Across the 59th Street Bridge and Back: Reprise

bridgeThirty years ago, I moved from my hometown in Queens to an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I never really intended to live in Manhattan, but once I graduated from college, I knew I wanted to begin the next chapter of my life living away from my parents. My friend Susan wanted to get an apartment and live on her own as well, and since she proved to be such a great friend back in junior high school when she courageously put my well-being ahead of her own by uncoupling me from my possessed germ-ridden retainer that had attached itself to my shirt, I knew she would be an outstanding apartment-mate.

We began searching for apartments in Queens, but through a family member, Susan was able to get us an apartment on the Upper West Side where we could pay a fraction of the rent most people paid. So after five weeks living at home following graduation (which for me felt like four weeks too many) we packed up our stuff and moved. I took an assortment of mismatched furniture from my house including the bed and dresser that were part of one of mom’s HGTV moments years earlier and the coffee table that never fit anywhere in the house and ended up in my room along with the rotisserie. We found two guys with a U-Haul and they brought us and our stuff to Manhattan. I have no recollection of packing or unpacking for that matter, but the trip across the bridge that day, when I was just shy of my 21st birthday, is seared in my mind and I still remember the excitement I felt.

Just a few days after we moved in, my friend Liora’s father asked me to take care of the family dog Dandy while he went to visit Liora who had moved to Argentina. What I didn’t know at the time was that Dandy was 17 years old and blind. After a few seconds in the apartment, Dandy walked head-on into the coffee table and nearly scored a concussion. We had to keep the dog in the kitchen when we went to work just to keep it safe. The poor dog howled all day which probably would cause some concern in a NYC apartment building in 2015, but in the post-David Dinkins, pre Rudy Giuliani 1984 version of New York City, screams, alarms, honking horns, gunshots and howling were all just part of a typical day. Fortunately we managed to make it through the two weeks of howling without getting evicted.

Barbara and dad ny aptI was definitely right about Susan being a great person to share a space with. Her wisdom far exceeded her age and she asked me the important Jewish mother questions that my own Jewish mother never did. Things like, “Do you see a future with this guy, does he have a job and is he Jewish?” (well actually my mom asked me that last question a lot). And like the daughter who doesn’t heed her mother’s advice, I generally didn’t listen to Susan’s either, even though she really was always right.

A few years later, Susan met her husband-to-be and they decided to start their married life in that apartment. I rallied to stay, promising them I wouldn’t make much noise, because by now I was attached to my life in Manhattan. She helped me get a studio on the top floor of the same building that was so small that when I pulled out my Ikea futon knock-off, it touched the bookshelf on the other side of the room that was against the wall. But I didn’t care because I got to continue my life in the city.

I spent three decades living in Manhattan and watching it go through a sort of renaissance which included hookers in Times Square that were replaced by Elmos in handcuffs, grafitti-covered trains replaced with trains covered in scratchitti and drug dealing playgrounds replaced with family-friendly ones. I witnessed many other wonderful changes. Sometime in the late eighties, sales of sandwich bags in New York City rocketed with the introduction of the Pooper Scooper Law. By the mid-nineties at least one out of every five people you passed on a Manhattan street who appeared to be talking to themselves was actually using a cell phone and not crazy after all.

But now friends and family have drawn me back to Queens and I’ve made that journey across the bridge again to go back home. This time I had a lot more stuff and while a moving truck transported my belongings, I made the trip back on the F train. And it was just as thrilling as that first trip 30 years ago.

Austin StNow I’m reaquainting myself with the infamous Queens grid system. I’m sandwiched in between a road and a drive that share the same number and nestled between two inconsecutively numbered streets. I can only find my apartment building because I can spot the behemoth of a building on Queens Boulevard where I make the turn to get to my own. This nonsensical system leaves me so lost in my new surroundings, yet simultaneously so found. Lost because you can routinely find me walking around in circles, but found because although I don’t quite understand the exact geographic coordinates of my new address, I know I am home.

This is where the story began and where it ends. I’ve done my best to accurately document my formative years while sufficiently embarrassing myself (and others!) and luckily no one has unfriended me (yet). I’m incredibly flattered by the number of people who have followed this blog and shared their own stories of youth and the borough of Queens. If you are ever in Queens, look me up…I’m halfway between the high school’s non-regulation track and the store that sells the smelly cheese.

