Dreams and Long Gone Days
Recently I hooked up with a few of my high school classmates. Two of us decided to take a tour of the old neighborhood. What once was a typical university town, full of student and faculty housing, has deteriorated. He told me that not even students of limited means like to live near the university.
We took a stroll through the old high school. In dire need of maintenance and upgrades. The university, that sacred place where I received the best education available anywhere, is now a political football. We passed in front of the buildings that we used to live in. His in disrepair; mine is boarded up. Everything looked so small… When I lived there it seemed like such a big city! It’s only a few square blocks.
We began to trade stories. The business where one of our classmates was murdered when he tried to stop a robbery. The boarding house where a student protester was shot to death by a policeman. The places where a few brave souls have tried to make a difference by sponsoring a cultural house, or a community action place.
We stood in front of my building. It used to be faculty housing. It says so clearly on a spiffy, well painted sign. The only indication that anyone cares. I lived on the first floor.
My best friend, let’s call him Mickey; lived on the fourth. I was a year older. We had many bonds. Our parents were friends. On Friday nights we used to walk up three flights of steps to watch TV together. The only television set in the building; probably the only one that could get god reception because an antenna sat on their rooftop. We used to play; anything that came to our minds. I also had a crush on Mickey’s younger sister.
We’re not talking about teenage puppy love here. At most I was six years old. Some people say children have no sexual attraction to each other until hormones take over. I beg to differ. I really, really liked this girl. I tried to introduce her into our games any chance I would get. This irritated Mickey no end. He saw no reason for a girl to be included when we were busy chasing imaginary bank robbers.
The game I remember the most was when we played Cisco Kid (anyone younger than 65 will have to google this). I always insisted on playing the lead role, which relegated Mickey to being Pancho; Cisco’s mildly obese and often inept sidekick. This was a source of friction. Mickey felt that he should have a chance at being Cisco. I was a bit chubby; so was Pancho, he would argue. I told him that I was older, so I knew better, so I got to make all decisions. My wife will attest to how profoundly rational I can be when I’m trying to win an argument.
Mickey always gave in. I think that his mom resented me bossing her son around, but in those days parents were not that much involved in their children’s frustrations. She probably urged him to make up another game where he’d be the leader. All of the moms in our building had a job and no help with household chores. They were busy.
Mickey took her at her word. Superman was popular in those days. Mickey borrowed a small tablecloth from his mom’s kitchenette. He wrapped it around his neck. He stripped to his underwear (no; it was not red. We didn’t get superhero underwear in those days). He climbed on the ledge of the fourth floor and screamed for his mom to come out of the kitchen.
His tired and irritated mother came out on the rooftop to find her son half a step away from his death.
“Look, mom, I’m Superman. I will fly down. That’s something Paco can’t do.”
I can’t begin to imagine what went through her mind. But she kept her cool.
“That’s very nice. Why don’t you come down so I can take a picture of you in your outfit? Your dad will want to see it.” No iphones in those days. Taking a picture meant spending money on film. To pose was a special occasion. Mickey understood this. He came down.
Only to receive the severest beating that could ever be legally inflicted on a child. Enough to deter him from ever, ever wanting to play Superman again.
Mickey’s family moved away soon after this incident. Maybe that was the beginning of the professors moving to the suburbs (which, by the way, are no longer that suburban). They took my best friend and the first girl that I ever fantasized about.
Memories. In a perfect world, I get to marry Mickey’s sister. She was smart, and pleasant, and cute. Mickey would have been the best man.
In that world our homes would still be occupied by hard working parents who appreciated being able to walk to the nearest pharmacy, and grocery store, and movie theater. Safely.
Neighbors would get together once a week to watch TV and have a beer. And talk.
It would be safe for children to leave home shortly after sunrise, and return at sunset, and no one would have any idea of where they spent the day.
We would have leaders who made a valiant effort, despite limited resources, to educate everyone. To enforce the law. To do whatever it takes to keep thriving neighborhoods that house thousands of memories from being boarded up.
I said good bye to my friend. I shook his hand; I thanked him for an unforgettable afternoon. I held back a few tears.
“Are you coming back full-time soon?”
Life is so hard here. It’s difficult even to park a car. There is this indescribable beauty any time you turn a corner… And then there is decay threatening to take our breath, and our desire to thrive, away.
Maybe if Mickey’s mom came back and insisted that our leaders come off the ledge. Maybe if she would inflict that unforgettable spanking on them. Is anyone ready to step up?