Friday, December 21, 2018

The Street of My Childhood by Mark Tulin

Mark Tulin's sentimental vignette about revisiting his childhood street.

It was like a hurricane hit my childhood. The once immaculate neighborhood where I grew up was now dilapidated and rundown. Trash cans rolled past me and garbage swirled around this once proud neighborhood. There were broken chunks of cement in the sidewalks and torn up driveways. No little kids were riding bikes or laughing on the stoops. The front lawns grew high with weeds, abandoned cars with missing tires were hoisted up on jacks as a symbol of the city's decay.

My stoop was still there, though, as if it had survived the apocalypse. The house number hung loosely on one nail from the front bricks of the duplex where I lived, number 1023. I could see myself as a little kid waiting for Mister Softee to come around the corner with loose change in my sweaty hands. I wore cut-off jeans then with my bony knees sticking out, a white t-shirt and a pair of Converse hi-tops rounded out my wardrobe. I raced to the ice-cream truck on a hot summer day with all my friends - Donnie, Steve, and Ernie. "The last one there is a punk," Ernie yelled. I didn't care about being a punk. I just wanted to get to the Mister Softee truck before it went to the next street.

"Let me have a vanilla cone dipped in chocolate with sprinkles." I hollered up to the man with the white hat behind the window. I had to get the sprinkles. It made the ice-cream cone a masterpiece, a supremely flavorful treat.

Soon, I became transfixed in a sugary stupor, licking my cone and hearing the noise from the cars, the baby cries, dogs barking and my friends chattering in my ear. I bit into that crispy cone despite my teeth aching from the cold. The numbness at the roof of my mouth made my eyes tear with joy and pain.

In my mind, I could see myself sitting on the curb of my old street with an ice-cream cone dripping between my feet. I looked at the tire tracks and grease spills splattered on the street like a Jackson Pollack painting. All those voices of my youth were in it. I could see Steve sitting on the curb coughing up a bunch of phlegm from his pleurisy. I could see Ernie with his shaky hands, always trembling from his nervous condition. Donnie, with his thick curly hair and pot belly, swinging a baseball bat while imploring us to play a game.

I delivered newspapers on this street before the sun rose, folded and tossed them at the doorsteps. I still remember the smell of those freshly printed papers with the print ink tattooed to my palms. I still recalled the two old ladies who sat on the sofa at 1017 when I collected paper money. I could see right up their sundresses. They didn't seem to mind. They just chain-smoked cigarettes and watched TV.

The sound of my father's truck still rings in my ears. Whenever he came home, he took off a few branches when he turned the corner. Steve's Dad, a pharmacist, had a crimson Buick LeSabre parked proudly out front. Ernie's Dad laid carpets for a living, and he had a van with his name on it. The man who delivered Tastykakes parked his truck near the corner where the fireplug was, but somehow never got a ticket.

We used to peddle our Stingray bikes up and down our block, and watched with envy those kids who had gas-powered minibikes that puffed out a trail of black smoke. During the winter months, we got out our Radio Flyers from the garage and sledded down a steep hill a couple of blocks from our house. We were cold and snivelly but kept going up and down the hill until our mothers called for lunch.

Early one Saturday morning before anyone woke up. I was throwing a pinkie ball against the steps, and a couple of German Shepherds attacked me from my blindside. The dogs knocked me to the ground and ripped apart my clothes. I blacked out for a while and, when I awoke, they were gone. My face was scratched up, and there was a big welt growing over my eye. Back then, the doctor made a house call and he stitched me up right on the spot.

It was our street - wild dogs, cars, sleds and all. It was where our whole world happened, where our hearts beat fast and our legs pumped like pistons. It was where we could get away from the watchful eyes of our parents and just be kids with all our crude immaturities.

When we played touch football in the street, we were always annoyed at the cars who temporarily interrupted our games. We thought we owned the street and felt offended when a guy in a Dodge pickup drove by us. We were only puny city kids, but we acted like we had the strength of grown men, giving evil eyes and flipping the bird to whoever passed, knowing full well that if they had stopped and got out of their cars, we would run like hell, which happened on several occasions.

