The Rags-a-line Man and Other Sounds from Taylor Street
The New York Times Bestseller — Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond — reconfigures how various peoples evolved as they had. How it was that the Inca emperor was slain by soldiers sent across the ocean by the King of Spain…and not the other way around?
While the Taylor Street Archives is galaxies short of Jared Diamond’s revelation on the Fates of Societies and how various peoples and their particular circumstances had evolved, the games we played shed light on the subculture know as Taylor Street’s Little Italy.
Fashioning identities, blossoming self concepts and forging personalities…they all have their roots deeply imbedded in the activities that took place on the streets of the neighbor- hoods from whence we evolved. Those activities must, by definition, include the games that we played. Much of the story of those who were imprinted by the streets of “the Hull House Neighborhood” can be dissected from the sounds that still resonate from those streets on most hot summer days when the fire hydrant provided the only relief.
Antoneeeeee! The sound of your name, bellowing from an open window and resonating through the neighborhood, as it ricocheted off the 3 and 4 story buildings, ended your participation in whatever game you were playing. Whether is was softball, buck-buck, or any type of team game, one of the wall-to-wall kids that proliferated the neighborhood was quickly chosen to replace you. You rushed home, dreading the unknown consequences. The worse case scenario was being called back home because of a chore that had not been satisfactorily completed before you darted out of the house to meet your friends. Whose name was next to be called?! How many calls would there be before the street would be abandoned?
The rags-a-line man. “Rags-a-line” was the cry of the junk man as he made his rounds through the neighborhood. He bought “rags and old iron” along with any other junk we managed to pillage from the neighborhood. Other warped cries were from vendors who had something to sell…not to buy. “Whaadee meeelone” (watermelon) and “wee wee potahdooooh” (sweet potato) was the cry of the produce man who also made his rounds with a horse drawn wagon. Other barely intelligible cries from the streets were those of the ice man, milk man and pizza man. Each mutated call having evolved from countless repetitions.
Wanna go junkin’? Piercing the silence of the early morning air on week-ends and summer vacations was another familiar sound: “Wanna go junkin?” The invite reached the ears of other youthful entrepreneurs awaiting the call to join the scavenger party. It took skill to get out of bed, at the crack of dawn, without awakening those asleep on either side of you.
Wanna go rat hunting? Despite the work of Jane Addams and her other well meaning associates, the alleys of Taylor Street remained treacherous. That visible and very real threat of rats scampering from garbage pile to garbage pile gave rise to another sound from the bellows of the Hull House neighborhood, “Wanna go rat hunting?” Armed with half broken bricks and sticks with protruding nails, we pursued our prey relentlessly but cautiously. (Editor’s note: It wasn’t until the WWII years, a half-century after the founding of Hull House and almost a decade after her death, that the establishment finally acceded to the protests of Jane Addams.)
The bonfire The sound of rushing water from the fire hydrants filled our summer days. The sound of crackling wood in the schoolyard bonfire pierce the air of the cool late summer and early fall evenings. The splinters of exploding wood were cast into the night sky. Many of our Taylor Street nights wound down with a bonfire and a potato roast. Inner city slum neighborhoods all had an endless supply of wood to be burned. We never ran out of places to get wood to feed the fire. Potatoes were another story. The Halsted Street merchants all displayed their produce in boxes on the sidewalks in front of their stores. It was easy pickings to snatch a potato at night. I suspect we got away with it as often as we did for several reasons. Most important, the merchants knew our parents shopped there during the day and it was good business to let us run off with a potato that was more or less valueless when viewed in the total scheme of things. A thumb on the scale or faulty additions on the weekly pay credit book more than made up for their uncontested losses.
Buck-Buck, How Many Fingers Up? Buck-Buck was played by two teams of approximately five people each. The “down” team built a horse with their bodies by locking on to each others waists. Each member of the “up” team had to leap onto the backs of the “down” team. Once all five were mounted, one member of the “up” team would display one or more fingers and ask the captain of the “down” team, “Buck Buck, how many fingers up?” If the “down” team guessed correctly the teams would change roles. Also, if any member of the “up’ team touched the ground with any part of his body, the teams changed roles.
