The first eleven years of my life spent living in the same neighborhood in three different houses. One, a century-old Victorian on Telegraph Avenue. Two, the lower floor of a two-level flat across the street, was another. And then, three, around the corner, behind Knapp’s Market, on Hawthorne Avenue. A three-story Victorian, divided into three apartments. We lived upstairs and downstairs, with two kitchens. The upstairs kitchen served as our laundry room. The downstairs kitchen was for our meals, and where Dad fell asleep on the linoleum floor when he was too drunk to climb the stairs.
The Key System train tracks ran right up the middle of Telegraph Avenue. “Pill Hill” was right behind us, with three big white hospitals ready to receive the dead and the dying, some of them soldiers airlifted by grasshopper green heliicoptors. Nikita Kruschev pounded his shoe on the podium in our Emerson black and white television set with a screen that looked like the bowl for my goldfish “Peppy and Salty”. They all said he was going to bury us, but he just meant that Russia would just leave us in their dust, just like Artie, Mike and David would do to me somedays. They all had Schwinn bicycles and I had a J.C. Higgins bike. Their’s were bigger and blue, mine was smaller and red. On the way to Mosswood Park to play or to go fishing at Lake Merritt, they’d sometimes leave me in their dust; clothes-pinned playing cards popping against our spokes, handlebar streamers in the wind.
Artie, Mike, Chock, Billy, David, Melvin, Phillip, Ronny and Ward, all on bikes. We were the Hawthorne Avenue Gang and we ruled Telegraph Avenue from Sears and Roebuck all the way up to Neldam’s Bakery, and owned the sidewalks on Broadway from the car dealerships all the way up to the Mayfair Shopping Center, where we’d camp out in the hifi shop and listen to Elvis, Fabian and Ricky. There was a gaggle of girls in our neighborhood: Judy, Mary Ann, Lovette, Pamela, Sherian and Ruthie. They were mostly a nuisance, but laughed with us usually, not always at us. We would leave black-rubber skid marks on their chalked hop-scotch squares and tie scooters (made with their roller skates) on behind our bikes with their jumpropes.
Somedays we’d just park our bikes and hang out with Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, the Hardy Boys, Batman and Robin or Superman. We all sailed on the Bounty, mutineed in the South Pacific seas and lived out our boyhood on Pitcairn Island. Or sometimes we’d fly away with Sky King and his neice, Penny. Sometimes ride off into the sunset with Hoppy, Gene and Roy.
We ruled the roost, ran the neighborhood and guarded the grocery store, barber shop and bakery when our old men were working seven to five at the cannery, the foundry, the oyster beds or the shipyards. Six-foot tall Officer Kelly with size twelve boots walked the beat from one call box to the other. There was no way we would ever let him catch us pinching an apple or swiping a pop. He’d collar us sure, boot us in the ass and usher us home just in time for old men’s Pabst Blue Ribbon time.
Mess up the Wednesday night or Friday night fights on TV, brought to us all by Gillette Cavalcade, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Hamm’s beers…and we’d catch the razor strap or the belt whipped out in a flash from the belt loops of our old men’s Big Bens. Worse yet, we might be grounded from going to the Saturday morning matinees at the Paramount, Fox or Grand Lake movie theaters…or be left behind when Casey Stengall sent his Oakland Oaks out onto the baseball diamond.