I wasn’t raised color blind. I knew there were people with different skin tones. Okay, I was pasty white. Everybody had a different skin tone than I. But I knew that black people lived in the Projects down by Jamaica Bay. White folks lived there too, I was recently surprised to learn, including the man who one day would be CEO of Starbucks. I did know one black family who lived in a predominantly Jewish part of Canarsie. For a year in junior high their son and I palled around, hanging out in one another’s homes. I think his parents had moved there from Jamaica or someplace.
The 93rd Street Gang were as racist as anyone else in the 60s, and the names we called each other—names we’d never use today—reflected that. If you were black… well, we’d have used a word beginning with N. If you were Puerto Rican you were a spic. Toody Marciano and Jerry Lombardi were wops. One day, gang members Billy Walker (mom from Puerto Rico), Susan Sullivan (Irish), and Toody were walking side by side ahead of the rest of us. Soon those in the rear, me included, started chanting, “Spicmickwop” over and over. Kids are cruel, but we loved each other.
We didn’t really know many black kids. The Alcantaras were dark-skinned, but they were Puerto Rican, like Billy Walker. If a black family had moved into the new houses put up in the vacant lot next door to my house, instead of the Romanos (wops), and had kids our age, they’d have probably gotten into the gang just like Mary Romano did.
The biggest difference I saw between blacks and whites in Canarsie was economic. Blacks lived in the Projects. The apartments were smaller than the half-houses my friends lived in. It wasn’t the ghetto Elvis sang about, the Projects, but it wasn’t like my neighborhood either.
In the winter of 1961 I learned there were worse places to be black than Canarsie.
John graduated from Brooklyn Tech in 1960. After three days as a chemical engineering major at City College of New York, he left academia for good and joined the U.S. Marines, heading to Parris Island, South Carolina for boot camp.
Boot camp was everything one might expect. Not long ago, when prepping for a role in the play, A Few Good Men, I asked John what boot camp was like in the Marines. He said, “Did you ever see the movie Full Metal Jacket? That’s what it was like.”
Mom, Pop, their friends Madelyn and Mervin, and I went to South Carolina for John’s graduation. Road trips always meant a crowd for my family. I guess if a car wasn’t full it wasn’t worth wasting the gas. After Parris Island we headed for Daytona Beach, Florida.
Before long we were in the Deep South. In 1961. Somewhere on US 501 I had to go to the bathroom, probably when Pop stopped for gas, maybe sooner. We pulled into a gas station, and I jumped out of the 1960 Ford Fairlane. I ran to pee and stopped cold.
Before me stood the doors to two men’s rooms: one was pristine, white, shiny; the other had peeling paint over rotting gray wood. Mine, at least I hoped it was mine, said MEN. The other said COLORED. Weird, I thought.
After ridding myself of the last bit of fluid, I needed to replenish. I looked for a water fountain and found two. Again, the clean porcelain of one—unmarked—contrasted with the brown and green stained bowl of the other, marked COLORED. Enjoying my privilege, I drank from the nice one.
That night, in a motel with a Magic Fingers vibrating bed (25 cents), I asked Pop about the water fountains. I’d like to say he told me how wrong they, and the bathrooms, were; but I just can’t remember. I know they bothered him. I also suspect they didn’t surprise him. I’m sure he knew life was like that only 600 miles from Canarsie. Was it like that in Canarsie? I don’t remember, which may mean it was.
But maybe there was hope, at least in little bits.
All the kids at Grace Church called Pop “Uncle Artie.” It wasn’t that special. “Uncle” and “Aunt” were terms of respect used by children of all their elders at Grace.
I remember one Saturday when Mom and Pop and I were shopping at the Bohack supermarket on Avenue K, about where what used to be Canarsie High School sits now. We neared the checkout when a little black kid came running full tilt down the produce aisle. It was Curtis, whose family occasionally attended Grace Church.
“Uncle Artie! Uncle Artie,” Curtis joyously shouted for all to hear as he jumped full body into my father’s arms. White folks’ eyes fastened on Pop from all over the store. Pop didn’t put Curtis on the sawdust-lined floor until he’d given him the biggest hug ever.
I wish it were all so simple.
Did you go to summer camp when you were a kid? I’ll share my camp experience in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.