In our early youth, my siblings, cousins and I spent many weekends, holidays and summers at my grandparents home where we were always welcome, well-fed, and safe. It is there that I gained my first and most significant 'sense of community'. Melrose Place has always been a dead-end street.That made it even safer for the children that lived on it. The half dozen or so other families on this street were mostly black with a few white families already living there as well. The average household income was low but everyone who was old enough to do so was expected to work and contribute to the unmet needs of one another. At different times over the course of many years a number of the grandchildren lived with our grandparents either to lessen the existing economic burden on our parents or to be afforded an opportunity to have access to a much better school system than the one where we currently lived whether in Newark or elsewhere.
There were only two maybe four streets where Blacks either privately owned homes or rented in the entire town in the early to late 1960's. Even as kids though we knew that we were not welcomed everywhere. For example, there was a famous ice cream parlor in town called Grunnings Ice Cream Parlor on Bloomfield Avenue that I once went into alone as a kid and where I was told that I didn't belong inside and was asked to leave despite having the money to purchase ice cream. On another occasion, I was sternly scolded by a older man for picking up pears that had fallen to the ground on his unfenced property and unabashedly shown his KKK (Klu Klux Klan) membership card and thereby cautioned to beware should I ever attempt to steal a pear from off of his property.
Despite these infrequent slights, more commonly doled out by adults than between kids, I gained a fondness for all of the kids in my neighborhood because although unstated it was transparently understood that it is, must, and always will be first and foremost, the safety of all of us against the rest of the world. A big part of growing up was being 'interpersonally vulnerable' and getting emotionally closer to each other. This banner of loyalty that emerged amongst Black, Catholic, Christian, Danish, Female, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Male, Muslim, and Puerto Rican represented something special that can only be hard won on the playing field of accidents, birthdays, breakups, classrooms, disagreements, field trips, fights, forgiveness, hikes through the woods that were directly across the street, loss of loved ones, school yards, sleepovers, and the interdependence and respect that develops through competition in school sports, at local festivals and through other extra-curriculum activities.
In conclusion, my being reared by working class grandparents in a diverse immigrant community taught me not to be cruel, indecent, judgmental, overindulgent, prejudice, selfish or unforgiving. I would certainly not trade the invaluable lessons learned or the positive benefits like the sense of belonging and identification that I gained from ultimately being unconditionally accepted as a full and equal member of the community for anything else in the world. For in the increasingly comfortable space of my local community I had the good fortune of learning what it means and what it takes to be rigorously made into a grateful American.
Kayo's Barber Shop
Kayo's Barber Shop