IĎve been told that I reminisce too often about people, places and things that are long gone and never to return. But despite the fact that may annoy some people who launch into perplexing protestations, I do it just the same.
So piss off.
According to the latest coming out of city hall, the revamped Coal Street Park as currently envisioned will not include a swimming pool. While I understand that a city that is still clawing itís way back from financial insolvency probably should not invest a cool million dollars, or perhaps a half million in a facility that will be open for only three months of the entire calendar year, still, I think we might want to reconsider this financially sound decision before itĎs too late to do so.
I donít care how many pools our sister cities may have, or may not have. A clueless caller to WILK radio asked why Scranton can afford 8 pools, while Wilkes-Barre seemingly cannot afford more than 1. I think the answer to that fair question would be that Scranton, under itís past and current leadership, seems to have absolutely no problem with piling up massive amounts of outstanding debts, while Wilkes-Barreís leadership seems to be stuck on a pay-as-you-go program. And major kudos should go out to them for that.
The thing is, despite having one eye on the bottom line at all times, I think our city administration needs to 1.) rethink this decision, and 2.) find the funding necessary to reopen the pool that was once the unequivocal envy of all others. While Kirby Park is a jewel that needs to be maintained and preserved, Coal Street Park was once exactly that, a jewel, and it needs to recapture all of itís former glory.
And Iíll tell you why.
Sorry, but a single pool per 42,000 residents is simply unacceptable. And when you consider that that one pool is situated at the southernmost border of the city, it correctly suggests to even the dumbest among us that very many of the poorer children in this city will not have access to it when the thermometer gets to topping out. And while no one has ever accused me of being a liberal bleeding heart, I distinctly remember what it was like to be caught by one of the many social safety nets. That is, I remember what it was like to be dependant upon government just to be able to cool off when the Sun took to turning those public housing units into something that smacked of living on the equator.
The way I look at it, the disadvantaged kids need a relief valve even more than the oft-spoiled kids that hate their parents for giving them a used car on their 16th birthday. The disadvantaged kids have no options. They are stuck right where they are, and have little or nothing in the grand scheme of amenity things. Either the city provides them with some basic amenities, or they will mill around the projects wondering why everyone else is frolicking their way through the hot summer, but not them. And trust me, there is no better way to reduce the weighty socioeconomic chips on their shoulders than to provide them with some semblance of normalcy. Some minute semblance of the better things in life. Or, at least, a reasonable facsimile.
Just up the hill from Coal Street Park lies both Sherman Hills and Interfaith Heights. And the multitudinous amount of kids that reside there are caught up in their parents grievous mistakes. They have spent their short lives being told repeatedly why mommy canít afford this, mommy canít afford that, and donít you ask me again. I remember what that felt like when everybody else had this, that and the other fun, shiny thing, while all that I and my siblings and my friends had to look forward to was more of the same: doing without. And whether you want to believe it or not, continually doing without breeds deep-seated resentments. Resentments that steer impressionable, frustrated young people towards all sorts of destructive ends.
If you want the crime rate to soar astronomically, continue to tell the least well-heeled of the children skating by among us to sit there, enjoy their government-subsidized four walls and shut the eff up. Thatís an ill-advised message that will send them right into the open and embracing arms of gangs, losers and whatever other budding criminal element you can think of. If you truly want the economically disadvantaged kids, the future disaffected grown-ups to forget, even temporarily, the marginal lives they are currently leading--subjecting them to abject boredom for extended periods of time will not get it done.
When my mom moved the four of us into Interfaith Heights when I was 13-years-old, my mindset was a mindset in complete disarray. I hated my father, I hated my step-father and I hated being the kid always wearing the hand-me-downs. I hated having to walk all the way to the supermarket and having to carry the groceries all the way home. I hated the fact that seemingly everyone else had a car, but we did not. I hated the government surplus cheese giveaways. I hated Econo-Buy hoddogs. I hated the free welfare physicals given en masse at General Hospital. And I hated the embarrassment of having my mom successfully beg a local priest for a used refrigerator. My anger had not yet become a full-blown rage, but I was fast closing in on it.
The way I see things through the rear-view mirror, my young life was at a definitive crossroad. A crossroad that could have easily led me down the wrong path. But within a scant few months after moving into that subsidized warehouse where the poor get put so as to not ruin neighborhoods and reduce property values, Coal Street Park made itís debut. And whilst this may be a stretch, Coal Street Park may have saved my life. At the very least, it was the distraction that was much-needed back when my unchecked anger seethed to the surface so easily without much provocation at all.
