If I'd Kept A Journal: Carol

by: dear occupant

Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 13:10:30 PM EST



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The inauguration speech the president delivered was as eloquent as usual, it still lingers. I've reread it several times now and continue to be absorbed by this passage;
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We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths -- that all of us are created equal -- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
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Drifting back into my own early history there were some significant markers, profound and perception altering events that would rearrange everything I knew, memories that remain vivid to this day. I'd like to tell these stories from the perspective of the kid I was then, try and recreate the time and the place and the mood.

I was born in 1955.
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dear occupant :: If I'd Kept A Journal: Carol
It's been fifty years now but I remember with detailed clarity her crisp navy blue dress, bright white ankle socks above shiny black, patent leather shoes, two red hairbows and wide bright eyes that matched an almost illuminated smile.

She stood alone silhouetted against the green chalkboard, having been abrubtly deposited like some specimen into our classroom by the school principal. Swaying slightly, her hands folded and relaxed she surveyed the room, slowly... waiting... stuck in the silence of an awkward moment.

We all were.

An unscheduled visit by Miss Winters, our perpetually unhappy principal was unnerving and her sudden appearance swept a silent communal guilt throughout the room, as if we had all done something wrong.  She had that effect on everyone, especially in close quarters and within eyeshot of her withering stare.

This morning though, as the hydraulics of the heavy wooden door wheezed open against her shoulder, her entire body and expression seemed even more rigid than normal. Glaring, she walked back into the hallway and all we heard was the echo of her low pumps clop, clop, clop landing heavy on the hard linoleum floor. Miss Winters reemerged trailing a girl, ushering her through the door with her fingertips placed lightly on her shoulders.

'This is your new classmate, Carol',

Miss Winters spun on her heels and walked out without saying another word. I remember listening to her quick footsteps as they faded down the hallway, because that echo was the only sound in the world for what seemed like an uncomfortable eternity. Carol stood there, her genuine smile unwavering as she calmly looked at all her new classmates who were white, just like me. It was 1965, I was ten.

Carol was the first black person I had ever seen.
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My two kid, two cars in the driveway family lived in Hempstead, Long Island on a plowed under potatoe farm. It was the single family home, tract development a certain Mr. Levitt specialized in, he became a very wealthy developer paving over paradise. Except for the addresses, assorted trim colors almost every house was identical and almost every family had two kids and two cars.

We were all white.

We might be shopping for our groceries at King Kullen, playing at the town park, at church or munching on burgers, fries and trying to suck our shakes through a straw at ChooChoo Hamburger, everyone I ever met or encountered was white. Folks on my block didn't talk about religion and there were no foreign languages spoken either. My dad spoke fluent Italian to his parents but would never utter a word of it at home, he was American. Our family was sometimes Catholic and I had Jewish and Protestant friends on my block as well. As kids, our religion was only problematic when the best players on our Little League team couldn't show up for an early Saturday game.

Of course as a kid, I had no concept of the sheltered life I was living, how cloistered and insulated my environment was. My uneducated parents did a poor job of explaining how the world was, beyond the borders of our neighborhood and why would they; they had attained suburban nirvana.

Even among my peers, I was alarmingly naive for my age.

This innocence and my all white worldview would face a head on collision in two years, when my parents divorced and my sister, my mom and I were suddenly sent packing back to Brooklyn.
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I was born in Brooklyn and in an ironic cross commute, now lived where many middle class white families no longer wanted to. Those who lived in the five boroughs and who could afford to, fled to Long Island.

Bedford Stuyvesant was no ordinary neighborhood and this was no ordinary time in our history, it was then, 1967. What I experienced as a naive kid in Brooklyn, how it felt to be overnight poor and on welfare because my dad never paid child support, how events and my new environment altered my life, helped reshape my worldview, is fodder for some of the stories I'd like to tell in this series.
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.As a shy kid who dreaded doing anything in front of the class, I kept wondering how Carol could remain so calm, because she did. To her great credit, our teacher who was not given prior notice that Carol was arriving, saved the moment. She asked if anyone in the front two rows would be willing to give up their desk and at least half the kids raised their hands. We spent the next hour helping each other get situated.

As it turned out, Carol was not only smart, quickly getting straight A's on her report cards, she was musically gifted too. Her weekly show and tells were always about classical composers and a small piano would be rolled into our room for her to perform. She became the official pianist at all our assemblies, playing America the Beautiful as we all sang along.

At our lunch table one afternoon, she began to talk about where she lived and the school she attended before attending ours. It was then that we found out that she had already graduated the fifth grade but Miss Winters refused to accept the transcripts, despite the pleas by her parents.
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It's been fifty years now but I still remember with detailed clarity the feeling of wrong, that darkened my innocence that day.
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thank you for taking a trip in my WayBack Machine. (2.00 / 18)


time...it seems to move so slowly until that day, when it doesn't.


