“A Neighborhood” : An admittedly pedestrian poem, written at an intensely emotional time…

Like a town unto itself,

But only part of something else,

It was my life for little kid years;

A place of growing, laughter, and tears.

The day I met my first real friend,

We said hello, but it would end.

His name was Bob; I shook his hand.

We were little guys who’d form a band.

We all had names that you would hear

When mothers yelled, “Time for supper. Come here!”

Names like Skip and Wayne and Lee,

Bev and Paul, even Donna Marie.

I cannot try to write them all.

It makes me sad when I recall.

‘Cause here I speak of long-past days,

Since we’ve all gone our separate ways.

Life brings us close, almost as one,

Then pulls us apart and ends the fun.

Where could all the memories be?

Do they live in others as they do in me?

I remember dodgeball and “Mother, may I?”

S-P-U-D…let the ball fly!

Games of pitch on hot summer nights,

Under the glow of city streetlights.

Hide-and-seek was fun for all.

The girls played hopscotch; the boys, step-ball.

Redline and wire-ball and so many others,

Played with passion by sisters and brothers.

Our whole play world was so very small,

Just two rows of houses and an alley, that’s all.

Now we’re all gone; other people live there.

I wonder what they think when I drive by and stare.

It’s been sixty years since I grew up in that West Baltimore neighborhood; thirty-five since I wrote this poem while resident in the high-security ward of a New England psychiatric hospital; and about a week since I last drove by and stared. Maybe I’m just the sentimental type, trying to go home again when, indeed, “you can’t.” Or maybe I’m still trying to make sense of how it came so terribly undone in the turbulent ‘60s.

*  *  *

Ours was the middle house in a row of thirteen, whose brick fronts mirrored their identical reflections across a narrow city street. My second-floor bedroom in the rear of the house looked down on the small, symmetrical rectangles that were our backyards—spatially defined by Anchor fencing, hedgerows, or both. Across an alley, the backs of another block of thirteen seemed close enough to touch, especially when the seasons allowed screens and open doors to carry inside sounds out and the outside world in. Ellie practicing trumpet; Miss Cetta kibitzing across the fence with Miss Myrtle; Skip yelling for his dog, Freckles; the Kleins having their daily shouting match; the Good Humor man jingle-jangling up the alley to a stereophonic chorus of “wait a minutes…”

The ‘50s were an idyllic time for baby boomers like me. I didn’t think of it in those terms then, of course, but in hindsight it was as innocent and wholesome as an episode of Leave It To Beaver. The neighborhood moms were just that—housewives whose jobs were keeping the house and raising the kids. And the dads—factory workers, mechanics, salesmen, tradesmen, almost all veterans of World War II—they were usually home in time for dinner, very much the family meal.

After-school days in fall were about games of “two-hand touch” up on the corner; the longer springtime after-dinner evenings about Little League baseball; and the summers, a glorious montage of discovery—of games (ball, card, and board varieties), friendships (guy buddies and girl/boy crushes), and the varying levels of competition, excitement, and embarrassment attendant thereto…a multi-voiced chorus of “Paul likes Linda,” for example, sure to nip that nascent crush in the bud.

Then came the ‘60s—a decade that traumatized and polarized, with assassinations and war breeding political, cultural, and racial upheaval that not only challenged the status quo, it obliterated it. No aspect of American life was immune. And thanks to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, no neighborhood.

Before the ‘60s were half over, most of the friends I had sauntered merrily through the ‘50s with were gone from our neighborhood, replaced by people whose skin was darker and, as such, threatening. It was an ugly time.

Yet, by the end of the ‘60s, my old neighborhood was just as segregated as it had been at the end of the ‘50s. The only thing that had changed was the color of the people living there. Segregation hadn’t ended; it had merely relocated.

My childhood friends, of course, scattered in all directions and life went on, as it would have regardless of the transformative impact of integration. But I never really got that old neighborhood out of my system…writing poems about it, even as I experienced the deeply emotional turmoil of serious hospitalization; making time for drive-bys, even during my brief visits home when I was living in Europe; and unapologetically sharing it through today’s ubiquitous social media.

Life is a ride we only pretend to control. Its momentum cannot be denied. Yet, within each of our life arcs, there are touchstones that keep us grounded. That neighborhood is one of mine.

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