In my previous post, The Knife Sharpener and Jimmy – Part 1 I wrote briefly about growing up outside of Chicago in a suburb called Cicero. For lack of a better word, Jimmy was perhaps as close a friend as anyone could have in that neighborhood. But one learned from an early age to be weary of strangers or those claiming to want to be friends. No one seemed to do anything unless they were going to get something in return. No favor went unreturned. If you did something for someone, they owed you and it was up to you to return the favor as well.
Perhaps the kids on the block didn’t keep score but the parents seemed to. Nonetheless, it was a valuable lesson to take in and take forward. I also overlooked the fact that there were perhaps life lessons learned to be had in those pinball machines and pool tables. Learning about angles, being patient when needed and being aggressive when required, understanding how to spin a ball or play the angles such that if you couldn’t make a shot, you didn’t leave your opponent an easy one. One learns about geometry and physics and strategy and trying to keep your opponent from using the pool cue as a weapon while keeping them engaged but trying to win the game. For the most part it worked with Jimmy and I. His older brothers, however, went through their fair share of pool cues that had to be replaced.
Jimmy taught me how to play Pinners. A game that is hard to explain but easy to play. It involves a tennis ball or rubber baseball, a step or garage door. The shooter throws the ball against the step or garage door in an attempt to get it past the other player, scoring “runs” or “points” before making three outs. A two hand catch was one out and a one hand catch was three outs. I don’t remember when the game was over – how many rotations this went through – perhaps 7 or 11 or 21 points depending on how long you had to get a game in.
This video illustrates it about as best as any. If you catch the step just right or the ledge of the garage, the defender would have little chance to catch the ball.
Jimmy and I would get our skateboards and grab on to the back of delivery trucks to pull us down the street. UPS trucks seemed to be the best in terms of a great place to hold onto, speed and distance between stops down the streets and avenues in the neighborhood. If our mothers found out we both would have been grounded for a month. Sometimes the ride-a-longs did not have a successful outcome, if the truck suddenly stopped without slowing down, the skateboard did not stay under your feet or a pothole made you, the truck and skateboard at its disposal to wreak havoc. Years later I would cross a railroad trestle as a shortcut to get to junior and high school. While you could see and hear the commuter trains and freight trains going to/from Chicago, I still consider this more dangerous than riding a skateboard behind a UPS truck.
It was every kid for himself. If someone broke their leg, an arm, got dragged behind the truck on their knees before letting go, as I did, no one ever told their parents exactly how it happened or who else may have been around to see it or potentially caused the injury. There was a code. One person was not going to ruin the fun for the others. Winters were long and the time to do these kinds of activities short.
Same thing with “fights” to settle differences, the equivalent I think of what is referred to now as “conflict resolution”. After school, behind the school or at the park after school, duels were scheduled. Others would watch. You settled your differences in a few minutes (usually) with someone getting a black eye, or cut lip or giving up the match and shaking on it until the next time we had to have a conflict resolution. No teachers, parents, counselors, just a patch of asphalt and trying to do your best Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka impression, without a chair.
Dr. Ul Balis, a professor of pathology at the University of Michigan, also spent some of his formative years in both Cicero and then later Riverside, although, curiously, I did not know him in either of these locales where we were contemporaries. I have since learned that his home was in the grittiest part of town, along those very same streets with the UPS trucks and the alley fights. I only met Ul in person many years after my days of pool table and pinball machines, in the garage off of 61st Court and Cermak Road, while we were both starting our careers in the far more gentile setting of East Coast institutions.
Anyone who knows Ul is aware of his odd proclivities (e.g. Mumblety-peg and the climbing of ridiculously tall antenna towers) and eclectic interests, far outside the usual fare of pathology informatics. One such interest happens to be Jazz composition. He recently shared with me this soulful jazz piece about the streets of Cicero, with it perhaps capturing the spirit and raw grittiness of that place which we at one time both called home. Many thanks to Ul for sharing.