ImageBig Deal on Wheeling Street

The scene:

July 1985. Morris Heights. The field at the end of the street is overgrown with beige scrub, with a small copse of trees at its center. The copse hides an abandoned mattress, an object of mystery and excitement to bored adolescents. Around it, bike paths have been carved out of the dry ground with teeth-chipping hills and gullies for intrepid bikers. Midsummer flattens everything, a heat that stretches across the neighborhood like mohair. The sun opens the mischief in our pores, and it’s too far to walk to Circle-K to shoplift candy.

The soundtrack:

Instead of Piero Umiliani: cicadas. Cars speeding up and down Baranmore Parkway. Duran Duran, Phil Collins, Paul Young and Whitney Houston on the radio. My father snoring on the couch as we wait to have dinner with my cousins.

The crew:

Me, as the semi-innocent Mario; my best friend Daddy from across the street as Peppe, the instigator; Floyd, the Native-American, the sad-sack Capannelle; Brent, whose glasses always seemed smeared, as can’t-catch-a-break Cosimo; and Rae, the chubby-faced moll, who lived two doors down from me.

The plan:

Three blocks away, I-225 connects the major interstates I-70 and I-25, cutting through our neighborhood like a pocketknife. The highway is the terminus of our world: anything past Xanadu St. seems as distant as the moon, and the kids there, aliens. Although there’s an underpass right along 30th, the 31st St. gang decides on a shortcut: a kid-sized opening in the chain-link fence walling off the highway. There must be a similar gap on the other side.

The job:

The cars don’t seem to be going that fast, even though they’re barreling along at 65 miles an hour, minimum. We wait until we spy a gap in traffic, then, one at a time, hop over the guardrail and run across the pavement to the grassy median. That’s just northbound; we still have southbound to contend with, though it’s pretty much the same. Floyd, with his short, spindly legs, can’t sprint as fast, and the rest of us watch as cars slow and swerve to avoid him. We also discover that there’s no gap on the other side of the highway.

The fallout:

After lying low for a bit and consulting, we decide to haul ass back across the highway, but not before we see police lights coming down to road. Most of the gang scampers across and down the hill, but Danny, who’s been ushering Floyd, gets nabbed. We know as soon as we see this that he’ll sell us down the river, and we scatter home to await the knock on our doors. But as it turns out, Dad has woken from his nap, and it’s time for dinner. As we drive up Baranmore Parkway, away from the crime scene, I see a cop car coming from the opposite direction, and as we pass, there’s Danny’s red hair in the back. For one of us, at least, a successful getaway.