From the time of her birth until we moved out of Tilden in the midseventies, Andrea and I shared a bedroom, a closet, and a dresser. As a result, our bedroom became a physical and psychological battleground. We had one room and one parent, and that became too much for two siblings to share comfortably. There was an invisible line between the two beds, so toys and clothes had to be placed on the proper side, or yelling and fussing would ensue. Who got more dresser or closet space was a constant battle.
As we got older this forced intimacy grew even more complicated. I began masturbating seriously around age eleven, so I'd have to time my self-pleasing for when I was sure she was sleeping and/ or had her body turned away from me. It made an uncomfortable, clandestine activity feel even more risky and embarrassing. Every now and then I'd catch her giggling as she watched from under her covers.
That sense of sexual discomfort cut both ways. I remember a summer afternoon when we were sitting watching television. Suddenly Andrea stood up looking shocked. She made a small animal sound, and then ran into the bathroom. She started calling for our mother, who quickly followed her in. I heard a lot of anxious whispers, but I couldn't make out any words. After a while Ma came out and walked over to me. Her eyes were sparkling and her voice amused. “She just got her period,” she whispered, but not quietly enough. Andrea opened the door to yell in a rage, “Don't tell him!” She was angry at Ma for betraying her sudden secret, and at me for the undoubtedly silly smirk on my face.
Ma finally got us out of the projects when we were both adolescents, liberating us from the tensions of sharing a room. I had mine and she had hers. But that necessary change exacerbated the growing distance between us. The days spent conversing, much less playing or dancing, together had ended. Even how Andrea achieved in school differed from how I didâwhile I was a reading/writing maven, Andrea excelled at math. We had a classic left brain/right brain split.
By the time I was a teenager I sometimes experienced nostalgia for the days when Andrea had followed me around. That big brother/little sister affection had been replaced by indifference or downright hostility. I remember a particularly nasty argument in the kitchen over something, and it started getting physical. I grabbed her and tossed her to the ground for stepping to me with way too much attitude. I was much taller and stronger, so as far as I was concerned, she could fuss all she wanted, but she wasn't gonna swing at me and get away with it.
Vengefully, Andrea pulled a knife out of a cabinet and came at me with it. I sprinted to my room and closed the door, as I heard the knife bounce off the wood. We fought often, but this knife incident was a new low. Sometimes I wasn't sure if she cared if I lived or died, and that made me sad when I wasn't thinking of kicking her ass. Her favorite song when we were kids was the soul ballad “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” by the Persuasions, and for too many years my sister and I lived out this melancholy title.
As a child, my interest in reading greatly fueled my erotic imagination. My mother was a big reader of pop pulp fiction: Ian Fleming's James Bond series,
Valley of the Dolls
. By nine I was already a voracious reader, and I'd sneak into her bedroom to check them out. I soon figured out that there were code words on a page that meant sex scene: “bosom,” “loins,” and, my favorite, “vulva.” When I saw them on a page I'd stop skimming and slow down.
These words were often modified and amplified by “heaving,” “inflamed,” “engorged,” and “sensitive.” Any combination of these words meant characters were having sex. I got so good that within ten minutes of opening one of Ma's paperbacks I had identified two or three scenes. It would be my pleasure afterward to show these passages to my friends, displaying both my reading skills and growing sexual sophistication.
Like a lot of city kids I lost my virginity on summer vacation. Either in July or August Ma would ship Andrea and me off to Virginia for a couple of weeks, where we'd shuttle back and forth between Grandma George, Uncle Son, and Aunt Frances. We usually had the most fun at Frances's place, since she ran the loosest house, had fun kids (cousins Becky, Chubby, and Quinton), and was the most dynamic character. Aunt Frances was a big-boned brown woman, with wide hips, a hearty laugh, and a passion for beer, bid whist, and men.
Neighborhood kids circulated through Aunt Frances's house all day. It was there that I met a local gal I'll call Tammi. I was about eleven, and she was maybe three years older. Like a lot of Virginia gals, Tammi was what we called “healthy”âwide hips and a butt that undulated when she walked. Back then I was frequently complimented for having curly eyelashes, and Tammi found them quite cute, along with my New York accent.
