I was a youngster growing up in Maspeth in the 1960s, and I remember a special block that all the kids in the area knew about with its many risks, amazements and possible peril. I’m talking about 72nd Street between Grand Ave and Calamus Ave. This block wasn’t just any ordinary block. First of all, it was the street my grandmother lived on, and for me as a young kid it meant spending lots of time during summers and winters learning and trying to master the many ways that “Snake Hill” could squash me like a bug.
Snake Hill got its name because it was shaped like a snake. It made an “S” shape down towards the end, several hundred feet before reaching Calamus Ave. And it wasn’t just known for being one of the steepest hills in Maspeth. It also had a jungle. (Well, that’s what we called it.) This stretch of land seemed to be unclaimed by either of the two homes that followed alongside. The owners fenced it off as to say, ‘This is in no way part of our beautiful property!’ The jungle started from the beginning of the first curve, approximately a quarter mile from the top and continued at least 200 feet to the end at Calamus Ave. This curve will come to be a very important landmark. If you didn’t start turning your bike just a little before the jungle, at that speed, and at that point, you would become a notch on the jungle’s belt. This is important to remember.
The jungle was a great place to spend hours in. It had plenty of weeds with grasshoppers to catch and release. This became a sport amongst the local boys. It would provide bragging rights. I’d usually catch 10 or 12. While some were busy honing their safari skills, others would be climbing either of the two trees that we named “The Brothers”. These trees were designed by God to be climbed; they were perfect. Their limbs had just the right footing to get you up to the top as well as the perfect perch to sit and survey all that was yours in complete comfort. (That was, until the jerk behind you wanted your spot, and there always seemed to be one behind me.)
The summer was great for the hunting of wild grasshoppers and the climbing of tall trees, but that is not where it stopped. Snake Hill, being one of the steepest hills in Maspeth, had something called “gravity” connected to it. At my age it wasn’t talked about yet, and quite frankly wasn’t important at the time, but later on it became known to us by the injuries it caused to many of the brave young daredevils and warriors that dared to try to tame and push the limits of Snake Hill.
The summer and bicycles went hand in hand. It gave us the ability to reach out, be mobile, enter other territories and other streets with different kinds of kids. Many of them brought their bikes to Snake Hill. At times it was like a motorcycle rally. Kids with all sorts of bikes, some stock 3-speeds, some new Schwinn Stingray bikes with all kinds of the newest tires, banana seats with sissy bars, along with the latest handle bars and grips. There were also the mix-and-match bikes. They were like cloning gone very wrong. Come to think of it, the kids riding these abominations seemed to be a little bit off center as well, perhaps wild or even nuts, but we all got along. All bikers and some roller skaters assembled at the summit to chat, pick on each other, wage on who would go down the fastest, swap baseball cards, and discuss the challenge that awaits. There were many fine young ladies along the way playing with dolls, jumping rope, and hop scotching.
This was the beginning stage of showing off. That primitive, primal urge to stand out as the fittest, the strongest, the best, that would be perfected as we grew into men. There was never an, “On your mark, get set, GO!” It just would happen. In a flash, maybe one kid, maybe three at one time would start the race down The Snake. The procedure was to pedal as fast as you could until gravity took control at that moment, time stood still, and there was no longer the need to pedal. All you needed to do was hold on, keep it straight, and stay focused while the wind whistled in your ears and the thought of ‘Maybe I can’t do this’ was trying to scream louder and louder over your original thought of ‘This is so much fun’. I’m sure we reached speeds of 30+ MPH because the jungle would get closer and closer with every rapid heartbeat. Sometimes you couldn’t even swallow and see though the tears filling and drowning your eyes as they struggled to stay open. Sometimes there was no other sound but your heart beating so hard that you were sure it would burst out of your chest.
The mark was almost here, and you didn’t want to miss it, but you didn’t want to brake too soon because that would mean disaster. If you lost your concentration or your nerve, and hit the brake too soon, well that’s that. The jungle would be waiting to claim you and your mighty road machine. Veterans of the Snake knew just when to brake, and doing it right was the pay off. Hitting the mark and hitting the brakes just right would put you into that freefall skid that separated the boys from the men. This is where the experience, the talent and the courage came into play. The ability to work that skid and hold the rear tire on that important 45-degree angle while the force was pulling it further out of control.
Holding on tight and standing up on the pedals while keeping all your weight firmly on those brakes, even trying to push down harder, while the rear tire smoked, and the smell of rubber became greater and greater. At that point you weren’t sure if you were going to slow down enough, but with all the calculations, trials and errors that many of the older and smarter daredevils with the greatest of minds before you put together, you just knew you would slow down before being hit by the traffic going east and west on Calamus Ave. And if the cars weren’t enough to end your daredevil career, the Q45 bus would. Reaching the end, and still being alive, was the greatest high a boy could experience with a bicycle.
Paul DeFalco grew up in Maspeth.