Thursday, July 10, 2008

Wuffindo?

"Wuffindo?"

I remember this expression from the summer I spent in Chicago, working at Beacon House, a settlement house on Ashland Avenue on Chicago's South Side. We were a group of middle-class, white kids, from the College of Wooster, who spent the summer of 1961 helping to run a recreation program for kids from the "Projects."

"Wuffindo?" was the way the kids said, "What are you fitting to do?"

I don't remember too much about the kids, except that they were cute. And hungry. When a suburban church invited a group of Beacon House kids to a picnic, I think all of us white folks were shocked at the ferocity with which the kids elbowed each other aside to attack the laid-out food. How were we to know that they were half-starved? "Diane," a teen-ager from "the projects" who had been hired as an aide, invited me home for dinner one night. She and her brother lived with their thin, worn-out grandmother. Dinner was Wonder Bread, Kool-Aid, and a large can of creamed corn.

Society had failed these kids. When a teen-age boy wrote "Duck" in signing out a basketball, I asked, "Which one of you is 'Duck?'" "That's me, 'Duke'!" boasted a tall, handsome lad.

Weekends we spent out in the safe, air-conditioned suburbs, away from the trouble and danger of the "long, hot summer." We were farmed out to Presbyterian families. I remember one lady who lived in a pastel house with a large collection of music boxes. My favorite was a flower pot in which bees buzzed furiously around the fake flowers to the tune of the Colonel Bogie March. Her son and husband didn't bother to change out of their greasy clothes for Sunday dinner. (They ran an auto shop.) When the lady brought foil-wrapped baked potatoes to her formally-set table, Son and Husband lobbed them gleefully at the guests.

At another home on another weekend, the hostess had every meal catered, including breakfast and lunch.

Why am I telling you this? Because I'm thankful I had a stepmother like Mom, difficult as things have been between us lately. She was the one who told my overprotective dad and grandparents that I needed go away for the summer. My dad was especially difficult to win over, because he wanted me to stay home to help care for Grampy, who was recovering from a stroke. But Mom went to bat for me and I went to Chicago.

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