By Hector V. Lino, Jr.
Long ago when I was 10, I had trembled with fear and anticipation the first time I stood behind the checkout counter in the local A&P supermarket on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. I was determined to earn my own money. I wanted to buy my own clothes and avoid the embarrassment of wearing the no-brand fashions my mother’s pocketbook was so fond of. I freelanced on Friday nights, offering to help shoppers carry their groceries home. I studied the faces before I chose, looking for shoppers who appeared like they might be generous tippers.
On Sunday mornings, I delivered the Sunday newspapers to about twelve customers who had prepaid the Greensteins, an old, Jewish couple who were the kindly, unofficial grandparents to everybody in this New York neighborhood. They owned the single neighborhood candy store. And they trusted me to deliver the papers before 9 a.m. I was never late for the job, which earned about three to five dollars for about an hour’s work. Across the street from the Greensteins, where I picked up my dozen papers each Sunday morning, was Woodlawn Cemetery. It was a place of supreme quiet except for the occasional sounds of men working the grounds.
To walk along the cemetery to school was forbidden by the school’s principal (why, I never knew). Each day I took the cemetery route, partially hidden by the parked cars that almost obscured the dirt path adjacent to the cemetery’s tall, dark encircling fence. I walked alone with the stony silence of the headstones and mausoleums magnified by the clang and buzz of workmen there; there was also the talkative choir of voices in my head that was silent to all others. I enjoyed the peace of being alone with my thoughts. I talked to myself about being Superman or Zorro, about flying off to save lives in a burning building or riding my great black stallion down Gun Hill Road amid admiring pedestrians who would, because of my heroic reputation, ask, “Who was that masked man?”
My Bronx neighborhood in the late 1950s was a mixture of lower-middle-class Jews with a sprinkling of Irish and Italians trying to make better lives for themselves. Usually, the old men sat, during warm weather, in folding chairs, sharing stories of their youth in front of the reddish-brown World War II-era, brick apartment buildings. Of the five Black families that lived in this community, mine was the only family of color that owned its own home. The rest lived in basement apartments of the buildings for which their fathers served as superintendents.
During warm months, stickball brought all the neighborhood kids to 213th Street. Just the promise of the game charged the air with the electricity of our desires to win, to win at something, to win at anything. The neighborhood boys waited with anxiety alive in their faces for the game to begin. The elevated train tracks for the No. 4 train and Van Cortlandt Park’s fenced-in golf course framed the western end of the street. On the eastern end was Bainbridge Avenue and Woodlawn Cemetery.
The field of play was three sewers, two city blocks, from home plate to the golf-course fence. Nobody had ever hit a ball over that fence. It was what we all lived for. It was what we secretly promised ourselves we would, one day, do. Kids from the neighborhood came to be chosen to play or to watch the game played before them. Their faces were expressions of impatience; they looked eagerly at the team captains making their selections before the game. I was often picked first, and I felt sparks of resentment from the kids who envied my status in the game. I could catch almost anything, so I always played.
Talk of the civil rights movement, during the late fifties, had traveled to the Bronx via the New York Post, the The New York Daily News and TV news. I cannot imagine that the talk of race – the challenge of thousands of Black sit-ins, demonstrations and demands for equality – hadn’t been voiced around the dinner table of the white families and had reached the white kids with whom I played stickball. I think that caused them to both like and fear me. Most liked me because I was good at the game. Many feared me because I was a Negro and whatever their parents had told them about “what Negroes might do.”
During the late ’50s, there was a knot of white fear, prejudice and ignorance – even from those living as close as across the street. That materialized in them not extending any invitations to me for the after-game pizza parties, or any parties they might have for that matter. But with the approach of the 1960s, it was time for my resentments to grow and fester. I hated the way I was being treated. It was all because of my color, and there was nothing I could do about it. In time, it would be the reason why I left the neighborhood and traveled to Harlem and the South Bronx to be with other people of color … people who looked more like me and looked upon the world more like I did.
The rejection always happened at the end of a game. As the teams dispersed, a group of players congealed near home plate. They talked about buying pizza and going to Ritchie’s or Harold’s house. I watched — the ritual of my exclusion — from several yards away as the circle closed without me; even the team I just played for would turn its back to me. One boy would always turn to look over his shoulder at me with a half smile on his face; it seemed important to him to see if I was standing close enough to hear what was being said. I knew to stand far enough away, so I never heard what I am certain were hurtful words.
