A childhood act of charity - straight from the mayo jar

I remember best summer evenings. My mother worked the night shift at the factory on Chicago's West Side; and my father, to the delight of my brother and me, took his nocturnal duties rather casually. We would join the children of our block gathered under the street lamps for a game of hide-and-seek.

Our shouts and squeals rang through the night air: "Oh-lee-oh-lee-ocean-free!" Sometimes we'd build a small fire at the edge of the block near the train tracks for our roast. There was nothing more tasty than those almost-raw, only slightly-warmed potatoes we'd pull from the coals.

Later, I'd join my grandparents, my father, and perhaps a neighbor or two on the small front porch of my grandparents' cottage. I would sit on one of the lower steps leading up to the porch, listening to (but only half-understanding) the words spoken in Croatian. I'd scratch a mosquito bite on my bare leg, watch the fireflies flitting here and there. The sprinklers on the lawns sent waves of droplets into the night air, heavy with moisture and the smell of wet grass.

We lived at what I believed was the edge of the city because our block ended at the railroad tracks. Beyond the tracks was the drainage canal and some prairie before the city picked up again. At intervals the trains would roar through the night, interrupting all conversation. No matter. A few seconds and the talk would quietly resume.

Those same trains sent particles of soot into the air that not even the most diligent of housewives could keep from entering her home. In the summer, walking barefoot on the sidewalks meant you brought some of that into bed with you later.

Summer, of course, was endless during that long-ago time. The children of my neighborhood were permitted to roam at will - little gangs of ragtag kids walking the three blocks to the Gary School playground. There, the wading pool was a welcome relief from the heat. We would also run after the iceman's truck, hoping to gather up little slivers of ice before they melted into a liquid oblivion.

Most of the time, however, we stayed within the limits of our single block and formed "clubs." A club, of course, was nothing more than three or four children, one of whom was usually a younger sibling, who gathered together in order to whisper secrets, plot revenge on other clubs, and make rules. I always found rulemaking the most fun: rules about secret handshakes, talking without permission, being late to meetings.

I must confess it was I who decided that we should also have a rule about paying dues. From where this idea came is hard to fathom, for the only dues I remember hearing about were the union dues my parents both complained about and dutifully paid. I can't recall now how we came to have those single pennies to drop into the mayonnaise jar with the slitted top. Our parents - in those somber days of the Great Depression - were more than just a little cautious about money.

We never had any plans as to what to do with our dues.

One hot afternoon, however, our "meeting" was interrupted by the unfamiliar but captivating sound of an organ grinder.

We rushed to the street to see a jovial man playing the music, smiling broadly under a huge up-ended moustache. He was wearing a red jacket and a stove-pipe red hat topped by a tall feather and accompanied by - oh, what joy! - a similarly clad monkey cavorting about.

Standing rather shyly at some distance was a dark-haired, solemn-eyed girl of our age who was holding out a tin cup. She seemed forlorn, wistful, and her face displayed an emotion that was at first hard to discern. With a sudden burst of maturity, I sensed that what she was feeling was shame. Impulsively, I ran for the mayonnaise jar and with the approval of my friends, emptied the contents into her cup.

It was, I think, our first encounter with a different kind of poverty. Although we instinctively knew that we were all poor, this girl's poverty was different. Her tin cup meant that she was begging - an act as alien to us as anything could be. My friends and I were moved by a newly felt compassion, and although the incident was quickly put out of mind, I have never forgotten it.

The memories of those summer days and nights are woven into a single tapestry, a recollected view of a world that haunts my consciousness and forever casts its charm.

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