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Wednesday, January 23 , 2019, 12:34 am | Fair 41º


Paul Burri: Sewers and Stickball

Memories of childhood in the Bronx and days spent playing games in the street

Growing up in the Bronx borough of New York City, we played in the street a lot. By we I mean my immediate circle of seven friends that we called “the gang.” (I assure you that although we got into our share of mischief, the word “gang” doesn’t bear any resemblance to the gangs we are familiar with today.)

Paul Burri
Paul Burri

Our neighborhood was made up of six-story apartment houses, one right next to the other with an occasional empty lot or a small single-family house in between. Each apartment house had about 60 families, so it was a densely populated area.

Things such as playgrounds with swings, monkey bars or basketball courts were rare, distant and often locked. So we played most of our games in the streets. It wasn’t as dangerous as you might think because hardly anyone owned a car.

Every street corner had a sewer into which rain drained, and every sewer was covered with a round, heavy manhole cover. Down the center of most streets were other manhole covers spaced up to 150 yards apart. They served as markers for home and second base when we played stickball, and as the goal when we played rollerskate hockey or touch football. They were also a standard of measure. (I was a “three-sewer hitter” when we played stickball — a pretty high level of performance.)

For those who have never played stickball, the rules were simple. We scrounged around until we could find (or steal) an old broomstick, then looked for a “spaldeen” — a tennis ball without the fuzz made by Spalding (get it?). If we couldn’t find a “spaldeen,” we used an old tennis ball from which the fuzz was removed by rubbing it on the sidewalk for a few hours. Even better than a broomstick was the occasional clothes closet bar, which was somewhat thicker and made a highly prized stickball bat.

The captain of each team alternately selected players. The poorer players were picked last, and no one cared if their feelings were hurt.

We played in the street using one sewer cover as home base, first and third bases marked in chalk at the curb, and the next sewer as second base. Sometimes there was a car parked where first or third base was supposed to be. So, we just moved the game down to the next sewer, or made the car first base. Rules were flexible.

The stickball game ended when it was time to go in for dinner — announced by someone’s mother yelling down to her child from her fourth-story apartment window. Or when the police came around, confiscated the bat and dropped it into the sewer. We never understood why they had to do that. I guess there was some law against playing stickball in the street.

More about sewers and street games in another column.

— Paul Burri is an entrepreneur, inventor, columnist, engineer and iconoclast. He is not in the advertising business, but he is a small-business counselor with the Santa Barbara chapter of Counselors to America’s Small Business-SCORE. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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