“…..if I were younger, I’d know more.”
Oldies, But Goodies
Written by Dr. John Shanken-Kaye, Ph.D.
It’s been over 45 years since I graduated public school and yet, as the calendar clicks down to the end of June, I still have an excited expectation; a feeling that “something’s comin’ something good.” It’s interesting to me because I know most of you feel it too. It’s not just because it’s spring and it’s warm, although that does mean something. It goes with living at this particular latitude with it’s defined seasons (particularly this past year). No, it’s more of a joyous memory of freedom and possibility that formed the best part of childhood.
I grew up in a row house neighborhood in Philadelphia. There were a million kids my age within walking distance of my house. That meant that you could always play games, night or day, with a dozen or more boys. (There were girls on the block but we usually didn’t understand until much later the general use of girls). We had a base path painted on the street and we used to play “box ball” calling “heads” whenever a car came by. (Only a couple kids got hit by cars and none of them died so it was all good). On a night like tonight, we caught fireflies (when we were younger) and played “spring” a version of capture the flag, when we got older. Oh yeah, during the day, when we were younger, we played Army or war or cowboys and Indians (yes for real). I remember waking up on a summer morning and rushing to get out of the house; anxious that something might be happening that I was not a part of!
There were about 6 movie theaters in easy walking distance of my house and we all went to the Saturday matinées where, for 50 cents you could get in, get a soda and popcorn. We walked to the movies, by ourselves, starting when we were about 7 years old. Sometimes, there were yo-yo exhibitions and sometimes double features. By 10, my friends and I took the “EL” downtown to go to the Franklin Institute and hang around the Heart or just hang out and get a slice at King of Pizza on Market.
Generally we did nothing that was organized and we did our best to stay outside and out of the view of adults from early morning until it was well and truly dark. No camps, Little League, fancy vacations, or lessons for us. We were like the “Little Rascals,” self styled street urchins.
When I became a teen, my parents apparently made enough money for us to join one of the many swim clubs that sprung up in the area: Burn Brae, Cheltenham, Penn Valley… After the first or second swim, these places were …boring. My friends didn’t go there and, even though I made some new friends, we were contained within the walls of the club sitting in the water or watching our mother’s play Mah Jong or our father’s play poker or Gin Rummy (I kind of enjoyed watching my father play cards but the men did not in general enjoy being watched. The purpose for them was to not be with their wives or especially, their kids). I had to endure this for several years until I could drive.
As I got older, but still before the “summer of love,” we hung out on the corner listening to Jerry Blavat or Butterball, or Georgie Woods (the Guy with the Goods) on radio. A couple of summers I was lucky enough to know guys with whom I could sing Doo Wop (including my brother Dan) and then we’d go over to the new library on Cottman Ave. and mingle with the huge crowds of teens and, yes, actually sing street corner symphonies. When I was lucky enough to have a girlfriend, she was the one I sang to. But the boys were still the group and she became a member or else things would get tense.
On any given night, after your date, or party, or just hanging out, all the guys would gather on someone’s stoop to begin “The evening: Part II.” We would sit and smoke cigarettes for hours, or start a late night poker game, or drive down to Chinatown because they stayed open forever. Often, the best part of the night didn’t begin until midnight.
When we had wheels and it was sunny, we would go down to Ship Bottom, NJ. Not AC, because we were all about the beach, not the crowds. If we stayed home we’d get a cheese steak at Dante’s Inferno, or a fried dog at the JR Ranch or the Polar Cub.
The most amazing thing is; most of those guys are still my friends. After all these years we’re much more like family; idiot cousins and all. I haven’t touched, in this note, about what happened from 1968 onwards. Suffice to say things got a whole lot less innocent, and a whole lot more decadent. I’m just not quite sure that it got a whole lot more fun. Maybe I’ll write about the 60’s another time.
I don’t so much miss being young as I miss being excited on a hot summer night by the mystery of what the night might bring. Things have gotten pretty damned predictable. Can’t be helped. But still, on a hot summer night, or even a warm Spring night, I listen to oldies and they remind me of you, baby.