Chapter One"A Better Neighborhood" My father's announcement took us children by surprise. My mother was part of the announcing, standing next to my father, her face a study in pride and determination. Any apprehension in her expression was held firmly in check beneath the weight of the first two.
My father explained to us that even before we'd arrived from Trinidad, he had been searching everywhere for a better home for us. Now, with the help of the Lord and our good mother, he had found what he was looking for. We would be moving in about two weeks, for our parents had bought us a house.
"Praise the Lord," Mummy Olga sighed audibly. "Praise His holy name."
It would be a better neighborhood, my mom said. We would have more living space. The streets would be quieter, less crowded, and the children would have more freedom. It was close to a school. My mother really emphasized that we would be moving to a "good neighborhood." I do not recall if she mentioned that it would be a white neighborhood, but it was.
The house was farther up in the Bronx, on Amethyst Street, in the Morris Park/White Plains Road area, not far from the Bronx Zoo. We would discover that the neighborhood was heavily Italian with a strong admixture of Irish. It was respectable working class, "ethnic," and very, very Catholic. On one side it bordered Pelham Parkway, across which was a predominantly Jewish enclave.
Ours would be the first, and for much of my youth, the only African family in that immediate neighborhood.
Because we were children, it never occurred to us to wonder why or how my father had been allowed to buy into that block. Nor how, on a single income - my father's, for our parents were very clear that my mother would stay home and mother us full-time - they could have scraped together the down payment. Or from what reserves of inner will and determination these two young immigrants had summoned the optimism and courage to take this major first step in pursuit of the American Dream.
I do recall the excitement of packing for the move, my sisters' and my gleeful anticipation of the promised space and freedom. How big would our house be? How fancy? Would we have our own rooms? This excitement lasted until we actually saw our new home.
It was a dump. I mean, it was a serious, serious dump. In fact, it was the local eyesore, and the reason - I now understand clearly - my father had been able to get the house with no visible opposition was because it was, hands down, the worst house on the block. It was so run-down, beat-up, and ill kept that no one wanted it. If that house were a horse, it would have been described as "hard rode and put up wet." A creature in dire need of a little care and nurturing. My dad was the "sucker" the owners had "seen coming" on whom to unload their white elephant. Which is one reason, I'm sure, the race question was overlooked. Who else could have been expected to buy such a wreck?
When we first saw it, we children were shocked. We looked around the house and at each other. I mean, even the cramped quarters at Stebbins looked like a mansion compared to what we were moving into. I mean, small, little, squinched-up rooms, dark, sunless interiors, filthy baseboards, a total mess and not at all inviting.
But our initial disappointment did not, of course, take into account my father - his supreme confidence in his skills and resourcefulness. He had indeed spent a long time looking for just such a house. Seeing not what was, but what could be. The neighborhood was quieter, and the house just three houses down from a school, and by the grace of God, sufficiently derelict and decrepit as to be available and affordable. Perfect. The Lord do move in mysterious ways.
My father had cased the joint purposefully and assured himself that the foundations were solid enough to afford him a base on which to build. He'd figured out exactly what he was going to do with this house.
Immediately when we moved in - my mother used to tease him fondly that he unpacked his tools before he unpacked his bed - my father set to work, even though it was January and cold. The remake took a long time, continuing in some way as long as he lived there. On those happy days when he had a construction job, my father worked on our house at night. On those all too many days when the union hiring hall failed to refer him to a job, he worked on our home day and night. Before he was through he had added rooms upstairs and down, knocked out walls to create more space, put in windows and doors. In a word, he completely transformed that wreck.
We learned later that as the neighbors looked on, amusement turned to skepticism, skepticism to wonder, and wonder to respect. They were, after all, working men and respected industry and competence. And as they watched the transformation from eyesore to one of the more attractive and well-maintained homes on the block, the neighbors recognized that because of my father the value of their property had not, as expected, plummeted by reason of our black presence, but had instead been enhanced.
