Excepted from Chapter 2: I’m from the Ghetto, from Dyn-o-mite!: Good Times, Bad Times, Our Times—A Memoir, by
Jimmie Walker (with Sal Manna). Reprinted by arrangement with Da Capo Press. Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
I’m from the Ghetto
I was about ten years old when my father walked into our apartment in the Melrose projects with his girlfriend. His wife, Lorena, my mother, was sitting in the living room with me and my younger sister, Beverly.
“See, this is what you’re supposed to look like,” my father said to my mother, proudly showing off the other woman, well dressed, light skinned with ruby red lips, her hair black with fashionably blonde streaks. “You need to look like this,” he told my mother. “That’s why you’re not worth anything.”
Dyn-o-mite!: Good Times, Bad Times, Our Times--A Memoir
My mom did not object. Instead, she offered the other woman a cup of coffee.
When the visit was over, my father and his girlfriend—I never forgot her name: Faye from Fayetteville, North Carolina—got in his ’56 Buick, which we were never allowed to ride in, and drove off for a golfing vacation down South.
I’m sure moving north to New York City seemed exciting and promising when my parents moved there after getting married in Selma. But by the time I was born in 1947 at New York Hospital in Manhattan, dad was already “Daddy Dearest.” Even a child knows that you do not hurt people like he would my mother. Even a child like me knew that my father, James Carter Walker, the man after whom I was named—I was a Junior—was a horrid person, a real nasty guy. But there was little anyone could do to help. White people had money to get marriage counseling. Black folks just tried to survive.
My first memory is of being three or four years old and standing on a stool in the kitchen when we were living in Brooklyn before moving to the projects. My mother was boiling water on the stove to make grits or boil tea, and I watched her. Then one of the legs of the stool broke. I reached up to grab hold of something and pulled the pot of hot water onto me. I screamed and cried as the water scorched my left leg. I didn’t go to a doctor. White people had money for doctors. Black folks just tried to survive. My leg still bears the scars.
My father, a man of small stature—only about 150 pounds—worked as a Red Cap baggage handler at Penn Station. He must have experienced a demeaning feeling of servitude, of always having to smile and ask white folks, “Carry your bags, suh?” and gratefully reply, “Thank you, suh”—especially for a man who grew up in Alabama. Red Caps were not unlike the Pullman porters on the trains themselves, who were so anonymous that customers called every one of them “George.” They were not even worthy of individual names. Still, being a Red Cap was one of the better jobs available to black men at the time, with most of their income from tips.
The highlight of his life was when the Count Basie or Duke Ellington bands came to the train station on their way in or out of town and he handled their baggage. He would rave about them—how they dressed and how generous they were, giving him a huge five- or ten-dollar tip. Those were the few times I saw him happy, and those were among the few extended conversations I remember ever having with him.
My mother had to fight to move us from Brooklyn and into the Melrose projects in the South Bronx. The projects were a step up. They didn’t take everybody. That’s right, people, there was a waiting list to get into the ghetto! The neighborhood was mostly black and Puerto Rican but with a couple of white families too. They probably got lost and just couldn’t find their way out.
My father was a Red Cap for more than thirty years, yet he did not support us. Mom had to pay the rent—$53 a month—for the three-bedroom apartment on the top floor of the fourteen-story housing project on 156th Street and Morris Avenue in one of the country’s poorest ghettos. She worked three minimum-wage jobs: during the day as a school cafeteria aide and cleaning houses and then the night shift at a printer, where she collated pages for books. Despite all that labor, we were on and off the welfare rolls and taking government handouts of cheese and powdered milk. I did not know what welfare was, but I could tell from the looks on the faces of the other people waiting in line for “government assistance” that to be there was embarrassing. As a kid, I didn’t know we were “poor” because everybody I knew was in the same boat. But I was always happy when those months would come along that I would not have to stand in that line holding my mother’s hand. I knew even then that welfare was a train to nowhere.
One day when I was about nine years old I ran out of my bedroom to find my father pounding my mother, his fists to her face, to her body, like a boxer. I didn’t know what happened to instigate the situation. When she was on the floor, he stomped on her with his shoes. He was in a rage. She pulled herself up and ran out of the apartment. I watched as she reached the stairwell and then he followed her down the stairs. He hit her every step of the way, one punch breaking her jaw. He yelled at her as she cried and struggled to escape from him. My sister wanted to fight him, but she was too little, just seven years old. So she ran to him and hung onto his leg, trying to stop him from going after my mother anymore. I was scared, not knowing what I should do. My mother was getting beat up! I ran after them as they headed down the stairs. When they reached the building entrance, he finally stopped, got into his car, and drove away.
