“Little Manhattan”

Downtown Passaic, New Jersey. Circa 1964, post Erie Railroad commuter line.

“I think we should go to Passaic tomorrow.”  If I could do backflips, handstands and cartwheels every time my mother said these words I would.  But I couldn’t, so I would spend a restless night, tossing and turning, thinking of all the possibilities that the next day would bring.  Growing up in Bergen County, New Jersey, a trip to Passaic in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s was like going to New York City for us kids, well for me anyway. 

We had only one car, which my Dad drove to work, so our journey to Passaic would start with a walk to the bus stop.  A caravan consisting of my Mom, grandmother, two brothers and toddler sister would trudge, mile after mile, up and down hills – well, when you are 6 years old, it seemed like mile after mile and hills – but I drove it one time, there was only one hill and my trip odometer measured 4/10 of a mile – but eventually we would arrive at the bus stop.  

The bus driver on the route from Midland Avenue to Lexington Avenue in Passaic resembled William Demarest, the actor who played Uncle Charley on My Three Sons, but lacked his charm.  He was curt to most passengers, however he had a great deal of respect for my Grandmother and strained to be polite with our entourage.  This respect developed on an earlier bus ride to Passaic.   I missed the coin slot on the fare box and the change fell to the floor.  Uncle Charley started to chastise my mother and I but my grandmother cut him off by telling him to “shut up and go shit in his hat”.  I think he was afraid to have any issues with us after that.

Getting off the bus on Lexington Avenue, to us, was like getting out of a cab in Times Square.  Two and three story department stores with big Art Deco signs, illuminated with huge light bulbs advertised McRory’s and Nadler’s.  To beat the lunch crowd, we would go into the five & dime store, S & S Kresge, and make a bee line for the lunch counter at the back of the store.  A waitress wearing a yellow uniform with red piping, a white apron and a little paper hat with “Kresge” on it would take our hot dog order.  When the waitress was out of earshot, my grandmother would comment on her excess lipstick.  By 11:30, hot dogs consumed, we would head back out to the cavalcade of stores.  We always made a stop at the Thom McCann shoe store.  To my parents, it seemed my brothers and I would outgrow a pair of shoes every 6 weeks or thereabouts, so the shoe salesmen (they were all men then) greeted my mom like an old friend.  

On the streets between stores we would encounter a guy playing an accordion and and, of all things, an organ grinder, slowly twisting the handle of one of those barrel organs.  He had a tin cup, but no monkey.  There were also a few scruffy looking guys selling #2 pencils for a nickel each.  My grandmother would point at them and tell my brothers and I that could be us if we didn’t do “good” in school.  Before catching the bus to return home, my grandmother would make a dash into McCrory’s to snag a bag of their home made potato chips. At their lunch counter, one of the wait staff would scoop the chips into a big shopping bag. The price – a quarter! On the bus ride back, the greasy bag would get passed among us, the only sounds made were the crunching of the magnificent McRory chips. My grandmother especially liked them. So much so, she was inspired to make her own potato chips at home, which were even better than the McCroy chips.

Christmas shopping in Passaic was especially delightful.  The existing glittering store signs were enhanced by the addition of Christmas lights, wreaths and Christmas trees in the stores.  Nadler’s Department store would almost quadruple the size of their toy department, much to the dismay of my mother.  It would be near impossible to drag my brothers and I away from the Lionel trains and the Marx toy play sets.  When I watch A Christmas Story, the downtown scenes, to me, resembles Passaic at Christmas time.

Downtown Passaic, decorated for Christmas.
Downtown Passaic in 1963, a photo of the last Erie Railroad commuter run.

In the early 1960’s Passaic was a noisy place as well.  The steam whistle at the massive, nearby Botany textile mill would emit its ear splitting screech at noon to announce its employees lunch break.  A commuter branch of the Erie Railroad ran through the center of the business  district.  Shoppers would pass back and forth through underground pedestrian tunnels to visit stores on each side of railroad tracks.  I remember being in Passaic with my Mom & Dad in the late 1950’s and being scared out of my shoes by the sounds of an old steam engine signaling its arrival at the downtown station.

The massive Botany textile mill. You could hear the shift change & lunch whistles from miles away.

By 1964, my Dad had gotten a job that included a company car.  My mom now had a car to load us all into for shopping trips.  Parking had always been an issue in Passaic, another reason to take the bus.  By 1963, the Erie Railroad had pulled up its tracks through the center of Passaic and parking space was created, however it was metered parking.  We began to make shopping trips to the Garden State Plaza and the Bergen Mall in nearby Paramus.  Parking was free and there was a wider variety of stores to choose from.  The days of the stores in downtown Passaic were numbered.  There was a quaintness about shopping in Passaic, although the entire population of the town at that time was about 58,000 people, it had a big city feel to it.  It was always busy.  It was like Manhattan, only closer to home.  When you are 6 or 7 years old, everything seems farther away then it is in reality.  From our home in East Paterson to downtown Passaic was 3 ½ miles.  The Bergen Mall was about 4 miles from our home.  It was a two block walk to catch the Port Authority Bus Station to Manhattan, only a few blocks from Times Square, a distance of only 17 miles from our house.

Ernie Stricsek

Chatham Memoir Group

1/7/22

4 thoughts on ““Little Manhattan”

  1. Hi Ernie, I can’t imagine your grandmother saying those words. She was the proverbial “sweet lil old lady”. This passage reminded me of Barb and I boarding the bus in downtown Seymour and going to metropolitan New Haven in the 1960’s. At that time, going to New Haven demanded our good clothes. Shopping at Macy’s, Malleys, and the Chapel Square Mall made us feel sophisticated. We were independent young women taking the bus. Ah memories, Nancy

    On Fri, Jan 7, 2022 at 8:45 PM The Chatham Packet wrote:

    > estricsek posted: ” Downtown Passaic, New Jersey. Circa 1964, post Erie > Railroad commuter line. “I think we should go to Passaic tomorrow.” If I > could do backflips, handstands and cartwheels every time my mother said > these words I would. But I coul” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Nancy. Barb talked about the same thing! You guys taking the bus to shop in New Haven. My grandmother usually reserved that term of endearment for my grandfather, then she would swear in Hungarian.

    Like

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