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.”
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.”
Influenced by Good Examples of Bad Examples
As they took away the Chunkys, I was quivering.
My mom said, “Why did you do something like that? You know that was wrong. No, I can’t buy you a dozen Chunky bars, but I can get you two. How many do you want? Because you’re not going to get a dozen. Now go back into your room, and I don’t want to hear anything more from you.”
The next day, when all of us kids got together, we were tough guys once again.
“Yeah, the police came, but I told them I didn’t know nothing! I don’t know if anybody squealed, but it wasn’t me!” That’s what each of us said. Of course, every kid had ratted out at least one other kid. Nobody was going to admit how really frightened we were. Maybe I just learned life’s lessons really fast, because the Great Candy Caper scared me into never stealing anything again.
I hung out with a group of guys in the projects, but we never called ourselves a gang. My buddies had nicknames like PoPo (the funniest of the group), Head (very quiet, but we listened when he spoke), and Gooie (the best looking of us). There was also Irving Lipscomb, who was black even with a name like that. I know we were not really a gang because there has never been a gang with a member named Irving. In any case, Irving was two sandwiches short of a picnic.
We were barely teenagers, but we thought we were pretty tough, at least when we were together. The Melrose, Patterson, St. Mary’s, and Highbridge projects as well as neighborhoods such as St. Anne’s—each had their own turf. At Melrose, John King was our leader. He was the fastest and the strongest. Once, we were on St. Anne’s turf, and they came after us. We ran and we ran and we ran. They targeted King and somehow caught him. They beat the crap out of him. Today, an inner-city gang would probably just shoot the other gang member dead without a second thought. But for us back then, they subjected King to the ultimate insult—they made him say, “Mommy.” Only then did they let him go.
When we next saw John King, who we thought could kick anybody’s ass, he was a beaten lad. Seeing that happen to someone was frightening and sad.
Another time we went to the Highbridge projects at night for a dance at somebody’s apartment. When the Highbridge guys heard we were there—and hating that we might be dating Highbridge girls, which we were—they busted in. One of them had a machete.
He yelled, “I am going to kill anyone from Melrose or anyone I don’t recognize!”
I jumped head first out the two-story window and into the bushes below. My buddies followed. The Highbridge guy then swung his machete out the window hoping to hit one of us. I figured he was then going to rush downstairs and intercept us as we crossed in front of the main building. Scared and scratched up from the jump, we hauled ass. Through back alleys, with dogs chasing us, we never stopping running for the entire eight miles home.
We had trouble at Patterson too. When you got off the subway one stop before ours for Melrose, you had to walk through the Patterson projects. If the Patterson guys saw us, they would chase us back to the border with Melrose. Conversely, when they came to our projects, we did the same to them. The lines were pretty well drawn. The problem was that at junior high school you met girls from Patterson and elsewhere. If you wanted to go out with one, you would have to venture into enemy territory to pick her up because her parents wouldn’t allow her to come to your neighborhood alone.
Then there were the Italian guys, who had a real advantage because they had cars. We would sit on the stoops in front of our buildings and see them drive into our neighborhood. Someone would yell out, “Dagos on the way!” We would duck behind a bench or run behind a building because they would shoot at us! I guess that was their sport—hunting niggers in the projects. We were the targets of their drive-bys. Today, a gang would blow you away with firepower. Back then they were playing with BB guns or .22s. Nobody was likely to get killed.
But when my friend Ronald Wiley scooted behind a building, a bullet ricocheted off the bricks near him. A piece of the broken brick hit him in one of his eyes, ripping it out of the socket. The eyeball hung by the nerve as he held it in his hand. There was blood everywhere. We took him to the hospital. They took the eye out and put a patch on. Eventually they gave him a glass eye.
I admit it—I was never a fighter. I only got into one fight. I didn’t want to be involved, and when I was, I wanted it over as fast as possible. The only detail I remember is that the guy sprained his back and screamed. That was all. That was the end of my career in street violence.