Once the kids agreed on what they were going to do, the chorus of sweaty, white kids would ask me the execrable question: “What are you going to do, man?” An unwilling co-conspirator, I’d lie, and say I had something else to do, then quickly leave. An Outsider.
Of course, I knew the negative behavior by whites in my neighborhood had something to do with my brown skin, but the behavior of Black kids, with whom I identified and often emulated, was the source of another sort of painful frustration.
They resented me because my skin was light brown, and my hair texture softer than most of theirs. My no-soul clothes were constantly criticized, and they ridiculed me for not being able to dance. They were also jealous of me because I lived in a house with three bedrooms and a furnished basement, decidedly not a basement apartment.
Whenever I visited any of their apartments, I always felt like I had offended them in some way, but I never knew the true nature of the offense. I would eventually leave, offended by insulting behavior to which I was ill-equipped to respond. Intraracism cut the deepest.
And home was often no refuge. The confrontations I suffered there were ones from which I could not just walk away to protect myself. There were my stepfather’s self-righteous statements, frequent looks of disapproval, the beatings at his hand and the special treatment of the newest members of the family – of his blood — that fueled a smoldering prepubescent anger in me.
There had been so many changes since my mother’s path crossed, then merged, with my stepfather’s. We had moved from the Williamsburg housing projects of Brooklyn to a private home in the Bronx that only my stepfather had seen before he bought it and moved us all in. The births of my sisters and brothers increased the number of people with whom I had to share my mother. And perhaps as a result, my mother changed once she married my stepfather. She became less accessible to me. And this man she brought into my life changed too. He became much meaner as he transfigured, like a werewolf in the first light of a full moon, from Uncle Jewell to “Daddy.”
On walks home from school, I imagined a world where I would not have to share my mother with anyone else. Our relationship had always been so clear before my mother married him and my first sister, Juel, entered the family four years later. Until then, my mother and my older brother, Edward, had been my protectors. I felt safe because their adoring love held me in a closely knit cocoon.
Then there were the others. Children began to arrive one by one, in eighteen-month intervals. Correspondingly, the time I spent with my mother grew less and less; the house got smaller, and my life changed in ways that I could not understand.
After the first two additional people arrived to share my mother the math never worked, given how things had been before they came. Edward and I were now on one side, and Mom, Dad and Juel, and eventually five others, were on the other. The root difference that I experienced had something vaguely to do with Edward and I not being products of my mother and stepfather, and the complexities of my mother’s marriage that, as a fourth-grader, I was simply not equipped to understand. What I did understand was that I resented the changes, and the people responsible for them. Nevertheless, Edward continued to protect me no matter what my mother did or did not do.
And then it happened.
One Sunday morning, without warning, Edward appeared from the driveway that led to our house. His hands were dug deeply into his pockets. And before Edward opened his mouth, I knew why he had come.
While on my paper route the week before, I had lost the rent money a tenant had given me to give to my stepfather. On this day, Edward approached me like an attacker, not the defender I had grown accustomed to. He had heard my mother and stepfather discussing that I had not given them the tenant’s rent. Edward had also heard the words “stolen” and “thief” swimming like sharks in their talk. He had also felt their anger toward his beloved little brother. He realized that he could not protect me this time, especially when it came to the stepfather we both feared. No, not this time.
In retrospect, I know Edward was afraid for me and he knew he was powerless to protect me from the inevitability of a beating that awaited me. As a result, he withdrew, he hid within his own silence and pangs of helplessness. At the time, at 10 years old, I felt betrayed by him. From my viewpoint, he had abandoned his post as my protector.
“Daddy wants to speak with you,” is all he said to me that day. We both knew that was the family parlance for, you are about to get a major beating!
My parents had learned about the rent. The tenant told them.
I had obsessed about the missing rent all week. But I could not mention it to anyone. I had looked into my mother’s face every day of the week hoping that she might, somehow, through Mama magic, save me from the beating that I knew would come as sure as the night. I did not think I could talk to her about the missing rent money because she was always so busy with my stepfather’s demands. I had not put together, in my mind, the hardship that the missing money might cause a Black family of ten struggling to pay a mortgage and bills on my father’s meager salary as a post office mechanic. I knew my mother knew something was wrong with me and that I had been worried about something, but she never asked me anything. And I never told her anything.
All the forces were gathering against me.
