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Authors: Nelson George

Tags: #Non-Fiction

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BOOK: City Kid
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Junior, Gary, Dan, and I purchased our comic books at one of three newsstands/candy stores located in the shadow of the Rockaway Avenue elevated subway station. They were probably originally owned by Jews, serving the population that dominated Brownsville before public housing. By the sixties they were manned by Arabs. They could have been Egyptian, Syrian, or from Iraq, but those niceties of Middle Eastern ethnicity were beyond us. All we knew was that they were swarthy, pronounced English with an accent, and were quite clannish in that they rarely employed folks from the surrounding community.
The comics were racked in neat rows along the walls opposite the cashier, right alongside
True Confessions
Reader's Digest
Bronze Thrills
, and other pulpy pastime reading. It was at these newsstands that my allegiance to the moral code of Captain America was sorely tested. As the price of comics rose from ten cents, when I started collecting, to twelve and fifteen cents, the pressure on my weekly allowance increased.
So did the peer pressure to shoplift. Over time the comic collectors in Tilden developed a number of techniques. The more advanced could roll a comic into cylinder and slide it up their sleeve, either next to their arm or around it. The more typical move was to slide it flat against their stomach and right down their pants, flipping their shirt over their ill-gotten booty. At various times all my friends copped a comic or two, saving twenty-four cents that could be used toward a Mr. Softee cone or baseball cards.
I'd been afraid to shoplift, afraid of being caught fleeing across Rockaway Avenue to the safety of the projects across the street, of being arrested and, even worse, forced to face my mother's disappointment. But one day money was low, and the new Captain America was out, and a major battle with the Red Skull was under way. So at the urging of my friends, and propelled by my desire, I stood with two friends as we all slid one or two comics down into our Lee jeans. We were spotted by one of the Arab dudes behind the counter and made a mad dash for the exit, dodging people buying newspapers, kids with candy, and slow-walking pedestrians. I was well out into the middle of the street when I heard one of the Arab guys yell, “Hey, you stop!” and, as if grabbed by my shoulders, I jerked still.
My friends kept going, reaching the block of our projects, while I froze, and then turned to face the young shopkeeper, quietly handing over Captain America. I was really at his mercy. He could have had me arrested, or called my mother, or both. Instead he simply took the comic book from me, leaving me in the middle of Rockaway Avenue to stew in my embarrassment and the ridicule of my friends, clutching their “free” comics and laughing. Clearly crime was not a career option.
Comic books were also our link to the rapidly disappearing white families of the Tilden projects. When we first moved in, there were whites sprinkled throughout all the buildings. The public housing authority, apparently sensitive to the race question, clearly had put more Puerto Ricans, blacks, and whites in certain buildings, in some effort to create a community, I guess. There was a white family right next door to us in 1961. But as the sixties moved on, they began to flee.
The last white family I knew of lived at the end of the projects, down by Rockaway Avenue. The son had a sweet comics collection, and I remember Junior and me going to visit him to offer some in trade. I remember him cracking open the door suspiciously, though we'd seen him at the candy store many times. He had dirty blond hair and a milky white complexion. We'd heard some rumor that he'd been beaten up recently, though I saw no evidence of it on his face. But clearly he wasn't interested in trading, he wasn't going to let us in, and he sure wasn't coming out. Within weeks he, his family, and his comic books were gone. That kid was the last white boy I remember living in the Tilden projects.
We all took great pride in our collections, which were usually stored in discarded milk crates or cardboard boxes that had contained canned foods at the local supermarket. Junior was fanatical about
, and kept his comics in pristine condition, like he knew that one day they'd be worth real money. The man had copies of early editions of his favorites, which he kept in plastic bags. My collection was never that choice or well maintained, partly due to having to squeeze them in a closet crammed with my sister's and my toys and clothes. But, to be honest, while I loved the comics (and all my other stuff), neatness never counted much to me.
