Sunday, August 5, 2012

The August of the Fire Hydrant

Even though her father and my father were brothers, and we were practically the same age, lived on the same block, and saw each other nearly every day when we were growing up, my cousin Linnie and I were never close. The truth is, Linnie scared the bejeezus out of me. 
I will not tell you about her Pez dispenser collection, vast though it was, or the various inconvenient places — mainly on other people’s bodies — where she liked to store those hard little canisters. And I will not tell you about the day she put cottage cheese on a napkin and chased me down the street, threatening to smear me with it, all the while yelling “It’s my vomit.”
And I definitely will not tell you about that Halloween when Linnie dressed up like a belly dancer and made us accompany her — all us little butterflies and ballerinas  — as she climbed up to the sixth floor of her apartment building and knocked on Donny DeSilva's door. We waited, holding our breath, until she emerged from the neighborhood hoodlum's apartment a few minutes later, without a single piece of trick or treat candy to share with the rest of us.
Uh uh. I will not tell you any of that. Instead, I’m going to tell you about my cousin Linnie and the fire hydrant. 
It was August, and it was hot. All Augusts are hot, but city Augusts are even hotter. There was no air conditioning, only a few families had fans, and you can bet your life we spent as little time as possible indoors. But even outside, with the sun reflecting off the sidewalk, there was no relief. Men sat around in Bermuda shorts, sometimes wearing T-shirts, sometimes wearing no shirts at all. Women wore short-shorts and halter tops, their brightly polished toenails peeking out from wedgie sandals. My mother walked around the neighborhood in a skimpy blue two-piece bathing suit, with nothing else on but her Hunter College class ring. 
People would have loved to escape the city but most of them didn’t have any place to go, let alone a car to get them there. So they spread beach blankets on the front stoop, brought kitchen chairs and card tables downstairs, and played gin rummy and mahjong right there on the sidewalk. Mothers didn’t have the energy to look after their kids, and we ran around like the wild beasts we were, our rubber flip-flops slapping against the burning pavement.
And even though opening up a fire hydrant was not exactly kosher, no one said a word when Florence Mackie’s son, Bruiser, let that icy cold spray loose onto the street. Everyone ran through the water. Kids, moms, dads, aunts and uncles, even grandparents. The guy who owned the candy store on Tremont Avenue raced through with a lit cigar clenched between his teeth. The woman who ran a betting operation out of her kitchen pulled her dress up over her knees and squealed like a happy baby.  
My cousin Linnie, never one to do things in moderation, not only kicked off her flip-flops, she tore off her halter-top, stepped out of her shorts, and then wriggled out of her panties. She ran through the stream of ice cold water bare naked. 

And then she did it again. 
Nobody told her to stop. Her mother and father thought it was hilarious. Even my own mother laughed.  
On that particular day, in the middle of that particular August, it was like there were no rules. But something told me that before long, as soon as the very next morning maybe, if the temperature dropped a few degrees in the night, or if there was a cooling rain, people would return to their senses. 
And they did. Linnie’s mother took away her allowance and said she couldn’t buy another Pez dispenser, or Pez either for that matter, for the rest of her life. Her father went even further. He took the picture tube out of their TV set and swore it wasn’t going back in until Linnie was married.  (Of course, this punishment was short lived, because my uncle was never one to cut off his nose to spite his face.) 
But the effects of Linnie’s actions did not stop there. Birdie and Penny Kirshenbaum, two elderly sisters who shared an apartment on the first floor, and had whooped and hollered along with everyone else when Linnie ran through the spray of water, felt so guilty that they threw away their mahjong set and vowed they’d never play another game. Over time, they grew bitter and sarcastic and Penny developed a terrible tic in her right eye. But they were true to their word. Those ivory tiles never again saw the light of day.
Some men — fathers and uncles of the little butterflies and ballerinas — who’d been holding a grudge since Halloween, went up to see Donny DeSilva on the sixth floor. And even though he had nothing to do with the fire hydrant incident, they threatened to mess up his face if he even looked at their womenfolk. 
As for my mother, she packed up that two-piece bathing suit of hers and stored it away in a box in her closet and, as far as I know, it is still there to this day.
But listen, don’t waste your pity on that punk Donny DeSilva, or on the Kirshenbaum sisters, either. They weren’t so nice to start with. And I probably don’t even have to tell you that, in the end, Linnie got whatever she wanted, with or without her allowance. That goes for Pez, lipstick (the real kind and the candy kind), nylon stockings, a box of 64 Crayola crayons, brand new patent leather sling-back shoes with inch-high heels, and a hot-pink Schwinn bicycle with a bubble seat and pink and white streamers and a bell that really worked..
The person you should feel sorry for is me. Because from that day on I was known around the neighborhood as the cousin of the naked girl. Trust me, that's not an easy relationship to live down.