THE SUMMERS WERE longer then. It had nothing to do with the calendar. It
was the way you felt running down the front steps of 232 Van Horne Street into the cool stillness of the early morning.
Walking along the street where the summer would take form, grow and flourish, watching the old, gnarled, Italian man opening the green awning of his fruit-ice stand near the park, it was as if you could already see the endless series of pizza-hot, sun-golden, soft-tar-in-the-streets, lemon-ice-flavored afternoons. Watching a friend emerging from one of the other houses on the street, waving and shouting to you, bouncing a pink rubber ball, heading for Eddie Kowchorski's house for a game of what we called houseball, you knew this summer was going to last forever.
For those of us growing up and playing in the streets of the Lafayette section of Jersey City, the summer of 1948 was a season of change. Just as the movement of a small stone on a mountainside can start an avalanche, a minor incident started it all -- an incident seemingly unconnected with houseball, boxball, matchcover card games and other endless fascinations in the infinite summer universe of youth.
One day in early June, Eddie Kowchorski went to Benny's barbershop and got a baldy haircut.
Eddie's mother, a woman built along the lines of an old-fashioned Wagnerian soprano, whose uniform was a flower-print housedress and babushka, had been nagging him about the length of his hair. At first she had jocularly threatened to buy him a violin unless he got a haircut (in those days long hair had connotations of classical musicianship it has since lost). But after weeks passed, she made the ultimate threat -- she swore she would put a soup bowl over his head and cut his hair herself.
But Eddie was opposed to walking the half-block to Benny's. Aside from being lazy and obstinate by nature, he was obsessed with our latest street game, playing cards -- like casino and rummy -- for matchcovers.
Few of us had money to gamble on card games (pitching pennies was considered the height of reckless and sophisticated gambling), so when someone devised a system whereby certain matchcovers would be accepted in card games at previously agreed- upon denominations, we took to the game avidly. The system of assigning value to matchcovers was complex. All that remains of it in my memory is that black, narrow matchcovers bearing the words "Rockefeller Center," along with a drawing of that edifice, were counted as "thousanders," and much to be desired.
We begged parents, relatives and other adults to get matchcovers for us. We hoarded them in cigar boxes and could play cards for them all day long, usually on the cool cellar steps in front of Eddie's six-family building.
Eventually inflation hit the matchcover game and destroyed it. Older guys began to elbow their way into our games, throw down a strange matchcover and growl "That's a ten thousander." Since no one had the courage to tell a big guy that it was unfair to make up new matchcover values unilaterally, things got out of hand.
Everybody started to claim that the bizarre matchcover he happened to hold in his hand was a "millioner." Thousanders soon became worthless. The game faded, a victim of inflationary pressures.
But all of this happened after the day Eddie marched to the barbershop and into the realm of myth. The matchcover game was then at its peak. Eddie was at once the most feverish player and the informal master of proceedings, since, after all, it was his cellar steps that served as our casino. He would be on the steps early in the morning, his cigar boxes filled with matchcovers, and he would stay there until the last player had drifted away late at night to listen to the radio, or, in an increasing number of cases, to watch a newly-purchased television.
On the fateful day, we were playing rummy and Eddie was in his customary position, slumped against the black iron railing of the cellar entrance. Long blond cowlick hanging in his eyes, eyes squinting at his cards, Eddie did not see his mother descend upon him with her broom.
She missed him with the first swing (she used a modified choke-grip, trying for contact rather than one resounding blow), but caught him neatly behind the ear with the second, sending him sprawling (but still clutching his cards). Her third attempt (by now she was gripping the broom at the end of the handle, like the great slugger she was) missed him completely but hit his cigar boxes, scattering his matchcover riches.
As the rest of us scurried for cover, she kept swinging while she yelled at him:
"I tole ya (swing, clean hit, back of head) . . . I tole ya (swing, three base hit, backside) git a haircut . . . now ya got me mad."
She grabbed Eddie by one of his over- sized ears and led him up the block toward Benny's while he howled, less from the pain than from the fear he had lost his matchcovers. When she came back to the stoop, she mounted the steps and shouted at us:
"I don't want no more card playing here. I don't want no more bouncin' the balls on the stoop. I don't want no nothin' on these here steps. No more gamblin'. Go gamble by your own house. Go play someplace else, all you kids. I mean it, you don't play here no more."
I immediately recognized the gravity of this new order of things, because Eddie's house was important to our street sports, particularly houseball.
In houseball, the "batter" bounced a pink, rubber ball off the ledge that ran along the front of Eddie's building -- no other was quite as good -- and also served as home plate. There were two other bases. First was a sewer plate in the middle of the street, third was chalked in when we had chalk and agreed upon as being at a certain tar spot when we didn't. There was no second base -- the street was too narrow.
Good hitters had a certain rhythm to their approach which I could never master. Eyes on the ledge, they crouched, rapidly bounced the ball on the sidewalk two or three times and then, with a skipping motion, moved forward to hurl it at the ledge. When the ball bounced out to the playing field, the hitter turned toward the street and ran to first base. If he hit the point of the ledge, the ball would go out on a line drive for a hit if it was not caught by one of the fielders. But if the ball hit the ledge on a bad angle, it would either go on an easy hop to the infielder or, if the hitter missed the point entirely, bounce out to the field on what we called a Baltimore chop -- an automatic out.
Some hitters could send line drives off the facade of the building across the street from Eddie's. One faction called these home runs if they hit above the second floor, and another believed the fielders should get the chance to catch the ball for an out as it came off the house.
