I travel the streets and sidewalks of my youth accompanied by ghosts. They wave from windows of the buildings where my friends once lived; they hover where those shops are supposed to be but no longer are; they walk beside me as I take the shortcut behind a row of townhomes. We knew all the shortcuts: trespassing across lawns and through the lower passageways of apartment buildings where coal was delivered to the furnace rooms. The janitors lived just off these passages; if they caught us, they’d yell at us to keep out as we ran away. Our Keds and PF Flyers gave us winged feet. Adrenaline and pop fueled us. Park fences were meant to be scaled, signs that the playground was meant for little kids were to be ignored. Walls were for walking along, toe to heel, practicing our tightrope techniques. The tunnel that led under the Outer Drive to the lakefront was for yells and echoes and when we emerged, the grassy Point was heaven accompanied by bongo drums. We jumped into the lake fully clothed, then stretched out on the warm concrete to dry off.
Here is the corner where Carl gave me my first job, selling papers from his green wooden newsstand while he ate lunch inside Steinway’s drugstore. He paid me a penny per minute from a stash of coins kept in a muffin tin. I was strictly forbidden from touching the kerosene heater, and if he hadn’t fired it up first, I shivered on cold Saturday afternoons.
Wandering down 55th Street, I want to enter certain homes again—Lisa’s, Patrice’s—so we can spend the night together, listening to records, talking about boys, dreaming of the day we would be able to leave. In Madison Park, I long to visit Nadia, Edie, Adelaide. The little hill where we sledded has shrunk to a mere bump. Here was a vacant lot, home to rabbits and bobwhites. Its weedy surface is crushed beneath brick houses.
On 53rd, I worked at a drug store that has vanished and yet I can still see its windows full of posters advertising Dippity-Do and cough syrup. The Ace hardware store a few doors away where my boyfriend worked has been replaced by a CVS. Once, Earl showed me how to cut glass, etching a straight line with a diamond-edged tool and then snapping the pane in two. It seemed miraculous that his hand could be that steady and that nothing broke the wrong way.
We played crack-the-whip in the park next door to the Eagle, screaming as only young teenagers can. The Eagle is long gone now, along with record stores, head shops, and all the dive bars. And in the spots that remain, I see the memories of us: rowdy kids who insisted that we owned this neighborhood, not the grownups, not the cars, not the cops.
There’s an apartment where we bought pot (and there, and there…) and a basement where a redheaded kid lived with his mother who turned tricks. His bed was on a sheet of plywood placed over the bathtub so that when she had a guest, he could close the door and pretend that he had a room to himself. We used to crowd in there, six or eight of us, keeping him company too. Here’s the church that held a coffeehouse in the basement where I learned to play chess, and another where I first danced with women and discovered that joy. The alley where I was hit by a car as a very young child (the driver’s distraught face seared in my memory more than my own pain), another alley I dashed through to get to school—so close that I could leave my house with only five minutes to spare. It’s a gated space now, for residents only.
But ghosts can slip through the spaces between iron bars and memories are shape-shifters that cannot be contained. I walk these strange familiar sidewalks with my old friends and dreams.