Memories of my youth aren’t always laser sharp. Some memories are as foggy as driving home to Paterson in the rain, from Newark, at age 17, at midnight, having just passed my driver’s test the week before. What were my parents thinking? That was of course, before the New Jersey strict driving laws for minors. I’m going wayyyyyy back. Did I mention that on that ride home, there were four fellow high school friends with me- all of us pumped up from the Run DMC concert? Ok, maybe some memories aren't that fuzzy at all. We had a blast that night!
My memories of walking to Hinchliffe Stadium on a Saturday for a football game though, are priceless. Most times, we’d leave my building on Presidential Boulevard, and start up the long hill on Ryle Avenue. It would start as me and my cousin, three years my junior. She’d remind me that instead of walking all the way up Ryle, to take a left on Totowa Road up another steep hill, we’d take the shortcut. We would cut through a long alley, “The Chaz”, as we called it, past the dog pound on Ryle, and be on our way up to Hinchliffe. A funny thing would always happen each and every time though. Once we turned that corner into the chaz, it wasn't just the dogs that were kenneled outside the dog pound that we'd meet up with, but it would be a friend from school, and their couple of friends and cousins. A little ways up, we’d run into another group of kids we knew, also making the trek to Hinchliffe. Sometimes, we ran into some of the neighborhood guys, who just before the game, took a break in the chaz to have a smoke. We’d be introduced to friends of friends and family of other friends. I learned whose little cousin was visiting from the South, and it was their first time going to Hinchcliffe that Saturday; or whose relative from across town had never experienced the thrill of Hinchliffe either. We shared our brown paper bags that most of us got from Beanie and Hassan’s convenience store in building 3 of the Towers, which are still around: four, 16-storied residential buildings on Presidential Boulevard, where many of us lived. In those bags was some of the best junk food a kid could wish for: Now & Laters, Jingles, Snickers, and David’s sunflower seeds. We’d chat about our week on that trek, and sprinkle in some neighborhood gossip too; but somehow our calves and thighs never complained. The joys of youth! Sure, we’d be out of breath a little, from the uphill walk, but we were on our way to Hinchliffe on a Saturday. What could be better?
Just as we got closer, the predictions started. Who would win the football game? Would it be the Mighty Ghosts of Eastside High School, or the John F. Kennedy High School Knights. There was always an argument by that time, but when we heard the familiar sounds, it squashed all the beef. We knew we had almost reached the stadium when we heard the loud thuds of the drums from the marching bands of both schools. They would be lined up just outside the stadium, tuning up the instruments before making their grand stadium entrances. The flag twirlers warmed up too. I had always envied the girls, with unmatched body confidence, dressed in colorful uniforms, swaying their hips from side to side and twirling their batons as they practiced highly choreographed routines. The tassels they wore on their marching boots swung from side to side as the ladies bounced. We had finally arrived at Hinchliffe.
Once inside, it was like Paterson had its own MetLife Stadium, what felt like only blocks from my kitchen. Swarms of students poured inside. The sounds of coaches’ whistles, mixed with the smell of buttery popcorn and hot dogs, always told us we were minutes from the action. We had arrived. Not just us, the pair of us, my cousin and I; and not just the group of us that had swelled to more than 20 kids by the time we got there. Certainly, not just us. It had always felt like Paterson had arrived. The pride and anticipation we felt walking into our stadium was matched by nothing else. There we all were, what always felt like the entirety of Paterson, in this enormous and exuberate space, knowing that another action packed Saturday was coming in moments. We were certain of it because Saturdays at Hinchliffe was something spectacular we experienced the week before; and something magical we’d certainly all we doing the week after this one. Hinchliffe was our tradition! All of ours! Hinchliffe belonged to the whole of Paterson. Now designated as a national treasure, we had no idea then as kids, how special the hallowed stadium really was.
On other days, especially during the famous Thanksgiving Day classic between the two rival high schools, my uncle would join us up the chaz to Hinchliffe for some football too. You see, watching football at Hinchliffe always had special meaning to our family. We had an uncle who played football on that field, and years later, a cousin of ours followed in his footsteps. I can recall after a very devastating loss one year, my older cousin walked to the sidelines, ripped off his helmet, and threw it into the bench. I stayed up in the stands while my uncle ran down to console him. The family legacy doesn't stop there. My aunt was the captain of the flag twirlers for the Knights. I remember at a very young age, she’d take me to marching band practice with her. Many times in the stands at Hinchliffe, I could be spotted doing the entire routine that the flag twirlers performed on the field. Football, and its roots at Hinchliffe, was a family affair for at least two generations of us.
The sweetest memory of all, I must say- and please don't tell him I said that- is, in those days, I had a friend who played on that field too. He was a quarterback for the Knights, a freshman when we met. Off the field, we’d spend hours on the phone with each other and hang out in the neighborhood whenever he didn't have football practice. Who knew that 25 years from that time, after not being in touch for decades, we’d meet up again, and he’d ask me to be his wife, and I’d accept. Yeah, my memories of Hinchliffe Stadium are sweet, super sweet indeed.