Friday, July 11, 2014

City Kids on Rooftops

Adopting a lesson from writer and educator Don Graves, I took the phrase I Remember and set to writing for five minutes with as much detail as possible. Well, it is rarely five minutes, and for me, that is part of the point. I use the same exercise to conclude my current podcast series of interviews (I Remember) with people recounting their family heritage.

I remember one summer in my adolescence as the summer of climbing.

Summers in a city are hotter than anyplace else--the heat radiates off of every surface. The old adage "it is so hot you can cook an egg" isn't about the grass and the dirt of the suburbs. It is about the asphalt and concrete, brick and steel, glass and congestion. in a city. You feel the intense heat radiate back at your from every surface.

My first climb was the fig tree. When I knew it, the tree was mature and leafy, producing sweet, plump figs. The outer skin was fuzzy and dark, soft and pliable like a pudgy child; inside, the flesh was bloody red. I climbed the tree to pluck the figs hardest to reach and laid back against a limb in the green shade and ate them until my belly ached. Beneath me was a cement backyard, not dirt and grass; around me, the aging backs of row homes and drying laundry, bleached in the sun, on ropes sagging between leaning poles.

We didn't play much in our small, cement yards. The walls, taller than the adults, were cinderblock. Behind the rear wall, a narrow and muddy alley smelled of piss and dog shit. On either side, we could hear our neighbors and they could hear us. Everything was cramped and you really couldn't play anything in that space.

Behind our house, the moon often appeared in the same wedge of sky between the houses, overheard wires, and parking garage. For several years, my bedroom overlooked the concrete backyard and sour alley. My only real view was the moon for the rest of our view was blocked by the immense stucco wall of the parking garage--it ran the length of our block of houses.

Laying in bed, I could see the moon through the glass and could hear the roar of the crowd during Phillies games at Veterans Stadium. Whenever it woke me, I grabbed the handheld transistor radio by my bed and found the game on the radio. The sound was rich with static and high pitched imperfections in the AM reception.

Sometimes I walked around the room with the radio over my head, trying to adjust the signal so I could hear the game better.

I'd end up at the back window staring at the moon, the parking garage, cinderblock walls, and dark alley.

Climbing out the back window became a real idea in my head one night--not to sneak out--just to see what the city looked like from the rooftop. Tired of the same view of nothing, I planned to hang from the ledge beneath my window and drop atop the cinderblock wall. I planned to walk the wall, past where our alcoholic neighbor hid empty whiskey bottles from his wife. I'd come home from school and hear him smashing the bottles into a million fragments against the parking garage wall in the alley. Sometimes his wife would come home and catch him and scream bloody murder at him in the late afternoon. Then he took to lobbing empty liquor bottles over the roof of the garage--it was faster and didn't attract much attention. Often, I watched him from my bedroom window.

It drew my eyes further down the row of back yards to a ladder bolted to the side of the garage wall, leading to the roof. It reminded me that a different neighbor also had a ladder bolted to the side of his house.

I wanted to walk the cinder block wall, down to the garage ladder, scale it to the roof, and look out over the city. But I could see from my window that I was too short. I'd never reach it. Not to mention, I realized it would be easier--and less dangerous-- to climb onto the cinderblock wall from the yard--not drop down from above like some fool.

Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania
I climbed it on a late summer morning with a friend after most adults were gone for work. The street out front was mostly open with parking spaces. We'd play half ball for hours every day. We'd play until the adults started to return from work and the parking spaces would fill up until none were left, and some adults were left circling the neighborhood until a space finally opened on a nearby street.

We were out of half balls, and climbing to the rooftops seemed like a good way to get some back without having the buy any.

When climbing the wall, we used the side of my house and the side of the cinder block wall and wedged our feet against each. Our weight evenly distributed, we could inch our way high and shimmy ourselves up to the top of the wall. Once there, we leaned forward as if falling over he wall into the neighbor's yard, and grabbed the iron rung of their ladder.

We climbed past their kitchen window and a bedroom room. The wife saw us and started screaming in Italian, but we were already up and over the ledge. It was a new world. The heat steamrolled us. It hit us from all sides, yes, but it was the intense steamy waves rising from the tar roofs that took my breath away. The tar was sticky and soft and it stuck to our shoes and socks. It smelled of chemicals and it made the roofs in the distance warble and dance.

Dozens of pale half-balls littered the rooftops from end of the block to the other.

A pile of empty green and brown liquor bottles marked the alcoholic's house.

We walked around television antennas and explored old sneakers, aluminum cans, and bits of old, faded trash. As my friend kept walking I remember stopping and looking at the city. Tens of thousands of rooftops. The skyline in the distance loomed silent and still like a glass and steel mountain chain.

The further out I looked the more it looked like the surface of a undiscovered moon. It was craggy and colorless.

I remember it was so hot my skin tingled from burning and I had to pull my feet hard so they came free from the tar. My friend dropping stacks of reclaimed half balls into his backyard.

Our neighbor was still screaming at us in Italian which neither of us understood. As we climbed down, she ran back into her kitchen and returned with a wooden spoon that she swung over her head at us even as we stepped atop the cinderblock wall and dropped down into our yard. She never struck us--we were too high over her reach.

My friend went home and counted half balls while I spent a long time scrubbing the tar off the bottom of my sneakers.

I remember getting into a little bit of trouble once the neighbor's told on me, but I didn't really have the desire to climb back up into that world. I'd done it. Saw what I wanted to see. And stuck with climbing the family fig tree and hitting half balls with my friend back on top of the roofs.

No comments:

Post a Comment