One afternoon, in a neighbor's toolshed, she let me fondle her beautiful brown breasts, which started a stirring down below. I was in that phase of boyish adolescence when just the sight of a sexy woman got me uncontrollably excited, so the feeling of sucking Tammi's breasts was just unbelievable. I didn't really know what to do after that. Tammi did. She pulled down her pants and panties and lay on the floor. She unbuckled my Lee jeans. I remember how we wiggled about the toolshed floor, my knees against the concrete floor, the smell of gasoline from cans in the shed, and the sounds of kids running in the distance.
Back in Brownsville I bragged about my lost virginity to all the brothers on the basketball court. While it gave me some respect, it had still happened down South (everybody “got some” down South). When was I gonna have a Brownsville girlfriend? That's when Cynthia came into my life. She was a butterscotch fourteen-year-old cutie known around the Tilden projects for her shiny black bangs and neon-blue coat. To the amazement of many suitors, she picked me to be her first boyfriend.
One day Frankie, a Puerto Rican buddy of mine who lived on the third floor of 315, arranged a meeting between Cynthia and me at a nearby school yard. By the time we'd walked the three blocks home we were holding hands. Because she lived in 305 and I across the parking lot at 315, we could sit in our kitchens looking at each other as we talked on the phone. My first relationship made me giddy and proud, like I had some heretofore unknown value. My self-esteem skyrocketed, but my confidence was neither deep nor strong.
You see, my boys greeted my first romance with snickers. After a touch football game a couple of guys said they'd been walking with her in the rain. “So,” one kid I never did like said, “I had to pull out my rubbers.” To the delight of everybody but me, he pulled out a pack of Trojans. In retrospect, I think he did it as much to show everyone he had some as to humiliate me. But this incident, plus the constant barrage of my friends' cherry-popping tales, caused me to blow it with Cynthia.
One afternoon I found myself miraculously alone for a few hours in 6C. I got Cynthia to come over. I pulled the curtains shut in the living room, screwed in the red lightbulb Ma used for parties, and put on an Al Green record. I laid down the law: “We need to start having sex.” Cynthia's exit line from my den of seduction was devastating: “I thought you were different.”
Only after the fact did I realize that Cynthia had approached me precisely because she perceived me to be a nice, cute, nice, book-reading boy, and not one of the wannabe fly guys that filled the Ville. I was probably what Cynthia wanted, and, if I'd just been who I was for her, good things would have come my way eventually. Yet in Brownsville circa 1973 (and to this day), it was hard to embrace non-Super Fly aspirations. So, like the sad dude in the Chi-Lites' “Have You Seen Her,” I sat by the kitchen window watching for signs of Cynthia, trying to figure out how to balance what the local culture demanded versus who I was.
A THEATER ON PITKIN AVENUE
Pitkin Avenue in Brownsville was a thriving commercial shopping strip that had been pioneered by the Jewish merchants to serve the Hebrew families that had once populated the neighborhood. When I was a little boy many of the stores still bore Jewish names, and even the more generic-sounding businesses (Thom McAn's, Wool-worth's, East New York Savings Bank) were largely run by folks with Jewish surnames. But by the midsixties stores began to close, as their old clients split for other Brooklyn neighborhoods like Canarsie, to the suburbs of Long Island, or to the hurricane corridors of Florida. Often they were fleeing my family and the others like us who were turning Brownsville black. The bonds blacks and Jews had shared during the glory days of the civil rights movement broke down in neighborhoods like Brownsville where Semite merchant and black customer now eyed each other with mutual suspicion.
Sometimes blacks, Puerto Ricans, or Arabs took over the stores. More often, however, these places either shut down or were burned down, leaving holes on Pitkin that wouldn't get filled for decades. You couldn't totally blame them. Heroin had turned rough streets mean. Purse snatching, shoplifting, muggings, and armed robbery abounded in and around Pitkin. The phrase “ripped off” entered the vocabulary as a verb for crime. I used to put my money in my sock whenever I had to go over there. It made for smelly but somewhat safe dollar bills.
