My father was a school custodian and my mother didn’t work because of illness and her choice to stay home with me and my sister. There wasn’t always a lot of money but we always had enough. They knew how to prioritize their lives and they always put family ahead of any luxuries that they would have liked to have.
We didn’t have cable TV. We didn’t take vacations (Dad was happy to be home with us). We didn’t have a sleek car (Dad’s 1971 Chevelle was still running when I was a junior in high school in 1987). We took care of things and made them last.
The neighborhood, however, was another story.
I was talking with a colleague who was complaining about fireworks late at night in her largely quiet suburban neighborhood. I sympathized with her, but also remembered what the 4th of July was like for much of my young adolescence.
My friend’s brother sold illegal fireworks (and drugs) in our neighborhood. And on the 4th there was a huge fireworks “show” right out my front window. It went on and on until 3 or 4AM. We routinely got no sleep and were often afraid of someone burning down the neighborhood.
There was a lot to be afraid of in my neighborhood. I was mugged in front of my own apartment house for a lousy two bucks by someone I knew and his friends. My dad got hit with a rock from a pissed off teen ager who was annoyed at him for asking him to move his car. A young man was shot to death in front of our corner store and when I mentioned that I knew who he was was, albeit not well, my 7th grade catholic school teacher looked at me askance.
Somehow, thanks to my parents and sister, I stayed out of trouble, graduated high school with honors, struggled in undergraduate years and have had two fairly successful career paths.
It all started on a not-so-little street in Yonkers.
My parents still live in that apartment and the neighborhood is about the same. It’s still not a safe area, albeit the evening noise has quieted down significantly. There’s an amazing view of the hudson and the Palisades from my parent’s bedroom window. Until I went to middle school, I’m not sure if I knew how dangerous the neighborhood was.
In high school my dad drove my baseball teammates home on occasion, saving them the requisite bus fare. “They’re a lot worse off than us.” he’d say. He was right. Their neighborhoods were war zones some days. Drugs being the predominant problem. One day, Dad had to drop me off at home so I could get ready for a family event. He then proceeded to drive home Tommy and Carlos, two of my teammates, both hispanic, and both who lived in the seedier side of town.
When he got to our apartment, I started to get out of the car. Tommy said, “Yo Mike, I didn’t know you lived in the ghetto!”
It wasn’t a slur. It was a message of acceptance, perhaps surprise, even. The next day, Tommy and Carlos told me that they were in fact, surprised that me, “the smart kid, the one who we imagined lived somewhere really, really nice, lives in a place that’s not so different from us. And he’s not as tough as we are. How does he ever make it through the day?”
I smiled and said, “Guys, look, a lot of people are gonna look down on us, all of us, because we’re sons of custodians, sanitation workers, postal carriers and other jobs requiring manual labor. Some of our teammates even get public assistance. But just because we struggle doesn’t mean that we’re dumb. Just because there’s a lot of people who are more advantaged than us doesn’t mean that we’re any less smart than they are. If we work hard and work together, we’ll be OK.”
I remember those teammates fondly. I was hardly a great baseball player. Tommy had a few cups of coffee in the minor leagues and even tried out for the Yonkers team that I was the color commentator for one year on the radio. I tried to convince the GM to buy his contract, but she passed. Carlos went to a small college and I lost track of him after that. Those guys often took some extra time to work with me on my baseball skills and at times I’d help them with schoolwork or getting a teacher to cut them some slack.
Mostly, though, they taught me a valuable lesson about diversity. We were all sons and daughters of people who others would look down on, and who many educators and sociologists would say didn’t have a chance to get out of the “ghetto.” At our tenth reunion, I looked around the room and couldn’t believe that we all had done pretty well for ourselves.
Poor does not mean stupid, and I fear that’s something that many people think. Today let us pray for the working poor. Those who are often challenged by the economy and who live check to check trying to make ends meet. Let’s pray for the “ghetto,” often a term that means a bad neighborhood, it can also be a symbol of overcoming the odds that was placed against you.
Not that long ago, my colleague Bill McGarvey and I were talking about someone who we admired as an author. Frankly, I was envious of her achievements and Bill was quick to remind me that “(I) had come so much farther in writing (my) book.” I did it without any contacts or guidance from parents or even a bunch of money. Sometimes it’s that much harder to succeed when you don’t come from a place of esteemed wealth, but when you do, one should be much prouder of that.
So today we say thanks to all who helped along the way. And we hope that there’s more than a few others that we can help along the same road as time goes on.