The school three houses away on Hamilton Avenue was P.S. 34, where I and my three hearing sisters were immediately enrolled. The eldest, Umilta, who was deaf, attended a special school downtown. Naturally, for us, there would be the necessary period of adjustment - the new-kids-on-the-block syndrome. That we were African undoubtedly contributed something to this tension at first, but I must say clearly that I can remember no instances of overt racism from the neighborhood kids.
Whatever their elders' attitudes might have been, once we were accepted in "da hood" by the other kids, that was it. Once we became familiar presences on the turf, so to say, citizens in good standing of the neighborhood, we were to be defended against any strangers from outside, whatever their color. But there would be a period of adjustment.
Our mother was always at home and overwatchful with one eye tuned in on the street. She at first tried to keep us at home as much as possible, and for a long time she was never really completely comfortable with our visiting other children's homes. For this reason, my father built a clubhouse in our backyard for my friends. Our backyard became a focus of youth activity, which made my mother happy, as most of my time was spent where she could watch my movements and make sure I was not being subjected to racist insults.
I believe my status among the boys was determined early by my mom and a stocky, muscular kid named Paulie Henry. Paulie was Italian/Irish, and most bellicose. He would, as they say, fight at the drop of a hat - and drop the hat himself. One day early on, Paulie slapped around a friend of mine called Billy. I mean, ol' Paulie, like Stack O' Lee in the blues, had laid a hurtin' on poor Billy.
According to my mom, she came out and found me crying along with Billy. I guess, sensitive kid that I was, I was comforting Billy by helping him cry. Billy explained what Paulie had done and added that Paulie had promised to come back and beat me up too. In fact, he had gone to round up his boys to help him administer said beating.
"And where's this Paulie now?" my mother asked.
"Over in the school yard," Billy sobbed.
Before the words were well out of his mouth, my mother stormed into the school yard, trailed a little hesitantly by me and Billy.
"Which one of you is Paulie?" she demanded. Whereupon she declared in a loud and carrying voice - obviously she was sending a message beyond just the school yard - that I was not Billy. And she was not Billy's mother. So everybody, I mean, everybody, better understand that if they laid a finger on her son, she would come back with her husband's ax and set to chopping.
Upon which a chastened, deeply impressed Paulie hastened to assure her that this did not involve her son at all. That they had absolutely no intention in the world of touching her son. This was purely between them and Billy.
It had been a dramatic performance on my mom's part, and quite convincing. It certainly convinced Paulie and his gang, and even I was not entirely sure whether my mother had been serious. Which, I suppose, is exactly what she intended.
For it sure worked. I was probably the only kid on that block Paulie never fought with. In fact, he became a friend, and later, something of an influence.
In all of P.S. 34, there was but one other African family, the Stovalls. But they lived farther down in the Bronx, on the edge of the district. The oldest Stovall was a good athlete and, by reputation, rough, a "real toughie." I suppose as only the second African boy to come through, I basked in some of his reflected valor. Strangely enough, I never became real close with the Stovalls, perhaps because they didn't live in our immediate neighborhood. A case of the dominance of geography, "turf" over race, I presume.
In my class, the fifth grade, the acknowledged baddest dude was an Italian kid named Nicky. I had not been in school two weeks when, for some reason, Nicky challenged me. Again, the teacher gets wind of it and lets me out early. This time, though, there was no uncertainty on my part. I had learned with Jay precisely how to work this one.
In the end, it was almost a total rerun of P.S. 39 and Jay, as Nicky also decided it best that we not fight. Unlike Jay, however, we never became friends. Our relationship remained cool, but correct, a kind of peaceful school-yard coexistence.
Here at P.S. 34 I would find my peers undisciplined, less so than at Stebbins, but undisciplined nonetheless. Also just as destructive, breaking pens and pencils to throw at each other, dashing their books to the ground to fight each other. Which again raised the same question for me: Why were American children so undisciplined and even self-destructive? I still have no answer for that, but as I got more and more into the neighborhood, I would get to see this self-destructiveness at close hand.