Despite the turmoil at home I managed to avoid getting into drinking or drugs. In fact, I have never done any drugs and I have drunk alcohol only once in my life. I know what you’re thinking: “Oh yeah! You are telling me that someone in show business, a comic on the road for hundreds of days a year, doesn’t drink, do drugs or smoke? What is he, some religious freak, someone on a morality crusade?” Neither, my brothers and sisters. I did not follow the Ten Commandments as written in the Bible. I followed the Ten Commandments as seen in the reality show. I saw what not to do by watching the people around me. I was influenced by good examples of bad examples.
For example, there were my mom’s younger brothers, Cornelius and Herbert. They would drive down from Connecticut to visit on a Thursday and they would stay drunk through Sunday. Cornelius had a reason to drink: when he was a child in Alabama, the Klan threw a torch under their house. Turned out that was where the kids were hiding. His shirt caught fire and burned one of his arms to the bone. It was a shriveled, hideous-looking thing that was puffy and sometimes oozed a yellowish pus.
Before he would visit, a well-meaning person would tell everyone, “Do not say anything about the arm. You understand me? Do not say anything about the arm.” Cornelius would enter and, of course, someone would be so shocked they’d blurt out, “Oh my God, what happened to your arm?”
He was taunted and laughed at and made miserable all of his life. He drank to numb the pain, both physical and emotional. Herbert kept up with his brother’s drinking too. Both of them were short men and had a Napoleon complex. They would challenge people to fight at the drop of a hat. If you looked at Cornelius’s arm, Herbert would get in your face and say, “What the hell are you lookin’ at, man?”
“Bullshit!” And the fight would be on. With just one arm, Cornelius wasn’t much help. Most of the time they would get their heads kicked in.
When they arrived on Thursday, I liked Herbert and Cornelius. By Saturday night, with all of the fighting and drinking, seeing them laying in their own vomit, I wished they had never come. I saw people such as them change, get totally out of control when they were drunk or high, and that never seemed like fun to me.
My mother would ask them to take it easy with their drinking. But they could not.
“Mom, they’re drunk!” I complained.
“They’re your uncles. Shut up.”
My mother loved her brothers, no matter what. She loved her kids too. She was always good about talking to us about drinking and smoking.
For her brothers and herself, she kept a stash of Canadian Club whiskey and cartons of Chesterfield cigarettes. “If you want to drink, you want to smoke,” she told us, “it’s right there. Do whatever you want. Go right ahead. I’ll leave it right out for you. But here’s what’s going to happen when you drink. You’ll feel good for awhile, but then you are going to get sick to your stomach and throw up. You’re going to have headaches, get splotches on your face, and start to look really old. Your eyeballs will turn red. You’re going to stumble around and fall down.”
Nothing good about any of that, I thought to myself.
“If you smoke,” she went on, “this is what’s going to happen to you. You’re going to have bad breath. Your teeth are going to get yellow. And you’re going to cough all the time. If you want that, go ahead.”
No, really, thanks anyway.
The only time I ever drank was when I was fifteen. We were at the YMCA. Someone brought Ripple wine and I kept drinking from the bottle. It tasted terrible. Then, just as my mother said, I got sick. My friends pushed me into the bathroom. I put my head into the bowl and vomited. Someone then flushed the toilet with their foot. I took my head out and then put it back in—and passed out. I became so ill that my friends had to carry me home. I stayed in bed for two days. My mother never asked why I was sick. She didn’t have to.
I never drank again—even when I went to bar mitzvahs and they would always have Manischevitz wine there.
“It’s just wine, not hard liquor,” they would say.
“That’s okay. Is there any Dr. Brown’s soda?”
My mother was the same when it came to curfews. The rule for many kids in my neighborhood was that when the streetlights went on, that was the signal to come home. My mother told us, “I will be at work. I can’t watch you. Come home when you come home. Try not to get into trouble.”
I did not get into much trouble at school. After all, I was hardly there. When I was, I sat at my desk, looked out the window, made paper airplanes, and shot spitballs. I don’t blame the teachers for their lack of interest in guiding me. Almost all of them were white, and most of them did not want to be there either. But if you were a teacher, you could avoid the draft. So here they were in the ghetto wondering, “How the hell am I going to get my car out of here in one piece after class?”
