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The inner-city Cassboro Apartments lay empty for months before it was finally razed. The tall, once-sheltering tree at the southwest edge was eaten away by Dutch elm disease. The streetlight was shattered. (“First to see the streetlights come on!”)
A wire fence surrounded the property to keep out vagrants, but I saw an alley door opening. Two homeless men slipped in. I decided I would take a risk and enter the abandoned building another day. What would I find after 45 years? The neighborhood held many memories for me . . . .
When I was eight I began exploring my one-block territory. I found well-kept Victorian homes, leafy war-effort Victory Gardens, front lawns bordered with blooming morning glories, clotheslines with white laundry sunning in the breeze, and wooden garages that housed carefully polished gas-rationed cars.
On two sides of the Cassboro there were apartments, each filled with kids my own age. There was always someone to play Kick the Can with, or baseball, Hide-and-Seek, or Dress-Up Theater. There were enough old houses to declare haunted or to tell scary stories about.
There were back-lot clubhouses hammered together by teenagers calling themselves The Shanty Town Bums. Saturday mornings I would sneak into them alone, sit on cool cardboard floors, read scribbled messages and graffiti, and dream up commando adventure games. I discovered a tramp in one once and brought him sandwiches.
I avoided the Shanty Town Bums (but noted their look and swagger). And with good reason: once they tied a rope around my waist, threw the rope over a tree branch and hoisted me up. My mother heard my midair screams and raised holy hell with them . . .
I knew I was trespassing when I entered the Cassboro, but I felt no sense of danger, just a curiosity to see the apartment I grew up in. Rather than fear ghosts I hoped the distant past might welcome my long-forgotten face.
The first floor hallway, once filled with families, was now a long, empty tunnel narrowing into a lobby filled with diffused light — like someone’s Near Death Experience. There was no door on number 114. I closed my eyes and entered. The living room was smaller than I remembered. (I was 18 when we moved after my grandmother died.)
I stood where my small roll-top desk had been. I kept treasures inside: copies of Playmate Magazine, my Sunday School Bible, comic books, and box-top collectibles. I imagined the faded couch where my grandmother slept, confined during her last years and always hearing nonexistent mice.
The kitchen was a peeling decay, its cupboards ripped out. The bathroom, where I looked in the mirror for clues of puberty, was stripped. The bedroom where I slept with my parents was bricks and boards. (I thought of the boy who heard muffled sounds of lovemaking. He covered his untutored ears with pillows.)
The lobby was bare of ornamentation. The cement fireplace, edged with Medieval gargoyle faces, had been hacked to pieces. A full-length wall mirror, creating an illusion of elegance, was missing. The gated elevator, a hollow shell. I stood at the window and stared through broken glass on to the wreck of a once canopied porch.
Summer evenings we sat on its steps. My father read his paper. My mother fanned herself. The neighbors talked baseball and wondered when the war would end. When I was 15 I was cruised by a man strolling by. “Why are you staring at me?” I shouted. “I’m not like that!” We both knew better.