Saturday, August 21, 2010

Random Impressions of the Shaw Neighborhood

The two years I spent in the Shaw neighborhood were a strange time in this country. My mom, brother and I moved there the summer before I started 4th grade. It was around 1967 and 1968.

While I was there Bobby Kennedy, King and Che were assassinated. We were about to go to the moon and Sgt. Pepper was released.

Highway 44 was under construction a block behind us. It was a two block wide strip of abandoned 4-family flats that extended as far as the eye could see in both directions. It was our playground.

My first memory the summer before 4th grade was a racially motivated killing cattycorner from Mullanphy School in the construction. I was told the KKK nailed someone to a tree facing the school. I’m not sure if it was true but all the kids in the neighborhood believed it.

There were only three or four TV channels then so you settled for what was on.

There was a show that started at 5:45 call P.S.4. It taught adults how to read. The teacher was my school’s principal Mr. McNamara. I couldn’t believe he was on TV. He used to display a vintage, flat baseball bat on his office wall. Corporal punishment was very much in use then. He eventually became the superintendent of the St. Louis School System.

I remember walking to school with a friend of mine one morning. When we got to the schoolhouse we kept walking straight to Tower Grove Park where we spent the day in a tree dodging truant officers. It was the first time I played hooky without convincing my mom I was sick and had to stay home. We didn’t have a phone so I was never caught.

This was one of the winters we spent without heat. We had a fireplace that was built for gas logs with no vent. We cracked all the top windows and burned real logs. Everything was covered in black soot. I’m amazed we survived.

Speaking of winter, the Monkees were huge and all the boys wore Mike Nesmith knit hats. Our ears would stick out form underneath. For some reason it became popular for the bullies to flick their fingers as hard as they could on our cold ears. Man that hurt like Hell!

In spite of how broke our family was I felt sorry for kids I thought were truly living in poverty. My friends Jimmy and Bobby Koerper’s apartment was covered in clothes, trash, cockroaches and a sink that was filled with dishes that were never washed. The smell would knock you over. I used to fear rats when we spent the night. To make matters worse their mother had a full mustache.

I was pulled from my 4th grade class one day to meet with a social worker in private. They couldn’t figure out why my grades were so poor and my vocabulary was so good. They tested me for the gifted program. The kids that made it went to Wade School. It happened to be the school most of my life long friends went to. Tony Patti, George Crider, Lora Steffen and God knows who else went there.

Instead of sending me to Gifted they gave me a psychologist.

I was catcher in the Cub Scout baseball team. Each of the teams represented their school. My team, Mullanphy, came in first.

I used to take my quarter for lunch money and go to a small pool hall on Thurman Ave. just down from Shaw. I lived on Moon Pies and cream soda. Just across the street was the world’s first Imo’s Pizza. It was a tiny take out store front. Back then they made their own thin crust and used a sauce made for them by Charlie Gitto’s restaurant. Charlie Gitto’s is a famous Italian restaurant in St. Louis’ Hill neighborhood. Imo’s hasn’t been that good in years. I drove by there the other day. The painted sign is still on the window. I wonder if Imo’s still owns the building now that they’re a corporate superstructure.

My whole life revolved around The Beatles, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Mad Magazine, the space program and petty larceny.

I traveled the streets dragging a wooden cart filled with newspapers as I yelled at the top of my lungs “Mornin’ Globe Paypehya!”.

We went to the Ritz Theater on Grand Ave. and saw three movies, cartoons and trailers for thirty five cents.

I bought my first tape recorder and a unicycle.

I’ll never forget sitting in my 5th grade classroom as Nancy Frasier, a girl in the row next to me, asked, “What would you do if I said sock it to me?” I can’t remember my exact reaction but I know I was jolted. This was my first proposition. I thought about it for months.

Summers were hot and no one had AC in those days. My brother and I slept on the back porch. You either suffered severe mosquito bites or covered up with sheets and suffered the heat. This did provide an opportunity to sneak out into the alleys with my friends at night. The alley behind our apartment is where I came face to face with a huge rat whose eyes seemed to glow red.

My friend Melvin Bozen turned me onto Castle films. They were 8mm edited versions of the Universal Monster classics. He also turned me onto Famous Monsters.

My pal Marvin’s dad was a drag racer. His dad had a car he called a rail job. I learned what slick tires were and why you had to light them on fire for traction when they raced. Marvin had a Stingray bike that looked something like his dad’s race car. My mom had taught me enough about physics to know my large wheeled touring 3 speed was better for speed. Marvin wouldn’t hear any of it so we held a big race. All the kids in the neighborhood were there. Everyone assumed Marvin would win. He was in shape and I was a dorky fat kid. The race extended an entire block. For the first half Marvin was in the lead but I overtook him and won. It was one of the great moments in my life when he admitted my bike was faster.

The only real fight I was ever in was around then. Typically it was with my best friend Mark. I posted about it earlier. This was the only time I ever fought back and I won. I discovered the winner was the last one standing. The neighborhood kids formed a circle around us and kept pushing us back into each other. It was a relentless series of blows to each other’s heads. Mark eventually began to cry and ran away. It was so grueling I could never go through it again. After that I’d just let myself get beat and ended the whole thing quickly.

The worst part of school was gym class when they made us square dance. Touching girls just wasn’t done. There was a developmentally slow girl named Janice. Instead of feeling compassion the kids were typically cruel toward her. I was paired with Janice. The boys were all joking under their breath. I decided to go for broke. I danced furiously swinging Janice as hard as I could. Instead of getting mad at me she loved every minute of it. It gave me a lot to think about. I think I’m still learning form the experience.

I could go on and on so I’ll pick this up later.

My 6th grade class at Mullanphy – First row right to left Jimmy Koerper, me and Melvin Bozen – Second row far right Nancy Frasier – same row second from left Janice – Mark is far left in the last row and Marvin’s in the middle of the last row in plaid.


Tony Patti said...

I think you got across the incredible richness of this time in our lives. This was the closest you ever lived to my neighborhood, since we both played on the ruins they constructed 44 over.

I know exactly how that "Morning Globe Paper" yell used to sound. In my hood it was to the accompaniment of metal wheels grinding on asphalt. We were doing the same things at the same time, though I never knew anyone rich enough to actually have any of those little films they advertised in the classified ads of Famous Monsters of Filmland.

I can't believe you lived without heat. Yet, to you, and to anyone else with any sense, a life lived in filth was poorer than a life without heat.

Doggie said...

My friend Melvin Bozen, being an "only child", owned those films. I blame him for my early exposure to almost all of the great American art forms! With the exception of comic books and music of course. That box with the steel wheels that carried the papers is what I'm talking about. I dragged one of those things around the whole Shaw neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

Yes, no heat! Marje Ramsey came by one morning during the Christmas holidays, dragging some guy, new to her, I didn't even know! Smoke, the smell of whatever was burning in the fireplace. I was never so mortified in my life!

Your Mom