I’ve talked and written about Frogtown, my early childhood home. But it wasn’t really a town, just a neighborhood in the corner of East St. Louis.
Of course, Mom and I window-shopped in St. Louis in the holiday season and I enjoyed the elaborate window displays and huge toy departments in its grand department stores. I loved the St. Louis Zoo and Municipal Art Museum and riding electric streetcars. But my school-clothing purchases and rare visits to the movie theater were in the birthplace of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Jimmy Connors, Steamboat Willie and was the former residence of Miles Davis and Ike & Tina Turner.
There were some real characters in Frogtown, Like two adult brothers who were complete opposites. Floyd always seemed angry, scowling and silent, while Lloyd was (if simple) happy and talkative. Floyd scared me, but not Lloyd, who carried a ring of dozens of odd keys which he showed off to everyone he passed, always saying, “I got the keys. Get the car tomorrow.”
And the widowed lady down the street’s adult daughters, who were professional dancers. When home on summer days, they’d be out in their mother’s kitchen garden, scandalously bare legged and barefoot, weeding and pruning.
A man I hope to emulate was the 100+ year old father of a lady on the next street (who looked older than him), especially as he strolled the neighborhood carrying a cane that I never saw him lean on. He had a smile for everyone.
My very favorite neighbor man in those early years was Ross G., who was a driver for an interstate trucking company. Once I saw his bare feet as he was relaxing and I was fascinated that the first two toes on one foot were one
— “siamese” — with one broad nail. His daughter, a pretty blonde aged between Jackie and I, was the object of my first crush. Her name was Jessie, same as her mother, but Ross called her Skipper.
Ross, with Mom’s permission, gifted me my first pocket knife. It had simulated tortoise-shell sides and one half-inch broken blade. “Don’t cut yourself,” he laughed. Shortly after that his tractor-trailer jackknifed, killing him. Jessie took Skipper and moved back to her home town in North Carolina.
In the mid 1950s, an up-and-coming black family bought a house on our block. Shortly after they moved in, Mom said to Dad over supper, “Mrs. ____ said they’re selling their house. They won’t live with coloreds.” Dad said, “Good riddance.”
Working in construction, Dad helped build a new housing project just beyond the end of our dead-end street, which was sold exclusively to black families. Soon, we were the only white family in the block.
When I think of childhood friends, James and Hayward (both with chocolate-colored skin) top the list. James, wheelchair-bound from polio, educated me about music-with-soul before that term became popular and Hayward tried valiantly to teach me to loosen up my body and dance. I have written how their father helped feed Mom and I until she could get Dad’s Social Security and Veterans benefits for us.
Mom and I moved a year after Dad died because she was warned by black neighbors that white kids, by then the minority, were having a rough time at ESL Senior High School.
A look in Google Earth shows a devastated city, due to business leaving, plummeting tax revenue and corrupt city management. My brother and I visited Frogtown a few years ago. Our house was gone, but fortunately the properties on both sides of the street were bought by a black man who cleared the land and maintains lawns that form a virtual park. Coincidentally, he had the same Army job I had. I’m happy that I returned for a look and got to meet him.