Copyright 2006 David Castlewitz
The Kent Theatre was the place to be on Saturday afternoon. On one particular April day in 1954, when I was in the fourth grade, Mr. McCoy from Duncan Toys came to the Kent’s stage and Uncle Jack, who planned the cartoon festivals, the Abbott and Costello double features, and the Easter-time baby chicken giveaways, rolled out a Schwinn bicycle, the grand prize for that year’s yo-yo contest.
Bathed in the footlights, McCoy showed us how to make the yo-yo sleep; how to Walk the Dog; and do ‘Round the World. The few girls braving this boy-dominated world watched with as much anticipation as anyone. But even the best girl yo-yo’er, Jane White, had never made it to the final round. Besides, that was a boy’s bike.
Mr. McCoy did Rock-the-Baby with ease. Then came the Three-Leaf-Clover and Skin-the-Cat, the tricks that separated the winner from the also-rans. Eat Spaghetti required gathering the yo-yo string close to your mouth and McCoy did it in one neat swoop, the yo-yo still spinning before it jumped back to his palm.
“Two weeks, kids,” Uncle Jack announced, his thin moustache twitching. “You got two weeks to practice, then one of you is gonna win this bike. Which was donated to us by Schwartz’ Toys over on Front Street.”
“Now we got a special treat. Not one. Not two. Not three.” He cupped a meaty hand to his ear.
“Not four,” we shouted back.
Uncle Jack’s eyes beamed like sci-fi blasters. “Five more cartoons.”
Testing my skill, I performed Walk-the-Dog, practiced Loop-the-Loop and Rock-the-Baby. This year, the Schwinn would be mine. No one would ever buy me something that expensive. My grandmother frowned when I talked about bikes. My grandfather insisted, “You get runned over with them things.” My mother ignored me when I asked for anything.
But Uncle Harry understood a boy’s needs. Whenever he visited, we’d play checkers or cards, and he’d regale me with tales of his week’s adventures. A salesman, he traveled by train, by bus, and by trolley car, visiting the tiny towns outside Philadelphia, and he always had stories to tell.
As my mother’s younger brother. I thought they should naturally love one another, but they argued a lot, and Saturday night dinner was their arena.
“If you could keep a job you wouldn’t have to keep finding one,” my mother said.
Uncle Harry grunted. “I got jobs like you got men.”
My grandmother slapped his arm. “Not in front of the boy.” She shuffled out of the kitchen. Grandfather stood and sighed.
“We’ll clean up, Pop,” Uncle Harry said. Grandfather patted him on the shoulder as he passed behind him.
I glanced at the lima beans wading like green snails in the meatloaf gravy covering my plate. I lifted a bean onto my fork and rushed it to my mouth. I could eat anything if I didn’t look at it for too long.
Uncle Harry and Mother cleared the table. “Finish up,” Mother said. “I don’t wanna be in the kitchen all night.”
Uncle Harry put his plate in the sink. “Let him take his time, Bern.” To him, Mother was always “Bern” or “Bernie,” and never “Bernice.”
She pulled a pack of cigarettes out of her dress pocket. She wiped a smudge of mascara from her eyelids. Saturday was one of her waitressing days so she still bore the remnants of the obligatory makeup she’d caked on her face that morning.
I finished dinner, brought my platter to my mother and took out my yo-yo. “Wanna see me do some tricks?” I asked Uncle Harry.
“Walk the Dog,” Uncle Harry suggested.
I did. He applauded. Mother’s nostrils spewed smoke. One cigarette finished, she lit another.
“Around the World,” Uncle Harry ordered.
I backed up to give myself room. I looked over my shoulder.
“Okay, folks,” Uncle Harry announced. “Here comes the Front Street King of the Yo-Yo-teers! Artie Lippman. Go Artie.”