I took a twisted pride in the fact that I handed in the same essay in English class from the second grade to the ninth grade. It was about Jim Gilliam, a black infielder with the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers. It never got any better either—always earning a B or C.
One day I was in front of Yankee Stadium shining shoes, and there was my hero! He was dressed in a brown tweed suit, driving a brown Caddy, and on his arm was a beautiful brown-skinned woman. I thought he was the coolest dude I had ever seen. He handed me a buck to shine his shoes and I told him all about himself, quoting my essay. When he gave me his autograph, it was one of the biggest thrills of my life.
I found out why the Caucasians are better at school than we are. Because y’all are better cheaters! The white kids had the answers to the tests all written up and down their arms. I tried that one time and almost went blind!
The only class that appealed to me when I was at Broncksland Junior High, JHS 38, was music. I fell in love with the saxophone when I was nine years old and I begged my mother to buy me an instrument, the only thing I ever wanted her to buy me other than baseball gloves. I don’t know how she did it, but she bought me a Selmer sax, the best on the market, at a pawn shop. I was in heaven. I took that Selmer Mark VI alto sax to school and they put me in the band. For a while music was the only reason I went to school every day. I thought that when I grew up, somehow my life would involve playing the sax, like Paul Desmond in Dave Brubeck’s band. But I never got the hang of actually reading music. I probably sounded terrible, but I didn’t care—I loved to play.
The girls loved it too, and that was a very good thing. After one talent show in the assembly hall, the audience applauded my solo. I went into the hallway, and a crowd of girls gathered around me.
“My God, you are incredible!” they said.
No one beyond my mother had ever said I was incredible doing anything. I’m sure I was awful, but it didn’t matter. The girls thought I was incredible. I was one cool thirteen-year-old boy, all dressed up in a white shirt and black pants. I looked like a clarinet playing the sax.
“What’s your name?” they asked.
I said, “Sax.” And that’s what I began calling myself.
I was in every band in the school and lots of groups outside school—jazz, classical, pop. I wasn’t very good, but I was enthusiastic. One teacher gave me some valuable advice I still believe to this day: “If you’re going to be wrong, be wrong and be strong. Play it, don’t fake it. Play it!”
I so wanted to get better, but we couldn’t afford private lessons. In fact, there were times I didn’t even have a sax to play. We would have to pawn it for extra money. My sister would say, “He can’t play that thing. He’s never going to do anything with that. He’s never going to be anything. I’m going to go to college.” She would want the money for French tutoring or classes to help pass the SAT. My mother would agree and hock my sax at the local pawn shop for $50 or $100. When it would get close to the 120-day limit at the shop, we would get that note saying if we did not pay the loan with interest, the sax would be put up for sale. I’d hustle, working more stadiums to make sure I did not lose the sax forever. That sax was in and out of the same pawn shop time and time again. Every time I had to give it up was painful.
The All-City band was selected from the best junior and senior high school players after an audition in front of Mercer Ellington, Duke’s son. I was so determined to try to get in that for the only time in my life I asked my father to drive me somewhere. Because he thought Duke might show up, whom he adored and had met at Penn Station, he agreed to drive me to the audition downtown in the ‘56 Buick he had never allowed us even to sit in.
In the auditorium there were hundreds upon hundreds of kids—the cream of the musical crop. I had battled to keep my one horn, and here were fourteen-year-olds with three or four saxes. When they went on stage to play, they would put down a music sheet and actually read it. I knew I was in trouble.
I said to my dad, “We can’t stay. I have to go.”
“I’m not on the same level as these guys.”
“You’ve been playing. You’re in your room practicing. What’s up?”
“I’m not good enough.”
And we left.
They probably would have laughed me out of the room if I had played. The memory of that disappointment, of the realization that I just did not have the talent, pains me to this day. Even though I went on to play in bands while at DeWitt Clinton High School, I knew I wasn’t good enough—and before long “Sax” was no more.
My life with women—or I should say “girls”—did not start out very well either. I was hopelessly in love, as hopeless as a twelve-year-old could get, with Colonia Porter. She was a year younger and had beautiful, smooth, charcoal black skin, big brown eyes, and sparkling white teeth. She also had a boyfriend, a sixteen-year-old named Gerald. He didn’t go to our junior high, but he would always be in our schoolyard at lunch time. He talked to Colonia the whole hour. At the end of the day he would walk her home.