Vacations, Staycations and Other Memories of Summer

Bermuda 6Shortly after my fifth birthday, my mom enrolled me in a summer day camp. Mom put me in a group of campers that were mostly four year olds, perhaps to give me a possible height advantage that I could never reclaim at any other point in my life. But her plan backfired. When I told my fellow campers that I was five, none of them believed me. One girl said, “You’re not five, you’re four.” Another girl boldly proclaimed, “You’re not five, you’re three!” Another girl claimed I was two, the next said one and the final girl who was just a bit meaner and cleverer than the others said, “You weren’t even born yet!” At the time the words really stung and I continued to be annoyed when people thought I was younger than I actually was until about ten years ago when I decided to just keep celebrating my 29th birthday over and over again.

Another source of embarrassment was my inability to walk in flip-flops during our two daily treks to the swimming pool. While everyone else glided effortlessly in their flip-flops, I shuffled along like I was on a Nordic Track just to keep the damn things on my feet. I was never successful and would fall so far behind in the line that they had to send out a search party to find me. Walking without shoes was not an option, because much of the campgrounds were covered in wood chips of a similar size and texture to the glass shards that blanketed the Saxon Hall playground. Since I was a flop wearing flip-flops, I was given an option far worse than walking barefoot on glass; walking in slide sandals that were the footwear of choice for old Russian men. After that summer, I begged my mother not to send me back to camp again.

Shibley 2A few years later, I decided to give camp another try and I went to a new camp in Long Island. This was a far better experience and it was here that I improved my swim stroke and learned how to dive. But it wasn’t all marshmallows by the campfire and pony rides; it was here that I also discovered a whole bunch of other stuff I suck at. A few times during the summer, we got to go to the go kart area. Getting the gas and the brake right while steering proved too much for me and after nearly mowing down a group of fellow campers and two counselors, I was asked to just sit and watch the other campers. Note to everyone still trying to figure out why I don’t drive: Now you know.

Another camp activity I sucked at was making things with lanyard. Whether it was the zipper, Chinese staircase or butterfly stitch, I just couldn’t get the hang of it and just like the abandoned bookmark that defined my second grade experience, I left camp without ever finishing a lanyard project. Fortunately, lanyard was an activity generally reserved for the 35-minute bus ride home, so only a select group of campers got to witness my lack of digital dexterity which kept the teasing to a minimum. Unfortunately, I was the last kid dropped off the bus every day which meant I suffered with my lanyard in silence the last few extra minutes of the ride when on three out of four days of the week the bus driver’s radio blared Gilbert O’Sullivan’s summer hit, Alone Again Naturally at the precise moment the second to last camper stepped off the bus.

That same summer, my family took our first (and only) official family vacation, unless you count what dad referred to as our annual six hours of hell on Amtrak. I got to go on an airplane for the first time and we went to Bermuda. We stayed at our first (and only) big fancy hotel without the words Holiday or Inn in the name. The hotel was right on the ocean and we got to rent water rafts while my father who couldn’t swim sat under a huge beach umbrella, liberally applying the 1973 version of Coppertone which offered about as much protection from the sun as whipped cream. When we exited the ocean, guests were required to soak their feet in warm water to remove the tar that was stuck to them. At the time, we kids thought this was just another cool feature of the beach; we didn’t realize the tar was petroleum residue from a 1973 oil spill off the coast of Bermuda. Now I understand how we were able to afford the trip.

While we loved the beach, the hotel had something we loved more; a game room. Prior to our trip to Bermuda, the closest thing we’d ever seem to a hotel game room was the ice machine at a motel in Altoona, PA. But now we had pinball and ping pong! We spent hours in the game room, which is probably how three kids with the pastiest white skin ever avoided getting a sunburn on a tropical island.

Bermuda 3Another highlight of the trip was the hotel restaurant. In our real life we ate dinner out once a year. But in our vacation life we got to eat out every night. My brother Jeffrey decided to take full advantage of this and managed to order the most expensive thing on the menu each night. Additionally, many of the dishes he ordered involved fire. When he ordered the Flambe Cherries Jubilee for dessert, cooked right at the table, the nearby wall caught on fire and after that we were only allowed to get ice cream for dessert.

