Friday, February 19, 2010

Inner City Games

Eenie, meenie gypsaleenie
ooh ahh umbaleenie
hotcha kotcha Liberace
I love you!

- Play Ground Rhyme

Tag, Dodge Ball, Red Rover, Mother May I, street games and street rhymes. We were stylists of stickball, sultans of swing and paladins of the pavement, and when we prayed, we prayed at the altar of Mister Softee. Before Nintendo there was Skellies, before X-Box there was Hot Peas and Butter, before SONY Playstation, there was Ring-o-Leevio. Creative play, that’s what it was all about. We were young, inventive and energetic. A length of rope from the hardware store provided hours of Double Dutch fun. Playing fostered social activity and social interaction, we played with each other and not separately with an electronic device. Personal electronics have made young people idle and detached and, as a result, many young adults are suffering from illnesses and afflictions that were formerly in the province of the elderly. Years ago exercise was an inherent part of play time. Some games seemed to have no other reason for existing than to simply go outside and run like crazy e.g. Run, Catch and Kill (thanks Luigi.) Negotiating the rules for playing these games fostered both communication and negotiation skills. Playing outdoor games was warm and organic, imaginative and interesting.

Kick the Can, Steal the Bacon, Johnny on the Pony, Knucks. One of my favorites was Skellies, also known as Skullys or Caps. Skellies was played on a grid drawn on the ground with chalk numbered one to thirteen.

(Originally the number thirteen in the center was a skull with crossbones, hence the name skully.) Players would use bottle tops, or lids from jars, often filled with melted Crayola crayons or pennies in order to give the caps more heft. The game was played by making your way from one to thirteen and back again until you entered the dead zone (number 13) to become a Killer Diller. Now you could knock the other players out of the grid making it difficult for them to complete the game. (I especially favored a lid from a jar of Hellman’s Mayonnaise, filled with melted wax because no matter how hard you hit it, that baby wasn’t going anywhere!).

Then there are the two perennial New York favorites, Stickball and Handball. All you needed was a pink Spaldeen (Spalding), a wall or a broomstick a few manhole covers and the game was on! As a handball player you had a choice of styles, Chinese or American. The Chinese style of play required that the ball hit the ground first and then bounce upwards to hit the wall. In the American style of play, the ball is hit against the wall first, bounces once off the ground and then is hit again by the next player.

As for sneakers, forget Air Jordans and Pumas, Chuck Taylor’s were the haute couture of athletic footwear, giving birth to such poetry as, “You wear the sneakers that slip and slide you need the kind with the Star on the side – Converse All-Stars.” Cost for a pair of Converse All-Stars circa 1967 a whopping $8.00.

This is more than a nostalgic trip down memory lane. It is to say that what binds us together as friends and family is our ability to communicate and interact with each other. Playing games, even board games, allowed us to partake in the ceremony of companionship which is communication. So, if you’re a Mom or a Dad an Aunt or an Uncle find a young person and show them what it was like to play when you were young. “…She asked her mother for fifty cents to see the elephants jump the fence, they jumped so high they touched the sky, they never came back to the Fourth of July.”


Handball Players, Erika Stone, Photographer
Fence Jump, Unknown courtesy of
Skellies Board, courtesy of

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