Friday, March 13, 2009
I grew up at the corner of Bryant and Seneca avenues in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, where the candy store remained the most frequent destination with its selection of penny candies and luscious egg-creams, a mixture of chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer that has since joined the waxed halls of nostalgia. To get fresh air, my friends and I played in the vacant lot that adjoined our apartment building, rolling inside discarded TV boxes or straining pastel chalk into cans, even sliding down the hill in winter on a treasured slice of cardboard. Those were the fifties when our streets were relatively safe and we grew up playing on them.
Calendars didn’t dominate our lives, certainly not electronic ones. The calendars that we knew from were posted with a thumbtack in the kitchen, a free gift from a neighborhood bank or hardware store.
Growing up on the streets, time was dictated by the seasons and the clothing that was required to brave the freezing New York winter and the oven heat of summer. Winter was about gloves, scarves, boots, hats, and heavy wool sweaters, sometimes knitted by our aunts or mothers. Summer was about shorts, halter tops, no sleeves, sandals and swimming suits that were hurriedly donned when someone opened a fire hydrant to spray over everything.
Broadly speaking, our lives were divided into two swathes: school and summer vacation, a wondrous time filled with Good Humor trucks selling toasted almond bars or orange creamsicles. I also associated certain seasons with games. I never knew what signaled a new game season. Maybe it had something to do with the “older kids.” Or maybe it had more to do with when stores stocked and sold certain items. But it seemed that on any one particular day, I could go downstairs and find everyone roller skating, time to drag out my skates from a metal toy box that sat in the foyer and tighten the metal clamps that fit around my foot to start skating on the smooth tarred street, or down the hill to Longfellow Avenue, watching out for cars.
Roller-skating season happened in summer as did riding on the Tilt-a-Whirl, a truck that parked outside the apartment building and allowed us the sky-dipping experience of big theme parks, the bravest kids always taking the top-most seat and flinging candy from their mouths, just to watch the pieces fly.
Roller-skating season was followed in turn by shooting marbles, trading baseball cards, charms and playing ball and jacks or pick-up sticks in the street. Potsie was our citified version of hopscotch where we drew a game board on the pavement in uneven white chalk lines.
In late summer, it was too hot to climb upstairs to our stifling one and two-bedroom apartments. Sometimes I would catch a breeze on “tar beach,” a refuge on the roof that was populated by television antennas, spreading myself out a blanket and reading a book.
In the evening, various families unfolded beach chairs from their closets and set them out on the front curb, remaining there until late while us kids ran around the street, drinking lemonade that was offered by someone’s mother (never our own). I caught fireflies in the vacant lot with two cupped palms, imprisoning them in a jar. Invariably, by the end of the evening they had melted into a molasses mess, until I finally decided to forgo capture and content myself with watching the fireflies blink on and off inside my hands.
As the days shortened, we played tag games like Ring-a-Levio, Red Light Green Light, and Old Mother Witch:
Old Mother Witch
She couldn’t sew a stitch
She picked up a penny
And she thought she was rich
The beauty of these games was they included kids of all ages, which was not the case with the games we played including “knucks,” where a looser was pounded on the knuckles until they bled with a full pack of cards. I preferred the relatively noncombatant game of War.
The weeks before Halloween found us in the vacant lot straining colored pastel chalk through rusted screens that we balanced over tin cans. We strained chalk into socks which were then used to mark the doors of apartment dwellers who had refused to give us candy or did not answer their doorbell. Winter came and we stayed outside as long as we could stand it, watching snowflakes drift in front of the lampposts. The candy store had ringed its window in golden beads.
Sure, there was danger lurking around the edges of our neighborhood. We knew about the kid on heroin who was ripping off stuff from his house as fast as his mother could replace it. It was common knowledge that so-and-so’s husband was an alcoholic, or that certain brothers kept bouncing in and out of Juvenile Hall. There were also the "Crazy Ladies" who sat on their stoop at the end of Bryant Avenue.
“D’you think it will rain?” asked the first woman of no one in particular, as she emptied a can of what smelled like tuna fish into a soup plate.
“No,” said the second woman. “I’ll bet a case of cat food it don’t rain.”
The third woman said, “Lookie, girls. We’ve got company.”
“Oh, goodie,” said the first woman. “I’ve wanted to introduce Bartholomew to a new friend. Mew, this is…What’d you say your name was, honey?”
“Bartholomew, this is Linda and she lives…Where’d you say you lived, honey?”
“Right down the street.”
“And she lives right around the corner,” said the first woman shoving Bartholomew’s nose into a soup plate. “He don’t talk much,” she said, “but he’s real friendly.”
“You haven’t even introduced us to your friend.
“Linda, this is Mildred the Mop Woman because of her mop of hair and the one with a big mouth is Janet. My name is Cynthia, but people call me Maggie.” All three women stood up and curtsied. “Would you like a beer?”
“No thanks. I’m not allowed.”
“Did you hear that, Mildred. She’s not allowed. That’s cute.” All three women laughed so hard the cats jumped off their laps. “So what’re you allowed to do?”
“I bet she even has to ask permission to go to the bathroom,” said Big Mouth.
“Once upon a time I had a little girl,” said the Mop Woman. “But she went far, far away to a land where the bong trees grow.”
“I came here by myself and it’s not even light out.”
“And so you did,” said Big Mouth. “Mew doesn’t go out after dark. He’s an indoor kitty.” She scratched his head. “Nice kitty, nice Bartholomew.”
“I found Mew when he was just little,” said the Mop Woman.
“You found Mew!” screamed Maggie. “Now don’t start that up again. You know very well who tucked him up in a cardboard box with newspaper and brought him home.”
Mop Woman said, “Listen, Maggie. You may be three years older than me but don't think you're any smarter. I’m the one who found Bartholomew. It was when we went to the paint store and the painter’s son said he had some kittens in the back. Tomorrow, you can say you found him, and I won’t care a lick. But today is my day,” she looked at me. “It’s right that way. Now what other games do you know?” This time, she was asking me.
“I know how to play Hopscotch, Jump Rope, Marbles, Baseball Cards, Johnny-on-the-Pony, Freeze Tag, Red-light-Green-Light…”
“No, no. We don’t play any of those kinds of games. We’re too old.” They all looked at each other. “Let’s play Why the Lilacs Smell So Sweet.”
“Janet, anyone can see she’s too small for that,” said the Mop Woman. “She’ll never be able to put her hands there.” She stopped for a second, and fed the cats some more. “Why don’t you stay here and be my little girl. We can play games together and I’ll buy you a sparkly ring for your finger and let you ride on the subway. Come sit next to me.” She moved over to make room on the stoop.
I had an uncomfortable feeling, a slow upheaval like riding on the Tilt-a-Whirl. “I think I have to go now.”
“Let her go,” Mildred said Maggie, who spit out something green from the back of her mouth. “Anyone can see that she’s just a good little girl, and anyway, we have the cats to take care of.”
“She’s too good for us,” said Big Mouth.
They laughed and I ran away.
I ran back to my home base, the apartment with its wood floors and the metal trunk in the foyer filled with broken toys, to the closet with a pile of comic books on the floor, to the cedar box that smelled good when I opened it even though it was empty, and to my shelf where I kept a box of crayons, and sat on the edge of my bed and caught my breath and sobbed.
I sobbed because I wanted someone to play with and because I was always doing everything by myself and because the world was scary and was reaching out to catch me with its scaly fingers and because I felt no one understood me and I had an ache in my heart where all of these feelings lived.