Thursday, April 26 , 2018, 8:59 pm | Fair 56º


Paul Burri: Sewers and Stickball II

Childhood memories involve living life on the edge — and surviving, thank you very much

In a previous column, I wrote about growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., in an area of six-story apartment buildings and few playgrounds, and how important the streets and sewers were to us kids. The sewer covers that ran down the center of most streets were our stickball bases, the hockey goals and the touch football goal posts. I also wrote how important having a “spaldeen” (read a ball made by Spalding Co.) was to a stickball game. Usually one of us kids had one, but sometimes we ran low and that was time for a different kind of “sport.” It was called sewer fishing which, come to think about it, was the only kind of fishing we city kids ever did. At the corner of most blocks was a sewer that collected the rain water or the water from street cleaning when a convenient hydrant was opened. Each of these sewers was covered by a large round iron manhole cover. (Sorry, I still can’t get used to person-hole cover.)

Paul Burri
Paul Burri

So now it was time to go sewer fishing. This required an empty tin can, a nail, a rock, some string and a short stick. We would scrounge through the ever-present garbage cans until we found an empty can — the larger the better. Then we searched for a nail and a rock. That was to punch holes in the bottom of the can and two on the sides of the can. Then the string was tied to the two side holes. The stick was to pry up the heavy sewer cover and lay it off to the side. Then you would see three or four kids lying on their stomachs while one of them fished for the “spaldeens” that had rolled into the sewer and were now floating around down there. Usually each sewer would have at least one or two balls. Once a ball was retrieved in the can, the first thing we would do is test it. Some of them had a hole in it or were waterlogged and would not bounce. They were “dead” balls and were returned to the sewer. We “divvied up” the rest. Did we wash our hands before we played with them? Of course not. Did we worry about what germs there might be on them from being in the sewer? Of course not. Did we wind up with some terrible disease from doing that? Not that I can remember.

When we were through fishing, we would always think of some place to hide our fishing “equipment” so we could use it the next time. Trouble was, when we needed it again a month or so later, no one could remember where we had hidden it.

And speaking of germs and stuff like that — one of our favorite “toys” was to find an old thermometer so we could play with the mercury inside — rolling it around in our hands until we got bored with that. Not to mention later on scrounging for cigarette butts in the street for a few remaining puffs. Or the fun of breaking fluorescent tubes to see the powder inside fly around. Or sled riding down a snow-covered city street — at night right into whatever traffic might be coming. (No one ever worried about that and no one ever got killed doing that. At least as far as I can recall.)

I just don’t know how we survived.

— 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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