Miss Emma, my talented tennis instructor, is putting me through the paces of my lesson. I wonder why it has taken me so long to take up this sport that clearly nourishes my soul. Just when I think I have found all of the balls, I spy another one peeking through the grass, then another, and another. Smiling, tears well up, as I am reminded of another time long ago when I rose early in the summer’s day to forage with sticks to find prizes in the grass.
My internal alarm went off at 5 a.m. as I woke from a restless night to meet the day. I squinted at the cracked ceiling to see if the watermark and peeling plaster had changed. I’d kept a close eye on it ever since Donna, our upstairs neighbor, fell asleep in her bathtub with the water running. On that memorable day, I was asleep on the couch — a rare occasion as sleep didn’t come easy to me. My baby brother Donnie’s soft whimper stirred me awake. When I opened my eyes, I thought they were playing tricks on me; it seemed as though the wall was all bowed out. I rubbed them, thinking it was the sleep, and as I zoomed in again on the wall, it blew apart, and in an instant, I was gasping for breath under a flood of dirty water, plaster, gypsum, and lath board. Already anxious with the responsibilities of taking care of my mama and brother, I now began playing the role of chief building inspector, reporting to Dan the fix-it man any issues I found with the flat that we rented on Salisbury Street. And there were many.
This morning, though, I judged that the watermark and bubbling plaster had not changed since the night before. From behind the shower curtain that surrounded my bed I breathed a sigh of relief. My colicky little brother slept peacefully in his crib, and I used extra caution not to rouse him, or Mama for that matter, as I made my way from the bed to the kitchen. As quietly as I could, I washed the few dishes in the sink including the coffee pot, my point of focus. I’d started drinking coffee at the age of 7, and already at 9, I couldn’t start my day without it. I was hooked on the stuff, which had an almost romantic allure for me. I loved everything about it.
Sliding a cigarette out of Mama’s Winston pack and snatching the matches from the stove, I climbed out onto the back porch roof to greet the day. I took in the view of the City and of the South Side from my perch. The shift change was beginning at J&L, and mill workers made their way along Carson Street like ants. I puffed on my cigarette as the sun rose and assessed from the golden pink hue of the horizon that it would be a beautiful day. The coffee pot began to gurgle, a sign that the first perk was about to erupt. The sweet bouquet of coffee burst through the window. I flicked my cigarette into the air and climbed back inside to make my “cup a’ joe” as Mama called it. I slugged it down pretty quickly, then dashed into the bathroom where I swished my toothbrush across my mouth, jumped into my swimsuit, crept through the bedroom again, and made my way out the door. I had work to do this morning, and I wanted to get to it before others woke. I parked my Radio Flyer wagon in the hallway behind the door. It was one of my most prized possessions. On a trip to the Goodwill, and at my insistence earlier that year, Mama got the wagon for me.
“Mama, look, a wagon! Can I get it?” I asked.
“What on earth do you want with that thing?” Mama asked. “It’s beat up and the front wheel is all twisted. It’s not safe and you can’t ride in it.”
“I’ll have Dan fix that wheel, and besides, I don’t want it to ride in, I wanna carry things in it,” I said. “Like what?” Mama asked.
“Well, Mama, I could use it to haul up the laundry from the back yard. Or I could use it to fetch Mrs. Pritchard’s groceries,” I said, making my case.
Mama had picked up a few shirts and a wall clock for the kitchen, and none of that was as dear as the wagon. I could see Mama doing the math in her head.
“Besides, Mama, I have 32 cents to put toward it.” Plopping down on the floor, I kicked off my right shoe and soiled sock, and peeled a quarter, one nickel and two pennies from my foot. “Where did you get that?” Mama asked.
“Running Mrs. Mellon’s laundry up from the back for her, and helping Johnny Roof shovel coal in their coal cellar yesterday,” I said.
“That’s how those socks got so grimy,” she snipped.
“Yes, Mama. Please may I get the wagon?”
Mama reached into her bra and pulled out two damp dollar bills. Exasperated, she gave me a look, and tossed her shirts and wall clock into the wagon.
“Go on now,” she said. And with great delight, I marched toward the check-out, pulling my wobbly, rusted and squeaky prize behind me.
Dan had tried to fix that front wheel and oiled it up pretty good, but it still wobbled and made a fair amount of racket.
After my coffee that morning, I carried the wagon outside so as not to wake anyone. Outside, I made my way to the Fort, barefoot and pulling my wagon behind me. I hoped the pickings would be good. The Fort Park was one block up the street from our flat. I loved that it was so close, and I especially loved being the only person there early in the day. I pretended it was my own personal backyard, and most summer mornings I was the first one at the pool and in the park.
