It took me a while to figure out why the rubber balls we played with as a kids invariably found their way into the sewer. It wasn’t just bad luck. Drainage sewers were situated at low points on the streets so that rain water could flow easily down into them, which is why our rubber balls followed the same downhill path.
If you were playing stickball or punchball or just having a catch and your ball disappeared, there was a good chance it was in the sewer. You’d get on your hands and knees and peer down through the grate and you would see your ball resting in the muck along with several others. That would mean the end of your game, unless, of course, you were desperate enough, like me, to keep playing.
I’d go upstairs and sneak into one the closets and steal a wire hangar. Hangars must have been valuable in my household because if I were caught, I’d have to put it back. I would have to pretend that I came upstairs for a glass of water.
Back at the sewer, I’d untwist the hangar and straighten it until it was just a long wire. Then I’d fashion one end into a loop about the diameter of a rubber ball. With this device I could easily fish out my lost ball, and all the others, from the black goo. I would rub them clean on my pants and leave the hangar in the sewer since it was no longer viable for its original purpose.
Every once in a while, one of the sewer balls you fished out turned out to be better than the ball you lost. Finding a Pennsy Pinkie or Spalding, known in street lingo as a Spaldeen, was like finding money on the street. They were by far the best rubber balls. Baby-boomers still argue today about which ball was best, which bounced higher or lasted longer. I don’t want to start any trouble, so I won’t give my personal opinion here.
Neither, however, could withstand the rigors through which us kids put those balls. Eventually, every rubber ball lost its bounce, but some came to the end of their lives in more a violent way. Stickball was always a ball-busting sport, literally. One good swing of the bat and the ball would separate at the seam and go flat. Then you could neatly peal apart the two hemispheres of the ball and marvel at the innards, which had a very distinctive pungent smell. I’m sure if I were blindfolded, I could recognize that aroma today.
There is also another smell I remember well. That’s the odor of whole slew of brand new Pennsy Pinkies or Spaldeens piled like fruit in their glass container at the candy store. It was more than just a rubbery odor. It was the smell of early morning stoop ball games and late summer night punchball games. It was the smell of happiness.
Sure they were pricey. I think they cost a quarter each, which was a tidy sum back then, equivalent to 25 pieces of Bazooka Bubble Gum, each with its own Bazooka Joe comic within. For the price of a Spaldeen, you could buy two cheap blue-colored balls for a dime each and still have a nickel left over for 5 pieces of gum. But those cheap balls just weren’t the same.
If you showed up at the court or the park with a new Pennsy Pinkie, your ball was always chosen for the punchball or stickball game, which meant you were guaranteed to be chosen too, no matter how bad or how little you were. If you weren’t picked for a team, you’d take your ball and go home, comforting yourself with the knowledge that on that particular day your ball wouldn’t end up in the sewer.