The Old Street Remembers

I had the only paved nursery around. Children played, learned to ride bicycles, skinned their knees, got into their first fistfights and grew into teenagers all on the greasy asphalt that is my backbone. As a dead end street on Staten Island, I was the ideal place to raise a family – sheltered from the traffic, tucked back away from major thoroughfares; strangers rarely came to visit, let alone a gang member or drug dealer.

And raise families people did. Every house it seemed – most containing two apartments – each of them a beehive of buzzing children. In the summer they filled the street, yards and driveways. Trees and fences were jungle gyms. Porches were pirate ships. The boulder stuck in the ground behind 150 was a pitchers mound and poor Mrs. O’Conner’s garden saw endless construction work performed by Tonka trucks driven by muddy little fingers.

I had this solitary light poll rising up out of me down by the dead end. On it was bolted a basketball hoop that the teenagers used in the evenings after the streetlight came on and splashed a puddle of light on the street, illuminating barely enough space to play ball. But for the youngsters it was a beacon of adulthood seen from their bedroom windows – a reminder of something they hoped to someday achieve. But in the daytime, the pole simply served as home base for tag.

Ah, the endless games of tag. Huge, apocalyptic games of tag, involving dozens of children. One would hide his eyes on the pole and count. For some reason, still unknown to me, they counted by fives in a singsong kind of way. “Five, ten, fifteen, twenty…” Children would scatter, hiding everywhere – on porches, behind hedges, in backyards. The possibilities were endless. No. No! Not in the trashcan. Oh! I hope you don’t have to stay in there too long. The games would last for hours on end, only interrupted by the occasional car or the ice cream man.

Ah, the ice cream man. Never did I receive a visitor more revered and respected than the ice cream man, and no one could end a game of tag more quickly. In an instant, the streets would be deserted, with only the sound of the ice cream truck music echoing in the empty street. Then, as suddenly as they’d gone, they would appear again in doorways and on porches with little fists full of coins. Screaming. There was no fear, it seemed, like the fear of the ice cream man passing me by. He never did, but that didn’t prevent the children from running after it as if it was the only opportunity they would ever have to eat ice cream again. Once the panic subsided I got a moment of peace. All the porches and stoops would serve as ice cream lounges for the children who only wanted to be left alone with their treat.

Soon, a new “it” would be chosen so the game of tag would begin again. Occasionally, one of the youngest ones would be the chosen one and he would begin to cry.

“Why are you crying?”, the other kids would ask.

“I don’t know how to count by fives.”

“Me neither”, a few of the other young kids would complain.

One of the older kids would take them under his wing and lead them to the pole. “OK. I’ll show you. I’ll do it with you. Ready?”

And then they would sing in unison, “Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, forty…”, and this made it a special day, for a new generation of tag-players had come of age.

There weren’t many generations, though. There were only three, maybe four before things began to change. First, the Pathmark Grocery Store paved over the ball field for a section of parking lot they still don’t use. Then, the news said there was a kidnapping nearby. Later, there were the drive-by shootings.

Now it’s different still. Now it’s the age of play dates and video games. The houses still stand, but now they’re home to factory workers and grocery store clerks. There are rarely any children and if there are they don’t come outside to play.

The ice cream man still comes. In fact, I can hear him now. But now it’s just he and I listening to the music echo in the empty street. There are no panicked children to spring from my porches. The memories are still here. There are a few rusty old bolts in the pole where the hoop used to be. Jimmy’s initials are still carved close to the bottom along with a date, 1977. The big boulder is still there behind 150, but it’s been a long time since anybody called it a pitcher’s mound. There’s 35 cents worth of pennies hidden under a rock in what used to be Mrs. O’Conner’s garden – a treasure waiting to be found by some future archaeologist. Those kids must all be adults by now. Perhaps, one of them, somewhere, drives an ice cream truck like this one. I hope, sometimes, he looks in his rearview mirror at the gang of screaming kids chasing him, and remembers the times we had together. The ice cream bell is fading now. Please come back tomorrow. I hope you don’t pass me by.

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