kids

Seven blocks of pure freedom

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As published in the Providence Journal, September 17, 2017.

Three brown-bag lunches sit on the kitchen counter, each one branded with my mother’s handwriting. My older brother, Rob, will take his to La Salle Academy where he is a freshman, while my younger brother, James, and I will carry ours to Robert F. Kennedy School. James is in first grade, I’m in sixth.

“Johhh-neee!”

It’s Chris, my best friend, calling from the driveway on the side of our house. James and I jump up from the kitchen table.

“Don’t forget your lunches!” my mother says, stubbing out a Tareyton cigarette. A talk-show host chatters on the radio atop the refrigerator, but it’s Mom’s voice that registers with me. “Keep an eye on your brother,” she says in a tone that guarantees compliance. “I’ll be back from work when you guys get home.”

James and I bound into the crisp September air and start up River Avenue with Chris. We love walking to school. There are no parents, no teachers – just seven blocks of freedom along the tree-lined streets of Elmhurst.

“Want a Starburst?” Chris asks. My friend is easygoing, and mischievous in ways I envy. He’s also nice to James. My brother and I grab the soft candy chews from him and, in seconds, eradicate any good we might have done with our toothbrushes earlier that morning.

At Moorland Avenue, sharp barks turn our heads. It’s Killer, our name for the menacing German shepherd safely penned in the backyard of the Cape on the corner of Moorland and Rankin Avenue. Even though we are almost a block away, Killer ­is on his hind legs, pawing the air and barking at us ferociously. The heavy chain that tethers him to a clothesline pole is taut.

“I have dreams about that dog,” Chris says. “Bad dreams.”

Killer’s barking fades behind traffic noise as we continue up River Avenue. We check the English yew in front of a shingled double-decker. The previous fall, Chris planted an orange Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup wrapper deep in its branches.

“Still there,” he says with satisfaction. All is right with our world.

We reach Smith Street and have to wait for the stoplight to change. It’s a tricky three-way intersection, with Wabun Avenue complicating the automobile-and-pedestrian ballet. Years earlier, as a second grader, my brother Rob had run into the side of a moving station wagon here. When I asked him what happened next, he said the car kept going and so did he.

“I was late for school,” he said. “And I didn’t want Mom to find out.”

Chris, James, and I, safely through the Smith Street piece of the intersection, pop into Haskins Pharmacy. I dig three pennies from my pocket and slide them into the red gumball machine.

Back outside, we have to wait for the stoplight to change again, this time to get across River Avenue. Charlie, an old, one-eyed beagle, joins us on the corner. He belongs to Mr. Siravo, the fruit peddler who lives near Haskins. Charlie comes and goes as he pleases; his ability to navigate city traffic is a marvel to us.

“Hi, Charlie,” James says, and the graying dog gives my brother a sweet, one-eyed look, his tail wagging.

The light changes and Chris, James, and I cross, with Charlie in step. At Nelson Street playground, half a block from school, the three of us jump on the swings and swoop and soar until we can go no higher.

Riiinnngg! The first bell sounds. We run from the playground to the schoolyard. There’s still time for a race or two – down to the chain link fence and back. Go!

Riinng-riinng! It’s the final bell. Teachers appear, lines form, shoulders slump. Chris and James fall in with their classmates, I with mine.

In Miss MacDonald’s classroom, I see the day’s schedule written on the blackboard. One word stands out, like a gold star on a spelling paper: dismissal. It can’t come fast enough.

Seven blocks of freedom await us on the walk home.

What I wanted to be when I grew up

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, May 21, 2017.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 1.9 million students in the United States will graduate from college this year. By now, a certain question is as familiar to most of them as the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance”:

“So what are you going to do?”

Answers inevitably range from the vague to the speculative to the definitive. In my case, decades ago, it was a mash-up of all three.

After receiving my degree from Brown, I vaguely talked about getting a job as a writer. I speculated there might be an opportunity at the ad agency where I had done an internship. As for immediate employment, I was definitive: I would continue to bus tables at the Turks Head Club downtown.

