I lived the majority of my life, 18 of my 29 years, in New York. I spent my first 12 years in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, an African-American and, to a lesser extent, Puerto Rican cultural center. Bed-Stuy in the sixties had become Brooklyn’s most populous neighborhood, and covering less than four square miles, had one of the largest concentrations of African-Americans in the United States. It also had developed a reputation as one of the nation’s most renowned rough neighborhoods, rivaling Harlem in depictions as such in popular culture and media. Bedford-Stuy was a hotbed of gang activity and crime and was marked by low income, high unemployment, and segregation.
Although whites lived in Bed-Stuy, growing up I don’t remember ever seeing a white resident. Perhaps that is because my family lived only in public housing: first Marcy Projects, famous as the childhood home of Shawn Carter, better known as Jay Z, and then Tompkins Projects, a newly built project we moved to a few blocks away as my family ballooned in size.
As with seemingly everyone else we lived around, we were poor. My father worked in the shipping department for Exposition Press, a vanity publishing company in Manhattan. My mother’s unpaid job was raising six hardheaded boys of which I was the oldest. My dad’s meager income was subsidized by public assistance and by my mom venturing out to the Prospect Park neighborhood of Brooklyn with me in tow to clean the homes of affluent white
My brothers and I had no idea we were poor nor felt disadvantaged in any way by my family’s existence. Much of our food came in white generic packaging labeled Department of Agriculture, which we washed down with Kool-Aid, five-cent packs of flavored powder that we mixed with water and sugar. We also ate lots of canned fish made into patties, Spam, fried hot dogs, potted meat on Ritz crackers, Vienna sausage, and pork and beans. Not all of our meat came out of a can or package: on occasional Fridays my mother went down to the fish market on Fulton Street to pick up some porgies. Dessert was a rarity; I remember a lot of jello, and my father was partial to Lorna Doone cookies. It was amazing how many nights he could get out of a single carton of Lorna Doones split among him and six boys. On Exposition Press paydays—in addition to his work as the shipping manager, Bunyan earned a second income cleaning the Exposition Press offices and bathrooms—he splurged on dessert. Bunyan would pick up a bean pie from the nattily dressed Black Muslims out on the corner hawking their Muhammad Speaks newspapers...
Besides bean pies paydays brought another, non-edible treat. Bunyan always sent me across the street to Bert’s Records to pick up a new 45. He would never tell me what to get. I found it particularly empowering to be trusted to pick something that Bunyan would approve of, although I wasn’t taking much of a risk; I usually chose a single by James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin or The Temptations, and in the sixties any of these were virtually always a safe choice. These bi-weekly forays to the record shop as a pre-teen were the genesis of my love for music, an avocation that would influence my life significantly. Bunyan loved music, and gathering around the phonograph with his sons seemed to humanize the otherwise perpetually stern and tense Bunyan. Often we all danced, Bunyan too...
By the time we moved to the Tompkins Projects, our family was complete. My youngest brother, Keith had recently been born. The family shared one bathroom, and the six boys slept in a single bedroom. Baby Keith slept in a crib; Jerry, Calvin, Tyrone, Kenny, and I slept together in a bunk bed of sorts. It was a twin bed, with a second twin bed underneath, both with cast iron frames. Each night we would roll out the bottom bed and then a couple of us would grab a lever that ran the length of the bed, causing the bottom bunk lift assembly to bring the frame up to the same height and contiguous to the top bunk resulting in a full size bed. When we were not fighting (which was often), the five boys slept well together with three at the head of the bed and two at the foot of the bed. The six of us coexisted fine in that one bedroom. We were frequently confined to our room as it was not difficult for energetic, mischievous pre-teens, a toddler and a crying baby to get on mom’s “last nerve.”
We fought a lot among ourselves. I tended to be very domineering. As the oldest, I felt I should be the leader, and would not hesitate to get physical to impose my will. It was easy for me to choose this course of action because I was so much bigger than my brothers. The next oldest brother two years younger was Jerry, and he was slightly built. Calvin was three years younger; he was stocky and combative, but he could not hold his own with me. That did not stop him from resorting to increasingly aggressive attempts to retaliate. He once threw a fork at me with such force that it lodged in Bunyan's wooden phonograph cabinet. I still have the faint outline on my thigh of the corner of a large wooden block he launched like a missile at me.
Between fights, the boys found seemingly endless ways to have fun in that room, for the most part without toys and games, at least not ones purchased in a store. The most popular way of passing time was a variation of baseball involving a pair of socks rolled into a ball and hit with an open hand.
The older boys similarly found ways to make life fun when we were allowed outside. As with other kids in Tompkins Projects, we were able to find myriad ways of having fun through our own resourcefulness; whether it was with a twenty five cents rubber ball used to play handball against the front of the building, to more elaborate homemade devices such as makeshift go karts devised by taking steel wheels from roller skates and attaching them to the discarded crates used to deliver plantains to Carmen’s bodega on the corner across from the projects. Of course there were other ways of having fun outdoors which involved little more than imagination, charade games such as cops and robbers and, cowboys and Indians; physical exertion, such as foot races and playing in the water from illegally opened fire hydrants; or
strategy, such as Ringolevio, a uniquely New York City combination of tag and hide-and-seek.
Not all of our means of having fun depended on ingenuity and resourcefulness. Sometimes we got real toys. I got a bicycle for Christmas one year. I would ride almost around the perimeter of Tompkins Projects, which was a rectangle ringed by Throop Avenue, where we lived, and by Park, Tompkins, and Myrtle Avenues. I say almost around the perimeter; the route I rode really covered just Park, Tompkins, and Throop because if you dared ride your bike on Myrtle Avenue, you were virtually certain to return home walking. Myrtle Avenue was no man’s land; forbidden territory frequented by drug addicts and dealers, gang members, and other assorted thugs and criminals. Adding to the sense of foreboding was the Myrtle Avenue El, an elevated track of the New York City subway system, which gave Myrtle Avenue the appearance of perpetual darkness.