Our neighborhood enjoyed many of the same amenities that wealthier communities in the city had had access to for a long time. Transportation from the Projects was excellent. Bus lines ran from th Street up to Fordham Road, and you could travel by subway from th Street to almost anyplace in the city. And right until the early '70s, we had an elevated train that ran up 3rd Avenue all the way to the North Bronx.
The shopping was as good as the transportation. Up on th Street and 3rd Avenue, you could find major store chains and supermarkets, plus big department stores like Hearns and Alexander's. You could take a bus from th Street across a bridge over the Harlem River all the way to th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, passing right through Harlem on your ride.
We felt safe in our neighborhood, in part because the Projects had its own police force, which operated out of the management office where we went to pay our rent.
The streets and buildings were cleaned by the Project's maintenance men every day, and they also made repairs in the apartments and in public areas. The hallways and lobby were filled with the mingled aromas of fresh coffee, fried chicken, chitlins, garlic and olive oil, fish, apple pie, and rice and beans.
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Each nationality had its own cooking smell, and people shared their food with one another in the same way they shared records, swapped sports equipment, and watched one another's kids. Along with good food, music and laughter were fixtures of life in the Patterson Houses. The decade of the '50s was the time of Elvis Presley, and black people, like everyone else, listened to him. When it came to humor, we listened to Moms Mabley, a year-old black woman without a tooth in her head who talked about life like a woman who had seen plenty of it.
If Moms Mabley was the queen of black humor, then Redd Foxx, a raucous, red-haired man whose jokes ranged between R- and X- rated, was the king. They were the best black stand-up comics who ever lived, with no disrespect intended to Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, both of whom learned many of their best routines from these legendary figures. All in all, our neighborhood was an enviable place to live. On weekends, people would come from all over the city, especially Harlem, which was only a short subway ride away, just to walk around and marvel at all the trees and beautiful flowers and to soak up the community atmosphere.
None of us who lived there thought of ourselves as poor or underprivileged. I was lucky enough to be born into that small world on November 30, , as Allen Christopher Jones, Jr. The building my family lived in was East rd Street, and, as you already know, our apartment was high up on the 11th floor. When I try to trace the strange and unexpected paths my life has taken, I find myself going back to my parents. They are not with me now in body, but they remain with me in spirit, guiding me in all the mysterious ways that parents do as the Lord maps out our lives. My history begins with theirs.
My mother was a woman of striking appearance.
Nearly 6' tall, she was slender, with light skin, brown eyes, jet-black hair, and a hint of African features in her lips and nose. I always remember my favorite photograph of her, wearing a velour dress that comes down just below the knees with matching shoes and stockings.
The dress has three large buttons down the front, and around her neck is a pearl necklace. The beauty of her features is set off by red lipstick, and the expression on her face is as dignified and as elegant as her clothing. My father, too, was impressive-looking, though in a very different way. A physically imposing man, he was 6'4" with an athletic body, high cheekbones, black hair, and a distinctive Indian nose, a legacy of his Cherokee heritage.
In the early days when my mother first met him, he was a stylish dresser, wore his hair slicked back in what was then called a "conk," and his nails were long and manicured.
His expression, as I remember it, was full of pride, cynicism, and barely suppressed anger, the look of someone you did not want to mess with. Their physical attractiveness, however, was about the only thing my parents had in common.
In terms of their blood, background, temperament, and attitude toward life, they were about as different as two people could be. Her mother was African with French blood and came from the island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean.
Lucia was a French colony when the English attempted to take it over during the s, but the people of the island managed to resist them for years. As a result, they were understandably proud of their French heritage.
She then lived right down the street from the World Trade Center, and in her last months she witnessed one of her adopted country's worst ordeals. She was as proud and as independent on the day she died as she had been as a young mother trying to guide her daughter on the path to a righteous life. After my mother was born, my grandmother took her back to St.
Lucia, where she lived until she was 5 years old. When my mother returned to New York, she was enrolled in a Catholic school, where she made her first communion and confirmation. She took piano and dance lessons and was schooled in all the social graces expected of a young woman of that era. My mother always dressed beautifully and had excellent table manners, even as a young child.
In addition to the exposure to European and American culture my mother enjoyed in her homes, both in the United States and abroad, she also bore the imprint of her African heritage. Like most Caribbean islanders, the people of St.
Lucia believed that the visible world was infused with good and evil spirits, and they were trained to tap into the power of those spirits by looking for signs of their presence, working roots to put curses on people, and casting spells to help them get through the travails of life.
It was said that my mother was born with a veil, or caul, over her face, and in the Caribbean tradition that rare anomaly of birth meant that the child could see spirits. She discovered that she had this gift early in life, an otherworldly quality that set her apart from ordinary people. When my mother first moved into the family's new apartment in Harlem after returning from St. Lucia, she dreamed that she saw a man wearing a uniform walking through her room. Mom's gestures were all familiar—the way she tilted her head and thrust out her lower lip when studying items of potential value that she'd hoisted out of the Dumpster, the way her eyes widened with childish glee when she found something she liked.
Her long hair was streaked with gray, tangled and matted, and her eyes had sunk deep into their sockets, but still she reminded me of the mom she'd been when I was a kid, swan-diving off cliffs and painting in the desert and reading Shakespeare aloud. Her cheekbones were still high and strong, but the skin was parched and ruddy from all those winters and summers exposed to the elements. To the people walking by, she probably looked like any of the thousands of homeless people in New York City.
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It had been months since I laid eyes on Mom, and when she looked up, I was overcome with panic that she'd see me and call out my name, and that someone on the way to the same party would spot us together and Mom would introduce herself and my secret would be out. I slid down in the seat and asked the driver to turn around and take me home to Park Avenue. The taxi pulled up in front of my building, the doorman held the door for me, and the elevator man took me up to my floor.
My husband was working late, as he did most nights, and the apartment was silent except for the click of my heels on the polished wood floor. I put some Vivaldi on, hoping the music would settle me down. I looked around the room. There were the turn-of-the-century bronze-and-silver vases and the old books with worn leather spines that I'd collected at flea markets. There were the Georgian maps I'd had framed, the Persian rugs, and the overstuffed leather armchair I liked to sink into at the end of the day.
I'd tried to make a home for myself here, tried to turn the apartment into the sort of place where the person I wanted to be would live. I fretted about them, but I was embarrassed by them, too, and ashamed of myself for wearing pearls and living on Park Avenue while my parents were busy keeping warm and finding something to eat.
What could I do? They said that they were living the way they wanted to. After ducking down in the taxi so Mom wouldn't see me, I hated myself—hated my antiques, my clothes, and my apartment.
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I had to do something, so I called a friend of Mom's and left a message.