Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Street Rules

We live in an age where kids no longer get to be kids. Everything they do seems to be scheduled and monitored by hovering parents. They don't get to go outside and play much, and that lack of spontaneous unsupervised interaction with others causes them to lose out on developing one of life's most valuable skills: the art of negotiation. Things were much different growing up in the fifties. Children were on their own pretty much all the time. Our mothers gladly sent us out of the house and the only proviso was to be home by dinner. That is not to say there were no rules on the street to govern our play; there were, but they were rules made up and enforced by kids.

For example, in today's parent-dominated world, every kid who wants to play baseball makes the Little League team. Not only that, but coaches, by league regulation, are mandated to play every kid for at least part of every game. Fifties kids chose up sides, and since the object of playing the game was to win, the best players were always chosen first working down to the less talented kids. Sometimes when the teams reached the player limit, the worst kids got left out. You might think our way was cruel and insensitive, but in a way, it spurred the weaker kids to get better if they wanted to get in the game. This business of everybody plays and winning isn't everything just never occurred to us.

Not all our games relied on brawn. A big pastime for us, especially on cold or rainy days, was flipping baseball cards. We'd go into the hallway of an apartment building and flip cards. The point of the game was to have someone flip say 50 cards and then count up the number of heads and tails. The opponent would then have to match exactly the number of heads and tails flipped to win all the cards. This game required skill, but not muscle. We practiced flipping cards at home, and some kids were so good they could flip 100 straight heads or tails on demand. Side bets of say another 100 cards were often placed over and above the cards being flipped. If there was a tie, each player would toss one card high in the air and leave the outcome to pure chance as it fluttered to the ground.

Other street games required rules. In marbles, when your turn came, the object was to shoot your marble at the marbles of opponents and knock them out of a circle. Those you knocked out you kept. If there was anything in your path between your marble and the one you were shooting at, you were allowed to take a "roundsies". This meant you were allowed to move your marble in an arc around the obstacle (no closer to your target) so that you would have an unobstructed shot. Marbles also had to be standard size; none too big so that it gave the shooter an advantage, and none too small so that they were harder to hit. We played at everything to win, but there was a certain sense of fairness in our street game code.

Squealing was a no-no. Maybe it came from watching too many Cagney movies, but nobody liked a rat. You just didn't squeal on your friends. Teachers would sometimes try to break this vow of Omerta. They'd say: "Okay, if the boy who threw that eraser across the room doesn't come forward, everyone will have to write: "I will not horse around in class 500 times in their notebooks". Silence. If the offender didn't do the honorable thing and step forward, everyone accepted the punishment rather than squeal. That's not to say that later on in the schoolyard we didn't beat the crap out of the kid who caused us all that grief. Strangely the code did not apply to ratting out siblings to our parents. We would throw them under the bus in a heartbeat.

Kids inherently understood that even street games needed rules, and that all had to abide by them if anarchy was to be avoided. Negotiating these rules and their enforcement is what kids miss out on today when every little decision in their lives gets handed down by an adult. 

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2 comments:

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

I think your point that learning to win is right on, but the 'do gooders' seem to think it too harsh! Seems to me that they do more harm to the future of the weak and less talented by 'everyone has to win theories rather then EVERYONE NEEDS TO LEARN HOW TO WIN.

Jim Pantaleno said...

You get it Joe.