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3. Tin Can Hockey

In the middle of the Great Depression, for a couple of summers boys played street hockey at West Ninth and Washington next to a train yard in Covington, Kentucky.  We used a battered tin can for a puck and home-made cudgels for hockey sticks.  We used roller skates which tended to come loose or wear out suddenly.  The rules allowed a player to continue with only one skate.  It was a tough game with tough street kids.  Barked shins and other bruises were standard.  The hockey court was on Washington Street which had white smooth pavement.  Brick-paved Ninth Street would not tolerate roller skates.  The court ended at the Covington Auto Parts, a small dirty grimy building with a greasy dirt-floored interior used as an automobile bone yard.  Usually nobody was on duty in the building, so the neighborhood boys could climb inside and often did.   Sometimes of an evening we used the roof for masturbation parties.  The street game of tin can hockey had only one girl member.  Violet had a buildup of green on her front teeth, for dentists belonged to another world than ours.  Violet was never invited to the masturbation parties on the roof.

One of my buddies in those hockey games was Grossie.  He also had bad front teeth, decayed brownly instead of greenly.  He was so poorly parented that he would often sleep or eat at other homes in the neighborhood.  Grossie was gentle and fragile but a fighter when challenged.  When I yelled at him for missing the tin puck he would say, “Don’t get your balls in an uproar” and go on doggedly playing badly.  When Grossie stayed at my house, he was usually my bed buddy.  I slept on a feather bed under home-made crazy quilts.  It was sheer luxury for Grossie.  However, he was usually unwashed, which was OK except for his feet.  He never wore socks, so his feet came out of his ragged shoes smelling and sweaty.  My grandmother would insist on washing Grossie’s feet, saying to him, “People did this for Jesus.”  My grandmother was a saint except for a naïve racism.  With a faint smile she would recite, “When God made the nigger.  He made him in the night.  He made him in a hurry and forgot to paint him white.”  She thought blacks were the children of Cain.  Nobody who thinks that way deserves to be canonized.  Still, she was virtue itself among her own kind.  Her racism was standard in that neighborhood.  The ones God forgot to paint lived on the other side of the railroad bridge.

The games took place in the summer of 1936 and 1937.  I can be sure of that because the music on the summer air.  I lived in a slum house next to the Covington Auto Parts.  Across the street, a cottage rang with piano tunes.  A tall young man with pimples thumped the piano constantly.  He sometimes held jam sessions with wind instruments.  The cottage was a shanty, “just a little old shack that set way back about twenty-five feet from the railroad track,” or so they would chant rhythmical hyperbole out the open windows of the hot afternoon.  What I heard most often was “Flat Foot Floogie” (a foot stomper) and “The Music Goes Round and Round” (a tutorial tune about the two-valve horn).  That fixes the date when those songs were over-and-over everywhere.  Further, I was hearing the knock-knock jokes.  Who’s there? Marcella.  Marcella who?  Marcella is full of water.  That refers to the 1937 Ohio River flood when many cellars were full of water.

On the roof of the Covington Auto Parts, we would dangle our legs over the edge and catcall at people on the street and talk about the now forgotten affairs of the neighborhood, about what went on behind the front doors in the lives now as forgotten as the biographies of flies.  The masturbation parties were contests in which the first orgasm won a nickel.  Usually Vince won because he was a little older and practiced a lot.  Often Grossie came in last.  I was dishonorable and did not participate, which damaged my reputation.  Instead I would sneak off and become a bathroom virgin.  I remember being on the john, singing softly to the tune of Old Black Joe, pronouncing “I is” as Eyes.  Eyes a comin’, Eyes a comin’ though Eyes only twelve years old.  Then suddenly happened the strange inner electricity that knocked me off the seat.  At the First District School, where it was white as the snow on cedars, we sang songs blackly and shamelessly.  In summer the darkies are gay.  Carry me back to old Virginny; that’s where this old darky’s heart am longed to go.  In Missouri, I was piccaninny on my dear old Mammy’s knee.  As for Old Black Joe, we would sing in our classrooms to Massa, “I’m coming, I’m coming, though my head is bending low.”  Racism was plainer in those days, more innocent and mean but as affectionate as the love of Amos and Andy on the radio.  White over black (black as my true love’s hair) was not yet sophisticated and deceptive the way it would become.  Because I would lock the bathroom door, my factory working step father became suspicious and said to me, to my embarrassment at the dinner table, “Boy, Old Lady Five Fingers will cause hair to grow on the palm of your hand.  Don’t you know that?”  I looked at my hand to see and he snickered in triumph.  This puzzled my saintly grandmother, busy serving us biscuits and gravy, and the humor was over the heads of my younger brothers not yet up to the joys of puberty.  My lovely mother, roseate and kind, glared at her husband and said to him, “You seem to know a lot about it.”  I loved my Mom.  She was a cashier at the Gayety Theater in Cincinnati and better than any of us.

Grossie was my buddy but not my closest friend.  That was Maurice.  He was fifteen years old and still in the Fourth Grade.  He lived on Tenth Street in a back alley room.  He was not dumb, just strange and wonderful.  He was already a talented cartoonist, making up comic strips for fun.  He taught me how to draw and praised my lesser comic strips, crude imitations of Dick Tracy.  I lacked the skill to imitate L’il Abner.  I was in love with Daisy May, Abner’s girlfriend in a ragged short hillbilly dress.  Also Wilma in a Twenty-fifth Century miniskirt (Flash Gordon’s friend).  These comic strip girls kept me company in the bathroom.  Maurice was a born entertainer.  He would take me on long adventurous walks.  We would go into radio studios and watch the broadcasts.  He would take me backstage at a live theater all the way across the Licking River in Newport.  When we were hungry we would walk penniless into a diner where he would put on a show, imitating Jimmy Durante or anyone they asked for, FDR or even FDR’s wife, until somebody paid for our hamburgers.  Yet at school, he would sit at his seat drawing and would growl fiercely at anyone who disturbed him, even the teacher herself.  I passed him in the Fourth Grade beyond which he never went.  Only later, far away in the depths of the Pacific war, I would learn that he had become a disk jockey in Pittsburgh and that he had drowned in a river trying to rescue a floundering girl.  Maurice never played tin-can Hockey.  He never climbed to the roof of the Covington Auto Parts.  Still, after my Mom and grandmother, I loved him most during those lost, forgotten summers simmering now in my memory through a glass darkly.  It was a story writ in water, like the name of Keats.