Unexpected memories pop up at odd times. Saturday afternoon, my mind drifted back to 1954 and the street games we played as kids in New York. While my apartment building in Rego Park fronted on 63rd Drive, the narrow side streets were only lightly trafficked. Disclosure: One, maybe two people were thrown off my building’s roof in mob-style murders some years after I left home. Second disclosure: The closing of Jack’s candy store affected me more.

In fall, we played touch football in the street. Winter brought sledding and snowball fights. Spring offered punchball and stickball with a pink Spaldeen or Penzy Pinky (Amazon sells high-bounce Pinky balls). They’re the size of a tennis ball but without the fuzz. We also played softball. A manhole cover served as home plate, parked cars as first and third bases, another manhole or a glove as second. As I remember, we never broke a windshield or even—maybe—dented metal.

We also played War. One kid was “It.” The rest each took the name of a country. We huddled together then scattered on the street as “It” counted to five. Everyone froze. “It” stated, “I declare war on…”—say, Russia. In the 1950s, the Cold War was a hot issue. “It” threw the ball at Russia, who could sway but not move his feet. If Russia got hit, he became “It.” If the ball sailed past, “It” stayed “It.” Risks were involved. Balls went down sewers.

We moved to the sidewalk to play Four-box Baseball and Box Ball. A small dirt patch allowed us to play Territory. We threw penknives to carve up smaller and smaller areas. Whoever couldn’t land his knife in the smallest territory lost.

We also went to the schoolyard at PS 174. Without parents! In addition to softball (as few as three kids on a side) and basketball, Johnny-on-the-Pony captivated us. One kid leaned up against the wall in a handball court. Another ran forward and jumped on his back. Then another and another until the “pony” collapsed. What was the point? Did we need one?

Then there was Moon’s Up. It involved Chinese Handball (you slapped the ball to the ground before it hit the wall). Each kid defended his space. If you couldn’t return the ball, you got a point and moved to the end of the line. When someone accumulated a given number of points—often because everyone else ganged up on him—we had a loser. The loser bent over at the wall with his backside up. Each winner got to throw the ball at him. What was the point? Did we need one?

We had indoor games for winter, like shoebox basketball played in a bedroom (which I kind of invented), but that’s another story. Urban life then placed a premium on imagination. Today’s kids, if they escape the pull of their video games, play ball in leagues with uniforms, schedules, adult coaches and cheering (sometimes fighting) parents. ESPN long has covered the Little League World Series. Ridiculous!

How did we turn out? My friends produced a New York State middle-school principal of the year, chemistry teacher/tech consultant, lawyer and neurosurgeon. There also was me. Four out of five ain’t bad.

Update — 4-1-20: One game, off the street, also needs a mention. The P.S. 174 schoolyard included a softball field. Concrete or asphalt, can’t remember which. We used to play Home Run Derby, seeing who could hit a softball from home plate over the twenty-foot-high left-field fence. Not always easy given that the balls we used were usually well worn and didn’t carry. But hit home runs we did. Unfortunately, the handball courts were on the other side of the fence. Handball and stickball players as well as younger children needed lookouts to yell, “Incoming.” Until the parks department worker who had a small brick building for supplies and equipment kicked us out.

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  1. Carolyn Perlstein on August 22, 2014 at 11:10 pm

    How about: “And then there was me the brilliant writer, amazing husband & beloved father & father-in-law!”

  2. Tracy on August 23, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    I’d agree — 4 out of 5 ain’t bad. One became a lawyer, which we all know is Latin for “liar.”

    • Mimi kligerman on February 23, 2022 at 11:39 am

      Played all those games and Hop Scotch with a cap from coke bottle filled with wax from my mom’s best candle. Still can’t sit down.

      • David Perlstein on February 23, 2022 at 11:45 am

        Thanks for sharing the memories, Mimi.

  3. Jordan Pavacich on August 16, 2021 at 6:52 pm

    You re spot on with fond memories of 1950’s Astoria. Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.

    • David Perlstein on August 16, 2021 at 8:36 pm

      Glad you enjoyed the memories in “Street Games of the ’50s,” Jordan.

  4. Ellen Holmes on August 30, 2022 at 9:11 am

    Loved reading this, as I was from Kew Gardens and played the same games including Ring-a-levio – a game in which players on one team are given time to hide and are then sought out by members of the other team who try to capture them, keep them in a place of confinement, and keep them from being released by their teammates.

    • David Perlstein on August 30, 2022 at 10:19 am

      Glad you enjoyed the trip back in time, Ellen. I remember Ring-a-levio—vaguely, however. I think it’s safe to say that times have changed—as they always do. (Do look for a new post almost each Friday. To subscribe, go to the Contact page. Or leave a message here.)

      • Anthony Dayton on December 18, 2022 at 8:49 am

        Thanks for the time travel. I had forgotten some of those games. But I’ll add Hide and Seek and Hit the Penny. we also made scooters out of roller skates and crates, carpet rifles which used rubber bands to shoot pieces of linoleum thrown out in the local lot and roller skated in the streets with those clip on metal skates. Bensonhurst, same era. Thanks again.

        • David Perlstein on December 18, 2022 at 10:42 am

          Glad to assist you in a little time travel, Anthony. Amazing how inventive we were as kids when space was limited outside the home and inside—I grew up in an apartment.

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