Memories of Life on 28th Street
by Elliott Wilner
In the 1940s, when I was a young boy, 28th Street Northwest was a nondescript street in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of the District of Columbia, located about a half-mile west of the National Zoo. Only two blocks in length, with just a single lane for traffic, it was certainly a nondescript street in a nondescript neighborhood, but for us children that street was our playground and the center of our world. There was not a real playground or playing field within a mile radius of our street. If we were not in school we were out on the street, during the long days of summer or during the darkness of winter, before dinner and after dinner, playing football, playing “step baseball”, playing tag or hide-and-seek or kick-the-can, and occasionally inventing our own games.
The police kept a close watch on us, regularly driving by in a patrol car and ordering us not to play in the street, because a few years earlier the Levy boy had been struck and killed by a passing car. But within minutes of the patrol car’s departure we would be back on the street, as the police knew we would, because there was simply nowhere else to play. Still, the benign police patrol did have something of a cautionary effect. I can recall only one occasion when we became seriously afraid of the police, and that was on a Halloween night after we had become weary of our trick-or-treat revel through the neighborhood, when we executed a scheme to annoy motorists who were driving down 28th Street: we organized ourselves into two teams on opposite sides of the street, both teams pantomiming a “tug of war,” pretending to pull on a cable that was (supposedly) stretched across the street; and twice an approaching vehicle halted abruptly in order to avoid making contact with the imaginary cable. The third vehicle that came by was, unfortunately, a patrol car. When the patrol car came to a stop with its rooftop light flashing and the radio blaring we scattered like mice fleeing an angry cat. I remember hiding behind some shrubs, my heart pounding in my throat as the police officers shined their flashlights back and forth, but after a minute or two they drove off and we, thoroughly frightened, retreated back inside our homes.
One summer, when I was nine years old, “pea shooters” became, surprisingly, an all-consuming entertainment for us children on 28th Street. A pea shooter was nothing more than an elongated, small-caliber plastic straw, used not for sipping but for blowing: it was thus possible to project split peas, or lentils, or grains of rice, with rather remarkable velocity and distance; and once we had all become equipped with pea shooters we invented a semi-violent version of tag, in which we would shoot one another with peas or seeds (perhaps anticipating today’s paintball), and we would play that game relentlessly for days on end. We quickly used up all the packages of peas and lentils and rice that our mothers had in their kitchens, and then we would urge them to the grocery store to purchase more. Soon the surface of the street was literally coated with seeds, from curbstone to curbstone, and we delighted in the crunching noises that could be heard when the tires of passing cars rolled over the seeds. The police, however, were not so delighted. They ordered us to sweep all the seeds to the curb and to cease and desist.
Our obsession with pea shooters would not be resolved by the mere dictate of the police, however; we did not take their disarmament order any more seriously than we had taken their order not to play in the street. The next day we were back out on the street with our pea shooters, busily whizzing seeds at one another and resurfacing the asphalt once again. There were a bunch of us on the street that day, including Richard, who was one of the older boys, a year or two older than myself. Richard was bigger and tougher than the rest of us, and he would usually take charge of whatever game we were playing, occasionally becoming something of a bully in the process. (I remember that he had a blond crew cut as a youngster, and he still had the same blond crew cut several years later when he graduated from a military high school and joined the Marines.) That day, when the police came down the street on their regular patrol and found us with our pea shooters still smoking, they decided the time had come for some tough love. They randomly seized two of us – Richard and myself, as it so happened – and pushed us into the rear seat of the patrol car.
We sat there for a few minutes, Richard and myself in the rear seat of the patrol car, two police officers in front, while one of the officers, behind the wheel, was talking over the police radio. We had no idea what was about to happen. I can remember that I was vaguely apprehensive but not fearful — because, after all, these were officers whom we recognized, the same officers who dealt with us day in and day out — but when I glanced at Richard I realized, to my amazement, that he was literally shivering with fear. Did he know something that I didn’t know? Presently the officer behind the wheel stopped talking and turned off the radio, and the patrol car moved down 28th Street, turned left on Cortland Street, and proceeded to the nearby precinct station at 44th and Albemarle Street. I still didn’t have a clue about what the police had in mind, but I suspect that Richard did. We were escorted into the precinct station, placed in front of a desk behind which stood an altogether unfamiliar and grim-looking sergeant, and we were “booked.” As we were being fingerprinted I observed, to my ever- growing amazement, that Richard had begun to cry. We were then locked inside a holding cell, behind the iron bars of the cell door, as Richard sobbed continuously.
Perhaps a half-hour later my father and Richard’s mother, who had been notified by the police, arrived together in a taxi to take us home. The sergeant winked as he explained to our parents that we had been jailed because we were recidivist miscreants (or words to that effect.) An officer was then delegated to drive all of us back to 28th Street. When we got home my father the lawyer spoke to me sternly about the consequences of flouting the law, but I noticed that he was smiling ever so slightly as he spoke. I never did learn what Richard’s mother said to him, but I did observe him to be less of a bully after that day. He even invited some of us occasionally, on a rainy day, to join him in his apartment to play cards or board games. Previously I had never entered the apartment that he shared with his mother, who was single, and his older sister, Margaret.
In fact I had never before entered anyone’s apartment. Besides Richard, I knew only a couple of other kids who lived in the three-story apartment building on Cortland Street, at the north end of 28th Street. All of my close friends lived, as I did, in one of the two-story “row houses” that lined both sides of 28th Street, the “rows” consisting of houses in clusters of three that were separated by small side yards. (A house on 28th Street – three bedrooms, two baths — sold for $8,000 in 1946. Today those houses are known as “town houses” and are sold for upward of $600,000.) It was a bit disorienting for me to be in Richard’s apartment, where the living room, the bedrooms and the bathroom were, of course, all on the same level.
Even more disorienting for me was the absence of any adult male in Richard’s apartment. All of my friends had fathers; where was Richard’s father? And why did his mother seem so distant? She seldom smiled and hardly interacted with us when we visited the apartment. One day I asked my parents, “Where does Richard’s father live?” My mother paused briefly before she replied, “Richard’s father is not living, he died in the war.” My father then looked at me directly and added, “He was a prisoner on board a Japanese ship, together with a lot of other American prisoners…then the ship carrying the American prisoners was sunk by a torpedo from one of our own submarines, and all the prisoners drowned.” I was only nine years old, but I understood what my father was saying. Most of all I could begin to understand why Richard had cried that day when we were taken to the police station.
Post-Script: Why have I written this story? In a way it remains a cautionary tale, mainly for retired people like myself. I have been retired for several years and have a lot of time on my hands. Often I take long walks along the towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which is not far from my suburban home, both for exercise and for rumination; but I seldom walk on city streets. I sometimes think about my incarceration at the age of nine: it wasn’t a particularly traumatic experience, but it did make a lasting impression. Writing stories like this has, I believe, helped keep me off the streets and out of jail.
About the author:
Elliot Wilner is a retired neurologist, living in Bethesda, MD