For several days, I opened shoe boxes, albums and envelopes, discovering pieces of my family history that I never knew existed.
Hundreds of photos, many dating from 1900, took me back through time to the place of my birth, Bayonne, New Jersey, a city just across New York Bay from Manhattan and Brooklyn. My maternal and paternal great-grandparents immigrated from Poland at the turn of the century and landed at nearby Ellis Island, before finally settling in the Bergen Point area, on the city’s southern tip.
A blue-collar, lower middle-class town, most of Bayonne’s immigrant inhabitants worked at the nearby Standard Oil Company refinery on its east side, or at other manufacturing, distribution or maritime jobs that required manual labor. My grandfather Bill drove a truck for the J. Stanley Company, and loaded it with boxes and crates of food supplies from container ships that docked at Port Elizabeth, on Newark Bay, from around the world.
My family ties were strong in Bayonne, with scores of aunts, uncles and cousins all living within blocks of each other. The main shopping district on Broadway was full of mom-and-pop establishments with glass fronts that displayed their wares for passersby … everything from bakeries and butchers, delis and shoe shops, groceries and newspaper stands. You could find anything you needed on Broadway.
Does this blog post have anything to do with horse racing, you might ask? Well, yes it does, in a roundabout way. You see, as I gingerly handled the faded and brittle black-and-white photographs that chronicled my family’s past, I was reminded of the love I had for my grandfather, who, in addition to being a hard-working, dedicated breadwinner who left the house before sunrise and returned home after sunset, was a racing aficionado and instilled that love in me.
Bill would get the New York Daily News delivered to the house about 11:30 p.m. each night and mark up the entries each morning before work, drinking his coffee at the kitchen table and putting an “X” next to a horse’s name in every race that was listed, be it from Belmont Park, Yonkers, or Monticello. The next day, he’d check to see how he’d done – a crude handicapping method, at best! And I would help him, reading the names of the horses he’d checked in the previous day’s newspaper. He’d look at the results and either say, “No good,” if the horse lost, or slyly smile and say, “I got a winner!”
If he had a particularly good week, he’d think Lady Luck was on his side, and that meant we’d ride over to Staten Island on Saturday morning to a New York City OTB parlor on Liberty Boulevard, and he’d place a few bets. In those days, there was a half-hour television show that aired at 6 p.m. every Saturday hosted by Frank Wright and Charlsie Cantey, which showed the feature race of the day from New York and also the 9th race, and we’d always watch it to see how he “made out.”
Those were magical trips to Staten Island … crossing the majestic Bayonne Bridge, the fourth-longest steel arch bridge in the world. It spans the Kill Van Kull, a strip of water that separates Staten Island from Bayonne, and is an important shipping channel for seagoing vessels that are headed to Port Elizabeth. In those days, I even thought the dingy, dirty OTB parlor with its scruffy clientele was a little piece of heaven, too.
In the summer, my grandfather and I would take a trip or two to Monmouth Park, and the excitement always proved too much for me, as I was never able to sleep the night before. A day at the track was a special event, a rite of summer, not like today’s day-in-and-day-out racing cards churned out at year-round factories like Parx Racing and Penn National. Win or lose, we always had a great time.
My grandfather died in 1984, and never lived to see my handicapping selections get published in a newspaper, or read the articles I wrote about the stakes races at Monmouth or Garden State Park. As I looked at the photographs of him from so long ago, I realized how much I miss him, and how thankful I am that he introduced me, in just a small way, to the Sport of Kings. Perhaps one day we’ll meet again, and place some bets at that big racetrack in the sky.
My grandfather Bill and I, near the Bayonne Bridge, in 1978.