I had grown tired of hanging around in my own front yard on that sunny summer morning in 1946, and wanted to cross University Terrace to see the mysteries that lie beyond. But the instructions were clear: Don’t go beyond the corner ‘til we say it’s OK. Parents, even for a six-year old, were a pain in the ass.
Down the street, a neat old truck had stopped, its burly driver throwing a chunk of wood behind one of the back tires. He was wearing an apron made of leather, and it was well-worn. In his hand was a gadget that I soon learned was an ice-tong, to span the width of the blocks of ice in the truck, behind a piece of leather hanging in the doorway to keep the truck cool. While I didn’t know it at the time, the truck had no refrigeration unit of its own, but was cooled by its load of ice, coming from Union Ice Company down along the Lincoln Highway west of the brick plant.
“Who are you?” he asked me in a gruff voice. “I live here, since yesterday,” I responded, pointing at my house. My sister’s bassinet was visible through the front window. “Oh, Mrs. Shermerhorn’s house,” he said. “She was my customer ‘til she bought a new refrigerator last month.” I saw that thing in our kitchen, a big round condenser on top of it. “This is for the Sala family,” he nodded toward the ice block now over his shoulder. “About half the homes up in this neighborhood have bought refrigerators.” He told me that his employer, Union Ice, went into the business of selling them to their customers. He walked away toward the Salas’ house, just below the alley east of Ralston Street.
“OK, you can go up the street and poke around, if you want,” my dad said. I learned later that my mother had got mad at him for letting me loose, but also learned that that would go on all my life. I crossed the street. And started looking for the kids that owned the bikes on the porch of the boarding house. I had asked my folks for a bike but following the end of the war steel was in short supply, and most bicycles had been built before WWII with no new ones yet available. I’ll tell the reader about my new bike later. No kids were in sight so I walked over and looked at the bikes. They were pretty cool.
There were a lot of old houses up that hill, small, but with big strong-looking trees and well-kept gardens – “manicured” is a term I’d learn in later years. The houses were all ornate with a lot of bric-a-brac on their walls and rooflines. I saw some adults talking, in a language I didn’t understand. It would not take long to learn that the language was “Italian,” from a country called “Italy” which was a long way somewhere across an ocean. This was my first introduction to my new neighborhood – the neighborhood north of University Terrace was nick-named “Little Italy,” because of all the immigrants who lived there – on Ralston Street where I was walking, and the two streets to the west – Bell Street and Washington Street. And I encountered some kids my age – friendly sorts – who walked with me, and we talked. One of their parents – their mother – walked out of her house, speaking in that strange language to someone unseen inside the home. Then she turned to her daughter, alongside me, who I’d know for life. And the mother spoke to the daughter in a language I understood well. It was English. I learned then a lesson that would stay with me the whole time we lived on Ralston Street: The parents, many who had emigrated from Italy, spoke Italian to each other, but English to their kids my age. Always. I’ll speak much of Little Italy in time to come.
We walked north up Ralston Street, my newfound friends and I. At Ninth Street, kitty-corner on the northwest corner was a brick home, a little one at that, that was one of the few homes ever paid for and built by the federal government in Washington D. C., wherever that was. It seems that on August 24, 1921, a little over 20 years ago that morning, a plane owned by the U.S. Air Mail service, which flew out of an airport near the present golf course in Reno, crashed into the house that was on that corner and burned it to the ground. The pilot died. A few neighbor kids damn near got killed in the downed power lines. Somebody pulled the handle on the fire alarm box on the corner near my house, but it did little good (there was no fire station up the street in 1946.) And the government built the house that’s now on that corner.
We’ll walk a little further – another block north – in this episode of my memoirs. A block beyond the rebuilt house on Ninth Street, on the corner on my side of Ralston Street, was a grocery market – “Maynard’s.” It was a little brick building built just prior to WWII. In 1946 I had no way of knowing that it would become a branch office of the Sigma Nu house across the street (of course, I had no knowledge that Sigma Nu would locate across Ralston Street in 1951).
In a day or two we’ll meet, as I did c. 1947, Ludovica Graham, the lady who built that lovely mansion at Eleventh Street. I would soon learn that in the years leading up to WWII and for quite a few years thereafter, that there was just a whole lot of grocery stores in Reno and Sparks. Few neighbors had refrigerators with any capacity and people had to shop every couple of days. Just within our home on the Ralston Street hill there were a half-dozen stores. This one at Tenth Street, another, the “Hilltop Market” at Ralston and Eleventh, the Ralston Market at the bottom of the hill. Quilici’s Market was at Seventh and Washington, diagonally across Whitaker Park, and the Cottage Grocery, a bigger store with a butcher shop that the other groceries didn’t have, was on Fifth Street. Lotsa groceries, lotsa Fleer’s and Bazooka bubble gum that we’d buy with the money we made taking bottles back and redeeming the deposit!
Space is limited now; when next we meet we’ll walk one more block north to a big white brick home, and meet the heiress who built it. (As I did; she told us little boys and girls that we could always play in the front yard. And we did!)
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A reader inquired about a “stone house” across from Whitaker Park. I drove up to the park on Ralston Street, and the closest I could find to a stone house is the once-Hilltop Market on the northeast corner of Eleventh and Ralston – here’s a photo…: