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The Way Things Used To Be, Part 2

May 4, 2008
Nobody set the day it started, but the Saturday after Halloween we dug last year's cigar box-full out of the bottom of a closet or ran up to Woolworth's and bought new ones at a nickel per red mesh bag of twenty plus a 'boulder' and raced over to 88th and West End for the opening of Marble Season.

We shot all morning, ran home, grabbed lunch and hustled back. It was during the war and gas rationing had cleared away the cars and turned the street into a field for stoop-ball, stick-ball, punch ball, roller hockey, association football, and starting the weekend after Halloween, Marble Season.

Late fall afternoons, with the sun dropping behind the Palisades, a quarter the length and all the width of 88th would be choked with boys sitting, bending, crouching, kneeling in the shadows, ignoring the evening chill and shooting marbles, while across the Atlantic U.S. troops were landing in North Africa, and across the Pacific, in Guadalcanal.

My father had taught me low-stakes, high-skill marble shooting. You curled your first finger to hold your oversized boulder, rested your first knuckle on the sidewalk and flicked your cocked thumb hard to knock a regular-sized marble out of a chalked circle. If you knocked it out, you won it; if you failed to knock it out, you forfeited one of your marbles into the center of the circle.

My father grew up in Hell's Kitchen during the days of gaslight, cobblestone streets, horse manure and one marble at a time. He taught me rules people no longer believed in and marble games kids no longer played. Marbles had evolved into a low skill high stakes game. To fit in, I had to give up shooting marbles the way he'd taught me and I had to give up obeying many of the rules he'd taught me too.

My friend, Blue Book, who kept mental stats on major league baseball and on everything that happened in our neighborhood, claimed that kids who played marbles were divided into either Shooters or Shopkeepers. The shopkeepers put their marble up against the curb for shooters to shoot at. The shooters shot.

He claimed that shooters were more adventurous, but less serious and that they had shorter attention spans. When shooters grew up, they turned into traveling salesmen, whereas kids who put marbles up against the curb ended up owning drug stores, dress shops and liquor stores.

"What about the kids who cut holes in the cigar boxes?" I asked.

"Banking," Blue Book said, nodding to himself. "Yup, banking!"

He had a tremendous sense of conviction and his forecasts always interested me, although once he started betting football games, I lost faith in their accuracy.

As spontaneously as it began, Marble Season ended the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Nobody set that day either but somehow we all knew when the season started, when it ended, and all the rules.

There's not that sense of order anymore - the way the rate of exchange was twenty for a nickel at Woolworth's, and the same when you bought four for a penny in a private transaction. The way the retail price of marbles, the width of the street and the average shooter's marble-shooting skills all fit together in one perfectly balanced system -- the invisible hand of Adam Smith extending down a hundred sixty years and across three thousand miles to 88th and West End Avenue.

(Originally published at AuthorsDen and reprinted with permission of the author, Herbert Lobsenz).
About the Author
Herbert Lobsenz studied literature at Heights College, NYU, went into the army during the Korean War and, following Robert Jordan of For Whom The Bell Tolls, became an EOD specialist. His second novel, Vangel Griffin (1961), won the Harper Prize and appeared on the Times best seller list. His latest novel, Succession, will be published in May 2008. Visit Old Time Writer.
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