I hurled the yo-yo in a circle. The trick was nearly perfect, except that I moved a little and the yo-yo crashed into the table, hitting a plate and cracking it in two. Mother yanked the yo-yo from me, hard enough to snap the string still looped around my finger. “That’s it for yo-yo’s,” she said, and twisted the yo-yo apart.
My grandmother stood in the kitchen doorway. She looked at the plate. She looked at my mother. “Bernice? Playing with toys? You broke that?”
“Not me. Him.” Mother pointed at me.
“Don’t play with kids’ toys. Don’t be breaking plates. You cost us enough heartache. Don’t go breaking things.” Grandmother turned her back on us and walked across the living room and into the dark tailor shop, where she’d sit beside Grandfather and watch the evening strollers, the lighted trolleys, and the rumbling cars on our busy street.
With his eyes, Uncle Harry warned me away and I hurried out of the kitchen, into the shop, and then took the stairs two at a time.
Uncle Harry tossed the yo-yo onto my bed. The spindle was broken. “Maybe I can get a piece of wood and fix it,” I said, hoping Uncle Harry would help.
“Or you could get a new one.”
“I don’t have a dollar-and-a-quarter.”
“A magic yo-yo,” Uncle Harry continued, and sat at the foot of my bed. “You need a yo-yo that’s a sure winner.”
“I just need a yo-yo. It ain’t gotta be magic.”
Lights danced in Uncle Harry’s gray eyes. “I know where we can get a yo-yo with a spin and a balance and a shine that’ll make your eyes pop.” He smiled. “Tomorrow. We’ll go downtown. I know a place.”
“I have to ask my mother.”
“I’ll do that.” He patted me on the head. “Empty your school bag so we can take it with us.”
“My school bag?”
“If we find any treasure we’re gonna need a bag.”
* * *
Sunday was a day when the city shuttered itself. Where Uncle Harry and I walked, brown paper shades covered store windows and doors. Pigeons cooed in overhead ledges, and trolley cars rumbled on their tracks.
Uncle Harry stopped at a tall wooden door with oval windows across its top. He pressed a button in the metal plate next to the jamb. A buzzer sounded. Short bursts. Long bursts. Like a secret code. We entered the building and climbed a staircase. The air stung and I held my nostrils to keep from sneezing.
“Harry?” a raspy voice called from above. “Who’s with you?”
“My nephew,” Uncle Harry answered when we reached the fourth floor. I yanked my empty school bag off my shoulder just as a heavyset man greeted us at an open door.
“Got a name?” he asked me.
“Danny Cohen.” He stuck out his hand and we shook. “Always shake a man’s hand. Shows you want to do business.” With a jerk of his square head, he ushered us into his office. I sat on the wooden bench along one wall. Next to me was a red table with a hot plate and a coffee percolator. Caramel colored liquid splashed inside its glass dome.
Uncle Harry sat in a vinyl padded chair. He lit a cigarette he’d rolled earlier and reached sideways for the stand-up ashtray.
A humming noise and a rhythmic clack-clack radiated from the other side of the wall. When Danny opened the door behind his desk, I saw four huge printing presses and sniffed the heavy scent of oil.
“Don’t say anything to your mother,” Uncle Harry told me. “Else you ain’t coming with me no more.”
What could I say? That we went to some guy’s printing plant? Would my mother be angry over that? She was always angry. Uncle Harry’s caution made sense.
Danny returned with a stack of magazines. He put them on the desk, wrote out names on slips of paper and tied string around groups of four or five magazines at a time. Naked women graced the covers, their ugly butts on display as they played tag, bounced beach balls back and forth or stood poised to dive into a swimming pool.
Uncle Harry shoved the bundles into my school bag, which he shut and buckled. He helped me put the bag up on my shoulders, the cloth straps pulled tight.
“Needs to be delivered tomorrow,” Danny said. “Be careful. I got Jimmy Posa breathing down on me.”
“For a little route like this?”
Danny nodded. “He’s got all of Northeast Philly and he wants to horn in on me. What do I got, a couple of newsstands downtown?” Danny waved a hand. “Okay. Get outa here. I gotta get back to work.”
