I grew up in a stoop world—four square blocks of Baltimore City row houses, bordered on the south by a steep railroad bank, on the east by the Girls’ Catholic High which my best neighborhood girlfriend attended, on the west by Clifton Park with its clay tennis courts, and on the north by a cemetery which would later be dug up, moved and replaced by a Two Guys parking lot.
Twenty-two houses lined the block, from 3400 to 3442, twenty-two on one side that held a visual rhythm of gray wooden porches, each with five steps leading down to the pavement. It was a safe world. In summer, the community retreated to the front porches. Covered in a blanket of humidity, adults sat in metal chairs and gliders, hoping for the least breeze to offer relief in a time just before air conditioners and Willie Kool was introduced. They talked lazily over wooden railings about the weather, the latest sale, children and grandchildren, and the latest comings and goings of neighbors.
During those infinite summer days and nights of childhood, we played “mother, may I,” hide-and-seek, and bounce the rubber ball against the steps, keeping an ear out for the familiar jingle of the Good Humor ice cream truck. When it arrived, it was soon surrounded by children clutching nickels and ready to make the most important decision of deciding if we’d order a creamsicle or popsicle and would it be cherry, grape or banana.
Children ran about reaching and leaping for lightning bugs, which were added to blinking glass jars, metal lids with holes punched to the fireflies wouldn’t smother. Often we held the glowing jars up to examine these creatures that magically lit up our summer nights with wonder. There were frequent counts to determine who was the fire king. Except for the occasional cruel boy, always a boy, who would delight in pulling off the insects’ wings, at the end of the night when bedtime calls disturbed our summer ears, lids were unscrewed and insects were released. We said goodnight to our playmates, perhaps with a final chase tag and a “you’re it,” we climbed those five stoop steps to the sweltering second floor bedroom and slept in our underwear to the drone of the cacophonous window fan.
Those five steps connected the safety of inside and the security of community outside. There were clearly defined rules of behavior and geographical boundaries, and everyone in the neighborhood made certain everyone’s children respected these rules. Fuzzy boundaries were rare. We all knew our place. We always addressed adults, unless they were “Negroes”, by Miss, Mrs. or Mr. and we said, “yes maam” and “no sir.” Supper was always served at 5 p.m. after my father rode the street car home from Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Company in downtown Baltimore, got off at the bottom of the neighborhood on Belair Road, and walked the four blocks home in his bank business suit. We were wrapped in certainties. Yet I was pulled toward uncertainty and testing the limits. “What if” was my shadow.
As a child, I discovered those five stoop steps were not merely for climbing or sitting. They provided an opportunity to poke at the shroud of safety. My younger sister Nancy and our friends used to jump off the steps onto the concrete, graduating to higher steps as we grew bolder. The bottom step was the baby one for those who were just learning how to balance and move their bodies. The second step made the younger ones feel big as they moved upward. When we were ready for the third step, we realized things were becoming more serious. Uncertainties crept into our play, as well as skinned knees that grew scabs which our mothers reminded us not to pick at.
Eventually the fourth step lured us. How many times did I look down at the hard pavement from the fourth step and then quietly move to the safer third one to confidently swing my arms out to propel me outward in my flight?.
The fourth step was serious and was not to be ignored. The challenge loomed in my future. Eventually I stood on the fourth step without retreating to the lower third one. It was then that I hesitantly crouched, pulled both arms back, swung them out and up for the exhilarating flight from four to ground. I landed on two feet with a skip or two What a feeling of power.
I really don’t remember anything like admiration in the eyes of younger kids who didn’t yet dare to take this journey. Maybe it was there but I certainly didn’t notice. I do remember, though, the smile inside. And I do remember looking at the ultimate challenge, the fifth step which was the porch. And I do remember the thrill of uncertainty.
Later in my 20’s I continued to dream of literal heights, much greater than the porch stoop. What would it feel like to jump out of a plane? I would later find out when I turned 30.
In those days, time passed like gooey taffy strings that stretched forever. But the summer I was six, three events taught me that there were deeper layers in my world that I’d felt was so simple.
One sultry summer night the entire neighborhood sat outside on their stoops complaining almost in unison about the heat. I was a couple houses up the street playing with one of my friends. I could hear the ice cream truck on the next block but I wasn’t hungry for ice cream because I’d just had a chocolate snowball with marshmallow on top. At some point I realized that the orchestrated murmur of neighborhood gossip had suddenly stopped. I heard, instead, sharp cries and screams. Still, to my six year old mind, grownups were prone to irrational behavior and I continued my play, but with an ear listening for further changes. Then I began to hear, “Bonnie, Ronnie, Bonnie, Ronnie” isolated words. Please, just a little more play time before bed. However, I began to hear a no nonsense shout with my name from my parents. I did not want to be pulled away from my play but, from the tone of their voices, I knew I had to drop everything immediately and run home.
When I got back to my house, my mother grabbed me and screamed at me, “Why didn’t you come when I called you?” I thought she was angry at me but I didn’t know what I’d done. “I did come,” I told her, “I did come.” She continued to hold me and said angrily, “I want you to come the first time I call you.” Then she began to cry, uncontrollably, and go limp. My father gently led her to their bed.
I still could not understand. What had I done to upset my mother so much? When I tried to ask, my father told my sister and me so stay on the porch and not to leave it. I could hear my father trying to calm my mother as she sobbed in their room.