By constantly reminding us that we were going to a better neighborhood, my mother had created certain expectations. Yet I would discover that just as much stealing was occurring in the "better" neighborhood, and this would come to touch me quite poignantly.
Despite my mother's efforts to keep us at home or in the backyard, inevitably, my being a boy and older, I would eventually begin to roam the neighborhood. This was almost always in the company of my new and close friend John DiMilio. John and I were inseparable, so close that the neighbors called us the Bobbsey Twins - one being fair and the other dark. They said, "Wherever you see one, you look for the other, he won't be far." We were constantly in and out of each other's home, and before long I was deeply immersed in the ambient local Italian culture.
What little sponges children can be. I loved the food, both the taste and the sound of it, those final vowels and rolling consonants: spaghetti, macaroni, pizza, calamari, antipasto, mozzarella, and so forth. Because of Umilta's deafness, our family had learned to sign to communicate with her. This might explain my fascination with the expressive vocabulary of gestures that was so much a part of Italian conversation. I picked up these gestures naturally, and soon I could curse fluently in Italian to the accompaniment of eloquent gestures, much to the amusement of the adults. "Yo, kid, wad-daw-yah, a wise guy? Gi-dudah-heyah!"
I must in truth have been a sight, a pint-size paisano in blackface. A real wise guy. Everyone knew me even if they did not know my name. The street name they gave me, because I was dark, was Sichie, short for Sicilian. (Later I would learn from Malcolm X the role of Africans in the history of that island and the extent to which the Moors had left their indelible imprint on Sicilian architecture and on the complexion of the populace.)
Naturally, I also picked up the prevalent political attitudes of the Italian community. They did not particularly trust the government, in particular the FBI and the IRS. Of the two agencies, the IRS was truly to be feared while the FBI, in vernacular translation "Forever Bugging Italians," was bush league. My neighbors had scant respect for either that agency or its director, noting that it had consistently failed to make a single racketeering charge against Al Capone stick, while the IRS had busted him on tax evasion.
In the Harlem barbershop where my hair was cut, I would hear an African version of this conventional street wisdom. "Better you kill someone than cheat on them taxes, baby. Yo kin get away with murder easier than taxes. Mes wit his taxes an' Uncle Sam will git you. Yes he will, swear befo' God. Look what happened to Capone."
I know my mother regarded my integration into the local culture with considerable ambivalence. On the one hand, she was pleased with my easy acceptance and local popularity. On the other, a caveat. Her mantra became "Remember now, you can't be doing like these little white boys. Something happen out there in the street and you know who will get the blame." And that familiar nostrum of black parents: "Your little white friends got it made. For you to make it, you will have to be three times better than them. You best remember that, now." That, as it turned out, proved not all that accurate, failing as it did to take into account the serious consequences of class, culture, and gender.
However, my mother's misgivings were well founded, for the youth culture of that block was even then at considerable odds with the values and expectations of the parents.
When I began to hang out after sunset, she imposed a 9:00 P.M.. curfew, which, of course, I stretched as much as was prudent, which did not escape her notice. There would be frequent confrontation. Whenever I pulled in at 9:20 or 9:30, I'd hear about it in no uncertain terms.
One evening, fortunately for me, nothing very interesting was going down in the street. I went home early and retired quietly upstairs to my room. I read some and fell asleep.
At nine o'clock, my mother became incensed, "I know that boy's been running the streets. Well, when he comes in tonight, I am going to catch him. And he will hear me."
Whereupon she fetches up some of my Dad's two by fours and nails and proceeds to batten down the front door as though in preparation for a hurricane. I mean it was a sho'nuff barricade, Jack. By about ten, she's worried. Ten thirty she's besides herself. She rouses my father. "That son of yours is out running the streets again. You better go find him."
"Course I'll go.