Before there was a Jenny From The Bronx whose real name is Jennifer Lopez, a “Scandal”-famed actress named Kerry Washington who grew up in the borough or even a world-famous rapper from the northern-most city limit named Grandmaster Melle Mel, there was a kid from the Bronx named Arlene who loved everything about her Bronx community.
Born and raised on Allerton Ave. – at the intersection of Barnes and Arno Avenues — when telephones were a novelty, stick-ball was the sport to tout and the Yankees yearned for an athlete to rival Brooklyn’s super batter Jackie Robinson, the uptown girl was known to neighbors as Arlene Weiss.
Everyone on her block knew her, her older brother and sister and her parents — they all lived in a one-bedroom, one bathroom apartment in the Mayflower Building with a fox terrier named Spotty.
She played in the streets; attended Evander Childs High School, married to a man named Alan Alda and at age 82 recently published “Just Kids from The Bronx” a collection of nostalgic, personal accounts from 64 very different individuals who succeeded despite being raised in the poorest borough in the richest city in the world.
Among them, actors Al Pacino and Carl Reiner, Former Army General and Secretary of State, Colin Powell, songwriter Valerie Simpson, and Bronxites ranging in ages 23 to 93.
In the book, the former military might who grew up on Kelly Street in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx said what he loved most was flying kites there. He worked for a Jewish storekeeper and earned quarters turning on and off lights inside a synagogue on the Sabbath — a time when the orthodoxy were forbidden to work.
His recollections also include eggless egg creams, learning Yiddish and Teitelbaums’ Drugstore.
Pacino recalls sleeping on the roofs during the summer when it was too hot inside the one bedroom he shared with his family.
He said the roof of his building was like a spacious terrace. And often he and his beloved grandfather would escape the crowds by going up to the melted-tar top landing. At the time, he said his Sicilian grandfather had first migrated to Harlem before settling in the Bronx.
Author Mary Higgins Clarke who lived in the Pelham Parkway section placed The Bronx among internationally acclaimed landmarks.
“There are only three places that have ‘the’ in front of their name The Vatican, The Hague and The Bronx.”
She cites its beauty as the most alluring and memorable quality to recall.
Alda’s compilation of testimonials include athletes, scientists, artists, a nun, urban planner, police officer as well as a full complement of other achievers who in their formative years called the Bronx home.
Recently, after an introduction by Hunter College President Jennifer J. Raab, Alda sat with moderator Lenore Skenazy to reflect on the childhood she considers some of the best years of her life and in the process escort alums through a back-in-time-travel to a place now altered by technology and inevitable change.
As if passengers on the time-honored excursion, Hunter alumnae joined with the former music major who graduated in 1954 to retrace her early years and for many rekindle the prime of their New York residency.
At Hunter College’s landmark location known as Roosevelt House — where President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor lived — Alda explained the genesis of her book and how she interviewed 65 prominent Bronx residents who shared her passion for the borough.
As a former Bronx kid, a graduate of Hunter College, a former soldier in the US Army, and former student to take urban affairs classes at Roosevelt House, a fan of her husband’s “M*A*S*H” TV shows, the allure for yours truly was Alda and much more.
With like-minded alums and their guests arriving early for the one-hour launch, by the start a spillover room seemed too small to accommodate the capacity audience wanting to reminisce their youth.
Some of the Bronx’s favorite sons and daughters showed up. Curious readers did too and even Alda’s popular television and Broadway actor-husband was forced to take a back-seat.
Some wanted to hear the love-story between the Bronx native and the tall, handsome fella named Alan that changed the trajectory Arlene pursued. They married on March 15, 1957 and are parents to three daughters — Eve, Elizabeth and Beatrice, as well as eight grandchildren.
According to the 57-year bride, the acclaimed actor was actually a yellow cab driver back then. It seemed though that the perceptive Jewish girl knew something the now-famed actor might not have envisioned and she acted on that intuition by marrying him.
But that’s another story.
The wife, mother, grandmother and Hunterite is accomplished in her own right as a musician excelled as a professional clarinetist; an award-winning photographer and author of 19 books. Together with her husband they co-authored “The Last Days of M*A*S*H” a recount of his hit TV series which humorously focused on a military, medical unit deployed to Korea during the war there.
Of her newest book, President Bill Clinton said it is “a down-to-earth, inspiring book about the American promise fulfilled.”
Barbara Walters called it “fascinating.”
The broadcast journalist added that reading the book “made me wish I had been born in the Bronx.”
With unique attractions such as Pelham Bay Park, the largest park in all of New York City — yes bigger than Central Park— The Bronx Zoo, Little Italy, City Island, Yankee Stadium, New York Botanical Garden, Edgar Allen Poe Cottage and a Bronx Wall of Fame there is much to appreciate in that outer-borough.
The book champions the re-emergence of the south Bronx which for years had fallen into disrepair.
It boasts the memories of a community united by a public telephone.
Imagine a time when a child would wait for the pay phone to ring, answer it and then run to the house to find the party who received the call, run back to inform the caller that the person was on their way (or not) and for the effort receive a 10 cent tip.
Home-phones were scarce.
Those were the days.
Alda said despite the fact she talked with many interesting individuals she would have liked to have interviewed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a south Bronx achiever and the first Puerto Rican to be appointed to the highest court.
Alda also said she would have liked to talk with actress Kerry Washington.
But she did speak with Melvin Glober, aka the award-winning rap artist known as Grandmaster Melle Mel and a diverse group of Bronxites.
Check out the book, there are vintage photos to compliment the words. All proceeds will go to Bronx children’s centers.
Catch You On The Inside!