Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Summer of 1983

Narrow sidewalks. On one side, two and three story brick row homes. On the other, a row of tightly parked cars. A narrow asphalt street. Another row of parked cars. Sidewalk. Brick row homes.

Overhead of each sidewalk, dozens of telephone and electric wires ran with the flow of the street. Some heaved old sneakers to entangle them in the wires like street ornaments. 

Every twenty yards a wooden telephone pole stood firm in the cement. Rough hewn and mottled with decades of heavy duty staples, they held postings for parish carnivals or candidates names for upcoming elections. When the sun set, their bulbs illuminated with distinctive click and hum. Slowly, the bulb glowed blue and then white.

And then it was night. And the sound of adolescence carried.

Windows and doors were always sealed shut, to keep us out. Basement windows were covered with iron security bars. We could hear a doors slam from over fifty yards away whenever we were loud and laughing and no one, I mean no one, could ever find a place to park in front of their house.

So grumpy working people parked blocks away from their houses and passed us doing nothing.

We did nothing but we were always walking.

From one neighborhood to the next. From one crowd of nothing to another crowd of nothing.

And then we went home. Sleeping past our parents heading to work. By late morning, we were out again. Never calling each other. 

Just walking, knocking on doors, or standing outside someone's house and yelling their name. And we did it in pairs and threes and continued all day until all of our boys were there and we could do nothing again together.

On hot days, we draped our t-shirts over our shoulders. We were bare chested, tan, and young. White socks pulled up to our knees, sometimes bulging with a pack of cigarettes.

You could hear the voices of parents and grandparents screaming from one end of the block to another--calling their children home to eat lunch or dinner. After eating, adults sat outside on the front step, sometimes in aluminum folding chairs--the kind with the crosshatched straps for a seat and back support.

Early mornings, cars vanished and long berths of empty spaces appeared. By late afternoon, many cars returned and parked. Sometimes people held empty spaces by placing folding chairs in them. This was frowned upon though. At night, cars circled the block. Again and again. Until an empty space opened. Somewhere. While we just watched, doing nothing.

We had no grass. Just cement, asphalt, and broken glass. 

We horsed around in the morning, in the afternoon, in the night. We shoved each other and punched each other. Sometimes we fought, but it never lingered past the black eye or swollen lip. When we fell, we didn't scuff our knees. We tore them open. Seeping circles of red staring out at everyone. Flabby pale skin dangling. Crusted with grime.

We walked to water ice stands squeezed waxy paper cups until the slushy ice plopped into our mouths, our heads tilted back. We ordered lemon every time because it had real chunks of lemon in it. And it didn't stain your lips.

We lit firecrackers. And used stolen wrenches to open fire hydrants--the water gushing and flooding intersections so kids could run and splash until eggshell blue police cars pulled up and waited until we ran away. And then the officers would close the hydrant. Never chasing us.

We played catch in narrow spaces. 

Photograph: Bruce Davidson
We ran to catch footballs when the traffic ebbed. We juked our friends and reached out between parked cars for imaginary touchdowns. We swung broom sticks with cigarettes behind our ears as bats and hit hollow rubber balls, split in half, against our row homes. Sometimes the hollow half of a ball plunked harmlessly against a plate glass window. Sometimes it struck aluminum awnings with such a crash that old ladies shooed us away from cracked open screen doors.

They glared spells at us until we moved down to another small space between parked cars to play.

We tried nailing milk crates into telephone poles so that we could play basketball. It lasted a shot or two, as the first miss caused the plastic crate to clatter from the pole. The lone nail ping-ping-pinging from cement to asphalt.

We played a version of freeze tag with a belt. One kid hid the belt while others searched for it by responding to clues of "hot" or "cold" from the one who hid it. Popular places to hide were the insides of the fenders of parked cars or draped atop a tire.

Once a belt was found, the kid brandishing it would sprint for the closest kids and beat them senseless with the belt. We sadistically relished the belts with fat, silver buckles. It was such a dare because if you were caught, the brutal beating continued until everyone, screaming and shrieking, could reach home base safely--usually the front step of a specific house. The only rule was you couldn't hit in the face. Otherwise, it was completely barbaric. We wore the red stripes across our forearms, neck, and across the backs of our bare thighs. We'd peel our shirts up to show off the throbbing stripes across our stomaches.

When the day was long and we were walked and played out, we sat on steps of silent houses of strangers, or stood on corners, or leaned against metal posts and parked cars. And talked. Told jokes about the other guy's mother. Chipped dollars into a pile for quarts of beer. Planned for the next day. 

And never our futures.

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