More, please. ♥ (2.00 / 15)
Lovely, evocative, poignant writing, my friend. I look forward to many more.

"Do your little bit of good where you are; it is those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world." ~ Desmond Tutu

thank you NK, you made my day. (2.00 / 15)
speeches don't often have a lasting affect on me the way the Inauguration speech did. there was a very delicate balance between our history and our 'now.' and it took me back.

i often wonder who i would be if not for the incredible upheaval in my childhood. there is nothing quite like personal experience to understand how other folks live and struggle everyday. i doubt i would have purposely put myself there in Brooklyn, but in hindsight i'm glad it happened.


time...it seems to move so slowly until that day, when it doesn't.


[ Parent ]
is that last photo... (2.00 / 15)
Broadway??  In Brooklyn???  

I'm looking at the elevated subway tracks...

well done, dear o.  very well done.  Makes me think back to my own childhood, too, and the lack of diversity on Long Island.

There were two Chinese families on my block... which was an oddity in itself.  But those kids were not my age, more my older siblings ages, so I didn't really know them (my siblings did).  And the other families that had moved out there were Irish and Italian - all, like my parents, who moved from the city to suburbia.

There was one black family in town.  The Cockerals.  They were the only black family until I was in sixth grade when another family, one that had been placed to live in the motel.

I seem to remember the talk by kids in my class who heard the talk from their parent how upset they were that the one motel in town was being used for low income housing - and what would this do to property values.  I had to ask my mother what property values had to do with the motel.  She sent me to my father for the explanation.

But that new black family had a kid my age, so he was enrolled in the grammar school.  Unlike Jonny Cockeral, who was also in my grade, the new kid - his name also John (and I can't remember his last name) - was an incredible athlete.

Even the boys in my class were impressed by John... and the girls recognized that this new boy was also pretty cute.

After 6th grade, we all were then split between the town's two middle schools, and I later learned that John's family was moved out of the motel (and the way it explained to me years later, all the families placed in that motel were removed and placed elsewhere).

That was my moment of understanding what was wrong... and it made me wonder why my differentness didn't make my family run out of town as well.

You see what your writing does, dear o??  makes me think back... remember and recollect.

Thanks.

I so missed this about your pieces.  :)


yes, that is Broadway K. you know your NY. (2.00 / 15)
i was so psyched when i found that photo because my first girlfriend, my first love Lola lived right there, on the 4th floor of a walkup. we used to watch the trains go by among other things. :-) i wrote about her over at Orange, her Puerto Rican grandparents made me my first cup of Cafe Bustelo, latte style and that's how i still make my coffee to this day.

i'm glad it took you back K, you and i seem to share a lot of Long Island history. your experience was very similar although, and i've been racking my brain trying to remember, i don't recall there being much talk about Carol, at least among the students. my parents never spoke to me about 'important stuff' like yours did, you were fortuntate.

Carol was also a great athlete, actually my nemesis on Field Day because it was her and i, neck and neck during the 50 yard dash. she won and we bonded, actually i was in awe of her ability to perform in front of so many people. a shy kids hero. i remember being vaguely attracted to her too, as far as a dopey 10 year old would. she was quite beautiful.

i'm glad you're here K because i have a cache of stories about Brooklyn i havn't told yet.


time...it seems to move so slowly until that day, when it doesn't.


[ Parent ]
it's funny... (2.00 / 15)
I found this way to commute home from Manhattan through Brooklyn coz it was less crowded than inching my way through packed Atlantic Avenue.  And as I drove this way, and once I knew the route, I was then able to kind of look around and take things in.

I saw a Chauncey Street, which got me very excited because it made me wonder if this is why my dad called his first car (a chevy and way before I was born) Chauncey... which then was shortened to Chorty.  But by the time I discovered the street, both my parents were gone, and I never did get to ask my dad about this.

It's also a street that evokes a LOT in me, even though I didn't grow up in Brooklyn.  It is a very active thriving part of Brooklyn - of the working class... not the areas which have been regentrified.

When I drive down this road, it makes me think of what Brooklyn of old must have felt like.

I can't wait to read more of your stories!  :)


[ Parent ]
heck, i used to walk Chauncey St ALL the time K. (2.00 / 14)
everything happened on Chauncey, great record stores that would all have giant speakers on the sidewalk blasting the latest tunes, any kind of food you wanted from rice and beans, to pizza to soulfood, clothing stores with pants and shirts on racks on the sidewalk.

