Memory Sketch #17
Friday, June 29, 2001
© LEONARD B. KLEIN
Between 180 Chester Street, where I lived, and the corner building, in which Irwin and Leo Goodman lived, was an empty lot. To us kids it was a fascinating and mysterious section of ground that fairly pleaded with us to enter upon it and scrounge the area. The lot always seemed to hold great promise for unusual discovery: perhaps hidden beneath the tangle of plant life, just under the ground, were Indian arrowheads, or musket balls, or something prehistoric even. What we actually found were some old keys, a marble or two, and some spent rifle shell casings. Oh yes, I found several Chinese coins with a square hole in the center of each one. The word was that the Chinese carried those coins on a length of reed, or perhaps a string, which they kept in a pouch hidden beneath a shirt or tied to the rope belt they wore. But why were the holes square? I never found out.
The lot contained some regular residents that we used to play with. They were a family group of cats and kittens, cute and playful, and full of life. We became very concerned with their well being, especially whether they had enough food and adequate shelter. Whenever we brought them food they always seemed hungry; I used to go to the butcher shop across Sutter Avenue and get some of the meats that customers would not buy. At that time people were already buying beef liver to eat, whereas a few years before it had been given away free as pet food. I was able to get some milts, which was the pancreas, and some Hertz, heart meat, to feed to the cats. Hertz and milts, not too long afterward became saleable, so I could no longer get them free. That left our food contribution at only milk, which we used to buy.
It seemed to us that the cats needed to have a protection against the rain, a sort of rain-house, so that they wouldn’t get wet in bad weather. We set about collecting materials to build a rain shelter. Buzzy and I scrounged up several milk boxes, which were the heavy duty, wood and metal cases used to prevent breakage of milk bottles during delivery to grocery stores. We placed the boxes in a rectangular pattern, with the openings toward the inside area, and entrances to the inside between the boxes. We covered them with a rectangular metal store sign that someone had tossed over the fence, instead of taking it to the dump. Once we had the roof over the milk crates, it appeared to be a proper home for our little friends, and we called it the Cat House.
Everyone we told about our Cat House laughed at us, and our eleven year old minds figured that they knew something about cat behavior that we did not. Perhaps they never believed that the pussies of the yard would actually make use of the Cat House. Well, that actually turned out to be the case. The cats, neither big nor small, would inhabit our lovingly constructed Cat House, even when we placed bowls of milk on the inside. Now, we had always heard that one could attract lots of pussy with a bowl of milk, but that time it just didn’t work. The Cat House was a flop.
Of all my friends, I was the only one who paid dearly for my persistent love of pussy cats. I had a sickening allergic reaction to pussy fur that hit me every time: my eyes would redden and itch, and to my great frustration, my nose would run relentlessly often accompanied by repeated sneezing and light headedness. At night, doing my homework, I couldn’t even think straight, but I refused to accept that it was all due to my reaction to the cats. All too often, I was also beset by sore throats and infected sinuses. With such reactions, my always practical friend, Leo Gersh used to say, “Why are you doing this to yourself? The cats are only cats. Leave them alone.” You would think, given the obvious logic of Leo’s advice, I would have stayed away, but no, no, I was drawn to pussy cats like the proverbial moth goes to the flame. But, even if I were to try to stay away from the cats on the lot, I still had to contend with the cat in the Grocery store, to which I had to go several times a week. There really was no getting away from them. To make things worse for me, I also had to watch Irwin and Leo enjoyably play with the cats on the lot, and Buzzy play with the two cats in his back yard. They did it without suffering; I was the only one with the allergies. It wasn’t fair, and so what. That’s the way it was.
One day we discovered two Police Department traffic sign posts in the lot. These were the free standing, moveable signs that had a heavy iron base, a center iron pipe, and a traffic sign attached to the pipe. The worded signs themselves were nowhere to found, but we went to work on what we had, and before you know it, Buzzy had unscrewed one base and by attaching it to the top of the other pipe already on a base, we created an impressive looking barbell. We took turns exercising with it, and trying out different lifts. To protect our newly created barbell we relocated it to Buzzy’s basement where we were able to weigh it using a hand held laundry scale. It came to eighty-six pounds, our first piece of weightlifting equipment. Gradually, I began to spend more time exercising and practicing handstands on the curb in front of the house, so that my exposure to the pussy cats was reduced after all.
The lot could be entered through my building’s back yard or through Irwin’s building, but when we got to be big enough, with a good pair of sneakers on, we could run across Chester Street and leap up the fence, grabbing the top of it, and over we went. It was a wonderful feeling to be able to do that, to have the kind of body control that made it possible. The Chester Street fence also served as our local handball court when we were reluctant to go to the park. We played out into the street with one eye always looking for the cars coming down the block.
Since Irwin and Leo Goodman lived on the third floor of the building on the other side of the lot, we decided to string a telephone wire over the lot, and with the aid of some old telephones and some dry cell batteries, we hooked up a phone system between us. It was crude, but it worked. The only thing was, when one handset was lifted the other phone rang continuously until that handset was picked up or the first handset replaced. Our parents really hated the ringing, especially when no one was home to pick up the phone. A few years later, when construction started on the lot to build a post office there, the crew chief had to find us to get permission to remove the wire we had strung, believing it was an official telephone company line. That was how we lost our personal telephone connection, and the lot too, and gone were the pussies.