Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Street Values

I find myself returning to the theme of "resourcefulness" in describing kids of the 1950s. We didn't have Toys 'R Us back then, and even if we did, our parents didn't have the money to spend on frivolous things. Every once in a while an exception was made, but as a rule we had to find ways to amuse ourselves that didn't involve store-bought toys or games. Bikes were handed down, baseball bats and gloves often contained more tape than wood or leather, and so many games were played with nothing more than a pink Spaldeen ball. We also used discarded materials like fruit crates. old clotheslines and empty refrigerator boxes to create "toys" that were as much fun as anything that Fisher-Price ever dreamed of.

A few years ago these Razor Scooters were all the rage for around 80 bucks. We built ours for free with an orange crate, a board and one old roller skate. You had to take the skate apart to separate the front wheels from the back, then remove a piece of rubber from inside the skate which allowed the wheels to swivel freely, making turning the scooter easier. The wheels were then attached to either side of a four-foot board to fashion what looked like a modern-day skate board. The crate was liberated from the loading dock of Spinners Supermarket and nailed to the board to complete the scooter. Some kids decorated the front of the crate with bottle caps, and added V-shaped wooden handles to make steering easier. Old roller skate, $0; four-foot board, $0; orange crate, $0; cruising down the street on your homemade scooter, priceless.

Westerns were the rage on television with Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers starring in tales of the old west. This made guns a regular part of our play, but not being able to tote real six-shooters, we made our own. The side rails from the same orange crates used for scooters were fashioned into carpet guns. It would take too long to describe how this was accomplished here...suffice to say that the wooden guns used thick rubber bands to propel cut-up one-inch squares of linoleum at our intended targets (each other) at an alarming speed. Accuracy was tough since the squares sailed wildly after being fired. Parents today would have apoplexy if they found their precious child playing with one of these, but we had fun and sustained just the occasional gash.

Spaldeen-based games are many as you know if you were lucky enough to grow up in the fifties. Stickball, punchball, stoop ball, off-the point, box ball, Ace-King Queen, dodge ball, triangle, hit the penny and plain old catch. Girls used Spaldeens to play a game where they bounced the ball, sometimes looping one leg over the ball while they chanted rhythmically: "A" my name is Alice and my husband's name is Al, we come from Alabama and we sell apples. The idea was to chant your way through the alphabet from A-Z, as far as you could go without missing a beat or losing control of the ball. We played these games for hours on end, never feeling for a minute that the fun we could have was in any way limited by the 15 cents we had invested in the equipment.

"Five-ten-fifteen-twenty..." was how the guy who was "it" would count up to one hundred while everyone ran and hid. Hide-and-go-seek might seem like a baby game, but not the way we played it. Guys would hide under cars, in empty garbage cans, on rooftops, maybe even sneak home for a "sangwich" while the poor guy who was it spent a very long time seeking. There were variations on the game like ring-a-leevio or kick the can, where whoever was it had to be careful not to stray too far from "home" where a tin can was placed, because if one of the hidden players could sneak up and kick the can off home base, the game started all over again. Not complicated, but it helped pass the time for the 12 hours a day we were on the streets. Remember Red Light Green Light, Statues, Johnny on the Pony, Double Dutch Jump Rope, King of the Hill, playing cards on the stoop...all great games with one thing in common, they cost nothing.

When all a kid has to say is "I want", and the checkbook fairy delivers, that child is being robbed. Robbed of the chance to exercise imagination, creativity, inventiveness and yes, resourcefulness. Learning how to use things that are at hand, devising rules, developing a sense of fair play, learning to use your hands, and interacting with other children are things paranoid parents pay a shrink small fortunes to help their children develop. We learned them for free on the streets of Brooklyn.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Dream Comes True

When you're poor, sometimes even relatively simple things seem almost unattainable. This is especially true for kids. Don't get me wrong, as a kid I didn't mope around feeling sorry for myself, but instinctively you felt that if something cost more than you could ever save up, it wasn't meant to be. Looking back, there were times when that pattern was broken...those magical moments when the planets and stars aligned, and suddenly the unattainable was yours. When these treasures came into your possession, it made a real impression, more so than for those who take them for granted. Here is a special one that I remember most fondly.

As a ball player, you made the occasional splash with a big hit...maybe drove in the winning run late in the game, but you made your reputation with your glove. A good defensive player was greatly valued by coaches and never sat on the bench. As an outfielder I was solid defensively. I had a strong arm, got a good jump on fly balls off the bat, and I was fast enough to run them down. Unfortunately the glove I used was a badly worn hand-me-down. The pocket was too small for an outfielder, not like the newer model gloves that were in the windows of the Davega sporting goods store on Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn.

Davega's sold uniforms and equipment for most sports, and its windows were a powerful lure for kids. We would walk down Rockaway Avenue to Pitkin and stare at the magnificent array of satin team jackets, colorful uniforms, footballs, basketballs, hockey sticks, and especially the baseball gloves. Gloves for infielders, first baseman's mitts with those two big fingers, catcher's mitts with perfectly padded pockets for handling blazing fastballs, and there, on a plastic display stand, was the glove I craved with all my being, the Rawlings Don Larsen model glove. It was a thing of beauty, all soft, buttery leather and rawhide stitching, with the red Rawlings label on the outside. It was huge, made for leaping, acrobatic catches that turned sure home runs into routine outs. I could almost feel my teammates pounding me on the back as I trotted back to our bench...great catch Jim, and coach Bryan muttering: Good 'D' kid!

Who was I kidding, the glove cost around sixty bucks, serious money in the Fifties. I wanted to go into the store to ask the man if I could try it on, you know, just to see how it felt. I changed my mind when I realized how much worse I would feel if I actually touched the glove, smelled its pungent leather, and pounded the pocket with my fist. I decided against it, and made up my mind not to look in that store window so much because the sheer longing for that glove was making me crazy. I'd do the best I could with my old glove and the hell with it.

That Christmas I was excited since even poor kids get stuff under the tree. As my sister and I opened gifts, I spotted a box shaped like it contained a pair of shoes. (Hey, it may have been Christmas, but it wasn't uncommon for parents to slip in a few practical things you needed anyhow in the guise of a present.) As I took off the paper, my eyes widened and my jaw dropped. There it was, nestled in red tissue paper, my Rawlings Joe Dimaggio model outfielder's glove! I couldn't speak. If the box had contained a million dollars in cash I couldn't have been more surprised. I saw the smile on my father's face...I can only imagine how hard he must have worked to persuade my mother to make such an extravagant purchase.

It was months until baseball season but that glove never left my sight. I rubbed it with linseed oil and, after placing a baseball in the pocket to help shape it, wrapped it with rubber bands until it was moulded to the perfect fit. I used that glove until the leather was nearly worn away, and I'll say with some modesty that over the years I took my share of extra base hits away from disappointed hitters. We tried not to spoil our kids as they grew up, but sometimes, when you knew how badly they wanted something that cost a lot of money, you caved in and bought it. Seeing the looks on their faces was worth it. I just hope my Dad got his sixty bucks worth from the look on my face that Christmas morning so long ago.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association