Many of my summers were spent just doing things in the neighborhood. While now we have the fancy term staycation to describe vacationing without going anywhere, back then we called it what it was; hanging out with your friends, often being bored out of your mind and getting into all sorts of trouble. Some of the most dangerous things happened to us in the summer; we played Ringolevio and hid in ominous apartment building garages that attracted sketchy people. We crossed Queens Boulevard with greater frequency and hung out past dark even when we knew Son of Sam might be nearby. We ate red M&M’s before they were banned in 1976, we trespassed on other people’s property to pick mulberries, and once or twice we even jumped into the Park City Pool a mere ten minutes after eating a Chow Chow french fry. We watched way too much TV, went looking for poison ivy, risked our lives tormenting our siblings and stepped in enough dog shit to fertilize an 18-hole golf course…twice. We survived all of this and emerged without broken limbs, skin rashes, stomach cramps, blindness or arrest records; just great memories of summer fun.


What the F#$*???

question markWhen my brother Jeffrey wasn’t busy impressing everyone with how special he was, he behaved like any other older brother, wielding his power and authority to teach his younger sister stuff she was too young to understand.

My most vivid recollection of this occurred one afternoon at the Saxon Hall playground as Cha-Cha and I did flips and hanging tricks from the tetanus-producing bars underneath the sliding ponds. We had recently expanded our vocabulary to include the “F word” and we were busy trying the word out in different sentences and perfecting our language arts skills by using the word as a noun, verb, and adjective.

My brother was in earshot of this and exclaimed, “You don’t even know what the word means!” to which we retorted with our ten year old logic, “Of course we do; It’s a way to tell someone to leave you alone because they are stupid.” My twelve year old brother went on to explain, in explicit detail, the act that the word actually referred to. His description was met with WTF? looks from us, followed by disbelief. The whole thing made absolutely no sense, but what was harder to comprehend was how the heck my brother could have come up with such an explanation. After much deliberation, we decided that my brother must be telling the truth, because even though he was the smartest 6th grader in school and was about to receive his engraved dictionary to prove it, he was not clever enough to make this shit up.

I spent much of the next several months trying to figure out how this act was even humanly possible. To this day, tasks that require any spatial aptitude have always been challenging for me. I suck at jigsaw puzzles, I can barely figure out how to change a vacuum cleaner bag, and you definitely wouldn’t want me putting together a piece of your IKEA furniture.

So at ten, I was asking myself questions like, “How are the bodies arranged? How does it stay in? I imagined that for the parties involved, the only possible position was that they both  be lying flat on their backs with their heads at opposite ends of the beds which meant someone in the equation needed arms that were at least six feet long to even make the mechanics of this possible. I continued to ponder.

Then one day the following school year, the mystery was solved thanks to HBO. Cable was in its infancy in 1975 and my family was too busy trying to adjust the rabbit ears on the free version of television to even contemplate paying for shows with snow.  Fortunately Cha-Cha’s family already had a subscription and even more fortunately, were a bit lax with using the controls that kept their kids from watching age inappropriate television. We happened upon this movie, which was panned by many critics, but got a “thumbs up” from me for not only solving this riddle I’d been grappling with for close to a year, but also for clarifying any lingering questions by showing multiple examples of how it’s done and using a variety of cutting-edge camera angles.

After Jeffrey had shattered my illusion of the F word and while I was waiting for cable to come to Queens and set things straight, he got another opportunity to keep his little sister in line. While with Gaby, my most daring friend, we decided it would be a good idea to steal a piece of candy from a neighborhood store called Burt’s Candy Store. I was quickly caught by Burt himself for stealing a packet of Lick-A-Stix. I’m deeply embarrassed by this, partially because I was stealing, but more importantly because I was stealing bad candy, not even a piece of chocolate. Once Burt caught us, he demanded our home phone numbers and told us he would be calling our parents and telling them what we had done. Just as stupid as I was to steal bad candy, I was stupid enough to give Burt my correct phone number.

I went home and in a panic I told my brother what I had done, hoping for some emotional support and guidance. He offered to answer the phone to try to intercept Burt’s phone call. It was agonizing. For the next few days, every time the phone rang it felt like a scene out of  Play Misty for Me (well except for the fact that Burt, to the best of my knowledge, wasn’t psychotic). After a week and no call from Burt, I realized that the chances of him calling were marginal, but my brother now had a piece of information about me that he could use to his advantage. He suckered me into doing all types of crap for him like clean his room or lend him money and if I didn’t do what he wanted he would squeal on me. He milked this successfully for quite some time. I think I was a freshman in college before he officially let it go and only because Burt’s Candy Store had gone out of business by that time.