On the weekends, when we didn't have our heads in comic books, we went looking for fun outside the neighborhood. Together the four of us, along with whoever else had carfare, would hop the train at Rockaway Avenue and ride to the Deuce (aka, Forty Deuce, aka Times Square, aka Forty-second Street), to the strip of theaters between Seventh and Eighth avenues, an hour-plus ride, where we'd compare notes on fly-ass
Soul Train
dancers and relate the latest tale of a mother being mugged on a stairwell. The deeper into Manhattan the “iron horse” rode (our nickname for the subway), the fewer black faces came aboard. Four loud, boisterous black boys drew anxious glances and steely glares from other riders.
We'd emerge from the subterranean station into Forty-second Street's urban blightscape: the tawdry glow of crumbling old theaters; noisy-clanging-beeping pinball arcades; greasy luncheonettes; and cheap-looking hookers. But that didn't faze us, 'cause we had an appointment to meet with the kings of Forty-second Street. Their names loomed large on the marquees of the Harris, the Selwyn, the Amsterdam, and the other movie houses of the Deuce. After paying $3.50 we'd pay homage to the only black superheroes we knew (outside of the Black Panther): Richard “Shaft” Roundtree, Fred “the Hammer” Williamson, Jim “Slaughter” Brown, Jim “Black Belt” Kelly, and, of course, the queen, Pam “Coffy” Grier.
From the sticky floors of the orchestra or a smelly balcony, we spent the afternoon cheering car chases, ogling busty women in distress, and savoring dialogue laced with “fools,” “suckas,” and “muthafuckas.” In their multicolored bell-bottoms and two-toned platform shoes, they wore threads that freed them to live as large and insolently as we all dreamed of being one day.
Underscoring the cursing and the revenge-fixated plots were the chicken scratch of guitars, the percolating polyrhythms of congas and bongos, and the wailing of soul singers about “a bad brother” ready to “take down the man.” Sometimes, when the movie was really bad (as in “not good”) and the scent of cheeba induced a contact high, I'd close my eyes and let the great soundtracks of that era fill me up. After the credits rolled, it was back onto the Deuce for hot dogs at Nedick's on the corner of Forty-second and Seventh Avenue (where Shaft ate) before we boarded the train back to Brooklyn. On the way home we'd reenact our favorite scenes, quote choice dialogue, and hope we'd have enough money for carfare and another movie next Saturday.
This mix of comics and blaxploitation movies (later augmented by Bruce Lee and kung fu flicks) was, along with sports, the fuel for our daydreams. Perhaps because Dan and I were the least athletically gifted of the quartet, we ended up extending our fantasy lives longer than Junior and Gary. I remember we had an ongoing game in which we were astronauts in outer space who encountered a beautiful Russian cosmonaut on a regular basis. I've forgotten her name now, but she was our space-age love interest for a couple of summers.
As we grew older I stayed closer to Dan than I did to Junior and Gary. I still have these great pictures of us at Junior's in downtown Brooklyn, munching pickles in our good suits the day we graduated from P.S. 189. But we went to different junior high schools, and grew apart bit by bit. Moreover, Dan, perhaps because he was always being picked on in the Ville, felt freer to step outside the cultural boxes we then all lived in.
While we were all grooving to the Temptations' “Psychedelic Shack” and Al Green ballads, Dan started sporting a bandana, and he put a Jimi Hendrix poster over his bed. He was listening to “Purple Haze” back when no one around the way knew who Jimi was. No self-respecting black music head today wouldn't anoint Hendrix a god, yet in the early seventies the conventional wisdom was that he played “white-boy music,” that Jimi had no relevance to “black is beautiful,” or to the funky grooves rocked at neighborhood house parties. Dan, however, stuck to his guns. Embracing Hendrix in a black ghetto circa the early seventies was raising your freak flag high. It was stating that you were an individual and didn't give a damn who judged you.
Still, the real shocker was yet to come. One afternoon Dan came up from the fifth floor and knocked on my door. It was after school, so I was working on my homework, glad to be distracted. We sat down in the living room, and I put on some 45s and listened as Dan told me he was a “gay,” which was a relatively new term in the lexicon of sexuality, but I quickly figured out what he meant.
