I grew up in an apartment building – one of many “vertical neighborhoods” on the North Side of Chicago. My friends lived upstairs or downstairs, or in other buildings around the congested streets of Lakeview. We played in the maze of alleys and gangways around our homes, and rode our bikes full speed down the parking ramp at St. Joseph’s Hospital until the nuns chased us away, and the day was not complete unless our building janitor yelled at us. We were very busy.
I never had any reason to think my life was much different from other seven-year-olds, until I turned on the television set in our breakfast room and saw that, in fact we were not like the rest of the world. The TV families lived in neat-as-a-pin suburban houses with pristine lawns and driveways large enough to park a station wagon plus a few newly minted Schwinn bicycles. A woozy-looking, mop-like mutt somnolently followed the child actors around to complete the domestic scene. Most disturbing to me were the girls who always wore dresses! Itchy looking dresses! What fun could you have in a dress??!! There was absolutely nothing about TV’s depiction of suburban life that appealed to me except the dog and the fact that nobody ever seemed to need a coat.
The only people I knew who lived in this manner were my cousins from Dayton. They had a rambling one story ranch house with a wide green lawn and a large Weimaraner named Reggie who always tried to “hug” my mother whenever she happened to stand up. Everything they owned was brand name and brand new…including the cars parked in their driveway. They never drove a vehicle for more than 12 months before upgrading to the latest, biggest model.
Dayton was an odd place. There really wasn’t much to do outside of whiling away the hours at the country club watching adults golf or play tennis or drink Scotch. Being too young to participate in any of the organized activities, my cousin Patty and I spent the interminable hours “exploring” the outer fringes of the golf course, scavenging for rogue tennis balls or playing endless games of badminton until our parents were well sauced and ready to leave. Sometimes, as a special treat we’d go to a movie or visit the local department store with my aunt who loved to shop. On one memorable occasion, a tractor and a couple of monstrous, scary looking farm implements were on display next to the cosmetics counter.
When we returned home from these visits life would resume its ordinary rhythms and routines. But a couple days after one unexceptional Dayton trip, my world view was rocked. While watching cartoons and eating my usual lunchtime fare (a bowl of Campbell’s Alphabet Soup, peanut butter sandwich and a glass of whole milk) the most marvelous of all creations burst through the flickering glow of the cathode rays. It had everything a kid could ask for…speed!! Water!! Momentum!! Thrills!!
“It” was the Slip N’ Slide.
The more I saw the commercial, the more I wanted one. Unfortunately it was not intended for kids who dwelled in apartments. And for the first time I realized that I might be missing out on all kinds of secret suburban wonders because we did not live in a ranch house with a big lawn.
The next time my cousins and their parents came to visit the city, I cornered Patty and asked her if she knew anyone with a Slip N’ Slide back home in Dayton. Sure, she said, everyone has one of those. Seizing upon her position of authority (being two years older than me), she said matter-of-factly, “All you need is water and a slide! Big Deal.”
Whenever family came to stay in Chicago, the adults would go out to dinner and leave us kids with a sitter. We’d make Jiffy Pop, play a couple of board games, and be sound asleep by the time the grown-ups returned; me in my bed, Patty on the fold-away cot. This particular evening we got especially lucky. Our regular sitter, a nice, boring old widow, had a prior commitment. So when the back-up sitter arrived, I knew we were guaranteed a good time.
Delores was a nursing student at Augustana Hospital. Whenever she came over, she would read romance novels and eat everything in the refrigerator, totally oblivious to the chaos erupting at the other end of the apartment. When my parents returned at the end of the evening, and asked Delores how everything went, she always said “fine.” I liked that about her. The last time she’d been at our house, I tied my sister’s bird cage to the hallway chandelier because I thought it would look pretty, but the bottom fell out and the Finches escaped. When my parents came home and asked Delores how the night went, she said “fine.” The next morning my father discovered the birds flying around the apartment and spent the rest of the day trying to capture them with a tennis racket.
On this night, when the adults departed with the admonishment to “mind Delores”, my mother stuck her head back into the apartment and warned us to “be good.” As soon as the door closed, Delores headed off to the kitchen never to be seen again.
The evening began with a rousing game of Candy Land until Patty and I got into an argument. This was followed by the enactment of a domestic drama starring Barbie and “Ken” — actually it was Barbie and Barbie-with-a-home-made-buzz-cut because I didn’t own a real Ken doll. Soon we were bored and looking for something interesting to do.
I don’t recall who actually came up with the idea, but the phrase, “all you need is water and a slide” had something to do with it. As fortune would have it, I happened to have a very, very small, made-for-indoor-use wooden slide in my bedroom. And a plastic bucket and a rustic looking wooden bucket made of slats held together by rope and metal brackets. The bathroom I shared with my parents was an excellent source of water.
The adults would have been proud to see how well Patty and I collaborated; the precision that went into our choreographed movements. Not a single cross word was uttered. With the handles on the sink turned as far as they could go, the faucet gushed a torrent of water while we took turns filling the buckets and racing to the slide. One would pour while the other enjoyed the ride through a puddle of water, only to land with a sodden thud on the carpet. It was a short trip down, so the objective was to keep the slide as wet and slick as possible, making for a swifter ride.
The process had a certain repetitive Zen-like quality, and although my pajamas were soaked and the carpet was beginning to feel like a sponge, I was oblivious to how long we had been slipping and sliding….Had it been forty-five minutes? An hour? Two hours?? The operation was timeless until I heard the sound of a key turning the lock on the front door. Patty and I looked at each other and dove (no pun intended) into our beds in our sopping wet PJ’s.
“It’s quiet in there,” I heard my uncle say.
“The girls must have gone to sleep,” said my mother.
I squeezed my eyes shut, trying by sheer mental force to will the adults to forget about us, as it dawned on me that we had done something terribly bad. Then the bedroom door opened. Peering through one eye I could see my uncle’s figure silhouetted in the wedge of light coming from the hallway.
Squish…squish…squish….pause… “What the…….?!?”
The lights flew on and all the adults stood in the doorway.
Then I heard dainty, squishy footsteps and my mother’s distressed voice exclaiming,”The carpet… It’s soaked! Oh my God, there’s been a leak! The pipes must have burst upstairs!”
Even though my wet pajamas started to itch and cling uncomfortably, I pretended with all my might to be asleep.
My father was checking the walls when someone said, “The sink is running!” And then someone else noticed the wet slide and the buckets. We were caught.
The next morning Patty and I sat on stools in separate corners of the bedroom. Under strict orders to be absolutely silent so we could contemplate the serious trouble we had caused, we watched the workmen fix our mess. First the men sliced the carpet and padding into strips. Then each strip was rolled into a long, heavy tube and dragged to the back door, leaving a trail of dirty water drippings from one end of the apartment to the other.
When all of the carpet and padding had been removed, Patty and I were given mops to dry the bare wood floor. While we pushed the mops from one end of the room to the other, I heared my mother on the phone apologizing to Mrs. Katz in 9A whose newly painted walls were ruined by the water that had leaked into her apartment. Then my mother called Mrs. Taylor in 8A to apologize for the water damage to her walls, and so it went.