Evan Hunter tells what it was like growing up in the big bad city. 

I was born on a blanket on a kitchen table in my
parents' railroad flat on 120th Street between First and
Second Avenues. My Aunt Jenny was the midwife. She
also taught foreigners how to prepare for naturalization.
My grandfather owned a tailor shop on First Avenue, two
blocks further downtown. I used to stop by there after
school at P.S. 80, to sit by his sewing machine and sip
hot chocolate my grandmother made for me.

The neighborhood was composed largely of immigrant
Italians, Jews, Germans and Irish. The only Chinese
person we knew was the one who ran the laundry
downstairs from my grandmother's building. He used
to give us festive boxes of litchi nuts at Christmastime.
My Uncle Andy was studying violin, but he really loved
playing piano by ear. My Uncle Eugene wanted to be --
and eventually did become -- a lawyer. He was the first
college graduate in our family.

There were no trees on our block. Springtime didn't
announce itself with shiny bright leaves. Instead,
immies came out. Immies were marbles. We didn't
shoot marbles the way country kids do, out of a ring
drawn in the dirt. Instead, we tossed them alongside
the curb, and tried to span them with our spread
fingers, in dark puddles of fresh rain. Steelies were
illegal. Puries were made of clear glass and were quite
valuable. I once lost a whole pouch full of puries my
parents had given me for my birthday. I went upstairs
crying. My mother took me in her arms and told me I
must never cry about lost things. She was very proud
that she had graduated from Julia Richman.

Every season was marked by some new kind of activity.
Roller skates came out in the summertime. Kids all up
and down the block would yell upstairs for their
mothers to throw down their skate keys. When we
weren't skating all over the street, we were flipping
baseball cards or war cards. There was no war just
then. It must have seemed to us that there would never
be another war in our lifetimes. Hi-Li paddles appeared
in the fall, every kid on the block counting out loud while
he smacked away at that little rubber ball on a

Pushos arrived in October sometime, along with
Charlotte Russes and jelly apples on a wooden stick.
Pushos were homemade scooters. You nailed an
orange crate to a two-by-four, and fastened either half of
an old ball-bearing roller skate to its ends. A Charlotte
Russe was a piece of sponge cake with a topping of
whipped cream. It came in a little round white
cardboard container; you pushed up at it from the
bottom to get at the sponge cake once you'd licked off
all the cream. It cost three cents.

In November, we celebrated Election Day by burning
huge bonfires in the middle of the street. In January we
wore aviator helmets with the goggles pushed up, and
we roasted Sweet Mickeys, these long yellow potatoes,
over small wood fires in vacant lots on windy street
corners, the sparks flying everywhere, everywhere.

At night, we listened to Omar the Mystic on the radio.
Omar wasn't a threatening name back then. Times
have changed.

My father was a postman. During the Depression, he
never earned more than eight bucks a week. But he
always found enough money to take me to the Apollo
Theater to hear the big bands on Saturday nights.

After the show, we would walk down 125th Street
together, hand in hand, chattering about what we'd just
seen and heard, chattering, chattering, all the way back
to the apartment on East 120th Street.

Years later, when I was living in a luxury high rise on
72nd and the East River, I thought Gee, it's taken me
only fifty years to move fifty blocks downtown.

Evan Hunter

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