Thursday, July 15, 2010

Summer Days on Division Street

Condensed from Chapter Three of
"The Division Street Princess"

Summer was the best time to be a kid on Division Street: School was out, daylight stretched past usual bedtimes, best pals lived on the block, and our playground was right outside our front door. True, our concrete field lacked grass or gravel to cushion a fall, and there were no regulation bases or home plates that our neighborhood park offered. But because Humboldt Park was seven blocks away at Sacramento Boulevard, and it was rumored that puny Jewish kids might get hassled by tough Gentiles, my age group stayed close to home.

Unlike Humboldt Park’s splendid shade trees, fragrant blossoms, and tranquil waters, our summer backdrop on Division Street consisted of brick apartment buildings, ground-floor businesses with plate glass windows, and cast-iron lampposts. To be heard by playmates, we had to shout above the screeches and horns of passing streetcars and automobiles. And the scents that assaulted our noses were gasoline fumes or cooking odors from open windows in the flats above our heads.

Nonetheless, the kids who lived on busy Division street or on nearby side streets like Campbell, Haddon, or Rockwell, considered ourselves charmed in 1944 -- the year I turned six --to have Chicago sidewalks as our playground.

All sorts of games took place on the hot pavement: Boys hurled pink Spauldings against brick walls to score runs, girls bounced balls and played jump rope and hopscotch, and everyone shot marbles, cast yo-yos, rode second-hand Schwinns, and roller skated on metal wheels that had to be clamped to our feet.

My child-sized summer seemed to be far from the world events that had gripped our country ever since Japan attacked Pearl Harbor three years earlier. Although I caught bits of news from my parents, or from Movietone newsreels, newspaper headlines, and evening radio broadcasts, I was untouched by the war -- like most of my playmates. We knew about D-Day on June 6, 1944, when a million Allied troops under General Dwight D. Eisenhower landed in Normandy. But our families were intact: Our fathers were either too old or unfit, and our mothers sweated in cramped, humble kitchens, or behind store counters. If there was a Rosie the Riveter in my neighborhood, I didn’t know her.

Still, I was reminded daily of the war through public-spirited signs that were plastered on Division Street’s storefronts, “Buy War Bonds and Stamps. Keep America Free. Let’s All Back the Attack With War Bonds.” In the comics, Little Orphan Annie urged me to collect scrap metal, Joe Palooka joined the Army, and Terry --of Terry and The Pirates-- fought the Japs. And advertisements that my mother read to me from Life Magazine combined products with patriotism, like the one for the $10 Royal Stetson Playboy hat my father stored on the top shelf of our hall closet, “Loose talk can lengthen the war. So--whatever you hear, whatever you know, whatever you learn, don’t let it get to the enemy. Keep it under your Stetson.”

Despite these constant cues, I felt safe on our shores, believing my Division Street was a million miles from World War II, a million miles from danger.

Summer days on Division Street, children claimed our concrete playing field, but by early evenings, we’d relinquish a portion to our parents. The sidewalk in front of our store was the customary gathering spot. And since our block was made up of six- and twelve-flat apartment buildings -- absent of porches or stoops -- the adults, like their creative children, improvised.

“Here, put them here,” Mrs. Levinson said to her husband Saul one evening that July, as she pointed to a spot to the right of our grocery’s front door. Rose Levinson was the apple of her husband’s eye, as well as of her three sons. Mr. Levinson, bulky as my dad, was schlepping four metal card chairs -- two for his wife and him, the others reserved for my parents.

Although our store usually shut its doors at five -- when my mother flipped the light switch and my father reversed the “Open” sign -- on muggy nights like this one, they kept the doors unlocked until the last kid had been dragged upstairs for bed. It was Mom’s idea to extend business hours. “The kids will want ice cream,” she said to Dad, “why let them get it from the truck?”

Despite my mother’s prediction about the summer evening’s trade, it was adults, not kids, who would draw my parents from their seats to buy a bottle of Coca-Cola, Kayo, or seltzer, or a pack of Chesterfield’s or Pall Mall’s. The kids were like Alan Levinson who was tugging on his father’s shirt and hoping up and down at the sound of the Good Humor bell. “Pa, it’s coming,” Alan screamed, “I need two cents.”

As Mr. Levinson reached into his trousers’ pocket for loose change, Mrs. Levinson turned to my mother, put a hand on Mom’s aproned knee, and said, “Min, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry,” my mother said, waving away her friend’s apology. “Let him enjoy.”

On that July evening, the Friedmans and the Rosenbergs soon joined the Levinsons on the sidewalk. Each newcomer carried a card chair that squeaked as it was unfolded. These were the same chairs that were stored flat in a hall closet, then opened weekly for rounds of Pinochle and Gin Rummy, or Canasta and Kalukee. This night, as our neighbors settled in on their metal chairs, the men unbuttoned shirt collars and lit unfiltered cigarettes, and the women fixed their eyes on their wild kinderlach on the concrete stage before them.

A few of the men, including my father, shunned chitchat and folded damp arms under heads, and leaned back against the brick building. Subdued by a day of labor, several helpings of heavy Jewish cooking, and gasoline fumes from the street, they schloffed. Nothing could rouse our dozing fathers -- neither the screams of their flying children, nor the sounds of radio programs that leaked from open windows overhead. The crackley broadcasts of The Goldbergs or The Jack Benny Show, with their familiar characters and easy going plots, lulled -- rather than disturbed -- the drained men.

With my mother wrapped up in her conversation with Rose Levinson, and my father out for the count, I joined a game of Ring-A-Leevio in progress. Richie Freedman was “It.” He was leaning into the lamppost, eyes closed, and counting to 100. Like the rest of the gang, I ran to hide, and picked the passageway between our apartment building and the next. Although it was dark in there, I wasn’t scared because I could hear Richie’s loud count, and the rise and fall of adult voices. When Richie yelled, “Olie Olie Ocean Free,” we all leapt from our hiding places and raced to touch the metal post before Richie could tag us.

As I sped to the goal, I pretended I was Jane in the jungle, free and fearless, flying through the air on a ropy vine. With Tarzan’s imagined yell trumpeting in my ears, I turned my hands into fists and pumped my small arms as hard as I could.

But as I neared the post, Alan Levinson came flying in from another direction. Like fighter planes in the newsreels, the ones that exploded in midair combat, Alan and I smashed into each other and fell backwards to the merciless pavement. As we lay groaning, our mothers sprung from their chairs and sped to our splayed bodies.

I tried to hold back tears as my mother inspected my arms and legs. “Meshugganas,” she said, after assuring there were no broken bones. “That’s what you get for playing rough.” Then, after performing her on-the-spot clean-up and pocketing the used Kleenex, she kissed my forehead and returned to her chair. Afterwards, I wore my Mercurochromed-bruises proudly, unlike some of the other scars I collected later that week on Division Street.

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