Tuesday, May 1, 2012
VACANT LOTS & ALLEYS GALORE
This picture, dated about 1939, shows me on the right, enjoying a tea party with two little neighbor boys. We are sitting on the vacant lot edge of the walkway that ran alongside our apartment building on Henderson Avenue in Long Beach, California. It was in this very vacant lot that I began my exploration of, and later my love of, vacant lots.
In those days children made their own fun. We might have owned a tricycle and a doll, but for the most part we didn't depend on our inside toys to keep us occupied. We explored our neighborhoods, and in those days before the idea of tracts of homes became the norm our neighborhoods included apartments, houses, alleys, gutters, roads - sometimes paved and sometimes not - and vacant lots. If a house was being built, we waited until the workmen went home for the day and then we raced over to the framing and looked for what we called "money" - the little round slugs that were punched out of the electrical boxes.
When the ice man pulled up in front of our apartment and hefted a big block of ice on his shoulder to take to a neighbor, we ran to the back of his truck to see if we could reach any of the ice slivers that had splintered off the ice when he used his ice pick to get the right size block.
Because there was always a vacant lot somewhere handy, my sis and I learned quickly what we could eat and what we couldn't. In this vacant lot on Henderson, we learned about dill weed, that it was good to eat. Not a handful, but just enough to chew on and carry around in a pocket for a bite later on. And of course we knew about sourgrass, and sometimes didn't even have to go to a vacant lot for it. It would grow up against the house and could get very big.
Mother was always cautioning us about eating so many things, and she strongly urged us not to eat sourgrass, saying that dogs and cats urinated on it. So we didn't eat it in her presence, but we sure enough did when she wasn't around, cats and dogs notwithstanding.
Later when we moved to Stanley Avenue we lost a vacant lot but gained an alley that had treasures of its own. Acutally, our block had two alleys on it, making a "T". The cross of the T went by the side of our house, and backing up to that short alley was a fence of Eugenia bushes. And they were full of berries. All the kids in the neighborhood knew that those berries were deliciously sweet/sour. We also were told that the berry seeds were poisonous, so we always spit those out. But we never passed up a good Eugenia bush.
There was no fooling mother about not eating these, although she tried to keep us from those too. We often went home with a bright redish-purple stain on our tongue.
Our favorite, though, was the huge honeysuckle bush that was at the far end of the long alley that made the body of the "T". We would stand for hours in front of the honeysuckle bush and pick the flowers, one by one pulling the little stamen down through the base so we could put the drop of "honey" on our tongue and savor its sweetness. We always took a handful of those to mother, because she had told us the story of how, when her grandma died, her own mother had sat on the front porch crying and my mother and her sisters picked honeysuckle blossoms and tucked them in their own mom's hair, thinking in their childish way this would make her feel better. For us, our mother and honeysuckles were eternally partnered, and we always saw to it that mother got every bit as many as we did from our jaunts down the alley.
When I turned 10 and my sister 8, we moved to Gardenia Avenue in Long Beach and for a long time, until my father built a triplex on it, we had a vacant lot next door to our house. My sis and I were pretty much beyond the plant-eating stage then, although we did have a Eugenia bush beside our house in case on occasion we wanted a taste for old times' sake.
We mostly used the vacant lot for building forts. Why two girls would want to build forts is beyond me, but that's what we did. This usually happened around Christmas time when the ground would be wet from the rains and the dirt could be dug into very easily. We used the old discarded Christmas trees to place around the fort, and mostly then we'd have dirt-clod fights with the Cardenas boys, Eddie and Louie, who lived across the street. We would pull up big handfuls of grass, with the damp dirt clods hanging on them, and lob them at the boys. They likewise pulled and lobbed from their unprotected position out near the street. We wouldn't let them build a fort of their own, because we knew they would win if they did.
But before we knew it, we were looking at boys differently, and I suspect it was finally when my father brought the workmen in to build the triplex that my sister and I gave up the grass-eating, clod-flinging period of our life and moved on to our teenage years.
Were we unusual kids? No, because we were only doing what all the other kids of that day did. We made our own fun. We were outside a lot of the time. Life was safer then, and we came home when we heard our mother on the front porch calling our names....."BARBARA, GINNIE LOU, DINNER TIME!"
The family sit-coms had it right. Life was very much like it was portrayed when TV was in its infancy. In reality, life probably wasn't so saccharin sweet, but the depiction is accurate enough that we "of an age" can certainly identify with it.