Sixteen years earlier, Miss Carlone, my kindergarten teacher at Nelson Street School in Providence, had posed a similar question to my classmates and me: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

With her soft, fleshy arms and sweet voice, Miss Carlone reminded me of Mama, my beloved grandmother who lived upstairs from my family and sometimes took care of me. In September, my teacher’s maternal warmth had made my first-day-of-school jitters melt away.

Several hands shot in the air in response to Miss Carlone’s question. One kid said he wanted to be a fireman. Another was going to be a football player. A girl announced she’d like to become a teacher, which brought an approving nod from Miss Carlone.

And then it was my turn.

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a bachelor,” I declared.

My classmates looked puzzled, and so did Miss Carlone – for a moment. Then she threw back her head and howled. Now I was puzzled. What was so funny?

“Tell us what a bachelor is, John,” Miss Carlone said kindly as she slid a finger beneath one of her moistened eyes.

That was easy – I just told everyone about my uncle. He lived with my other grandmother and had the upstairs of Nana’s bungalow all to himself. Once he set up two TVs in the living room so he could watch two basketball games at the same time. He sat back in his big leather recliner, eating peanuts and following the scores, until he fell asleep. What a life!

Most of my classmates continued to stare blankly at me while Miss Carlone fished a tissue out of the sleeve of her dress.

At dismissal time, Miss Durgan, the principal, appeared in our classroom door – usually a sign that something was wrong. But Miss Carlone simply asked me to reveal my life’s ambition again, after which the two educators laughed with abandon, like my aunts at a family party. I was still puzzled, but at least I wasn’t in trouble.

The following year, apparently, my career plans evolved. Thanks to my mother, a lined yellow paper of mine from first grade still survives. Titled “My Wish,” it reads: “If I had one wish, I would want to be a writer. And I would write stories for all the children.” There is no mention of my marital intentions.

My wish came true – sort of. Three months after graduating from Brown, I indeed landed a copywriting job at the ad agency where I had interned. I would eventually meet my wife there, too.

But at the Brown commencement in 1982, my future was as unclear as the dreary Providence weather that first Monday in June. The only thing I knew for sure was I now had an English degree.

Miss Carlone would have been amused to know it was a bachelor’s degree.

My debut on NPR: “The Fence”

Click here to listen!

NPR

What My Parents Didn’t Know Didn’t Hurt Them

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But what about my brother and me?

With summer nearing, there was work to be done at the gray beach house – grass to mow, hedges to trim, walls to paint. My parents gave my older brother Rob and me our chores one bright Saturday morning – clipping the edges of the lawn and sweeping the porch. But tedium soon gave way to goofing around – Rob was eight years old and I was five – and we were relieved of our duties.

“Go play – just don’t get into any trouble!”

The gray house was bounded out back by a stone wall. Woods stood beyond. “C’mon!” my brother said. The two of us climbed over the wall and Rob beelined for the first flat rock. When he flipped it over, two snakes squiggled away. Rob grabbed one right behind its head and thrust it in my face. “Aren’t they cool?” he said.

Bullfrogs croaked from a nearby swamp. Rob tiptoed toward the muck, motioning me to stay put. He squatted at the water’s edge, frog-like and frozen. Then, with a start and a splash, he snared his prey, mid-leap. The capture was temporary. Rob loved anything with four legs or wings or fins or fur or, in this case, webbed feet. He returned the frog to the edge of the swamp.

We found some old boards and plywood half-buried in leaves and dirt – perfect for building a tree fort, my brother said. I ran to the shed to get a hammer and some nails. When I returned, we hoisted the boards and plywood twelve or so feet up a tree and laid them across two forking limbs. Rob started hammering, and soon we needed more nails. I climbed down the tree to run back to the shed, but I didn’t get very far. Just as Rob’s shout registered in my brain – “WATCH OUT!” – the plummeting hammer conked me on the head – “OW!OW!OW!” – and I was belly to the dirt like one of those snakes my brother loved.