The police came. One of them was a white cop, and it was the first time I ever heard a white person be nice to a black person. My mother was bleeding and in bad shape, and he felt for her. He wanted to help. He said, “Tell me where he is and I will go get him. Tell me where he went.”
She wouldn’t tell him. Then she went to the emergency room and they wired her jaw shut.
Later, during another incident, my father broke her jaw again.
Again, the police came.
“We’re not going to file charges if you’re not going to cooperate,” one of the cops told my mother. “We want you to tell the truth and not back out when we go to court.”
My mom was silent. I too said nothing. I wasn’t shy, but I wasn’t outgoing either. My sister did all the talking and explained everything that happened.
They were used to seeing domestic abuse in my neighborhood, most of it because of drunken husbands. Strangely enough, despite my father’s terrible violence, he wasn’t an alcoholic and he didn’t do drugs. He was actually sober when he did these things, which made his behavior even more vicious because he was completely coherent. Understandably, the cops did not want to waste their time on this case if my mom was not going to press charges and testify and go all the way.
She said she would not. Back then, even when wives were pounded and paralyzed, women rarely left their men. But there was more. This is hard to believe—and it was hard for me to believe even then—but she loved him.
That did not matter to me. I hated him. I wanted him gone. Though he never struck me or my sister, I dreaded every moment he was there. Thankfully, he was not home most of the time. Every now and then he would stay a day or so. Usually he came by on Sunday night to watch the Ed Sullivan Show. If I knew I would never see him again, I would have been a happy child.
With him not around much and my mother working almost around the clock, my sister and I were latchkey kids, spending a lot of time in the apartment by ourselves. I wasn’t into reading or studying, but I loved watching television, from news programs and interview shows like David Susskind’s to comedy shows like The Honeymooners and listening to the transistor radio for music and other talk shows. I was never into wild fiction or fantasy. Even a sitcom like The Honeymooners had its grim and gritty edge.
With summer, when we otherwise would be around all the time while on vacation from school, my mother got us out of the house and out of the line of fire of dad’s rampages. She’d send us down South to Birmingham to stay with one of her sisters—my four-foot-six, drinkin’, smokin’, pistol-packin’ Aunt Inez. Even my father would get shaky when Inez visited us in New York. Right in front of the kids, Inez would tell my mother, “You’re a fool putting up with that man.” She was tough.
When we stayed with her in Birmingham, Aunt Inez would have me and my sister walk two miles to the grocery store in ninety-degree heat for a carton of Camels—every single day. The grocer was a white man, so if there was a white person there, even if he or she was behind us in line, we had to wait until that person was served first. That would never happen in the Bronx!
Going South, the culture shock was enormous. When I first saw “Black Only” drinking fountains, I didn’t even know what that meant. What I did know was that they were dirty, so I drank out of the white fountain. When Aunt Inez caught me, she slapped the shit out of me.
“Do not ever do that again! You’re lucky nobody saw you! People would kill you for doing that!”
“It’s not for you.”
“Water’s coming out. What’s the difference?”
“You drink out of this other one, you hear me?”
The most shocking thing was when Aunt Inez crossed paths with white people in public. In New York you would tell someone what you thought right to their face. Even my mother would tell me, “Why don’t you tuck in your lips?” or “Lighten up, why you so dark?” She didn’t mean to be funny; she was telling the truth. But in the South a woman like Aunt Inez, who despised white people like only someone raised in Alabama can, transformed into the sweetest of angels in front of them.
“Miss Jones, we sho’ happy to see you,” Aunt Inez would say. “You are the nicest people to us.”
Out of earshot, she would warn us, “These are the Joneses. You got to be nice to them and you got to know how to speak right to them.”
Aunt Inez was some sort of housekeeper, and sometimes she would take us along when she had to go to a white person’s home to watch over their kids. The white kids would talk to us in the kitchen—we weren’t allowed into the rest of the house. They wanted to know about New York and what it was like living there.
Afterward, we’d tell Aunt Inez we were talking to them and she’d be so excited. “Oh my God, you got a chance to talk to the Jones kids! They will be going to the University of Alabama, and they are going to be big people around here.”
I didn’t want to hear any of that. I was from New York! The Joneses were just people—nothing special, even for white people. But I could never say that to Aunt Inez. She has been dead these many years, and even now saying something against her, I am afraid she still might come after me!
