Growing up in Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, during my earliest years meant spending a lot of time playing in or around the streets. Some streets, in fact, were set aside as "play streets." Play streets were not closed to traffic, but no through traffic was permitted, kids had the right of way at all times regardless of how trying that might be to a driver in a rush, and heaven help a driver who made the mistake of violating the law on a play street because, in those days, the police didn't have to spend most of their time chasing down drug addicts. No one had any money for drugs.
Virtually every nickel earned went to put a roof over your head, clothes on your back, or food in your mouth.
Money, in the 1930s, was a different thing from what it is today. Today, money is something to be spent. Back then, it was something to be longed for. Most people had nothing, literally. And you couldn't borrow money either, or charge anything. Charge accounts were something had only by rich, spoiled women in movies.
The comment, "Charge it to my account," was something that immediately marked an actress as either someone whom you were intended to dislike, or someone who was going to learn a thing about values before THE END appeared up on the screen.
One place where we used to play when I was a youngster was a two-foot wide strip of usually dust-dry dirt that lay between the sidewalk and the curb.
It wasn't until one day when I happened to stray into a wealthy neighborhood that I learned that what was, in my impoverished neighborhood, dry powdery dust during good weather and gooey mud when it rained was supposed to be a nicely trimmed, grassy verge dotted with a shade tree every now and then.
We kids used that strip of bare soil for all kinds of things. We played marbles in it. We dug little trenches in it, put tin soldiers in them, and re-fought World War I.
We sailed twigs with paper sails in the temporary lakes created by rain. We played tic-tac-toe in the dust, erasing the marks after each game. We sat our worn and patched trousers down in the dust, or sat along the edge of the sidewalk with the toes of hand-me-down shoes poked into the dust, playing truth or dare. We got, I suppose, a lot of what they would today call "good play value" out of all that dust and dirt.
It was, you see, free. And so was imagination.
One summer morning, my best friend and I, each just 8 years old, sat down on the curb of Victory Boulevard and began messing around in the deep dust with our fingers. Suddenly, as if by magic, my hand emerged from the dust with something that was flat, round, and copper colored. I could hardly believe my eyes. Not only had I found money in that dust, but what I had found was a very old Indian-head penny. It was so old that it was almost double the thickness of a normal penny.
When I got done oohing and aahing over my marvelous find, I let Dominick, my friend, hold it and do some oohing and aahing of his own. Then, as he was handing it back to me, it slipped out of his hand and fell back into the dust it had come from, going right out of sight in the powdery stuff. Shocked, I began raking the dust with my fingers, trying to find it. So did Dominick.
Although the two of us searched and searched and searched for nearly an hour, we could not find it. It had done the impossible. It had disappeared right before our eyes into a patch of dust barely an inch deep, a patch you could have covered with this newspaper, unopened. It had to be there. It had to be. But it wasn't.
I never forgot that day. I never stopped feeling the loss of that beautiful Indian-head penny. It was such a precious thing, not just money, the rarest of rarities when I was a kid, but a piece of history, something rare and precious in its own right.
Then one day, more than half a century after that sad, sad morning, it finally dawned on me. I knew exactly where that Indian-head penny had gone. I told the story to someone and asked, "Where did it go?" The answer I got was the exact same answer I have gotten from every person to whom I have ever told that story.
Oh, Dominick. How could you? How could you have done it? Your best friend, someone with whom you shared almost every day. I can see you now, sneaking it out of your pocket and looking at it when you got home, keeping it hidden away, afraid to tell anyone about it or to let anyone else see it. How guilty you must have felt.
I forgive you. But I wonder? Have you forgiven yourself?