Uncle Harry bounded to the door. I followed.
“Nice to meet you,” Danny said to me. I stuck out my hand, offering a departing handshake. “That’s right,” Danny said. “Show me you want to do business.”
The magazines thumped against my back as we headed for the subway. “I thought you were going to get me a new yo-yo.”
“I am.” Uncle Harry studied the length of Fourth Street. A few camera-toting tourists wandered about. Independence Hall, Betsy Ross’ House, and other historic sites sat a few minutes’ walk away. I’d visited them on school trips.
“Those guys following us?” Uncle Harry asked.
Two men in dark suits and gray felt hats walked side-by-side across the street. Uncle Harry prodded me and we hurried past rows of shuttered store windows. I saw yo-yo’s in one, but we moved on.
The closed stores diminished in number, replaced by rundown houses with caved-in roofs, boarded-up windows, and backyards full of wild weeds and tall grass that looked like stalks of wheat I’d seen in books.
“Where’re we going?” I asked.
“To get a yo-yo.”
“But everything’s closed.”
“South Street,” Uncle Harry said, and turned the corner. “You know the right people, it’s open to you.”
Clothing stores, hardware stores, paperhanging and paint stores, all kinds of stores, and all of them shut tight, lined the street, as did throngs of meandering shoppers. They strolled from display window to display window, and sometimes wandered into a store by way of a side door.
“Whatcha think? Same two guys?” Uncle Harry nodded and I looked where he indicated. I saw two men. Same gray felt hats. Same dark suits. Uncle Harry nudged me and we walked to a corner store. A sign boasted that it sold novelties and toys.
Uncle Harry rang the doorbell. Seconds passed before a dark face appeared behind two parted slates in the door’s Venetian blinds.
“Kaylo! Open up.” Uncle Harry gestured and the door opened to reveal a black man with a fringe of gray hair encircling a bald spot.
“What do you want, Harry?” An unlit cigar danced between Kaylo’s lips.
Uncle Harry pushed me inside. I let my school bag drop with a thump on the linoleum floor.
“Yours?” Kaylo asked.
“My nephew. Where’s Herman?”
Kaylo beckoned and we walked through beaded curtains into another room. “Herman’s up in New York,” Kaylo said. Shelves of candles ringed the room. Round and pear-like candles, others tall and thin, and some short and stubby. Cardboard markers claimed they brought good luck or attracted love. Green ones promised money. Red, vengeance. Light a candle of a certain type –- love, money, luck – and that’s what you’d get.
“Got any yo-yo’s?”
“For what? You gonna go work for Mr. Duncan now?” Kaylo laughed, and tobacco juice dribbled from a corner of his mouth.
“My nephew here is a champion.”
“Is that a fact?” Kaylo stuck out his hand. “Mr. Kaylo Dodd’s the name.”
“Arthur Lippman,” I said. We shook hands.
“So,” Kaylo said, drawing out the sound of the word. “You can do the yo-yo. A boy needs something special that he can do.” Kaylo stepped out of the room. Uncle Harry rolled a cigarette, which he lit from a flaming “Bring-on-the-Dough” candle.
“Let’s see you do your stuff,” Kaylo said when he returned. He handed me a Duncan. It had the official seal, and the shape and perfect balance that couldn’t be beat. I stood up, flexed my fingers, checked the string for tautness, looped the end over my middle finger and gave the yo-yo a practice toss.
“Show him a trick,” Uncle Harry said.
I loosened the tight string a little. Then tried Sleep-the-Baby.
Okay. That worked. Walk-the-Dog. Okay again. Loop-the-Loop and Rock-the-Baby came next. Both failed. So did Over-the-Shoulder. As did Skin-the-Cat.
“Know what you need?” Kaylo said to me.
Magic I thought, and quickly searched the printed signs in front of the candles.
