(For the first Stories From My Youth entry, click here.)
When I tell Carlos stories from when I was a young kid, he gets the mistaken idea that I grew up poor.
It’s not true, but seems that way because my parents didn’t believe in giving us toys. From the age of six, their way of keeping us active was, “Go outside and play. Don’t come home until the street lights come on.”
I grew up in Uptown New Orleans, on one of the many streets with a neutral ground. (Outside of New Orleans, you’d call it a median.) Within five blocks of my house, there were approximately 15 other kids my age, including my sister Christine who is 13 months younger than I am. (Her nickname is “Can’t Get Pregnant While You’re Breastfeeding” because that’s what one of my mom’s well-meaning friends told her – and how Christine came about.)
Thanks to Google maps, here is a picture of the actual area I’m describing.
Today, I thought I’d discuss some of the games we played…
Capture The Flag
Capture The Flag was always my favorite game. Growing up, my parents said that I had to stay in the neighborhood, meaning that I couldn’t cross any “big” streets. For those familiar with New Orleans, I grew up 2 blocks from Napoleon Avenue, 5 blocks from S. Claiborne Avenue, 5 blocks from Jefferson Avenue, and 6 blocks from Fontainebleau Avenue. The big streets. That 11 x 7 block grid (do the math) was my playground from the age of 6.
Ahhhh. The joys of growing up in the inner city.
We used the front of my house as one team’s home base and a local church’s yard (on the corner of S. Claiborne and Jefferson Avenues, about nine blocks away) as the other home base.
The entire game consisted of running around a 77-block area. Toward the enemy flag. Toward your flag to release prisoners. Toward your opponents. Repeat.
This is a game that we made up and that evolved over time.
One day, I remember a friend of ours opened a General Store in her driveway, selling stuff she had “procured” from her parent’s cupboard. All of us being 8 years old didn’t find this odd. We just started shopping there.
A few days later, a Post Office, selling hand created stamps, appeared in another kid’s driveway. Then later a Mayor’s Office. Then a Driver’s License bureau (to “license” all our bikes). Then a Barber Shop.
I don’t remember how long our City lasted. I think it was a few months every day after school, but I do remember at its peak, we had at least 10 different City components. I’m sure the end came when one day we all came out to play and someone said, “Let’s play _______________” and City was gone.
Doris (I think that was her name) was an “older” girl, maybe by two years – but two years is big when you’re eight. She gathered us all together one day and said that we were going to put on a play. Being eight and fearless, we all agreed. My memories of eight are a bit hazy, but I do remember that this was a play that Doris had written.
After months of rehearsals after school, plus all of us designing, creating, and constructing the stage and the sets in Doris’s backyard, we presented our play (whose title has been lost in history) to all the adults in our neighborhood. I remember that there were three rows of folding chairs, all full. There were maybe 40 people there.
Doris produced and directed a second play the next year. Then all us kids moved on to other things. I wonder whatever happened to her. She would be about 44 now.
Kick The Can
For those who have never played, here is how to play:
Start by choosing one person to be It. To start the game, this player gets to kick the can as far as he's able. The players scatter to find hiding places as the can rolls. It then chases after the can and brings it back to home base. Once he brings the can home, It counts to 50 (or 100) with his eyes closed. When he opens them, he starts searching and the fun begins.
When It finds a hider, he calls out this player's name. If the hider can kick over the can before It does, he's safe. If It makes it to the can first, the player whose name he calls out is captured and must wait in the jail (next to the can). The players in jail are not hopeless. A brave soul can risk capture to save them. If this person can kick over the can and call out "Home free" without getting captured by It, the jailbirds are free to run and hide from It again.
The game continues until all the jailbirds have been captured. The first person caught becomes It in the next game. If jailbreaks keep the game going on too long, the first person who is caught three times becomes It and a new game begins.
I can still picture all of us - a bunch of barefoot kids, all under 10 - huddled around a can, waiting for the It person to start counting. We would play from the time everyone got home from school until it was time to go home, every day, for months.
I was that “brave soul” many times. I was a really fast runner when I was a kid.
As we got older, we used that corner to play kick ball and baseball. The drainage covers made perfect bases. See the picture to your right for the actual spot I’m describing.
Those later games didn’t last long. By 13 years old, our neighborhood group was breaking up. Everyone was starting to become friends with kids from school. At the end of my 8th grade year in May, I remember telling my school friends that I’d see them in August. That’s what I had always done: I had school friends and neighborhood friends. That year, however, was different. My school friends and I stuck together through the summer. By 15 years old, I rarely saw the other kids in the neighborhood any more.
It was the beginning of a new era.
I still do miss that time growing up.
One day, I’ll tell you about the time we put on a circus for the neighborhood parents.