Colonia, who was rather shy and quiet, had no idea I even existed. I knew I did not stand a chance competing for her against a sixteen-year-old. Besides, it was pretty obvious that she was in love with Gerald. But a boy could still daydream. Then one winter day she came to school without a coat. I gave her my sweater to keep her from getting cold—and she put it on! I was so incredibly happy. After school she gave it back to me. I took it home and slept with that sweater for a month.
Later that year she came to class totally distraught, crying uncontrollably. Her girlfriends tried to comfort her, but they couldn’t. Gerald had broken up with her and she was devastated. She was so upset that she went home early. I decided that because Gerald was now out of the way, this was my big chance. When school let out, I walked to her apartment, hoping to comfort her and, not coincidentally, make a case for being her new boyfriend. I was finally going to get my shot at the beautiful Colonia!
Not Graduated, but Evacuated
When I arrived, there were dozens of people at her home. I walked in and asked for her. People were crying. Everyone was very sad. I asked for her again. No one would tell me anything. But I overheard what the adults said to each other.
Colonia had come home and hung herself. An eleven-year-old girl. Her whole life ahead of her.
I didn’t completely understand all of what happened. In some selfish way, I thought she had hung herself rather than go out with me. But her death did not change me. I already knew life could be hard. I also knew, even then, that you could not give up, that you had to keep on keeping on.
I don’t say I “graduated” from junior high; I say I was “evacuated.” For the next three years at Clinton I hung out with my classmates, which did not involve going to many classes. The teachers moved me ahead without caring that I wasn’t passing any subjects. As I was about to enter my senior year a guidance counselor called me in to check on my progress toward graduation. I was stunned when he told me that I had so few credits that my chance to graduate high school on time was nil.
“Aren’t I a senior?” Nobody had ever said anything to me that I was in trouble.
“I’m sorry but you’re not even a freshman.”
So I just stopped going to high school. The way I figured it, I was bored of education and the Board of Education had decided to give me early retirement. That smart move qualified me to become a clerk at the Grand Union market in Manhattan, where I hoped to get an advanced degree in delivering groceries. The Grand Union was right by the East River, so I told people I had a job with a river view!
My mother was not happy. She insisted I take night classes at Theodore Roosevelt High School. She too took a step toward improving her life. Two of her sisters, Aunt Lavaida and Aunt Birdie Mae, staged what we now call an intervention. They sat her down and told her that she needed to get out of her marriage before she lost her life. Finally, she agreed, and after seventeen years of marriage, my parents divorced. My father would no longer be around, and though we stayed in the Bronx, we moved out of the Melrose projects.
I was eighteen and a half years old when I earned my diploma from night school, which officially allowed me to graduate from DeWitt Clinton. But I had no aspirations, no hope for the future.
My best friend, Jimmy Underdue, the Big Do, and I would stand outside an appliance store and watch the large console TVs in the window. On the screen were all of these ads about joining the military. We saw guys marching and running, but what really impressed us was that they showed them at a mess table eating oranges. We went, “Wow, free fruit. That’s great. We need to get into this, man.”
We went to a recruiting office, where a uniformed man was stunned that anybody was actually walking in to enlist during the height of the Vietnam War. He looked at us like we were insane. He said we had to take an aptitude test first.
“Let me give you the first ten answers,” he offered, obviously not wanting to lose these two fools, no matter how dumb we may be.
But just as he was about to tell us the answers, his superior showed up. “Sorry, can’t do it now,” he told us.
“You guys joining up?” asked his boss, not quite believing his own eyes.
“Yeah,” I said, “we’re comin’ in.”
We took the test and handed it to him. As he marked it, he kept looking up at us.
“Nobody fails this test,” he said. “But both of you did.”
That wasn’t going to stop him or us, though.
“Why don’t you come back,” he suggested, “and we’ll figure something out.”
I guess we had nothing better to do, because we did go back. There was a different recruiter in the office.
