Ed note: This chapter was left out when we originally serialized this memoir. We think that it will give even greater depth to what is a remarkable, deeply American journey.
We arrived back to our hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey late at night sometimes in either late summer or early fall. I am reasonable sure that this was the time of year, because the next morning, when we ventured out doors to investigate our new environment, and look around, to my great surprise the street was full of uprooted trees, some of which had toppled onto cars and houses. Debris was everywhere, and the air was still humid with the warm breath of the topical Gulf of Mexico.
It seemed that the day before we arrived, a major hurricane had blown through, leaving this part of New Jersey in shambles.
I was sorry I missed out on all the excitement.
Our mother left the next day, still a mysterious figure. From the brief time we were together you could have imagined the shyness on all of our parts. I can remember only glancing at her every now and then, not knowing what to say.
I could see that my mother seemed a pleasant enough person. She was the opposite of Mrs. Thompson in almost every way. She was fair skinned, reflecting her multi-racial background, thin, soft-spoken and very very beautiful. Most young kids think that their mother is beautiful, but in this case it was true. There was an elegance and sense of pedigree that I detected, and that only now, years and years later, I fully understand.
But Robert and I soon learned that she was also cool, distant and did not like to talk to us. The day we were to leave Buffalo, we were seated on the train facing our mother. We were going to Asbury Park, New Jersey, to stay with our Aunt Sally because we had to stay there until my mother found us a place to live in New York City.
Although Richard had been the one who had led to this unexpected family reunion he was still laying in a hospital somewhere in Upstate New York.
Now we sat on the train headed out of Buffalo and away from the hateful, evil Mrs. Thompson. My brother and I wanted to talk about what had happened to us all of those years.
We sat there silently, saying nothing. And then the train started moving. Simultaneously, Robert and I started talking, and pouring out our story. We were both afraid to say a word while the train was still in the station; as if we both thought that the evil hand of Mrs. Thompson could still reach into the car and snatch our little scared asses back into her mean, hateful bosom.
Now we related years of shared grief. My mother soon stopped us. She said it was our own fault if we had suffered, that we should have called her if something was wrong, and she had spent all of her life working in our behalf.
We did not have the chance to mention that whenever she would call, Mrs. Thompson would get on the other end of the line and listen in.
She once beat Richard because he had said the wrong thing. She also used to tell us on a regular basis that the woman who called us, and who came to see us once a year, and who sent Mrs. Thompson money each month for our care, was not really our mother, but a "social worker" from the city, and not to be trusted.
Or, whenever she would pay us that yearly visit we would all sit in the living room with the always watchful Mrs. Thomson present the entire time. Mrs. Thompson was always somewhere near. How were we suppose to tell her what was happening to us?
The train to freedom slowly gathered momentum and my bother and I fell silent again. Robert and I said nothing ever again to our mother about Mrs. Thompson. We did not want her to feel guilty over what had happened to her children. It was better to forget. This personal history did not happen the way I thought it had happened. Buffalo and Mrs. Thompson did not happen. That was my first real history lesson: the victims rarely write history
On the other hand, Aunt Sally, and her husband, Uncle Duke, was just what we needed. Aunt Sally listened with growing disgust and anger as Robert and I were finally able to poured out years of pent-up emotions, as we recounted our tales of woe, and what our life was like for us at Mrs. Thompson’s Home.
Her big, round face was filled with deep sympathy
I later heard her talking with someone over the phone. “Damn Louise, that child is so goddamn selfish. Imagine letting something like that happen to her children, sweets things. They are the sweetest little things. By God, I’m going to tell her what I think of her, just you wait.”
I don’t know if my mother got an earful from her pissed-off older sister, or not. Aunt Sally was fair skinned and a fat version of my mother and grandmother. Her life in the north had been met with great success. She and her husband had income property in several areas of the city, and was considered well off.
For days, whenever she looked at me, I saw her face fill with warmth and love. She plied us with soda pop, candy and all the good food we could eat. For the first time in seven years, we didn’t go to bed hungry, and we could roam the outdoors freely, as we once did on grandfather’s farm.
In a few weeks, this pleasant stay came to an end, as once again, the quiet, beautiful woman who called herself our mother showed up, and took us away, this time to the Bronx.
Memories of that first day in New York City are forever sheared in my mind because of one dramatic image. One of my mother’s friends met us at the train station in Manhattan and drove us up to the Bronx. We had to drive through Harlem.
I was absolutely astonished. I had never seen anything like it before, of since. My mouth must have been hanging open. The streets of Harlem were full with thousands and thousands of black people. They were everywhere. The sidewalks were so crowded that people were walking in the streets, and the driver had to blow his horn so the car could get through.
The neighborhood we settled in in the Bronx was not nearly as colorful as Harlem. It was at the very end of the north Bronx, near the Westchester county line. Then, it was still underdeveloped, almost suburban like, even without a fancy New York City name like, Hell’s Kitchen, Brownsville, South Bronx, Harlem, The Village, Bed-Sty.
It was nameless.
It was also almost all white, mostly Italians, as I was soon to discover.
But life in those first years in the Bronx was quite pleasant, especially compared to the madness we had just left. Richard joined us, and soon after, Pauline, a younger sister, who I had heard vague rumors of, joined us as well in that tiny basement apartment on 220th and Carpenter Avenue.
My mother was still cool, quiet and distanced, but she was highly intelligent and had a well-organized mind. She single-handedly worked full-time, kept the apartment clean, always had something good to eat ready each evening, and made sure we had a clean change of cloths. She also brought us a small, black and white television.
She also allowed us to run the streets, where I soon met up with all the other kids in my age group. My best friend became an Irish kid who lived just across the street in a tenement building. His name was Dennis McCleary.
As far as race was concerned, I never thought of it, and it never came up, except in an off-hand sort of way, every now and then. For example, when the fathers joined us in the park on the weekends when we played baseball. Then my name became “Jackie,” which I understood to mean Jackie Robinson, who was tearing up the big leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The only other incident that seemed to carry racial overtones was at P.S. 113 Junior High School. This redheaded girl was planning a birthday party. All the little girls were excited as they gathered in the back of our homeroom classroom for a little meeting. As soon as I walked in, they all fell silent. They all then started throwing me quick, nervous little glances.
I was to learn later that the heated discussion in the back of our homeroom classroom was about me, and should they invite me, the only black kid in the class, and only one of seven in the entire school, to the party. I didn’t get invited, but it was my first real lesson of what happens in America when black males and white women meet at an suspected intersection; in this case, the intersection was race and little white girls having an innocent birthday party.
Life with my best friend Dennis, and the rest of the guys, when we were as far away from little white girls as we could get—was non-stop fun and adventure. The grand Bronx River Park was just a block away, and was filled with little hills that became our ski slopes during winter. We would follow the Bronx River were ever it led us. It soon led us to a tunnel that led under the highway to a little waterfall. The river also led is the other way, all the way into Westchester County, where on bicycles, we would gawk at the big houses.
This was an age just before Americans became seriously addicted to electronics and indoor climate control. The outdoors then was our plugged in screen. We knew intimately every inch of our environment and the urban territory we called ours.
I chuckle now, and note how much things have changed, when I see the occasional child riding a bike in a typical middle-class community. They are helmeted from head to toe and a parent is seen hovering somewhere in the background.
It seems that electronic addiction has made the outdoors a dangerous, lonely, scary place.
Or maybe back then the streets were always crowded with people, and we occasionally bumped into teachers, or someone’s mom, or many of the shop keepers; and many, if not most of the houses had a front porch. So we kids knew that although we were running around the streets and parks unescorted by any adults, we still sensed there were always eyes on us.