New houses kept popping up on Sleeper Ave, occupying one empty lot after another, marching inexorably toward New Road, which was pretty much where the city ended in those days.Across New Road was an empty field, an untamed and unmapped jungle of weeds and brush just waiting for the intrepid kid adventurers from the neighborhood to explore. There were treasures to be found there: an amazing variety of empty bottles and rusted cans, weathered signs, construction debris left over from the new houses, spools of wire, old batteries, broken dolls and, best of all, several old broken baby buggies and strollers, with still usable wheels.
The wheels were riches beyond price. Two sets of two matching–or close to matching–wheels meant one thing: a racer.
Any one of us would have parted with his most precious possession for a genuine Soap Box Derby racer, but that was as far out of our reach as a Rolls Royce would be to our parents. The kids whose parents could afford to buy the kits and enter them into the Soap Box Derby lived in big brick mansions on the bluffs overlooking the lake, not in the little frame houses on Sleeper Ave. My entire comic book collection wouldn’t bring enough to buy one single axle of a real Soap Box racer.
We denizens of Sleeper Ave. weren’t picky about our racers. A racer was anything you could build that you could sit on and make move by any means, usually by scooting it along with your feet. If your Dad was any good at all with tools, he could help you build a racer with a two-by-four for a main chassis, with two other boards laid crosswise, one in the front and one in the back, and a wheel mounted at each end. The front board would be secured with a big bolt in the center with washers above and below so that it could swivel easily. Nail a rope near the two ends of the board, and you could steer. That’s all you needed.
Next came the competition to make our racers special. If your Dad was really handy (which mine was not; anything more complicated than nailing two pieces of wood together or tightening a nut was beyond him and his limited collection of tools), the sky was the limit. A padded seat, a car-like body, a real steering apparatus might be added.
I managed to build a bit of a superstructure above the chassis with the remains of a wooden barrel I found in the field. It wasn’t particularly glamorous, but I had a plan for outshining the competition despite the structural shortcomings of the vehicle.
The Little Store, a few blocks away on 39th St., sold every kind of soft drink known to man. The sodas were housed in a giant cooler with a bottle opener on the front. The used bottle caps fell into a big bin, which Mr. Nicosia, the owner, emptied when it was full. It was easy enough to persuade him to give them all to me.
The bottle caps came in every color of the rainbow, from grape Nehi purple to Orange Crush orange to Big Red scarlet. Nailed one by one to the surface of my racer, they transformed it from an uninspiring assemblage of unpainted wood into a magnificently bejeweled wonder. I worked on it for days in the privacy of the garage. I didn’t want anyone knowing what I was up to until I revealed my masterpiece to my unsuspecting rivals.
Finally, it was ready. I rolled my creation out of the garage, down the driveway and into the street. A brilliant constellation of shiny bottle caps winked in the sun. Soon my neighbors appeared with their own racers. They were suitably impressed, if not entirely jealous, as I had hoped. My racer was not particularly advanced, but at least now it held its own aesthetically, if not functionally.
We spent the rest of the morning motoring up and down Sleeper Ave. in our vehicles, racing against each other in our own impromptu Soap Box Derby. My racer was slow, but I didn’t care. It was beautiful and it was mine.
One by one the other boys were called in to lunch by their mothers, until I was alone in the street in front of my house.
Three boys on big bicycles suddenly appeared. They came roaring around the corner from New Road onto Sleeper, and skidded to a stop in front of me.
“What’s THAT?” one of them asked, pointing at my racer.
“Hah! Looks like a pop machine exploded.”
“Dumbest looking baby carriage I ever saw.”
“Hey, kid, you make that thing all by yourself?”
I nodded dumbly.
“Nah, I bet his sister made it.”
I couldn’t think of a thing to say. I just sat there and stared miserably at the pavement. Soon enough, they tired of the game and rode off, laughing.
“What a little dork.”
I looked down at my creation. Suddenly it didn’t seem so splendid. Just a stupid pile of wood with some stupid wheels stuck on it and a bunch of stupid pop bottle caps nailed all over it.
A few minutes later, they returned. This time, they didn’t stop, but as they rode past, one of them tossed a daisy onto the top of my racer.
My cheeks flaming, I pushed it up the driveway and into the garage and went inside, where Mom was just putting lunch on the table.
I wasn’t hungry.