“You joining up?” he asked, just as surprised as the first recruiters.
“First, you’ll have to take this test.”
“Ah, forget it.” We left.
Later, Jimmy did enlist in the Marines. He was sent over to Vietnam in the summer of 1967. Private First Class Underdue was a radioman with an eight-man scout patrol when a helicopter dropped him onto a hill overlooking the Co Bi Thanh Tan Valley north of Phu Bai in South Vietnam on the morning of January 2, 1968. His patrol noticed a few North Vietnamese soldiers nearby, but the Vietnamese disappeared into the high grass.
As soon as night fell, under cover of a grenade barrage and heavy machine gunfire, a dozen or so enemy soldiers rushed the Americans. Most of Jimmy’s comrades were hit immediately. Jimmy spotted an injured soldier nearby and rolled toward him. The action may have saved his life because, as he rolled, a bullet only grazed his temple.
The patrol leader yelled for whoever was left to get out the best they could. “I moved away from him,” Jimmy remembered, “and as I did, a grenade blast killed him.”
The only two survivors were Jimmy and another black private, James Brown from Louisiana. They crawled down the hill and through the jungle and hid in a bomb crater. With US helicopters flying overhead, Jimmy tried to attract their attention by taking off his green woolen undershirt and waving it. “One chopper landed briefly, and I thought they had spotted us. But they took off again.” The jungle canopy was too thick for them to be seen.
Safety was at a US base called Camp Evans (strange that the name Evans would later play such a part in my own life). But neither man had a compass. If they ran into the enemy, they would be killed or, perhaps worse, captured. They heard artillery firing in the distance and, during the night, attempted to follow the sound they hoped would signal the location of the camp.
“It was raining and I was cold and scared,” Jimmy later told reporters. “We had no water and hadn’t eaten for two days. I had a terrible ache from my head wound. The most we stopped was for a minute to catch our breath. We couldn’t forget six of our buddies had died.”
Around noon of the following day they spotted soldiers moving along the crest of a hill, but they could not tell if they were friendly or enemy. For hours they stayed where they were. Finally, they decided to ford a stream—and came face to face with the point man of a Marine patrol. Just as nervous and wary as the tired men, for a moment the Marine considered firing on them. Luckily, he did not. Underdue and Brown were rescued. Jimmy received a Purple Heart.
When he came back to the States, Jimmy was not in good shape. While in Nam he got into smoking marijuana and doing heroin, and he brought his drug problem back with him. He was also quieter and wouldn’t talk much about what had happened over there. As if what he had been through was not enough, after he came home he got married and fathered a child who was autistic. Raising an autistic child is difficult now; it was near impossible then because no one knew how to handle that condition. When we would meet, Jimmy was obviously not the same guy I had known. He was always depressed. Seeing him was tough.
People always talk about the wasted lives of people in the ghetto. Nobody wanted to stay in the ghetto; everyone wanted to get out. Nobody wants to stay poor.
I grew up with Rodney Dawson in the projects, and he was so poor that his single-parent mother was never able to keep up the prescription for his glasses to correct his really bad eyesight. And because he could not afford new sneakers, whenever they got wet, you could hear them squeak. He would put newspapers in the bottom to keep down the noise. But at six-foot-five, he was still on the junior high basketball team. Without being able to see properly, his shooting was pretty bad, but he could block shots and sometimes dunk.
We had a full gym for a game against one of our main rivals. You could feel the tension in the air. Rodney was ready to take the jump ball to start the game, and his mom ran into the gym, screaming that her son was not going to be playing basketball on a Saturday. Maybe they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. A stunned gym watched his mother drag Rodney away. We didn’t see him for awhile, and finally he dropped out. He became a heavy drinker and was only in his twenties when he was stabbed to death in a bar fight.
There were friends of mine who died from heroin and many more from alcohol, no doubt about it. But I also had friends at Melrose who grew up and did well, became firefighters, had businesses, went to college. Some of them went to war for us too. We should never forget those from the ghetto who fought in Vietnam, including friends of mine like Jimmy Underdue and Willis “Butch” Reid, who came back damaged, or Stanley Jackson, who did not come back at all.
