It’s a very common trap for people to over-romanticize their childhood. I have memories of many humiliating and frightful events that stick with me to this day. But I prefer to talk about how young children, in their curiosity, daring, and imagination, find mystery and adventure in everyday things.
Frankly, I can’t imagine a more fertile environment for a child’s imagination than a NYC housing project. You would think that all the cookie-cutter apartment buildings, with the same red brick façades and the same apartment layouts, would stultify the imagination. Nothing is further from the truth. There is an innate buccaneer lurking in mind of every child who seeks treasure everywhere.
Take the hallway outside your apartment, for example. It is an acoustic delight. There is no better place in the world, including Carnegie Hall, to shout at the top of your lungs. The echo around the bare brick walls magnifies a child’s voice to Olympic proportions. For some reason, however, the echo of blood-curdling screams is not appreciated by the occupants of the other three apartments on your floor.
Neither do they appreciate the games you play in the hallway. My favorite hallway game was baseball. I took one of my mother’s magazines and rolled it up so it looked like a conical bat. Then I scotch-taped it to retain its shape. I took old newspapers and rolled them up into a paper ball, compressing it as much as I could. I used more scotch-tape to keep the newspaper ball from fraying. (My father used to steal a lot of scotch-tape from work so we never worried about it running out.) The result was a serviceable ball and bat, just the right dimensions for a game of hallway baseball.
My biggest problem was getting my two younger sisters to participate. This was an ongoing problem in my childhood. My sisters preferred playing house with dolls rather than hallway baseball. I would sometimes reluctantly play house with them, but it would bore me so much that I had to enhance the game by calling forth some kind of natural disaster, such as a tornado or hurricane. Even when they consigned me to being the radio in the pretend house, I would announce that a nuclear war had begun.
When I was able to convince my sisters to play hallway baseball, it usually ended in disaster. One of the problems was that the hallway floor was extremely slippery. You had to plan your slide into second base, which was the door of Apartment C, all the way from Apartment B. If you misjudged your speed and momentum, you headed up slamming violently into the door of Apartment C. The occupant of Apartment C would then come out of her apartment and start screaming at us. She would threaten to tell our parents. Sometimes she would confiscate my paper ball, which I had worked so hard to create. My sisters would immediately escape back into our apartment, secretly glad that the game was over, leaving me to take the brunt of our neighbor’s tirade.
On stormy days, when it was too wet to play outside, we sometimes played airplane. This game would be played at the living room window while the rain drops lashed against it. Our apartment was the cabin of the plane and we could sense the movement of the plane by its resistance to the driving drops outside. Of course, in line with the sexual stereotyping of the era, I was the pilot and my two younger sisters were the stewardesses. As with any good fiction, there was always a crisis to overcome. At the height of the rain storm, the engines of the plane failed. The stewardesses cried. The passengers had to be comforted. Yet, somehow the pilot was always able to land the plane safely.