Thursday, June 16, 2011

Small World In The Hood

In the 1930s and ‘40s neighborhoods in the boroughs of NYC were defined by subway stops. The exits from the train could stretch two blocks in some cases. Union Turnpike was my station; one end brought you up into Kew Gardens, my end was in Forest Hills. At the mouth of the steps you were met by a candy store with a news stand. We called ours Pops. Pop was always there with his change belt sagging down his front; fast pennies, slow dimes.

As a kid growing up, my universe was even smaller. Our apartment house was next to my father’s corner drugstore. That took up the whole block of Forest Lane, a tree-shaded street which didn’t get a lot of traffic. The entrance to his store was just around the corner, so that a wall the length of his soda fountain and prescription department on the inside became my ballpark on the outside.

I threw seasons of tennis balls against that wall while sculpting my imagination. Better yet were Spaldings, those pink, hairless balls which bounced higher and faster than my Keds were meant to travel. While other kids were reading books and developing their minds, building model airplanes (sniffing glue? who knew?) or experimenting with their chemistry sets discovering new elements…. I was smashing my Spalding against the wall of my father’s store.

The wall was my green pasture and I was not left wanting. In my mind’s field, one bounce was a single, two a double and so on. However, few got past my superior reach and agility. Damn, I was good (even if my mother said I was a good-for-nothing-kid). I could leap as high as a pop fly into another realm. Of course I was the pitcher, batter and fielder wrapped in one. And then there was the ledge. Every wall worth its vertical had to have a ledge upon which I, the pitcher, could aim for me, the batter, to elude me, the fielder. You had to be there.

There was a wide sidewalk in front of the wall which gets even wider in my remembered landscape, and then the street. Any car that dared interrupt my playing field was cursed in my limited, ten-year old vocabulary. I do remember getting into a fight with an ex-friend once. As he had me on the ground, struggling in a half-Nelson I called him a fucking-bastard-sonovabitch. (I might just as well have called him a buttered flannery salamaguch.It had a certain mellifluous ring to it that I never forgot. My first poem perhaps, the way it meant nothing to me except the strange music of the words.

The sidewalk was seldom without chalk. We filled bottle caps with melted wax and moved them around inside the lines or were they on the lines? Girls jumped rope. Boys flipped bubblegum cards or played marbles or mumley-pegs with pocket knives. Amazing how knives seemed harmless then; merely ways of slicing the earth for early geometry. There was a tribe loose in the neighborhood called children. Kids taught kids. An oral tradition got passed along, in tact. Tell me it’s still there; A my name is Alice, Ring-a-leveo, One-Two-Three O’Leary, Can’s Up, One Potato, Two Potato etc…

It all happened within a few feet from my apartment. I don’t dare go back to see if it has survived. I can return anytime in my head on an August night lit by fireflies with air so thick I could climb it and run with a Mayonnaise jar catching them; holes punched in the lid for breathing. That light, my lantern, has never gone out.

By the time I was thirteen the pharmacy was closed; converted to a storefront synagogue, of all things. One day, on my way to the schoolyard, with stickball bat and glove in hand, I was pulled into that familiar space, the tenth to make a minion. I laid down my sword and shield, mouthed the mumbles and looked up to the raised place where my father once presided dispensing his elixirs as if each contained everything he believed in.

As for the wall, I wore a hole in it, a passageway. Eventually I walked through into the pharmacy and took my father’s place.

1 comment:

  1. My father didn't have a store but I too had a wall. The wall had a kind of railing that if my pitch (I pitched for both teams) hit a certain point on the railing in the strike zone the ball would fly on a straight arch high over my head for a homer. I had other rules for singles, doubles etc.

    Over the years of my youth I had 327 games. Every game was the Yankees against the Red sox of Williams, Pesky and Doerr. The Yankees won all 327 games although the Red Sox once came close.

    We played all the games you did plus one called Johnny on a pony. I had a similar incidence being yanked off the street for a minion but when I was much, much older. When I was 13 I looked 8 so was never bothered.

    Oh how I would love to go back there . . . not now, but then and get to strike Williams out just once more.