Boys in the 'hood take her back to dreamy, carefree days of youth

UP ON THE ROOF

June 09, 1996|By Ann LoLordo

Where are the boys of summer?

They arrived in the summer of my sixth year in the South Baltimore rowhouse. One evening, while cleaning up in the kitchen, I heard voices through the screen door. Young voices, eager, conspiratorial, free. I looked out the back door. Two boys stood in the walkway that runs behind the houses on my block. The passageway is barely wide enough for two people. But for any youthful rogue, the network of concrete lanes that runs from one street to another offers an easy escape route, a shortcut, a hideout.

The alley served as a kind of open-air boys' club shielded by a bramble of overgrown rosebushes, scented by a fence full of honeysuckle. At dusk, I would listen for the boys through the screen door. I didn't know them. In fact, I rarely saw teen-agers in the neighborhood except during the school year, and then they always came and went.

When I first saw the boys, I wondered what brought them to my alley. I soon found out.

One by one, they climbed the rusting chain-link fence around my back yard, then scaled a higher fence next door. Gaining their balance, they leaped toward the sloping roof of the small coffee factory situated behind my house. They landed safely, though sometimes on hands and knees.

From Pfefferkorn's roof, they studied the blue-black sky. I can only imagine what caught their gaze: the Domino Sugars sign flaring orange in the east; an American flag flying atop the neon skeleton of the newest Inner Harbor high-rise; Venus, that bright and shining star. They came often that summer.

These boys piqued my curiosity. I admired their moxie, commandeering a rooftop. So, at night, after their arrival, I would close the back door, turn out the kitchen lights and retreat to the upstairs bathroom -- the only room with a view of the coffee-factory roof. There, in the cool dark, I would sit, eavesdropping on their summer conversations.

It wasn't what they said that kept me at the window, but how they said it -- eager, breathless, boastful.

Gangly and bony-kneed, they wore the uniform of summer -- long shorts, baggy T-shirts and baseball caps. They stretched out on that roof like they owned it. Their cigarette tips glowed in the dark. It seemed as though no one could touch them.

I realize now that these boys reminded me of my own youthful summers, of the voices that filled the field across the street from the house I grew up in.

The house stood at the end of a dead-end street in a Long Island suburb on the express commuter line to Manhattan. Most of my friends spent their summers at the country clubs in town. My sisters, brother and I did not. When she could, our mother would drive us to the public beach. When she couldn't, we would spend our days on the blacktop of the dead-end or in the Field.

The Field was a welcome respite from the boredom of our back yard. It was the one wild place in a neighborhood of brick-and-shingled Colonials, trimmed azaleas and green mowed lawns. At the center of the Field was a big, leafy oak, its branches scarred by the children of summers past. Someone had nailed boards to the tree trunk, providing easy access to the oak's green shade and a secret place in the sky.

Though we called this area the Field, it probably wasn't much more than an overgrown plot of scrub waiting for a developer. Youngsters had trampled a path through the tall, yellowing grass. One spur led to the tree. Another rimmed the Field. A third headed west to a wooded area where our parents forbade us to go -- strangers lurked there.

Many days I found myself in that field, imagining an afternoon of adventure. I climbed the limbs of the oak tree and settled upon one of its branches. It was a place of introspection where a girl looked beyond the chimneys and rooftops to a world of possibility. It was a safe place, a haven for dreams. From my leafy perch, I envisioned a grown-up world with me in it. And I liked what I saw -- me dancing on a Broadway stage, writing poems in a sunlit study, swooning in the arms of Kevin Mazzarelli, the boy who lived two doors down.

When I first spied those boys in my backyard alley, I thought they were bound for mischief, teen-aged Peeping Toms. From their rooftop perch, they could see clearly into the bedrooms of any number of houses. But as I listened to them that first night, my worries dissolved. Their voices summoned up another voice. The voice of that girl in the Long Island oak tree. The girl who counted wildflowers by day, constellations at night. A voice waiting to sing.

The Field has long ago been paved over. It boasts half-a-million dollar houses now, manicured lawns and flower-trimmed walkways. If children live in those houses, I have never seen them on my visits north. If they exist, I wonder where they spend their summers.

As for the boys on Pfefferkorn's roof? A few summers came and went, but not the boys. During those years, I wondered if I had imagined their shadowy presence. And then one Indian summer evening several years ago, I walked into the bathroom of my rowhouse. Voices from the alley floated through the open window. I gingerly pushed back the curtain. I saw a baseball cap and the red glow of a lighted cigarette.

Like backyard fireflies, the boys had returned. Suddenly, the neighborhood grew smaller. I leaned on the windowsill and peered through the darkness, waiting for the boys to once more take me to the top of the world.

ANN LOLORDO is a staff writer for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/09/96

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