The older boys and girls in the neighborhood partied in the park on summer evenings. Smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, playing poker and making out, of course. I knew, ’cause I saw them. I would hang out at the swimming pool as long as Mama allowed — usually until the street lights came on, but if I had Donnie in tow, she let the curfew fly.
I loved hanging around the older kids. They didn’t seem to mind me much, and even sent me on errands to buy things for them from the park store — pop, cigarettes, frozen candy bars, soft pretzels. I’d retrieve whatever they wanted, as it usually won me the prize of a few cents and sometimes a nickel. So, when I came to the park in the morning, I already had a pretty good idea if the pickings were going to be good or not.
Systematically, I moved through the grass, searching for pop bottles, bottle caps, and Mallo Cup coupons. First, I moved up the grassy slopes along Fort Hill, then along the swimming pool fence. This was an especially rich spot as the boys played poker under the locust trees and typically left their pop bottles hooked in the wire fence. I swept around the borders of the pool, loading my Radio Flyer with the fruits of my labor. Before making my way to the gutters around the swing sets and basketball courts, I sat on the bleachers at the pool, taking in the quiet and magical calm it created in me. When we left the projects in 1962, I left behind people and friends who were my family. The only thing that felt welcoming to me in the new neighborhood was the swimming pool. I took to the water immediately, and it was my friend. I felt safe in the water and just being in the presence of the crystal blue pool of water calmed me.
Before leaving the bleachers, I poked around in the big green trash barrel to see if there were any bottles there, and sure enough, I found three Coke bottles — six cents, not bad, I thought to myself. Into the wagon they went. A trip around the gutters at the basketball court brought more treasures — five bottles in all. Yes, this is a good morning, I thought to myself.
A good morning, indeed, and maybe I could even get some soft penny pretzels for myself with the good hard cash I would get for my labor. And I hadn’t even been to the oak tree yet!
Pulling my rickety, nearly full, wagon, I headed across the small ballfield toward the oak tree. There was another green trash can along the way. Looking inside, I saw something shiny below candy wrappers, empty cigarette packs and sticky snow cone cups. It looked promising, so I grabbed the top of the barrel, and head-first dived into the can, steadying myself with one hand while rummaging with the other. I plucked two Pepsi bottles out of the sticky mess, quite pleased with myself and my find.
The old oak tree spread out its glorious branches on the other side of Fort Hill, and behind the rec center. This was where the older boys — guys who actually were old enough to drink legal — met to play poker. On hot summer days, everyone wanted to be under the cool shade of the oak. It was prime turf. The younger guys played cards there, too, and necked with their girlfriends. But when Charlie Pritchard, Bucky Eubenthal and Greg Zugich entered the park, without a word, the younger guys gathered up their cigarettes, lighters, cards and women, and headed to the fence along the pool. It was a respect thing, and no one asked any questions.
And these guys held court under the oak tree every night, telling stories, carving their names into the trunk, playing cards, drinking liquor, and making out with their girlfriends. It was the drinking that I was focused on, ’cause these guys drank the hard stuff, and they cut it with Canada Dry Ginger Ale that came in quart bottles. That’s what I was after. If the partying was hard the night before, I could count on five or six bottles. This morning the prize was four quart bottles, and six Coke bottles. A whopping 32 cents just from the oak tree!
Next stop, the bleachers at the baseball field. Another hot spot. I scoured the gutters around the field, the trash cans and under the bleachers. My effort brought a total of 12 bottles, another 24 cents, and I was giddy with excitement, eager to tally my haul.
My little Radio Flyer was totally loaded, and more difficult to pull, but my work was not yet done. With two hands, I dragged the wobbly cart to the water fountain where I washed each bottle and did the math to see what prize my tow would bring. All told — seven Canada Dry Ginger Ale bottles, 11 Coke bottles, 13 Pepsi bottles, two Fresca, five Hires Root Beer, five 7Ups, and one RC Cola. As I loaded the clean bottles back into the wagon, I did the math, and if was right, my morning’s work would fetch me $1.09!
The sun was hitting the rooftops of the houses on Eccles Street. I guessed it was close to 7 a.m. and knew that Harry Joe, the owner of the Fort Hill candy store, would be unloading pop cases from the Pepsi Cola truck, cleaning the meat slicer, shaving ice for snow cones, and replenishing the penny candy case, readying himself for a busy day at the store.
