Recently I was driving along an empty Maspeth street, accompanied only by the omnipresent ice cream vendor napkins, discarded COVID masks and plastic bags that hurried to keep pace, tumbleweeds of contemporary urban society.
I was proceeding fairly slowly while passing a dead-end street when what to my wondering eyes should appear but children playing stickball! I hadn’t seen this ado- lescent activity in many years. Usually there is barely a youngster to be seen. Most of their existence is spent in hermetically sealed air-conditioned homes fondling their cell phones and personal electronic devices to which they are now addicted. However these kids were actually running, sweating, smiling while throwing and hitting. The lost sound of ‘whomp’ filled my ears as a stick tortured a rubber ball.
I backed up, pulled over to the curb and delightedly watched the kids play a game I was addicted to decades earlier. I sat there in raptured fandom for several minutes, the memory of the street games of summers past happily drowning my senses. I wanted to return to a time during the last century when miles of side streets were occupied with children rejoicing in the activities of warm school free endless days of pure fun.
During the ride home I thought of the many street games we played. Daytime games of stickball, stoop ball, box ball, catch and rudimentary basketball that consisted of a rim attached to an old piece of plywood and then nailed to a telephone pole. Girls mostly played hopscotch or potsy, jumped rope, roller skated, etc. At night the games became gender inclusive. Girls and boys played tag, skelzies, “I declare war,” red light-green light, slap ball at the intersection of two streets, hide-and-seek, ring-a-levio (olly, olly oxen free), red rover and more.
Night games had fans. Our parents, grandparents, their friends and neighbors sat on folding lawn chairs in front of their residences and watched us play while smoking cigarettes, using coffee cans for ash trays, sipping iced tea, lemonade or an adult beverage while discussing the daily news and exchanging gossip.
Every night came the ever present jingle of bells from the local Bungalow Bar and Good Humor ice cream men dispensing cones, bars and ices, all costing a dime or less, to their loyal customers.
Not long ago at a family barbecue the younger crew was in the family room playing a nonsensical video game when the internet crashed. Horrors! What were they to do? A cousin and I tried to explain the lost games of city summers to them and it was as if we were speaking a foreign language they were incapable of understanding.
My cousin and I looked at each other and the inevitable occurred. We hopped into the car and after several stops found a store that sold rubber balls and we bought several but could not find a stickball bat. The host had a broom and a saw, voila! There was our bat.
We took the kids out to the street and instructed them in the finer points of the game and within minutes there were smiles on their faces and sweat on their brows. Then, as if by wizardry, more kids appeared and I was reminded of the great line in “A Field of Dreams,” but instead this was “Play it and they will come.”
My cousin and I faded to the front stoop and became spectators and rule arbiters. After about a half-hour the hostess appeared and announced that the internet was again working. She was ignored by the kids and their two fans.
After the customary burgers and hot dogs were served, we played skelzies, but I have to admit that kneeling on hot blacktop is a task better served by young knees. Box ball followed using the current version of the “Spaldeens” that remained.
Several days after the barbecue I received a call from my cousin. He was babysitting for his grandchildren and house-sitting for his son and daughter- in-law. He told me that his two grandsons were out in the street with several friends playing stickball. They wore the sweaty effects of summer on their grinning faces as they vocalized the rules of the game to their newly indoctrinated buddies. They were the oracles of their newly found game.
Perhaps like cicadas that re-emerge every seventeen years, could the rebirth of our lost street games of city summers be making a welcomed encore?
Let’s hope so.