I want to talk to the teenaged boy who overheard my conversation with my Uncle Charlie at the corner of Rochester Avenue and Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, New York on some Spring day in about 1952. Of course, he won’t be teen-aged any more. He might even be dead. In 1952 I was ten years old and my best memory of the boy was that he was somewhere around sixteen or eighteen.
My Uncle was a story himself; my only aunt or uncle on either side of the family who was born in the “old country,” he came to America as a small child, to be followed in birth by my mother, one aunt and two other uncles. Even discounting old stories for embellishment of hardship and poverty, it seems that the family struggled quite a bit in the early years, and Charlie went to work for American Steel and Wire at its Worcester, Massachusetts factory at the age of fourteen. He would retire from that same factory 51 years later.
Charlie would come to New York once or twice a year, in his Dodge or Plymouth, on his way to the race tracks in Florida. Horses were his passion; that and poetry, an avocation not identified until his death and a dusty sojourn into his attic. He was a two dollar bettor unless he could find someone to split the bet, and the cheapest human being I ever recall meeting. His stop in New York was for a free meal or two, and to entice my mother to join him going South and to pay for the gas and lodging along the way.
I should mention in passing, lest you judge me critical of Charlie, that I loved him fiercely and defended him in family discussions during his life and long afterwards. He was the uncle with time to spend with the nieces and nephews, and a vocabulary and logic that we as children could understand.
So there I was, standing on a corner of a wide street that ran almost the width of Brooklyn, explaining to my beloved hick uncle how the big bad world of the City actually worked. I knew that Worcester was just an overgrown town, and that he never left there except to go to Hialeah or, much more often, to Suffolk Downs on the outskirts of Boston for a day-trip.
I held within me, and still do, the prejudices of my parents and of their upbringing and times. The sharp edges of prejudice were rounded by the compassion that came with their histories: Jewish liberal thought, living in New York City; and, the love of Jackie Robinson, who captivated Brooklyn upon his arrival in 1947, and that love, true worship, sloshed over into a more general awareness. But this was 1952, and the only Negroes on my street and the surrounding streets were the cleaning women, ordered by telephone from some central government hiring agency to come and clean our houses for seventy-five cents an hour, lumbering down our streets to our houses carrying a cloth bag with work clothes and the lingering odor of unwashed sweat, sullenly washing our floors and dusting our tables under the ever-vigilant eye of our non-working mothers who had hidden the jewelry, the silver, and anything else that might seem appealing.
Eastern Parkway was a dividing line of sorts, and South of it the older established Jewish and white neighborhoods still held their character, including our enclave of Crown Heights. North of the line, across the two side lanes, across the green plantings that separated those lanes from the main thoroughfare, across the broad traffic lanes that each Memorial Day saw the march of soldiers from the Spanish American, First and Second World Wars sandwiched between the trucks and tanks that left tread marks in the pavement, across this urban frontier that might as well have been lined with barbed wire, lived the Negroes. We knew they were newcomers but that is not what bothered us. What bothered us was that they were of a different color and no liberal political context could alter that fact or make us at home with people who were so unlike anyone else we ever dealt with.
The zoning protected our schools; oh yes, I was in High School before I ever shared a home room or a lunch table with anyone who was not white-skinned. But there they were on the ground, cutting us off from our old houses of worship that once were safely in our hands, making a weekend trip to a store on St. John’s Place a family outing at which the father must always join us. There they were, staring at us when we walked past, as no doubt we stared (or tried not to stare) at them.
So here is what I said, as best I can recall and paraphrase:
“The Negroes live over on that side of this street, Eastern Parkway. They mostly stay out of the Park, but if I go to Hebrew School on Lincoln Place, which is a couple of blocks over there, I have to be careful. They sometimes collect a nickel from us. There is a movie theater over there we don’t go to, we go down the hill to the Caroll [vaguely pointing with a wave of arm]. Sometimes they come into the Park and chase us.”
Standing almost on top of us, this Negro teenager has, apparently, been listening to my explanation of urban geography and life. His voice is firm, although he is not yelling. He is simply telling us what he things of us — of me. He is telling me what he thinks of my parents, my own mind, my family, my uncle standing there, my future, my failings, my ignorance. He is telling me what to do with my life.
The boy walks away. My uncle, shaken, turns to me and says, “I see what you mean.”
I do not know what happened to that boy of course; what hardships he had in life by way of prejudice or happenstance. Perhaps he had none. Perhaps he had many. I do not know. I only know that I want to talk to him for just a few seconds.
I want to say, “I’m sorry.”