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simple things

The windows are open, the birds are singing the sun down. The neighborhood is gently alive: children playing outside, riding bikes, throwing balls, occasionally hollering at each other. Couples and dog-walkers are making the evening circuit (it's just about one mile around the block on our little backwater cul-de-sac). I can hear the faint crunch of sneakered feet pacing down the road when everything else is quiet.

It's definitely warm, about 81 degrees F, but the humidity is low. The sky is crisp and clear, not hazed and greyed out like it gets in the usual hot weather of a southern summer day. (Although this isn't exactly the typical 90-95 degrees we get mid-summer and into September.)

I love being able to turn off the a/c and open the windows.

I spent my entire initial 18 years in the heat and humidity of a Baltimore summer without the benefit of artificially chilled air. We had fans in every room, and we had a two-story house...and let me tell you, the second story was hot by nighttime. My mom was ingenious, though. We had a huge bay window in the dining room, and every June, we'd haul up out of the basement a huge, HUGE industrial-type fan and install it in the big middle window of the bay. Not exactly attractive, but hey, it worked. Every evening when we were going to bed, my mom and dad would shut up the first floor tighter than a nun's legs, doors and windows, then turn on this big-ass fan, set on exhaust. Then upstairs, we'd open every window wide as possible, and the draw would pull the cooler night air into the upstairs and give us some relief. I remember lying in bed, my older sister in her bed on the other side of the room, and I'd position the oscillating fan so it would blow right over my bed as continuously as possible.

I remember every afternoon in the heat of summer, almost like clockwork, around 3pm, Baltimore would get the thunderstorms moving through. Loud and noisy and full of electricity, and sometimes with torrential downpours. If the lightening wasn't crashing around us, us kids would throw on our bathing suits and tear out the front to the curb and our downhill street, where we'd play in the glut of water racing down the gutters to the bottom of the street and the huge grilled sewer opening. Once, I remember sitting out on our front porch (we had a roof on it), sitting on the iron railings with my older brother, while the lightening crashed around us like Beethoven's Fifth. A bolt of lightening hit somewhere right on our street and was so loud and so bright, we fell off the railing, and our next door neighbor, who was attempting to get groceries out of her car out front, dropped a bag of them in the road from utter fright. Squished tomatoes and drenched boxes and three people who nearly peed in their pants.

I remember running loose in the summer from after breakfast to dusk. My mother, bless her departed soul, was a highly practical and eminently logical being. We were a railroad family--she and my father had met while working at the B&O, and my father stayed there for 40 years, and my grandfather had worked there, too, and his sister, and later on, my brother grew up and worked there for a while, too, and would have stayed, but money lured him to Westinghouse, now Northrup-Grumman; he wishes still he could've made the money in the railroad, since he loved it--so we had all things railroad steeped into our family life. So...my mother had a whistle she copped from a metal tea kettle, the kind that fits over the water spout and blows when the water boils. It's loud, very loud. To call me home, from anywhere in the damn neighborhood, she would stand on the front porch and blow that whistle like a train does at a grade crossing: long, long, short, long, about three or four times. When I heard that sound, I knew I better get my butt back home.

But until then, we roamed all over. Down along the railroad tracks two streets and two alleys below my house; all over any construction site that we found, including the huge sewer and water mains they were installing down the road and under the beltway. We rode our bikes or walked down to the little shopping center to the Dolly Madison store and bought ice cream and 5 cent Cokes and then to the pharmacy for all the penney and nickel candy our glutted stomaches could hold.

We played kick the can, dodgeball, hide and seek, and other things I've forgotten now. The family four houses down was Irish Catholic, McManus, and they had eight kids--which was great, because then there was always enough kids around to do something. I remember strapping on my skates and going full-out crazy FAST right down our street to the bottom, flying like a bird as the air jetted by, wondering how I'd stop if a car came. I remember beating up the boy my age who lived three houses up once, I can't remember why now, just that I remember getting him down on the grass and sitting on him and punching him until he gave in.

On Saturdays, my father and I would drive downtown to Lexington Market, or Holland Market, and buy stuff to eat for the weekend: fresh sliced cold-cuts from a neighbor down the street who owned a meat stall (the grandfather would always pull me back into the stall with the workers, and proceed to slice off bits of baloney or thuringer or braunschwager to munch on while my dad's order was getting filled), sweet gerkins, bright yellow sweet onions, or stark white sour onions, cole slaw, German potato salad, fresh kaiser rolls from the bakery, and my absolute favorite: fresh peach cake. Nobody makes the peach cake anymore that we had in Baltimore when I was growing up. It was a heavy, very very dense cake bottom, about an inch or a bit more thick, with fresh sliced peaches laid in a layer across the top. I know it had some kind of wetting agent, some kind of gel or binder that is similar to the strawberry gel you can buy in stores these days to make strawberry deserts, but it wasn't overpowering or used too thickly. Mainly, it was just delicious.