Now Rob was on the ground and in my ear: “DON’TCRYDON’TCRY DON’TCRY! Mom and Dad will kill us!” I fought back tears and rubbed my head – no blood, just an emerging egg.

Rob grabbed the hammer and climbed back up the tree as I blinked to my senses. His pounding echoed in the morning air – until I heard wood cracking and branches snapping. I looked up. The plywood had given way and Rob was backwards-somersaulting to the ground.

WHOOMMPPP! Rob lay on his back in a clump. Now it was me in his ear: “DON’TCRYDON’TCRYDON’TCRY! Mom and Dad will kill us!”

It was a close call – Rob had missed a big jagged rock by a few inches. When he got his breath back, we decided to leave the woods, before we could inflict further harm on ourselves.

My mom saw us trudging back to the gray house. “What have you guys been up to?”

“Nothing,” Rob said.

It wasn’t exactly a lie; more like an omission of details… OK, call it passive lying, the kind practiced by generations of kids before us, and certain to be practiced by generations to come. If Mom and Dad ever knew…

I felt the bump hidden beneath my hair. Rob rubbed his ribs. As our mom turned away, we shared a conspiratorial smile.

On Fences And Letting Go

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Good fences make good neighbors. Those words from Mending Wall by Robert Frost came to me seventeen years ago when we had a fence put up around the perimeter of our backyard at 112 Peirce Street. But the fence was less about neighbors and more about children. We had two young boys, and a third child was on the way. We needed to make sure the kids didn’t wander down to Main Street when they went out back. Good fences make good barricades.

Putting up the fence wasn’t easy. Our lot sits on a hill and our backyard slopes precipitously. The two side runs of the fence had to be stepped down before connecting with the long run of sections across the back. But when it was done, the fence was a thing of beauty. It gathered the boys in a cedar embrace.

The fence marked time with its color, going from toddler blond to adolescent brown. Within its walls, the kids ran through sprinklers and built snow forts, played with our dog and tossed Wiffle balls. At the same time, squirrels gnawed at the posts and moss crept up the flat boards. Wisteria strangled the arbor, lifting its posts from the ground. In random places, the fence lurched from frost heaves below.

As the kids grew older, the backyard gave way to the front door. Out they bounded to music lessons, basketball games, play rehearsals, or to just hang with friends. The fence’s containment services were no longer needed.

The first break came in August 2011. As Hurricane Irene whipped through Rhode Island, two sections of the back run listed awkwardly, wooden sails in the storm. I rushed down to secure them by wrapping a rope around the post they shared and tethering it to a nearby tree trunk. No luck. Afraid they would hurtle onto the cars parked nearby, I laid the breakaway sections on the ground, weighing them down with cobblestones.

After the storm, the back run – minus the two fallen sections – wobbled from end to end. I called the guys who had done the original installation. When they told me the price to replace the run, I hired them for a fraction of the cost to simply take it away.

The two side runs remained… until last October and Hurricane Sandy. More sections fell, and those that didn’t were now more vulnerable – even storms without names posed a threat.

It’s early Saturday morning. Sipping coffee, I look out my kitchen window and notice a new gap in the fence – another section breaking ranks. I grab my drill and head outside. I pull the straying section back in line with its post-mate; a fifty-cent brace from Benny’s will reunite them. But when I lean into my churning drill, I push the screw right through the rotted wood. Grabbing nothing, it falls to the ground and the fence resumes its tilting.

As I search for the screw in the snow-covered leaves, I think of my children. Peter is in Los Angeles, chasing big music dreams. Evan is on a train to New York, trying to kick-start a business career. Juliana sleeps upstairs, perhaps having REM visions of a college far away from the backyard of her childhood. Soon she will leave, the last one.

Frost speaks to me once more, seventeen years after the fence first went up. It’s the same poem that I remember, but now a different line resonates: Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.

I abandon my mending and go back inside.

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