(Originally posted in 2019)
Of all the many differences between Boomers’ parents and the parents of subsequent generations, perhaps the most significant difference is the extraordinary freedom our parents granted us when we left our homes to play in every sense of what that word means. Every such day was an unsupervised Independence Day. We Boomers, as an American generation, are the last to have experienced these unquestioned freedoms en masse, and as a generation, we are the link to the practice of hovering parenthood we created, which continues in hyper-drive as administered by our own children upon our grandchildren.
The first post of Growing Up Boomer in 2019 (Memmmries) focuses on the lyrics of “The Way We Were.” Although I love the following phrase and Streisand’s phrasing — What’s too painful to remember we simply choose to forget — I’m doubtful that deliberately forgetting painful memories is possible, but it is certainly true that, It’s the laughter we will remember, whenever we remember, the way we were.
The laughter — or perhaps the joy — I remember from the way I was as a child came from the countless days throughout the Fifties when I celebrated my freedom from the oversight and compliance that came from being behind the confining walls of houses, schools, and churches. Over the years, childhood memories of freedom have been a common thread of conversation among my friends and acquaintances, perhaps not offered deliberately as proof of our independence, but proof nonetheless of an idyllic time.
My independence as a four-year-old was limited to the confines of the triangular block on which I lived. This is a picture of that block as it looks today:
The yellow star marks my home from 1951 to 1954. If you have read Crime and Punishment, Part One, the corner grocery store that you may recall was the scene of my “crime” is marked by the red star. 65-years-ago, the canopies of very tall trees completely covered my street — Argyle Street — which is the bottom-most street in the photo above.
I was not permitted to cross a street by myself until I started school, which was five blocks from my home. Walking unescorted to school as a five-year-old is not a liberty I associate with laughter but walking to school was one of the many things our parents trusted us to do. There must be parents today who do allow their five-year-olds such a liberty and responsibility; I just don’t know them. I seldom see unsupervised elementary school children waiting on a corner for a school bus, let alone walking to school by themselves: it seems there is always at least one adult hovering nearby.
The little world of my block was where fascinating folks appeared to mini-me as I circumnavigated the block on my tricycle without a hovering adult anywhere in sight.
There were the “garbage men” who each week collected the food scraps accumulated in a small galvanized trash can kept behind each house because garbage disposals were not yet de rigueur in middle and lower-middle-class houses in 1952. The garbage cans were filled by wives each day with food scraps they had collected in triangular containers with holes for drainage that were positioned in a corner of the kitchen sink. Unlike today where cans and dumpsters are placed at the curb for pickup, the garbage cans were placed near the back gates of the tiny backyards in my block, which were accessed by the two sidewalks visible in the above photo that bisect opposing backyards. The garbage men emptied the garbage from our cans into a larger can that was then unloaded into an open dump truck, which carried its funky load to nearby, countryside pig farms.
The “trash men” were a different crew that appeared on another day of the week to empty larger galvanized cans full of bottles, cans, jars, paper and other solid waste into metal barrels that were dumped into a compactor truck, not unlike in principal to one of today’s massive trash trucks. As with the garbage cans, our trash cans were moved to the back gate so the trash men could access them. When I started school in September 1953, dragging the cans to the gate and returning them to their usual spots when empty became my job.
One specific memory I have of the trash men from that time still makes me smile. Early one summer morning, with the windows open in the absence of air conditioning, we were awakened by the hooting and laughing of the trash men who were on the sidewalk behind our house. I heard my father, Jerry, yell at them. I don’t remember what Jerry said, but I know he cursed, which was my cue to dive under the covers. I learned what had caused the laughter when I overheard my mother, Lois, explain on the phone to Jerry’s mother, Babe, what had happened, but it was not until years later that I learned the complete story.
