I am walking on the street near my old elementary school. Perhaps I am walking home after school. It is the end of day and the sun is going down fast. A group of boys appear out from the shadows of a building and encircle me. The leader of the group, a big strong kid steps into the circle with me and starts to taunt me. At first I don’t respond but this only makes him angry. I am making him look bad before his buddies. I decide to speak with him, to see if I can deflect his barrage of insults. This gets nowhere and he takes a long roundhouse swipe at the back of my head. I am jolted sideways to the sound of laughter all around me.
Suddenly, I am conscious. I am awake in my dream and I realize that I have had this same dream where this same boy beats me up every night for weeks. In the flash of an instant I realize that it does not have to end the same way. I lunge with a punch and hit him squarely on the jaw. He staggers back, more from surprise than hurt, and I hit him again and again.
JHS 44 was seven long blocks from my house across Tremont Avenue, the wide two lane thoroughfare bristling with traffic. My solo crossing of Tremont catapulted me out of a constricted four block childhood into a new phase of physical and psychological independence. The world opened up to me and I was free to explore it. It was always important to look like you knew where you were going. There was always someone around who would pick a fight for what you were carrying in your pockets. If you looked frightened or lost, you were dead meat.
One day I wandered into a Spanish enclave. It was clear I didn’t belong and I was getting too much attention from some of the bigger kids in the street. I wanted to run, fearing that I would be beaten up just for sport but I knew that I would never make it to the end of the block. Running would have tipped them off that I was scared. So I held myself erect, walked with a brisk pace and tried to appear confident but I didn’t make it. A guy stopped me and some of his friends were drawing closer. You bet I was scared. But then Juan showed up. He was the new kid in class. He didn’t speak much English and he looked like he needed a friend, so I looked out for him. On his turf Juan was clearly in control and he introduced me as his friend. His word was good enough for the other kids and they backed off. I stayed around for a while before high tailing back to familiar ground, gaining new respect for Juan having met him in his element.
Grade schools and junior high worked on the caste system. Classes were assigned numbers from “1” to whatever. The smartest kids were in the “1” class. Freddy was always there. I was in the “2” class. The lower the number, the whiter and more Jewish, the higher the number…well, you just kept away from those kids. Freddy would lord his supremacy over me at every opportunity. “You’re the best of the rest,” was a constant refrain. Freddy did not make the traditional SP class but was selected for the new three-year, SP3 class in 7th grade. With two specialized classes in front of me, I was now assigned to the “7-1” class. A distinction of no honor.
At the end of the 6th grade all the students were ushered into the auditorium. We were all handed a test paper with blank boxes and told to listen carefully. “Which note was higher, which lower?” I didn’t understand what the purpose of this test was. I did what I was told because that’s the kind of kid I was. I listened, answered the questions and thought nothing of it. Until I entered the 7th grade and I was put in music class on my first day. The teacher asked what instrument I wanted to play. I would attend music class almost every day and would not attend the fun classes like electrical or woodworking shop like most of the other boys. What I was later to find out was that I was the only kid in the whole district that answered all the questions correctly. I had to make a choice and I didn’t even know the sound of many of the instruments. And there was no turning back once instruments were distributed. I would be stuck with my choice for better or worse. I looked around to see what some of the other boys picked and selected the trumpet. I could tell by some of the envious groans from the boys who hadn’t selected yet that I made the right choice.
I received an old, dented case with the trumpet obviously jiggling inside, forms that I had to bring home for my parents to sign noting that they were accountable for the trumpet if it got lost or damaged, a new mouthpiece, another form asking for money for the mouthpiece, and an instruction book that I had to guard with my life because it could not be replaced. The worst part was that I was told I had to bring the trumpet home every night to practice and bring it back to school daily for class. I was not thrilled and wished that I had poorly on that test back in 6th grade.
I opened the case and was assaulted by a burst of smells that were fermenting over the summer. The old, dented silverish horn lay in a garden of mold that grew on the inner walls of the case. I took the trumpet apart, pulling out all the valves and unscrewing any part that was capable of coming loose. Congealed valve fluid and a ubiquitous green slime covered the valves and slides. I threw everything back in the case and took the assemblage home. I filled up the sink with water and whatever cleaners were underneath my mother’s sink and soaked the trumpet for hours while I did major surgery on the trumpet case. Thus began my surprising love affair with music.
Once I saw how demanding the string instruments were, I was immensely happy with my choice. It seemed that half the class was devoted to tuning what would not be tuned on a string instrument. Put a finger or two down on a trumpet valve, blow and you got your note. Not so the hapless violins. I made good progress and soon my friend Joe and I were both designated first trumpets with Joe sitting in the first chair. This was fine with me. I loved playing as part of the orchestra, but I was petrified if only the brass were playing or, God forbid, I had to play alone. Then Joe and some other kids started showing up with their own new instruments and when I didn’t take the hint, my teacher started laying on the guilt. Either I was serious about the trumpet and would convince my parents to purchase a new instrument for me or, perhaps I didn’t want to be in the orchestra? I hounded my mother whenever my father wasn’t around and was astounded when my father came home one day with a brass beauty that he paid $45 for. I was in heaven. I continued playing trumpet for the remaining two years in junior high.
As 9th graders and seniors we accompanied the drama club’s production of the musical Oklahoma! We practiced all year for this, and on opening night my mother and brother came. I felt electricity in the air. I had never looked forward to anything like this before and never felt the anxious thrill of performance. But there was one section I dreaded where Joe and I had to play a section of high notes together for the song ”Surrey on Top.” I knew it would be hit or miss. Suddenly, the orchestra was playing and I felt that for the first time we were really making music. Everything was going beautifully. Then reality dawned as the hard part approached. I was playing the tune with all eyes on me. Mr. Salter was raising his hand ever so gently telling me to play louder. But Joe was nowhere to be heard. He stared straight ahead at his music, his fingers went through the motions but his horn made no sound. At the end of the piece I was triumphant and I could not wait to speak to my mother and Allen to see if they heard me. They did and I was so proud of myself.
Joe, however, was crushed. At our next class, he told me to take the first trumpet seat, that he didn’t deserve it anymore. I had never seen such a happy-go-lucky kid so serious. There was no arguing with him, I had come through in the heat of performance and he didn’t. I switched seats but we both knew he was the better player. One of the teachers encouraged me to get private lessons. I broached this with my mother, and lobbied hard, but my father would not hear of it. “You learn in school, don’t you?” And without waiting for a response, he gave his own reply, “that’s enough.” End of discussion.
Soon after our performance, a few of the kids, with the assistance of a teacher, started a dance band. We practiced before and after school and during lunch. I insisted that Joe take the first chair. On the day of our performance before the school in the auditorium our teacher brought out new music stands that had been donated by a bandleader friend of his. The stands were so low that I could hardly see the music. I muddled through on memory alone and this was not my best effort. As a group, though, we had a successful show. After this performance the members of our band gained a certain following as kids gathered outside the door of the music room to hear us play. I felt like a rock star, but no one, especially any of the girls, gave me any extra attention.
Graduation approached and I was filled with anxiety. The ceremony was to begin with the trumpet’s call to arms. Who was going to do it, Joe or me? I practiced day and night for weeks but I knew I could not do it without mistakes and was petrified lest I get the nod. One Sunday afternoon close to graduation I turned on the Yankee game on TV. I heard someone in the crowd of fans playing the call to arms. I knew it was Joe and I listened intently. He was flawless. Right before the graduation ceremony was to begin, Mr. Salter picked Gerald to play the solo. I was so relieved. He did a fine job and received good recognition for his efforts. As part of the musical program, the orchestra played “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise.” It was magnificent. I didn’t know it then, but my trumpet career came to an end that day as I did not continue my musical studies in high school or college.
Music wasn’t the only surprise awaiting me at junior high school. There were so many challenges to overcome. There were teachers with subject matter expertise. I knew I had to prove myself academically and socially all over again. There were raised academic expectations and my very first term paper was due at the end of the year. I picked the topic of ancient Greece. It seemed so sophisticated and important compared to life on 178th street and so far away.