Stanley was huge; at fourteen years old he was well over six feet tall and 250 pounds. He was a man-child. His family was intact but even poorer than the rest of us, even poorer than Rodney Dawson’s. At one time his brother had to wear his mother’s dress because he had no clothes. That’s how poor they were. Hearing that the Army paid $96 a month and gave you free uniforms, he enlisted as a teenager. When he came back after his first tour in Nam, he sure did look great in his uniform.
“And we get all the fruit we want,” he said proudly. “We even have papaya.” I didn’t know what papaya was, but there was definitely something about the availability of fruit that brought in recruits from the ghetto.
He signed up for another tour, and when he came back he looked even better. I remember saying to him, “Stanley, those Cong will never get you. Those bullets will bounce off you, brother.” That was the last time I saw him.
One day I came home after work and saw his mother in the stairwell. She was inconsolable, beyond tears, pulled up in a fetal position. The story that went around was that Stanley and another soldier were sitting in a Jeep, passing a joint between them. A Vietnamese kid came up, saying, “American GI, American GI” and dropped a hand grenade in the Jeep. And that was that.
A couple months after the Big Do returned to the Bronx, I enlisted in the US Army Reserves, as a private in the 518th Maintenance Battalion at Fort Totten in Flushing. The enlistment would be for six years. But I never served. When the Army looked over the results of my physical examination—I was over six feet tall and just 115 pounds—they determined I was medically unfit and gave me an honorable discharge. Yep, I had even flunked a physical.
Then I found SEEK—Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge—a government-funded program with the City College of New York designed to prepare low-income students for college. The government would pay me $50 a week to go to class at a learning center off campus on the West Side. Leaving my career in grocery transportation at the Union Market was an easy decision.
Despite graduating high school, it was not until I went to SEEK that I read my first book—Dick Gregory’s autobiography, Nigger. That was SEEK’s plan of attack; get us interested in reading by appealing to our sense of Black Pride—and it worked. I could relate to Gregory, who grew up dirt poor and with an abusive father who was unfaithful to his mother. Yet he had overcome and become a famous comedian.
I have never forgotten a couple of the jokes in that book: Gregory walks into a segregated restaurant down South, and the white waitress tells him, “We don’t serve colored people here.” Gregory answered, “That’s all right, because I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.” Then a trio of rednecks walks in and says, “Boy, we’re givin’ you fair warnin’. Anything you do to that chicken, we’re going to do to you.” Said Gregory: “So I put down my knife and fork, and I picked up that chicken, and I kissed it.”
I had never been shy in school, but I certainly was not a class clown either. Gregory’s book planted the first seeds in my mind about becoming a comic.
Also at SEEK, I came upon Langston Hughes, who wrote about black life in Harlem in a way that was honest and real without being harsh. His main character was the funny and folksy Simple. He wasn’t complicated; he was simple. I loved Hughes’s entertaining style and that Simple talked like we talked—and without apology. Simple said, “I ain’t ashamed of my race. I ain’t like that woman that bought a watermelon and had it wrapped before she carried it out of the store. I am what I am.”
I knew what I was, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be. Most of the kids I knew growing up were trying to beat the system, including me. Now, at SEEK, I was around kids who wanted to become part of the system so they could raise themselves up.
Around the same time, the push for Affirmative Action kicked in across America. There were always people trying to save us: what can we do for these poor Negroes? Being black worked for us, including me, and put us to work. I was given a job at Johns-Manville, a company that manufactured insulation. Fortunately, I didn’t work with the asbestos; I was in the mailroom. After a few months I became a “middle manager.” I had stationary printed that read: J. Carter Walker, Head of Mailroom, New York City. I was sleeping in the ghetto, but now I was working at 40th Street and 5th Avenue. Look out, world, here I come!
Donald Beckerman, an instructor at SEEK, asked me, “What do you want to do in life?”
I told him about my job at Johns-Manville. “I have my own stationary!” I said proudly.
He told me they called my position “middle manager” for a reason. I can spend my whole life in the middle—or I can do something I really love to do.
“No bullshit. What would you really love to do?” he asked.
