Saturday, June 26, 2010

Girls in the 'Hood

Girls in my hood at a recent sleepover

I was covered in goosebumps the other evening while watching my youngest daughter and her friend -- all they did was walk across the street to retrieve the friend's bike, yet I felt almost physically propelled back to El Paso, Texas. Through the wonders of Facebook, I am in touch with my best friend from childhood. "I remember how I felt at home at your house with your mom always feeding us and how she would shuffle her feet on the carpet and then shock us with her fingernails and laugh," read part of my note to her, adding how blessed my children are to have friends right across the street.

What I didn't say is that watching the girls that evening gave me such joy that it was almost a pang, which I've felt for the past year as I watch the girls playing: everything from weddings to flower sales take place.

They hang out, they bike to the neighborhood pool together, they build elaborate tents and houses in the front yard.

They fly kites and talk endlessly. It's hard to tear my eyes away sometimes, especially after living so long without any neighbors.

El Paso in the late 50s and early 60s was where I discovered friendship and found my kindred spirit, Jana, who lived across the street. I can't remember my address from a year ago, but 108 Manor Place, phone number PR8-1490 is fixed in my mind, along with, for some inexplicable reason, my dad's army serial number. Manor Place was where Jana and I discovered Elvis (and later, the Beatles) together, bopping and whirling in our too-cool-for-school white go-go boots. We couldn't get enough of him in GI Blues.

"I've got those hup, two, three, four
occupation G.I. Blues
From my G.I. hair to the heels of my G.I. shoes
And if I don't go stateside soon
I'm gonna blow my fuse"

We rode our bikes all around the neighborhood and to and from Cedar Grove Elementary. I'd briefly check in after school; my mother said I would yell "Mom" and as soon as I knew she was there, I'd head out to skate, ride bikes, play fort, make endless cups of tea from honeysuckle and climb trees, our favorite being one in our yard that provided plenty of camouflage from which to launch water balloons or chats, depending on who was passing below. Occasionally, we were allowed to ride the bus downtown -- by ourselves!!!!! -- to see a movie, where at least one of my sisters worked the concession stand. I think we saw either Mary Poppins or The Sound of Music, but my fans know that my memory is as sharp as my kneecap.

Not Let Anybody See Me was our favorite indoor game, consisting of us creeping around the house while spying on people or the dog. My mom used to joke that our skulking about behind the furniture, often in plain sight, sometimes gave her the willies. Our favorite place to spy was my sisters' bedroom, where we would cram ourselves into the small closet and thrill to their glamorous talk. What they spoke of didn't matter as much as being covert, training for when we grew up and became spies.

Sleepovers were spontaneous, ordinary and yet sweetly scented with possibilities: a movie agent might see us dancing through the picture window and insist we star in Elvis' next movie, or implore us to sing backup for the Beatles. While we waited for stardom, we'd spend the evening discussing things like why the man right across the street from my house made his children lie under their beds for punishment, and what might be wrong with that guy who paced the sidewalk in front of his house, sternly lecturing his shrubs while gesturing wildly. Don't even get me started about another neighbor, Margot - I'd never heard that name - who would ask my sisters to watch her dog and insist that they wipe the dog's bum after he did his business. And who repeatedly advised them to bleach the crotches of their skivvies.

Two sleepovers stand out in my mind. The heat was almost unbearable one night-- this probably happened at my house since dad was reluctant to turn on the AC unless we literally burst into flames and set the furniture on fire. Unable to sleep and too tired to talk, we decided to sleep in the bathtub in cool water, which of course quickly presented its own problems. Our next solution was to sprinkle the sheets with cold water -- don't try either of these at home. We spent an endless, miserable night on damp, sticky sheets. Another night we stood on the edge of the tub to check whether our armpit hair was coming in -- another common event -- but this time we decided that we'd swing from the curtain rod while checking -- again, don't try this at home.

My sister Barbie, forever generous, would often give us 50 cents APIECE, a fortune. We'd walk to the end of the street, where we could buy tons of candy at the store, or more often, two or three tacos at the taco stand. (If I gave my kids 50 cents and told them to go enjoy themselves, they'd stare at me as if I had just placed a steaming horse turd in their hands, but hey, try buying even one taco with 50 cents today.)

The girls don't roam the neighborhood freely as Jana and I did, and they carry cell phones so we can keep in close touch: call when you get to the pool, call when you get to the park, call when you head home. I watched them retrieve the bike the other night because it was dark and even though it's a 60-second walk, I parent in an age where we do such things; our mothers would find our actions absurd. Which I felt, along with feeling a bit like a stalker as I peeked out the window, back to playing Not Let Anybody See Me. I watch them surreptitiously because I don't want them to think danger lurks in the very air they breathe. (I blame the liberal elite privileged press: those pusillanimous pussyfooting nattering nabobs of negativism bring horror stories into our homes every night.)

I sent Jana another note, reminiscing about a few things, to which she replied: "What a great memory! I read all this to my Mother and it made her so happy. I remember our childhood with great fondness. We were so free to roam. The back field was a great playground. I'm sorry to hear about your parents. Your Mom was always so happy and fun. I loved spying on your sisters, they always seemed so COOL! Especially Barbie. They were fun, and always going off to Disneyland to work and be surfer girls. They could dance and have wonderful parties and I wanted to be like them!! I also remember your dog-Fritzen Hammer Jonathan Walter Toone!!! I told my kids that story often, they love it!!! We are big dog lovers. I also used your name when I didn't want to tell a guy my real name!!! lol!!!"

That's okay, Jana -- I still use your name.

Blog Title Courtesy of the Sisters of Satisfaction, from their song of the same name. The sisters are indeed girls in the hood, as they live a stone's throw away from each other in PA.

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