May 20, 1985 12:00 PM

by David Nasaw

“School was all wrong,” Nasaw quotes Harpo Marx as writing. “School didn’t teach you what to do when you were stopped by an enemy gang—where to run and when to stand your ground. School didn’t teach you how to collect tennis balls, build a scooter, ride the El trains and trolleys, hitch onto delivery wagons, own a dog, go for a swim, get a chunk of ice or a piece of fruit—all without paying a cent. School didn’t teach you which hockshops would give you dough without asking where you got your merchandise…or where to sell junk or how to find sleeping room in a bed with four other brothers. School simply didn’t teach you how to be poor and live from day to day.” What did provide an education for many American children of Marx’s generation was the streets of the city, not just New York but Chicago, Detroit and Cincinnati—all the immigrant-filled places where a new way of life was being created. Nasaw, a historian at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, has amassed a surprising amount of information about the lives of working-class city children from the turn of the century. They sold newspapers, shined shoes, scrounged junk and hustled whomever, whatever and whenever they could to supplement their families’ usually meager incomes. In the process they created a subculture all their own. Most of Nasaw’s best anecdotes come from show business biographies—George Burns, Phil Silvers and Milton Berle, for instance—which may make the street life sound funnier and more charming than it was in real life. His thesis is hard to argue with, though: “The street bred a gritty self-reliance in its children. It was their frontier. In meeting its dangers and clearing a play and then a workspace for themselves, they developed confidence in their strength of purpose and their powers to make their own way.” And, as any old fan of the Little Rascals or the Bowery Boys can attest, there is something irresistible about tales of kids holding their own, and better, in a big-city adult world. (Anchor, $18.95)

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