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  • From the back of the apartment, the bedrooms, we looked out on to the American flag that flew over the post office two blocks away, and the building from "The Jeffersons". Our piece of the pie was on the East Side too.

    From the front, we looked on to this block. We knew, or frequented all the businesses. On the 84th Street corner was the first Optimo (or was it Te-Amo?) cigarette, candy and newspaper shop. South Asian men ran that one, and the one that opened a few years later in the middle of the block. Sikhs in one, with turbans, music and news in languages I couldn't understand in both. They let me stand and read Archie comic books for what seemed like endless hours.

    Next was Mimi's Pizzaria. Mimi had come from Napoli himself and started the shop. Once they were teenagers, he roped his two sons into working there, then they ran it. He was missing a thumb. No one spoke of how he lost it, but he managed to throw the dough and turn out one perfect pie after another, all day long. He didn't talk or smile much, and he didn't seem to like it when the boys expanded into the store next door and tried to make his place more of a ristorante than a pizza shop.

    There's always been a dry cleaners, but not the one that's there now. Alwyn was the name of the old one. A Jewish couple, in spite of the name, aging along with the store. Maybe they'd bought it from the previous owners and never changed the name? Impeccable tailoring was available there, at a reasonable price. My mother always seemed to have one or another item in to the tailor. She needed her clothes to fit, just so. They picked up and delivered, via a big, sweaty guy, who thankfully only had to walk a small radius to serve their customers.

    The Drago, the shoemakers. The Portugese, apparently, are cobblers with shoe repair stores all over New York City. These were Jews too, affiliated with the Orthodox. There was always the tzedzakah box next to the register soliciting donations for Jewish children afflicted with nasty illnesses. We never gave. The prices for a half sole or reheeling was always more than a little high. But they worked fast.

    The frame shop was Turkish folks, another couple. He was warm, smiling, affable, offering a hard candy to everyone who came in. She was all business, never cracked a smile, handled every dollar as if it was her last. They sold all kinds of trinkets with amulets against the evil eye in the window, and she wore a number of them herself. But they destroyed an oil painting of my mother's when adding the frame.

    Le Ziah had an array of gorgeous dresses in the window. My mother and father would make bets; she would always win, and the pay-up was a new dress from the shop. They were always silk, always fancifully patterned, and I dreamed of the time I'd be old enough to shop there. That was until the owner, a Chinese woman, accosted my mother in the street and accused her of paying with a bad check. It wasn't my mother's check, but the woman who had given it as payment was "like you!" the woman screamed. "Black lady like you, don't pay!" We never shopped there again.

    A glatt kosher, Israeli restaurant next door, fragrant with cumin, cinnamon, roasted nuts.

    An Irish bar, Carlow East, discharging cops and the sodden and lonely souls who had been coming for years, who still come today. I planned to have my first legal drink there, but I've never been inside.

    The Korean deli: overpriced milk, nuts, carefully arrayed produce, flowers, an ice cream cooler that always soothed my sadness. I learned to say "kam-sa-ham-nida" with the right inflections. I was thankful.

    The Chirping Chicken on the corner had two long grills, covered with splayed out birds and pita bread roasting all day. They filled the window that dripped with steam from the heat. A homeless man begged outside, but would never let my father buy him a meal in there. He just wanted cash.

    I spent my childhood thinking that there were only white people where I lived. That my mother was the only black woman for blocks around, save for the nannies. The residents were like that, but the business folks came from all over. Those who didn't have stores, but hawked their wares from tables on the street came from Mongolia, Sierra Leone. Perhaps we were not so alone.

    Now, the businesses have changed. It is not the block, or the city, of my childhood. The apartment belongs to someone else and I am not looking out the window, wondering who lives behind the windows above, who is buying what in the businesses below. But I still walk by and look, reconstructing my block of the 1970s and 80s, envisioning what surrounded me as I grew up.

    I need to remember.
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