"Get your Spaul-deen and a clothesline," I urged my children. "We're going to a block party."
"What's a Spaul-deen?"
"What's a clothesline?"
"What's a block party?" they chorused.
A cross between an open-air potluck supper and a medieval festival, the block party was an enchanting event for a city kid. It was incredible to see the old work-a-day block transformed into an exciting new world - lights and banners arching over the street, balloons tied to all the fire hydrants and bright-colored streamers floating from the highest apartment building windows.
Part of the magic was being able to claim the street without having to dodge cars or "look both ways" - like having a huge front yard made out of asphalt.
For this special night an unwritten truce between the adults and kids was in effect. This meant you could take your Spaulding (a pink, hollow rubber ball with great bounce-ability, pronounced Spaul-deen) and play stoop ball (stoop: a wide set of concrete steps belonging to the meanest woman on the block) without hearing those immortal words, "Hey, you lousy kids get offa my stoop or I'll call the cops."
It also meant you could play handball against your favorite wall - the one with the painted skull and crossbones hovering over the warning "absolutely no handball playing here - violators will be prosecuted" - without being chased. With your Spaul-deen for stoop ball, running bases and punch ball, your clothesline for jump-rope and a broom handle for stick ball you were sure of being correctly appointed for an eternity of street games.
Of course, a block party was only as good as its food, and most of the offerings would have received four stars from Lucullus. If your stomach held out it was possible to travel around the world by eating your way down the street. Lasgna bursting with mozarella, cannelloni topped with besciamella and tomato sauce, breads baked that day, blini, goulashes, knishes, sausages, paella, souvlakia, pastrami with home-made horseradish so strong it destroyed your sense of smell. Huge barrells of beer and jugs of wine were a reassuring sight to those who had just sampled Mrs. de Stacio's specialty - hot peppers.
In addition to the food, the games and the speeches there was always that special time when the party was ending and someone with the best voice this side of Caruso would get up and sing "Danny Boy" or "O Sole Mio." We all listened entranced and a little awed that the block had produced such talent.
According to Clifton Posey, administrative aide in the District government's executive office, block parties - 1978 version - are on the increase. "We have a lot of requests for art festivals, fund-raisers, what I call theme block parties," he said, "the object of which is to raise money for charity or for the block itself. We also have quite a few block parties that are just for neighbors on the street who want to get together, eat some good food and party."
Joe Durkee, traffic engineer with Arlington County, agrees. "Most of the block parties in Arlington County are strictly neighborhood get-togethers . . . We won't issue a permit for a yard or garage sale or even for a fund-raiser. Our biggest block-party year was 1976. I guess a lot of people had the Bicentennial spirit."
If you live in the District of Columbia, you don't have to have a socially redeeming rason to hold your party but you do have to get the consent and signatures of 51 percent of all the people living on that block. You'll also need three adult sponsors and you should apply at least one week in advance of your party date.
"After you fill out a two-page application and fulfill the requirements we'll issue you a temporary street-closing permit," says Posey. "That is, if the street involved is not a major thoroughfare."
If all of this has inspired you and you're thinking why not have a block party of your own, read on. A few preliminary steps are necessary before you start hanging those colored lights.
Wherever you live in the area, you'll need a temporary street-closing permit to keep traffic from plowing through your party. The permit is issued through your county or city government - the Department of Transportation, the Bureau of Public Works or the Bureau of Permits. If you live in Fairfax City, give the city manager's office a call.
Your request should include the street name, area and house numbers involved as well as the date, time and reason - if you have one. It also helps to list an alternative rain date.
Your neighbors must agree or it's all off. In Arlington they'll take your word that you've contacted and received approval from each one, but usually you'll need written proof in the form of a signed petition.
The street you choose should not be a main thoroughfare. A request for a block party was denied in Prince George's County recently because the proposed block-party street was connected to a main thoroughfare. Mrs. Colevas of the Prince George's Bureau of Permits said, "It is important that traffic flow not be disrupted. This street presented a problem because a driver who did not know that the street had been barricaded could make a sharp turn and literally crash the party."
Once you receive your permit yoy'll have to agree to allow emergency vehicles access to the block as well as neighbors who need to to get to their homes. You must also agree not to serve any alcoholic beverages on the street. Serve and drink as much as you want in any of the houses - just don't bring it outside. Alexandria's Department of Transportation insists that all beverages served outside be in umbreakable cups.
About those barricades. Once you've received your temporary street-closing permit, your sawhorses (one for each end of the street) will be delivered and picked up if you live in Arlington, Alexandria, the District or Prince George's County. In Arlington this means no later than 11 p.m. If you live in Montgomery County, be prepared to provide your own barricades.
If you're still not sure, why not check out a New York-style block party and pick up a few tips? Ex-New Yorkers for New York is having one Saturday, open to all, near the Federal Center Metro, which will be open on Saturday. Parking will also be available.
There will be speakers and street vendors with egg rolls, baklava and hot dogs, and all the Coke you can drink. Free Spauldings (you know what they are) for hit-the-penny and chalk for hopscotch - bring your door-key to use as a potsy. (Potsy: small object thrown from square to square in hopscotch.) Stickball may or may not be available - the Ex-New Yorkers for New York have broken one window on that block already.
ASal Piazza, a strolling singer, the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers, Sheepshead Bay (yes, from Brooklyn, playing New York music) and a pair called The Sabra and the Canarsie Kid will be part of the entertainment.
The block party may be reviving because it's a good way to meet those neighbors you've been living next to all these years - in the city or the suburbs. As New York artist Ralph Fasenella said, "Life is together. Fighting together, playing stickball together. People need each other and the charge of life, the play of life comes with other people."