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.