I was a good kid in fifth grade. “Roaring Reader!’ “Super Speller!” “Citizenship Champ!” I was the quietest, the last to be picked for any sport teams. I was chunky, too. My mom had no clue about curly hair, or conditioner, so my supposed-to-be-curly hair was hopelessly brushed into a frizz pile and stuck down with barrettes. Nobody at school would have guessed who I was on the weekends. I guess it’s true what they say about the quiet ones.
My troop consisted of other single-mother household kids. We were all pretty much fatherless, apartment dwelling girls. I was second in command, after Julie. Julie was a gymnast. She was fearless, and a bit insane. She gave me courage, and talked me into doing things I would never have done without her. It was a mixed blessing. She helped me get over my fear of heights for a time, and she also inspired some of my most daring delinquency. Truth be told, though- she had nothing to do with the incident that sent me to juvenile Hall, and was not the mastermind behind the synagogue fire. That was all my fault. I was ten years old.
By the way, back then, I barely knew what a synagogue was, so there was nothing of the anti-Semitic in me. It just happened that this once Synagogue /school had been boarded up for years. We snuck in. For many months, we would play in and explore its great halls and kitchen. We made up adventures and lived them out there. We crashed empty mason jars from the kitchen onto the gymnasium floor. It was all great fun. We climbed the iron ladder up to the attic, and swam in piles and piles of discarded books. We ventured onto the roof, rulers of all the known neighborhood! We never got caught playing there, and we began to break our silence. We started to brag, and bring friends to our secret wonderland. Occasionally we began to find sleeping bags there. We knew that our place, our fort, sanctuary, and Neverland was being inhabited by the homeless. We started to be more careful, worried that the new tenants may not be friendly.
We continued to have many adventures there, and I always wondered about the history of the place. There were so many halls, and stairwells to explore. There were music rooms in the basement, even an old piano. Books were everywhere, and we would read from them aloud, in dramatic, childish tones, before tossing them onto the floor. I must admit, a bit of abandon always accompanied these adventures. It is a place where we threw off all social restraints and became true children. For me, it was my first taste of that. I had been so ‘good’, so ‘mature’. Julie would drop her pants and moon people who might happen to be driving by on the busy street below. I always warned her to stop, while laughing at the same time. I was sure this is how we would get caught.
At age ten, I had a minor boyfriend. This guy ended up in big trouble later on. I am not sure what ever happened to him, but he was bad news from a very young age. I thought he was cute, and daring. We brought him there, and his brother. We all romped and played. I just wanted Billy to kiss me. Just once. He really didn’t want to. Eventually I got my one kiss, but the boys were more adventurous and more prone to trouble than even Julie and I.
In the basement music room, we all began tossing books onto the floor. There was no plan in mind, at least not by me. Then, Billy lit the fire. I couldn’t believe it! He had to be insane. This had all gone too far. What had we done? We all took off running, not knowing what would happen. Would my beloved building burn to the ground? Firetrucks passed right by us as we continued to run, though we had the sense to slow down when they passed. Months later, I would finally be held to account for crimes…but on this day- we escaped.
We swore to never tell a soul about that day. We could all be in more trouble than we could possibly imagine. The story broke, but nobody had any inkling who the criminals were. It was obvious to the fire crew that children were behind it all. I continued to be the good kid at school, always doing what I was told, never making waves.
More on the Riverside Girls Saga next time!