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.

Trick-or-Treat Till You Drop

I grew up in a huge apartment building in Queens called Saxon Hall. The building has two wings that criss-cross like an X, just like the X in the building’s name  (yes, I think that was an intentional part of the design). With over 400 apartments, Saxon Hall was Halloween paradise for a kid. You could gather enough candy in one night to feed a small country for over a year, although in those days the thought of donating candy was just plain stupid. One kid was brazen enough to go around the whole building twice in one night. It’s not like anyone would realize he’d already been to an apartment; the swarms of kids were such that all the ghosts, witches, and Disney characters started to blur into one rather quickly.

I generally went trick-or-treating with my childhood friend, Cha-Cha. That wasn’t her real name, but no one could pronounce her real name, so this is the one she ended up with. The story of how her name and other first-generation American children’s names were butchered by ignorant residents of Queens will be the subject matter for another post another day. Cha-Cha and I always started out with the best intentions every year to cover all 400+ apartments in the building. We planned and strategized for weeks,  plotted our course, and visualized our success just like marathon runners. But somewhere in the middle of the second-half of  the race, we hit the wall and were carb depleted (obviously this is a metaphor since we were sucking down chocolate as fast as we could gather it along the way), but you get my drift. We were tired and sick of ringing doorbells. At this point we soldiered on and trick-or-treated selectively, based on who we knew or who we recalled giving good candy last year. There was one lady who once gave each of us our own 16-ounce chocolate bar. We believed her to be insane, since no one in any of the other 399 apartments was this generous, but we didn’t care. At this point in our journey, we also began the task of inspecting our bags for unwrapped candy which we accepted politely but then hurled off the building’s catwalk in case someone had managed to cram a razor blade or piece of glass into that ominous piece of  cherry string licorice.

Mom was generally in charge of selecting the candy we gave out to our fellow trick-or-treaters and she had a pretty good track record for making respectable choices such as fun size Milky Ways and Three Musketeer Bars. I held my head high as my friends collected their chocolate treats from my house and while I secretly wished mom would offer more than one piece, I felt I could live with that. But one year, my father  somehow got put in charge of purchasing the Halloween candy that we would give to trick-or-treaters and he returned with licorice…black licorice. I was horrified. The only thing worse than this was perhaps a box of raisins or the sucking candy offered by the lady in apartment 907 that had been lying around her house collecting dust since the Eisenhower administration. I pictured that black piece of licorice at the bottom of everyone’s bag until at least Easter when their mothers would force them to throw it away. I was ashamed and embarrassed;  I feared the worst; ostracism from my peers , teasing, or maybe even a beating from some bully expecting chocolate or at least a stick of gum. I survived, but dad’s candy buying duties were quickly relinquished and Halloween returned to normal the following year.

Then there were the costumes. No one in my family ever made the costume. Chalk it up to laziness or the lack of creativity in my household, or the fact that there was no way mom was letting me touch her stuff, but every year the costume was store-bought. I remember being a princess two years in a row. The mask was made of hard plastic, (probably the kind that is laden with dangerous chemicals, like everything else in the 70s) and had an elastic string that got caught in your hair and made you scream. And besides, it was impossible to sample the candy with that mask on. By the time we hit the third floor of the 17-story building, the mask was in the trick-or-treat bag. Cha-Cha always had a home-made costume and they were always great. I was convinced that if there was a Saxon Hall costume contest she would win hands down. My favorite was when she went as Pocahontas. She had a little suede dress, a head band with a  feather, and war paint on her face. Of course this was before the Disney movie and before dressing up like an American Indian was considered insensitive. It was during a time when we played games like Indian Chief (in school!), and before American Indian became a category of ethnicity on a job application. Even though I was a bit jealous of how cool her costume was, I also realized that her great costume could be used to my advantage to get more candy from impressed neighbors or those that just pitied her friend, the one with her mask shoved in her candy bag.

Back in those days, I don’t remember any parents having any rules about how much Halloween candy you were allowed to eat in one night. And as I recall, the candy didn’t last long. I remember placing my loot in a large bowl and most of the good stuff being gone in a day or two. Of course there was still that one sucking candy, the box of raisins, and that stinking piece of black licorice.