Episode Four: The Man Upstairs
Isaac was—literally—the man upstairs. He was a distant relative of Mom’s who lived in the upper story of our formerly-one-family farmhouse. Yes, I grew up in a farmhouse in Brooklyn. We had a barn where Isaac parked his car, a chicken coop without chickens, a woodpile but no fireplace, and two grape arbors. One summer Pop even plowed up the backyard and planted row after row of sweet corn. It tasted good with lots of butter and salt.
Isaac ruled his side of the yard with a rod of iron. With the exception of Mom and Pop being allowed to drive through his gate, across his concrete “apron,” and into our garage—next to his barn—we, mostly meaning my brother and I, were not to set foot in Isaac’s half-yard.
Isaac wasn’t too crazy about kids playing in our side of the yard either. He’d complain to Mom about our ball games in the backyard (when there wasn’t corn) and our war games against the evil alien bush that possessed our front yard. We were too noisy. I ask you, how can one not be noisy when trying to rescue your best friend from the grasp of a crazed shrub from Planet X?
And then there was the street. Streets in Canarsie were our playgrounds. You could get mugged in a park, but the streets were safe for playing touch football, punchball, and roller hockey. Isaac, however, laid claim to the part of East 93rd Street that ran past our house. I couldn’t count the times Isaac would open his bedroom window, stick half his body through it, and swear at us for playing too loudly. We loved it. When you’re twelve there’s nothing more satisfying than getting a guy in his seventies all riled up.
While we neighborhood kids might have given Isaac valid reasons for hating us, his animosity toward my parents went deeper. I recently learned why, and at the same time learned just how poor my family was during my childhood.
Mom’s mom was a housekeeper. She worked for a Mrs. Matthews who owned the property at 1304 East 93rd Street. When World War II came along, my recently married mom and dad moved to Albany and took my grandmother with them. As often as possible they would return to Brooklyn with my toddling brother to check on Mrs. Matthews. While in Albany, Grandma died. After the war, Pop’s job in Albany ended and they wanted to move back downstate.
For a while Mom, Pop, and John lived in an apartment so small you could touch both walls at the same time. By1952, when Mom was pregnant with me, larger quarters were needed.
The downstairs at 1304 was vacant, and out of respect for Grandma, Mrs. Matthews let the Baisleys live there at greatly reduced rent. The owner, her brother Charlie, and her nephew Isaac, remained in the five rooms upstairs.
Over time, Charlie got sick, and Mom served as his primary caregiver until he died. She did the same for Mrs. Matthews, preparing meals and generally looking after her and Isaac. Eventually, Mrs. Matthews died as well. Isaac, for whom Mom had also cooked and cleaned, looked forward to inheriting the entire house and raising the rent, effectively forcing Mom and Pop out.
Mrs. Matthews had other plans. Mom and Grandma, who had served her so long and so well, received their unexpected reward. Mrs. Matthews left the property to Mom, but there was one stipulation: the Isaac clause.
So, if I ever needed to know the wrath of the man upstairs, all I needed to do was shout or hit a ball or trespass onto his side of the yard. In the Bible, one of the words for sin has to do with overstepping a boundary: forgive us our trespasses. To trespass against Isaac brought immediate judgment from the man upstairs.
While I lived in constant fear of Isaac’s wrath, at least he was someone a kid could get away from. More difficult was living in the shadow of the man downstairs—my dad. Don’t get me wrong, John Arthur Baisley II might have been the best father who ever lived, but he was also a very public churchman.
Pop served on Grace Church’s “Official Board.” Yes, that’s really what they called it. They weren’t elders or deacons, Ministry and Oversight, or Session. They were a board and they governed officially: the Official Board. Sometimes Pop chaired the board, and sometimes he served as vice-chair or secretary. I can’t recall him ever not sitting on the board although I remember him on many nights coming home late from a meeting wishing he had never seen the inside of a church.
Along with his board membership, Pop taught one of the adult Sunday school classes and sang in the choir. He also sang first tenor in a gospel quartet, the Grace Gospelaires, a ministry he truly enjoyed for 30 years. Hitting those high notes in The Happy Jubilee made him somewhat of a legend among local believers. The Gospelaires sang at churches throughout the greater New York area. Once a month they led the Monday night service at the Bowery Mission in Manhattan.
I remember how excited I was, as a boy of maybe thirteen, when Pop invited me to ride along to the Bowery with the quartet. This was the big time. This wasn’t just singing background for a chalk artist on the Island (meaning Long Island, pronounced lawng-GUY-lind), this was the City!
That night I sat in the front row as the Gospelaires performed their set. I was so proud when Pop sang his solo, Frederick Lehman’s The Love of God. I turned in my seat to look at the group of men who’d wandered in off the street for a warm seat and a hot meal. A few slept soundly. A couple more joked between themselves. No one seemed to care that my dad was pouring out his heart on their behalf. On the ride home I asked Pop if he ever got upset about that. “They’re not the only ones we’re singing for,” he replied.
Pop was a public Christian. He seldom received pay for his ministry, but he was well known for his music and comedy, often accepting requests to emcee local wedding receptions. I grew up as the “little Baisley boy.” Believe me, when the little Baisley boy went to the altar at Rally Day, everybody knew it.
My life changed almost overnight. I recall feeling more accountable for my behavior, like I wasn’t being cut the amount of slack I’d known before. I felt a hundred pair of eyes watching me every minute. You’ve got to remember that to the best of my knowledge my only sins were disobeying my parents and briefly stealing one bubble gum. Suddenly I was a “born again” Christian and the bar reached new heights.
Maybe it was just a feeling. Maybe not. A few years later I was a preteen trying to live up to my calling. A younger boy whose family occasionally attended our church was running rampant through the sanctuary after a Sunday service, during a fellowship dinner or some such event. I tried to get him to stop, but he ran past me, knocked something over, and yelled for his mommy. Mommy ran in, looked over the situation, glared at me and pulled her boy away. “Stay away from him,” she warned her little angel of me, “He doesn’t know the Lord.”
And there I was, back at square one. Being the little Baisley boy couldn’t save me. Praying a prayer with an evangelist at Rally Day might have had some effect on my eternal destiny, but I lived in Canarsie. The streets had recently been repaved but not with gold. If I really didn’t know the Lord, and at least one adult in Grace Church believed I didn’t, then who was I? Not long after, the Animals recorded their cover of the Nina Simone song, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. From the moment I first heard it on WABC radio, probably spun by Cousin Brucie Morrow, I had my life’s theme song.
Next episode: how growing up surrounded by Jewish and Catholic neighbors heightened my sense of guilt but taught me to appreciate "gelt."
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