My mom told me, “You should treat all people equally, but don’t bring a “colored” into the house.” I believed the first statement and was forced to follow the second. But on the other hand, she wouldn’t let anyone up to the house. To this day I am not sure if she was paranoid, embarrassed, racist, or all three. Regardless of what she said, I played with everyone. We were all the same to each other. We were just Black, Puerto Rican and some white kids just who went to school and played together.
Mom left for work before I went to school and came home late. Up until the time I was in 4th grade she had a woman come to make sure I got there and got home. She was responsible for me until Mom got home. I think her name was Anna. It didn’t matter because I was wherever my friends were.
The asphalt school yard was the usual spot. We played mostly baseball with a “spaldeen” or a beaten-up old baseball rewrapped in black electrical tape and old bats. Right field was an out because the wall was too close. I guess that’s how I became a pull hitter. Otherwise we played and dodged cars on the streets near someone’s house. Anna didn’t follow me. She waited for me to come home, and waited, and waited. I was supposed to do homework, but back then I didn’t need to do that to excel in class.
That and the street was where I felt most comfortable. I could play every schoolyard or street game pretty well whether it was baseball in the school yard, or off the wall, stick ball stoop ball, skully, or Johnny on the pony on the streets, sidewalks and stoops. I wasn’t the strongest or fastest kid, but I had skills. Playing on the streets was frowned upon by mothers, what with cars and all. But we all knew how to look up our one-way streets and yell “Car” whenever any of us saw one.
No one ever got hit, although we did have a game where we would stand on the side between two parked cars and then reach out and touch cars as they drove by. We would have contests to see how many each of us could touch each day. I usually won until one day when I won, I really lost.
You see the unanticipated last touch of the day was a really cool Studebaker Golden Hawk. Back then rear fins were a big design trend and this car had beauties. So, as it passed, I smacked the left rear driver’s side fin and was being congratulated when all of a sudden, the car screeched to a halt. That was unusual. They almost always just kept going.
When it came still the passenger’s door opened and we all scattered to get home. I only had to cross the street because we were right in front of my house. I thought I was home free until I heard a booming,
“DAVID… STOP RIGHT THERE”.
Holy shit, it’s dad.
I knew I had no choice and exactly what I was in for.
“GET UPSTAIRS. I WILL BE UP SOON.”
Dad was old school. My ass was literally going to pay for this. The only question was what was gonna be used on it.
When I got upstairs mom saw my “I’m gonna get killed” face and asked what happened. Our windows faced the back of the building, so she couldn’t see the commotion outside. I was about halfway through the story when he slammed the door open and stormed in. Striding towards me he took off his belt and folded it into that dangerous folded snake. Now I knew the tool to be used. I would be bruised and sore for a week.
I’ll be standing a lot.”
Mom tried to intercede. “Ab (his nickname was Abner) whatever he did can’t be that bad.”
“Mom save me.”
He grabbed my arm and swung me over his now seated knees.
Mom screamed, “Ab, stop.” “Ab don’t.” “David, what did you do?”
“He almost got himself killed by a car I was in, so I’m gonna kill him instead. He will learn this lesson.”
Now the screaming match was really on. Mom kept screaming for him to stop. He was screaming at her to shut up. I was screaming,
“Please, don’t. I learned my lesson already. I won’t do it again. I promise.”
No use. Now the screaming increased. She screamed. He screamed. I screamed holy hell each of the countless times that folded strap came across my naked cheeks. Tears streaming down my face, I got up after the punishment had been administered and kangaroo bounded off to the furthest corner in the small apartment I could find. I cried for what seemed like hours. I swore I’d kill him one day. I also swore I would never do that to any kid I had. I never did. My respect for mom grew that day.
Back to school I went the next day, having to explain to my buddies how I “fought back” while trying to sit comfortably in those hard and rigid wooden seats. Back then this was normal. All of my buddies had suffered that same fate at some points in their lives, especially Murray.
The Bronx in the 1950’s had several notorious street gangs. My late 1950’s neighborhood was surrounded by major gangs like the Fordham Baldies, The Savage Nomads, and Savage Skulls. But those gangs were for teenagers.
Us kids would make up our own street or block gangs like the Longfellow Lancers or the Bryant Avenue Boys, bullshit names to feel like we belonged to something.
The kids from Bryant avenue who went to PS 50 came down a hilly vacant lot to disrupt a stickball game, so we had to defend our home turf. Remember we were 10 or 11. We bum rushed them and they started to fight, but then thought better. They turned and ran. Some of my buddies were in actual fist fights but I was too far away, so I picked up a piece of shattered brick and threw it up the hill at some kid trying to escape. I hit him in the back of the head. He went down. I felt a mixture of exhilaration and guilt.
Holy shit…what if I killed that guy? Luckily, he got up and started running again, scampering up the rocky façade of the lot. My accuracy was celebrated by all.