My parents never found out I was caught stealing which means my brother has kept this secret for 40 years. And in retrospect, I’m sure from day one he never really planned to divulge it. Which makes me a pretty lucky little sister.






Preparation H Always Gives Me Goosebumps..A Love Story

prep HThe first job I ever had that wasn’t babysitting or dog walking was at a drug store on Queens Boulevard where I was a cashier. My friend Liora  got me the job  when we were seniors in high school. She was already working there and she got the job through a guy in her homeroom class that worked there. This was the first of several crappy cashier jobs, but this one holds a special place in my heart. Here’s why.


In  1980

I was  coming of age

When Sasoons, perms, and Candies

Were all the rage


A friend got me a job

At a local drugstore

Heck; my allowance was a dollar

And I was tired of being poor


Incredibly awkward

Small and shy

I played by the boss’ rules

To ensure I got by


Early on in the job

I met a pharmacy pro

He was 18 years old

And seemed to be in the know


He filled in the gaps

Of my experience void

While we priced boxes of ointments

To treat hemmoroids


He was confident and smart

And had such a quick wit

I fell head over heels

And thought, “Yep, this is it!”


I chatted and flirted

For how long I can’t count

But all of my efforts

To not much did amount


I consulted my brother

My best friend at the time

Who helped  devise a plan

To give him a sign


“The next time you see him

Skip the peck on the cheek

Kiss him four times on the lips

He won’t be able to speak”


He got the message


But there were others

Who pitched a small fit


Mom cried, “What is his name?

Who is this boy?

He’s not a Jew!

You’ve hooked up with a Goy?”


One fun-filled summer

Hanging out at parks and the beach

Ending with me miles away

At a school out of reach


Colleges were attended

Responsibilities mounted

Years marched on

Too many to be counted


And then at the beginning

Of 2008

I had an idea

That I thought would be great


I reconnected to people

Thanks to Facebook

And found my true friend

And got my second look


After hundreds of emails

And a few false starts

I have  him again

Close to my heart


And as for my mother

After his 30 years on the bench

Now she adores him

And calls him a mench

Fourth Grade and the Beginnings of My Checkered Past

MomNERDFourth grade was a year of change and an end of innocence. Watergate was in full swing, the US was in a recession, and Cher was appearing regularly on television half naked. I began my own experimentation and rebellion or sorts during this time period as well.

In fourth grade we had a spelling and math test every week on Friday. I breezed through math in third grade because the main thing we learned that year was multiplication which is all memorization…something I can actually do (well, until cell phones with auto dial were invented and my ability to memorize anything went out the window). But fourth grade math was division, which requires some degree of logical thinking, something I have none of.

Each week we were handed a piece of pale yellow paper and the teacher dictated the math questions we were to answer. She didn’t use mimeograph paper for math tests and while most kids continued to sniff the pale yellow paper hoping for a quick buzz, all we ever got was the faint smell of the storage closet where the paper was kept.

Since we were required to answer several math problems, the teacher instructed us on how to fold the paper to achieve the correct number of boxes to serve as a work space for each problem. If there were eight math problems I could handle the folding ritual, but on the weeks when there were 16 problems to solve, my paper often looked like a failed attempt at origami or a handmade accordion fan.

Once the paper was folded and the problems were dictated, I employed a new skill I had learned that year…cheating. My friend Gaby was always up for a dare, plus she was a much better math student than me, so who was I to argue? We blatantly surveyed each other’s papers, yet we were never caught. It seemed like an ingenious plan at the time, however, I left fourth grade lacking some basic math skills that were later uncovered by my sixth grade teacher who couldn’t stand to look at me. Note to friends: This is why you should never ask me to divide the check after a gathering with multiple people. Some people will end up kicking in $2 while you will be asked to pay $50.

Fourth grade was without a doubt the year I made the biggest fashion statement of my life. In fourth grade, I stopped wearing dresses to school and started wearing pants. In 1973, school-appropriate pants for girls were Danskins. The tween Danskin ensembles of the day were the equivalent of men’s polyester leisure suits for ten-year-old girls. My favorite outfit was a pair of green Danskin pants with an orange Danskin turtleneck. I wore a multi-colored, multi-patterned knit vest over this and put the finishing touches on the look by wearing two big ponytails tied together with orange yarn (mom’s idea). One week I wore this get-up on a Friday when we had our math and spelling test and I earned grades of 100 percent on both. I became convinced that the outfit had something to do with this and secretly planned to wear this each week on Friday in hopes of repeating the 100 percent test scores. It must have been pretty obvious, because the teacher actually sent a note home to my mother asking why I wore the same thing every Friday. I’m not sure if the teacher had picked up on my leanings towards obsessive compulsive disorder or she was just trying to throw a hint mom’s way that she should buy me some more clothes, but all I know is that since I outgrew that outfit in the fourth grade, the 100’s on my math tests have been few and far between.

