by Daniel Picker
“Come on, boys; we’re going to be late!” mom called from the center hall of the house.
O.K.,” I called from the kitchen.
“Where’s your brother?” mom asked by the front door.
He’s on the landing tying his sneakers,” I responded.
Back in the kitchen I saw Ed chomping on a piece of wheat toast warm from the toaster, then sit down on the steps in the kitchen below the landing.
Soon we three were out the front door, out in the fresh morning air and under clear sky.
Up our curving hill below the buttonwoods we turned right. In the morning we walked over old pale tan brick sidewalks with mom, two brothers; I was 12 and my little brother Ed was 10; we walked below the full summer canopy of trees for eight blocks; the trees stretched over the avenue from both sides and formed a tunnel. Mom didn’t drive so we walked. Mom grew up in the city and seemed to still prefer it. She sometimes called our small town “a cultural desert.”
The sun was already bright. One long block from the highway we crossed a busier street and mom reached her hand beside me toward mine to hold my hand. I felt her warm hand hold mine, but pulled my hand away and said, “I’m too old to hold hands.”
Our school stood half a block up to the right where we went to school during the fall, winter, and spring. The oldest brick building was closest to us: 1890 carved below its red bricks. One block further ahead the curving dirt path lead to the newer wide sidewalk which lead to the highway. Across its two lanes and up the tall curb on the other side and further up the sidewalk was the train station.
Our mom worked for the YMCA so we could train for free. We took the train with her into the city for two weeks that summer. We walked across the city to the tall square old brick building; the building looked to be at least 10 storeys and took up half a city block just down the street from City Hall. With ornate script, Young Men’s Christian Association stood carved elegantly above the shadowed alcove of the doorway. We walked up the tall steps with mom. Inside mom had a nice desk just outside the wood – paneled office of her boss, Mr. Fitzpatrick. She directed us to the elevator and we rode up on our own to day camp.
In the YMCA we were with all the city kids. One counselor offered us beat – up, cracked, dry, red – leather gloves and we could hit the heavy bag or use the thin, vinyl pull – on gloves and hit the speed bag. I watched one guy, a handful of years older than I was, workout on the speed bag; his tan arms glistened as his fists rolled into the bag below the shadowed stairwell. The bag was held below a round flat platform attached to the ceiling rafters, and he seemed 16 or 17 as he let his fists roll rhythmically into the bag. The sound of his fists hitting the leather tear – shaped bag which bounced off the platform above made percussive music. I tried it too, but I really wasn’t coordinated enough at 12 to hit the speed bag consistently. In that dark corner of the gym a radio played “Summer in the City” then “Takin’ Care of Business” every morning. I tried hitting the heavy bag but became bored quickly. So they let me spar. They paired me off with this one kid. I was skinnier, but we were both about the same height and we were about the same age, but I thought I was smarter. We were both short for our age. The counselors and the other kids seemed to almost ignore us and we couldn’t hurt each other with such heavy gloves. I had a strong right hand, and even though I was a lightweight I had long arms. One coach kept telling me: “Keep your hands high and your head low.”
I loved it. I had seen old fight films on TV of Floyd Patterson. I could hide behind my arms. I could bob and weave. Patterson wasn’t the strongest or biggest fighter. He wasn’t quite big enough or heavy enough to dominate, but he knew how to protect himself. He would hide behind his arms in what the sportscaster called “a peek-a-boo style” and then boom, a jab to the face. I liked his style. I had watched Ali on TV too. He had long arms too, and he could lay back and jab. He had a fierce jab. He knew how to keep the other fighter at bay. He could win with his mind. Frazier would just bear in and get hit but he kept coming. I liked him too; he was always the underdog, as Patterson was before him.
So, the coach would let me spar on the mats with this kid. We would mix it up, but mostly it was gloves hitting gloves. I sparred with that one kid the most; he was about my height, but his arms were stronger from weightlifting, so I respected his strength, but he lacked reach. He was left – handed, but I was a righty, and my left jab was strong, so I could keep him away. When we bore in close and started flailing it would be a rush like a million butterflies in my stomach, heat and sweat and the whole world spinning terrifically fast. Body punches were the best because no one got hurt, just the rush, and there was no padding on a kid’s stomach. I could hit a kid in the stomach and knock the wind out of him; it was easy. Sometimes I would lay back and flick my left jab. Since he was left – handed he kept his left back and led with his weaker right. We would only go three three – minute rounds, then the coach would separate us and make us rest, and then tell us to take the gloves off and go play basketball.
I hustled and chased after the same kid; I drove to the basket for layups, and shot from outside, but I almost always lost to him, by a basket in these long games to 50 or 100 even, when each basket counted as two points. We played a half – court game with backcourt beyond the top of the key. The old tall metal water fountain in the corner was like a best friend, but Ed and I were barely tall enough to lean over it and push down the knob, but when we did the cold water wet our lips and throat. This tall kid with skin the color of chocolate milk always stood nearby hovering. You could smell his stale gym clothes which he wore every day. He never wore socks with his sneakers, and sometimes stood dribbling a basketball with his right hand. He never touched the ball with his left.
The head counselor, who was the only one taller than him, called him “Cherokee.” Cherokee had two boxes of candy, Chiclets and Good ‘n Plenty stuffed in his back jeans’ pockets. He was tall and chubby and always hung around the water fountain menacingly. When we ran over to the fountain for a cold drink he inevitably shuffled over, and when he stood close you could smell his t – shirt and sneakers right away.
