Summer nights in North Camden in the fifties

Dear Readers,

When I grew up in North Camden, we rarely went out to eat.  No one did.  No pizza, no McDonald’s, no take-out Chinese food.  Moms on Grant Street cooked every night unless it was such a super hot and humid Camden night that we made hoagies.  What a treat!

Mom bought hoagie rolls, lunch meat and cheese, lettuce, tomato and onions. She put oil, vinegar, salt and pepper on the hoagies and they were delicious.  She made what they now call sweet iced tea in a big sweating glass pitcher.  She didn’t skimp on big ice cubes from those metal ice cube trays with that obstinate lever.

The little metal fan whirred on the table and barely stirred the air in our peach Congoleum-walled kitchen. Row houses in North Camden were insufferably hot sometimes.  There was a small air-conditioning unit in my parents’ bedroom so that my dad could sleep well enough to go to work every day.  The unit also made enough noise to drown out the sounds of kids playing in the street when he had to work nights and to sleep days.  But, the rest of the house was H-O-T.

My family listened to Phillies’ baseball games on the radio while we ate.  I never liked listening to the games, but it was the norm so I never questioned it.  We didn’t talk, we listened to the game. The Phillies were important, I knew, and I thought about them playing baseball in the miserable heat.  I vowed that I’d never play sports, nor watch or listen to them when I grew up.  Who would imagine that one day I’d have to watch hundreds of softball games in the heat while my daughter played?  The “I love sports” gene skipped me completely, but was passed on to Kim.

I do remember Mom cooking hot meals on hot nights, though, especially spaghetti and meatballs with a sauce made from a powder called Spatini.  My brother, Bill, and I washed and dried dishes and I hated how the sauce stuck to the Melmac plates.  Bill and I took turns washing  and drying dishes.  I admit that he was the better dishwasher and on the odd night that was not specifically for either one of us, the kid with the most “rejects” got to wash.  Sadly, I was the one who got to wash dishes four nights a week.  Bill bested me in the perfect dishwashing competition.  I always seemed to have a few specks of that pink dish detergent powder, Dreft, that would stick to one or two of my plates.

My parents retired to the porch while we finished the dishes.  All the adults on our street sat outside in the evenings to try to catch a cool breeze. Neighbors chatted, smoked and drank.  Soon we’d hear the Mr. Softee truck come and many times I’d dig into my bank to buy a small frozen vanilla custard.  I can taste it now.

All the kids in the neighborhood came out and we played games in the street because few cars went down that street.  Almost no one had a car so the street was our playground.  Hopscotch, jump rope, wiffle ball, stick ball, tag, games where we threw balls on beer bottle caps, yo-yo’s and hide and seek occupied the evenings. I even remember a game where we pitched cardboard coasters that advertised different beers.

We didn’t bother our parents and we couldn’t run in and out of the house except to use the bathroom.  Once in a while, the phone would ring and if it was our party line, I might run into the dining room to answer it.  But, the phone was not a big part of our lives.

One rare night my mother let me go into the house of my friend who lived across the street.  Her mother agreed, too.  We were pleased.  Susan took me up to her brother’s room.  He was out on a date.  We were about eight or nine years old and Eddie was a grown-up to us. His room smelled like soap and cologne.

Susan showed me how we could fling ourselves from the top of Eddie’s big dresser onto his bed.

I can never forget how much fun that was.  It was the closest that I’ve ever come to flying.  We jumped and jumped.  On one of Susan’s jumps, the bed broke.  We were scared to death.  Her dad, Harry, would be angry.  However, Susan’s mom, Martha, came over to get something from the house.  Martha said not to worry, that she would get Eddie to fix it and would not tell the dad. We were so relieved.  I never told my mother.  Luckily, she does not read my blog.

There are other good memories of summer nights on Grant Street.  The men would hang a sheet in front of a porch and they would put a movie projector on a porch across the street.  They rented cartoons and showed home movies of neighborhood barbeques in postage-sized backyard, Christmas and New Year celebrations.  My Aunt Vera bought a movie of chimpanzees dressed up and acting like humans.  I think that the poor chimps even smoked.  Sometimes the men ran the movies backwards which seemed to be the funniest thing in the world.

What a different time that was…

It’s lovely to think of those summer nights in Camden, except for the fourth night where I had to wash the dishes one more time than Bill.

Marguerite Ferra, writing from Cramer Hill

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6 thoughts on “Summer nights in North Camden in the fifties

  1. Marguerite I just love reading your blogs!! It brings me back to my childhood in Cramer Hill!! Your writing brings back so many similar memories!! We too lived in a brick row home on Beideman Ave and did many of the things you write about. Living was so much simpler back then!! Thank you for bringing me such fond memories!!

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    • Pauline, wasn’t it such a different world? I love all the new technology, but I think that our city childhoods provided a lot of great experiences and we never got “spoiled.” We made our own fun. I’m glad that you like the blogs. I was a little worried about doing them, but my daughter, Kim, talked me into it. I hope to get together with you in August, maybe sometime after the first week. I often drive down Beideman and remember the kids who lived there. I was in North Camden until I was eleven, but I later met Cramer Hill kids when we moved. Hope to see you this summer. Love you, Pauline.

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  2. What a beautiful memory Marguerite., although I didn’t live in Camden, my memories of Cliffside Park, New Jersey are so similar, My sisters and I would sit on the front porch with my grandfather who would smoke a cigar. We kids would smoke ‘punks’ – cat o nine tails that we would gather from a nearby swamp. The theory was that the smoke would keep the mosquitoes away. We were blessed to have childhoods like this. .

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    • I remember punks. If you got burned with one, ouch! I think that some of my present neighborhood kids are having a similar kind of summer. Everyone is outside talking, laughing, eating. See you on Thursday?

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