It happened one summer in the Jim Crow fifties when Daddy convinced Mama to let Sondra and me spend the summer with his niece, Florence, and her daughter, the beautiful and brittle, nearly post-adolescent, Dorothy.
Mama didn’t think much of Daddy’s coal-mining West Virginia kin, now scattered across East Coast cities. As far as Mama was concerned, Daddy’s people carried and deposited that West Virginia dust and poverty into the segregated neighborhoods they settled, like the one in Pittsburgh where Aunt Florence and Cousin Dorothy lived, where Sondra and I stayed that summer.
From one end of Aunt Florence’s long block to the other, the opulence of the housing decreased or increased depending on which way you walked. The largest, take-your-breath-away-mansion we had ever seen belonging to a Black family stood at one end of the block. My Aunt Florence, however, lived at the other end, in the tenement on the corner. Though I retained a lot of Mama’s snobbery about everybody in Daddy’s family, except of course for Daddy, I liked Aunt Florence immediately, especially the way she hugged me like I was perfect.
Cousin Dorothy was altogether different from her mother. Sharp tongued, proper and edgy, she seemed even more highly strung than Mama. As Aunt Florence helped Sondra and me unpack, I overheard Mama agree with my cousin about the rundown state of the tenement and its backyard. Cousin Dorothy had set her mind to do something about it, but no matter how articulately she described the shabbiness of the building, nothing ever came of her frequent calls and visits to the landlord’s office. And, none of the landlord’s promised visits to inspect the place ever materialized. As far as I was concerned, my Aunt’s apartment was comfy and clean. It had a television, little knick knacks and doilies all around the living room. Sondra and I had our own bedroom with a rug and our own bureau with a mirror on top. Most important, there wasn’t anything at all in Aunt Florence’s apartment that Sondra and I couldn’t touch.
Thoughtful Aunt Florence had arranged for the 12 year old twins from one of the upstairs apartments to keep us company while she and Cousin Dorothy worked. That first day, Larry and Lee took us to the grocers, bought us Hostess cupcakes and orange Nehis, and introduced us to their friends, all boys. The twins schooled Sondra and me in the ways of the neighborhood, like where to stand when the Popsicle man chimed his way down the block and which of the big boys to avoid. I developed what was surely my first crush on Larry and Lee, who I could not tell apart. But after a week, I didn’t bother myself with choosing between them because, after all, they were twins.
So that Pittsburgh summer was not one of tossing jacks or jumping double dutch, or marking up the sidewalk for hop-scotch. It was the first time, the only time, when all my friends were boys, all older than me except for Billy, William Forester III, Dr. Forester’s only child. Billy lived in the mansion at the other end of Aunt Florence’s block. Frankly, I was suspicious of Billy at first. At nine years old, my experience with the very well-off Black kids in DC was limited, though I accepted Mama’s stories as though they were my own. From her, I knew that rich Black people disdained working folks like my parents, that they belonged to sophisticated clubs that excluded people like her and Daddy, that they held college degrees from Howard and Morehouse and Spellman, and that they lived in parts of DC where every house was a mansion, like Billy’s. So, it made perfect sense to me when Larry and Lee said that Dr. Forester didn’t want Billy associating with “that sort from the other end.”
The twins had tried to keep away from him, but Billy tagged along anyway, ignoring them ignoring him. The group had to admit that Billy added pizzazz to the bicycle riding up and down the block, and stealing grapes and figs from backyards at the opulent end. By the time Sondra and I arrived, Billy was folded into the group as naturally as butter into mashed potatoes. I admired his cowboy outfit which he wore once a week. It had real everything from the felt hat to the cowboy boots and the really real looking six-shooter, shinning from a genuine leather holster. Soon I grew to like Billy too. We could count on him to swing wildly and miss in our summer-long baseball game, to grab some extra hot-dogs for us from the backyard cook-outs we ate our way through on the fourth of July and to concoct the wackiest stories when we relaxed on the balcony.
Each apartment in Aunt Florence’s building had a large balcony off the kitchen. We gathered on Larry and Lee’s sixth floor balcony, not just because it was theirs, but because their balcony had a rusty glider big enough to seat three boys, or two boys and Sondra and me when Larry and Lee made one of the boys relinquish his place on the glider for us. Everyday on the balcony, we kids met and played, and met and talked about playing. With our backs against the glider’s cracked plastic and our feet pressing hard on the weathered floor, we licked popsicles and the center out of Oreos and swung back and forth in a wide arc chatting with the boys sitting opposite us on the railing.
Six stories below that railing lay the tiny patch of ground that served as the tenement’s backyard, but was, in fact, an illegal dump. That was the other reason we gathered on Larry and Lee’s balcony. From their railing we marveled at the assortment of trash that accumulated down there, sprawling into the alley. It was the kind of spectacular junk that the garbage man wouldn’t collect but ignited our vast imaginations. Larry and Lee’s glider came from that pile as did Billy’s growing collection of more and more realistic-looking wooden swords. But usually, we surveyed the heap for items that invited fanciful histories. For example, that battery, which we called a generator, next to those rusty cans and liquor bottles, well, it failed during a crucial experiment on cats. The kids peed too many times on that mattress, so that now their mother made them sleep on the floor. Miss Lady didn’t need that busted sewing machine, over there next to the cracked windshield, because her husband finally got a good job at the Heinz factory. That corroded door became useless when the car was converted into a hotrod, a red hotrod. That new looking refrigerator just plain broke when it fell off the truck as the driver swung around the corner on two wheels to escape the police. We imagined that if we gathered early enough, we might catch “them” dumping their rubbish, but Cousin Dorothy’s chores prevented Sondra and me from joining everybody on Larry and Lee’s balcony the one morning we agreed get up early to spy.
When we weren’t checking the dump for new stories or revising old ones, we relaxed on Larry and Lee’s balcony, drank our Nehis, reviewed the morning’s events and planned the next adventure. Sometimes we sat silent, listening to the rusty glider accept the stress of our weight and our demands on it to move us as we waited for the grown-ups to call us to lunch or dinner. One by one we’d peel away assured that we’d gather again on Larry and Lee’s balcony and spot the summer’s best story lying in the heap of trash below us.
What happens next, you ask?
Part 2 to be posted Thursday, December 6th