“Some yo-yo wax.” Kaylo took the Duncan back, pulled the string out its full length and waxed it with the soft paraffin from the money candle. “When I was a kid, we coated the string with bees wax. But candle wax will do.”
Over-the-Shoulder worked the first time. The Duncan flew back into my palm with a gentle flick of my finger.
“Thanks,” I said. I tried Rock-the-Baby. Not quite.
Kaylo opened my school bag and pulled out one of the magazines.
“Look at that.” Kaylo jabbed his finger at a cover.
“There’s some guys following us. Since I left Danny’s place.”
“Jimmy Posa’s got it in for Danny. Wants to take over his route.”
“What’s Danny doing, not paying the tax?” Kaylo said. “You want to do business, you gotta pay the tax.”
Uncle Harry nodded.
“I gotta pee,” I said in a weak voice. Kaylo pointed, and I maneuvered between stacks of cardboard boxes, performing Walked-the-Dog as I went, stopping once to Make-the-Baby-Sleep. That first prize Schwinn was nearly mine.
I’d make streamers for the handle bars. I’d put baseball cards in the rear wheel spokes to make it sound like a motorcycle.
“Okay,” Uncle Harry said when I got back. “We need to go.” I stuffed the yo-yo into the side pocket of my school bag for quick retrieval any time I wanted to practice during the long trip home.
“That’s two bits for the yo-yo,” Kaylo said. “Giving you the wholesale price.” He chuckled.
Uncle Harry tossed him a quarter. “Tell Herman I was by. How’s his leg?”
“Still a gimp.”
“Is it hurtin’ him?”
“He wouldn’t tell me if it was. I’m like furniture to him. When was the last time you told your chair you had a headache?”
“Well,” Felt One said, “what we got today?”
The two men looked alike. Pale skin. Crater scarring in their cheeks. Dark suits and black shoes. Brown ties for both.
Uncle Harry stood nose-to-nose with the Felts. “I’m just a delivery boy.”
“That’s why we ain’t gonna hurt ya. Just give us the magazines.”
“I ain’t delivering today.”
“What’s in the bag?” Felt One pointed.
“Give them your bag,” Uncle Harry said to me.
A rough hand clamped my shoulder.
“I need it for school,” I said.
Felt Two snorted. A knife appeared in his hand. He cut one of the straps. The bag dropped.
“My yo-yo,” I screamed.
Felt One looked at me. “Shut up or I’ll smack ya.”
“His yo-yo’s in the side pocket,” Uncle Harry said.
Felt Two touched the side pocket. His eyes lit up, as though this was the first time he’d been told the truth about anything.
“Can I have it?” I asked.
“Don’t you know to say please?” Felt Two glared at me, his pale blue eyes like colored flakes floating in milk.
Felt One retrieved my yo-yo and handed it to me. “Let’s see you do a trick,” he said.
I performed Walk-the-Dog, nicking the polished surface of the yo-yo on the rough concrete.
“I was in a contest once,” Felt One said. “Won second prize.”
“We only got first prizes,” I said.
“Winner take all, huh?”
“Give the kid his bag,” Felt One said. “Take the magazines and give him back the bag. He needs it for school.”
Felt Two unbuckled the flap. I was glad he didn’t just slit it open with his knife. He pulled out cardboard and newspapers and blue-lined loose-leaf paper.
“I told you,” Uncle Harry said. “I ain’t delivering today.”
“You saw Cohen.”
“You didn’t pick up magazines?”
Uncle Harry shook his head.
“Okay then,” Felt One said. “Here’s what you do. You tell Cohen he pays his dues and we don’t bother his delivery boys.” He tapped his partner on the arm and the pair walked away.
Uncle Harry inspected my school bag. “Your mother can sew this,” he said, fingering the sliced cloth strap.
“She’ll kill me.”
“We’ll tell her I did it,” Uncle Harry said. “She ain’t gonna spank me.”
I heard that Jane White would enter the contest again.
“Anybody else wins the contest, her brother’ll kill them,” was the word around school.
