I must have been four or five when, in the 1930’s Depression days, my parents moved about 20 blocks to Simpson Street from Wilkins Avenue in the Bronx. I know that because I hadn’t started school yet. I also know that the building, or tenement, we moved from was filled with Hungarians, including my mother’s mother and father, my grandma and grandpa. My mother was born somewhere near Budapest. Why we moved I don’t know.
Our new apartment was on the third floor in the back of the building so looking out we could see the back yard and the back yard of the building facing on the adjacent street, Fox Street. The apartment had a kitchen, a living room, or parlor, as it was called back then, and two bedrooms, one pretty small, which was where I slept. It also had roaches, no big deal as everyone had roaches, and my mother routinely put out potato slices with some kind of poison to kill them.
Simpson was a long street, twice the length of a normal block. The dividing line was our candy store, a very important part of my young life. You could get all kinds of candy there, some for as little as a penny. You could also get a ball, a Spalding or Spaldeen, for ten cents. The half of Simpson Street our building was on became my world; the other half was foreign territory. The adjacent street, Fox Street, might as well have been on the moon.
The street was my playgound. Every afternoon, after I started school, I’d go down there and play the street games. Many of these involved the Spaldeen, games like box ball, slug ball, curves, hit the penny, stoop ball and off the point. In stoop ball, you threw the ball at the stoop steps and if it came back to you and you caught it that was an out. If it bounced once that was a single; twice, a double; three times, a triple; four times, a home run. Off the point was similar but you threw the ball at the molding of the building to make it come off. The people who lived in the front whose windows were right above the molding probably didn’t appreciate our playing this game. When I got older there was punchball, played in the gutter, with the field marked out in chalk.
Finally, there was the topmost street game, stickball, played with a broomstick for a bat with bases also marked out in chalk although sometimes cars parked in the street served as bases. Stickball was officially illegal and when the cops came around, not often, someone would yell, “Chigee, the cops,” someone would grab the broomstick and we’d all run, sometimes up on the roof of one of the buildings. When the cops did catch a kid with the broomstick they’d put it in one of the holes of the manhole covers in the street and break it in two. That was the end of stickball until someone provided another broomstick, which someone always did.
Besides playing games, we walked to our public school, P.S. 20, about three block away, by ourselves and back. No adult supervision and no parents except for the first day of kindergarten. Needless to say, no adult supervision of the street games. There didn’t seem to be any pedophiles in those days or, if there were, they weren’t on Simpson Street.
Games with balls were the mainstay of our activity but there were some others. One was marbles, played on the side of the gutter. Another was skelly, with a field marked out on the sidewalk in chalk and with bottlecaps that you flicked with your fingers. The object of the game was to get your bottlecap from one box to another and then to a box in the center of “skelly.” If you landed in “skelly” you couldn’t move your bottlecap. I’m not sure how you got it out; maybe you just lost the game. Marbles and skelly were played at certain seasons. I don’t know how it happened but when the seasons came everyone knew it was time to get out the marbles and the skelly field would be marked out on the sidewalk.
I forgot to mention another street game because it wasn’t my favorite, touch football, played in the gutter. At times nobody had a football so we’d tie together a bunch of rags to use as a ball. Also, the girls had their own games, jump rope with various songs handed down from who knows when, and also jacks. Needless to say, no girl ever tried to play in any of our boys’ games. Everyone, boys and girls, played in the street until it git dark. Sometimes one of the mothers would call down from a front-facing apartment for her kid to come back up. As we lived in one of the back apartments I could play until I couldn’t see any more.
Of course, playing ball wasn’t the whole story about Simpson Street although, when I was a kid, it was the most important part of my life. I do have some other memories. In the summer, when it was always hot and humid, the adults, including my mother and father, would take their wooden folding chairs and leave the stifling apartments to sit on the sidewalk. We kids usually congregated on one of the stoops, where we argued about our favorite players or teams. There was also a game we played, flipping baseball cards. One player flipped first and then the other tried to duplicate the cards, either heads (the player’s face) or tails (the back of the card with the player’s statistics).
If Simpson Street was like a small town then Southern Boulevard, a block away, was our Main Street. Southern Boulevard, as its name indicates, was a wide street. It had our two neighborhood movie houses, both Loews, one of which played first-run films after they’d finished downtown (in Manhattan) and the other one of which played the “B” movies they made then, and which were sometimes better than the “A’s.” Southern Boulevard also had a number of stores and, very importantly, a candy store. The store I recall the most was Davega’s, a forgotten name now, which sold radios (in the pre-television days) and I really wanted to have my own radio. Finally, I did get one, an Emerson, and I’d try to get distant stations on it. The candy store had a counter inside and we’d usually stop there and I’d get a frappe (like a small sundae), cherry ice cream with chocolate syrup, still my favorite. The other thing I remember is that the early morning newspapers would be out on the newsstand in front of the store and I’d read the sports headline.
As a kid, I was small for my age (the smallest boy in my class until I became a teen-ager). I was also afflicted with flat feet and so I couldn’t run very fast. And when in fourth grade or so I discovered I couldn’t see the blackboard because I was very near-sighted and needed glasses. Despite all this, I wasn’t too bad at all the street games. When I was older and got to stickball I couldn’t hit the ball as far as most of the others so I tried to pull the ball into a cellar, which was a ground-rule double. I became pretty good at this and so I wasn’t the last one picked when choosing up sides.
Then when I was around twelve I started playing handball in the schoolyard, by then P.S. 75. The wall was the side of the school building. Handball was a New York game because all you needed to play was a wall and a ball. I discovered I was good at it. The kids in my gang heard about this and one day they came over to the schoolyard and I played the two biggest kids of the gang and beat them both. This kind of solidified my status. But after a while I heard, in the way things happen in the streets, that the place to play handball in the Bronx was Crotona Park, which was close to our previous apartment on Wilkins Avenue and this started a whole different phase of my growing up in the Bronx.