(From an issue of the Beachy Banner, 1970s – exact date unknown)
We passed an empty lot the other day. It has a high chain link fence all around it and large signs threatened those who might even think about trespassing.
It’s hard to find empty lots anymore. There just aren’t any.
In my father’s boyhood, the empty lot – usually one at the corner of the street – was a great source of entertainment. Boys got up baseball games. They played kick the can and run sheepie run. In the winter time they would build a bonfire with bits and pieces of old wood and kindling that always seemed to be around for the asking. They’d hang around the bonfire, swapping lies and keeping warm. Amazingly, no one ever got arrest for building bonfires. It was considered to be one of those things that boys just did. It was also enormously thrilling to cook something on the bonfire, like a hotdog on a stick.
There were a lot of empty lots to be found when I was a child growing up in Cincinnati. I remember in particular one very large empty lot on Denham Street, a few blocks from where we lived. A kind of second-rate carnival took up residence on that empty lot once a year, and occasionally a festival would be sponsored by a local charity. We’d ride the Ferris wheel and merry-go-round, pitch pennies at gaudy dishes, sometimes winning one for our mother—and through the rest of the year, we’d painstakingly comb through the weeds and brush, searching for treasure. Occasionally, we’d be rewarded with a half-buried coin or a little trinket leftover from the last carnival.
My brothers found plenty of uses for the empty lot. They’d build roads and tunnels for their play cars and trucks, or get up a game of marbles in the dirt.
In the autumn, when leaves were turning red and gold, the big boys played touch football in the empty lot after school.
Around Christmas time. Christmas trees would be sold on the empty lot. Older boys, like my brother, would hang around and offer to carry the Christmas trees home for the purchasers. Back then, not everybody drove around in cars—we took the street car or we walked. Since you can’t very handily get on a street car with a Christmas tree, the boys were able to earn a little money toting the trees to the shopper’s home. As I recall, there wasn’t a set price for carrying someone’s tree to their house—the boys just did it, and took whatever was offered to them. Sometimes they got a quarter, sometimes fifty centers. Sometimes they would return disgustedly with a little paper bag of cookies. When Christmas was over, the unsold trees would be used to build forts. Boys were always building forts. Girls were not allowed. When the forts fell apart or the boys lost interest, the trees could be tossed into their bonfires.
My favorite empty lot was down the street and one block over from our house. On this corner, there was an old barber shop, where you could trade comic books, one for one, an old timey saloon where grownups could buy a BUCKET of beer, and – best of all – behind the barber shop there was a very large slab of very smooth cement. It was the most ideal skating rink in the neighborhood, and we would skate around and around in circles, pretending to be at a real skating rink. Sometimes we even had skates on. It was ideal for jumping rope, especially Double Dutch, because the cement surface was so smooth. We also liked to play jacks on that cement slab.
There was always something to do at an empty lot.
I sighed as we passed the chain link fence with its no trespassing signs. “It’s such a shame that the empty lots are gone” I said.
“Is that a rock group?” one of my sons asked.
“What happened?” his younger brother inquired. “Did they die?”