In Berlin, we’d lived in an apartment, like most people, with only one entry. A fairly busy street passed in front of our building. In back, there was a courtyard surrounded by more apartment buildings, with a small patch of grass. Children were not allowed to play on it.
In our new St. Paul neighborhood, people lived in modest homes and I quickly learned that there was a difference between the front of houses and the back. Strangers or infrequent guests used the front door, which was always closed and sometimes locked. They rang the bell and waited for someone to open. Family, friends and neighbors used the backdoor. During the summer, only the screen door was closed and it slammed whenever someone came or left. Approaching my friends’ backdoor from the alleyway, I saw broken down cars in open garages; garbage cans and bicycles were lined up by the fence. Skateboards, hulahoops, bats and balls were scattered in the back yard; there was always a picnic table with a couple of ashtrays. When I walked up to the same house from the street, everything was so neat and quiet it almost seemed like no one lived there at all.
The alleys between the houses were the most interesting places in the neighborhood because here, other people’s family life bounced all around me: kids playing and fighting, moms chatting with neighbors while pinning shirts and sheets to the clothesline, dads cussing as they repaired lawn mowers, a baseball game blaring from a transistor radio, dogs yelping, parents yelling or laughing, sprinklers swishing, and the occasional thock of a croquet mallet striking the ball. Sometimes after dark, I saw teenagers kissing in parked cars and once, a ghostly looking animal with a rat’s tail froze in the beam of my flashlight.
After three years, we moved to a suburb in Minneapolis. Here, every house had a flat front lawn and the backyards were mostly hidden from view. No one had clotheslines or junky cars. The summer barbecues of neighborhood families were invisible.
I missed the alleyways.
When we arrived in the United States in 1964, I was almost twelve years old. Everything was different: the coins and bills, the shape and consistency of bread, the size of refrigerators and cars - they were huge! In my last few posts, I've been writing about some things that I remember from my first summer in St Paul. This is the last in the series. Read other anecdotes here and here.