I practiced anyway. Especially Eat Spaghetti. But the yo-yo failed me. The string wasn’t tacky to the touch anymore.
“What’s the matter?” my grandfather asked when he wandered into the kitchen
“I need wax for my yo-yo string.”
“You need bees wax. That’s what I used.”
“They had yo-yo’s when you were a kid?”
“Can you do yo-yo tricks?” I asked, delighted and astonished.
“Not anymore,” he replied, and lumbered away. When he returned, he gave me a ball of bee’s wax. “Put it back on the sewing machine when you’re done,” he said, and left.
Bees wax. Hadn’t Kaylo said that was the best? I waxed the string as I’d seen Kaylo do. I tried my easy tricks. Okay. I tried Spaghetti. Almost. I kept practicing until it was time to go.
After the first Jungle Jim movie and before the Knights of the Air serial episode Uncle Jack appeared on stage and a uniformed usher wheeled in the bike. The Duncan Man, Mr. McCoy, followed.
“Hey, kids,” Uncle Jack called to us.
“Hiya, Uncle Jack!” we screamed back.
“I want all you kids who want to enter the yo-yo contest to come up here on stage.”
I sprang from my seat, ran up the side aisle and scrambled onto the stage. Uncle Jack himself gave me a hand up, his pencil-thin moustache twitching.
The ushers put us into lines of three rows of about 15 kids each. The Duncan Man demonstrated the first trick. The easiest one. Sleep-the-Baby.
One by one we stepped forward to make our yo-yo sleep. A few of the six-year-old contestants failed, and cried when led offstage. A ten-year-old wanted a third try, but the rule was, two tries per trick. No more.
Next came Walk-the-Dog and soon we were two lines of kids. McCoy demonstrated Around-the-World. His sneer dared us to match his performance.
Unable to do the trick, Jane White’s brother stomped off stage. Calmly, her blonde braids tucked under the white collar of her blue dress, Jane performed the trick. She was the only girl left and her eyes sparkled.
Five kids later it was my turn. Okay. Round-the-World was easy.
Floodlights came at us from the front and above. Uncle Jack wiped sweat from his forehead. Water dripped from his hair-filled nostrils.
“Loop-the-Loop,” McCoy announced. He threw the yo-yo out in front of his body. Perfect double loops. Perfect catch.
Boy after boy failed. Jane succeeded. As did I.
“Rock-the-Baby,” McCoy said. Tensing, I watched Jane take her turn. Wisps of golden hair escaped from her braids and lay on her shoulders. Her performance was flawless. So was mine.
Now there were only seven of us. I stood next to Jane when the Duncan Man demonstrated the Three-Leaf-Clover. There were more loops than Loop-the-Loop. The number of times the yo-yo whirled past your hand and how well you shaped the clover leaf counted, too.
“You go first,” Jane said to me.
I looked at the Duncan Man. “Come on,” he urged. “One of you has to go first.”
“Please, Arthur,” Jane whined. “Go first?”
I stepped forward. The audience roared. They whistled.
Of all the tricks, the Three-Leaf-Clover was the one I’d forgotten to practice.
“I’m counting to three,” the Duncan Man said. “Then you better do the trick or you’re out.”
I didn’t wait. I gave the Clover a try. One leaf, two leaves, three. Spin, over, under, and back. Perfect.
Ecstatic, I stepped back into line. I couldn’t resist a smile of triumph aimed right at Jane’s pug-nosed face.
She went last. Like me and one other boy, she succeeded. “My brother ain’t gonna like it if I don’t win,” she warned us.
The other boy looked to be about eleven. Tall, freckle-faced, boney, all smiles. He didn’t go to our school. He didn’t know about Jane and her brother, so he wasn’t afraid.
I was. But I’d been afraid of the Felt Hats and that had worked out okay. I was afraid of my mother, but I survived her wrath day in and day out. I was afraid of Mrs. Young at school because she put kids under her desk and kicked them, but I managed her class without dying.
