by Jeff Fleischer, YAP CEO
I grew up on Leslie St. in Newark, NJ in a small, 3-unit apartment building in the 1950’s and early 60’s. Each unit had two bedrooms, and my parents stayed in the front room, next to a small living room, then the kitchen, and I shared the back bedroom with my sister who is 4 years younger.
The old basement had coal bins and our radiators banged and clanged with steam heat during the cold winters. My Mom would hang the clothes out to dry on the clothes line strung from our back room to a telephone pole in the backyard. During the coldest days one of my Mom's fingers would get numb as she snapped the laundry to the line with wooden clothes pins and the sheets would get hard as boards in the freezing cold.
My block was an amazing place for a 7-year old. It was diverse and alive. My best friend Harry lived diagonally across the street. In the middle of the largest city in NJ he collected butterflies and jars of crickets, grasshoppers, Japanese beetles and lightening bugs in the warm summer months. He was always turning over rocks and picking up slimy slugs.
Then there was my friend Clark, an African American boy who lived across the street in a big yellow house that his parents owned. Next door were the McCormicks. They had a huge peach tree in the back yard next to ours that we climbed to steal the juiciest peaches. Leo and Corrado, Puerto Rican and Italian, lived a few houses down and were great stick ball partners. Dell, who moved here from Puerto Rico, lived in a rundown house with a pit bull in the front gate. I remember that he didn't go to school like the rest of us, but I did not know why. And next door to the McCormick's were the Shannons, another Irish family. They also had a rundown house but with a backyard and a lot of tall trees.
Joey Shannon, who was my age, joined us for stick ball and flipping baseball cards. His grandfather, always with a bit much to drink went up and down the block with a grocery store carriage collecting old cans and bottles and things to recycle. His Dad would fight with his Mom and there was always yelling and police were often called to their house. But Joey's older brother Vincent was seldom seen. He stayed inside or somewhere else when the rest of us were on the street.
We were kids, curious but mostly interested in playing. I actually remember sitting on a curb with my friends and one of the discussions was why we all had different shades of skin color. We'd touch each other’s arms and wonder at the difference. Then we got on with our stick ball, touch football, hide and seek, and horse chestnut fights against the kids from the next block over, Hobson Street.
One of those cold winter days Joey’s brother Vincent emerged in the late afternoon as he had several times before. The routine was that he would strip all his clothes off and run around the neighborhood yelling and screaming things no one understood. He would always wind up climbing his tall trees in his back yard literally swinging from limb to limb. This time the older boys in the neighborhood gathered in a group and one shouted, "Vincent is loose again!!! Let's get him! Let's get him!"
An ad hoc posse formed and one of the boys saw me looking at my baseball cards on my stoop and invited me to join. "Come on. Crazy Vincent is out and we need to catch him. Let's go!" Wow, I thought. The older guys in the neighborhood invited ME to join them. Of course. This will be exciting and I could be part of their group. So I followed as we ran from yard to yard as Vincent, butt naked in the dead of winter ran and climbed fences screaming jibberish over each fence and down each alley. I was with the big guys and we were going to capture Vincent! We gave chase and it was getting dark.
And then the street lights came on.
"Jeff! Jeff!" My Mom had caught wind of what was happening I guess. "Jeff, get over here! What are you doing?"
“We're after Vincent, Mom. He's loose and the boys asked me to help them catch him. I'm helping, Mom. Can't I stay out longer? I'm helping.” Silence...
"Vincent is not an animal to be chased! He's a boy just like you. He has problems. He needs help. He doesn't need to be run down and chased by his own neighbors like a dog. You get in the house. Your Dad will be home soon and we'll eat dinner.” Silence...
Yikes! What a flip of the situation. My first lesson in empathy? An insight into the human condition? I was ashamed. Later that evening I heard the sirens. Police pulled up a few houses down. The police wrestled Vincent to the ground. He was screaming. They handcuffed him and took him away in the police car. I don't remember ever seeing him again. But I never forgot that day, and after that, I started to look beyond what I saw.
The next day my Mom made Harry and me a baloney sandwich on white bread with mayo. Harry shared his celery sticks spread with peanut butter. We traded baseball cards sitting on my stoop. It was freezing cold but of course we wouldn't go inside; not until the street lights went on.