I got to the playground early one morning and I was the only one there. There was nothing to do but hang loose and wait for the rest of the miscreants to arrive so that we could play basketball, softball, pinochle, or whatever else was the consensus activity for the day.
There was a big picnic table at the playground, courtesy of the Cleveland Parks and Recreation Department. We used to drag it all over the playground all day following the shade. I laid down on the table to wait for my buddies to show up. I was lying on my stomach with my head cradled in my arms and I fell asleep.
Some motion around me woke me up but I did not pop right up. Facing downward, I realized that I was looking at shoes—six pairs to be exact. Not totally awake I thought, “Look at all those shoes.”
I rose to discover there were bodies and faces attached to the shoes. It was six of our sworn enemies, the Gashouse Boys (yeah, I know, that name sounds like it came from a 1930s B movie, but it is true).
There were plenty of bad feelings between our group and them and I was in deep trouble! The Gashouse Boys hung out on East 40th Street and Superior Avenue, in front of a store called the Gashouse. I don’t know what the store provided, being named the Gashouse, and I don’t know why they hung out on such a forlorn corner. But I didn’t think it was a good time to ask them.
One of them said, “Where’s Thomas?” I thought, “God damned that, Thomas! Someone is always looking for Thomas!”
Bill Thomas wasn’t a regular at the playground. He was just a kid who showed up once in a while and played whatever sport we were playing. I don’t know what he did when he wasn’t on the playground, but whatever it was, he seemed to be doing it to an awful lot of people.
He was always in trouble, and someone was always looking for him. Sometimes a car would pull up outside the playground when we were playing some sport and Thomas would lay down the bat or basketball, whichever he happened to be using, and casually start walking away.
Casually—for a few feet—and then he would be running like a bat out of hell. The guys from the car would follow in hot pursuit. We never came to his defense because he was not really one of us and he was a pain in the ass.
If someone did call out a kid that was one of us, we would rain down fire and brimstone on them. The last time I saw Thomas, he told me that he had to report to BIS tomorrow. A lot of guys in my neighborhood knew what BIS was— Boys Industrial School—because a lot of them had been there (I had not).
It was a reform school in Hudson. Thomas gave me all the dirty pictures that he had in his wallet. He said that they would take them away when he got to BIS so someone should have them.
Well anyway, being caught alone by the Gashouse boys, my brain went into overdrive. The leader asked again, “Where’s Thomas?” My find went into high gear, and I thought I had better do something that would save butt.
I replied with what I hoped was a blank look on my face and tried to sound like a punch-drunk price fighter. “Twiko? We ain’t got no twiko,” I said. “We got swings and we got dem todder teeders dat da little kids play on but we and got no twiko.”
I thought, maybe I should drool a little (Nah, too over-the-top). I did think I sounded like someone who absorbed too many punches in a boxing match. “I like da swings but I’m too big to go on da todder teeder. What’s a twiko?” I asked the leader who had a pair of nice suede and leather Shoes.
“Dose are nice shoes; where did you buy dem? I bought dese tennis shoes, but I don’t remember where I buyed dem and I don’t play no tennis because we ain’t got no tennis court.”
The leader gave me a disgusted look and said, “Never mind, dummy.”
As they turned and walked away, I said “Bye bye.” They didn’t look back. I sighed in relief and mentally crossed myself, looked up at the sky and said, “Thank you!”
I could have sworn that I heard a soft voice from the sky quietly say, “Nice going, kid.” There was no voice, of course, but it would have been a nice touch.
I don’t know if they left me alone because they really thought I was addled or because they couldn’t believe that I had the audacity to try to pull off such a lame act. Anyway, I considered it a victory because I didn’t get my butt kicked.