I met a few white people back in New York during my first job—shining shoes outside nearby Yankee Stadium in the Bronx when I was ten years old. A little later I delivered newspapers, the New York Post, mainly to Italian families, on a route just outside the projects. But I never really knew white people until I became a vendor at the stadiums when I was fourteen years old, beginning with Yankee Stadium but also at Shea, the Polo Grounds, Madison Square Garden, and so on. Most black people, including myself, were not especially interested in them or their culture. What surprised me was that they, especially the Jewish kids I worked with, were interested in mine. They wanted to know about our music, our lives, everything.
They were the first people I ever met who had drive, who wanted to do something with their lives. They weren’t working selling peanuts and soft drinks to buy a new $12 pair of Flagg Bros. shoes. They were working to earn money to go to college so they could become doctors or lawyers or open a business. To them, if you didn’t go to college—even a lousy college—it was nothing short of shameful. Growing up in the projects, I could not conceive of such a plan—few of us could. Education? That was for someone else. In the projects you didn’t think about the future. There was no future; there was just today.
They were white and Jewish, guys like Gary Cohen and Alan Marcus, but we became friends. They had cars and would come into my neighborhood to pick me up to go to work. They introduced me to the Stage Deli and invited me to the Huntington Townhouse, an iconic banquet hall on the Jericho Turnpike that hosted bar mitzvahs and weddings. I would put on the inscribed yarmulke and—this is probably not a shock—still stand out in the crowd. These were progressive people, and to some extent I was a trophy: “Hey, look at us. We got a black person here! We’re not racist!”
I used to have a bit in my act about going to the Huntington Townhouse on Saturdays.
Gary Cohen would get dressed up in a nice powder-blue suit, put on his yarmulke, and I’d go with him. With twenty bar mitzvahs going on, he’d just walk around and pop into a room every now and then. Inevitably, some woman who hadn’t seen her designated bar mitzvah boy since he was a child and could not possibly identify him would say to her husband, “Harry, that must be him. Give him the envelope and let’s get the hell out of here.” We’d take in a couple grand a weekend!
That was only a joke, but I bet that scam would work today.
The extent of my criminal life involved the Great Candy Caper. About a mile away from the projects was a candy factory. Talk about temptation. I loved Chunkys. A Chunky was a candy made of milk chocolate and filled with raisins and peanuts. They were originally made in New York and had been around since the 1930s. They were beautiful and delicious, and when I was a kid, one Chunky cost only five cents. This factory had lots of other candies, but the Chunky was my pot of gold.
One night several of us kids broke in. It was not difficult. This was the late ’50s—a very different time in our country. There were no razorwire barriers or security dogs or burglar alarms. We crawled in through an open window. We weren’t exactly criminal geniuses. We didn’t realize until we were inside that we hadn’t brought anything with us, like shopping bags, to help carry out the loot. So we took only what we could put in our pockets or carry in our arms. Still, a few dozen boxes of Chunkys, and Clark and Hershey bars were a good haul, and we ran happily home.
By the time I reached the lobby of our building the word was out that the police were looking for the guys involved in the “candy heist.” How they found out so fast, I didn’t know—maybe the police tracked us down following the candy we dropped along the way, a sort of Hansel and Ghetto. When I got into our apartment, I stashed the Chunky bars under my bed and prayed the police would somehow skip my place in their search for the culprits. When you’re a kid, you don’t know what trouble is until you get into it.
About ten o’clock that night, the knock came. It was not a neighbor’s knock or a salesman’s knock; it was an “official” knock on the door. My mother answered.
Two policemen stood there. “Mrs. Walker, we have it on good authority that your son stole some candy from the factory nearby. We’re here to get the stolen property back or make sure there’s restitution.”
Cowering in my room, I heard them, but still hoped I would not have to come out to face my mother.
She came into my room instead. “Did you steal that candy?”
At first I went with, “What? Candy? Huh?” It did not work. She walked me into the living room, where the policemen stood.
“Look, Mrs. Walker, we will take him downtown to juvie if he doesn’t fess up. We know he was one of the kids.”
I saw the guns in their holsters and the billy clubs in their belts.
“Um, but it wasn’t my idea,” I said. “It was John Westbrook.” He had stolen my baseball glove, so I figured he was fair game.
“Do you have any of the candy? We’ll look if you don’t show us.”
I pulled out the boxes from underneath my bed.
“Alright. We might come back again for more information.”