When I was growing up in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, we moved frequently from rental to rental—my father always on the lookout for a better apartment (and to stay a step ahead of the bill collectors). The place with happiest memories for me was a low-income, Lefrak City-like complex of semi-detached houses. Each had a lawn, a little porch, and a clothesline.
It also touted a pack of harmless street urchins who easily accepted me as one of their own.
The neighborhood mix was homogenous. Young to middle-aged guys with hard hands who worked shifts at the city’s many factories or petroleum-related plants. Everyone had a couple or three kids and the Good Humor truck came around every day after supper.
My father, a cop, fit this demographic as did Pete Catelli across the street, a detective. Also across the street was the slutty single mother with a teenaged tough who periodically was released from “reform school” and beat up any of us kids who made eye contact.
I was about ten at that time, and after we sat on the curb and inhaled our Good Humor ice creams, a gang of us went on to play games as long as we could in the lengthy days of summer. We played until it was getting too dark to see a ball, too scary to crawl into our secret places while playing hide-and-seek, too dangerous to take our bikes onto the road.
Finally our mothers were forced in turn to come out onto their porches—one eye scanning the sky for bats—and yell us home by name: Johnny, Claire, Billy, Roger, Larry!
Ripe with sweat and sporting a healthy coat of dirt from our play, we found the indoors to be stiflingly still, and cool bath water very welcoming.
At the end of the day you should smell like dirt, novelist Margaret Atwood said about spring gardening. For us, dirt was our summer-long scent.
Where I live out on Cape Cod, these days, there are seldom children. As dusk descends, roosting birds are the sole noisemakers.
The other evening, however, my old boyhood memories came rushing in: of playmates long forgotten, games long decided, makeshift clubhouses long collapsed.
All because of a shout in the distance, in the dusk.
In the neighborhood at nightfall
a youngster’s shout in the far-away
summons me from forgotten boyhood
of dusky evenings
when after supper we played
hide-and-seek in backyards and darkening byways
with apron strings finally undone
ventured from lamp-warmed parlors to holler us in turn
to come bathe away the day before
clambering into pilled pajamas
to dream tomorrow’s eager adventures.