On Monday the Cricks along West Run Road ran sudsy from the wash water that overwhelmed the drainage system in the pubic housing plan better known as the projects, or “The Proj” among the school aged.
Having heard my Mother singing,
“This is the way we wash our clothes, Wash our clothes, So early Monday morning”
As long as I could remember it was no surprise that we saw this on a Monday as we walked along the crick that traced a winding road that loosely traced a border from the south end of the borough to the north. There was something to be said for the fact that the smell was better than normal, the detergents, bleaches and softeners melding together with the normal fecal smell of the water. You had to be young and male in 60's to understand the need to find nooks and crannies to grow up in, to experience the unsupervised joy of childhood doing dangerous and foolish things.
I wasn't surprised to learn that these routines were ancient and were even part of the time management efforts dating back to the 1840’s, when books were written on how to manage the household like the factories that were springing up everywhere.
By 1866, each day was programmed across America according to books like Jennie June’s American Cookery which stated that wash should be done Monday, Ironing Tuesday, everything “set to rights” on Wednesday, “extra work” saved for Thursday, sweeping and dusting on Friday, baking on Saturday and church on Sunday.
But this was summer time for us, one day was the same as the last, at 12 they seemed to stretch on forever like the cars of coal and coke that went by on the railroads tracks that ran along the rivers, the same rivers that were the ultimate destination for the suds, some flowing and others clinging to rocks and logs like a soft coating that had an iridescence that was beautiful among the old tires, cement chunks with their antenna of twisted rebar streaking it with copper rivulets.
The first time you took the bait and stepped onto the rocks that resembled pillows, thinking your feet would sink into the foam like a finger into whipped cream, your illusion of softness was shattered. The soap film made the rock surface slippery as ice, the sharp facets at their various angles would shed your feet before you could think a thought, shooting them at high speeds in different directions that made it impossible to stop the hard fall into the putrid stream.
As bad as the physical pain could be the real suffering had just started, as the jeers and calls of Jag Off and Dick Wads were liberally applied to your discomfort, often before you had even emerged from the crick. Once you were standing, you were assessed for the level of wetness and how many gross things attached themselves to places you couldn’t see and were reluctant to touch with bare hands.
At this point the main factor that determined your fate was the number of kids in the party, if it was just you and your main group of 3 or 4 actual sympathy was possible among some mild digs. If you were in a group of 8-12 you would be in for more brutal treatment and if you were low on the hierarchy to begin with it could be a long day leading to a fight you would lose but had to fight to save what precious little dignity you had left.
If you were in a crowd of 13 or more you risked being bullied relentlessly by someone impressing someone else, or shunned by the larger group completely, in the worse case be driven off by threats or rocks. Sometimes a person with some standing in the group will peel off and without offering too much help check to see if you are OK, but your best bet is to take off and head home for some sympathy.
It is amazing how true to form that group size/behavior ratio was though out my life in school, work and life in general, and as my peers became less ethnically homogeneous the differences between groups of different cultures were harder to predict and for some of us impossible to adapt ourselves to regardless of our efforts.
Mom would be washing, it being Monday, and therefore making something for dinner that was easy to prepare, after running up and down to the basement all day getting off the sore feet was the priority. That meant that between trips of unloading from the washer to dryer, or cloths line if the weather was nice enough and the mills were blowing the other direction.
If the winds were coming at you the clothes would be dirtier than when Mom started, and she would be in a really bad mood if the winds shifted and she didn’t notice until the damage was done. Once Dad filled the backyard with an above ground pool in 1970 the outside cloths line became a thing of the past, except for a small line on the back porch or in the basement.
By then the ringer washer was long gone and dryers were common even in working class homes like ours in 1970, that made for a lot less to do on Mondays. Some of the hours were still filled by watching the dramas originally created for radio to sell detergents to housewives known as Soap Operas, these oft redundant and sometimes rules defying shows with plotlines that focused on plotlines that included some of the worst mankind has to offer moved easily to TV, expanding from the original 15 minutes to full one hour shows in some cases.
By 1970 the summer days chasing rats and birds, smoking cigarettes and some of the first tastes of alcohol were just memories, first replaced by corners and then by cars and eventually by apartment occupied by as many people as could found to pay.
Vivid memories still pop out with the slightest smell of methane, kids crawling in pipes under the roads where grownups were busy at the things that we are busy at now, a subterranean world that was stepping through the looking glass for city kids.
Whenever passing over a culvert that cuts under a road the knowledge that a set of memories and life lessons may be going on 15 feet below my car tires.