Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Where Is Everybody?

The pilot episode of Rod Serling's classic Twilight Zone series is titled “Where Is Everybody?” It stars actor Earl Holliman as an astronaut who, unbeknownst to him, is undergoing a mind game—a stress test of sorts to measure a human being's psychological tipping point. In his induced hallucination, Holliman emerges in what appears to be a quaint small town—a busy little hamlet going about its business. The only thing missing are its inhabitants. He walks into a diner and spies a percolating coffee pot and sizzling bacon on the grill; a church bell is ringing in the distance. He calls out “hello...hello...hello,” but nobody answers him—nobody's around. After an extended and futile search for a living soul or two, he finally flips his raspberry and cries out in a state of panic, "Where is everybody?"

It's kind of the way I feel on hot summer days and nights. "Where is everybody?” I ask myself time and again. For in my Bronx youth, summertime equaled activity and lots of it. The dog days meant stoop sitting, game playing, and constant commingling with friends and neighbors.

We played games morning, noon, and night. We always managed to find something to do as kids, and it was often based on who was out and about at any given moment. Greater numbers of us inspired more epic games like Round-up, Ringolevio, and Johnny Ride-a-Pony. The incredible, multipurpose spaldeen, as it was affectionately known, busily bounced in the heat of summer and supplied us endless hours of entertainment with games like Punchball, Boxball, Ace-King-Queen, and Spud. Without a ball, or any prop at all, we played Mother, May I?, Red Light-Green Light and In-the-Refrigerator. Even after dark, the game playing continued with what we, very cleverly, dubbed Flashlight—an offshoot of tag based on a beam of light, not touch of the hand. Flashlight commenced a little after sunset with the ritual "the odd number is It." The unlucky "It" was handed the flashlight, while the rest of us dispersed, plotted our strategies, and found hiding spots in the neighborhood's backyards, alleyways, and alcoves.

The summer scene was alive and well thirty and forty years ago, with both young and old sitting out on their front stoops. Neighbors kibitzed and gossiped every single evening. Even in the awful nighttime humidity teeming with lightning bugs, the locals were undeterred. They were a tougher breed indeed, preferring the great outdoors to basking in the cool of air-conditioning.

There are plenty of adults and kids in the old neighborhood now. There aren't very many vacant apartments around. So, where is everybody? Apparently, social networking instead of socializing is today's rule—in all seasons. Neighborliness has by and large vanished along with the iconic spaldeen, although Spalding, I see, is still manufacturing them. Today's spaldeen is the iPhone, I suppose, and stoops just aren't meant for sitting on anymore.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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