Chauncey was where we went to be seen, it was street theater everyday and all night too. yeah and all the requisite problems too, eventually it became too dangerous. that stretch of Broadway was a wasteland for the longest time too.

time...it seems to move so slowly until that day, when it doesn't.


[ Parent ]
Makes me wonder... (2.00 / 14)
if my Dad hung out on it as well when he was growing up - but that would have been in the late 30s!

Isn't it weird how our paths are crossed!!  :D


[ Parent ]
yeah, there is something about New Yorker's (2.00 / 8)
meeting and reminiscing either in person or online. and folks i meet always want to know about Brooklyn, always.

now i'm on a quest to find more old Brooklyn pics. i posted that one of the mother and her two children because that is a 'railroad' apartment exactly like the one we landed in.. 2thanks was asking about them when he was here, hope he sees it.

time...it seems to move so slowly until that day, when it doesn't.


[ Parent ]
also it seems like we both experienced (2.00 / 14)
injustice for the first time too although it was impossible to put that word to it then. as kids we just had the intuitive sense it was 'wrong'.

i felt it in my chest and it was very powerful and i still feel it there when i see it happen even today.

time...it seems to move so slowly until that day, when it doesn't.


[ Parent ]
Beautiful, wonderful, vivid. (2.00 / 13)
Complex, so few words but the mind fills in and asks more questions.

I wonder what became of Carol?

John Askren - "Never get into a pissing match with a skunk."


i'm fiercing you because of your question, Chris. (2.00 / 13)
i always remember faces and can usually remember first names and i have tried so hard to recall Carol's last name to look her up but keep coming up empty. it's a shame.

she made a powerful impression on me and it really had nothing to do with her skin although it was shocking when she first walked in. she was incredibly graceful and languid, very comfortable with herself no matter what she did. i was a perpetual corner dweller and wished i was more like her.

damn i wish i could remember her last name and thank you Chris, your compliments mean a lot.

time...it seems to move so slowly until that day, when it doesn't.


[ Parent ]
Beautiful story, brilliantly told (2.00 / 11)
I am always in awe of the resilience of the human spirit. I can't imagine Carol's world was always comfortable. Even if she didn't experience overt prejudice (and in that era I'd be surprised if she didn't) it's incredibly hard to be the only (the 'misfit') in any place or time.

I love this story from your past. I do hope we'll see more of the diaries.

Enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.

Barack Obama 1/21/2013


from one storyteller to another, thank you. (2.00 / 10)
'I can't imagine Carol's world was always comfortable.'

no, neither can i but if it was, she never showed it. pretty remarkable really, at that age, at that time under those circumstances. when i got to Brooklyn everything reversed and i did not fare nearly as well and it made me appreciate her even more.

i was telling Kishik upthread that i've got many stories from my time in Brooklyn so more diaries are in your future, iriti. :-)

time...it seems to move so slowly until that day, when it doesn't.


[ Parent ]
Magnificent, dear occupant! (2.00 / 8)
What else have you kept until now!? We await more of your evocative writing!  

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.


-- Oscar Wilde


thank you CC but i've been on a somewhat (2.00 / 8)
forced hiatus the past few months. i had 5 diaries planned when i went on vacation in August, then i got West Nile. when i finally recovered all the stuff began over at Orange and i just lost my courage to post there.

so to answer your question, L O T S. :-)

time...it seems to move so slowly until that day, when it doesn't.


[ Parent ]
Truly wonderful writing!! (2.00 / 8)
It made me sit and think - I was just discussing this with iriti - I didn't go to school with anybody that wasn't white until I was in college. That's just the way it was in my little rural Midwest town 100 miles from Chicago. The only African-Americans were brought in by the community college to play football. There was a lot of Italian immigrants, some Polish immigrants, and later on, some Hispanics. The most "exotic" in my class were a couple Jewish kids that got more holidays off than the rest of us. It's wierd to look back on it now, having a lot of the experiences I've had as an adult.

No matter where you go, there you are...

Buckaroo Banzai


yeah, the Jewish and Protestant kids (2.00 / 6)
in our grade school got to watch Laurel and Hardy movies Wednesday afternoon, while us Catholic kids got bussed to catechism so we could get our knuckles rapped by the nuns. man I hated being Catholic!

we have come a long way trs and even here in Chicago on the southside, there's still a long way to go. it is helpful sometimes to reflect though, i sometimes tell these stories to my daughter Little O for some historical context. integration is a given in her world, she can only shake her head in disbelief. she just finished To Kill a Mockinbird, so we had lots to discuss.

time...it seems to move so slowly until that day, when it doesn't.


[ Parent ]
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