The earth has cooled considerably since I was a boy in old New York City. My corner of the city was College Point, a working class, industrial settlement on the East River across the Flushing inlet from La Guardia Airport, in Queens. The city was eighty-one percent white in those days (and I’m not suggesting that that was a good thing), and there were three professional baseball teams (that, I think, was a good thing). There have been many changes over the years. Some of them are discussed, but many are overlooked. One thing that seems to go unnoticed is that urban life is much, much cleaner now.
One thing that should shock the modern observer was just how filthy our lives were in the post-World War II years. I suppose some families had a different experience, a cleaner environment, but the town in general, the stores, the schools, the restaurants and bars, and most of the domiciles, were almost all ancient, run down, and less than clean. Dust and grime ruled.
My little friends and I lived a kind of “Little Rascals” existence. Like that movie gang, we spent a lot of time well out of the range of parental oversight. In that simpler time, parents were content to let us go “out,” and spend whole days “doing nothing.” Much of this nothing was accomplished in vacant lots, of which there were still many. Some were primeval, no spade had ever turned the earth there. We played in the dirt, making battlefields for little soldiers or roads for little cars. We played marbles in circles drawn in the dirt. Since it was New York, there were always construction sites too, often with huge piles of loose dirt for us to get creative with. Dirt bomb fights were common there for a while.
Do children even play in the dirt anymore? I think these days it is considered déclassé.
Our hygiene was less than ideal as well. I didn’t live in a house with a shower until I was married. As boys, we took baths, and infrequently at that. I can hardly believe it now, but even in those beastly New York summers we took one or two baths per week, and washed our hair once a week if that. (Recall that this was the period when most boys loaded up their hair with products that ranged from greasy [Brylcream], to oily [Vasaline Hair Tonic], to down-right gunky [Oddel’s Hair Trainer].)
Many of us lived in homes that were heated with coal. I lived in such a house, a “two-family house,” with a coal bin in the basement, until I was ten. The dust got everywhere. The landlord had to go down and stoke a furnace periodically all winter, like a boilerman on the Titanic.
We paid quite a price for these filthy habits. We got sties in our eyes and boils on our backs, and frequent infections of other kinds as well. Our war-experienced doctors were very blasé about it all. They were just glad that the shooting had stopped. They’d give you a tetanus shot with one hand while smoking a Camel with the other, sipping scotch between house calls.
Disease was a much greater presence then. My own sister came down with whooping cough as a baby, we were lucky not to lose her. I was, fortunately, in the first generation to get polio shots by age six or seven, so much of that hardship was avoided. We did, however, all get the then routine childhood diseases, chicken pox, measles and the mumps. Mumps, in retrospect, seems like an almost comic affliction, with the puffy cheeks and all. The reality was much worse. My own case came soon after the chicken pox and the measles, all in less than a year, and my resistance was low. I was sick as a dog for more than a week, with a fever so high that it was later blamed for my sudden onset of nearsightedness. I remember the projectile vomiting very vividly, launching baseball sized things into the bucket next to the bed. Now most of these diseases live only in memory.
There were the non-routine diseases too, like scarlet fever. Many boys and girls missed an entire year of school with that.
Most children today seem to make in through to adulthood with their tonsils intact, never having become infected at all. Quite the contrary, most of us got that infection too, and had the tonsils removed.
It all seems unreal to me now, like some poor, stunted earth-like civilization visited by the Star Trek crew, or a bunch of “workuses,” (work house kids, one workus, two workuses) in a Dickens novel. But we were relatively prosperous working class kids, some quite middle-class even, and it’s not that long ago really.
Oh, I guess it was long ago. New York changes more rapidly than most cities, many buildings, hell, whole neighborhoods have come and gone since then. These days College Point is home to many of the new minorities in New York, Chinese and other Asians, Hispanics, even blacks. Did I say minorities? Whites are way in the minority now. I’m not complaining, it’s a good thing. That’s been the experience of New York for all of its history. Ethnic groups move in, move out, and shuffle around. All of these newcomers are fine New Yorkers, and I’m sure that they make great neighbors. The fast food is much more entertaining than it used to be too, from what I see on Facebook.
One thing is for sure: these new Chinese, Korean, Hispanic, black or white children have a much more hygienic lifestyle than we did. Oh, two things: I’m sure that they’re healthier too.