By Luke Capuano
Supporting contributor: Vince Romano
Holy-Moly! June’s here and school is OUT! Let the fun begin! The weight of the world is off your shoulders and the next 67 days are all yours to do with as you please. For everyone except those unfortunate summer school kids.
For all the baby boomers out there you know exactly what I’m talking about: staying out later; sleeping longer; TV whenever; romps to the 12th Street Beach; and games that grabbed your imaginations from sunup to sunset…games that sent you home weary but happy warriors. It was fun to the nth power. It was summer vacation and you were locked into a world, isolated from all others, that was uniquely Taylor Street.
Marbles, tops, yo-yo’s, baseball cards, sling shots, bean blowers, fly-back paddle balls, Hopscotch, Double- Dutch, Kick-the-Can, Hide-and-Seek, and a host of other games that we either inherited from previous generations of Taylor Street bred kids or your generation had conjured up. Walking around looking cool with a punk in your mouth had to be something that was passed on from earlier generations that had arrived at the turn of the century and had been nurtured through the great depression. More often than not, the marbles, sling shots, bean blowers, etc. were carried in the pockets of your jeans. When you walked down the street it looked like you had a saddle bag strapped around your hips.
The four dollar pair of jeans had the life span of a Himalayan monk. The tattering and fraying were the result of being hand-me-downs from older siblings. The holes themselves were well earned. More likely than not, they were the result of falling off your bike onto the cobble stone streets, playing King of the Hill, getting caught on the chained linked fences that you scaled, or playing tackle football with no equipment on Sheridan Park’s cinder surfaced playing fields. Yes, that’s when a “rip was a rip”. Today the same $4 dollar pair of jeans, pre-worn or pre-ripped, has an additional $75 or so added to its price. What a world! One day you’re an underprivileged inner city kid. Hang around a decade or two and those same torn and tattered jeans are the rage on the North Shore. Who knew then that we were fashion setters?
Ah, but the sounds of summer where the best. Ringing bells meant the Good Humor man was near. “Toot-da-toot” was the Lupino Man’s horn announcing the arrival of a cart full of lupini, salted pumpkin seeds and monkey nuts (pine nuts). The strains of a happy melody forewarned of the bi-weekly visit of the Mr. Softy truck. At 10:30am and 6:30pm sharp the air-raid sirens pierced the air. Other than the sun hinting at the time of day, the sirens were the only reliable measure of time. Being late for chores or dinner was never an option, so the 6:30pm siren had a useful purpose.
But the best sound of all, the sound that awakens blissful memories of growing up in the legendary Taylor Street’s Little Italy, was the sound of water blasting out of the fire hydrants. One could never forget the magnificent sight of water spraying over our heads in the shape of a fan. The breadth and depth of that fan was determined by what was used to create the spray of water that sometimes reached as far as steps of the homes on the other side of the street. The spray varied from day to day and hydrant to hydrant. A car tire and 2X4 board or a cracked hydrant cap screwed back into place with the perfect angle to create the best possible spray or one of the bigger kids sneaking behind the hydrant and putting a choke hold on the water gushing out determined the height, width and distance of the spray. The choke hold was the best of all.
What a way to stay cool! Run through, get wet, and then get some sun. Repeat this over and over, and then occasionally carry a girl or two into the spray. You did so for the sheer fun of it. Later, as your generation moved beyond its pre-pubescent stage, the outline of her bra or panties emerged (consciously or subconsciously) as the dominant motivation for the ritual of dragging neighborhood girls into the spray. There was no need to go to confession. All peoples, since the beginning of time, had a similar ritual as hormonal changes occurred. It was nature’s way of ensuring the survival of the species. How appropriate. After all, isn’t water where all life began?
The hydrant was an escape from the blistering heat, not only for us, but for the elderly too. The old timers would come out and sit on their chairs or grape cartons to catch the light drizzle of water that would come with a rare breeze. Also, what was cool was the magic of the rainbow the spray would make when the sun hit the water at just the right angle. Totally beautiful! One could say that living on Taylor Street was like owning lake side property. What a blast!
There were times the hydrant was open all night. On Saturday mornings, the older guys, whose mothers gave them the oddest names in the world— Hammerhead, Butterball, Pluggy, Bear, etc.—would wash and wax their own cars, which is unheard of today. They too took advantage of the open hydrant in their own way. The hydrant was a beacon that attracted the entire community.
Today the fire hydrants serve as reminders of the old neighborhood. Newcomers to the UIC campus are intrigued when first witnessing the fire hydrant. Eventually, the students themselves are overcome by the lure of the hydrant. The screams of college girls being carried into the hydrant’s spray replaces the youthful screams of a time gone by, a time that was and will never be again.