We were driving down Crump Street as we always did when we visited Memphis.We stopped in front of the house where we lived when I was born.We made the usual comments about how the neighborhood had gone down.How the house and yard had not been taken care of.
Then I said: "Well, look there.That much at least is still the same."
The concrete block with our house number on it: 1760 was still sitting in the yard. "I remember so many times sitting on that block with the Crump St. gang,telling stories and just fooling around.
My wife, Peg, said: "You should have that block. It means more to you than to the people who live there now."
I agreed and started to drive on down the street. Then Peg said excitedly: "Wait!Do you want it?You ought to have it. Stop!"
I stopped. Peg jumped out of the car went over to the block and started to roll it over and over toward the car.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa". That was my mother in the back seat. "What if some of the neighbors see us taking that?"
Too late. Peg had already gotten the block to the car door, and I had gotten out to help her load it onto the backseat next to Mother. Then we drove off a little faster than normal to get away, but not to cause too much attention. When we got to Evergreen and turned down toward the drugstore, we started to laugh and cheer. We had done it! We had stolen the address block!
"Whoa, whoa, whoa." Mother just couldn't stop.
I don't think anyone in our family had ever stolen anything before (well, maybe except for Peg, who had admitted shoplifting a lipstick as a teenager). Somehow the theft of the address block did not bother me. That block did mean more to me than it could possibly have meant to the people living in the house. A lot of the early memories of my life centered around that address block.
My earliest memory of anything is of me sitting on that block waiting for Sonny and Jerry to come home from school. They were a year ahead of me then. That fact alone would cause a separation between them and me, but there were other factors too. I didn't really understand it then, but my parents and the neighbors had been on outs with each other ever since they moved into the neighborhood.
My dad had the misfortune to move to Memphis and promptly lose his job right in the middle of the Depression. It affected his whole life. He never got over the fear of not being able to support his family. My folks could not afford to build a house the same size as the others on our block, so they built a little garage apartment on the back of the lot. A group of neighbors tried to get the city building commission to not give him a permit. It didn't work, and we lived in our little house as I grew up. Often times I wondered why I didn't feel welcome visiting in my friends' homes. The neighbors weren't mean to me. I just felt that they did not want their kids playing with me.
My mother could play that game too. When I would be playing over at Sonny or Jerry's, she would call me home -- for no reason. When I would ask why, the answer usually was: "You've been playing over there long enough." That was another factor that separated me from Sonny and Jerry.
There was another kid, Louie, who lived just down the street a few houses, and as I got older and was able to roam a bit more widely around the neighborhood, he and I started playing with each other more and more. We just seemed to hit it off. We always liked doing the same things. Another thing -- I always felt welcome in his house. His mother was always baking cookies for us. There was a problem though. They were Italians!
Soon I found myself being called home from Louie's house too. The reason I was given was a lot more direct than with Sonny and Jerry. "I don't want you playing with Louie. His family is not like ours. They are Italian, and they are Catholic, and you shouldn't play with him." It was several years later that I fully understood the meaning of what she was saying and why she said it. "None of the other neighbors let their kids play with Louie or go to his house, and if you play with him, they will look down on you too." Of course, there were no blacks in our neighborhood. There weren't even any Jews. So the neighbors had to pick out an Italian family to feel superior to. In those days when so many people had great difficulty making ends meet, it was important to find ways to feel your status was higher than someone else's.
Although I could not understand the deeper reasons behind my mother's attitude, I knew that it was not right. Louie was a true friend. From the beginning I always knew that I could count on him. That was not always the case with Sonny or Jerry or David or Albie. That may have been the first situation where I decided to disobey my mother. I would find ways to play with Louie, and we would be friends.
Then fate intervened. My family moved to Mississippi, then to Alabama. After four years we moved back to Memphis, and back into the same little house. The neighbors had given up trying to get the garage apartment torn down, but neither were we welcomed back. The renters had not done a good job of keeping the place up, and everything looked pretty seedy. Rebuilding my relationships with the neighborhood kids was no piece of cake either. By now there were twelve boys in my age group in a two block length of Crump St. That would have been a hard situation to break into as an eleven-year-old -- except for Louie.
When we were moving back in, Louie was the first one there to welcome me. Everything was just as it had been. We were four years older, but that was all that had changed -- including my mother's attitude. She wasted no time telling me that I would be making a very big mistake if I made a special friend of Louie. So, around my house my friendship with Louie could continue only if we were in the company of other kids. That was no problem. Since my front yard was by far the largest in the neighborhood (our little house was way at the back), the gang just naturally congregated there. We tossed balls around, practiced tumbling, wrestled -- just about everything kids do. And -- we spent a lot of time sitting around that address block talking about stuff.
The winter after we moved back to Memphis, Louie's father died. My folks took me to the wake. I had been to funerals before, but never a wake. Louie's father's casket was at one end of the room, and close by was a group of women trying to comfort Louie's mother, who just sobbed softly. A bit further removed from the casket were a group of men talking softly. Then, the thing I had never seen before -- near the door there was a table covered with food and drinks, and people were standing around it snacking and joking just like at a party. The most impressive figure in the room, however, was Louie. He was dressed in a suit, and he moved around the room greeting people, making sure everyone was acknowledged. He seemed already to have taken his father's place as head of the family. My mother was also impressed, and she told me so.
After the death of Louie's father my mother's attitude toward Louie changed dramatically. She asked me to invite him over, and she did everything she could to make him feel welcome. Since he had lost his father, she felt sorry him. As she got to know him better, she began to recognize the qualities that I had always seen in him. From then on Louie was welcome in my house, and we were free to spend as much time together as we wished.
One of our first common interests was in animals, particularly wild animals. We would go to the library and get books on Africa and India, then we would sit in my yard and tell each other about the stories we had read. The zoo was only about a half mile away, and it was across the street from our school, so we would frequently walk through the zoo telling our stories.
As we got older our interests grew to include astronomy. Sitting around the address block looking up at the sky we would talk about the movements of the moon, the planets, comets. Even though we were in the middle of a large city there were many quite dark nights with the Milky Way easily visible. We never owned a telescope, but with our binoculars we could see the moons of Jupiter and imagined we could see the rings of Saturn. We talked of the Civil War, the Roman Empire, Egypt and the pyramids, Alexander and the Greeks, airplanes, and rockets.Maybe the reason so few people today know anything at all about those subjects (and others) is that they never had a friend like Louie.
But all good things come to an end. After we finished high school Louie went to Parks Air College to learn about airplanes, and I went to Duke to learn about chemistry (and how to live away from my parents). We corresponded for a few years, and saw each other rarely during the summers. He got drafted and was sent to North Africa. When I got married he sent us a beautiful wallhanging from Casablanca. Then we just lost track of each other.
The 1760 address block now sits beside our backdoor in
South Carolina. In this setting it serves as a frequent reminder of
many good times -- and some not so good too.
© 2000 Jim Weiss, all rights reserved,
1760 image © Jim Weiss, all rights reserved,
both appear here by permission