There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain.
-Lennon & McCartney
In the movies there were guys known as the Dead End Kids, a group of New York street kids led by actors Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall, and they became famous in films with big stars like James Cagney and Bela Lugosi. But when I hear about “dead end” kids, I invariably think of my friends and me because we spent most of our time playing on an actual dead end street, and those were some of the best times of my life.
This street was 64th Street in an area of Queens in New York City known as Glendale, where it was like living in the Ukraine or Southern California because this was a borderline and retained aspects unique to Queens but also facets similar to Brooklyn only a few blocks away. In fact, this area had a Brooklyn zip code 11227 for many years until it was changed to a Queens code, which lumped it all together with other neighborhoods under a Flushing 113-umbrella that was not true to its culture or nature.
On either side of this street were apartment buildings on the opposing corners, rows of two family houses, and then on one side a row of one family houses, finally ending at a dead end that served as our home run fence during stick ball games, and also as a sort of protection, an insulation of the block from too much traffic that would have otherwise interrupted our games of sport year round.
The people who frequented the block were colorful characters, and my friends and I had names for them: Mr. Snoop, the Crazy Lady, Boy Tot, Big Bird, Freaky Freddy, the Gooch, and Henn the Hun to name a few. They were part of the rich fabric, though torn or unraveling at times, that made up our lives growing up. As we played ball and interacted with them and each other, it all became an indelible part of our memories and, at least for me, is something I remember fondly now.
The street was our playing field all year round. We played stick ball, touch football (tackle when it snowed), hockey (on roller skates), handball, slap ball, stoop-ball, and anything else that we could play with or without a ball. We even spray painted bases on the “field” that we would update from time to time, and we played for hours without regard to anything else happening in the world. Perhaps that was what made this dead end so alive and infinitely appealing to us: it was a place where we could escape from almost everything and just be kids.
When I look back now, it seemed we were outside all the time in those days. Yes, this was a time before video games, and we only had six television channels (and, in my case, one TV in the house), but we did have toys and games to go home to. It was more that we liked each other’s company and we (Johnny, Bob, Joe, Sal, Eddie E., Eddie Z., Tom, Charlie, Freddy Z., Danny, Pete B., Harry, Craig, myself and some guest stars through the seasons) played not just for the sake of playing but doing it together.
All of us were close to home as we played on this block, so when it was time for lunch we could dash inside for the quick sandwich and drink. We would come back outside to play the rest of the day away in the warm months. If it was a school day, we played until dinner and then had to go in and face the realities of homework, washing up, and an early bedtime. Still, I remember laying there thinking of the day we had, the crack of the bat, the laughter of my friends, and now I cherish that we had those times together.
On a recent cold March day I made a return to the place of my making – more or less – the womb of my youth. This street where I grew up was not just a collection of houses on either side of a gutter and, despite all its inadequacies, it prepared me for most of the rest of my life. It was a place of fun, of games, of laughter, and tears but, most of all, it was home.
On my return visit I saw my old house and that made me feel many things. My mother is gone now, and just looking at the door, the faded old green awning that was still there, the front step crumbling the way my Dad would have never let happen, and the gate that led down to the basement (where my friends and I had many parties in our teenage years) got me a little more than nostalgic. As I crossed the street I closed my eyes and just wished I could hear the sweet cadence of my Mom’s voice calling me home for dinner.
I walked down the block and, I suppose like anyone revisiting a place from childhood, I was disappointed to see many of the houses neglected, their steps and gates in disrepair. I stopped and remembered playing on a particular stoop with my friends, and I wondered how fast the years had gone by since those days of delightful disregard for time. I recalled the old German ladies with their buckets of soap and scrub brushes, cleaning the steps of the houses that now seemed covered in dust and debris.
When I passed my friend Eddie Z.’s house, I stopped to think about him (he has been gone a few years now). I recalled sitting on his steps with his Uncle Frank – who always sat on the stoop with what seemed to be a full Pilsner glass of beer – and we talked about everything and anything. That was the beauty of it, as I think of it now; it wasn’t the topic that mattered, it was the opportunity for conversation.
I went and stood on what had been our home plate and looked down the block. The once formidable homerun fence didn’t seem so dauntingly far away now. Gone on the “right field” side of the block was an enormous tree, where many a long ball got tangled, lost, or stopped from its charted course. I pictured us all running around that field or sitting up against Luigi’s wall to watch the game. The hollow sound of the stick ball bat dropping to the ground after a hit echoed in my ears, and I could see my younger self catching a bouncing ball but my friend Bob beating me to first in front of Mr. Hassinger’s house for a base hit.
Yes it all came back to me in a warm rush on a cold day. I passed Pete B.’s house and remembered playing chess on his steps, Charlie’s aunt’s house where we used to hang out on the porch, Eddie E.’s house next door to the old man who used to chase us with a baseball bat, and Freddy Z. and Craig’s houses at the very end of the dead end. I stood there with a cold wind whipping up the street staring at a sewer that had gobbled up more Spaldeens than Pac-man eating his dots.
I guess I couldn’t expect it to be anything but different, but here I was still feeling less than elated with my visit. I started walking again but stopped and looked back over my shoulder at the old “End” sign. I realized that there was nothing to be upset about because the memories were forever, and luckily I am still in touch with most of my old friends. Now with wives and children of our own living in different places, we don’t see each other everyday like we used to, but we do get together now and then and send an e-mail occasionally.
I went back up the block and stood on the corner. The stores were all different, the names and faces changed, and our painted bases had long since faded away. Still, despite the years gone by, this place is forever etched in my heart. As I prepared to leave I knew the most important thing of all: the dead end was the place where I learned about life, and for that I will always be more than grateful.
I got in my car, took a long last look at my old house, drove up the hill where we used our sleds in the snowy winters, and made my way back to the parkway for the long ride home.