Note: After last week’s entry (“What are you?”) several people shared their experiences with race and ethnicity. I invited them to write them up to share on the blog. Gary, my husband, took me up on the offer. One of the things that Gary and I bonded over when we first met was talking about our experiences growing up in similar neighborhoods – he was just east of JFK airport, while I was just west of it. Here is his story – in his words. Thanks, Gary.
I wanted to share a story about my favorite bicycle. I was in seventh grade when this happened and to me it encapsulates so much about racial issues growing up in New York City in the early 1970’s. At that time, the neighborhood I grew up in, Rosedale, was much like Canarsie. It was largely Italian and Irish and Jewish. There were no African-Americans in our part of the neighborhood.
Later on, when I was in high school that would change. The first black families moved in and were greeted with rocks thrown through their windows, their garbage dumped out on their lawns and their children harassed. Back then, I didn’t grasp how those families tolerated such racism and abuse. Why would they stay in Rosedale when they were met with such hostility?
But now I understand that those brave people were standing up for their right to live in that neighborhood just like anyone else had the right to. Eventually, that story was the focus of a PBS special report by Bill Moyers (you can find it on YouTube). And, I must say, my Catholic neighbors were particularly vehement in their racism and use of the N-word.
But let’s get to my story. Rosedale was divided by Brookfield Park. On one side of the park, everyone was white. On the other side, the neighborhood was nearly entirely black. The park itself was everyman’s land. Blacks and whites both used the park, and then retreated to their side of the divide.
Along with a group of my friends, I would bike to the park on weekends. We would put on helmets and shoulder pads and play tackle football on a grass/dirt field and then we would bike back to our homes about a mile away. On one particular weekend day, we had just finished playing and we all got on our bicycles and started to head home.
I really loved my bicycle. It was a five-speed Schwinn lemon peeler. It even had shock absorbers. It was heavy and slow but it was cool and was perhaps the best gift I had ever received as a kid.
As I started to ride, I realized I had left my helmet behind. I should have called out to the other kids to wait for me but I figured I would grab the helmet and catch up to them quickly.
That turned out to be a terrible decision. As I picked up the helmet, a large, older black kid pushed me off the bike and started to pedal away towards the black part of the neighborhood. I ran after him for no logical reason. I couldn’t catch him on foot, even if the bike was slow. And I surely could not physically take on this clearly older, bigger and stronger person.
Eventually, I walked home, embarrassed, and reported the theft to my family. My brother Steve said we should go back to the park the following weekend and see if we could find the kid on the bike. I thought that was worthless because nobody could be stupid enough to go back there so soon after stealing the bike. And, once again, I was wrong.
I was in the park playing football with my friends and my brother was walking around the park and spotted a kid who fit the general description on a bike that obviously had been repainted but otherwise seemed like it could be mine. Steve engaged the kid in a conversation and walked him over to where we were playing. Upon seeing him on my bike, the football players surrounded the kid. He said he had to go and my brother said, “You aren’t going anywhere.”
This was well before cellphones and I went running over to my Aunt Sophie’s house nearby and called the police. They drove up in a patrol car and one of the two officers asked me if I wanted to press charges. I said no – I just wanted my bike back. So he gave me the bicycle. And he got into the back seat of the car with the kid. The other officer started driving the car away.
I will never forget what I witnessed as that car pulled away from us. The police officer in the back seat took out his baton and started beating the kid. It was horrible. It was brutal. It was surely criminal. And yet it was the police – law enforcement itself – doing it.
It took three cleanings with turpentine to get down to the original paint job but eventually my lemon peeler turned yellow again.
I thought I would never see that kid again, but I was wrong yet one more time.
The following Monday, as I got out of school, Junior High School 231, he was there, waiting for me with a look of hatred in his eyes. It was clear that he was intent on revenge for the beating he had been subjected to. To be fair, he had no reason to be angry with me. He stole my bike. And I didn’t tell the cops to beat him up. But, he surely couldn’t take his anger out on the police, so I was the only choice.
He ran after me and I faked right and cut left and got past him and ran onto the Rosedale bus. That was the only bus he could not get on. It was full of white people. While boys are supposed to deal with their own issues, I realized this was not someone I could fight. I told my parents what had happened and they went to the school and told school officials.
The next day, when I got out of school, the kid was there again and ran towards me. But the dean grabbed him as soon as he moved. And I never saw that kid again. I must add that the dean was also black.
Racial overtones run throughout this story. And no side is innocent. The racism ran both ways but the white people ultimately had the power, in this case in the form of the police. Surely economics were part of the issue too. The blacks in our small part of southeastern Queens were living in poorer and less safe neighborhoods.
But still, race was the clear and obvious divide. How much have things changed? Surely the N-word is no longer acceptable to say in public. And surely we could not have elected an African American president then. But just as surely, we have many issues left to deal with and a substantial divide still separating us.