Deep into adolescence, I faced another group of close-knit, small town kids without the bonding skills of team sports to help. We had moved to Rome, New York in 1948. My father was vice president of a company that manufactured an off-brand floor-polishing machine.
I made a few friends that fall when at Halloween I joined a group of kids spreading dried leaves across a residential street. They poured gasoline siphoned from a nearby parked car onto the leaves and set them on fire after which we ran like hell. That winter at the skating pond down our street I played ice hockey with those boys in the afternoon until it got too late to see the puck. For a time I felt assimilated. My father was a vice president and talked about joining the country club.
My sister worked at Greenwich House in the slums of New York City in the summer of 1948. She convinced my parents to invite two “fresh air” children to live with us for a few weeks. Fresh Air kids were children from the slums of New York City who visited families living in the country for a couple of weeks in the summer. The Fresh Air Fund continues until this day, if you’re interested in taking part.
Eddie and Katy O’Brien’s were ten and seven, respectively, poor like the kids on Rosendale Road, but urban poor. We had corn on the cob for our first meal. Eddie took one look at the corn and said, “She don’t eat corn. It makes her puke.”
I waited with horrified expectation for my father to break into a rage. No one ever spoke that way at the table. But my mother was charmed by Eddie’s use of an Elizabethan word, new to our family, and deflected the tension by commenting on it. I seized on this descriptive term and from then on never said “I feel sick to my stomach” but always “I might have to puke” later shortened to “I feel pukish.”
I was three years older than Eddy, but he seemed permanently older than I would ever be. He taught me to play poker and shoot craps, “Put da money on da cards,” Eddie would insist. His ruthless poker style later served me well in college, where consistent winnings increased my meager college funds. Eddie and Katy’s poverty, their intelligence and dim prospects were simple facts of life, but when they left on a bus to return to the slums of New York City, we all felt we were abrogating some unspecified responsibility.