Learning how to do research and to write a term paper were skills that we would need throughout high school and college, the teachers explained, and we had better learn how to do it. Papers would routinely be required in the 8th and 9th grades, let alone high school and college. My whole academic record appeared to hinge on how well I completed this assignment. Fear, never far from my consciousness, motivated me to walk the 8 long blocks across Southern Boulevard to the Westchester Farms branch library each Saturday after Children’s Services. It soon became my haven. A place to escape from home, a place to relax, surrounded by all those glorious books. Fear gave way to fascination and I became enthralled with my subject and perhaps more importantly, eager to learn my way around the library. By the end of the term I received an “A” for my paper with a small note in the margin saying, “Great job with this.” From that moment I never received less than an “A” in any research paper I wrote in junior high, high school, college or grad school. With each good grade, my confidence soared. Research and paper writing became skills that would serve me all my life.
The students I met in seventh and eighth grade classes were an education unto themselves. I met smart kids who weren’t Jewish, boys who worked besides their fathers in stores before and after school, girls who were blatantly sexy, boys who carried knives and used them, kids that wore torn clothing and shoes with holes in them, kids that hardly spoke English and kids that were considerably more well off than we were. There were many new experiences of discovery, some rather painful. I’ll never forget the day Elvia came to school after being raped by the father of her friend, or when Louis was sent to a special school after he stabbed his uncle for abusing him, or when Errol died when he was hit in the street by a drunk driver, or the look of shame on Regina’s face when Barry told the boys that he fucked her.
I became the homeroom rep to the student government, G.O. No one in my class volunteered and I was appointed because our home room teacher probably guessed that I wouldn’t put up a fuss. Once a month the selected reps would have to give up our lunch hour and eat our sandwich in silence while being told some new rule the school was enforcing. In the eighth grade, Mr. Brown, the program counselor, had the school “adopt” a poor kid from one of the international save the kid programs. The reps were responsible for squeezing money out of their classmates. I got up each week and asked. I was not a great salesman, but the force of repetition eventually wore down the stingiest kids. Before long, our class was the leading contributor. One day Mr. Brown received one of the standard thank you letters from the sponsoring agency. He gave it to me to read to the class. As I was greeted with whoops and cheers, I realized that the letter was addressed directly to Mr. Brown and that there was no mention of the school program or the many student contributors. I ran into him in the hallway and asked him about this. He brusquely waved me aside and told me that he would speak to me about this some other time. But that time never came. I stopped asking the kids for money and soon the program lost momentum and folded.
8th grade and Paper Route
When I entered the 8th grade it was time for me to work. My father had worked all his life. My brother worked a variety of after-school jobs and now it was my turn to learn responsibility and get acquainted with the real world, or so my father said. My father made it clear that he would cover basic expenses like food and clothing, but if I wanted something extra, like a soda, I would have to earn my own personal spending money. I was to get a paper route. That’s how my brother started and there was no discussion about alternatives.
Only in the last year was I allowed to cross the great divide of Tremont Avenue alone, and that was to get to school. Now, I had to disrupt my routine of cookies, milk and television, put off doing my homework until the evening, go to a new neighborhood, deal with strangers, and face the laughter and scorn of Freddy and others who teased me for being forced to work while they played after school. Worst of all, I felt so afraid and didn’t know why. I appealed to my mother who argued vigorously with my father. But she lost, as she lost most other petitions. I was convinced that I would hate this job.
My brother brought me down to the small storefront that served as the distribution point for the local deliveries of the NY Post. I was assigned a route and was shown once where all the buildings were. From that point on I would be on my own. The manager urged me to purchase a paper carrier that most of the kids used. I went back to my father and asked him for the money, but to save a couple of bucks, he constructed a hideous looking basket made from the remains of my mother’s defunct folding supermarket wagon and a canvas bag. It was functional, though it had very sharp edges and looked ridiculous. Those delivery boys that cared at all to notice laughed at me every time they saw it.
There was always some promotion going on to cajole us to get new customers. Each new subscription would give us points that we could redeem for prizes. A big poster was put up to graph our success and stimulate competition. Some kids really went all out. But I didn’t give a shit. Not only did I not want to be there, I wasn’t going to spend five minutes more than necessary on anything related to the paper business. The store manager was quick to pick up on my attitude and frequently gave me a list of addresses to canvass and would ask me how I did the day before. “No luck,” I would say, and flash him a grin, “No one wants this lousy paper.” One day he was ready for me. We began the routine as usual but then he marched me to his desk. He took out his keys from his pocket, unlocked his desk drawer and removed the phone. He had a bunch of telephone numbers and he said matter-of-factly, “We’ll see if you did this canvassing or not.” He called the first number. No response. He called the second. No response and I began to breathe easier. He called the third and began talking. “No one came to your door,” he repeated to the voice on the other end of the phone, “are you sure of that?” A broad smile came across his face. And then I thought how I had been saved by the first two phone calls.
