YORKVILLE — Their story started with scraps, scribbles and spilled ashes from an urn.
For many years, Yorkville native Joe Gindele penned letters to family and friends at Christmastime, chronicling the hijinks he experienced alongside his fraternal twin brother, John.
Though they had moved to Minnesota for college in 1962 at age 18, the Gindeles would use these lighthearted correspondences to keep in touch with their loved ones on the East Coast.
When the Gindeles, 68, stopped sending these letters, their audience got angry and demanded they continue. This prompted John to jot notes about their lives on envelopes, napkins, tissues, paper plates, index cards — whatever he could find — and stuff them in a box. The retired technhology schoolteachers noticed that their reminiscences didn't just deal with their adventures as siblings — they were also a personal history of the heavily Central European neighborhood.
The Gindeles, now residents of Crystal, Minn., then organized their recollections and research into a recently released memoir "Yorkville Twins," which has since become required reading for several Mercy College classes.
"I'm using it to help them be in tune with their environment, their surroundings," said Mercy Professor Susan O'Leary.
O'Leary said that the $19.95 memoir, printed by the twins' Golden Valley Publishing company, lets her students better connect with their grandparents' immigrant background in a fun, easy-to-read way.
"They can see how their particuar environment has changed over the years or has not changed," said O'Leary, who uses the book in a freshman seminar focusing on New York history.
Readers of the book — available at the 86th Street Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, and YorkvilleTwinsBook.com — will quickly note that today's neighborhood is drastically different than the way it was during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.
The Gindeles — whose father and mother came to New York from Germany and then-Czechoslovakia, respectively — lived with seven people in a five-room, railroad apartment at 410 E. 81st St. The twins lived with their parents, two older brothers, and a younger sister.
Their living situation was not all that unique — many neighborhood families crammed into tenements with shared toilets and a bathtub in the kitchen, they said.
At that time, a large portion of the neighborhood was first-generation American. The avenues were lined with immigrant-run small businesses. Many others worked as skilled tradesmen, they said, making yesteryear's Yorkville decisively working class.
Many of the boys they grew up alongside dropped out of high school of went to jail, they said. And even the kids who played stick ball got flak from the cops, who would confiscate their best "cat sticks" and snap them in two.
"It was a rough neighborhood," John said. "My father would keep saying: 'Stick your nose in a book.'"
Sometimes working kept them out of trouble — and sometimes it didn't.
At age 11, Joe tried to get a job, but found out that he had to be 14.
So he started carrying people's groceries home for tips, earning enough money for his first year's dorm in college.
And during high school, the duo would leave high school during their lunch hour to help their mother, who worked nearby as a housekeeper.
"It was my job to clean the brass, and it was Joe's job to vacuum," John explained.
One day, when Joe was vacuuming in the living room, he hit a flower pot and noticed that a large pile of dirt poured out.
"So I vacuumed it up," Joe said.
Confused as to why a flower pot would be so dirty, he mentioned it to his mom.
"It was the ashes of the apartment's former resident — the woman had cremated her husband," Joe said. "We never told her anything about it — how do you say, 'half of your husband got sucked up?'"
The book is filled with many similar anecdotes.
The twins said they hope to do more than make readers smile. They said their goal was to record a bit of history, while showing respect for days gone by.
"We thought there was a greater population out there who would be interested in what we had been writing," John said. "And we wanted to write this to honor our parents."