"City Summers" by Rosemary McLaughlin
Suburban children have wonderful summers with their swim parties, mall visits, and theme birthdays, but they have no idea what our hot, crowded, sticky, glorious neighborhood city summers were like. We rode our bikes, had impromptu picnics, played our own version of baseball, and let our imaginations take us away like a leaf in a stream.
Our crazy baseball game was played with a large playground ball, which we
bounced once and batted with a closed fist. We had infielders and outfielders who held positions in neighbors’ yards and a bona fide position called “watcher” whose job it was to yell, “Car!” whenever one approached. Wiffleball, seven-up, jump rope, hopscotch—there were few worries about childhood obesity in the late fifties and early sixties.
On some days we’d take the long walk to Riverview Park to swim. We might even take the scary shortcut through the trees on Woods Run. In the center of those trees was a frightening rope swing. Everyone knew someone who had broken something falling from that swing, yet we all had to try it. Swinging high over that ravine figured into the nightmares of every Northside kid; surviving it was a rite of passage.
Riverview Pool was probably the smallest and most crowded pool in the city with only two tight feet of space between the edge of the pool and the fence. We all learned to swim there. First we had to pass our swim lessons, and then we had to swim the length of the deep end. I did it, but the lifeguards could challenge anyone they thought couldn’t to “swim the deep” to prove they were safe in that end of the pool. My flailing, drowning style of aquabatics subjected me to a challenge every time a new life guard came on duty.
On the way home we’d stop and buy popsicles and trade halves so we could have banana and blueberry. We never had freezers full of frozen treats; every icy bite required a walk to a mom ‘n pop store up the street.
Zafutto’s on Shadeland Avenue was our store for penny candy and exotic Italian meats. Once my mother sent my brother to the store for a pound of soprasata, and he came home with a box of Super Suds. Sometimes I would sit and chat with Mrs. Zafutto about Italy while her husband Joe made deliveries and her daughter Rose waited on the neighborhood kids who weren’t very nice to her. Back before I knew him, my husband Bill patronized Helfricks, a different little store around the corner on Woodland Avenue where he could get a scoop of ice cream for a nickel. He was thrown out once for showing up with fifty cents and demanding a ten-scoop cone.
The other specialties these stores carried were paper dolls and comic books. A whole day could be taken up with cutting out and playing with paper dolls. Some of the dolls were celebrities like Sandra Dee, Shirley Temple, and even a young Prince Charles! He looked awful in his underwear, and he was a real prince, so we dressed him up as soon as possible. Our favorites were the generic teenagers in their poodle skirts and ponytails.
The dolls were fun, but the best thing a city kid could have on a summer day was a quarter to buy comic books. If the covers were gone, we could buy six for a quarter, and if your friend had a quarter too—well, it just didn’t get any better than that. A couple pieces of Bazooka, a glass of cherry Kool-Aid, and twelve comic books on my front porch—heaven! Superman, Fantastic Four, Richie Rich, Little Lotta, Dot, Archie, Sgt. Rock—we spent entire days with these old friends.
I was lucky enough to have the best porch in the neighborhood, two of them in fact, so my friends and my brothers’ friends always seemed to gravitate to our little brick house on Malden Street. If we weren’t reading comic books, we were playing Monopoly, poker, or jacks. We weren’t porch potatoes all summer, however. Our bikes provided us with plenty of exercise and imagination. Those beat-up second-hand bikes were our beloved horses, and we rode the Ponderosa with our boyfriends—Adam, Little Joe, and Little Joe’s twin brother Little Mike. (No one wanted to go out with Hoss.)
When the Fourth of July rolled around, every kid wished he had a bike as elaborate as Pee Wee Herman’s to decorate for the parade. Allowances were quickly eaten up by rolls of red, white, and blue crepe paper, tiny flags, and balloons. The parade started at the firehouse and ended at Memorial Park. We followed along on our elaborately decorated bicycles in our own version of the Rose Bowl Parade. Sometimes there was a street fair and the fireman handed out goodie bags full of Cracker Jacks, Dixie Cups, paddle balls, and the ubiquitous pickle pins.
By nightfall every yard smelled of charcoal and hot dogs, and somebody’s dad always had a secret stash of fireworks that we watched sleepily and in awe from a safe distance. Finally as the best of all summer days ended, we’d sit with a huge sticky smile and watermelon on our hands and spit seeds at one another as the fireworks colored the sky over the river. After a quick bath in a steamy bathroom, we’d fall exhausted into bed and dream about tomorrow to the sound of noisy fans and the adults’ late picnic chatter.
ROSEMARY MCLAUGHLIN has been a lover of the written word since she received a D in reading in the second grade and her parents took her to the library to remedy the situation. She has been reading and writing ever since! She majored in English Education at the University of Pittsburgh and went on to teach English at Oliver High School and then Mt. Lebanon High School for 35 years. Correcting essays really cut into her writing time, but she has picked it up again since retiring. For eight years she wrote a community column for the North Hills News Record, and she has done quite a few feature columns for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as well as publishing many stories in the Chicken Soup series. She is married and has two children and two grandchildren, and they all live happily at the edge of North Park.