Recently while clearing my head of other things, I used Google Earth to look up my old neighborhood. It’s here in Memphis, but a satellite view seemed just the thing rather than a drive. I entered my old address and clicked. In a few seconds, I was hovering over the house I lived in for the first twenty years of my life.
I have the most wonderful memories of that neighborhood. I knew all its twists and turns, the good people, the odd people and the occasional bad person. The alleyway two houses away from my house, allowed access for the few people who owned garages to park their cars in the rear of their house. Sanitation workers used it to collect our garbage. We kids used it, among other things, to treasure hunt. For at least two summers, we made a contest out of finding bits of glass in the gravel. Each color had some predetermined value; red more valuable than beer bottle brown, blue more valuable than either. Broken Pepto bottles were a great find!
One house to the north of mine was Cambridge Avenue. It was almost two blocks long with a dead end at a good sized field. I played lots of “war” in that field. There was a shallow depression in the center which was our foxhole from which we defended our neighborhood and our country. The other end of Cambridge was about a block long and it was a dead end too. There was a sweet gum tree at the end that supplied us with countless sharp pointed little balls we could throw at each other. When they were green, they were hard and stung as if a rock had hit you. When they dried out, they stuck your skin, leaving a half dozen or so little “wounds.” Great fun. Almost as much fun as our rubber gun battles in which pieces of innertubes were fashioned into half inch wide rubber bands and shot at each other. Totally unpolitically correct today, along with the water pistols we used to cool off on those hot summer days.
Just off that dead end, St. Thomas Catholic Church had their school playground. In the 40s and 50s when I played there, it was gravel. That didn’t stop softball, hardball and even football games from being played by the neighborhood kids. Behind the Church, actually the convent, there was a garden and a grotto. The backside of the grotto, was about eight feet off the ground, and formed a little space we pretended was the conning tower of a submarine. We were frequently run off from there by Mr. Kerbackie, the sexton. He also rang the Angelus on the church bell every morning at six, at noon, and at six in the evening. You could set your watch. I can almost hear it now as I type this.
Just down the street, less than a block away, we had a little shopping district. A small grocery, an ice cream parlor, a hardware store, a five and dime, a barber, and a doctor. Across the street we had a shoe repair shop, a dry cleaners and one of two beer joints. A few hundred feet away, we had a service station, a drug store, a dry goods store, another beer joint, and the Royal movie theater, where I spent an untold number of Saturdays watching a double feature, a serial and a cartoon. All for fifteen cents until I turned twelve. Then it went up to thirty-five and the owner and his wife knew exactly when we turned twelve.
From my front porch swing, we could watch the neighbors go by on Lauderdale. We could see the Catholic priests in the two story rectory just opposite us come and go and sometimes, we could watch them play poker in front of a second floor window where they could catch the breeze. Hardly anybody moved in or out of the neighborhood in the many years I was there. When it did happen, we were ready to meet their kids to see if they’d fit into our tight little group of fifteen or so. The did.
There is so much more I could tell you about that neighborhood and its people, all the adventures we had together from backyard camping to summer nights of capture the flag. But, that’s not the point of this post. From my sky view, I could see the bell tower of the church was half gone, a huge hole in the roof of the church was were the first quarter of it used to be. The service station opposite was an empty slab and the drug store, dry goods store and more were gone. The grocery, and all the wonderful little businesses I spent so much time and so many dimes in, were gone. A pile of rubble was clearly visible where the grocery had been. The field at the end of Cambridge had been paved over, connecting it to a cross street.
It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at the old neighborhood. It wasn’t like this then. Oh, I knew the Catholics had torn down the school and the convent, but the church was still functioning. That is until they sold it to the Baptists, who sold it to COGIC, who left it to decay. Oh, did I mention my elementary and high schools had both been torn down too? But seeing all the rest was a visceral shock to my system. Not only did I feel sad, and more to the point of this post, I felt completely disconnected from my childhood. Frankly, it was a rough couple of days.
What I finally realized was, that though the structures and people were gone, the way in which they had shaped and formed me were not. I still remember the lady up the street who used to invite me to her porch when I still had baby teeth, just to talk. I remember the pain of being “kicked out of the club” by my next door neighbors, David and Johnnie, and the encouragement Lily, who ironed for us once a week, gave me to play by myself in the backyard as if it didn’t matter I was alone. “You watch,” she said. “When they see you having a good time without them, they’ll invite you back.” She was right and I also learned I could very well entertain myself without them anyway.
I remember the “old couple” who must have been at least fifty, from the church in which I grew up, also in that neighborhood, spending their time with rowdy and unruly teenagers, loving us into good behavior. I remember sitting on the porch with my best friend from our nursery days together, comforting each other when life handed us something bad. We did that off and on until she died two years ago. In short, these people who loved and accepted me, who give me fifteen cents worth of ice cream when I only had a dime, who told my momma on me when I misbehaved around them, who taught me in school and in Sunday school, these people are...us.
Yep, the bottom line is these people, and I’m hoping we all have some like these in our lives, these people are counting on us to continue to accept, support, encourage, teach and genuinely love those around us. When the “structures” of their past are gone, we will still be with them, angel memories in good time and dark times. Just like all those from my old neighborhood who still live in my head and heart even though wreck and ruin wiped out my neighborhood.
At least, that’s what I think.