In fourth grade we finally got to stop making the obligatory Mother’s Day gifts of the 70’s such as a pencil holder made out of an old soup can, glue, and dried macaroni and a jewelry case made out of an empty cigar box that no matter how much cologne you sprayed in it still smelled like a cigar box (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar). Our fourth grade teacher came up with the idea to create a cookbook for the moms for Mother’s Day. Each kid had to request a favorite recipe from their mom, but keep the project a secret.  The teacher copied all the recipes (wait a minute; no…she mimeographed them!) and each kid created a special cover for the book out of of some strange, exceptionally durable material that felt like wallpaper, (perhaps left over from the teacher’s home renovation project).

One of my favorite recipes from that book was from Harlan’s mom. The recipe was for orange Jello. “This is a recipe?” you might ask. But wait; in his mother’s recipe you add orange juice instead of water! Fancy, huh? I still remember the instructions: Empty box of jello into a bowl, add one cup orange juice, stir, refrigerate, serve. So simple and yet so 70’s. My mom contributed a recipe called Chicken Tarragon Champignons. I have no idea how to pronounce this, but I do remember the recipe called for so much butter it should have been served with a side of Lipitor. My mother still has this cookbook and it is not unusual for her to call me and tell me things like, “I made Patti’s mother’s ham steak with pineapple recipe yesterday for dinner.” Unfortunately, I think she has yet to try the orange Jello recipe.

After the cookbooks were delivered, the teacher arranged a day where each mom could cook the dish supplied in the cookbook and we could have a feast in the school cafeteria. It was a festive occasion, until a boy named Roger realized that the five bowls he had consumed of what he thought was chicken soup was actually an Asian-inspired dish made with whale meat. The event ended with the janitor mopping up the three or four bowls of soup that Roger puked back up.

When Roger wasn’t eating whale soup, he was often getting into fist fights with another boy in the class. This was one of the most exciting points of the day because Roger was the heart throb of many of the girls and we would all jump up and down on the desks screaming, “Go Roger, Go!” and watching a fellow classmate get pummeled until the teacher was able to peel the two apart. These fights left such an impression on me that each night after my father came home from work, I would reenact that day’s fight and insert a bleep sound for each time one boy had cursed at the other.

Many of my other memories of fourth grade have faded, but sometimes when I go to visit my mom, I take out that cookbook and if I breath into it really deeply, the memories come back along with the faint smell of mimeograph ink.


The Real Housewives of Queens County

No memoir of growing up in Queens would be complete without including some thoughts about the moms that were such a big part of my early memories.

Harlan was one of my first childhood friends. He lived next door and his mom and my mom were friends which is rare because adults often can’t stand the parents of their kids’ friends and spend years praying one kid will bite the other so the parents have a legitimate reason to end the friendship. Harlan’s mom kept a candy dish in the living room that actually had candy in it. And I’m not talking about sucking candies or mints. Harlan’s mom always kept Chunky bars in the candy dish because Harlan’s dad worked for the company that manufactured them. His mom also introduced me to chocolate ices, another food we never had in our house, and she taught me how to turn over the ices to get at all the frosty, sugary gunk at the bottom. She worked at one of the neighborhood candy stores and would let us pick out a candy or sometimes a comic book. We always felt like VIPs going in the store and claiming our treats. That Harlan was a keeper…I don’t bite the hand that feeds me.

Cha-Cha was also an early childhood friend who lived in the building. Cha-Cha’s mom was beautiful and elegant and could wear a potato sack and everyone assumed she was wearing something from some fancy designer. She played Turkish music, danced around, and screamed a lot when a song came on that she liked. The house was decorated with Persian rugs placed over the mandatory wall-to-wall carpeting everyone had in apartments in the 70’s and the house always smelled of exotic foods, nothing like the TV dinner being served up at my house. She let us have multiple pieces of fruit with absolutely no repurcussions and let us make as much noise as we wanted to. Cha-Cha’s mom nicknamed me Bar-bree and showered me with the same affection she showed her own kids.