The backstory was that my Uncle Lou, who was not a true uncle but the brother of my mother’s godmother, Aunt Helen (also not an actual relative), had passed away earlier that summer of 1953. In the course of settling Lou’s estate, Aunt Helen discovered that Lou, who lived in McKeesport, had a secret-to-her apartment in Pittsburgh. When she went to the apartment, Aunt Helen discovered evidence that Uncle Lou had been a cross-dresser — lots of fancy dresses, high heels and nylons, costume jewelry, fancy hats and wigs — which explained a lot about the Uncle Lou we all loved. He was always the life of the crowd, never seemed to have a girlfriend, loved to tease my mother by telling funny stories about Baby Jane, and in a word I can use to describe him now but did not know then, Lou was unceasingly flamboyant.
In addition to the “evidence” Helen found in Lou’s Pittsburgh closets, she found two, pin-striped, double-breasted suits that adults of the day would have said were a “bit loud.” A child of the Great Depression and not a maven of fashion, Aunt Helen sent the suits to Jerry thinking he might be able to wear them to work.
The laughter that summer morning came when one of the trash men discovered the suits in our trash can, put one on, called his buddies over, pointed at our house, and began strutting up and down the back walk in what my mother called a zoot suit. As I imagine it now, I can understand why the men were laughing. Knowing what kind of suits they were, Jerry had not hesitated to toss them into the trash, thinking that in the trashcan they would be out of sight and out of mind. The apparent mortification that Jerry had experienced at having been falsely identified as a zoot suiter, plus the thought that other neighbors had looked out their windows at the show and that he was being laughed at by trash men of all people, pushed him over a line of public decorum that he studiously maintained. Lois told Babe that if Jerry had not been in a T-shirt and boxers, she thought he might have gone outside and tangled with the trash men. Now that would have been a memory.
In contrast to the weekly regularity of the garbage men and trash men, there were the unpredictable appearances of the fantastical “Tinker,” an ancient, raggedly-dressed man with a long, dirty-grey beard who arrived unannounced on our block with his cart, on which there were the tools he needed to repair pots and pans, along with a grinding wheel he used to sharpen the knives and scissors women would bring to him. He never spoke to me, but he would smile at me from time to time as I watched him work from the vantage of my tricycle.
There were other men who visited the block that I found intriguing, like the mailman with his governmental bearing and his sack made of very thick leather that was filled with letters that he would shove through slots in our front doors. And there was the milkman who I seldom saw, because before I was awake most mornings he would be exchanging empty milk bottles that were in the milk box on our front porch next to our front door with bottles full of my (still) favorite drink.
In the late spring, there were very special men who would appear around breakfast time on our back walk carrying large trays filled with quart baskets of strawberries. They would call out, over and over in a loud singsong, “stirrr-ahhhh–bear-eees,” that only paused when one neighbor or another, always a woman, came out of a house to buy a quart or two.
Where had all these men come from — almost all of whom were African-American — I remember wondering? I don’t recall whether I ever asked the question of my mother — I would never have asked it of my father — because I suspect I had learned by then not to bother an adult with a child’s question. As hard as it may be for people who know me to imagine, I spoke to an adult only when spoken to.
The neighbors themselves had a kind of mystery about them because my father’s tendency to maintain a private life meant that, other than a nice older couple who lived next door, we never invited any other neighbors into our house, nor do I recall any of the three of us setting foot in any neighbor’s home. It seems to me that such behavior on my parents’ part was unusual, but their secluded life did make the adults on my block, to me anyway, more mysterious than reality warranted, I’m sure.
Looking back, I think my father’s erratic behavior behind closed doors taught me that adults in general were unpredictable. Instead of the openness I have seen in many four-year-olds over the years, my memories seem to be more that of a preschool voyeur who studied, from a distance, adults sitting on front porches, working in backyards, and passing by on sidewalks, adults who either ignored me or smiled at me without expectation or comment.
Perhaps it was the exposure to the people I observed on my block that was the beginning of my writer’s fascination with character development, and the creation of stories based upon those imagined characters. Perhaps it was the independence provided in the early Fifties to the voyeuristic tricyclist on Argyle Street that explains the irrepressible urge to write that has both tormented and pleasured me my entire remembered life.
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