Monday, June 10, 2013

Using Your Imagination: Priceless

I try putting these little notes about growing up in the 1950's out there in the hope that one day some bored kid will read them and marvel at what it was like to grow up in a time when sometimes, all we had to play with came straight from our imaginations. There were no acre-sized Toys 'R Us stores where every conceivable toy was on the shelves, complete with instructions, and safety warnings not to ingest small plastic parts. Fifties kids may have been short on cash, but they had this amazing ability to make games out of nothing. City neighborhoods offered no trees to climb, no streams to fish in and no caves to explore. It took the ingenuity of generations of street kids to invent games that could be played anywhere for free. 

I have returned to this idea often in this blog because it occurs to me that we are depriving modern children from ever having to stretch their brains to create ways to amuse themselves that don't involve televisions, computers, video games and smart phones. It would be interesting to me to fill a room with today's ten-year-olds and give them things like a length of rope, a rubber ball, a stick or an empty cardboard box just to see what games they can improvise. Their lives are so structured and supervised, I wonder if they could do it. Do they ever have time, between organized activities, play dates and incessant homework, to just lay down in the grass and try to see shapes in the fleecy white clouds hanging up in the sky?             

I won't repeat what I've said before about how many games we played using only a rubber ball...known colloquially as a Spal-deen in the hood. Suffice to say there were at least 25 games to amuse us. We spent hours playing games like Hide and Seek, Johnny on the Pony, Red Light-Green Light, Kick the Can, Giant Steps, and Ring-a-levio. Total cost to play: zero. On rainy days we would have Popsicle stick races in the fast-flowing streams of water that raced along the curb in the street. If somebody on the block got a new refrigerator or washing machine, the empty box put out in the trash became a castle or a rocket ship. On snowy days we would "borrow" the sturdy metal garbage can covers from unsuspecting neighbors and use them as sleds.

We would roll an old tire down the hill, sometimes riding in it and staggering around dizzy afterward. Any fence, no matter how high, even those topped with barbed wire, became our Matterhorn. On really slow days we would sneak on the elevated trains that ran out to Jamaica in Queens. Some enterprising soul had pried open the heavy black bars that protected the unattended Fulton Street station just wide enough for skinny kids to fit through. First the crew-cut head, then the torso, and finally the legs passed through the opening. One day, a chubbier kid got his head through, but couldn't fit the rest of himself. The cops were called to get him out, and we all received a stern lecture, but the spectacle entertained the rest of us for a couple of hours. Total cost: free.

The stoop (a flight of steps outside a house) was our permanent hangout. We played cards, sneaked cigarettes, girl-watched, and yelled derogatory remarks at passers-by...all free. As lame as it may sound today, we played a game called "movie star initials" that involved taking turns giving the initials of an unnamed screen star, and having to guess the identity of the actor/actress. We would make small bets on the make or color of the next car to turn the corner. Sometimes in desperation we would join the girls' jump-rope games. They were usually happy to have us thinking we were finally showing some interest in them until we started horsing around and were sent packing with slaps and giggles.

As I read this I shake my head realizing how awful these silly games must sound to today's kids who seem to enjoy themselves only when there is a joystick in hand. My childhood was a delight because everything we needed for a good time we carried around in our heads. Here's to the vanishing power of imagination.



Children's Craniofacial Association


Joseph Del Broccolo said...

I often think that if I hadn't grown up where I did, and when I did, I would never have entered a creative field. Childhood is a great influence on childhood to adult imagination.

Jim Pantaleno said...

So right, my creative friend.