It was the mid ‘60s and I was living with my mother and brother in public housing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. We moved there from Brooklyn a decade earlier to be near my mother’s family when my father died suddenly of a stroke.
Next door to us lived an Italian family with whom I spent a lot of time visiting. The mother was divorced from a husband who preferred using his fists rather than talking to her. I played with Mary, the youngest of the children, who was my age. However, I now wonder if I really went there to hear Mary’s mother tell me stories of her life growing up in Italy. She was a great storyteller. I felt drawn into another world and could relate to those stories because they were about family life. And many of her stories had morals.
The family at the other end of the hall consisted of Mr. and Mrs. R. and their three children. I had a close friend in Rosa, the middle child; Sonya was the oldest, Paul the youngest. I had a warm and happy relationship with each one. The mother was always chirpy and smiling. I spent hours playing Scrabble with the father, a very kind and caring person. Rosa once confided that her father was concerned because he saw me spend so much time alone looking out the hall window. Sonya was like the older sister I always wanted. When some girls stole my bike, Sonya went with me and got my bike back. She was tall and strong looking, and all she had to do was yell at the girl riding my bike in order to bring it over. The girl rode over with her two friends and silently handed it back. Sonya was my hero.
Paul, the youngest R. family member, spent a lot of time in my apartment. He visited me on many Friday nights and watched my mother light the Sabbath candles. I told him that his Hebrew name would be Pinchus. As much as he tried, he could never get the “ch” sound right. Looking back, I have no idea how we had so much to talk about, but we spent lots of time exchanging ideas. Most of the time, I felt closer to Paul than his sister Rosa.
A few years passed and I was in college. Paul moved on to other friends and no longer visited me. I remembered that he dreamt of becoming a doctor.
My mother had many friends who often visited her. One afternoon I came home and saw my mother sitting at the dining room table with Fanny, her closest friend. They both looked at me as I walked in, but neither one said a word. The room was heavy and I felt uneasy. My mother’s face had a disturbed look, both troubled and angry at the same time. Fanny was a clown and loved to make me laugh – but not on that morning. She abruptly left with just a “goodbye.” Not knowing what I was dealing with, I started some small talk with my mother, but she cut me off. It seemed that the very sound of my voice was too much for my mother to bear.
What was going on? What happened to my world? My mother made it obvious that she had nothing to say, something that never happened before. The next day was just as bad, making me glad to leave for school. On my way home, I thought that things would be better. However, it was just as awful. I pleaded with my mother to tell me what was going on. Finally she told me that the day before a lady who lived in the next courtyard heard a knock at the door. She asked who it was and heard “Western Union.” When she opened the door, a bunch of wild teenage boys rushed in. She was tied up and repeatedly attacked. By the time her husband got home, she had been mentally and physically destroyed.
My mother continued, explaining that she got a call from our neighbor, Paul R. He told her that he was calling from a payphone. He wanted to give her a warning, but before he could go into detail, he said that she must not call the police or tell anyone that he had called her – because “they” would kill him. “They,” it turned out, were the gang he belonged to, the boys who had brutalized the woman in the next courtyard. It was the first time my mother heard about the horrible attack. Paul said that the gang was going to try the same thing with her. She must not answer the door.
My mother said that soon after Paul’s call there was a knock at the door. She did not say a word. She soon heard a voice call out “Western Union.” She remained silent. Finally she heard the elevator door close. My mother knew that they left.
I never got a chance to thank Paul. I knew him so well and I am sure to this day that he was forced to join the gang. Living in the Projects could be dangerous to one’s wellbeing. In those days, just walking on a gang’s “turf” could be fatal. I remember reading about Michael Farmer in the newspaper. Michael Farmer was a young boy who walked with crutches. One summer night he entered a park and was savagely stabbed to death by gang members. He was totally defenseless. The memory still haunts me.
A few years passed and one day I saw Sonya R. in the supermarket. She told me that her sister Rosa had passed away. My blood ran cold. I asked about Paul and Sonya told me that he was so upset at losing his sister that he had to leave New York. He moved to either Boston or Philadelphia, I forget which. That family was supposed to stay well and happy. Each and every one of them deserved to have only good things happen to them. They were all so special to me and were such an important part of my formative years. I felt a terrible void. I heard Sonya ask if she could visit me and I told her that of course she could. But she never did, and I never saw her again.
There surely is One above watching over us, sending us the people we need to help us on life’s journey.
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