When We Danced Together, Not Apart

October 07, 1994|By JACK L. LEVIN

Aninety-some-year-old is supposed to be responsible, civil, reasonable and serene; a teen-ager, just the opposite. Yet, comparing this aging, obstreperous Twentieth Century with its teen-age that I recall, the qualities have been reversed: conformist in its callow youth, rebellious in its golden years. How did it get so topsy- turvy?

This is not a nostalgic lament for good old days that never were. All that can be said of flies, rats, pollution, disease, discomfort and short rations is: good riddance. But how did we get from the way we were to the way we are? Technological advances are only a part of the answer.

Once upon a time, early in the century, there was no television, no video games, no radio, no talking movies, and yet the family -- incredibly -- had fun.

Once upon a time a family like mine -- parents, grandparents, my sister and me -- lived in a tiny box of a row house in East Baltimore, with no inside plumbing except for a single cold-water faucet in the kitchen, and no central heating, (just a coal stove), no electricity, no air conditioning, no fans and an ancient icebox. And yet, unbelievably, we did not feel deprived.

In summer, we kids played a wide variety of games on the sidewalk squares -- hopping, skipping, jumping -- cooling off with chips of ice picked off the floor of the ice wagon after the ice man had chopped off a 10-cent hunk and tonged it inside to the icebox. Or we went to the square, played on the grass and watched the big goldfish in the pond.

Or, in our tiny backyard, in the shade of the outhouse, we devised a secret bank. We removed two bricks from the path, buried an open tin can, fashioned a tin coin slot that just fit between the replaced bricks, and deposited our pennies. We loved the clink as they slid down the slot into the can. After a week or so of secret hoarding, we would lift the bricks, remove a few pennies, and treat ourselves to a Tootsie Roll from the store, or Eskimo Pie from a vendor with a cart like the street sweepers.

Sometimes, when the tiny parlor was not insufferably hot, we would crank up the Victrola and listen to songs by Galli-Curci and Caruso and comic Abie Kabbibble records.

On summer nights, we sat on the front steps chatting with neighbors about the newspaper headlines: Would President Wilson stop the kaiser from committing all those atrocities and sinking our ships; would they find the killer of little Clara Stone? (That one murder case was town talk for weeks when a slain

child was uncommon news.)

If there was no breeze and no rain was predicted, we took blankets to the park, spread them on the grass and enjoyed the band concert. Sometimes we slept through the night beside other families as safe as in our own beds.

Down-the-bay excursions to Tolchester were extra-special. Anticipation was the best part -- inhaling the aromas of chicken frying, hard-boiled eggs soaking in vinegary beet juice, pickles, relishes and favorite sandwiches and snacks being prepared for the picnic baskets.

We rose with the sun, trotted with our loaded baskets to the street car, bantered with other families with the same destination, hurried to buy tickets, then up the gangplank. After a frantic rush to get folding chairs positioned at the rail, where you got the best views and breezes, we would converse with the group next to us about how lucky we were to get these good seats and would it rain.

At Tolchester Beach, we hurried to be among the first off the boat, to run with our baskets up the long pier to get a picnic table under a tree. We rode the rides, especially the goat carts, played on the beach and feasted. Back on the boat at sunset, we heard stories and sang songs with other families on the moonlit sail home.

Winter nights were also a time of togetherness. Warmed by the nearby coal stove, we clustered around the small dining-room table, under the gaslight dome, playing cards or dominoes, hearing Dad's animated reactions to items in the newspaper while we worked the daily follow-the-dots puzzle and Mom darned socks and passed along neighborhood gossip. Often visiting relatives and neighbors joined in the chit-chat.

The operative word in these memories is ''we.'' We talked with each other -- sometimes in strange dialects of German, Irish, Italian, Bohemian, Chinese and Yiddish, but we communicated. We listened to each other. We shared experiences with each other. We were keenly aware of each other -- as family members, neighbors, friends and friendly strangers. We ate together and sat together in one room, not each in his own room munching fast food, alone, staring at a TV screen. We played with and against each other, not alone against a video game. We worked together with each other, not alone with a computer.

We argued, sometimes fought; but we did not shoot to kill. The few of us who had guns used them mostly to make noise on New Year's Eve and the Fourth of July.

We were poor but did not know it, because so were most of our neighbors. We were not obsessed with possessions, like moderns pounded by TV and radio temptations hour after hour, day after day.

We traveled together on trolleys and buses, not alone in a 2,000-pound car taking us individually to and from work. We shared reactions to movies with friends and neighbors and sang with them, following the dot that touched each word of the lyrics on the screen.

We dealt with no supermarkets but with an often opinionated individual baker, butcher, grocer, tailor, iceman, laundry man or woman. When dancing, man and woman held each other; they did not avoid contact.

Could it be that somewhere between the teen-time and old age of this century we have lost much of our common humanity?

Without the terrible unifying force of war and other disasters, can there ever again be another ''we'' generation?

Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore business man.

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