My father still lives in the house where I grew up. We moved there in 1965 just before I started first grade and it feels like I’m entering a time warp whenever I turn down that street. At this point I think my dad has been living on Drake Avenue longer than any other resident. When I visited the neighborhood during our recent trip to Chicago I noticed that a lot of young families now have homes on the block, and it is definitely a much more diverse crowd than the one I knew. We thought we were at the forefront of diversity and tolerance in the late 1960s when the Messinas, an Italian Catholic family moved in. For decades this north side neighborhood had been an enclave for first and second generation Jews.
Until I was six we lived in a two-bedroom apartment less than a mile away. My brother, sister, and I shared a single bedroom, our twin beds lined up against the wall. I remember seeing our new house on Drake for the first time and thinking we were like the Clampetts in “The Beverly Hillbillies” (one of my favorite shows at the time) making the transition from a humble little shack to a luxurious mansion.
I know the dangers of idealized nostalgia, that disease where everything in the past seems somehow better than what we have today. It’s a slippery slope. Name any time period that you’re feeling especially nostalgic about and it won’t be hard to come up with examples of horrors that were par for the course back then—you know, those happy, golden days of cross burnings and lynchings and politicians that were so powerful they didn’t even try to cover up their large-scale corruption. But one nostalgic cliché I can’t shake lately is how different life was for kids back in my days on Drake Avenue. Dare I utter the words? Was life much simpler then?
Even though our move to Drake involved only a ten-minute trek from our apartment, we said good-bye to our friends in our old building as if we were moving across twelve time zones to another continent. Indeed, even though I had spent almost every waking moment with these kids from birth on, I’m not sure we ever saw them again once we switched streets and moved to the Big House. It was just as well. Their parents’ disdain of John F. Kennedy and apparent relief when he was assassinated two years earlier put a permanent pall in the relations between our two families.
The week that we moved, I remember our doorbell ringing and the kids from the new block asking me and my sister, total strangers, if we could come out and play. The first member of this welcome wagon to appear was Sandy Kaiser, a girl my age who lived two houses down from us. Sandy introduced us to her older siblings, June and Joel, and we soon made contact with every other kid on the block. What amazes me about this, besides the innocence of youth that just assumes everyone within a one-block radius will want to be your friend (why can’t I be that confident as an adult?) is that the close friendships we began with these neighbors in 1965 were not in any way limited by age, gender, or even common interests.
Among the decaying artifacts I salvaged a few weeks ago in Chicago were these black-and-white Polaroids, taken by my sister with her white plastic Swinger™ camera. I labeled all of these photos myself back in the 60s, as if I had a premonition of the enormous chunks of my childhood that would soon be lost to my selective memory banks. But I do remember how we spent weekends and summers back then without a plan in the world. We would simply go outside and start walking down the street ringing doorbells looking for someone to play with. It didn’t matter to me whether I ended up with 4-year-old Marc Cohen or 14-year-old Barbara Epstein, we were perfectly content to spend time with anyone who happened to be around. What further amazes me, considering how different it is today, is that I barely remember ever telling my parents that I was going out. Most of the time my parents had no idea where we were, they just trusted that we’d be back for dinner or bedtime.
As a parent today, I know where my child is during her every waking moment. The idea that Leah would be wandering around our neighborhood on her own all day long is unthinkable. And yet when I was half her age I’d disappear for the whole day without a thought. Was the world so much safer back then or were we being a bit reckless? My dad often mentions today that he can’t believe he allowed us to walk to school on our own every morning during those years. Oh, if he only knew how far we wandered and some of the stuff that we’d see like the guy who used to regularly expose himself to passing children from his living room window. We were horrified by this but it never occurred to us to tell our parents, we’d just run past the flasher’s window and then report back to our friends if we’d had a “sighting.”
Soon after we moved in, we organized a “Drake Kid Club” complete with official rules, mascot, meetings, and snacks. We had our own weekly newspaper and not one but two original songs. The first one was very simple:
I’m a Drake Kid,
You’re a Drake Kid
We are Drake Kids all,
And when we get together
We give our Drake Kid Call
(At this point in the song we’d emit a blood-curdling scream which was our way to call the other members outside when we were too lazy to ring their doorbells.)
By the late 60s we had a more sophisticated song (I think my sister Sue wrote it) with a driving rock beat but I can barely remember this later version. Can any former Drake Kids help me? I don’t have a single memory of my brother Bruce in our group. He was five years older than me but that shouldn’t have mattered because of our all-ages policy.
Again, looking back, for me that was the best part of the Drake Kid Club. There are so many ways we ghettoize ourselves in our lives, hanging out with people who are the same age as us and have the same background and beliefs. It was truly a gift to grow up in this multi-age setting and befriend people with very different ways of looking at the world. It was diversity at its best, even if Frank Messina was the only non-Jew in our midst. This photo shows a cross-section of the Drake Kids, and when I look at it today I can easily remember the warmth we all felt for each other. That’s Barbara Epstein standing behind me on the left. She was in my brother’s class and I thought she was the coolest “woman” on the planet, I had such a crush on her. She looked like the models in my sister's “Seventeen” magazines and always wore the hippest clothes. That’s Alan Cohen in the middle. He must have already been in high school and we used to constantly jump all over him, treating him like our very own amusement park ride. That’s Sandy riding on his shoulders. Even though we were among the youngest members of the club, Sandy and I were forces to be reckoned with. We earned the matching nicknames, B.O.W., which stood for “Boss of the World.” So different from how I saw myself during my teen years when I became much more shy and timid. Marc Cohen, Alan’s baby brother, is on the right. He was our youngest member and sadly, died in a car accident around the age of 20.
Other members of our club came and went. Debby Zimmerman lived on the block for a while with her ultra-orthodox family. I remember gazing in awe at her father’s Hebrew typewriter with its carriage that moved from right to left. Rabbi Chaim Zimmerman was one of the leading rabbis and Talmudic scholars in the country but we didn't have a clue. I was a little scared of Debby's older siblings, Avrumi, Bayla, and Yehudis, who seemed to come from another world. Debby hung out with us a lot but was not allowed inside our house, I assume to avoid any temptation to sample our non-kosher fare. I heard that the Zimmermans moved to a religious neighborhood in Brooklyn and then to Israel.
While the heyday of the Drake Kid Club was the mid- to late-60s (I have a strong memory of being out late and staring up at the sky with these kids on the warm night in July 1969 when the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon), the group lasted in some form until I started high school in 1972. I then lost touch with all of our former neighbors until, thanks to my blog, I heard from Sandy and June Kaiser last February, both now living in Phoenix. They shared memories about things that happened on Drake that I had long forgotten, helping me to reclaim some of the missing pieces of my childhood.
Since those childhood days, I don’t think I’ve ever felt that ease of camaraderie with people of different ages and stripes…until I started this blog. Blogging for me has created a virtual neighborhood that offers the same kind of diverse connections that I experienced 40 years ago on Drake Avenue. Wandering around to various blogs, sending and receiving comments, it almost feels like we’re walking down the street, ringing each other’s doorbells, and asking, “Can you come out and play?” I’ve developed friendships with people ranging from their early 20s up through their late 70s, and have gotten to know and respect people with beliefs vastly different from my own. People constantly warn against the dangers of the Internet, and it is definitely a place where you need to protect yourself from psychos and pathological liars, but I’ve found that the blogging world comes as close as possible to the curiosity-driven innocence of my youth.