On Saturday afternoons, we'd have a 'spread' out on the kitchen table, and everybody would just have whatever they wanted. My brothers friends from the neighborhood (he was eight years older than me, and they were teenagers with endless gullets) were always awed by it and would love to come over for lunch-- sandwiches! Chips! Pickles and salads and watermelon to spit seeds at each other in the backyard!

I remember waking up early on summer mornings because of the light streaming in the open windows, and birds sitting *right outside the side window* in the maple tree my mother planted between our house and our next door neighbor, who was my dentist. I remember quite clearly waking up the morning of my fifth birthday, lying in bed and staring out the window at the green leaves and being very enchanted that "I'm five now!". Later that morning, I was quite annoyed because I wanted to go down into the basement and get a toy that I'd left there, but my mother said that I couldn't, because the stairs had been painted. I sat outside on the back porch, grumpy. But then later that afternoon, lo and behold, the steps "dried" and we walked downstairs and voila! She had snuck in a surprise birthday party with about ten of my friends. It was quite thrilling.

I also remember my brother telling me around that same time that I needed to be careful not to injure my belly button, because of course, if I did, all my innards would come spilling out through the hole. I walked around for days with a bandaid in case I had an accident!

We spent a lot of time in the basement in hot weather--it was tiled floor and painted cement brick walls, mostly underground, and nice and *cool* compared to upstairs in the worst weather. We had an old couch and chairs down there, and all sorts of fun things, and a refridgerator, and a stove (my mother would always cook holidays turkeys and hams in the downstairs oven so as not to heat up the small kitchen upstairs, and she used it alot in the hot weather). Once, I remember my parents buying a bushel of steamed crabs and setting up the picnic table downstairs and having family over for a crab feast during a hot spell.

The 4th of July was the best, though, when I was growing up in Catonsville, a suburb of Baltimore. Our little town always had one heck of a day planned. We had a huge parade through town, and we'd drive up into the village and park on the street my dad grew up on and my grandmother lived on until I was four, when my grandfather died and she sold the house (which I have always mourned. I loved that house.) Then we'd take our folding lawn chairs and set up on the side of Frederick Ave and wait till the parade started, around 3 pm. Sometimes, we'd have the cookout at home before the parade, with the charcoal grill set up in the backyard. Sometimes we had it afterwards. It was either grilled steaks, or mom would plug in the electric rotisserie and cram two whole chickens on the spit, and we'd have mouth-watering bar-b-q'ed chicken with all the fixins. Watermelon, ice cream, (oh, the Good Humor truck tinkling through the neighborhood every afternoon was another staple of my youth) we stuff ourselves and wash it all down with gallons of ice tea (no soda in our house!)

That night, we'd drive back up into the village to the high school, Catonsville HS, where I eventually graduated, where my dad graduated, my sister, my brother, too, and park, and begin the long walk up and down the hilly grounds to the slope where we would spread out a huge blanket and stake our claim for the fireworks. When I was small, I can remember the common 'boom-booms' getting to me, the ones where they'd boom loud for about 5 or 7 times before they stopped. I'd scrunch up my eyes and cover my ears when they were shot off, tensing up in anticipation for the reverberation of the explosion shivering through my body, but I'd ooo and ahhh over the more expensive ones, the pretty ones that only boomed once and even then quite softly, or the ground display with the words and the pictures illuminated in sparks.

When I was older, I could attend the carnival that was always set up on the upper back parking lot of the school, complete with ferris wheel and other rides, and typical carny delights. As a teenager, we'd giggle and cruise for boys and see what we could hook on our nubile young lines. Or if I had a current boyfriend, we'd lie out on the blanket later and make out in the dark away from the families, in and amongst the other couples underneath the edge of the trees.

I remembered all this today listening to the kids outside. I'm just so damn glad to hear that at least one neighborhood of kids seems to be having the same kind of innocent, fun-filled childhood I did, instead of being locked away tighter than a drum because of all the bad things that could happen to them. We're lucky here, it's a small town (although not without its dark side, that's for sure), and our neighborhood is away from the center of town, off to the outskirts, a small subdivision tucked back here away from the thoroughfares, and there's no through streets. Mine is a dead-end, ending at the farm three houses down, and the side street off it is a semi-circle that comes back into my street at the other end. It's a little slice of memories with the windows open, not quite the same, but near enough to have me reminiscent.

I was lucky. I had a good family, I had an innocent childhood, filled with adventures and fearlessness. I wish the bulk of today's kids could experience that for themselves.

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