One strategy that was employed was for all of the members of the “up” team to land on the back of the weakest member of the “down” team. The intent was to cause the human chain of the locked “down” players to break. If successful, your team retained their “up” position, which entitled you to repeat the leaping process on to the backs of the “down” team. It took both skill and strategy to have all five jumpers land on top of each other, which forced one besieged and helpless “down” player, to support the weight of a mile high stack of guys.
Ring-a-leevio A team game which must have evolved as a ritual celebration of an earlier time when tribes, warring against each other, took prisoners. A box was drawn in the dirt and served as the prison for those who were captured. Once everyone was captured, we changed sides and the prisoners now became the aggressor tribe who hunted down and captured the fleeing members of the other tribe. There was always the opportunity to rescue those members of your team who had been captured. Breaking into the jail and shouting “ring-a-leevio” freed those members of your team who had been caught and jailed…giving them another opportunity to run away.
Peck n’ stick Reflective of the ingenuity of depression era kids of immigrant parents were the creative games devised by those kids utilizing the resources that their environment made available to them. All that was needed to play peck n’ stick was a broom. The neighborhood had more than enough broken broom sticks to go around. A 6 inch peck with tapered ends was fashioned with a knife or hatchet. The stick, measuring approximately 3 feet in length, was cut away from the same broom. The tapered peck was ricocheted into the air by the 3 foot stick. While in the air, the peck was hit out to opposing players who attempted, as in baseball, to catch or field the peck. Score was kept by how many stick lengths away the throw back in by the defenders you measure off. Cocoa (KoKo) was the champion peck and stick player in the Goodrich School yard. “Mother’s Doll, this is going right through your window.” And it did, across Peoria Street, four flights up through Archie’s (Mother’s doll) window.
Tops The manner in which we played tops may have been reflective of some underlying need which may have been either inherited or acquired. It went something like this. The object was to take turns hitting the down top with your top until it reached the opposite curb. If you missed, you replaced the down top with your top. The top that was down when we reached the designated curb lost the game. The penalty was a house brick (there were plenty of house bricks in our empty lots) smashing down on the losing top. The act appeared to be symbolic of an execution…a beheading, if you will. I never understood why our Taylor Street games imposed such a severe penalty on our losers.
Cinder Stadium: “Over the fence is out.” The sounds that came from our make shift softball fields were unique in that there were always arguments over which of the variations of the complex rules applied to the last ball that was hit. One of the most memorable rulings that came out of those arguments was “Over the fence is out!” Rulings were often upheld on the basis of which team’s players were bigger, stronger and tougher…and sometimes, who shouted the loudest. Early on in our lives we learned and accepted one of the universal truths, “Such is the world as it is.” It was much later that I realized a larger truth, “Such is the world as we had made it.”
Marbles We played marbles in much the same way as, I imagine, everyone else had. We played pots, circles, etc. We also had our favorite marbles, our “brannies.” Whenever we lost one of our brannies in a game, we tried to bargain for their return. We were rarely successful. It seemed that winning away someone’s favorite marble, their brannie, was the equivalent of Paris winning away Helen from the Greeks. And not unlike that Greek saga, bargaining for its return was useless. It had to be won back.
Kickin’ the can This game was very much like ring-a-leevio except that, instead of two teams competing against each other, there was only one player responsible for seeking out and capturing the others who were hiding to avoid being seen and caught. The lone player was the jailer. The “can” served as the key to the locking and the unlocking of the imaginary jail. If the jailer found someone in their hiding place, he had to race back to the can and knock on the pavement three times, calling out the captured player’s name; e.g., “one, two, three for…” If the discovered player, however, beat the jailer back to the can, he shouted, “kickin’ the can” and all of the previous caught players would be freed as the jailer was retrieving the kicked can.
Baby in the hole Babies imposed the harshest penalty of all the games we played. The lone loser was placed against the wall. Each of the other players, from twenty feet away, threw a softball at him. The only protection the loser had was, if anyone missed, he had to cover the loser with his body. Sometimes we used a league ball. (We call the 8 inch baseball a league ball to differentiate it from the 16 inch softball which was prevalent in our neighborhood.) If a league ball was used, the distance was 30 feet. The game went something like this. Each player dug a hole in the ground large enough to hold an 8 inch league ball or a 16 inch softball. When the ball rolled into one of the pots, everyone ran as fast as they could until the pot owner called, “STOP!” If you were hit by the thrown ball you received a “baby,” which was recorded by placing a stone in your pot. If the thrower failed to hit anyone, he received the baby. The player who received 3 babies first went against the wall…again reminiscent of the Aztec warrior games of the 16th century.
