I was less than enthusiastic about what Gilda was set to do. I couldn't stop her from knocking on the front door of the home we lived in 38 years ago in Seymour, Conn. I'm glad she did. She is so much braver than I when it comes to nostalgia tours and necessary, potentially embarrassing, intrusions if one truly wants to go back in time and place.
With our lucky 11:11 date buttressing our plan, Gilda and I set out last Friday to retrace our early roots together, our first four years of married life when I was a cub reporter and then a bureau chief for the New Haven Register and Gilda was a nursing student at the University of Bridgeport and then a newborn intensive care nurse at Yale-New Haven Hospital.
We drove up Route 8 from Bridgeport to Shelton, my second year beat assignment and scene of the largest industrial arson in U.S. history. We had just gone to bed Saturday night, March 1, 1975, in our Seymour apartment when my boss, Don Anderson, called from nearby Ansonia to ask what I was doing home when half of downtown Shelton was ablaze. I quickly rushed to the fire and stayed there most of the night as the Sponge Rubber Products Company plant (formerly owned by B.F. Goodrich) burned down. Authorities quickly determined it was a case of arson and who did it. But the already depressed economy of the Lower Naugatuck Valley towns of Shelton, Seymour, Ansonia and Derby took a hit as 1,200 jobs were lost. Today, the site of the factory is a park along the Housatonic River.
Driving over the aptly named Bridge Street, we made out way into downtown Derby. Thirty-nine years ago, as I drove through Derby for the first time during my job hunting travels, I thought it looked like Dresden after World War II, with dark, hulking, dilapidated buildings blotting out the sun. Hours later, when the co-managing editor of the New Haven Register, Murray Farber, offered me a job, he said the assignment would be covering Seymour and Derby. I inwardly cringed at the prospect of revisiting Derby on a daily basis but quickly accepted the $150 a week position ($773 in today’s values).
Derby’s downtown is brighter today. Gone are the turn of the 20th century buildings along the riverfront. Though still not vibrant, the area is less depressing. Deeper into the city, along Elizabeth Street, Griffin Hospital, where Gilda did some of her nursing school training, where they clung to the tradition of wearing uniform hats and pins, where the nursing stations were at the far end of each corridor and the head nurses ruled with iron fists, the hospital still stands and is now affiliated with the Yale School of Medicine.
Also on Elizabeth Street is the now shuttered Dworkin Chevrolet where we bought our first car, a Vega, in 1973. A few blocks closer to the downtown the temple we attended, Beth Israel, has been turned into a New Life Community Church, the only outward sign of its previous calling being the Hebrew words etched into the façade near the roof: “The world stands on three things: justice, truth and peace." It was in Beth Israel that we sat with other congregants Yom Kippur morning 1973 wondering about and praying for the fate of Israel after the surprise attacks by Syria and Egypt.
The women of Beth Israel always were amazed Gilda had met and married a Jewish man at college. She’d gently respond that with 95% of Brooklyn College’s 30,000 student population being Jewish it would have been hard not to find a mate from the “chosen” religion.
As we drove north toward Ansonia, we passed the restaurant where we’d treat ourselves to a meal away from home, the McDonald’s on Division Street straddling the border with Derby. Spector Furniture in Ansonia is still open for business. We bought our first TV there, a Magnavox, plus a desk we still have, now consigned to our garage. Around the corner, the Register’s bureau office is long closed. It was in that office I first heard the phrase “to Jew someone down.” It was not a saying common to the Brooklyn shtetl I grew up in.
Before visiting our first home, we entered downtown Seymour, dominated by a post office two to three times the size required for a town of 13,000. As related by local historians, the town benefited from a bureaucratic mistake. Seems the post office the head of the congressional oversight committee had earmarked for his hometown of Seymour, Ind., had mistakenly been erected in Seymour, Conn.
The locals are trying to remake downtown Seymour into an artsy community, with antique and curio shops. They need more restaurants, though the one we lunched in, Jimmie’s Place, was a classic throwback saloon with lobster roll, French fries and cole slaw for $8.99, a hard to beat price.
The house we lived in had been divided into a two-family dwelling. We had three rooms on the first floor: a big country kitchen where Gilda learned to cook, a living room and a bedroom with bright red walls when we first moved in but quickly painted over to reflect Gilda’s more refined sensibilities. Upstairs, our landlord’s daughter and son-in-law lived.
As I stood at the bottom of the porch steps, Gilda knocked on the door. The twenty-something woman who opened the door cheerfully let us in. Her big dog, and really big husband, gave her the confidence we weren’t going to harm her. Their family had bought the house from the previous owner and converted it back to a one family home. Our bedroom was now an office. The kitchen had been expanded and updated. They seemed happy there.
As we drove to and through New Haven where we lived for two years in a subdivided Tudor mansion off Forest Road (Gilda’ couldn’t gain access to that apartment unit), we reflected on how far we had come during the last 39 years. More on that, perhaps, another day.