During my first year of studies at Union Theological Seminary (1956-7), I spent two evenings a week working with a small group of kids (about a dozen) at the Manhattanville Community Center in lower West Harlem — just down the street from the 26th Precinct police station.

It took a bit of time for us to get to know each other, as I was white and they were African Americans. Living conditions were rough for them in dangerous and deteriorating walkup tenements — subsequently replaced by a variety of high rises. On one occasion I drove a social worker — a Vassar grad — to the home of two brothers. It immediately became clear that she was nuts — as we passed each street corner she would point to some guy and proclaim, “He’s a communist!” The home of the kids was pretty grim — two rooms with cardboard in the windows of one rather than glass and six kids (with various fathers) who lived with the mother — little kids sleeping with her in a double bed and others in a stuffed chair in the other room (the older ones would put the littler ones on the floor when they fell asleep so they could sleep in it). As we were leaving one of the kids shut the door on the social worker’s coat and she began screaming — that she would take all the children away from their mother. When I reported this event to my agency supervisor, he dismissed it. Several months later he told me that I had been right and that the woman had virtually destroyed 30 or so families.

Back to the kids — nothing that I tried to get them interested in at first worked — basketball, other activities. Finally one asked me, “Teach, can we do some cooking?” They were all hungry! Thereafter I would bring with me a large box of cake mix and we would make a wild assortment of cakes that would be eaten down to the last crumb.

I finally broke the ice one night by offering to take them all on when we had had an argument over something. That room had a padded floor and I wrestled them down as they came at me until they finally brought me down and had me pinned like Gulliver. We then broke into laughter and were friends from there on. One night I inadvertently used the common kids’ slogan of my day when picking members of teams: “Enie meanie minie mo, catch a nigger by the toe. Out goes y o you.” “TEACH!!!!” I apologized and was forgiven.

One day one of the kids asked me why I was wearing white tennis shoes — “women’s shoes?” I explained that they were tennis shoes that men wore, too. At the end of the weekend I was contacted by a police officer who said that he understood that I was in charge of the white shoe gang. On my next meeting all were wearing white sneakers — needless to say not purchased.

All of the kids were afraid for their lives and, thus, armed — usually with knives. At one point I persuaded them that they should leave them with me and showed them the bottom drawer of a bureau where I would store them. A few weeks later I discovered that they had returned to reclaim them.

These were good kids eager to learn. I once found a pair of twins holding down a little guy and threatening to burn him with a cigarette. I grabbed them and nearly knocked their heads together. I explained that big guys take care of little ones. The twins became the protection agency for all little kids in the center. One night they wanted to have a dance with girls. I knew none would come so invited my future wife and some of her Sarah Lawrence friends to fill in. They did and danced with the boys who treated them with full respect — bringing them chairs, offering to get food, etc.

Unhappily I left them all behind the next year with marriage and a year at Oxford. I ran into several later who filled me in on what had happened to the rest. Two had made it. One had moved to Long Island and the other — the most violent –  became a hero cop. One of the heroes of the kids, incidentally, was the sole African American policeman in the precinct and probably all of NYC at that time.

I ran into one of the twins who took me to visit his family. A little sister asked if X was going to wear his dress that night? His brother was doing 15 to 25 for armed robbery. He explained that he had become a male prostitute working the theater district. As I left him downstairs he said, “I hope you won’t misunderstand this” and leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.

“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 [blind copies]

Be Sociable, Share!