When I was 7 or 8 years old, I got my first bike. It was white and yellow with flowers on it; I loved its long, banana-shaped yellow seat. I’d ride it around our driveway, and a short way up and down our street, but soon enough I wanted to go further and explore.
My mother allowed my sister and me to ride with the other neighborhood kids “around the block”. This was a loop containing our street, Deerfield Street, and the street above us, Washington Street. My immediate neighborhood was arranged on a hill, with my street at the bottom near the river, with a succession of streets rising upwards-Washington Street, Hope Street, James Street, Highland Avenue.
Across the street from my house was a low cement wall, beyond which the Green River flowed. A tool company stood on its opposite bank; I passed its factory everyday as I walked home from school. In our backyard stood the high cement wall, from which pedestrians passing by on Washington Street could peer down at the shabby houses of our neighborhood.
Along this loop our posse would ride, down past M&J’s convenience store, where we bought our school snacks in the morning; past another convenience store, Ruggeri’s, and then up and around the corner onto Washington Street. We’d ride along the bumpy sidewalk and survey our houses down below the wall, shrunken and strange from this new perspective. Down past the Youth Center we’d go, pedaling down around this end of the loop, back onto Deerfield Street, along another wall that slowly diminished, until we arrived back at our own front yards.
This was our prescribed path, and we’d ride it almost everyday in the summer. Sometimes I was even allowed to go alone, as long as I stayed on the route. But about halfway down Washington Street, you could turn into an underpass, on top of which ran the train tracks. On the other side of the underpass was Hope Street. I was powerfully tempted to dash underneath the tunnel of the underpass (maybe even with a train rattling along overhead!) to sneak a peek at Hope Street. But this was expressly forbidden. Even in the 1970’s, when kids had more free reign, my mother wanted to keep close tabs on us.
In later years, I would come to know that Hope Street was home to a few small manufacturers, a print shop, a tool shop. Its houses were about as shabby as ours. Only on James Street did the houses become nicer, families with two cars and more than one television, fathers who wore suits and ties and worked in offices, maybe even their mothers worked, as nurses or secretaries. But the grand prize of Highland Avenue (it wasn’t just a street, but an “avenue”), with its Victorian homes and swimming pools and tennis courts, its commanding view of the whole town, was unimaginable to me. I didn’t step foot on Highland Avenue until I was an adult, in search of the hiking trails behind the tennis courts, and I was appropriately awed.
But as a kid, I stood astride my bike, gazing through the tunnel of the underpass leading to Hope Street, contemplating rebellion. What was it like up there? What wonders did it hold? Those distant streets were mysterious, enchanting, foreign. I was powerfully tempted to break my mother’s rule, but also a little afraid to cross the line between the known and the unknown. That’s where the “rich” kids lived. Even at that age, I instinctively felt that I didn’t belong there. I was caught in the loop of the lower streets, and forbidden to venture beyond.
Even now, more than 35 years later, I’m still looking up that hill, longing for the classy streets, never having quite escaped that loop. The longing is there, but also, still, the belief that I don’t quite belong on those upper tiers, as if the hum of the river and the rattle of the train still reverberate through me, holding me back, preventing me from going beyond Hope.