I felt like a castaway lost on an island of old buildings and aging asphalt, high fences and brick walls and a garden of death on my route to school. As I walked down the driveway, slowly, towards the house, the coldness of a choking fear dropped an ice cube in my stomach. I knew I should have told my parents what had happened, but fear held my tongue.
All week, I had said a voiceless prayer for God to intervene, but God had not.
I remembered taking the rent from the tenant who lived in the two-family house in front of ours, and going to the candy store to pick up the rest of the papers for delivery. I knew I had put the money in my back pocket, but fate had apparently picked that pocket. I triple-checked the buildings on my paper route. I questioned the Greensteins again and again. Nothing. For that week, I told myself over and over that things would turn out right. And they did for somebody, but not for me.
As I got closer to my house that day, I occasionally looked back at Edward for some sign of comradeship or support. But he only stared straight ahead like an unsympathetic prison guard who was just doing his job. Nothing more. I would have to suffer whatever was to come completely alone. I had a good sense of what was about to happen. Edward and I had been beaten for fracturing some rule of the house before.
Sometimes my parents had been unfair and other times they should have beaten us. For some inexplicable reason, Edward and I kept track of how many times we were actually struck during a beating. It wasn’t a competition, but we could recite the stats as if they were going to be printed on baseball cards. At the time, I had no idea what was to happen, and how it would affect me in such a profoundly different way – different from any of the other punishments I’d received as a child. I had not intentionally done anything wrong or brazenly broke any house rules. Yes, my mistake had hurt the family, but I did not know the full extent of that then. But Edward did, and maybe that was why he was not on my side this time.
My parents made my little sister go into the basement until my meeting with my stepfather’s belt was adjourned.
As Edward and I entered the living room, my stepfather stood with the belt in his hands. My mother just stood nearby. At that moment, I felt no love for me in her at all. She was angry. She wanted me to suffer for the hardship my carelessness had created. She felt I deserved a beating. I could see it written in her eyes that deathly stared past me.
I was the lone enemy.
The giant approached me. Edward quickly moved to take a seat on the stairs above to witness the clash of old leather on young ass, but not to count the licks this time. He knew there might be too many. It was about 9 a.m., an hour-and-a-half before church and Sunday school. And like loosening the wrath of God on me, my stepfather began by slapping me in the face. The force of the slap knocked me down. My mother nodded her approval.
“Where is the rent money?” my stepfather demanded. I was struck again before I could offer any sort of an answer, any sort of a defense. I saw colors that hadn’t been in the room before, and my vision blurred. My ears rang with the violence of accusations he hurled at me with more sheer force than his blows. I was a boy confused and scared.
“You stole that money, you wicked little thief and you think it’s worth a good beating to keep it,” my stepfather growled. “Well, that’s exactly what you are going to get!”
“I didn’t steal it!” I finally yelled back.
My stepfather countered with a numbing blow across my face, this time not with his fleshy part of his hand, but with the flat, slick leather of the belt.
“I lost it!” I said, and began to cry. “I didn’t steal it.”
My stepfather continued the beating with all the frustration and fury of a man possessed with rage and dispossessed with any compassion for me. My mother watched the beating without lending a finger of interference. It seemed to last forever. The whole time, I watched my mother’s impassive face as her husband’s blows stormed down on me, as I twisted and crumpled in sad attempts to escape and deflect the pain. Soon, I began to withdraw from what was happening to me, being there and not there, crying out in the moan of the moment and not; I became an eyewitness of my own assassination. I saw my mother and she increasingly wore a faraway look in her melting gaze, but still, she did nothing to stop what she was watching as if with popcorn in hand.
This was the woman from whose loins I had come, and yet she allowed her husband to do this to me.
I began to watch myself from the couch in the living room.
My emotional distance to it lessened the pain; the blows were cushioned by my growing ability to separate myself, like my mother separated herself, from what was happening. So I watched my execution as if I was a member of my own firing squad. I thought, at the time, that I was being so wronged for a mistake that did not seem to me to warrant such an angry and violent verdict rendered by both my mother and stepfather.
I now think the difficulty they were having in their marriage was somehow part of the reason I got beaten so badly. The lost money underscored what little money my parents were able to earn to take care of us, and it emphasized my stepfather’s inability to manage money, which was vital because we had so little of it to start with. But swinging a belt. That he could manage.
The beating continued. And my first fears were replaced by a sort of calm that came with knowing I no longer had to live with the threat of my parents finding out I had lost the rent. They knew. They believed I had stolen it. I knew I had not. I would just have to shoulder the loss in ways that only my parents could determine.