My cousins scared me out of sleeping over with Boogie Man tales

By Anthony Buccino


t was an unplanned turn that took me off Bloomfield Avenue and alongside the playground where my cousins and I spent more than a few hot summer days in the early 1960s.

At least I thought it was the playground where we played. I was on the right street. And that was where I remember the playground,  on North 17th Street in Bloomfield, near the Newark border, a block or three from East Orange. But after 35 years, what passed for a playground with its steamy hot blacktop inside the mile-high fence, is not what I see.

Should it surprise me that in the 35 years I looked away, someone came along and ripped out the asphalt, tore down the fencing and planted trees, grass and benches where folks could rest.

Milbank Park, Bloomfield, NJ - Google Imagery, 2019

In movies about New York City was the only other place I had seen fences as high as the one on this urban-suburban street from my childhood memories. It had been a street playground from the set of “West Side Story.”

When our family visit was nearly over at my aunt’s, my older cousin said, “Why don’t you sleep over? . . . It’ll be great!”

So, I’d go into my whining let-me-sleep-over mode. “But you don’t have any PJs,” my mom pointed out.

I’ll borrow some, I moaned until she let me stay.

We usually stayed up as late as we could so we’d be too tired to be bothered by the noises.

Then I realized how scary it was to sleep in someone else’s house. The water pipes made strange creepy noises. Cars drove by the window all night. Horns honked up the street.

My cousin Andy and I squeezed into his single bed. I got the wall - otherwise I’d fall out. And in spite of this precaution, the household was awakened in the midnight hours by a big crash and lots of wailing when I fell on the floor. I felt like Dorothy in Oz and wondered how I got there.

That, anyway, was the way they explained the big bump on my head the next morning. I couldn’t remember falling on the floor, or the other time, when the bed slid away from the wall and I fell into a dark cavernous hole with no way out except, “screaming bloody murder” as I’m told, by more than one person in my Aunt Julia’s house.

If I made it to the next morning able to walk down the stairs without a significant limp, there was this great choice of cold cereals that we could wash down with chocolate milk.

My aunt’s house was kid-heaven. In her pantry, she had an entire refrigerator stocked with plenty to eat for my five cousins.

After a nourishing breakfast, with lots of sugar on the pre-sweetened stuff, we finished off the coffee my uncle left from his early breakfast.

It was off with my cousin to the end of the street for summer playground fun - until lunch.

The playground master looked like Santa Claus had gotten a crew cut and shaved his beard. His name was Chris. We figured him to be about 80 or 90 years old but he was probably a kid with blond hair. He ran the playground. He had a loud whistle on a handmade lanyard.

On an especially large ring looped onto his belt, Chris had the keys to the shed where they stored all the cool stuff - the board games, basketballs, volleyballs and carom tables.

If you wanted something, you had to ask Chris. The big kids took out the volleyballs and the basketballs, and Chris marked them off on the clipboard he always carried.

Tell him your name, what you had, he’d say, “Okay.” Then you had to tell him when you brought it back or you’d lose your privileges to have fun at the playground.

Some kids took out the checkers sets, and a few older kids tried the chessboards.

My favorite game was caroms. That’s where we all dreamed of becoming Minnesota Fats, but never understanding Paul Newman’s thumb scene in “The Hustler.”

To play our version of caroms, with the board and the caroms, two players got a long stick the size of a small dowel, a mini version of a pool cue, then we tried to knock the caroms into the little nets in the corners of the board.

RAMBLING ROUND Inside and Outside at the Same Time by Anthony BuccinoWe could hit the caroms off the sideboards like hockey players do. We'd say, “We caromed that carom into the carom net.” It was that simple to play.

Perhaps my older cousins couldn’t stand another night of me waking them up from some unusual position near the single bed. While I was changing into borrowed PJs after having convinced my mom that I wanted more than anything in the world to sleep over with my cousins, we heard some strange noises on the street outside the bedroom window.

“That’s the Bogeyman!” Andy volunteered.

We had all seen Laurel and Hardy’s “Babes in Toyland” and knew that the Bogeyman carries away the children to the mean guy’s home in the sewer.

Before my cousin could say, “Just kidding, Ant.” I was already downstairs with my borrowed pajamas half-off screaming bloody murder pleading with my mom not to leave me here “because the bogeyman is outside and he’s gonna’ get me.”

I got to go home with my parents. My cousin got into big trouble for scaring the daylights out of me that night.

And I had not been back to that playground until an unplanned turn caromed me into the place after 35 years.

First published in Rambling Round - Oct. 9, 1997, in The Independent Press of Bloomfield, Worrall Community Newspapers.

Adapted from Rambling Round - Inside and Outside at the Same Time

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