Work has begun on Manhattan Public Library’s latest addition — an expansion of the library’s children’s area. When the addition is finished it will be filled with stories in the form of books, DVDs and other media.
But the house that used to be where the new addition is being built could have told some stories too. And I can tell some stories about that house.
615 Poyntz Avenue. When I was a kid, it was Grandma’s house.
If you’ve lived in Manhattan a long time, you might remember my grandmother’s house — and the other homes in the neighborhood that were razed years ago to make way for the city’s new library.
You may even remember my grandmother, Rena Givens. You may have stopped to chat with her as she sat on her screened-in front porch. A lot of people did as they strolled along Manhattan’s main street.
And what you probably remember most about Grandma’s house was that sign painted on the front: “Home of Smiling Feet,” along with a picture of a couple of grinning good old soles.
You see, Grandma was a foot doctor. Not a high-falootin’ one with a degree in medicine or a fancy office. Just a caring person who treated people complaining of corns or in-grown toenails.
Her “clinic” was in her home there at 615 Poyntz. It took up part of Grandma’s “office room.” As I recall, there was a chair for the patient, some metal bowls and other crude medical equipment and a few bottles of creams and ointments.
But the neat thing about Grandma’s “office” for an impressionable youngster like me was this human calf-and-foot bone that hung there. It was the real thing, contributed by some unfortunate peg-leg or maybe even a corpse!
No one ever said where Grandma got it, but it was there in her house, and if my cousins and I were feeling really brave, we sometimes even TOUCHED it.
Grandma’s house was not fancy, but it was big. She lived in four or five rooms on the ground floor and there were five rooms upstairs. Grandma rented out some of the upstairs rooms by the week or month to older, single men. They’d use the front door of Grandma’s house and come and go as they pleased. I don’t know whether they had keys to either the front door or their rooms. Folks didn’t use keys as much in those days. You trusted people then.
Ivy Fuller Olds lived next door to Grandma. Ivy lived there with her elderly father, and I remember seeing the two of them sitting on their back porch playing dominoes.
Grandma told us cousins that Ivy didn’t like kids, especially kids who played in her yard, and that we were to be very careful not to step over the property line. We were very careful all right — not to get caught as we took turns making daring trespasses into Ivy’s yard.
Just behind Grandma’s house was a wonderful patch of peony bushes. Peonies were Grandma’s favorite flower, probably because they reached the height of their beauty every May 29, Grandma’s birthday. We have a picture of Grandma standing there among her beloved blossoms. I don’t remember her ever looking so serene as in that photo.
Grandma didn’t always live by herself in the house at 615 Poyntz. My mom and her two sisters lived there. And so did my grandfather, Max Givens, until the day he blew his brains out with a pistol in one of the upstairs bedrooms while his family was downstairs.
That room was never occupied again, to my knowledge. During my childhood visits to Grandma’s house, “the storeroom” was always jam-packed with old furniture and was off-limits for play.
I always thought Grandma was rather courageous to continue living in that house after that awful event. But she lived there until she died there many years later. Relatives found her sprawled on the floor of the kitchen. She was 85. “It was the way she wanted to go,” we all said.
Like any house, Grandma’s house witnessed the important and mundane events of human living, day after day, year after year. Now it’s gone, along with Ivy’s house and the other houses that stood on Grandma’s block.
If Grandma’s house could have told its story. it surely would have testified to a couple of truths we all know: That time does indeed fly and that nothing remains the same.