Chase the Wild Horse A hybrid game that evolved from “kickin’ the can” and “ring-a-leevio.” Like kickin’ the can, there were no teams, just one person acting as the jailer. In lieu of a can there was a lamp post. Freeing the captured players required that someone tag the lamp post and shout, “Chase the wild horse!”
Chicken Charlie: “No dime no show.” This story could not be complete without mentioning another sound from the streets, Chicken Charlie. Chicken Charlie was an elderly black gentleman who traveled up and down Taylor Street with a string and an old, worn out chicken. When we heard his call, “No dime, no show…no dime, no show,” we all ran over to him to see what new tricks his chicken could perform. It was always the same. His chicken trying to balance itself, as it stood on the string… one end tied to a lamp post and the other end pulled taught by Chicken Charlie.
Scooters/push carts The sound of home made push carts permeated the neighborhood during those long, hot summer days. The ingenuity we acquired during those depression days gave birth to the personalized push carts. One 2 by 4 board, a single discarded skate and an apple box were all that was needed to make a push cart. Separating the front and back part of the skate gave us the front and the rear wheels which we nailed onto the bottom of our 2 by 4. The apple box was then nailed onto the front part of the 2X4 creating our custom made push cart. Pieces of wood nailed onto the side of the box served as the handlebars. As we designed later models we added decorations such as bottle caps and rabbit tails. The only things the Hells Angels had on us were an internal combustion engine and leather jackets. If we wanted to make a scooter instead of a push cart, you simply used another 2 by 4 board in place of the apple box.
Guns The most creative part of our play was the inner tube guns we designed. During the depression era of the 1930s and the 1940s, all tires had thin inner tube linings. Their elasticity was comparable to rubber bands. These were used to make guns with which we used in playing games such as cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. To make a rifle required several 1 by 2 inch boards configured in such a way that the cut strips from the inner tubes held them together. A complex manipulation of the inner tubes and sticks also provided a trigger. Cut strips from the discarded inner tube also served as the bullets. These long rifles achieved amazing distances. A pistol, with less range, was made in the same way except that they required shorter sticks and fewer inner tubes to make. One could surmise that some of the earliest spaghetti westerns took place on the streets of Chicago’s Little Italy. All we were lacking was an Ennio Morricone musical score.
Pinners and fast pitch baseball. Most of our buildings had a stone molding across the front wall. A rubber ball, if it struck the top of that molding perfectly, could fly to the other side of the street. Pinners was the primitive version of inner city fast pitch baseball. You could play either pinners or fast pitch with just one player per team. All that was needed was a pitcher and a batter.
Fire hydrant During the long hot summers the streets were filled with children playing under the fire hydrant. The power of the water was amplified by the ingenious manipulation of wooden boards angled down the throat of the hydrant. The youthful screams as we ran through the high powered water can still, if one listens carefully, be heard whenever the temperature reaches over 90 degrees. The memory of those youthful muscular bodies held tight by their wet sopping dago “Ts” and the soggy blouses of soon to be Apollonian girls being tossed and dragged into the hydrant can never be erased. Arguably, one could surmise that we were the beneficiaries of lakeside property. And that’s as good as it gets.
Tag: You’re it! Sometimes we added a twist to the game of tag. It was called “higher than the ground.” If you were higher than the ground, you were safe from being tagged. We played tag on fire escapes that were 3 and 4 stories high. Not just on the steps of the 3 and 4 story fire escapes, but under the platforms of those fire escapes, swinging from bar to bar, ledge to ledge and wind sill to wind sill to avoid being tagged. The narrow six inch ledge around the Field Museum was another one of our favorite locations where we played tag. We gave no thought to the imposing 30 foot drop to a concrete walk below that ledge. I don’t know what possessed us to confront the dangers we did without having second thoughts.