Out on the porch, my sister and I noticed a commotion on the street right in front of our porch. A crowd of adults stood around in the middle of the street, some kneeling down. Then there were flashing lights and a siren. Our next door neighbor explained to me that my mother was upset because the boy across the street, my age, had been hit by a car. He and his friends were playing tag and darting in and out of parked cars when a car driving down the street in the now dusk had hit him. I watched as an ambulance (ambulance with the accent on the last syllable in Baltimorese) took this boy away to the hospital.
My mother had heard my name, Bonnie, as the accident victim.The boy’s name was Ronnie. My life had been just one alphabet letter away from being changed in an instant. At that moment, I began to realize that my safe world might not be so safe after all.
Of course, childhood lessons don’t stick very long. Ronnie eventually came home from the hospital with his head bandaged. He didn’t seem to act quite the same as he used to any more but then he was a boy and I didn’t play with boys anyway when I was six.
I continued in my happy world.. My sister Nancy was two years younger than I was and almost the same size. Early on, maybe because she was big for her age and smart, I tended to think of us as equals. Being the oldest, I was supposed to look after her. Most of the time this was fine with me. We played together and shared friends. Without fancy toys, we played in our own imaginary world. We picked weeds growing from the cracks in the sidewalk and made peas for pretend meals. We disseminated ant hills, also abundant in the cracks, and poured gravy over the peas. We knew enough not to eat this but we pretended to enjoy our “home cooked meals.”
Once a girl from another block, one we didn’t play with, invited us to walk with her to the alley behind Elmley Ave. From there you could overlook the cemetery. She told us that we might be able to see some bones sticking out of the ground. I told her our mother didn’t let us go there. She became indignant, as if listening to our mother was such an uncool thing to do and accused me of being a sissy.
Maybe it was the combination of that challenge and my curiosity that made me do it. I desired adventure. I wanted to go beyond my comfort level. So my 4-year-old sister followed me as our friend showed us the way to the cemetery alley.
We’d just gotten there and were beginning to look for bones sticking up from the ground when I heard my mother calling us. She was suddenly in the alley, looking furious. “Bonnie, what are you doing here! You know better!” At that point she grabbed me and spanked me right there in the alley saying, “You’re the big sister. You’re supposed to take care of your little sister.” I cried, not so much from the stinging slaps but because I had let her down . I also think my tears were more selfish too because my adventure was ended and I realized that there were things more important to me than safety.
I learned later that a little girl’s body had been found in the cemetery around that time, raped and strangled. Definitely not something in the realm of my safe world.
I was soon to find out that if I wanted to break out of my safety zone, I had to do things I’d rather not do.
That sixth summer, I had just learned to ride a two-wheeled bicycle. My father had gotten hold of an old boys bike but my legs weren’t long enough to reach the pedals. He tied wooden blocks onto the pedals so I could reach them. Getting onto the bike was difficult. At first he lifted me on and ran down the alley with me as he held onto the bike seat to steady me. No training wheels for me. Just a large bike with hands that let go more and more frequently until I had my balance. Once I could ride it on my own, there was the problem of getting up and off the bike. I had to lean the bike in toward a fence and carefully climb on. Then I’d push out cautiously with my hand to start my balance while I began to pedal. When I stopped, I had to steer over to a fence and reverse the process. It worked though and I felt like I’d come of age with my bike and new skills.
My riding territory was limited to just one block…the alley behind our house. I couldn’t ride in the street. So I’d ride up and down the alley hundreds of times, feeling quite independent.
One time, however, as I got about three quarters of the way toward the lower end, a chubby girl shouted out that I was not allowed to go past her yard. I ignored her and continued, carefully turned around at the end and rode to the other end. Again I turned around and rode down the alley but this time, she was standing in the middle with feet planted far apart and arms outstretched.
“Nyaa, nyaa nyaa nyaa nyaa! You can’t go past!” She taunted me.
I didn’t have any choice but to steer toward a fence, carefully get off and say, “Yes, I can!”
“No you can’t,” she replied and didn’t budge.
I walked my bike back to my house and complained to my mother who was in the kitchen shelling peas and making crabcakes, purchases from the A-rab and his horse-drawn wagon that had come down our alley earlier that morning. I told her what had happened and she said I had every right to the alley. I should get back on my bike, tell the girl that she couldn’t do that and to please move.
The same scene played out again and I walked my bike back home.
“Please go down there and make her let me go by,” I begged my mother.
“No,” she said. Surprise. The same mother who wanted to protect me from cars and cemetery bones, would not protect me from a bully.
“You get back on your bike. Tell her to move or you’ll run her over.”
What?!!! My mother was telling me to run over someone on my bike! My usually gentle, non-violent mother. The mother who was so upset when a car ran over another child, was now telling me to run over someone on my bike. In my child’s mind, it just didn’t register. However, I thought it might be worth a try.
So I leaned my bike against the fence, climbed on, reached my feet down to the wooden blocks on the pedals, and carefully pushed off. Just as I’d feared, the bully was positioned and blocking my way. I told her in my shy, hesitant voice, “Move or I’ll run you over.”
“You dare!” she said.
These words did it! How dare she step on my rights! I took a deep breath and actually pedaled harder. In my heart, I desperately hoped she’d see me barreling down on her and jump out of the way at the last minute.
But she didn’t. And I ran into her.
She fell and I noticed tread marks on her arm. I fell and accumulated a number of scrapes. She ran into her house crying to her mother. I got back up on my bike, finished to the end, turned around and came back up the alley…with no one blocking the way.
She never tried that stunt again. I had freed my alley from tyranny.
That 6th summer was one that changed my perception of boundaries and safety, of grownups, and of my own frailty and strength.
© Bonnie Schupp