My Fresh Hell
Life in Scribbletown.

Richmond, 1973

2006-09-14

Health matters aside, let’s get to the photo. To reacquaint yourself, click on the flickr link and gaze away at the b/w photo of me and my neighborhood pals. In this picture I may have been in first grade. Something like that.

I grew up in what was then a modest residential (naturally) city neighborhood with small grassy yards (that’s my front yard in the photo) and sidewalks. There weren’t too terribly many children in the neighborhood then, which was a concern to my mother, but there were enough for me. I mean, how many kids do you need?

Most of the kids were Catholic back then. Probably because the main Catholic schools were within walking distance. So, most of the kids belonged to only a small handful of houses – they packed ‘em in, let me tell you. There were the Pudners down about a block with at least five children. The mother, a nice lady who seemed both frazzled and serene, always had a baby in her arms. As soon as one was old enough to toddle around, bang! She was pregnant again. Mary was the girl about my age. She was nice but shy. Standoffish. The Catholic kids didn’t really mix with other kids in the neighborhood so I didn’t get to know many of them well. It’s like they had some secret they weren’t telling. So, I didn’t really know Mary very well. Once I was allowed to cross the street to her side of the block, we’d hang out a little but I don’t think I ever went into her house. And, there were so many little kids underfoot it would have been hard to climb the front stairs without accidentally stepping on one of them. Later, she had a job at the Standard Drug store and I’d see her there and smile but we were worlds apart though we’d grown up a block away. Her parents still put up lots of good tacky Christmas decorations on their house every year.

Kent, the kid in the middle, was also a Catholic boy. He lived on the next street, on the side street, in a house full of kids with the same initial: Kevin, Keith, Kelly, Karen, Kent, etc. I really find that annoying and almost lazy. Why is that necessary? I can’t tell you. Kelly was the youngest and a horrible little brat built like an overweight bulldog. A mirror image of her nasty mother. My most vivid memory of Kelly is when The Hermit (there to the immediate right) and I attended someone’s birthday party and one thing led to another (I really can’t remember the sequence of events here) and The Hermit ended up smashing a piece of cake in Kelly’s face. As we ran off, her mother yelled from the porch, “Don’t you ever smash cake in my daughter’s face again!” Which, of course, struck us as the funniest thing we’d ever heard from an adult. Still is.

Kent, was also a bit of a bulldog. He had very orange hair, fair skin and a body covered in freckles. He could be okay to hang out with when I was desperate but he caused one of my worst childhood injuries. We were playing in his back yard – mostly packed dirt – and fooling around with his brother’s weights, big heavy circles that fit on a pole. We were probably exactly the age you see us in the photo. We thought it’d be fun to roll the weights down the basement steps from the backyard. Kent dropped one on my big toe. I cannot begin to describe how much that hurt. I had to be taken to the doctor’s office on a weekend, probably taking the surliest doctor in the universe away from his golf game so that he could DRILL A HOLE IN MY TOE NAIL and then bitch about how much I was “carrying on” about it. I ask you. Motherfucker.

Soon after the nail came off. Eventually it grew back but it was a long time before I let a shoe salesman squeeze my toes to see whether the shoes we were buying were a good fit. A mighty long time.

And then there’s Jim. I’ve written about him before here and about his brother, Ricky, here. He and his sister are stories unto themselves and though I’ve done just that, I don’t think I’ll ever get them down, completely, just right. So, those entries will have to do for now.

What made me think of all this – and this photo is in my kitchen; I see it every day – is that lately I think a lot about the kind of childhood Dusty and Red have and how different it is from mine in so many ways. They both have grown up (Red entirely and Dusty for the most part) in the country, surrounded by green pastures and forests and horses and cows. We own a barn. A barn! I never in a million years thought I’d ever own a barn! Crazy.

I do wish sometimes they could have the same urban upbringing I had. That we could walk to the art museum, to the library, to the CVS and the grocery store. Dusty loves to hear stories about how, once I was old enough to cross the big streets, my friends and I would walk two or three blocks to the branch library and then go across the street to the 7-11 and buy penny candy and candy bars for a dime, if we were lucky to have a whole dime to spend. It was so nice. Carefree. We ran down alleys and could roam for hours before our parents would begin calling us, rounding us up for dinner.

I don’t know if an urban childhood can even be like that anymore. I doubt it. So perhaps I’m wishing for something that couldn’t happen even if I could afford to live in my childhood neighborhood. I imagine I’d be arrested for child neglect if I let my children roam around, digging in trash cans and making forts in alleyways.

What a shame. It was fun.

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