Ghetto Games and Penny Candy

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Atari Joystick

I am of the firm belief that life was much simpler, back in the day. Imagine this: we subsisted on a diet mainly made up of junk food (our parents never knew we pretty much sold our souls at the neighborhood “candy house”), but it was rare that you ever saw a fat kid. That’s because of all the games we played, long before Atari 2600 (then called the “VCS”) made it into our living rooms. Here’s a quick list of games we played (which kept us OUTSIDE all day–something kids nowadays couldn’t even fathom!) and treats that kept us bouncing off the wall…

GAMES:

– It. No ball, no bat, no glove. Just a bunch of kids running around like chickens with our heads cut off, avoiding that unlucky bastard that just so happened to be, well, “IT”! 😉

– Double Dutch. Girls were SERIOUS about this. So much, in fact, that you could get your ass kicked for jumping in wrong and messing up the flow.

– Strike Out. Got a ball and bat, but only two folks and no playing field? So what?! Play in your backyard and lay waste to your neighbor’s new windows…again! :p

– Hopscotch. Make it to Sky Blue.

– Pitching Pennies. This truly WAS a ghetto game. The funniest thing is that, because we only had pennies, the penalty for losing was usually relegated to a swift kick in the ass. Literally.

– Superman. How the HELL I jumped off the second floor onto concrete and never broke a single bone STILL continues to boggle me.

– Rock Fight. Another game that needed nothing fancy. Just a bunch of rocks and a perfect aim. And, surprisingly, no one ever lost an eye.

– House and Doctor. I won’t even go into details, but if your kids are playing it, you’d better keep a VERY watchful eye out!!!

– New clubhouse. All you needed was the discarded box from a new appliance and an overactive imagination. We used to FIGHT over those empty boxes!!!

TREATS:

– Peppermint with a Dill Pickle. I’ve yet to figure out who came up with this combination, but the girls LOVED it.

– Wine Candies (aka, Jolly Ranchers).

– Boston Baked Beans.

– Cherry Clan.

– Red Hots.

– Hot Tamales.

– Now-and-Laters.

– Jolly Joes.

– Alexander the Grape.

– Mike and Ike.

What games and treats do you remember?

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An Ode to Cap’n Crunch, Crack Dealer of the Breakfast Cereal World

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Cereal Triad

It’s Saturday morning. As a kid, my favorite thing was to get a huge bowl and watch cartoons. Of course, this was after fighting with my brother and sister over the prize in the box…

I grew up in a home where my mother did cruel and unusual things like buy bags of PUFFED RICE. There is NOTHING worse than eating a bowl of Styrofoam packing for breakfast! I think she was giggling off in the corner while we ate heaping spoonfuls, tears running down our little cheeks! Occasionally, she would splurge and get us Alpha Bits or Rice Krispies. We were completely deprived of anything Sir Captain of the Crunch had to offer.

One day, I finally moved OUT of that bleak dungeon. I ventured into the grocery store one Saturday evening and did something I’d wanted to do all my life: I purchased a box of Peanut Butter Crunch… And wound up eating the whole damned thing that night!!!

I’ve since given up sugary cereals for healthier stuff like granola, which I actually enjoy. However, every now and then, when I traipse down that cereal aisle, I can hear the Captain whispering to me like the crack dealer he is! I then take off running, often spilling the contents of my cart, trying to remember those painful months I spent in rehab, RIDDING myself of that man and all his sugary, sweet, delicious offerings!!!

The Magical Mystery of a Place Called OUTSIDE

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Children, Jumping, Happy, Natural, Play, Tranquility

It’s funny how the words, “Junior, you should go outside,” is now interpreted as something shy of a death sentence. Back in the day, the opposite (“You know what, Junior, you keep your little butt in the house!”) could mean the end of a child’s existence.

Of course, a social network was once determined by how many friends a kid actually had. On a warm day, there wasn’t enough time to fit all of it in. We’d go from climbing trees, to playing in the park, to building clubhouses, to stupid skateboard tricks, to swimming, to acting like our favorite music groups (for me and my buddies, it was the Jackson 5, and there was a fight over who was going to be able to be Michael), to reading comic books, to… The possibilities were endless.

Heaven forbid we got a heavy rain and were stuck in the house all day! Granted, we could spend the afternoons trying disrupt our little sisters’ tea parties, drawing, and reading, but it wasn’t the same as being outdoors!

There was freedom to be found and a seemingly endless amount of adventures to be had.

The thing that was really cool for me was when my maternal grandparents relocated to the country. It was funny because, though we were just an hour away from home, it seemed like we were in some Mississippi backwater. The people were cordial, with drivers honking and waving to say hello.

My grandparents had once lived in the Deep South, so it was almost like a return to what they were used to. That also meant that children had no business being in the house on a nice day.

That was perfectly fine by me and my cousins. If we were lucky, we would be able to spend spring break or a couple of weeks of our summer vacations at our grandparents’ home. There were creeks to scope out, fishing to do, and long, long hikes until we got lost. It was a welcome change for a city boy like me.

When I was young, there were no cellular phones for the common family. Our parents instilled quite a bit of trust, usually not having a clue of which direction we headed on a beautiful day.

My brother, sister, and I would often walk all over Chicago’s South Side. Our mother might give us a dollar for bus fare, but we’d pocket it to purchase penny candy for our long strolls. We would even talk our friends into joining us.

The only rule was to be back home by dark. Even then, we would be allowed outside in a limited capacity.

