I was an adolescent, and my sister in single digits, when Nelson Elmer made a rare holiday season appearance at our apartment. The Christmas tree was up, with wrapped gifts and a few toys scattered underneath. Red and green lights were up in the window; and my mother, as always, had many glass and porcelain decorative dishes filled with walnuts and candy. It was a festive room, and we were hopeful that Nelson Elmer was visiting to enhance our holiday. He came into the apartment wearing an out-of-season light-colored suit and pointy-toed Italian loafers. In fact, he brought a few pairs of shoes with him for me: powder blue (like his) and purple, and a couple of other highly impractical colors for a Brooklyn schoolboy. My mother just looked at them, rolling her eyes when he presented them, and laughing when he left.
The centerpiece of his visit, however, was his theatrical presentation of money to his two children. Sitting cross-legged for a time on our plastic-covered sofa, like a visiting potentate, Nelson Elmer placed a stack of bills on the living-room table. Our eyes gravitated to the bills. It was all of our long-delayed child support-Christmas present-guilt money in one delivery. He spoke for a while, talking of getting together more often, etc., and then he left. I walked him to the door, but Andrea, always a practical girl, snatched up the stack of bills as soon as the door closed. She pulled a couple of twenties off the top, but they quickly gave way to tens, fives, and a few singles.
I imagine the idea of sitting there calmly, with the money on the table, must have appealed to his desire to seem important. He must have enjoyed the rush of power he received watching us sit anxiously, wondering how much was there. But it was a con he must have learned uptown. Surely he had to know that as soon as he left we'd see that it was fool's gold. Surely he'd know that we'd be disappointed, that all that theater would just feed our mistrust.
Often as an adult I've tried to put myself in Nelson Elmer's shoes, trying to understand his behaviorânot as a disappointed child, but as a black man trying to make it in early sixties New York City. It's a huge leap in context, probably an impossible one. So I've asked a number of older men over the years how someone could become a Nelson Elmer, a man comfortable abandoning his wife and two kids for the streets of Harlem.
I got one memorable answer at a black music convention in Atlanta called Jack the Rapper, a now defunct but once essential gathering place for radio jocks, record executives, and musicians that began loosely in the fifties and ran well into the nineties. At Jack the Rapper you'd meet and greet a cross section of old wise men who knew everything about our music and quite a bit about life.
Perhaps because I hadn't had a father, and hadn't really had a relationship with my grandfathers, I gravitated to the older vets, men usually in their late forties and fifties who passed on knowledge that filled up my articles and books. One night I sat up at a hotel bar with an old record-promotion man who'd been married too many times to count, and was about to hook up with a woman twenty-five years his junior. We started talking about family, and I opened up a bit about mine.
“I understand your bitterness,” he said, in his high-pitched, deep South drawl. “But you gotta understand your father probably never felt free a day in his life until he got to New York.” The promo man painted me a picture of the South as a landscape dominated by women, noting that “in those small towns you can't make a move without someone seeing you. If you had a secret you could be sure it wouldn't be one forever.”
He told me that brothers were constrained by racism when they moved outside black areas, and by social conventions within the black community, especially if they were working men. The promotion man suggested that “when men started moving up North to the bigger cities, it was the first time they could actually be alone. You walk two blocks in New York and no one knows your name, or who your father or mother was, and no one gave a damn really either way unless you could do something for them.”
I wanted to dismiss it as a facile explanation, but it did make some sense to me. My father had grown up with a willful mother, an absent father, a sharp-witted younger brother, and five sisters. The Norfolk-Hampton-Newport News axis made for a comfortable, midsized Southern town, but if you didn't want to work for the shipyard you'd have to find your future elsewhere. After the Korean War his brother found freedom in the Army. My father chose New York. As sociology, the promotion man's comments made sense.
When I was born my mother and father were living at 218 New York Avenue, a sturdy brownstone-style rental apartment in Crown Heights, where he was making some side money as a handyman. The owners, an older white couple, were feeling the tug of white flight, and talked about selling the place to my parents. Because he didn't think he could raise the down payment or get a mortgage, my father turned them down. Soon after my sister, Andrea, was born in 1961, we moved from home-owner-dominated Crown Heights to the spanking new Samuel J. Tilden public housing project in Brownsville. Rent for a two-bedroom apartment was only sixty-five dollars a month, with electricity and gas included. Obviously a good deal.
Back then public housing had yet to acquire its rightful tag as “ghettos in the sky,” and was seen as a vast improvement over the crumbling, firetrap tenements they replaced in the former Jewish neighborhood. From the 1930s into the 1950s, Brownsville had been a sprawling, working-class ghetto, home to “tough Jews,” some of whom founded the notorious Murder Incorporated gang. Remnants of that old neighborhood were visible everywhere.
On the opposite side of the subway tracks from Tilden were soot-and-dirt-covered tenements that had rusty metal fire escapes regularly covered with drying laundry. Garbage cans vied with fire hydrants for sidewalk space. The tenement windows were perpetually open in summer to catch the odd breeze. During the winter, clothes were shoved against window cracks to stop the cold from sliding inside. These tenements were giving way to housing projects in Brownsvilleâone kind of slum housing giving way to another, turn-of-the-century construction replaced by Kennedy-era visions of urban uplift. These were the places the ghetto Jews of Alfred Kazin's
A Walker in the City
had lived. A few were left on the streets in the Ville, but they were mostly old. Almost all of the younger residents were black and Puerto Rican, recent immigrants from the warmer, softer places. Compared to the tenements that would slowly be “urban renewed” out of existence, these sixteen-story buildings must have looked good.
