Mar 28, 2024, 06:27AM

Shadow Play

Spring awakening in the 1960s.

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Art: Michael Gentile

I rode my 10-speed bicycle down Frankford Ave. when I suddenly noticed Jess standing on her doorstep. In junior high algebra class, we shared eager gazes walking past each other’s desks to turn in exams. My tests always came back with a dramatic capital F, front and center. Jess consistently scored A’s, tackling every problem with confidence; at the same time, I needed a tutor. Spring appeared greener than usual that year.

I wasn’t Easy Rider Peter Fonda arriving on a chopper, riding the most famous motorcycle in the world. However, I did have on a leather jacket grasping the handlebars of my bike. Bending forward was an opportunity for me to run my fingers through shoulder-length hair while lowering a pair of shades in an effort to impress. Looking over from a familiar front porch, Jess cracked a smile. I’d try anything to get her.

In 1969, Flower Power kids had no fears. The social unrest charged our own sense of boredom. 
Jess agreed for a stroll through Hamilton, a Baltimore neighborhood. Trying to contain my excitement, it became apparent the conversation wasn’t really about test scores, but another kind of education. Discretion seemed in order, which was hard to come by.

A couple of blocks from her house, Hamilton and Frankford Aves. were marked by a crossroads. The symbolic fork in the road intersection played a pivotal role in many coming-of-age stories. Walther Pharmacy was located on this triangle-shaped property. One side of the building was a drugstore: on the other, a lengthy soda fountain. Besides serving milkshakes, if you bent over sitting on your stool sideways looking under the counter, you saw a tremendous display of used wads of gum in every size, shape and color. The rear of the store had a carryout liquor department. The backdoor exit steps descended into a parking lot, where the older teens hung out by their cars.

Directly across the street, someone sorted dirty laundry in the glass windowed coin-operated laundromat. Next door, up a flight of concrete steps, a 1950s-style penny candy shop was called the White House. Display cases were filled with Sweetarts, wax teeth, lips, and mustaches, licorice twists and more.

There was a not-so-secret hidden entrance behind the White House. The older kids with alcohol would assemble in a wooded corridor to participate. When the large neighboring homes used to be farms, cows were herded along the dirt and gravel walkway called the “Cow Path.” There was a clearing in the trail’s center. Tommy and I would stop by to enjoy Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill Wine with the older teens, until the police raided.

Tommy, Jess and I attended the Baltimore City public school system during the 1960s; racism, drug abuse, and segregation played an important role in its history. After the riots of 1968, students were bussed from different communities to various schools located throughout the city. The desegregation plan was implemented to alter the racial makeup of the student body. Every weekday morning, I’d wait for the number 19 bus stop on Harford Rd., sometimes before the sun rose.

Mixed outcomes resulted from the bussing attempts. In certain ways, it was successful. Students learned how to conduct business properly. Drug sales reached unprecedented heights without signs of violence. Students unified their efforts and kept an eye out for the authorities; “Mannix” was the code name for the two-man, old-guy security guards.

Sitting in the back row of algebra class, made it easy to catch a few z’s. I got the occasional tap on the shoulder. One of the negative aspects of cutting class: you missed out on the return of test papers with purple ink. Students loved smelling the intoxicating mimeograph chemical aroma. No wonder a common problem existed among local boys who sought out cheap highs from huffing. Imagine suddenly losing all sense of body awareness and experiencing a complete loss of brain function. Inhaling harmful compounds such as gasoline, lighter fluid, Freon from air conditioners, and trichloroethylene cleaning products all posed a serious health risk. A common occurrence was comatose friends keeled over in bushes with spray paint circles encrusted around their mouths, one hand still holding a crumpled, brown paper lunch bag.

Back to Jess. Like I said, it was difficult finding privacy. A wise choice: seeking refuge in a parent’s pine-paneled club basement, but you had to be very quiet. If Mother Nature delivered on promises of nice weather, there were certain secluded sections in Herring Run Park. Dimly lit Friday night CYO dances at Shrine of the Little Flower auditorium had a few corners; all prospects for cat and mouse play.

Sometimes when her parents were at work, we snuck in a few pecks and a cuddle on the front porch swing when nobody was looking. I never experienced impulses like that before. She was sassy, craving to explore in her frayed, bell-bottom blue jeans, a pair of blue Jack Purcell sneakers and a loose, leather boutique belt. Her scent wafted beautifully, a perfect blend of patchouli, lemon, and musk. I was captivated by a remarkable skill when she popped and snapped bubblegum, then spun it into little rings on her fingertips, resembling a miniature beehive.

Our spring walk took us to the corner of Carter Ave. Among the two-level homes, a privet hedge lined a sidewalk. In the center of a fresh-cut lawn, the far-reaching branches of the towering maple tree evoked a powerful mysterious feeling. A light zephyr wind caused a patchwork of moving foliage. If one was positioned properly underneath in the shade—this was a discreet location for a lip-lock session. Time for shadow play.

“Look!” Jess said.

I replied, “Let’s find a spot where we can sit down.”

Without delay, we hurried across the lawn headed towards the tree. There was a massive rush of adrenaline. One’s transgressions might be significant. All I could think was, “Don’t do the wrong thing and look awkward.” Sensual, but not X—my hope was she’s an animal trainer because wild animals are capable of sudden behavioral shifts. I put my arm around Jess’ waist as we walked away at dusk, nothing worried us. Crickets chirped as a thin mist rose over the grass. Lightning bugs welcomed the fading light.

Jess and I could talk for hours on end about ridiculous things, always staying true to the pleasure principle. In August, her older sister’s boyfriend Mark parked his VW bus in front of the house. He was a prick, specifically pointing out that we were “too young” to attend Woodstock. We bummed because we enjoyed wild too, like the mad society we lived in.

One late-September day after classes were dismissed, Jess crushed my heart. Outside by the flagpole, I noticed her arms wrapped around another guy. He was older than me with much longer hair. The hardest part, it stung when we made eye contact. There was no more “We.”

I didn’t take the number 19 home that day. My long walk down Harford Rd. was a chance to gather thoughts. Then without warning, a loud air horn blast and the high-pitched squeal of an 18-wheeler. The big rig hit its brakes then skidded. A Mack truck just ran over an Airedale Terrier. Under a tire, the defenseless dog was crushed to death. The road turned red. Looking into the animal’s lifeless eyes, the grim sight revealed the bitterness in life. I pulled myself away, realizing how harsh reality is.


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