“Wait a minute,” I interrupted, “ask him if he was indoors the entire day or if he left the house for any reason.” I waited until this question was relayed and died the proverbial thousand deaths until the answer came back.
“ Well, he did go down to get the mail about 4:30,” said the manager.
“That’s when I was there,” I said. “And don’t ever question me like this again!”
To save time along the route, which was spread out along in a circular path of 12 blocks, I picked up a hint from my brother and traveled across rooftops. This way I didn’t have to climb up to the top floor of each building. I would take enough papers for two buildings, climb up one, cross the roof, and come down the other. A small group of hoods began to follow me and terrorize me along the route, threatening to steal my papers and rob me. I kept away as much as I could, but eventually, they caught up to me. At worst, they stole a few papers, but I escaped with my skin intact. At one encounter, I drew my wagon behind me in a protective stance. A sharp projection of steel from underneath the make-shift wagon went deep into my skin at the back of my heel. I began to hobble and bleed. Once the toughs saw what was happening they howled with laughter, called me whatever clever names they could think of at the moment, but left me alone to curse my wounds.
The cut was deep and soon became infected. I hid it from my parents for as long as I could, but by the time my mother noticed, I could hardly walk. Reluctantly, my father agreed that I could not deliver papers like this. He accused me of self inflicting the wound to get out of work. He called me a shirker, irresponsible, lazy, a good-for-nothing and told me I would never amount to anything. I had trouble following him in his fury and began to zone out but I knew I had to stand my ground and pay attention lest I miss a question. I was clearly contemptible in his eyes. He felt nothing but scorn for me. Once again I had proved his worst fears for me. I didn’t measure up. I was nothing.
My Bar Mitzvah was a triumph. I chose my old first and second grade teacher, Mrs. Bitter, to guide me through the prayers. This went somewhat against custom as most of the teachers of the older grades usually got the honor and the extra bucks. The Hebrew came easily to me and I learned all my prayers and melodies in three weeks. By the time of my Bar Mitzvah, almost eight months away, I had it all memorized. The melodies rang through me. But singing in the shower was one thing and singing before the whole congregation was another. When I was called up to the pulpit, a place I had never been, I realized something I should have known before. I was going to stand facing the arc with my back to the congregation. This calmed me down and I proceeded on auto pilot. On either side of me were old, holy men, practiced in swaying to and fro, who often prayed in whispers and in breakneck speed. From time to time they looked at me as I went through my motions. I knew I had impressed them. Every word was pronounced correctly and sung in the proper melody with perfect inflection and nuance. I recognized admiration in their eyes. I was about three quarters through my haftorah when I purposely made a mistake I knew only they would recognize. I sang a word in the wrong melody and I looked at them to let them know that I knew it. I finished up and, as was custom, received the pelting of bags of candy from the sharpshooters in the first row. I then awaited Rabbi Charlops’ speech to “my dear Bar Mitzvah boy” which I had heard hundreds of times before. He had several stock themes and I wondered which one he would pull out on this occasion. Only this time it was different.
It was clear to me that Rabbi Charlop had done some homework on me. He knew my history as a student and praised me in the most glowing terms before the whole congregation. I was stunned but grateful. But as he was winding up, Rabbi Charlop said something I never heard him say before. He implored me to continue my Jewish education and go to Hebrew High School. He paused and I understood what it meant to have life literally drain out from you. I was overwhelmed with the possibility of going to Hebrew High School. If I had the energy to muster a response I would have said yes, not because I wanted to, but because I did not have the strength to go against such a powerful authority figure. But I didn’t respond and he went on to conclude his remarks.
After the ceremony we had a catered affair and I received lots of envelopes with checks. For a brief moment I relished the idea that all this cash was going to be mine. When it was all over, we gathered all the gifts together in the living room. My mother wrote down a description of each gift or amount next to a printed guest list while my father was in charge of insulting the cheapness of each giver with every invective at his command. When it was all over, he simply took all the money away, saying, “You didn’t think this was yours, did you? How did you think we were going to pay for this affair?”