Memory Sketch #20
Thursday, July 26, 2001
© LEONARD B. KLEIN
Between the apartment houses on the block, was a wooden barn-like structure. From a kid’s point of view, it was quite large. It had a front door facing the street, which was always locked. On one side, fenced in, was a drive-in area where trucks could pull up next to large sliding doors. My memory says it was on Bristol Street, in the middle of the block on which we lived, but it may have been around the corner on Chester Street. Map
We kids found several openings in the structure, which we helped enlarge, and through which we gained entrance into a half dark world of slits of daylight from between the wall boards, and the light of a few small windows. It was like a huge gym in there, with plenty of beams and struts to climb on, and lots of soft bales of remnant cloths to jump onto. After school, there were kids from all over the block climbing, scaling, jumping, and just sitting fearlessly on the highest beams.
We had been playing in there very often and never saw anyone else come in except the kids, so we got to feel pretty comfortable and safe being inside. One day, my mother insisted that I take my little brother with me when I went out to play, so I took Arnie into the warehouse. He was too small to do any high climbing, but he managed to climb up one of the bales that we had knocked over. I kept an eye on him as I clambered above on the rafters with the other big kids. He looked so small down there, alone on the ground level.
Suddenly, there was a peculiar, cascading silence, followed by the staccato of the word, passing like a wind touching every kid, whether up high or low. The Man! The Man is coming! The front door was open and in the doorway, with the daylight at his back, stood the Man. The kids ran every which way as they scrambled for the openings which would allow them to escape. Hearts were beating in high gear all over the place and the sounds of shrieks and movement filled the warehouse. The Man, having entered the place, was roaring something really scary. The dim lit space was alive with sound. I turned to get to an escape opening, when I realized that my brother was down there, on the ground. He had just slid off a bale when the man grabbed him by his arm. Terrified, he tried to pull away, but could not do it, and I felt so bad for having taken him into the warehouse. There was nothing he could do but cry, so his wailing was added to the warehouse sounds. I realized that with Arnie caught, I was caught too because I couldn’t leave him. I climbed down to where the man stood holding onto him, and said, “He’s my brother,” as some kind of explanation for our being there. The Man roared something that sounded like we shouldn’t be there. I didn’t know for sure what he had said and what was going to happen. I felt like crying myself, but I held it back. After all, I was the big brother. Everyone was gone now, fled the scene successfully, while my brother and I were prisoners of the Man. He looked down upon us, one already crying and the other about to. “I don’t want you kids playing in here,” he said in more normal tones, “You could get hurt, and besides this is a place of business and not for kids.” I had never thought of the warehouse as a place of business. It was a place of soft bales of rags for running and jumping around and a cushion to land on when we leaped from the rafters. What business could there be in rags? Evidently, he could see in my face my struggle to understand the concept of business when it came to rags. He said, “I know the remnants just look like rags to you, but we deal in them. We sell those bales to people who need rags for their own businesses.” As he spoke, he was leading us out of the warehouse. At the door he said, “Go on home. I don’t want to catch you here again.” Then he said, “It’s good thing for brothers to stick together, but not in here.”
With that we left the warehouse for the last time, and the trembling that had started with the man’s appearance, gradually gave up it’s hold on us. I was thinking that we had a very narrow escape. We could have been sent to jail or something. We got away lucky. Then, as we walked home, we began to wonder whether Mom would know about what had happened. When we got home, we watched Mom carefully for signs of knowing, but she seemed quite usual in what she was doing. “We’ll eat as soon as Daddy gets home,” she said, so we played quietly waiting for him. “Do you think Daddy knows?” Arnie whispered to me. “Maybe he knows the man and he told all about us.” Arnie said. I thought it was possible, because Dad knew many men in the neighborhood that we didn’t know about. This new threat began to make us tremble again, and the waiting for him seemed so very long, endlessly long.
At last, Dad came in, his clothes having that interesting work-smell that in my mind had become the scent of the plumber. In each shirt pocket, sticking out so we could see it, was a Hershey chocolate bar. We ran to him, and with a hug we grabbed the candy bars. “Don’t eat them until after supper,” he said, as he stripped off his work shirts, there usually being more than one. Sometimes he wore three shirts to work. His shirts off, at the kitchen sink he began to wash up using Grease Solvent cleanser which was like soapy sand in a yellow can. He kept it on the fire escape just outside the kitchen window. The Solvent was vigorously rubbed on to grind the black from his hands. We watched him do everything. When he was done, his hands still were discolored, but they were as clean as they were going to get. Dinner was on the kitchen table and we all sat down to eat; Linda was in her high chair, all round-faced with curly blond hair, looking at each of us. She had already been fed, but Mom gave her something to chew on while we ate. That high chair was originally mine, then Arnie used it, and now it was Linda’s. I don’t think we got it new to begin with, so we didn’t know how much of a history it really had. It was a brown wooden chair that was convertible; it had hinges in the middle of its front legs. The bottom of the chair, the legs and the wooden shelf that was close to the floor, could be rearranged so that the shelf came up to the front of the baby seat and became a play table. To do that you first had to remove the eating tray. It was neat the way it folded one way and then another, but after the novelty had worn off we seldom used that feature. It was just too much trouble.
After dinner, while Mom was doing the dishes – she usually sang while she did them and filled the kitchen, already warm from the cooking, with melodic warm sounds as well – Dad, sitting at the table in his undershirt, lit up a Camels cigarette. In those days, both Mom and Dad smoked, and Dad was always collecting the coupons that came with each pack of Camels. There was a booklet he had that showed all the different kinds of appliances one could get by accumulating a large number of coupons. As he sat back on the kitchen chair, he looked at us and smiled. “Don’t you boys go back to the warehouse. No more.” We said ok, and that was that.