a smell of urine

This view hasn’t changed; only those who take it in.

There was a time when the same eyes that would have looked out on the Atlantic Ocean from the “Windward Coast” (“Ivory Coast”) would have looked out on what is now Central Park West. Of course, in 1850 there was no Central Park West.

There was no Central Park.IMG_3124

A little more than 100 years later, the eyes of the succeeding generations would have looked out onto a drug-laden Upper West Side. They would have looked onto Amsterdam Avenue and probably not onto Central Park West. They would have looked down from soulless high-rises with broken elevators and the smell of urine in the stairwells. Heroine needles. The eyes of 1850 had a qualified power; they were landowners. The eyes of 1950 were emasculated tenants.

I sip my boutique coffee on the outcropping of schist that would have been here then but was probably sculpted after the Windward Coast eyes were told they must look elsewhere. I came here on a cool Sunday morning before church. I sit and sip and decide how long to stay. It’s my choice. I could stay longer if I wanted to.

Where I sit was once, “possibly…Manhattan’s first stable community of African American property owners,” as described by the descendant organization that benefited from an early use of eminent domain to oust the community itself along with everyone else in the surrounding 843 acres.

Owners were compensated for their land. Some moved and reestablished themselves. Others did not.

It is one thing to compensate for land.

It is another to compensate for place.

photo: author


Polyester shirt

Dressed in cordovan penny loafers, chinos, white shirts with Trinity ties – navy blue with gold shield motifs – and blue blazers, we hopped on the #96 crosstown bus at 7:15, no matter what the weather.

In grades 1 to 3, Roddy, Danny and I had a fourth grade chaperone, compensated by our parents for his efforts.  One year it was Grady, the headmaster’s middle son.  He was okay.  We paid little attention to him, and it was mutual.  When he was a little older, he broke his leg and – when recovering on crutches – he dropped one of them through the stairwell down seven flights in Danny’s apartment building just to see what would happen.

I doubt he even sat with us, those “little kids.”  We had colored rectangular bus passes, different color each month.  Wrong color, no ride.  Though I didn’t know anyone who was actually kicked off the bus for the wrong pass.  Kids bootlegged them all the time.  Or they took a purple pass from 1975 to use in 1978 and kind of wrinkled the year real good so you couldn’t read it from the bus driver’s seat.

We rode across the park through the 96th Street transverse and got off at 97th and Columbus, at that time a fair to poor area where, half a block south at the intersection of 96th Street and Columbus I once saw a pair of squad cars come screeching to a halt around a getaway station wagon full of thugs who the police had been chasing, and the cops jumped out of their cars with their guns drawn and aimed at the station wagon.  I only saw an occurrence like this once, however.

081907polyestershirtralev-com.jpgWe’d walk six blocks south to 91st Street to school, past the public high school – actually there were two schools, one on either side, and I never was sure what levels each was, middle or high, but both were filled with white-kid-haters.  And every now and then the black kids would be there in the morning just looking to hassle us, and one time a couple of them punched my brother Jim and me in the face just because.  Just because.

Danny befriended the only black kid in our class, Darnell.  He later hung out with black kids much more than I did, and I doubt he got picked on like Jim and I.  He would buy polyester black pants and wide lapel print shirts from Korvette’s Department store on 46th Street.

This pretty much assured that he wouldn’t be mugged.

Photo:  ralev_com


There was a time when, as a five-year-old, I would make mud pies in Central Park for the two old Jewish men who used to sit on the rotting green park bench and kvetch and feed the pigeons with dried bread crumbs, and I made one once with pieces of colored glass sticking out of the top because they made my creations sparkle and was running to show my elder friends, tripped and fell on the sidewalk, slicing my left hand open on a glass piece right where the thumb connects with the palm and was taken across Fifth Avenue to Mt. Sinai Hospital, and the nurse soaked my hand in white soapy disinfectant solution which to this day I have no recollection of hurting, and afterwards they sewed me up with Mom there.  And there was the time on the uptown #6 train when I faced the gang of black teenagers who were fixing to beat up the Hispanic man, and I declared “Jesus” this and “Jesus” that, because that was the only word I figured would scare off those scumbags, and they backed down and went on to the next subway car, whether to find another would-be victim or to repent, I did not know and still do not, only God knows.

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Eddie’s white stretch limo glided by around 5:30 in the opposite lane heading toward campus to pick up him and his girlfriend Ann. My colleague Terry’s eldest child has his prom tonight. Since Terry lives on the school property, Eddie and his date will take their pictures on the grounds, probably standing somewhere in the meadow that used to be a practice polo field when the 117 acres was owned by the publisher of the Boston Globe back in the early 20th century.

My prom, in New York City in 1981, was not so bucolic, nor so romantic. Continue reading