I recall getting our first video game system: an Atari 2600. Though we were enamored with what we considered top-of-the-line graphics back then, we knew our allotment was typically an hour a day. We were fascinated by Pac Man (where the character only faced one direction, the maze never changed, and the game looked nothing like the arcade version) and Pong but our hearts were to be found in the parks, at the pools, near the lake, and popping wheelies on a side street with friends. Because outdoors was were the real magic existed.

Two Dollars and a Dream

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Chicago Skyline with Faces

Broke is a state of mind. This is why it’s not hard to see a lottery winner go from millions of dollars to bankruptcy in 60 seconds. A poverty mindset is like having bad blood in the body: it has to be cleaned. Ever wonder why there are so many reality show “housewives” (most are just glorified mistresses who are not married to their counterparts) are filmed jumping over tables to fight in 4-star restaurants?

Though we grew up on Chicago’s rough-and-tumble South Side, my parents had a different mentality when it came to the status quo. In many ways, we were the same number and had some similarities to the characters on the show, Good Times. There was me, my sister, and my brother. Like J.J., I fancied myself an aspiring artist back then, too. Much like Florida Evans, my mother was a devout Christian; my father could be about as intimidating as James Evans, if not more so. He wasn’t above threatening all the neighborhood gangbangers against recruiting my brother and I. Also, like James, my dad was constantly reading something.

When the summers came, there were lots of opportunities to get into trouble. Many kids started the school year in September pregnant or having gotten someone pregnant; some kids never made it back to school at all.

We were allowed to play with our friends, go to the neighborhood pools, do stupid bicycle tricks (channeling Evel Knievel), and walk clear across the city, if we’d like. However, between summer camps and Vacation Bible School programs, my mother had an interesting way of switching things up: weekly trips to the Cultural Center or one of the museums.

My mother was the queen when it came to stretching a buck. She could pinch a penny until Lincoln began to cry uncle. Her talent was being crafty about exposing us to the world on a tight budget.

For starters, most of the museums were located downtown. The DuSable Museum bordered Hyde Park, not very far from one of our favorite places: the Museum of Science & Industry. We like it so much because, back then, it was always free admission and there were plenty of exhibits. The other museums had days when they offered free admission, as well.

However, the Cultural Center, which was in the heart of downtown, was always free. In addition to often having some sort of hoity-toity event or lecture, there was a plethora of books! During that time, the Center also doubled as the city’s Central Library, so it held more volumes than even the collection at the sprawling Carter G. Woodson Regional Library. For hours on end, I could peruse the massive shelves, sit and just read.

In order to encourage us to make a day of our adventure, my mother gave us two dollars each. The breakdown was simple. Before we left home, we had a nice breakfast. It cost 50 cent to ride the bus and train to get downtown and the same amount for our return trip. The extra dollar was for lunch. We had discovered a restaurant within a couple of blocks of the Center that sold a Chicago style hot dog and fries to go for our remaining four quarters. The trick was that you had to take your order to go, which suited us just fine. My siblings and I would beat the lunchtime rush, grab our food, and go to Grant Park for an hour. They had water fountains, so we had something to drink. Then we’d return to the Cultural Center to hang out some more.

The funny thing is, when we would return from one of our trips to a museum or library, most of our neighborhood pals were in awe. Those were places they’d heard of but had never gone. Eventually, we began talking their mothers into giving them a couple of dollars so they could accompany us.

It’s amazing how such a small investment allowed us exposure to a world outside of the dirt, grime, and crime we’d grown used to. Those two dollars purchased our tickets outside of poverty mindsets.

Fee-Fee Cree (or, A Short Memoir on the Creature Feature Effect)

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When I was a kid, growing up in Chicago, WGN (Channel 9) had a horror anthology show called Creature Features. I was already afraid of my shadow, so when the show would come on, playing the weird, electric-guitar-driven theme from Experiment in Terror, I would go into hysterics. The vision of all those monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Phantom, and, more riveting, Lon Chaney from London After Midnight) sent me over the top.

I have a theory that men show affection to children through over-the-top threats (“I’m gonna hang you by your thumbs!”) and crazy actions (holding a kid upside-down). I can remember being roughed up and tickled to the point of passing out on many occasions. I’ve done similar things like that to my own brood.

My Uncle Kenny was a tiny dude who, because I was a small kid looking up, appeared to be a giant to me. He often picked me up over his head, threatening to drop me. Of course, he never did (though there is a going theory that I may have been dropped on my head more than a few times! LOL!). What was one of his favorite things to do, along with my Uncles Lewis and Sherman, was to lock me in a room with “Fee-Fee Cree” (I couldn’t pronounce “Creature Features”) coming on TV. For a 3-year-old already possessed of an overactive imagination, this was enough to make walk through a wall somewhere. Quite often, my mother (who was older sister to that set of uncles) or my grandmother, would come to my rescue. But I had been initiated and scarred for life.

As a teen, I was extremely sensitive to the supernatural. I could sense spirits nearby and was dreadfully afraid of seeing one manifest itself to me. I’d been a tale-spinner as a young child, but my writing picked up when I hit those double digit years. And I wrote about everything that influenced me, from my undying fascination with girls, to my fear of things going bump in the night.

I guess it was in the cards for me to finally pick up the pen and make my first novel a horror anthology. Though zombies weren’t part of my list of haunts as a kid, the subject of the dead getting up to walk was at least as old as the beliefs of the West African Voodun religion. My initial offering would detail the effects of the undead eating the living. More than that, it would point out that people are the real monsters…

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I like writing horror stories. Why? Not because I’ve made some sort of infernal pact or don’t believe in God. Nothing could be further from the truth. Watching a good monster movie or spinning a great yarn of the sort makes me feel alive. That and, like my Uncle Kenny, I love stirring people up to make them want to walk through walls.