom had grown up in, a house built by his grandfather with his own hands.
His parents both attended classes at No. 3, in the early ‘30s when it was still a high school. And they lived a block apart when they met on his mom’s 17th birthday, 70 years ago last winter.
Occupying a narrow neck of land, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, Bayonne was a town of strong neighborhoods, strong families, strong ties to tribes and traditions. People knew who they were and where they were from. Steve can count on one hand the classmates who arrived or left during his entire tenure at No. 3. A woman who moved here during 7th grade is still known as “the new girl.”
As the Class of 1956 approached its 50th anniversary, one member, Phyllis Wasserman Gorelick, started raising money for a gift to the school. Checks poured in, and so did sentiment. Wouldn’t it be great to see each other, and not just exchange e–mails?
And so 24 (out of 78) “Golden Grads,” as their yellow and blue T–shirts proclaimed, gathered in No. 3 School’s over–heated auditorium on graduation night (the power went out three times) to present the gift, a lectern. Then the “GGs” repaired to Naples pizzeria (”The Napes”), a favorite high school hangout, to exchange old memories and new pictures.
With six grandkids, Steve tied for the class lead, but several classmates voiced a common complaint. Their thirty–something offspring have not bothered to get married or produce progeny. One woman, who finally gets to play Mother of the Bride this summer, says the race is on: will her grandkids be walking before she needs a walker herself?
As a group, the women looked a whole lot better than the men, and were more recognizable. At Bayonne High in the ‘50s, there were no organized sports for girls; twirling a baton was the apex of female athletic achievement. Today, these women are playing golf and working out and fitting into the dress sizes of their youth.
The men were harder to place. One sported a long gray ponytail, another was completely bald, a few had added beards or mustaches. Steve understood. One grandson looked at his silvery head recently and asked, “Teebs, what color did your hair used to be?”
What drew the “Golden Grads” back to Bayonne was a common emotion, a fondness for a place and time that gave them such a powerful sense of identity. Almost all of them were moved to do the same thing: come to town early and visit their old neighborhoods.
Yes, one classmate’s home was now condos, and another got so befuddled she had to call her sister for their old address. But most shared Steve’s experience. On West 31st Street, where he grew up, a few facades have been altered – a new porch here, different siding there – but the basic streetscape remains entirely unchanged from 50 years ago.
After Steve described this block in his memoir, My Fathers’ Houses (published last year and now out in paperback from Harper Perennial), the family who owns his old house, the O’Donnells, got in touch. They’ve raised six kids there, a mind–boggling number, since the Roberts family found it too small for four. On this trip, Steve noticed one addition: a Marine Corps flag in the front yard, honoring the oldest O’Donnell child, who probably joined the service to get some privacy.
The Class of 56 at No. 3 School reflected the city’s role as a fertile seedbed for new immigrants. About half were Jewish (Rubenstein, Freedman), and the rest were mainly Irish (Burns, Ryan), Italian (Randazzo, Iorio) and Polish (Jaroszewski, Rogaski). No blacks, Latinos, or Asians.
The neighborhood still welcomes immigrants, but today at No. 3 (now Walter F. Robinson School) barely 50 percent of the students are white. At home, many of them speak Arabic, Spanish, Tagalog, Korean and Urdu. The top student in the Class of 2006 was from the Philippines. Several women in the audience for graduation wore Muslim headscarves.
These families have learned that Bayonne is still a good place to raise their children. The names and languages and religions have changed, but the values have not. And they all still go to Naples for pizza.
Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e–mail at email@example.com.
Copyright 2006, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.