As a young child, I had no idea that my neighborhood was dangerous. I lived on the seventh floor of a high rise apartment building, where everything was brand new. My parents, sister Pearl, and I had moved in in the fall of 1955. The postwar apartment situation in NYC was not good: people were flocking to Manhattan, and there was a definite shortage of places to live. When I was born, in Beth Israel Hospital on 14th St., my family was living on the beautifully-named Shakespeare Avenue, in the Bronx. They heard that the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) had built a series of cooperative apartment buildings on Grand St. in the old Lower East Side, but that the union rank-and-file had downright refused to move into the complex which their union had built with such care and concern for their wellbeing.
“We spent years of our lives working hard and saving money so we could leave the Old Neighborhood,” said the union members, “and we’re not about to move back down there!”
And so ILGWU, to recoup their investment, made the apartments available for the general public. My parents leapt at the chance to leave their tiny apartment in the Bronx, especially since my father had grown up on Hester St., and my mother came from the distinctly tonier section of town, Gramercy Park.
At first glance, the buildings were, indeed, majestic, modern, and well-planned. We took a five-and-a-half-room apartment, meaning that my parents had their own bathroom off their bedroom, and Pearl and I shared the other. The buildings had a lovely courtyard between them, with benches for sitting, and there was also a playground near the parking lot. Hardly anyone kept a car in the city, and my parents didn’t drive, so the parking lot held just a few cars.
I was a dreamy luftmensch of a child, more fascinated by books than real life. Once I mastered my first book—an original edition of The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss, there was no stopping me. Athletics did not interest me in the slightest, and this concerned my parents. They bought me a bright-red Rollfast bike with footbrakes, and I was fine toodling around on my training wheels. Only when my father secretly loosened them, and they told me they were broken and had to be removed, was I forced to learn to ride a two-wheeler.
But then, there was the business of the skates. My sister Pearl had a beat-up old pair, but she was well-able to scoot around the courtyard, while I jealously watched from a nearby bench. It was therefore a wonderful surprise when my parents gifted me with a pair of beautiful junior skates, shiny and new, complete with skate key, which I wore on a string around my neck, in the proper New York manner. The skates had bright-yellow-painted hubs, and were clearly superior to Pearl’s beat-up old ones. It was good to be the son, as well as the baby of the family.
The main problem was that there was no one to teach me how to skate: I was on my own. And so, determined to teach myself, I took my skates in hand and rode the elevator—by myself!—down to the courtyard. I plunked myself down on a bench; a few determined turns of the skate key, and my skates were on my feet. I was ready to begin.
Alas, my sense of balance went completely awry—when I would be concentrating on my left foot, my right foot would slide off on its own, and it was only by determinedly holding onto a bench, that I could avoid falling. This happened several times.
Finally, I sat down, and removed the troublesome skates. The yellow hubs winked in the bright sunlight, as if they were mocking me. I leaned back on the bench, and flexed my tired ankles. Things were not going well, but I was dead set on resuming my skating lessons, only after waiting a few minutes to rest and re-group.
Suddenly, they stood there before me—three Hispanic boys, about my age. They looked at me, and they looked at my skates. I was startled, and froze: whatever adrenaline flowed through my veins was inciting me to neither fight nor flight: I couldn’t fight them—my chubby little fists wouldn’t make much of an impression. And they had me boxed in on the bench, so I couldn’t flee, either. I sat, and held my skates in my lap, limply grasping the leather straps.
One of the boys grabbed at one skate, and I let him have it. It was as though my hands were numb, and I couldn’t resist. Instead, I watched him dart off, running through the gate of the courtyard which bore the twin pinetree logo of the Co-Op Corporation, founded to encourage peace, love, and fellowship among human beings. Within its humanistic embrace, I was being mugged by my fellow men.
One of the remaining boys smiled at me—his teeth gleamed in the morning sun: “Give me the other skate,” he said, “And I’ll get the first one back for you.”
My mind could not respond, not even to point out the illogic of this statement. Instead, I held out the remaining skate, like a peace offering: Here, take my skate, Mysterious Other; only don’t hurt me. He snatched it from my hands, and he and the remaining boy raced off, laughing, their mocking shouts echoing off the buildings surrounding the courtyard.
My skates were gone; they had been stolen; I, seven years old, white, urban, Jewish, had been mugged. I sat sadly on the bench for a split-second, while the tears welled up in my eyes, and then I took the elevator upstairs to my apartment to tell my parents.
They were shocked. My father, angry at how his progeny was unable to defend either himself or his property, grabbed my hand, and we pounded down the stairs. Without hesitating, he and I plunged into the Heart of Darkness, the depths of the Vladeck Houses, the city housing project next door—that is, across the parking lot, which functioned as a sort of demilitarized zone for the neighborhood, separating us fancy Jews and Italians from the blacks and Hispanics who made their homes there.
I remember being frightened, but also amazed and impressed at how my father ran us both through the playgrounds, courtyards, and warrens of the project buildings. At one point, Dad grabbed a skinny little Hispanic kid by the arm, and demanded from me, “Are these the skates? Did this kid steal your skates?” No; that was not the boy. His skates were battered and scraped from long use against the pavement; my disappeared pair had been shiny and new, with yellow hubs. They were, of course, nowhere to be found.
My father was still angry, but we were forced to give up the search. I admired how he had single-mindedly penetrated into the most dangerous place in the neighborhood, but his fury could not but abate. The skates were gone, vanished.
This was my introduction to the race question in my neighborhood, and in New York City. No longer could I believe my neighborhood to be safe; no, not in the slightest. It was a harsh greeting to the conditions which would mold my street smarts in the years to come, as I learned to walk the streets, and, later, ride the buses and subways of my much-loved city. Black people were called by a harsh Yiddish epithet, the “s-word,” and Hispanics were all lumped together as “Porto Ricans (sic).” Thankfully, I was never mugged; once, I was shaken down for a quarter, but I got off easy, compared to stories we heard from our neighbors. And I did carry a small can of pepper spray in my pocket when I rode the subway to high school and, later, college.
It has taken me many years to try to take people as individuals, not as members of a racial or ethnic group. I am still working on myself in this way, and will never fully complete the job. I am grateful to all of my students; I have learned far more from them than I can ever hope to repay. And it all began with a pair of skates.