Grown-ups could never stop telling me what it was like when they were young, which always made me feel grateful that I wasn’t alive back then. They didn’t have television, so they had to listen to the radio, or read dull novels about horses and office workers and Californians. Even comic books tried to shove philosophical lessons down everyone’s throat with titles like Crime Does Not Pay and Justice Traps the Guilty. Movies were in black and white and had no talking, and the actors all moved around really fast and hit each other over the head with canes. Little boys dressed like forty-year-old men, and sold newspapers on the corner six days a week. On Sundays they played with hoops that they rolled along the street with sticks, the worst toy ever invented and a pointless activity designed just to keep children outside and as far away from home as possible. I wondered how people managed to avoid losing their minds.
In comparison, our lives were non-stop fun. It was the Golden Age of television and we had six stations, each brimming with top-notch shows, such as The Real McCoys and Hullabaloo. Technically, there was a seventh channel — thirteen – but it was educational, about as entertaining as watching dust accumulate, and served only as a shortcut when we wanted to change from channel two back to channel eleven without going all the way around. If I ever did stop there to see what was on, I’d quickly fall into a deep sleep and my parents would find me hours later, my hand still clutching the dial.
We had games like Chinese Checkers, which weren’t checkers at all, but marbles that you had to maneuver across a star-shaped board. I bet my ancestors had never heard of such a crazy thing. And we had space-age toys, such as Great Garloo, a green plastic monster with fish scales and a leopard loincloth. He was vicious enough to destroy power plants or even whole cities, yet gentle enough to wait tables at your little sister’s tea party. I never actually had a Great Garloo, I think because my mother was afraid to be alone with it while my father was at work and the kids were in school.
My favorite toy was the top. I had a collection of them, all made of wood and painted bright colors. The idea was to wind a string around the top, starting at the metal tip and being careful not to overlap as you progressed upward. I learned that it helped to leave a loop knotted in the end so I could slide my middle finger through. Then I’d kneel down and, with a snap of the wrist developed from years of practice, I’d toss the top onto a smooth area on the ground. It would go for about a minute, provided it didn’t hit a pebble or a crack in the concrete, or some troublemaker didn’t walk by and kick it. Properly launched, a spinning top appeared to be standing motionless, its rotation imperceptible. It was a thing of beauty. It was also a thing of hypnosis, and as if under its spell, I’d repeat the process all afternoon, until the string twisted and tightened and caused my finger to turn blue, or until I realized there were ants crawling into my shorts.
We seemed drawn to pretty much anything that was mindless, monotonous, and included a piece of string. You could build a reputation around your skill with a top, a yo-yo, or a kite. Then there was the cup-and-ball, a maddening device I usually plucked from the dentist’s treasure chest, and which I believe the Russians gave to prisoners in order to torture them during the Crimean War.
The cup-and-ball was a distant cousin of the paddle-and-ball. In this set-up, a thin board with a handle replaced the cup, and a frayed rubber band replaced the string. The goal was to keep the ball bouncing against the paddle as many times as you could. Equally important was remembering to bolt from the room as soon as that rubber band broke and the ball sailed into the potato salad.
Eventually we branched out, and began playing with tin cans. Our first step, of course, was to connect two of the cans with string, then pretend we’d created a telephone. One of us would yell into our can, and the person on the other end would light up with surprise that he could hear the message, forgetting for a moment that we were standing eight feet apart, and that everybody on the block could hear it, too.
A few of the older boys introduced us to a game called kick-the-can. This quickly became a popular activity, because it required no equipment other than an empty aluminum container. If you do a little research today, you’ll find many variations of kick-the-can, each with its own intricate set of rules. We had neither the patience nor the imagination for that. We played kick-the-can by just kicking the can until we got tired, or until somebody opened their window and screamed at us to knock it off. It was similar to soccer, only without the athletic ability, and with a lot more noise.
One day, some girls arrived from another galaxy, bringing with them an assortment of strange recreational amusements, and insisting that we join in. They would draw numbered boxes on the sidewalk, then hop into each box, dropping and retrieving small stones as they went. Or two of them would turn a length of clothesline as a third girl jumped up and down inside the rope, all the while reciting long, rhythmic, sing-song nonsense that we were sure was either a secret code or some sort of mind control. They goaded the boys into abandoning the monkey bars and taking turns on the swings – something we would never have done had we still been operating under free will — and told us stories about a fifth-grader from another neighborhood who had swung so high that he went completely over the top, and had immediately become the most popular person in the city.
But when we found ourselves playing a game called Mother May I, we had been pushed too far. I participated a couple of times, despite vague feelings of anger and shame, and the knowledge that my father and grandfather would have gone swimming in the East River before they’d ever be involved in such humiliation. This is what propelled me and my friends into our next phase of development. We began a period of bold behavior, fueled by the first feeble drops of male hormone, and by the belief that courage enabled us to do things the girls refused to do. Our heads were filled with reckless inclinations. What we didn’t understand was that the girls’ heads were filled with brains.