Pulling my wagon behind me, I circled back to the pool, down Fort Hill, up Sterling Street and into the alley and the garage that Harry Joe had turned into a store. I picked up another two pop bottles and was rubbing them against my swimsuit to clean them off when I heard Harry Joe’s voice through the sliding glass window where we ordered our treats.
“How’d you make out today, kiddo?” he asked.
“If my math is right, I made a dollar nine cents,” I said proudly.
“Well, let’s see how your arithmetic is.”
I loaded the clean bottles two by two on the counter of the window, and Harry Joe counted as we went along. “Well, looks like you got it right again,” he said.
I could not have been more pleased, as Harry Joe gave me a fresh dollar bill, one nickel and four pennies. “Thank you very much,” I said, securing the money in my tight, sweaty fist and reaching for my wagon to head home.
“Here you go, kiddo,” Harry Joe said, as he stuck his head and hand through the window to give me a frozen Black Cow sucker, which he knew was one of my favorite treats.
“Thank you, Harry Joe.”
“Go on home now,” he said. “I know you have some more work and arithmetic to do.”
He was right. Mama would be awake by now, and I was sure Donnie would be squealing in his crib. I took the shortcut across the ball field and down the hill.
The sun was up, but there was still a chill to the air and the cool dew on the grass along the third-base line felt wonderful on my feet. At home plate, I turned to look at my track marks in the grass. It pleased me somehow seeing the pattern of my wagon and pigeon toed tracks in the grass.
When I arrived back home, I was surprised that Mama was still asleep, but Donnie was stirring in his crib. I scooped him up before he got to crying. With him on my left hip, I rummaged through the top drawer of our shared dresser. There I found the Band-Aid tin buried in my underwear — just where I put it. I opened it and dumped out the money I had collected earlier in the week. Now with my draw today, that made $4.51.
“We’re going to have treats, Donnie,” I whispered in his ear.
In the kitchen, still with Donnie on my hip, I grabbed his bottle, dumped some powered milk into it, added water, screwed on the nipple, gave it a good shake, and stuck it in his mouth. In the fridge I found a half-used tin of Spam and the last of a block of Army Surplus cheese that we got in the food line. I put Donnie in his highchair and began to cook up the Spam and cheese. The smell of the frying Spam made me sick to my stomach, but it was all there was to eat. The smell woke Mama, and she asked if there was coffee.
“Yes’m,” I said and fixed a cup for her.
“You making breakfast?” she asked.
“There enough to go around?”
“There’s enough for you and Donnie,” I said, knowing Mama needed to eat because of her sugar. “I’m not hungry, Mama.”
A heavy silence fell in the room. I stirred away at the Spam adding chunks of cheese to it. I wished Mama would say something, but I knew that she knew I was hungry and that I was just saying that. But if she didn’t get food into her, it would send her sugar flying, and that could mean another trip to the emergency room.
Anxious, I said, “And besides, Harry Joe gave me a frozen Black Cow that I put up top for us to share later.” “Harry Joe? Have you been up to the playground already?” she asked.
“Yes, Mama. I took my wagon and I’ve been collecting pop bottles this week. And, guess what?” I teased. I ran to the bedroom dresser and pulled out the Band-Aid tin and brought it to Mama.
“Look how much I found, Mama. Four dollars and fifty-one cents,” I said with pride. “We can get some chipped chopped ham from Islay’s, and maybe some vegetables, and real potatoes, and maybe even a can of Planter’s peanuts that you like so much, Mama.”
Mama looked at the money, and then at me. Taking a deep breath, she turned her gaze out of the kitchen window and sipped her coffee. By this time in my life I had become accustomed to Mama’s long silences. I wondered what she must be thinking. Likely, how we got into this mess, with husband and daddy long gone, no education, no job, no money, no food and no family to speak of who was willing to help.
I had learned to become the cheerleader of our little squad, trying always to keep Mama’s spirits buoyed. It was hard at times, but I did my best. I didn’t like it much that Mama had moved us out of the projects away from my friends and where people, though none of us had much, looked after one another. But, I was coming around to the idea that maybe things could be okay here on Salisbury Street next to the park, where I could rise early in the day, and make my rounds, poking through the grass with sticks. Poaching pop bottles won me the prize of knowing that the money they brought would bring me peace of mind that Mama, Donnie and I would have another meal and another day together.
This morning, all these years later, with stick in hand, I ferret for prizes in the grass. This time spent in activities that nourish my soul — not just in deed, but also in memory.