The White Shoe Gang

My attempt to work with a little gang of kids in West Harlem as an intern from my first student year at Union Theological Seminary stretched my imagination to the limits. Apart from the London kids with whom I had worked in a center as a student, I had never encountered the effects of extreme poverty on kids to such a drastic extent. My kids were always hungry and often tired — they might be obliged to sleep in a chair rather than a bed in the battered tenements housing younger siblings who got to sleep in the only existing bed with their mother. Fathers were banned by our welfare rules from joining their families and there were no jobs (legal ones) for African American men displaced by the returning war veterans. My academic career was probably rescued with our marriage and move to Oxford studies following my year with the kids two nights a week.

Getting to know each other was not easy at first. They didn’t trust me as just another authority figure from outside their world — “Hey teach . . . ” And I had to get inside their worlds to understand the stresses, fears, and griefs. They missed their fathers and grandmothers living still in the South. They sensed hostility coming at them from all directions and the need to protect themselves. They carried makeshift weapons which at one point I managed to persuade them to store in the bottom drawer of my room at UTS.

There were funny moments of misunderstanding. One guy finally asked me why I was wearing girls’ shoes? I explained that white tennis shoes were worn by both men and women. The next weekend I got a call from the local precinct asking whether I knew anything about the white shoe gang? I finally figured that they had adopted same — ‘borrowed’ from a local shoe store as they could not have afforded to buy them.

I mentioned in an earlier report that our major activity together was baking cakes from mixes I brought. As 12-13s they were hungry. All the usual sports did not work with them. So I figured that I might teach them some defensive moves if attacked, e.g. how to break a strangle hold from behind. One night broke the ice when I dared them all to take me down on a padded floor room used for such. It took them a bit of effort but finally as Gulliver, I was pinned by the group and we all had a good laugh.

My angriest guy, Odell, became the hero cop who filled me in later on the fact that all but 3 had died violently — Odell was okay and about to retire. Another was working on L.I. and a third was homeless in CA.

Another two that really saddened me were Melvyn and Alvin — identical twins whom I mixed up occasionally and may have done here. I first met them pinning down a little kid and threatening to burn him with a cigarette. I grabbed them and almost knocked their heads together and gave them a heavy lecture to the effect that big guys like them were supposed to protect little guys, not bully them. They then became the enforcers who protected little guys as threatening guardian angels.

My last sad encounter with the twins or at least one of them was when I ran into him a few years after our return from Oxford. He invited me up to see his family. A little sister asked whether Melvyn/Alvin was going to wear his dress? He then explained that he had become a male prostitute with the gay theater crowd while his brother was doing 15-25 for armed robbery.

As we were leaving in the elevator he reached over and kissed me on the cheek and said that he hoped I would not misunderstand — that he wanted to let me know that my caring had made a difference for him.

I understood.

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent 212-665-8535 (voice mail only) [blind copies]
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