I’m going out on a limb here. A precarious, rotted, termite-infested limb. A branch extending from a tree that grows in Brooklyn. The limb in question is my topic for the day, "Street Games," which may only be familiar to people who grew up in urban areas. And even then, it may also be a regional thing. I’m honestly not sure. The only thing am sure about is that these were games we played… “Before the Internet.”
“On April 30, 1993, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) put the web into the public domain a decision that has fundamentally altered the past quarter-century.” --DAVID GROSSMAN. Although plenty of our pastime activities included electronic entertainment and movies, the 1980s offered kids a multitude of recreational distractions that may be less relatable to today’s youth. Whether timeless or lost to time, this ongoing series is dedicated to the many 1980s activities in which we engaged.
Street games is the catchall name for a series of activities my friends and I used to engage in during those long summer months when school was but a distant memory. Like riding our bikes, street games were things we could do for free with limited accessories (an important prerequisite for adolescents with perhaps no more than a dollar or two in their pockets, if that). Most of these types of games predated the ‘80s by many decades, and, in fact, every one of them was taught to me (handed down, if you will) by my father. A popular example of a street game, though one I never played, is hopscotch. All you need is a sidewalk and some chalk, and you’re in business.
One of my personal favorites was something called stoop ball (AKA up-against, pinners, three outs, and off the point, depending on where you’re from). If you couldn’t figure it out from the name, all you need is a stoop and a ball (preferably either a pink Spalding—pronounced Spaldeen by those in the know—or a blue handball). The rules vary depending on the region, but generally the idea was to have a pitcher who would throw the ball at the stoop, and fielders who would try to catch the ball to get the pitcher “out.” We were never sticklers for a point system with this one, but there are ways to calculate winners if you cared enough. I’d also often play solitary, which was basically the same, only you’d catch your own throws. On those days when all your friends were busy doing something else, or dinner wasn’t going to be ready for another half hour, stoop ball made for an easy way to pass the time.
Like stoop ball, box ball (sometimes box baseball) made use of the environment around us and that trusty Spaldeen. The titular “boxes” were that of the sidewalk. You placed three boxes between you and your opponent. The middle box was “out of bounds.” The pitcher threw (or in some variations, slapped) the ball into the box closest to the hitter, who then slapped the ball into the box closest to the pitcher, attempting to shoot it past them without their catching it. The true art of the game was putting “spin” on the ball with both the pitch and the hit, attempting to get the Spaldeen to dance off in unpredictable directions. As the hitter, you’d do this by angling your slap almost like a horizontal karate chop. As the pitcher, you’d sometimes squeeze the hollow, rubber ball and try to almost “spit” it out of your hand as you threw. It was a true art form, and one best practiced on your own before entering the arena of the streets.
The last street game I’d like to talk about today is also the most detailed: Skully (AKA skelly, skelsies, deadbox, bottlecaps, and probably more). For this one you either needed a premade street board (which my park actually did have), or some chalk to draw your own. The basics are that you and up to five other players flick your bottle cap around the board (from one to thirteen and back again). Along the journey, you can attempt to knock other players’ caps off the board. If you don’t land in the numbered box, your turn is over. Once you finish the initial tour around the board, you shoot your cap into the middle “skull” and become the killer, who hunts other players, knocking them off the board. Once completed three times, that player is “out.”
If I’m being honest, we rarely completed an entire game. The true allure of Skully, for me at least, was creating the game piece. It started out with a metal twist-off bottle cap (though players could choose different kinds of caps). You had to find one with no dents, because they would ruin the slide. Once you had your piece, you’d melt different colored crayons into the cap, often using toothpicks to swirl the colors and create a unique item. Not only was this fun, it also meant we got to play with matches or lighters! I remember a number of occasions when we only got as far as making the pieces, and never even bothered playing the game at all.
Though there are many other street games we could discuss, I’ll leave those for future installments of “Before the Internet.” And as always, my farewell question: What is your favorite street game?