But we never got the chance to decide what the ground rules should be because Mrs. Kowchorski's edict had deprived us of the only place on the street where houseball could be properly played.
Furthermore, after the baldy haircut Eddie couldn't intervene for us -- Mrs. Kowchorski proved she didn't care he'd become a neighborhood legend only minutes after she let go of his ear.
"Haircut? I'll show her a haircut," he had said when he tearfully entered Benny's and demanded his spite-job baldy. Benny the Barber was immediately suspicious. Eddie was known as a wild kid and you couldn't tell about him. But Eddie was also a terrific liar (he had, after all, convinced his mother for weeks that he was just about to go to the barber) and he told Benny that not only would his mother not mind, but, to the contrary, she had begged him to get a baldy because she had heard someone on the radio say it was going to be a very hot summer. Against his better judgment Benny went about giving Eddie the works.
Eddie emerged from Benny's grinning idiotically, looking like Dopey the Dwarf in Walt Disney's Snow White, his bald head shining as he strutted along Van Horne Street to his home. We jeered and hooted, but, with the nonchalance and confidence of a star born to play one role magnificently, he ignored us. For a moment he paused at the base of his front steps and then, still grinning, made his way up the steps to the vestibule. The door closed and he was gone.
Within the next two minutes three things happened:
Eddie opened the door to his second-floor right rooms, where he was greeted by shrieks and imprecations from his mother. Eddie's big brother, whose name, I believe, was Joseph, but who was universally known as "Stork" because he had long legs, began to chase Eddie. And Mrs. Kowchorski, her broom held at port arms, ran up Van Horne Street to Communipaw Avenue and into Benny's as Benny was applying a razor to the upturned throat of a customer.
The exact truth of what happened next has never been ascertained, but all purveyors of the legend agree on the following: Mrs. Kowchorski took one swipe at Benny with the broom, the hapless customer fell from the barber chair shrieking and Benny, showing a grace of movement belying his 200-pound, five-foot-four frame, fled hrough the rear door of his shop.
Mrs. Kowchorski, with no victim to assuage her wrath, turned to Benny's most sacred icon, a big portrait of Rudolph Valentino as The Sheik, and, taking up his barber's scissors, stabbed it repeatedly. It is said that Benny sought sanctuary in Joe the Butcher's meat refrigerator.
Eddie came out of the Baldy Haircut Affair far from chastened or even saddened. He had revenged himself against his mother, rid himself of any reason to go the barber for the rest of the summer and earned the attention of the neighborhood. More importantly, he had earned a nickname, Melonhead, later shortened to Mel.
On the other hand, his mother made him stay in the house during the rest of June and most of July, and his friends paid a price for his great moment as well.
Cut off from our houseball and matchcover games, we drifted into that most historic of all street sports -- hanging around.
There were naturals, guys who could stand on the corner all day and well into the evening, moving no more than 20 feet from their original spot. We studied them. We learned to lean with one leg bent so that the foot rested on the wall, hands jammed into pockets. We paused now and then to spit. We talked about sports, watched girls pass by in their summer dresses and cursed Eddie for depriving us of our games.
There was boxball, but it wasn't as good as houseball. The bases were at the four corners of the junction of Van Horne and Lafayette Streets. Each team had a pitcher and a standard baseball infield, with no outfield. The pitcher delivered the pink rubber ball underhanded, on one bounce and the batter either slapped it with the flat of his hand or punched it with his fist. The tricky part was that if you punched it on the fly beyond the baselines, you were automatically out -- the idea was to make it take one hop before it went through the infield.
For a few weeks we played boxball every day. Then, just as suddenly as we had begun, we stopped. Boxball was finished. Street games had life spans of their own, it seemed. This was part of their strength. We had no adult supervision, written rules, schedules, umpires or official playing fields.
No one ever received a scholarship for his ability to send a one-hop shot through a drawn-up infield in a boxball game, though it demanded considerable skill. Street games were games. They had no purpose, no utility, none of the meaning organized sports have for society.
A high-school football or basketball star sees his name in the newspapers. But a houseball star is just a houseball star -- and only on his block and then only for one or two summers. But we took each game seriously and played it as best we could, lost for an hour or two in a world of our own making. Until it ended, it was our world in a way that kids playing Little League can never know.
Eddie finally made it back to the street. He was the same old Eddie, but things weren't the same. No one played matchcovers anymore. We tried playing houseball at Eddie's, half-hoping his mother would chase us with a broom for disobeying her proclamation. But she didn't seem to care anymore. Somehow, neither did we.
Officially there was still a week or so to go until we had to go to school, but the summer was over for us. Nobody wanted to play anything. Something had changed.
Someone in a nearby house would have the radio on the Yankees or Dodgers or Giants game and we could hear what DiMaggio and Sid Gordon and Jackie Robinson and Preacher Roe and Snuffy Stirnweiss were doing. But we were just waiting. Things got so bad that I even began to look forward to going to high school -- almost. It was all over. The Melonhead summer was gone.
One night years after I had moved from the neighborhood, I met Mel again. He was married, had two kids and was working at Western Electric in Kearny.
We reminisced about the old days for awhile and then ran out of things to say. But suddenly he turned to me and grinned. "Remember that time I got the baldy?"
"Sure I remember," I said. "How could I forget that?"
That, and what it was like to have once stood on a front stoop in the early morning, looking at Van Horne street, knowing in the deepest part of your heart that the summer before you would never, ever end.