Spauldeen Pinky Stickball Hell's Kitchen Memories and a set of Handmade Puppets 10th Avenue and 46th Street
In 1981 I moved to one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the world. Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan. It is still diverse, but not like it was. At the time, my neighbors were 10 percent everything (White, Black, Gay, Straight, Sober, Drunk, Actor, Actress, Irish, Puerto Rican…There were ten apartments in my rent-controlled walk up and it was a mini-United Nations.) It was a neighborhood lost in time. Only Hell's Kitchen could manage to be isolated a mere 4 blocks from Times Square, but it was. Too dingy for tourists and not particularly safe. But yes, as late as 1981 there were old neighborhoods left in Manhattan with families of 5 children living in railroad apartments. My neighborhood was a treasure. Two blocks from the Hudson River and no building taller than 6 stories…and regulated as such. Hell's Kitchen was working class and it had big sky. I had four rooms and rock-bottom rock-solid rent control. I stayed 30 years.
It was no less than a day before I saw my first stick ball game out of the third floor window and I knew I belonged. Two of the first "New York" phrases I learned were "Pinky" and "Spauldeen." Both referred to the one dollar pink rubber ball used for the primitive baseball game which entertained decades of New York youth. The slap of a stick against a spauldeen was always followed by shouts of kids I would soon recognize and know by name. I will never forget the first time I heard someone yell "Go get a Pinky" and someone would run to the Deli and return with a fresh one. The Arabs who ran the deli kept a box of them near the door, and I honestly do not think they worried too much if one or two got lost. Their kids played too, and to get them out of the store was great. Everyone liked stickball. It was a way of claiming the street, the community, the asphalt. Girls practiced dance steps and marked the score with chalk.
Most stickball games were played in-between blowing horns. Drivers didn't really mind too much, and knew when the play finished they would be waved through...a waiting car beeping a horn was part of the charm. Hired cab drivers had to at least go through the motions, but for outsiders, the pure charm of stickball relaxed the stiffest businessperson. Relax, sit back, watch a play. It allowed young men to shout back grabbing their crotch like their older brothers had. "The HORN blows, does the DRIVER?"
A few years after I moved to Hell's Kitchen, Crack cocaine was invented. It was a tornado. I watched it take youngster after youngster from my block…A complete horror. Soon the cycle of detention, relapse, and prison all but robbed the entire team. Good Kids I had come to love, kids who worked two jobs, kids I could trust to hold my door for me or walk my dog or hold a parking space when I rented a car…Tommy, Luke, Lance, I would see them mere shells, pock-marked, lifeless…the ball players all were missing, then missing for good. Soon there were no kids…The streets were quiet. A few families managed to stay together and get away. Others dropped before my eyes, mothers and fathers unable to deal with the onslaught. Good working families who laughed and watched and welcomed me turned inward in grief.
This set of Homemade puppets all have heads made out of Spauldeen Pinkies. Some have a cotton covering with hand drawn features, others, presumably those in a little better shape, have faces drawn directly on the rubber. While girls certainly were allowed to play stickball, and some very, very well indeed, I am still glad some of them found another use for some when the rubber lost some form.
I would like to thank the person who sent me this wonderful set of round rubber memories.
Set of Make-Do Puppets with Spauldeen Heads. No Date. Likely 1960s? Collection Jim Linderman