Sandy Pinkerman lived across from me with the big white and gray awning over her front door. I could almost picture her sitting outside in her Madras shorts with her long tan legs folded on the top step. Even though her parents were divorced, it didn't seem to affect her. She always had friends, and there was one guy who looked like he was in college who used to lay on the grass playing with her auburn hair and making her giggle.

I was jealous because I had a thing for Sandy. I paid a little runt twenty cents to put a letter in the mail slot of her screen door. It was a love letter with only a few words inside a big red crayon heart. I told her she was too beautiful for words, but the truth was, I didn't have enough words at my disposal to describe how I felt. I was too afraid to sign my name, either, so I put my initials on opposite ends of the letter hoping that eventually she could decipher it.

Her attitude had changed once she read the note. Instead of saying hello with a friendly smile, she gave me a funny look like I was a stupid little creep who wrote dumb letters to pretty girls because I was too afraid to talk to them.

After that, my interest for Sandy fell off. I realized that it was a childish infatuation and that I should look for girls my age who weren't so pretty and didn't have boyfriends who went to college.

It didn't take long until I found one. I ran into a girl from my homeroom named Cherry Templeton at the ice-skating rink. I accidentally knocked her to the ice one Friday night, helped her up, and we started to flirt. She had short blond hair like Twiggy and always wore a pink parka with white mittens. Soon after, I went to her corner duplex and sat with her under a flight of stairs. She was not as beautiful as Sandy, but she still took my breath away. It seemed that any girl back then who looked into my eyes or was nice made me lose my breath.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand kept playing in my head the day I kissed Cherry under the stairs. Back then, a kiss meant that we were going steady and the guy had to give his girl a ring. When I left her that day, I picked up a plastic ring for fifteen cents at a corner store. The value of the ring was worth more than the few pennies I spent. It, perhaps, was more valuable than the air that I breathed or the moon that I looked at later that night as I thought of her.

The next day, I again kissed Cherry. This time, I tried to put my heart into it and make it unforgettable. Then I slipped the ring on her finger as a marching band seemed to be playing from the sky. She smiled with her pale, cracked lips. She kissed me on my cheek as soft as a feather. I held her hand, and she put her head on my chest like we were soulmates.

But a couple of days later when I went to see Cherry, her Mom popped out from the door like a Jack in the Box. Without saying more than a few words, she handed me back the ring and gave me a disapproving look like I was some creep trying to corrupt her daughter.

"Cherry's too young to have a ring," she said, and abruptly slammed the door in my face.

I remember thinking, How could she do that to us? Love was so rare, and when one is lucky enough to find it, a door shouldn't be slammed on it. I stood at Cherry's house for a few seconds, just staring at the ring of rejection. I felt like I wasn't good enough for Cherry. One day I was the happiest kid on the block, feeling as lucky as anybody, then the next day my heart was broken in tiny pieces, dreams blown to smithereens.

The street of my memories had its share of ups and downs. I loved my friends, my neighbor's German Shepherd, and my Aunt who would drive us in her Ford Mustang with the top down to get some water ice. I loved when Henry, the neighborhood hippie, would play Beatles songs in the driveway, like Michelle and Ticket to Ride. I loved when I thought about how lucky I was in the moment just after a summer rain when everything in the street smelled beautiful and fresh.

Even at an early age, I knew that the excitement and wonder on my street was temporary. Steve's troubled lungs would ebb and flow with the changing of the heat and humidity. My infatuation with certain girls would seem to change with the seasons. Our sports teams would win some and then go into the dumper. Mister Softee would come to our block one day and another day we'd never hear that sweet jingle of his. My mother grew older with age spots insidiously appearing on her face and arms. My father rarely came home, and the sound of his truck's grinding gears would slowly vanish. A neighborhood that was once beautiful and full of life would gradually fall apart. But my childhood memories never seem to go away, no matter how old I get.

4 comments:

  1. Finely written story, conjuring up unforgettable images of a much missed childhood

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  2. A walk down memory lane most everyone can relate to. The sensory details drew me in effectively. Love the line “It was our street ... where the whole world happened.” It seemed like that to me, too.

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  3. Engaging and true - many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  4. I grew up in England, but the rites of passage were quite similar. a good adage is never return, disappointment lies waiting!

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