Once I entered grade school, my circle of friends expanded. Laurie’s mom wore her hair in two long ponytails and had jeans in multiple pastel colors. She would pick Laurie up from school with their huge English Setter in tow and invite me over to spend time with Laurie. Laurie’s mom made cakes from a mix and let us frost them. She took us for ice cream and sometimes even a hamburger at Alexander’s restaurant. She was frequently the mom on class trips and always had my back on the trips with Mr. Nelson’s class. She threw tree trimming parties and invited all the holiday-challenged Jewish kids to help with the decorations. She invited me and a group of our friends to the house to work on a research project for social studies where we attempted to recreate archeologist Louis Leakey’s discovery of Zinjanthropus using homemade clay she helped us make. Our skull head looked more like the Pillsbury dough boy than a 1.75 million year old skull, but Laurie’s mom told us it was great and luckily our teacher, Ms. Rifkin gave us an A.

Jackie’s mom made us hot chocolate (from a mix!) after we returned from sleigh riding with red cheeks and frozen asses.  She threw awesome birthday parties for Jackie where she would mimiograph copies of a Broadway play like the Makado and let us raid her closet and makeup drawer so we could perform the play with our scripts and costumes. I barely remember my own birthday parties, but Jackie’s were truly unforgettable.

Gaby’s mom was the youngest of all the moms. She wore bell-bottom jeans (maybe from Instant Pants?) and turtleneck sweaters with rainbow stripes. She always chewed gum and cracked it constantly Her house was spotless; the floors were shiny (this is the only apartment I remember without carpeting) and everyone was required to remove their shoes upon their arrival. Gaby once dared me to eat a piece of guinea pig food, which I did because I was stupid enough to do anything including putting toothpaste on my eyelids. Her mother found out and was not amused, but only Gaby got in trouble. Another time, a few of us went to Gaby’s house to work on a social studies project about the Pilgrims. We created a display on green oak tag that we were sure would earn us an A until Gaby called us the next morning to inform us that her little brother had thrown up all over the project the night before. Gaby’s mom scrubbed it clean, and while I noticed a few remnants of puke on the back side of the oak tag, Gaby’s mom saved us from getting an F.

Amy’s mom helped us make lemonade for our lemonade stand and gave us money to go buy some candy to sell with the lemonade.  We sold the candy for less money than we purchased it for and while she might have questioned our lack of basic math skills, she was glad to see us having fun. I think she’s also the mother who tipped my mom off to the Hair So New product, but she was so nice, I will forgive her for that one.

And then of course there’s my mom. Once or twice a year, she made these special apricot cookies that were very difficult and time consuming to make. I learned every curse word while watching mom make these things, but in the end it was worth it. My favorite part was watching her and later helping her make the frosting in four primary colors. Today these cookies are only made when grandchildren visit and usually only for the ones that live out of town (not mine). So now my nieces and nephew are cursing up a storm and the traditional lives on. My mom took me every year to see the Christmas windows at all the big department stores (perhaps to make up for the whole Santa debacle) and to the annual Purim Carnival which must have been mind-numbing for her. She taught me how to ride a bike in Alexander’s parking lot, how to float on my back at the pool, and how to trace pictures using wax paper when I needed to decorate a cover for a book report.

I’m sure there were so many other wonderful facets to these women, but as with many memories, it always seems to be the little things that stand out. A kind word, an interesting mannerism, a special recipe, a different way of doing things…these are the memories that are indelibly etched in my mind.


Blood, Sweat, and Tears: A Day on the Playground in the 1970’s

Saxon Hall playgroundMy apartment building had its own playground. Unfortunately, the playground was a mess. It was nearly impossible to sit on a bench without getting a splinter in your finger or your cheek (you know the cheek I’m talking about) and there was frequently broken glass on the ground. The swings were routinely vandalized and it would be months (if not years) before they were replaced. The sliding ponds were full of rust and possibly a breeding ground for tetanus, and the see-saws disappeared early on in my childhood and only made one short-lived comeback. There was a stairway at the entrance of the park leading down to the building’s underground garage but the door was always blocked with litter and empty beer cans. Yet this playground was one of the highlights of my childhood.

