Playing Jacks

Ball and Jacks

Ball and Jacks

East Twenty-Second Street in Paterson, New Jersey was part of a healthy, working-class community in the nineteen fifties. Everyone on the block knew each other, with no distinction between the Italians, the Irish, the Protestants, and the Jews. We all played together, our folks shopped at the same mom and pop stores, and went in and out of each other’s homes. The houses were all two and three family structures. Many of the Italians lived as extended families, occupying all of the apartments in a building as well as adjacent buildings.

We lived on the third floor of a wooden apartment house owned by the Teshon family, Paterson manufacturers of upholstery and drapery fabric. The two upper flats had a front porch and each flat had access to the back yard where pulley clotheslines were strung one apartment above another from back windows to a telephone pole at the rear of the yard. There was a pair of slanted wooden cellar doors angled against the back of the house, great for sliding down.

Angie, my idol eight years older than I, lived beneath us with her family. She was a kindly and sometimes bored teenager who in my imagination had the figure of Marilyn Monroe. Her dresses were calf length, unlike mine that displayed my often-scraped knees.

After school, spelling sentences written or math facts completed, I tromped down the two narrow staircases and rapped on her door. The aroma of Italian seasoning exploded from the cracked door. I peeked inside to see her mama, apron tied securely over her prodigious behind, standing over the porcelain Wedgewood stove and stirring a gigantic pot of tomato sauce. Wish I could stay for dinner. I knew it would be better than forcing down my mother’s shepherd’s pie with lumpy mashed potatoes piled on top.

“Can you play?” I asked when Angie poked her head out.

“OK. Wanna play Jacks?”

Angie sat me down in a corner of the spacious kitchen, the linoleum floor swirly black and white. I ran my fingers along the seam, trying to be inconspicuous while dreaming of spaghetti with meat sauce and waiting for Angie to come from her bedroom with the Jacks.

Hers were the ‘good’ kind. They were sturdy and colorful while mine were tinny and grey. She was a master at whisking up a specified number of jacks, and never made allowances for my age. I didn’t win a game, but I didn’t care. I was with Angie in her mama’s luscious smelling kitchen.

“I can only play ‘til dinner,” she said.

“That’s OK,” I said.

Angie’s Mama snapped her head around. “Hey, you stay here for the dinner?”

I grinned and nodded.

“You telephone to you mama.”

Now  playing Jacks without the tantalizing aroma taunting me was possible. I spread the skirt of my new cotton plaid dress over my bent knees. My skinny arms stuck out of the baby doll sleeves, and I recalled my mother’s comment that it might be better to wear a sweater to cover my bones. The dress cost $2.99, and I knew my mother wouldn’t want me to soil it, because she had removed the three single dollars from her billfold one by one, leaving me to wonder if she might actually change her mind.


  1. I really enjoyed your story. I guess we were all doing the same things back then.

    • I grew up on Butler Street, Italian heritage — lived there until 1953, when I married and moved to Glen Rock. I can totally relate…would enjoy communicating with you….also am in San Jose twice a year for approx. 2- 6 week stays.

    • I recently finished reading your book and thoroughly enjoyed it. I wanted the story to continue. I too, am a member of the Contra Costa Hsdassah chapter. I am proud of your accomplishment. A job well done. Bravo!
      Carole Wigdor.

  2. Great read. I’m picturing butler or highland st. Thks 4 the memories

  3. My memories of our Home on the corner of Court and Marshall Street. S Paterson … wow we lived on the 2nd floor of a 3 family house. Richie and Mona Ferris lived above and an old lady Mrs. Gutmann below . Life was safe in Paterson then. My grandfather would plant a great garden of tomatos, sting beans , green Peppers and zucchini in the yard it was under a big Cherry tree. It is hard to belive life was happy then. I would also the ten or so blocks to school every morning … St Agnes Was my school and to walk that distance at age 6 would be unheard of in today’s world but it was ok then. The smell of the factories and the sounds of machines still are fresh in my mind. Life was good in the day!

  4. Great read!!! I spent the first 7 years of my life in Paterson, NJ. It was a great town back in the late 50’s and early 60’s.

  5. We also lived in a 3 family house…my parents made lifelong friends and we became friends with their children.Years later as my Mom lay in bed not able to speak much her old friend would still call.I could see Mom nodding and smiling as her friend reminisced to her the old days. By the way I had a best friend back then who’s name was Angie. Looking forward to reading your book!

  6. I was born in Barnet Memorial Hosp., 1947. At that time we lived at 84 Matlock Street and went to School #4 where I met my first friend in Kindergarten and we still keep in touch … I consider myself very fortunate to have grown up in Paterson then. We were poor, but we were clean. People had a lot of pride and respect for one another. Police and Teachers were held in the highest regard, and don’t even try to tell your parents otherwise. I better stop here or I’ll be writing the book for you. (only kidding). I’ve enjoyed your beginning. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Leslie,
    I grew up on 22nd St (670) and went to PS 13, then Eastside, Class of ’64. Although I was on the other side of the gender gap you’re memories are remarkably similar to mine. The corner store was Abe’s, we did all our shopping on Broadway, I went to Eastside Park with friends (and without adults) from the time I can remember. My wife of 47 years is from Pequannock (by way of the Bronx) and always comments that when I start to reminisce it sounds like I grew up in heaven. Not far off.
    I really enjoy your writing.

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