So what if I was afraid of Jane’s brother. I wanted that bike. Uncle Harry would be proud if I came riding home on a new Schwinn.
“Skin-the-Cat,” McCoy announced.
The boney boy couldn’t do it. I performed the trick with ease. So did Jane.
It was Eat Spaghetti time.
McCoy demonstrated. He failed on his first try. Red-faced, he tried again, and succeeded. Magic, I told myself when McCoy pointed at me and said, “You go next.” Just do a little magic.
Uncle Jack raised his hands. The lights dimmed. McCoy coaxed me with, “Come on, kid. We gotta get this over with.”
I did it the first time.
So did Jane.
“That’s a tie,” McCoy said.
“We know what a tie means,” Uncle Jack said. And the audience screamed.
“Now you get to do one more trick. One that you never saw before,” McCoy explained, and gave us a thin smile. Tears welled up in Jane’s eyes.
“Watch closely,” McCoy said. He shot out the yo-yo. Hard. He put a finger of his left hand under the string and brought it horizontal to his belt. The yo-yo suddenly fell back onto the string and zipped across it like a unicycle on a tightrope. With a jerk, McCoy made the yo-yo fly over his left wrist.
It returned to his right hand.
The audience stomped the floor and threw empty candy boxes and wads of paper at the stage.
McCoy signaled with a nod that it was our turn. Jane looked at me. I stepped forward, my leather soled shoes slipping on the polished wooden floor.
I visualized what the Duncan Man had done. I tried to repeat it.
Attempt Number One failed.
The kids in the audience booed. Jane giggled.
Attempt Number Two failed as well.
“Sorry, kid,” the Duncan Man said.
“I win!” Jane screamed.
“No,” McCoy told her. “You gotta do the trick.”
“What if I can’t?” she asked Uncle Jack. “Don’t I win?”
Uncle Jack looked unperturbed. I glanced back at the Schwinn. Light beams bounced off its handlebars.
“You gonna try or not?” the Duncan Man asked.
Jane closed her mouth. Lips pressed tightly together, she threw out her yo-yo with a lift, a jerk and a toss. It got tangled up in the string. The audience laughed. She took a breath and tried again. She failed the second time. Her brother glared at her from a front row seat. Her lower lip trembled.
Mr. McCoy and Uncle Jack conferred briefly. I worried that they’d give Jane the bike because she was the first girl ever to get this far. That wasn’t fair. Then I glanced once more at her angry brother and saw how scared Jane was and wished they would let her have the Schwinn.
“Okay,” Uncle Jack said. “We’ll try another tie-breaker.”
The audience cheered.
Mr. McCoy did Over-the-Shoulder. Jane stepped up and did the trick the first time. She beamed. All smiles and no tears. Loose strands of hair had escaped her braids and bounced about her shoulders. Her freckled face shined. One hand gripped her yo-yo. The other was at her side, two fingers crossed.
Perhaps I was nervous. Perhaps I was afraid for her. Whatever the reason, my first try was a failure.
Glancing sideways, I saw Jane’s brother standing at the bottom of the stage. His eyes were shut and his lips moved. He’s praying, I realized. Jane’s lips moved, too. She was saying, “Please. Please.”
With all that to think of, it was no wonder I couldn’t do the trick the second time I tried.
Shrieking, Jane ran to the Schwinn and fell to her knees and cradled the prize in her arms. The audience cheered. The building shook.
“One minute,” Uncle Jack shouted. “That’s a boy’s bike.” He motioned to someone offstage and an usher appeared with a girl’s bike with pink handles and white streamers. Jane White put her hands to her small mouth. Her eyes touched mine. They held a silent thank-you. Before I could ask if she needed help, she carried the bike down the steps and wheeled it past her brother, who glared at her back.
“He lost to a girl,” somebody said as I left the stage. But I didn’t care. I pictured the delight I’d seen on Jane White’s face and basked in how she thanked me with her eyes.
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