When I was a kid growing up in Rochelle Park, there were only half as many houses as there are today, and all of the streets running from Rochelle Avenue to Berdan Street were dead ends. If you drove toward Lodi from Passaic Street, and made a right turn on any of the streets from Crescent to Forest, you would end up in the woods. The area was totally undeveloped, and stretched all the way from Railroad Avenue to Passaic Street, and as far west as Route 4.
I grew up on West Oldis. Our house was the last one on the block until the early 50's. The paved version of West Oldis stopped at our driveway, but continued into the woods as a muddy trail of tire tracks, puddles, and footpaths through the underbrush. It led to a swampy area where South Drive is today. I remember the swamp because of a story my mother used to tell.
I had gone "exploring" with my next door neighbor, Vail. It was one of our favorite things to do, wandering aimlessly through the woods, stopping to look at various things, and just enjoying our time in the sun and having the freedom to come and go as we pleased. On this particular day, we made it as far as the swamp, and stood on the edge throwing stones into the water and contemplating how far we could walk in without being swallowed up by quicksand. When it came to fear, quicksand was a biggie back then.
After a while, a woman came by walking her dog. Apparently she was surprised to find a couple of 6 year-olds out in the woods, so she asked if there was anyone with us.
"Oh yeah,” I said, sensing trouble. “Our grandfather is with us."
"Well, where is he?" she asked.
I pointed toward the pools of stagnant water and tree stumps.
"Out there in the swamp," I said, no doubt thinking this would cover my story and explain why he wasn't right beside us at the moment.
The woman must have been horrified. I’m sure she thought he had drowned, or was at least up to his neck in quicksand, because she asked us where we lived, rushed to my parent’s house, and somehow summoned the police along the way. When Vail and I got home, we had some explaining to do. But that's another story.
Most of the roads today are true to the old trails that ran through the woods. Not only was the section of West Oldis beyond our house built along the same path that Vail and I walked, but Berdan Street had once been a path that was heavily used by people adventurous enough to cut through the woods. I often wonder if the town fathers had any particular plan in mind when they laid out the roads, or if they chose, as they say, “the path of least resistance.” Even North and South Drive were once nothing more than trails, but they too were paved over, and the whole woods was eventually bulldozed and leveled for the sake of "the development," as we affectionately called it.
The affection was not entirely unearned. With all of the houses going up, we had an endless supply of two-by-fours and plywood panels with which to build our tree houses in the large area of woods still standing between West Oldis and Passaic Street. That was the last area to be developed, and right behind our house.
Along the edge of the woods, between the Carter's and the Van Lenten's, was "The Clearing." The Clearing was a large patch of hard sand maybe fifty feet in diameter, surrounded by trees and bushes. It had been trampled flat by all of the kids in our neighborhood who had come there to build “tree huts” over the years. The huts were always in various stages of construction, and if we weren't out stealing cement tubs and riding them down Sprout's Brook, we were busy dragging all of the building materials we could get our hands on back to The Clearing so we could carry on the tradition.
All of that work made a young man hungry.
At the corner of Rochelle Avenue and Crescent Street is a bike shop. My own son likes to go there now, and when I go with him, I can't help thinking back to when I was his age. Before it was a bike shop, it was "A&E‘s," a corner deli run by two gentlemen fondly remembered for their “sangwiches.“ But before that, it was a little grocery store called "Sexton's." Mr. Sexton always wore a white apron and had a yellow pencil balanced on his ear. After you picked out the items you wanted and laid them on the counter, he would reach down and pull out a brown paper bag, lay it flat on the countertop, and proceed to add up all of the items with the yellow pencil, never once making a mistake, or having to erase any of his figures.
My mother used to send me to Sexton's for cigarettes and groceries. In those days, a pack of cigarettes cost twenty-five cents, and no one cared if you were 6 or 60. If you had a quarter, you could buy whatever you wanted. It was understood that the cigarettes were for your parents, but it wasn't too long before my friends and I discovered what a quarter could do for us.
I think I was the first to figure out that if we bought ten-cents worth of bologna, a five-cent roll, and a bottle of Nehigh Punch for a dime, we could get a lunch for twenty-five cents. Actually, it was twenty-seven cents, because there was a 2 cent deposit on bottles back then, and in order to clinch the deal with Mr. Sexton, we had to promise to hang around the store and return the empty bottles as soon as we were done.
That was the beginning of another favorite thing we liked to do.
If you look at the bike store today, you'll notice a cement step to the left of the entrance. That used to be "the stoop” to Mr. Sexton’s grocery store. After Mr. Sexton added up our sandwiches and sodas on a brown paper bag, we'd go out the old screen door and sit on the stoop and watch the cars go by as we ate. Every once in a while, two or three would pass by at the same time, but for the most part, it was a long wait for the next one to come along.
I'm sure we never spoke about it, but looking back now, it's amazing that not one of them made a wrong turn and disappeared in the quicksand.