Blogger’s note: The following passage is the from my manuscript of Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved my Life. It’s the fourth excerpt from Chapter 1: “48 Viewmont Avenue.” I will post weekly excerpts every Wednesday morning. To read previous installments, go to the Categories link and click on “Summer in the Waiting Room.”
The first 27 years of my life were marked and influenced by events in and around my parents’ modest house on 48 Viewmont Avenue in east San Jose. The neighborhood was a typical working-class community of small houses on small lots with neatly mowed lawns and little flower gardens on the edge of the east side of town that once thrived with orchards. Just a short walk a few blocks away, was the Alum Rock Village, a row of mom and pop markets, a liquor store, a bakery, a hair salon, a barbershop, and assorted small businesses that included a feed and fuel that served the remnants of a bygone agricultural community.
The area included a county branch library, a couple of elementary schools, a middle school, a high school, and of course, a Catholic church. Next to the high school was a small fire station. Viewmont Avenue itself was a short block of about forty houses. On one end sat an elementary school and on the other the two-lane Alum Rock Avenue that led to downtown San Jose to the west and several miles up the east foothills to large expensive houses and Alum Rock Park which sunk grandly into a deep canyon.
Viewmont Avenue was narrow with rounded curbs, no sidewalks, and wooden telephone poles carrying heavy electrical and telephone wires placed about 50 yards apart running down one side of the street. The poles and wires played an important role during two-hand touch football games – the poles marked the end zones and the wires could be an extra defensive player if the quarterback threw a pass too high.
Our neighbors were working-class families like ours in pursuit of the American Dream. Across the street from our house lived the Ornelas family. My godfather Tony was a sheet metal worker and his wife Marty worked in the canneries. Next door on each side of our house lived widows, Mrs. Wood on one side and Mildred on the other. Viewmont Avenue was ethnically diverse well before the term became popular in our society. A few houses away were the Moreno, Romero, Dutra, Marino, Olague, Vasquez, and Zigenhart families.
Mr. Helgeson, a retired widower, could always be seen outside wearing neatly pressed work clothes to care for his meticulous yard and garden. On national holidays, I watched in admiration as he carefully hung the American flag over the porch to show pride for his adopted country. The breadwinners provided for their families working as electricians, landscapers, construction workers, and machine shop operators.
The women worked mostly at the canneries and supplemented the family income by cleaning houses, providing child care, or caring for seniors. The neighborhood around Viewmont Avenue was like a small town on the fringes of a growing city. For me, it had everything I needed and wanted. I felt happy, safe, and comfortable there. It was home.
The house I grew up in was a cozy three bedroom, one bathroom tract home built in the late 1940s. The indoor living space measured about 900 square feet and sat on a 1,800 square foot lot that included a front yard and backyard. In the front yard, was a patch of grass and a magnolia tree surrounded by the plants and flowers that flourished under the tender care of my mom’s green thumb. Above the wooden one-car garage door hung a basketball hoop and a backboard made from a piece of scrap plywood. From the kitchen window, one could see the entire scene.
Inside, the house was a standard mid-20th century tract home with low ceilings and distinct living spaces. It seemed as though key family events always occurred at the kitchen table or at the narrow linoleum countertop, dotted with several cigarette burns, which separated the kitchen from a snug dining room. On the kitchen side of the counter sat my dad’s signature restaurant booth tightly curved around a round table and on the dining room side of the counter stood three barstools.
My oldest sister Barbara would say later in life that we had an “idyllic” upbringing on Viewmont Avenue. My parents made sure that school was a priority and provided me and my siblings with the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities; girl scouts, cheerleading, and color guard for the girls and little league, boy scouts, and Pop Warner football for the boys.
It was the life of the 1950s and 1960s television genre that dad yearned for after listening to the stories about growing up “American” from his friends in the Navy. At mom’s funeral in 2003, my cousin Tutie Sanchez reminisced that “Tía Mary was like the Mexican Donna Reed” from the 1950s sitcom of the same name. Barbara said years later that “mom and dad created a cocoon that protected us from all of the bad things in the world.”
Next Wednesday: Chapter 1 continues with stories about growing up on 48 Viewmont Avenue.
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