If – and that’s not a given – I repeat, if you survive growing up in Brooklyn, you will have confidence for days. And we’re talking dog-year days. My formative years were spent in the 1950’s – a time that was both innocent and unbuffered.
From your first encounter with the outside world of Yo! Whassup? while you are still portable enough to be carried everywhere; to that experience of flying solo-ish: playing with other kids on the block, while some very focused adults watched from their perch on the stoop; to that thrill of being allowed out by yourself… you are, whether you know it or not, dancing on the edge of the sword.
So, you yell and run around like you see the other somewhat older boys and girls doing. And that feels pretty good. But there is that moment – for me it was when I dared to go past the “empty lot” (in the middle of the very long block I lived on). My mother said, “Don’t go past the empty lot.” But I did. And I was feeling pretty stoked, until I realized I was in unfamiliar territory. And then I saw some of the “big” boys who had already adopted permanent scowls and other attitudes which were (as they were intended) pretty scary.
My friends Argie and Connie were unfazed. They were a year or so older than me; I was ten. Eleven was virtually a teenager, so they were tough. And cool. And daring.
They were also sexually precocious (in what would now be considered a pretty tame way), and enrolled me in the plan to go “down to Argie’s basement.” Once there, I think it was Connie who suggested we all “pull our pants down.” I was not going to be the “chicken,” so I joined them. And, of course, just as we were all bare-assed and not quite certain what to do next, Connie’s father came roaring down the stairs. I can’t possibly recall the words he bellowed at us, but I know we high-tailed it out of there, stumbling and bashing knees in the process.
My parents were informed, but I have a much-needed blackout about their response to my shameful behavior. Shame. That was a big word back then.
As I think about it, there was an earlier pants-down experience. (What shall we deduce from this? Hopefully,nothing.) I was little, maybe four or five. I was outside with my mother and for some not to be recalled reason, I took it upon myself to flash the immediate neighborhood. Just a quick skirt up, and then my knickers were around my knees.
A chorus of neighbor ladies who just happened to be sitting outside next door and across the street arose: “SHAME, SHAME, ON YOUUUUU!!!!” This was accompanied by a hand gesture: index fingers crossed, the right hand finger scraping the left.
Mortification was quick and lasting. I can still feel my cheeks on fire.
Somehow, I returned from my disgrace and resumed playing outside. There were a few games we played fervently, with joy but always to win. There was “potsy”: a fairly complex game (some equate it with hopscotch – but I don’t know about that) with numbered boxes drawn in chalk on the sidewalk. It entailed throwing a rock sequentially into a specific box, then hopping and jumping through the remaining boxes – WITHOUT STEPPING ON THE LINES. Boundaries were essential in most of our homemade games. There was stoop ball (one of my favorites): A pink high-bouncing ball with SPALDING stamped on it (which we called a “Spaldeen”) was first bounced, then slapped in the direction of the five stairs composing the stoop leading up to the two-story, three apartment building I lived in. The goal was to hit a step or, even better, an outer edge of the step, and then catch the ball either mid-air (preferred) or on a bounce. Scores were kept. Scores were always kept.
The Spaldeen was used to play a series of games that had no real name. They were all about “turning over” which was what we called bouncing the ball under one leg which we lifted and put down (i.e. the turnover), as we told a prescribed singsong story. Here’s an example:
“‘A’ my name is Alice and my husband’s name is Arthur. We come from America and we eat Apples.” One had to turn over for each word starting with A. If that was successful, you moved on to B. And so it went, as far as you could get through the alphabet.
We also played box-ball. The sidewalk was “naturally” divided into concrete rectangles. Those were the boxes. Two people stood either two or more boxes apart (depending on your skill-level). Feet were planted outside the boundary-line of the box. You took turns bouncing, then hitting – with an open palm – the ball into the far box. Kind of like tennis. Kind of. The ball was returned with a similar open-palmed hit designed to land in your opponents box. Points were given.
In all seasons (unless it was raining) you could find kids playing outside. Those who had bikes would ride them. In my neighborhood, only boys rode in the “gutter.” Girls rode on the sidewalk. Going around the corner was a big deal – either on foot or by bike. I lived one block over from Ocean Parkway, a multiple-lane road that also had a railed off bike-path. The only time I ever rode my bike on it was the year my father got us “English racers” – thin wheeled, fast bicycles. He and I rode to Prospect Park one time, and to Coney Island – also one time. Then he lost interest. I don’t know what happened to the English racers.
School. I started kindergarten before I turned five. An April birthday put me right on the inside of the cut off. So I was pretty much the youngest in my class forever. For the first six months, my parents sent me to a private school in Rockaway – a fair distance from my home. A bus picked me up and delivered me home. But mid-year I transferred to the local public school. My two memories of that year were singing “Onward Christian Soldiers (in private school) despite the fact that I Jewish, and being put in the coat closet (in public school) by my teacher who couldn’t get me to stop talking in class. Ah! Memories.
I know my mother took me to kindergarten, but by first grade I was walking the seven blocks by myself. No one worried, and nothing untoward ever happened. I recall carrying a lot of books. I mean a heavy stack. Back and forth. At some point my parents got me a satchel to put them in. We (my best friend, Regina and I) called it a “schlep-along.” Aptly named.
There’s more, of course. I went to Seth Low Junior High, James Madison High School, and Brooklyn College – all in Brooklyn. But I’ll save some of those stories for another time.
My point here is that after all dealing with all the hard edges of a Brooklyn childhood, you develop a capacity for regeneration and muscling through things. That doesn’t mean you can’t get knocked down. But you always get up again.
FYI: my new science fiction novel, RAYMÒN AND SUNSHINE, is available on amazon.com. It’s about the relationship between an autistic man and a female android three hundred years in the future. Here’s the link:
You can find more information about me and my books at www.karenkrettauthor.com/