Instead of sitting around wondering why or what if, I was busy playing basketball until the lights were turned off at 11 pm. I was swimming with my brother and sister, or watching people play tennis and opening mocking such a boring back-and-forth affair. We played baseball, sometimes softball with the much fatter adults. We worked tirelessly trying to smash the tire swings into one another. We sauntered down there at night and threw eggs at the security guards under the cover of darkness. We often played tackle football on the asphalt parking lots, an ill-advised phenomenon particular to the old Heights. The snack bar was there and frequently visited, once I had started working at Percy Brownís.
We had playground counselors paid by the city. We had swimming competitions in the pool when those kids from the other pools came a calliní. It surprised the hell out of me, but I actually won one of those races in which I had a teaspoon balancing a ping pong ball in my mouth. We entered into a citywide wiffleball tournament. And if Sue Henry thinks she can hit my pitching, sheís dreaming. We hung out on the big hill, the one constructed of railroad ties like some sort of ersatz Mayan temple. We rode sleds down the big hill. And me, the transplanted kid from Connecticut, introduced the poorer kids from the Wilkes-Barre area to New England-styled hockey in the pit where the footers for the future Ice-A-Rama would one day be poured.
True story, my cuzzin once set a bulldozer in motion on the backside of the pool, lost control of it, jumped off and the thing crossed Coal Street, crushed a Wilkes-Barre police officerís car and rammed into his house. True story.
Slave played the park. Eddie Day & T.N.T. played the park. The city-owned bandshell was always parked in the south parking lot when the weekend fast approached. The cops lined us up behind the snack bar many a time and very forcefully inquired as to the whereabouts of the always AWOL Kreitzer brothers. Whitey puked after someone convinced him to eat a couple of bottles of aspirins. Peachy split his skull on a playground amenity, was rushed to the hospital and came back with half a shaved head dotted with sutures and the other half still sporting extremely long hair. Donnie Rozelle wanted to fight everybody within spitting distance, but nobody ever saw him throw a single punch. Tom Cook was a localized legend, but no one knew exactly what his claim to fame was. And Paul, a thirty-something adult, showed me how to puncture the bottom of a beer can without ever opening the top, and subsequently turning said beer can into a barely-controlled reverse geyser. One beer and unconsciousness quickly followed. Oh, and he taught me how to do one-armed push-ups. One tough, old Marine for sure.
Jimmy, George, Mike and I knew we were friends for life, bud sadly, we lost contact with each other just as soon as we all gained some earning potential and made our individual escapes from the government-sponsored gulag. We laughed, we cried, we bled, we scrapped, we cursed, we played Bobby Hull hockey, electric football and scrapped with invading ďrich kidĒ bullies together, but it turns out that what we all wanted the most was to go out there somewhere and quietly live like the regular people do.
But I put it to you, what would we have become if Coal Street Park had not completely diverted our attention from our mundane lives, our meager places in life and blunted the understandable anger that previously consumed us to a great degree? If not for the boundless recreation opportunities that the then Federal Revenue Sharing program had brought right to our rented doorsteps, how would the lot of us have passed the time? How would we have turned out had the government not provided us with something we could not have provided for ourselves?
Thanks to my jobs, past and present, I have walked the length of many, many prisons throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania. They are places to be avoided at all costs. But, thankfully, Iíve never been ordered to live in any of them. And I attribute at least part of that to the recreational opportunities that government provided me with.
Short-term, investing in a city-owned pool is probably prohibitively expensive. But long-term, itís probably a helluva lot cheaper than having to hire scores of copsÖhaving to deal with abject poverty that makes marginal, sometimes career criminals of people who were dealt an inferior hand by life.
The way I see it, you can spend it now, or you can spend much more at some later date, simply because poverty and the resulting resentment are a constant drain on society. But poverty and resentment mixed with massive amounts of boredom is something we can least afford.
Way back when, Coal Street Park kept my mind off of my predicament until I somehow got smart enough to figure a way out of that predicament. I honed my jump shot there. I watched my little brother and my little sister as they swam there. I learned how to co-exist with those crazed hammerheads from the old Heights. I taught those unsuspecting Wilkes-Barre kids how completely unforgiving ice can be. And I met my wife there.
Do you want the poorer kids to one day become productive members of society? Do you want them to contribute, much unlike their parents did before them? Do you want them to steer far clear of prison, or to not snatch your grandmotherís purse? Then give them something stimulating to do during their formative years while they try to figure out how to get from there to here. Give them some recreation. Give them the basic amenities we so easily take for granted. Give them a first-class pool. Give them what practically everybody else has access to. Give them what I had. Give them a chance.
And that my friends, is being proactive.
Having once been there and done that completely against my will, Iím just saying.
One more pool wonít bankrupt the city.