M. G. Stephens
The others had gone off to Flatbush, where they were staying; they had taken the Long Island Railroad further into the borough, to its last stop. Then they hopped a Flatbush Avenue bus for Flatlands Avenue, until they got to Avenue L. The two of us were separated from our other siblings—our parents had ten or twelve or fifteen or sixteen children, some impossible number we could not even imagine—and were relegated to another part of Brooklyn.
We were brother and sister closest in age to each other, so adventures often involved us in tandem. We could take the Long Island Railroad train and get off at East New York, and then walk the grim half-mile or so through an urban landscape of abandoned warehouses and deserted, often fire-bombed cars, or we could take the less fractious route by bus and subway. That day we chose the latter journey, taking a Schenk bus at Hillside Avenue into the City, not getting off at 179th Street, which I would do in my teens when I went off to the Village for folk music, poetry, and adventures. We took the bus nearly to its end, when it turned off Hillside and deposited us at the beginning of the elevated subway line deeper in Queens, getting off the bus and going up the stairs for the BMT Jamaica Line, the B train, that would take us to East New York.
I paid for both of us.
“How old are you?” the token seller asked me.
“Thirteen,” I lied.
I was eight or nine years old. My little sister was six or seven.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m just askin’. I gotta do my job.”
“No problem,” I said, because I had heard some tough guy say that, and it seemed to put an end to conversation.
We walked further up the stairs to the train platform, holding each other’s hands. We didn’t want one or the other of us to fall down or over the rail, although my sister was so tiny, I don’t think she could reach the railing, much less fall over it. She had a bushy head of curly hair, what later might be called an Afro, though then people said she either looked like Nancy or Shirley Temple. That left me the option to think of myself as Sluggo or, I don’t know, maybe a character out of Moon Mullins. We were going to the eastern edge of Bedford-Stuyvesant, but in those days it was known by the white people (mostly immigrant Italians whose numbers were quickly disappearing) as East New York, although that name was stretching the geographical reach of our neighborhood quite a bit. I thought of it as Bed-Stuy, and that was the end of it, because that name allowed us to be connected to our mother’s past, and the long history of her family in the borough, i.e., it made us less immigrant to think like that. Our connection to the place where we were going was our paternal grandmother’s house which, like characters in a fairy tale, we were headed towards, not confronted by a wolf, but rather gangs (teenagers) or older men (perverts, gangsters, troublemakers, you name it, my mind was filled with them confronting us and me having to defend our lives against their advances).
The walk from the East New York el station was closer than the East New York stop on the LIRR. But the journey still involved having to walk past crowds of men, grabbing their crotches and shouting things our way. Luckily the bocci ball players under the el were occupied with their game and didn’t even see us slip past them. We turned down McDougal Street, and within a block and a half we arrived at our grandmothers, unscathed yet again. We walked up the stairs into the vestibule and rang her bell. The building had two floors, and she and my aunts lived on the first. Our grandmother owned the building, and a bag lady rented the rooms on the second floor.
Already a couple of the kids on the street were calling to us to play with them. First we had to say hello to grandma and our aunts. Then we could go to PS 73 and play with the kids who lived in this part of the borough. All of us were as poor as dirt. My sister and I were the only white kids; they were black and Spanish, though mostly black, coming from the islands and the South. None of us knew a thing about race; that would all come later.