n the street where I grew up people didn't live so much as they died. Big deaths, little deaths. Nate Wasserman -- father of Bobby, Joe and Arnold, who I babysat once, who jumped me, stole my glasses, and hid them from me -- he was the first to go. A jeweler, he was ambushed on a trip to Jamaica, gunned down in an alleyway behind his hotel. When they found his body, the jewels he'd been carrying were long gone. He was the man who lit fireworks in his backyard every Fourth of July. My parents didn't approve. They shook their heads and said it wasn't safe, kids lost their hands doing stuff like that. To us kids, though, he was a folk hero. He'd brought fireworks to Chestnut Street. His death was one of our most dramatic.
It was a small inconspicuous street, with a cul-de-sac at the end so you could turn around, but the death and cancer rates on it were spectacular. People said there used to be a swamp where the street is, and they'd filled it in with something, made it liveable. Now people are saying there might have been dioxin in the fill, that they're going to have to shut the whole area down, make it something like a ghost town.
It was a small inconspicuous street, with a cul-de-sac at the end so you could turn around, but the death and cancer rates on it were spectacular.
It was a peaceful little suburban street, not a lot of noise on it, unless we were playing football, complete with passing patterns behind parked cars.
Our football games were orchestrated by an older kid, Jack Baylor, who went just by "Baylor" and had an authentic, professional NFL football that he'd caught in the stands during one of the Bears games. He always played quarterback and his team always won. He could really whip a football. The question was whether any of us could catch it.
He had short legs, but could outrun any of us. With his index finger, he would map out each of our passing patterns on another boy's back. "Okay, Sam," he would say, "go straight out about five steps, then hook back, like this, behind that blue Impala and then out again." We'd watch, careful students, as he diagrammed our paths.
Baylor's father got lung cancer when Baylor was eighteen, when we were all too big to play football on the street anymore. And, by then, he was already in college, studying to be whatever he would become.
We usually played our games strictly on the straight part of the street, never venturing into the cul-de-sac, where the Reisers lived. They were sort of an odd bunch, I don't really remember why now, maybe just because they were quiet. Nobody really knew them, none of the three boys played football in the fall, or baseball in the summer, or basketball in the spring, just after the thaw, like the rest of us. They kept to themselves. Andrew was in my sister Laura's grade. He was always bringing bugs to school, threatening to throw them down girls' backs. His older brother, Jeremiah, was a studious sort, into science and blowing things up.
Andrew was the wild one. One day he was playing with three other boys by the railroad tracks, about a half mile from Chestnut Street. He was only thirteen. They were down by the tracks, drinking whiskey from a flask one of the boys had snuck from his father's bar. It started like that, only then Andrew made his dare. At least, that's how one of the other boys, Mark McConnell, told it afterwards. They didn't have the guts, Andrew said, to lay right down on the tracks while the train was approaching. "Oh yeah!" the others had replied vehemently. Boys in our neighborhood always took dares seriously, although with this one, Mark McConnell admitted, he was a little shaky. Even so, they'd waited together for the 4:45 freight. It was right on time. At 4:43 they heard its whistle, felt the tracks' vibrations. It was then that Andrew had calmly laid down. The other boys, looking at one another, followed his example. "Now, the one of us who stays down the longest is the real man. The rest of you are all pussy shits. Right?"
"Right," the others replied, less vehemently this time.
As it turned out, Andrew won the dare, hands down. His body was so mangled the coroner had to examine his molars to make a positive ID.
We had neighbors we didn't get along with, the Forrests. They didn't die or even get cancer, although sometimes we wished they would. There was a strip of bushes between our houses which our fathers had planted together.
They had two girls and we had two boys and a girl. The Forrest girls were fairly homely, all knee bones and elbows, with not much else on them. For years our parents wouldn't talk to their parents. I think it all started when one of the younger Forrest girls, Becky, who was in my sister's grade, pushed Laura off her bike and then wouldn't apologize. Some nonsense like that. And, from there, things just started to escalate. It got so ridiculous that one day we came out of the house amazed, my brother, Will, and me, to find the bushes between our houses half cut. Not just one half of the bushes cut, but all of them cut, but only halfway in. That didn't make Will or me particularly happy. We had other things to do with our Saturdays -- bicycle trips to take with the guys to the lagoons, where we would pretend to fish (we never caught anything), trips to the Magic Castle Miniature Golf Course, where on one of the holes an elevator actually took your ball all the way up a small model of the Empire State Building and then spit it out again. But seeing those hedges halfway cut like that, even though they looked sort of wacky, looked okay to us, we knew our dad would blow a gasket and have us out there all day with his electric hedge trimmer to level them off, fuming behind us, supervising as Will and I took turns on the ladder with the instant digit remover. But that was the sort of thing the Forrests did. They wouldn't have thought to ask us for help. No, Mr. Forrest would just get out there himself and start hacking halfway in. I guess the feud was too well under way by then.
Chestnut Street continues...