In the summer months, every night after dinner, every kid in the building would congregate in that park. There were no phone calls, emails, or texts. It was an unwritten rule; show up around 6:30 pm if you want to be part of the fun. The main game was tag, and with a dozen or more kids to play with, the game was pretty exciting. We’d start with the standard “eeny, meeny, miny moe” to determine who was “it” which was a job in itself since at least 24 feet wearing Converse sneakers had to be tapped endlessly while reciting the rhyme. In our minds, there was no way around this, and we attempted to move through the selection process as quickly as possible. It’s amazing we could actually run in our Converse sneakers since it was like running on a piece of cardboard with a shoelace wrapped around it, but that’s all there was back then and no one seemed to ever sit out a game because of shin splints, so I guess they served their purpose. We played tag non-stop until the street lights went on and you could barely see your opponent. The only kids who left early were the European ones who to our endless fascination didn’t eat dinner until 7:30 pm. They had to leave, scoff down foods no one could pronounce, and try to get back to the playground before dark.

While tag was the most popular game we played, there were others. Wolf was a game where the person who was “it” was the wolf and all the kids on base were the chickens. Each kid had to decide on a color that would represent their “eggs” and share their choice with the other chickens so there were no repeats. The wolf would ask if the chickens had any eggs of a certain color and when your color was called, you had to run and try to get back to base before the wolf tagged you. If you succeeded, you got to pick a new color for your eggs; if you were caught, you became the new wolf. The game was fun while we were young and just knew our primary colors, but kids started “aging out” of the game and selecting colors that were impossible for the younger kids to guess, like magenta, lime-green, and the always dubious “rainbow colored” eggs. It was time to move on.

Another popular game was Red Rover. In this game, the kids divided into two teams and created a human wall by linking hands together. The teams would take turns chanting “Red Rover, Red Rover, we call (insert name here) over.” That kid would have to run and charge through the human wall, hoping to find the weakest link and break through. If he was successful, he returned to his team. If not, he was captured and became part of the other team. This game was so painful that it terrified everyone, yet it was more terrifying to say you didn’t want to play. So we just grinned and beared it, and hoped that the kid carrying the extra 20 pounds didn’t sever an artery or take off a limb as he body slammed our clasped hands.

Red Light Green Light was a gentler game, but not without its own set of problems. In this game, the person who was “it” turned his back to his opponents and chanted “red light green light one, two, three” while his opponents had to run off base and stop and freeze once the phrase was recited and “it” turned around to face the runners. The goal was to tag “it” while his back was turned and then run back to base without being caught. But, if “it” finished the phrase and turned around and you were not frozen in place, you had to go back to base and start over. The problem with this game was that there was an enormous amount of subjectivity and you never knew for sure if “it” really saw you move or was just pissed off because you didn’t give him the five cents he needed earlier in the day to have enough money for a Hershey bar. Tempers always flared during this time and kids would decide whose side to take in the argument and become their playground lawyer. The game deteriorated quickly, which is why we probably ended up resorting to playing Red Rover.

From time to time we would bring our big pink hula hoops to the playground for hula hooping competitions where we would see who could gyrate the longest without dropping their hoop. My brother Stuart would bring down our Monopoly money and offer to take bets from the other children as if we were thoroughbred race horses. My main competitor was my friend Eileen. She was younger, faster, and had better rhythm than me overall. She won every time. Yet my loyal friend, Harlan, always bet on me. He lost millions in Monopoly money, but preserved his friendship with me. Wise man.

During the school year, kids went to the school park which was considered a step up from the Saxon Hall park. The school park was fairly new and had a free-spirited, late 1960’s “feeling groovy” feel to it. There was a pink structure that vaguely resembled an octopus, a climbing apparatus that looked like a spaceship, and another thing to climb on that looked like a camel with two humps. People claimed that the park was designed by some up-and-coming artist, but I think the park resembled the tortured images of some poor guy on a bad LSD trip. The only things in the park that looked like what they were supposed to be were the monkey bars. There were three monkey bars shaped like an arch; small, medium, and large. The large one was at least five feet high and kids would routinely try to walk upright over the entire length of the monkey bar without falling. The developer of the playground thought about spurring a child’s imagination by creating structures with nebulous identities, but he never once thought about safety.  Like many parks in the 70s’s, there was no protective padding below the monkey bars or any of the other structures and we proudly showed off our cuts, bruises, and gashes after our foot slid through the bar and we toppled onto the concrete five feet below.

Similarly, the word helmet only appeared in our vocabulary when we were discussing astronauts; surely there was no place for this equipment while riding a bike or roller skating. Likewise for elbow and knee pads. We were playground warriors in our bad sneakers and splintered asses. And we liked it that way just fine.