“Hey, how come you guys never say anything?” he asked.
We just ignored him.
True, at the Y Ed and I didn’t talk that much, except during breaks between boxing in the morning and arts & crafts after lunch. I would just quietly ask, “How’s it going?” He was pretty quiet and I was still looking out for him. We just silently stuck together. Although we never said anything about it, we knew we were the only small – town, white kids at the Y.
In between the varnished wooden tables and counters in the art room were narrow walkways covered in green – ish carpet. Cherokee sometimes stretched out on the floor face down and wriggled like a forgetful bear. The few girls in that class looked at him curiously from a across the room. Once he sat near us, but with his back to us as he sat at a near – by table. He didn’t have a project he was working on, so he just sat there. We didn’t know what was with him. He leaned back in his chair toward me, and asked, “What are you working on Fearless?” he asked.
“A tile square for a coffee pot,” I said.
“How come you never talk, Fearless?”
“I’m concentrating,” I said. “And in the morning I’m learning to box. Don’t you believe I can box with that kid here in Philadelphia?”
“If you keep boxing that black kid here in Philadelphia you won’t be here next week to tell anyone about it,” he said.
I just ignored him and smiled and said, “We don’t need to talk to you – or even each other,” I said. “We have an unspoken rapport and camaraderie.”
I knew a bit after I said that, that that was the wrong thing to say. Cherokee turned around and got up and lumbered over to the girls who huddled like the petals of a single flower, and said to them, “We have an unspoken rapport and camaraderie.”
My one attempt at a friendly gesture was just fuel for Cherokee to try to impress the girls. I don’t think he had an original thought in his head.
Each day we were often in the gym in the morning over these old white canvas mats surrounded by white walls, but Ed and I never faced each other. I could see out of the corner of my eye his small victories, a solid right cross, delivered fiercely as he lunged. He was acquiring some of my ferocity. He was still a bit weaker, but I could tell he would soon be stronger, taller, and more coordinated than I was. He did OK against the kids his own age; we were only two years apart.
After lunch, during arts & crafts we tried to enjoy whatever the activity was, making potholders or ceramic tiles for resting hot pots on that we hoped mom would love. We just quietly stuck together. After more afternoon basketball, or, at the Y, they even had a narrow, banked running track upstairs above us, just below the ceiling; it took eight laps to make a mile. I thought it was stupid, and refused to run more than two laps. It was too small and short and tight. I’d rather run through a field close to home, or under the trees, up the sidewalk, in a race home from the field.
At the Y though we had swimming which both of us were poor at, and this was the most embarrassing, and the counselors offered little help, but mom wanted us to learn. The pool was a deep murky turquoise rectangle with white sides. Later, thankfully, we were set free to walk across the city to the train station, then ride the train, and then walk below the canopy of trees to home.
But before returning home we walked across Center City together and over those streets I silently marveled at our surroundings: the tall buildings in bright sun, the array of people, the city women, the light in the sky breaking through high above grey Billy Penn atop dirty City Hall. I spun around investigating all the surroundings, people and things; hot dog and pretzel vendors.
“Do you want a soda?” I asked Ed. He kept walking straight ahead.
“We’ve got to get home,” he responded, “Mom asked us to put the chicken in before she got home.”
There was usually a note on the kitchen base cabinet to put the chicken with cream of mushroom soup that was in a pan in the frig, into the oven at 4:30PM, which Ed always did; chicken baked with cream of mushroom soup was Ed’s favorite. We would precede mom home and she would sometimes meet friends at Doc Watson’s or City Tavern after work.
“But we have some time still. Do you want to walk down to Independence Hall to walk across the park under the trees and get out of this sun and heat?” I asked.
It is really hot and humid,” Ed responded. “There might be a bit of a breeze down there.”
“We can cross Broad Street and walk straight down Walnut,” I suggested.
“O.K.,” Ed said, “It will be good to get out of the sun and enjoy the shade of the trees. Hey, did you like camp today?” Ed asked.
“It was O.K.; I liked boxing that one kid, and that one guy can really work the speed bag,” I said. “I don’t think I could ever do that.”
“But you’re pretty good at boxing,” Ed said.
“You’re good at basketball, too,” I said. “That tall coach called you ‘Rocket Butt’”
Ed smiled, and then we were quiet for a bit.
As we walked down Walnut we could feel the air grow strangely cooler, and the wind shifted. The sky now grew a deep grey shade and we heard the distant rumble of thunder as we approached the historic district with its broad lawns, square parks, and brick sidewalks. We were now just a few blocks from the brick colonnade of Independence Hall beyond that admiral’s statue.
“I think it’s gonna rain,” Ed said.
“I think you’re right.”
Then the thunder rumbled deeply and there was a loud crack of lightning, and a cloud burst above us and we started to run. We ran as fast as we could with the rain pouring down on us as we sprinted under the full – leaved green trees and over the lush lawns and brick sidewalks.
“Run!” I said. And we did, side – by – side toward the corner past The Curtis Publishing Company where mom used to type at night, its dull red bricks and grey carved stone above and beside us.
We ran as fast as we could, laughing, and then we reached the top of the steps which descended to the subway train; with rain on our faces and our hair damp across our foreheads: two brothers smiling during that storm in summer.