Saturday, July 8, 2017

The New York City Stoop – An Old-Fashioned Kind of Social Networking

When I think back to my days growing up in the borough of Queens in New York City, some of my fondest memories are about time spent outside. The street was our playground and, when we weren’t running around, we invariably would hang out on the stoop. Stoop comes from the Dutch word stoep and is a holdover from the days when my city was called New Amsterdam.

The stoop had multiple purposes besides being the stairway in and out of a building. It was a meeting place, a resting place, a game room, a bar, an al fresco dining area and, when unoccupied, also was where we played “stoop ball.”

Since stoops were so important, they had to be constantly maintained. I can recall the German women in my neighborhood coming out with a bucket of soapy water and a brush to scrub the stoops each morning. The men would paint the steps and the railings, and each stoop was like an individual work of art due to the details in the stone and the intricacies of the wrought iron. Stoops gave a block a distinctive look and added a great deal of character to the neighborhood.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, no one I knew had an air conditioner except my school principal in her office. During the hot summer months, windows in apartments and houses were pushed as far open as possible, and people would hang out them to get some air or to engage in conversation. If the window was adjacent to the stoop, that arrangement increased the chances for engagement.

Some of my earliest memories are of my grandfather sitting on the stoop smoking his Italian cigars. He would take a pillow that he stored in the vestibule and put it on the top step and then sit down and “smoke a stogie.” Usually he would watch us kids playing until someone came along to stop and “shoot the breeze.” Pop called this “looking for a hit,” meaning waiting for a person to start a conversation.

Since so many people kept their windows open at this time, as I would walk down the street I would have to say good morning numerous times on the way to school or the store. I would be frequently asked “How are your parents?” or told “Give my regards to your folks.” It did provide an opportunity not only to update information but to express greetings.

Pop was a master communicator, while his wife would sit there with her legs crossed and hands clasped around her knee in silence. She would say “Hello” to someone, but Nana let Pop do the talking – and boy could he talk. All sorts of subjects would be covered including cars, sports, politics, weather, and the events happening in the neighborhood.

My sister and I would bring our toys out and play on the stoop. On the top step was a Renken’s milk box where the milkman would leave our bottles of milk each morning. The box was a perfect place to set up my soldiers for battle or my Matchbox cars for a race. My sister would play with her dolls on the top step too in the shade of the awning.

Sometimes our friends would come by and then every step was filled with toys and kids. If Pop wanted to come out and go down the stairs, we would have to move everything. And, as for safety, Mom could easily check on us by looking out the window.

Dad would sit out there on warm evenings with a Pilsner glass filled with beer. I would sit next to him and we would take turns noting the make and model of the cars going by. I got so good I could name almost any car that passed our house. We also would talk about many other things, and those conversations seem so precious now.

In those days, I knew the name of every person on the block. This was also a safety mechanism because if we were getting in trouble (or causing it) at least one neighbor would be calling my mother within seconds to advise her of the situation. I used to feel like a thousand eyes were watching us all the time, but now I appreciate how fortunate we were to have so many people caring about us.

When not in possession of a bat, the stoop served as a replacement. We would make bases with chalk in the gutter and teams would alternate batting and fielding. The most important element of stoop ball was to use a rubber ball – in our time being either a Pensy Pinky or the more desirable Spaldeen – and throw it against the steps to create a hit. The ball would travel into the field area and the thrower of the ball would run to base. Managing to get the ball to hit off the edge of the step would make it travel way over the heads of the fielders. What fun we had playing this game.

As teenagers we would sit there with our boomboxes blasting everything from Led Zeppelin to Aerosmith as we watched the world go by. If one of our friends who now had a car drove up and parked, we would have a conversation. We would see how someone was doing, exchange news, and maintain our relationships in a personal way.

The stoop was the social network for us back then. Here we connected with people, shared stories, and made lasting memories. While its scope and reach was nothing compared to what we have online today, it seemed effective at that and became an ideal way to deeply know people who were truly friends. Today we have large numbers of online “friends,” many of whom we have never met. There is interaction but nothing close to being meaningful the way it used to be when you could shake someone’s hand or give him or her a kiss and a hug. Now we use emojis in order for our connections to know our feelings, and something is definitely lost in the process.

Going back to the old neighborhood now saddens me. The street where we made bases and played stickball used to be filled with kids, but now there isn’t one in sight. The sound of the yelling and the stickball bat clanking against the asphalt after the hitter dropped it to round the bases has been replaced by the loud buzz of air conditioners. Because of them no one is sitting outside anymore and the windows are all closed tight. Everyone is inside using devices or watching TV and the human connections we used to make now seem lost.

I miss those days on the stoop and the people I shared time with on those steps. My grandparents and parents are gone, and even some of my childhood friends who once played with me there have passed on. All these years later their memories forever linger in my mind as do the conversations we once had there.

The hardest thing for me to accept now is that the stoop has been relegated to one function – being the steps to get into the building – instead of the vibrant place it had once been. Alas, only spirits sit there now and their conversations waft through the air unheard as people walk past them texting and talking on their phones, oblivious to what had been and will never be again. Although their loss is not understood it is sadly forevermore.

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