A rat hole if ever there was one, and where we were living when my parents divorced. It was one of those ubiquitous six-flat apartment buildings, with long narrow flats. It was dark and dreary, with rats in the basement and, no matter what you did, cockroaches everywhere. I wonder how much DDT I must have inhaled in those years, as we regularly set off bug bombs in an effort at least to drive the roaches next door, since obviously they were not about to die, which would have required fumigation of the entire building, a practical impossibility.
The building was only a few blocks from downtown and three blocks from one of the poorest, largely African-American, neighborhoods in town. Not long after we got there I would be delivering newspapers in my own neighborhood every afternoon and both downtown and in that distressed neighborhood every morning.
The paper routes were a major influence from the time I was 10. I did it until I was 16. Fortunately, my mother thought it was important to foster independence in her children, so from age 10 on we had house keys and were not asked to account for our whereabouts, as long as we did well in school (which we always did, apart from deportment issues) and performed household chores without too much grousing.
The major event was the departure of my father after the divorce. I remember my sister testifying against him, a very upsetting thing for a 14-year-old girl to do, especially as she was ambivalent about his being kicked out of the household. I was not, not in the least. I was elated that he was going to be gone, for purely selfish reasons. Of course, at 11 I had virtually no appreciation for how difficult it would be for my mother, that she would face severe financial hardship and near-total social ostracism: women did not get divorced in 1946, and if they did, the view then prevailing was that it was their fault.
My sister and I were in school, but when my mother went to work (while we were still on McClure St.), she had had to put my brother in day care, or as it was then called, nursery school. This was a great trial for him and for her as well, because he was sickly and timid, so he screamed every time she left him there, but she had to go to work, so leave him she did, often in tears herself.
Meanwhile, I was learning life in the streets, because being a newsboy in a fairly rough downtown neighborhood was not for the faint of heart. In an odd way, the violence and bellicosity of my earlier life stood me in good stead, because though I was not particularly brave, neither was I cowardly. I usually got the better of situations by combining wit, tough talk, readiness to flee very quickly, and (as a last resort) to fight if it all fell apart.
Across the back alley from our building was a long narrow building that fronted on the side street. It was a private mental hospital, or as we called it then, an insane asylum. On hot days the inmates would holler out the windows at us kids "They're keeping me prisoner in here, help me, help me!" It was rather scary, actually.
I don't remember now what the reason for moving was, probably something to do with the extreme filth of the dump or with being strapped financially. It may have been on account of the new landlord on Knoxville, a pretty decent Hungarian woman named Mrs. Julian. It was only three blocks away, so I could keep my paper routes, and it was directly across the street from my brother's nursery school.