Always in the Middle

I am not a middle child but the second of five. I don’t often take the middle ground unless it is to get someone else to compromise toward my way of thinking. I am middle aged, I guess, unless I live to 120, which is possible.

One thing I enjoyed being in the middle of was the streets I lived on as a kid. Between 1955 and ’59, home to me was Jackson Boulevard in the West Garfield Park Chicago neighborhood between Kostner on the right (or east) and Kilbourn, to the left or (west). Situated in the middle of the block gave me an opportunity to roam a little further every year with more confidence in each direction without adult supervision. The moment my feet touched the sidewalk of our block on a return trip from elsewhere I already felt as if I was on the stairs leading to our first floor apartment. The only time I crossed to the other side of the street- the north side- was with my parents when the car was parked there. I was too young to play with a ball on the sidewalk out front so there was not even a chance of me running out onto the roadway to grab an errant throw.

There was also a sense of being in the middle of the neighborhood. In my mind, it began four full blocks to the east at Pulaski (4000 west) and extended in the opposite direction to Cicero Avenue (4800 west). Living on the 4400 block gave a feeling of empowerment that as a family we could decide to traipse in either direction to the outer limits and return with the same amount of effort regardless of the path chosen.

The few times I recall heading in the westerly direction on foot was with Ma during the day when she would walk my older sister and me while pushing the baby buggy with sister number two in it to the Clark Playground about a block east of Cicero. It always seemed to be empty when we went and thereby gave us a sense of ownership, that we didn’t have to share it with strangers. It was a small fenced-in lot on cement ground right next to the elevated freight train tracks that acted as a natural barrier for the neighborhood. If I ventured further west under the viaduct of the tracks it was into uncharted territory at least for the time being.

The park had baby swings in which wooden safety bars were placed down in front to prevent one of us from falling out and down three feet to the ground. After my older sister and I were lifted into the swings, the obvious competition commenced to see who could swing the highest and seemingly reach the sky. Of course, it meant that Ma had to be on constant vigil to make sure she didn’t favor one of us over the other and let our movements die down.

There were also monkey bars on which we only went up just a little bit out of fear of heights that would take another couple of years to overcome. The teeter totter was the best piece of equipment because it gave each of us a chance to hold the other one up in the air and torture them until there was recognition of supremacy or yelling for Ma to take up the cause.

Now that I think about it, for three of those years, I was the kid in the middle until child number four showed up in July of 1958. Getting pushed a little higher up the chain of command didn’t change my personality. I was still the only boy in the mix in our pack and along with it came some perks. Luckily I was still too young to be the one kid to throw out the garbage. That would come later when we moved further west to Austin.

Austin was our next stop from 1959 until September 1968. We lived smack dab in the middle of Quincy Street in front of a red painted fire hydrant. In all nine or ten years, I never recalled seeing a fire engine stop on our block. A couple of times the hydrant was opened during the very hot days of summer by one of the neighbors who had an appropriate wrench. Kids used the illegal water flow as a makeshift spray source to help cool off from the stifling heat.

A fire engine did race down our block one time and stopped two buildings past the corner of Lotus on the next block east. A man had died in his apartment and been left there unnoticed for a couple of days until the stench got to be too much. Curious kids and adults milled around the ambulance that was summoned to take the body to the morgue. A fireman opened a window in the front porch and flies came drifting out of the apartment.

Most of the excursions by foot away from our two floor apartment building favored going west toward Central. It was around the corner to the right a half a block away at Adams that for four years I waited each school morning to get on the bus to take me to the Lake Street El. From there I would go downtown, switch to a northbound Howard El train and get off at Belmont. Each night I would make the same trip in reverse except when the mood favored taking an Outer Drive Express bus back downtown and from there upstairs to a waiting Lake Street elevated train west to the Central station in Austin.

Living in the middle of the block gave so many choices on what to do and with whom to do it. A few times I would walk east a couple of blocks up Quincy until Laramie and then head a couple more blocks south until Gladys where a good friend lived. Perry, my best friend, and his year older brother lived four houses west of mine. Arnold was across the street one house down. In the early years, two doors east of Arnold there was Jimmy Sullivan, the great Irish kid who although a Sox fan, taught me whiffle ball using a plastic ball and bat. We daringly played it in front of our houses using my sidewalk as home plate. Several majestic shots touched windows across the street on his building and the one next door. Luckily plastic balls with holes in them didn’t do too much damage. In those same early years, Harry, the Greek kid, lived four doors to the east on my side of the street. We seemed to never play outdoors but rather inside in his or my apartment. And it was usually a board game such as The Game of Life or Go to the Head of the Class. And there was easy-going Ralph who lived in a multi-unit building on Central.

We all went to different schools, celebrated different religious holidays and our parents spoke alien languages to their parents but somehow we all got along and played together. Differences of opinion didn’t last long. We always eventually made up. When it got down to it, our parents knew that we all meant well and they all wanted us to have a happy childhood knowing that there would be plenty of time later to grow up and face the inequities of life.

Looking back it is easier to think that we were better off in earlier times. This is only because what we know, we don’t fear. The future is filled with that which we don’t yet surmise what will happen but somehow we always end up in the middle of it.

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