Gone are the days when kids just went out the door and played. The world is a different place than it was in Brooklyn in the fifties. Creeps hunt children on the streets even in the best of neighborhoods. Parents have become so protective of their kids that they monitor their every move. "OK, we have a play date with Tommy at 3:15 this afternoon. I'll drive you to his house, walk you to the door, and pick you up at exactly 5:30. Make sure to call me on your cell phone every half hour to let me know you're OK." Maybe an exaggeration, but only a slight one.
We had so much more freedom as kids. Mom (who was still home to look after us and not working two jobs so the family could drive a BMW) would send us out after school to play; when we saw our fathers coming home from work we knew it was time to go home. On non-school days we were on the street by 8 am and played until the lamppost came on. Maybe we would rush in at noon for a hurried peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but then it was back out on the street. Having so much time for ourselves we invented games to play. I have described some of these in past posts so I won't repeat myself. Suffice to say that we were rarely bored.
Just as there is a caste system in India, there were class divisions among street kids. Though we sported no colored dots on our foreheads to mark our status, there was a definite, unspoken pecking order.Every few years you moved up with your age mates to another league so to speak. At the park you got to play on the better ball fields. You were picked earlier when sides were chosen for a game. There was some overlap in the groups based pretty much on your ability, for instance, a 12-year old kid with talent sometimes got invited to play with the 15-year olds and was given a chance to prove himself. If he delivered he became a regular part of the older group's player pool. This was quite a feat in our kid universe...like jumping from AA ball straight to the majors.
Maybe the biggest leap came when you were invited to play with the "men"... groups in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. In Brooklyn, you didn't stop playing ball just because you were out of your teens. Anyone who grew up on the streets will remember married men out in the street playing stickball in their pizza-man undershirts. One of the defining moments of my youth came from making the most of such a rare opportunity. One cold day we tagged along with the men on the block to Highland Park where they held regular touch football games. They tolerated us just so they had someone to run for sodas and cigarettes after the game.
We usually hung out on the sidelines watching the men, all pretty good athletes, go at each other. During the game a guy named Anthony DiBiase (called Dukie because everybody had a nickname) went down with a twisted ankle. The quarterback on one of the teams, an Italian-hating Irish cop named Eddie Braden, pointed to me and said: "Hey kid, fill in for Dukie." It wasn't a question but a command. I was around 15 at the time and pitted against bigger guys who were not above throwing a forearm into your puss before they "touched" you to stop the play.
I was on fire that day. Being much smaller and faster, it was easy to get open. Eddie kept finding me on short passes, long passes, any ball he threw up I pulled in. After the game, which we won handily, Eddie called me over and said in front of the men: "This kid has the best hands of any little dago I ever played with." He signalled for one of my friends to come over and ordered him to go buy sodas for the both of us. I felt ten feet tall at that moment; lower caste kids rarely got praise from the Alpha dog. I was proud not just for myself, but for struggling little dagos everywhere.
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