City Boy

I grew up in a city neighborhood in Chicago. Built after World War Two, our streets were neatly laid out in grids of Streets and Avenues that intersected at right angles; each one pretty much like the block before and the one after. Mostly new, single family homes sat on smallish lots, separated from one another by narrow walkways we all called gangways. Alleys ran behind our houses, allowing access to garages, and a place for garbage to be left and then picked up by the city, without disturbing the placidity of our picturesque facades.

Those facts and measures defined our world as children. That geography expanded over time to include schools, stores, ball fields, etc. But basically, our few square blocks were the whole universe.

Children, as they will do, used everything to their own advantage. Auto lined streets were perfect places to play baseball, or football, or hide and go seek. Our sidewalks existed as places to chalk in hopscotch patterns, or batters’ boxes. The concrete front steps and lawns of our houses were where we played stoop-ball (called “3 Outs”) with pink rubber Spaldeens.

The trees, gangways, porches, shrubs and cars were outfield walls, hiding places, goalposts, boundaries and clubhouses. Our alleys were basketball and volleyball courts and testing grounds for bicycles and go-carts. Our neighborhood was a kingdom, and we were all princes of the realm.

And, since we were the children of the post war baby boom, there were plenty of us. We never had to work to get a pick-up game going, if anything we had to devise elaborate fair-play rules to make sure that everyone got their turns. All circumscribed, but designed as well so that no team could get stuck with too many hopeless cases. If not for those rules, many of us would never have gotten off the bench (or the curb we used as a bench).

The realm was, for the most part, sacred and safe. Sure, many of us scraped knees, elbows and chins every time we went outside. Lots of sprained, banged, bruised and cut fingers, wrists, ankles and toes–but we were tough and not terribly bright. As if sensing how soon the time to grow up and get serious would come, we grasped and held every second of our childhoods in vise-like grips. We spent time like misers. We savored and stretched and strove to find and live the perfect moments of play.

Looking back, there are moments and memories that remain so crystalline pure that they retain the power to summon whole the experience even now. Running at top speed, often shouting in exultation, a sweeping summer wind at our backs ruffling our hair. All to be the first to take that almost sacramental drink of cold water from someone’s garden hose. Even with that vague rubbery taste, was there ever any sweeter or more quenching drink?

Finding the perfect hiding place and settling in with absolutely motionless patience. The anticipation and agony of immanent discovery, the thrill of the hunt, the feel of coiled young muscles held tightly in tension–living right at the edge of potential explosion.

When hot summer days transitioned to warm summer nights, I recall laying absolutely still on the cooling front walk of our house. While running, laughing children zigged everywhere like the fireflies they were often chasing, while the adults talked over their grown up days. I lay and stared up at the billions of stars arrayed above me in the clear, blue velvet sky. My eyes and my mind would focus outward, trying to take the enormous vastness in, to understand what the universe was. Almost always the sounds of life around me would fade, and I’d feel a pull inside as if from the stars themselves.

In those moments of unknowing transcendence, I would become lost in that forever moment–only to come out of the reverie in a start, a delicious shiver still panging through me. I was six, I had no idea what I’d just experienced. I was frightened by it, and yet also drawn to it. In the slightest way, I was touching infinity and being touched in return and it changed me forever. I revisited that experience often over the years, and guarded the secret of my communion with the universe jealously. Not least because I knew whatever it was that I was experiencing would only sound crazy if I attempted a stammering, uncomprehending explanation. I had no words for this glimpse of eternity, nor anyway to translate it for anyone else.

Were the times so different then than they are for children today? Did the simplicity and innocence of that time make us more open to wonder? Life buzzed through us with the sound of telephone wires singing their electronic arias overhead. We lived and moved and had our beings in this envelope of Eden, however briefly, and however eternal. Paradox in paradise.

At that age, in that era, there were no plans, but we were ever on the right path. No clocks, calendars or expectations, but everything important got done. Bees were counted, dogs were taught to roll over, broken bats were given second lives in sheaths of black tape, snowflakes were tasted, wars fought, dragons slain, frontier towns made safe. We touched the universe everyday, stretching time beyond any Einsteinian limitations.

And, the universe touched us back. Called us forward, promising all the treasure that we could hold. And hold it we did.

We had the whole universe, the world, the city–everything before us on the streets where we lived.

Paradise.

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2 Responses to City Boy

  1. James J. DeStefano says:

    Brian,

    Old Days – “good times I remember”… Safe Days – walking to Eberhart grammer school, alone, at the age of 5!! Playing “3 Outs” we broke a few windows, dented a few screens, but, oh what fun! Also remember playing “Fast Pitching” under the train viodock on 66th and Central Park, took great skill trying to hit the ball between the cement columns. A single, double, triple, home run etc. was determined by where the ball (25 cent/quarter balls) hit on the walls and columns. I remember kids games like “Dare, Repeat, or Opinion” and, “Red Rover Red Rover” let Brian come over LOL. I remember soft ball games in the alley (16″ of course). Our block of kids would challenge the next block. We (66th and Lawndale Team) would usually win! You had to hit the ball pretty straight to get a hit, as hitting in the neighbor’s yards was an out (I think). Also, remember “Alley Hockey” games and Touch Football in the streets where you could use parked cars to your advantage. Good Times!!! Thanks for the memories Brian!

    • Jim,
      Thank you for sharing your memories.

      We played fast pitch off a side wall of Sawyer Grammar School (on 53rd and Sawyer), where several batters’ boxes of various heights had been painted. I don’t rememeber hitting much, as my friends really did pitch fast. Every Chicago boy played 16″ softball, of course. Swinging at the Clincher was like swatting at the moon, it was so big…and with a little bit of power, you could get a hit. Catching those babies without a glove could be a world of hurt sometimes, though. I still have a goofy looking ring finger because I jammed it catching a fly ball and it healed crooked.

      Because that ball was so big, and seemingly so easy to hit, you had to learn a few tricks if you were going to pitch it past anyone. My dad had pitched 16″ for years with a park district mens’ adult league and he taught me a back-spin pitch that came in slow and fat and so enticing, but if you really bashed it, it would just flip, flop and hit the dirt at the batter’s feet.

      Many years later, I was playing with an office league in Manhattan, in Central Park. We used a 12″ ball and we wore gloves, but it was easy enough to apply what I knew. I pitched just once, and because I didn’t know any better I threw my favorite pitches. After a first inning of the opposing team’s at bats consisting of weak grounders to me, or weird looping pop-ups, and a lot of tips into the dirt, someone complained. The ump asked if I was “trick pitching,” and when he determined that I was, I was ejected. In New York, with slow-pitch 12,” apparently, you can’t use back-spin. Oh well, I had an inning of fun making the batters from Esquire Magazine look silly.

      I remember Red Robin, I remember playing broom hockey (with the Spaldeen as a puck), but Dare, Repeat or Opinion, does not ring a bell. Must’ve been a Marquette Park Area thing, that we Elsdon kids never knew. Didn’t Madonna play Dare, Repeat, or Opinion in a tour documentary film?

      Thanks for your enthusiasm, memories and kind words, Jim. I have a piece in the works about Marquette Park and Dr. Martin Luther King jr. Plus whatever else comes to mind. I may have to do an entire blog explaining 3 Outs, since that appears to have been a very regional past time.

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