“Summer afternoon- summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”– Henry James
Recently, my wife and I took a ride to the old neighborhood where I had spent the first sixteen years of my life. The changes that nearly thirty years had made on the storefronts and buildings lining the narrow streets of the city struck me. Gone was the barber shop run by Mr. Gino. The corner pharmacy was now a dollar store. The Centrella grocery store, where I had gone to buy Grandma’s weekly shopping list items, had been replaced with a fast food restaurant. I turned the steering wheel, turning onto the street where I had lived with my family, not sure what to expect. To my surprise, the old Chicago two-flat hadn’t changed much.
The two pines we had planted on the parkway now towered over the roofs of the neighbors’ homes, but the home itself still looked the same. I stopped the car so that the driver’s window was even with the narrow gangway in between the buildings. It still reminded me of a canyon between two brick mountains; it was a Hosta-lined, concrete refuge from the cruel summer sun and heat. My sister and I played on the sidewalk in between the buildings, relishing the almost “wind tunnel” effect the tall building walls caused.
Old Mr. Rubino, who has long since passed, used his postage-stamp sized backyard to grow his garden. He built a trellis on which he grew zucchini and various varieties of squash. The long, climbing tendrils of vine wrapped themselves around the chicken-wire and wooden post fence which separated our yards, and he would sit on his chair, watering the plants while whistling old Italian songs. Sometimes, my sister and I sat on our swing set, quietly listening to the magical notes wafting from his yard. Just before summer ended, Mr. Rubino gathered the grapes from his yard, and hand pressed the juice into wooden casks. I was always enthralled with the perfectly round, thick wheel of grape skins he’d place in a cardboard box in the alley.
Mr. Schimmel, from across the alley, owned a heating/air conditioning company, and when we’d see his blue Ford work van pull up in the afternoons, we’d run to the back gate to say hello. He was a tall, kindly man who shared his home with mother, daughter, son, and German Shepherd. In his backyard stood a pear tree, and he’d routinely give us bags full of pears to enjoy. Grandma carefully washed them, dried them on a paper towel, and placed them in her fridge. “Nothing better than a cold pear in summer,” she’d say.
But Grandma was wrong—sort of. Every Thursday, a little old man pushed a wooden cart down the alley, singing out, “Strawberries! Get your farm fresh Strawberries here!” If you looked down the alley at that point, you’d have seen a bunch of heads peek over the low gates, scanning the alleyway for the peddler. People darted from their yards, money in hand, to buy the plump, sweet berries. My sister and I heard him and ran to Mom for a couple of dollars to buy a pint. As we ran down the stairs, Grandma stuck her cash out through the screen door, silently telling us to buy her some, too. I don’t remember anymore if it was him, but I think that same peddler would also come through once a week with a cart outfitted to sharpen knives.
Some of those places, and most of the faces, have long since passed into the fuzzy haze of barely remembered memories. When I think back on those lovely summer afternoons, I am transported to a simpler time, full of untold, beautiful stories, and the people who helped create them.