About four blocks of tenements had been demolished to build the Samuel J. Tilden public housing complex, eight apartment buildings situated next to the IRT elevated subway. Behind and next to Tilden were two more complexes: the Van Dyke projects, which were also sixteen-plus-story buildings, but covered four blocks; and the Brownsville Houses, three blocks of five-story buildings constructed around courtyards. It was amid this mass of public housing that our little family relocated to 315 Livonia Avenue, apartment 6C, of the Tilden projects.
That sense of optimism the project first suggested didn't last the decade. By 1968, when I was eleven years old, I saw a TV documentary that called Brownsville the worst ghetto in the United States. I remember getting a perverse sense of pride from that pronouncement, and I told everybody who'd pay attention about our ranking. If you were gonna live in the ghetto, it might as well be the highest of the low. To this day the Ville remains a deeply entrenched ghetto area, where every urban ill you can think of thrives and change is nowhere in sight.
Most of my early memories of the Tilden projects are sepia-toned and sun-drenched. We played ancient New York City street games handed down from the Jews and the Italians, like the chase-and-catch game ringolevio, where two teams competed to see who could capture the most opponents. It was a fast, frustrating, and often violent game that resulted in ripped shirts, major collisions, and long, inconclusive battles. In its own way ringolevio trained you in the capture-avoidance techniques that would be useful against both cops and robbers.
We also spent hours playing skelly, a game in which clay- or gum-filled bottle tops were knocked, with thumb and pointer finger, across thirteen boxes, and back. This journey was complicated by your opposing players, who either blasted your top far off the board or knocked you into “skelly,” a no-man's-land in the center of the thirteen boxes. Once trapped in skelly you had to negotiate with the other players for your freedom, an often painful process, where your self-respect was always up for grabs. In its own way skelly was a playful but pointed lesson in what happens when you allow your fate to be determined by others.
As my friends and I grew older, two sports dominated our days, and often our nightsâstickball and basketballâtwo more games that had filled the streets of Brownsville before blacks and Puerto Ricans arrived. But our version of stickball was very different from the manhole-to-manhole contests associated with Jews, Italians, and the great Willie Mays up in Harlem. We never played in the street, where we'd have to dodge traffic and ice cream trucks.
The Tilden projects contained large concrete play spaces broken up by fenced-in patches of grass, and manufactured play areas, with monkey bars and jungle gyms (skeletal metal structures you could climb onto or swing from) and concrete barrels you could crawl through or climb over. We often used the barrels as a backstop, which kept the balls from bouncing through or over the wire fences, and sent the balls bouncing back toward the pitcher. Any ground ball that wasn't caught was a single. If a batted ball made it on the fly over the nearest fence, it was a double. Over that fence onto the sidewalk, or over the big dirt patch in the middle of the grass, was a triple. Now depending on which direction you played in, a stickball home run had to either hit the side of the farthest building or bounce off the gated windows of the Baptist church that shared our block.
We played with pink Pensy Pinky or Spalding (pronounced “Spaldeen”) balls, which tended to turn spongy when hit, so unless a ball was a vicious line drive, it was hard to break windows. Our bats were either regulation baseball bats or, more disposable and thus more popular, used broom handles, or “official” stickball bats purchased at a sporting goods store. One summer some kids raided an ill-guarded warehouse nearby and liberated boxes full of orange broomsticks. They weren't very sturdy, and the cheap paint came off in your hands if you sweated too much, but they were free, and we wore out our supplies that summer.
There was a stickball hierarchy at our end of the projects, and the Puerto Ricans who lived in building 360 were generally recognized as the best players. The black boys, largely from my building, 315, and nearby 305, usually competed against ourselves. Games against the Ricans in the 360 building were serious business, since they took stickball in particular, and baseball in general, to heart. The best player on our end of the projects was Big Red, a left-handed-batting Latino with bright red hair unusual in a Rican. Big Red was renowned for bashing home runs right out of the Tilden projects into the street and, on occasion, over into the Brownsville projects.
I don't recall ever pitching to Big Red, but I have a vivid memory of giving up a stickball homer to the most famous baseball player to come out of the Ville. Though he lived in 360, the Puerto Rican building, remarkably, he was black. We knew him as Mickey Randolph, but by the time he was a star second-baseman with the New York Yankees, he was known to all local sports fans as Willie. He grew up playing stickball on the same patch of concrete as all of us. After becoming an all-city star at Tilden High (we both went to a high school named after the same New York governor as our housing project), Willie was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates, an organization then famous for giving blacks and Latinos a fair shot. (In the early seventies the Pirates would be the first major league team to field a nine-man lineup comprised of only black and Hispanic players.)
In those pre-major league years, whenever Willie came home from the minors, it was a major event. Moreover, Willie would still come out, grab a stickball bat, and let us smaller kids try and pump a fastball by him. Somehow Iâa lowly figure on the local stickball landscapeâmanaged to get a chance to pitch to him. Wearing my Yankees cap and my favorite red, white, and blue sweatbands, I reared back to fire my seventy-five-mile-per-hour fastball toward the barrel where he waited, with a stickball bat in his brown hands. Willie swung easily and made resounding contact.
As a major leaguer, Willie was strictly a singles and doubles line-drive hitter, but on this early-seventies afternoon, he blasted a tape-measure stickball homer, one that traveled high and deep, smashing the ball against the metal grating above the sixteenth story on the roof of a nearby building. I was proud. To have delivered not simply a homer, but a monstrous shot, made it special. I'm sure Willie has long since forgotten that swing, amid World Series rings, years in Bronx pinstripes, and his appointment as the Mets' first black manager, but I treasure that afternoon as the closest to being a big-league pitcher I'll ever come and, more profoundly, as a testament to an urban street life that'll never be that innocent again.