[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 30 August 2016.]
My maternal grandparents were born in 1932: they were just nine years old at the beginning of World War II. They grew up blocks from each other in the Bronx: Nana in The Alley, and Papa on the other side of the tracks (literally; train tracks separated their neighborhoods) on Elton Avenue. When I come to visit, they often talk about their childhood – and I always listen. And while I am a wonderful and attentive listener, I am terrible at recording our conversations. My most recent visit, however, I was determined to conduct a proper interview.
I wanted to know more about their lives during World War II, because while they and their parents did not fight in the War, they have an interesting perspective about life in New York City from 1941 to 1945. I asked a few initial questions: “What did you eat (and what couldn’t you eat because of rations)?” “What did you learn in school?” “Do you remember Pearl Harbor/VJ Day, etc.?”
I started by earnestly recording their answers, but, as conversations usually go with Nana and Papa, the discussion took rapid twists and turns without much coaxing from me. You see, when the two of them are together, they go a thousand miles an hour, talking about different childhood friends with such familiarity (Tiny, Chickie, and Nibbs), about places (East 150th Street and St. Ann’s Avenue) and things (Farina and Spalding). I know little about these familiar things. I understand more now, but I have to ask so, so many questions. It’s oddly overwhelming to listen to two people who have known each other their entire lives talk about their childhood – they have so many stories. It’s hard to keep up (even as their granddaughter).
[The street] was their neighborhood, their playground, their childhood, their memory of the War.
So, despite my best efforts, the topic of conversation turned to the street, because that’s what life was like for my grandparents during World War II: they spent a lot of time in the street. That was their neighborhood, their playground, their childhood, their memory of the War. So, let’s have some fun, forget the War, and let me summarize (some) Bronx street games (according to Nana and Papa):
I Declare War Upon: This was the first game Nana named. The children would choose a country to represent – Germany, Japan, Italy, the United States, Britain, and France – and then draw a circle in chalk on the road. (According to Nana, “These were the choices; we didn’t branch out much to places like Spain or China.”) They then divided the circle up into pie slices with the name of the county written in the slice, and used a Spalding (a little pink tennis ball – it was also great for stick ball) as their weapon. Nana claimed that “If a kid owned a Spalding he was king of the street – even if you didn’t like the kid.” The child with the ball would yell out the name of one of the countries and proceed to hit the country representative with the Spalding. The game was (usually) over when someone got hurt…
Stick ball: This game would begin with someone saying “Does your mother own a broom? Go steal it…” Once properly secured, the children would take the wire rings off the end and burn what remained of the straw. The game was played with the resulting stick, and their ball, again, would be a Spalding. The field was the street and the bases were arbitrarily chosen landmarks – a fire hydrant, Mrs. Squiteri’s stoop, and the post office box. Sometimes the ball would get stuck in the fire escape, and they would have to wait for the ball to drop. Other times, one of the older kids would play and knock the ball onto the next block: “That was a two sewer!!!” And, just like baseball, the game was over after nine innings or when the cops came and the stick was “lost” down the sewer.
Four Corners: The field for Four Corners was the intersection of two streets: there was no need to worry about cars, because they would commonly play this in The Alley, where only a few cars were seen. They would aim (you guessed it) a Spalding at the corner and try to hit the curb.
Guard the white horse: Nana and Papa don’t remember the details, but they both remember that they hated the game, because it was inevitable that someone was going to get hurt. If you grew up in the five boroughs of New York City in the 1930s and 1940s, maybe you could remind us…
[The policeman] would get soaked in the process…
Johnnie Pump: When Nana and Papa first mentioned street games, I immediately thought of this iconic New York City summer activity. However, I was unaware of one of the key components: an empty keg from the local bar. According to my grandparents, a keg was essential, as it would fit nicely under the spout of a fire hydrant and increase the height and distance of the spray. Children would cool off under the water fountain, and if a girl walked up who was all dressed up, the children would drag her into the water. When the police arrived and told the children to turn off the hydrant, everyone would pretend that they didn’t know how it worked, and the officer would get soaked in the process of shutting it off. (Sometimes this was the most entertaining part of the activity.)
Chickie the Cop: While this was sold as a “game” for five children to “play,” the purpose was to help the old guys play dice. Four children would stand on four corners of the intersection, and one child would watch each of the corners near the dice game. When the police came, the child would signal with his arms and the lookout would yell, “Chickie the Cop!!” The old guys would grab all of the bills and leave the change for the children to split evenly. Nana concluded, “I have no idea how to play dice, but I know how to play Chickie the Cop.”
Anyone else from New York City have a street game?