One oasis from the change was the Olympic Theater, located at the far end of Pitkin, just a block or two before the avenue melted into Eastern Parkway. To get there from the Tilden projects you could take a bus up Rockaway Avenue, passing the Brownsville projects, a church, cheap furniture stores, the fish markets of Belmont Avenue, and on up to Pitkin. At Pitkin you then transferred to another bus for the long ride past its stores and vendors. Or, if you were like me, trying to hold onto every slim dime, you walked up to Pitkin and then across it to the Olympic.
The Olympic was a high-domed, ornate movie palace whose lineage went back to vaudeville, and certainly smelled like it. As a symbol of Pitkin's decay, the smell of the venerable entertainment venue lingers. First it was just the mildew in the restrooms. As the theater evolved from a cross-cultural meeting place into a Saturday playground for the dark children of the projects, the stink spread. With time the scarlet carpet turned crimson with ground-in dirt. Broken seats proliferated. Ticket prices rose. The stink rose to high heaven.
I remember clearly seeing two movies at the Olympic, both of which got me thinking about race relations. In 1964 I went with my mother to see
, a celebration of British imperialism whose set piece depicted a gallant regiment of redcoats trapped in a crumbling compound as a mad tribe of Zulu attacked and attacked and attacked. The good old boys from the Merseyside were valorous, dying in gritty, noble close-ups. They lined up in disciplined lines. They fired, reloaded, and fired into waves of brown- and black-skinned Zulus who in broad daylight served themselves up as cannon fodder. Except for close-ups of the scowling Zulu king, Shaka, the Africans were photographed in a distant, impersonal manner. The Zulus were bodies; the British soldiers had faces.
As a child, I very much wanted to root for the folks who looked like me. But the film's visual strategy left little room for anything but the mildest racial identification. Leaving the afternoon matinee you best believe the kids were not imitating the Zulus' tactic of running headlong into gunfire, but those redcoated Brits pulling triggers under a bloody sun. Though blue was my favorite color, I remember getting a red baseball cap just so I could connect with the cinematic heroism of that valiant company. After all, the Zulu may have been brown skinned, but they were African, and I was a Negro.
Or was I a monkey? Negro or monkey seemed to be the options presented by
Planet of the Apes
, which I saw at the Olympic with some friends when I was ten. We planted ourselves in the back row, popcorn piled as high as we could afford, and watched Charlton Heston, truly the white man's white man, try to make sense of a world where the master race were slaves and the monkeys were running things.
Since a typical Brownsville insult was “You a monkey-faced motherfucker,” the idea of a world controlled by primates who treated whitey like crap raised a number of interesting questions. If you accepted being called a monkey, by friend or foe, was
Planet of the Apes
a vindication? If you didn't accept being called a monkey and remained a Negro, did the film mean you wouldn't exist in the future, since Negroes were scarce (a black astronaut arrived from the past with Heston but was quickly stuffed and mounted by the apes as an artifact of a bygone era). If you identified with the apes because your nose or forehead betrayed some simian origins, did that mean you felt the desire to enslave whites? Finally, if you did identify with the apes, did you dare tell your friends?
I didn't think all of this when I was ten, but the questions buzzed around in my head for years after seeing
. This kind of socio-political mulling was a big reason there were so many sequels to the original film.
was so sixties in its concerns, so smart about race and power, that the civil rights movement, nationalism, and every other “ism” of the time could be contained in its sci-fi universe.
My fellow ticket holders in the Olympic made it clear what side they were on by yelling for the apes to lobotomize Heston. Many were pleasantly surprised when, at the film's end, a fractured Statue of Liberty was stuck in the sand, to Heston's horror. There was a general “that's what these fools deserve” feeling as we all exited out into Pitkin. Maybe if some brothers and sisters had been alive during the film, my neighbors would have cut Heston some slack. But Hollywood didn't give black folks love, so we didn't need to give any either.
Looking back, the funny thing to me is still Heston. The “no gun control,” neocon stud, who'd played that most Jewish of Jews, Moses, in
The Ten Commandments
, was the last white man left. The significance of Heston in that role sure wasn't lost on the filmmakers and publicity flacks. But all I knew for sure was that Heston didn't look a bit like any of the remaining Jewish merchants on Pitkin Avenue.