Summer, for NYC kids in a certain era, meant a kind of freedom little known of today. If you were old enough, you basically went outside and stayed outside until you heard the bells of Most Holy Redeemer mark 6 p.m. An adult would open the Johnny Pump (fire hydrants to you transplants), and Marty or Yocki — one of the big boys — would use a tomato juice can with holes punched in it to control the flow of water while the smaller kids would run and jump in the spray. There was a huge pool nearby, true, but it was off limits because the local nickname for the Pitt Street Pool was the “Polio Pool.” It was actually thought safer to run in and out of traffic on Avenue B instead.
The summer before my first grade, I was looking forward to my mom taking me to Tompkins Square Park to get on the swings, but she had other plans. She worked in the cafeterias in summer session schools around the neighborhood. I was pretty tiny, and the first time out I thought it would be a great idea to put myself in one of those industrial-size mixers so I could spin around and around. After that, she realized I was small enough to clean the hard-to-reach places but was still big enough to fold napkins, so she actually put to me to work. It’s very odd to go to performances at PS 122 and tell them I worked in the cafeteria.
One morning, she told me we were going to a “600 school.”
“Are there 600 kids there?” I asked.
That seemed like an awful lot of kids for my mom to cook for. I’d be folding napkins until I was in high school.
I was too young to know what phrases like “emotionally disturbed” or “socially maladjusted” meant, so Mom said, “It’s a school for kids who get in too much trouble to be in a regular school. If they don’t behave, that’s where they go.” She made it sound like it was a jail for kids, and when we got there I saw metal mesh on the windows outside. We got settled in and soon I was in the kitchen playing with the forks and spoons when one of the students, a young teenage girl, stopped by to chat with my mom and the other lunch ladies. Her mom worked in a lunchroom, too.
I had never seen anyone like her. Her name was Denise, and she had smooth black hair in a pageboy with a little bow on top, big brown eyes, and she wore a kind of jumper and sneakers with the whitest ankle socks I’d ever seen. She looked at me and smiled and asked my mom if I was her daughter. My mom said to say hello. “She’s shy,” Mom explained.
Denise reached her hand down to me and I took it, unquestioningly. It was unlike any other hand that had reached down to mine before – so dark on one side, so pink on the other…like the inside of a sea shell. She had a gold bracelet, which I thought was very glamorous. I didn’t know the word for that. I just told her it was pretty, and she smiled at me…and said thanks…and come along…and I’ll show you a game.
She took me upstairs to the roof. I didn’t see hopscotch squares, or skelly squares, but Denise said, “this is a different kind of game.” She spent what seemed like hours trying to teach me a game with a basketball. You bounced it against the wall and when it bounced back you had to jump over it. I couldn’t get the hang of it — the ball wouldn’t bounce right, or I couldn’t jump high enough, or the ball got away from me. She kept at it, encouraging me to try again, and you almost had it that time, and let me show you how. I didn’t feel so great that I couldn’t learn her game when she was so nice, but I loved hearing her bracelet jingle every time she tossed the ball. I wished I had a jingly bracelet, too. She grinned when I told her that I liked the noise it made.
When the time was up, Denise reached down her hand again and smiled and said it was time to go. We went downstairs to the kitchen and she delivered me to my mom.
“How was she?” my mom asked.
“She did great,” Denise said, and bent down to give me a hug. When she left, she turned around to wave goodbye and I waved back. She waved all the way down the hallway so I could hear her bracelet jingling as she walked away.
There were other summers, a few years later, that were long, and hot, and ugly, but Denise is the summer in the City I remember best.