At night, I’d sit in the park, chasing chicks, watching guys playing basketball, and listening to Frankie Crocker on the radio. Crocker was one of the coolest cats around, and every black person in New York tuned in to his show on WWRL. He was flashy and flamboyant. He would say of himself, “For there is no other like this soul brother—tall, tan, young, and fly. If I’m all you’ve got, I’m all you need.” His show would start with a woman saying, “Do it, Frankie! Do it to it!” He’d end with, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve done my time, I’ve got to continue my prime. Frankie’s got to go.” Then a woman’s voice would be heard pleading: “Frankie, please don’t go!”
“Gotta go, baby. Time is up!”
I told Beckerman, “I’d love to be a disc jockey.” I thought my answer would end the discussion.
Instead, he said, “Okay, I know some people in radio.”
He took me to a station and asked his friend what I would need to do to get into radio. Was he serious? I wasn’t. But I couldn’t say no.
“It’s hard,” he admitted, “especially in your case, being from the ghetto.” He was referring to my accent, part New York, part black. “You’ll have to lose that if you want to be on the air.” I hesitated. He went on: “Or you can be an engineer and do all the stuff behind the scenes.”
That seemed easier, so I said, “Okay.”
“But you’ll need to get a first-class radio operator license.”
Geez, I thought, there is a complication every step of the way when you take this “career path.” I was ready to bail. But again Beckerman refused to let me. Not only did he know someone who ran a radio announcing and production school, the RCA Institutes, but he arranged to get me a grant to attend.
I left my job at Johns-Manville and went through the months and months of training. The exam for the first-class license was not easy, and lots of people wanted to have one. I failed three times.
With money getting tight, I needed to pick up another job. Somehow I passed the civil service test and landed work at the post office. They assigned me to a parcel post station, where each night I and another employee had to load a semi-truck with packages, from small, light ones to large, heavy ones. Along with the physical exertion, there was the mental strain. Today, they use computers and scanners to log in the packages. Back then we had to record each package by hand. I remembered those days in a joke I later used:
They have drug testing for employees of the post office. But there is one drug you will never hear about at the post office: speed.
We worked from midnight to eight in the morning. After a while I put a big couch in the back of one of the trucks and would try to get some sleep (during the day I was going to school at SEEK). That winter was brutally cold, and of course, there was no heat in the back of the truck. So my partner had the bright idea to build a small bonfire on the ramp into the truck! We were sure nice and warm while we were working. But then we left to take a break to get some food. The fire swooped into the truck and packages began burning up. The foreman ran out, yelling at us as we put out the flames. They suspended us for eight days.
I could not wait to leave that job. Thankfully, on the fourth try, almost two years after my first attempt, I passed the first-class radio operator license test. Doors opened up. White radio stations were under public pressure to hire blacks, but they did not want a black disc jockey. An engineer, however, would fit the bill, and there were very few blacks with that valuable first-class license.
I was hired almost immediately at WRVR, the radio station of Riverside Church. In those days radio stations went off the air during the night, and an engineer had to open the doors and turn the transmitter back on every morning. I landed the gig to arrive at 5 a.m. It didn’t matter if there was a snowstorm; I had to be there or else there would be no broadcast. I finally had a good excuse to quit the post office—and I did.
After a year at WRVR a job opened up at WQXR, the radio station of the New York Times. When I showed up, so young and so black, the man at the station skeptically asked if I had a first-class license. I showed it to him. I wasn’t even finished filling out the application when he said, “You’re hired.” I became one of the first blacks to work in downtown radio outside of janitorial departments. Almost all of the on-air blacks, including Frankie “The Loveman” Crocker, were uptown.
During my second day at WQXR it was raining, so I bought an iridescent raincoat on the spot. I was so proud of having a great new job. I was so happy about my good-looking slick raincoat. Everything was looking as good as that rainbow-colored raincoat.
When I got home that day, I bumped into a friend.
“Did you hear about Jimmy?”
“No,” I said, remembering only that he was having money problems and I had loaned him $20 the week before. “What’s happening with the Big Do?”
“He jumped off the subway platform and threw himself in front of a train.”
We call each other brothers all the time. But Jimmy and I—we were brothers.