His tone was downcast and subdued, as if he knew this would change our relationship, but he didn't shy away from the consequences. It was really brave of Dan to tell me this. I know that now. I didn't then. My mind leaped back to all the times we'd hung out, to our years of friendship, and then forward to the present, fearing that for years Dan had been secretly lusting after me.
Not long afterward, Gary's family moved out of the Tilden projects, and Junior started dating a Jehovah's Witness girl he'd later marry. Childhood was over. But Dan's confession (or realization) took a natural evolution and pushed the ending into hyperdrive. I spoke to him after that afternoon, but not very often, and not for very long. I don't know what happened to my comic book collection. I believe my mother did what mothers have always done and, at some point, tossed them out when I was at school. Even before that I had started giving them away, keeping a bare minimum, so that when they finally disappeared I didn't really care enough to complain. All I know for sure is, as with Dan, one day I stopped hanging out with Captain America.
BK '69
On a humid summer day in 1969 I sat in the cafeteria of Brooklyn's Alexander Hamilton High School as James Brown's “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine” flowed out of several transistor radios. I watched a girl with Afro puffs dance with a lanky dude in a red mesh tank top and Lee jeans. As Brown rapped, “Get uppa! Get on up! Get uppa! Get on up!” I sipped the last drop of milk from my pint carton and got up to go to my last class of the hot day.
I wasn't in summer school, but was participating in one of the lingering Great Society programs from Lyndon Johnson's presidency. It was called Model Cities, and it enabled “at-risk kids” (meaning someone black and young from the projects) to get paid a stipend for attending economic enrichment classes. Model Cities was on its last legs in the first term of Richard Nixon, doomed by GOP budget slashing and wasteful administrators, and, as the dancing in the cafeteria suggests, not everyone in the program was diligent about his scholarship.
In its defense I offer this: That hot day helped change one black boy's life for the better. In an airless, mostly empty classroom our instructor, a soul brother in his mid-twenties with a bushy Afro and a mustache to match, sat on the edge of his desk and held up the
New York Post
, the
New York Times
, and the
Daily News
. Back then the
was a liberal newspaper with a great sports section, the
Daily News
was a tabloid with the best funny papers and a policy of reporting a Negro felony every Sunday on page five, and the
was a huge, unwieldy contraption that was rarely available at ghetto candy stands.
My hip instructor did a very simple yet profound thing: He read the accounts of a single bank robbery as it was reported in all three New York dailies. In the
the crime was buried inside in a single column, and was told in the “who, what, where, when” tradition of objective journalism. In the
the story was near the front, and was highlighted with a bold black headline. In the
Daily News
it was on the bottom of page three, with a thick, blocky headline, a racy subhead, and a lead that was in a larger type than the rest of the article. As I remember, the
Daily News
story had fewer facts than the
or the
, but did seem more lively than the other, more sedate, reports.
By pointing out the political ideology that underscored each paper's editorial policy, this smart soul brother gave me my first lesson in media literacy. I was already interested in writing, but I had never heard anyone break down the many ways in which information was shaped by media bias. I remember that lesson like it happened yesterday—and it informs my thinking to this day. Thank you, President Johnson.
As a single cutie who loved music and parties, my mother met many men in the sixties and seventies. Black cops in particular seemed to like her. She dated two that I remember: an uptight light-skinned dude named Arnold, who was the first black in his precinct, and was intensely conflicted about his job; and Ben, a big, brown, easygoing gent, who used to stop by our house for bowls of soup on winters' nights when he was supposed to be patrolling Brownsville's mean streets.
Not all the men who stopped by apartment 6C were boyfriends. Post-Nelson Elmer, Ma built a network of relationships with men who became surrogate big brothers, men she could count on, who became role models for me and possible boyfriends for her girlfriends. In the midsixties she befriended a group of groovy guys called the Afrodisiacs 3, who promoted parties. They were all tall, lean, cool as the other side of the pillow, and wore shades as comfortably as tigers wear stripes.
BOOK: City Kid
9.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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