An old cardboard box that yielded my New York City High of Performing Arts Yearbook and a flood of memories, revealed my portrait. I looked innocent enough, with a riveting quote beneath: “I know what is missing in the barrel rather than what is there.”
Reva Cooper, in the Drama Department, and my best friend at the time, admits that her quote actually belonged to Constance DiGiovanni, but was misprinted.
A simple exchange of inspired words between the two would have straightened things out:
Reva: “Music is my Best Medicine.”
Connie: “Cry the Beloved Country for Wasted Youth.”
So as we three exited our star-struck school, it was in the spirit of an empty barrel, music medicine, and wasted youth worth crying about.
The seeds of insecurity sown earlier in life
Flashback to P.S. 122, the Bronx: Another photo memento of the past emerges in the cardboard box.
I’m in the second row, extreme left: Class 6-1, Mrs. Sunshine— a place reserved year after year because I was always the “smallest” student.
By comparison, below is a photo-linked portrait of 6-5 without a teacher’s name attached. In the third row, 4th in from the left, an African American child named “Sandy Hamilton,” was destined to become a transformative figure in my life.
About 12 or more months before this picture was taken, Sandy’s family had moved from Harlem to the Marble Hill Projects of the Bronx with its towering, 14-floor buildings holding approximately 13 modest apartment dwellings per floor. Most occupants were lower middle class, blue-collar workers and some had white collar office jobs, but there was an economic parity that kept the playing field even and balanced.
At this point in the late 50’s, African Americans were in the minority in Marble Hill though over years, more ethnic and cultural diversity prevailed.
My 6th grade classroom
A model for outstanding academic performance, 6-1 produced intellectual heavyweights, Paul (Gewirtz), Roseanne, Joanne, Jamie, and Larry who carved out luminous careers in law, medicine and business. Decades later, two of them became my Facebook friends, with their family and other networks spreading cultural wealth far and wide.
But I was one of the few in our group, who embraced the arts as a life-long pursuit.
Sandy Hamilton occupied a desk in 6-5, a ways down the hall.
It was a class conspicuously numbered to reveal the results of testing and other indicators. Whether these children received remedial help or were essentially “left behind” was not clear, but after school, regardless of reading level, kids from all rooms would meet in the project playground for fair, goodhearted play….
that is, until one day, things changed.
I remember the occurrence like it was yesterday.
Sandy had been my after-school pal for weeks and months as we romped like sisters around the flagpole bordering two diametric play areas. She was an ace sprinter, wiry and muscular, running circles around anyone her age and beyond. Such athletic prowess had a tomboyish edge and garnered her recognition that was lacking in the classroom.
Whether Sandy was aware that I was as impassioned about my piano practicing as playing punch ball is not clear, but it would surely have had no effect on our sports-driven friendship that bonded us together.
Sometimes, my after-school jaunts took me to the PS 122 playground on Bailey Avenue where a bunch of St. John’s parochial school kids chose me up to be on their team. It was a unique honor to be included in a boys-dominated athletic arena that lacked gender equality.
Gender should have had no racial spillover, but apparently it did on a sultry afternoon when Sandy met me quite unexpectedly on the corner of Exterior St. a few blocks from the safety of public school 122 and its crossing guards.
I had noticed that a budding rivalry was creeping into our play, coming more from her side than mine, and over weeks, a group of black kids, some older and precociously muscular had begun to routinely surround her. Franklin Smith, a bruiser at 14, and senior of the crew, appeared to be braced for a fight at any turn. He’d been held back at school several times and used his spare time to mark out enemy territory on the Northwest Bronx project turf.
On the day of reckoning, a gang of kids, street fighters with a bone to pick, suddenly met me on the corner, about 4 minutes from the safety of building 5, 2831 Exterior Street where I inhabited a tiny room, marked off from 3 and 1/2 others. In my fancy free musical space, I used to tinker on my Sohmer upright as Tykie, a fluffball parakeet hopped from key to key in light staccato.
Those sweet memories were dimmed by a sudden blow to my stomach!
“Do you want to fight?” Sandy shouted in a threatening manner. She was aiming her fist at my head.
“I don’t want to fight,” I feebly answered, having no place to hide or protect myself.
She ignored my words, pelting me mercilessly as big-boned, Franklin Smith joined in with keenly placed punches to my back before a mob of ten chased me down the street as I managed to bolt loose.
The gang had the edge in speed, agility and clout. They stampeded me into the dark staircase of building 5, while I screamed for help.
No neighbor responded or came to my rescue. Housing Authority guards, conspicuously absent, assumed that a racial struggle was in progress, needing no intervention.
I could have been raped and killed given the apathy. But the stinging humiliation of being an assault victim was the profoundest wound.
How I made it to the safety of apartment 9L, I’ll never know.
My mother, a political player in these kinds of struggles would not console me. From a distance, she observed me soaking myself in a hot tub, bruised from head to toe, wounded, angry and emotionally devastated. Feelings of rage caused my muscles to spasm. I wanted to fight back but couldn’t.
If Sandy had shown her face at any moment following the crime spree, I would surely have settled the matter with a native surge of adrenaline.
But time and opportunity had passed me by. I would never obtain the justice I deserved.
My mother, thinking that I was unsafe out on the Marble Hill turf, went downstairs pursuing Sandy and her entourage. Successful at rounding up the gang, she invited them to our apartment for “milk and cookies.”
I was shocked by her actions as my wounds were fresh and needing retribution.
To add insult to injury, Sandy was prodded by my mother into a face-to-face with me, as she urged us to “Shake Hands.”
I was so tremulously angry, that I wanted to land a square punch to Sandy’s nose.
My hands were cold, clammy and alienating. Sandy’s were stiff and ready for another fight. She paused long enough to snatch a crisp chocolate chip cookie.
To the victor went the spoils.
The years passed quickly, almost unnoticed, as I carried the pain of this assault straight into the Millennium.
And then one day in 2009, as I searched the Internet for the “Marble Hill Projects Reunion,” I sprang upon a website that contained a Directory of former residents and their business cards. In the midst of 15 or so, I spotted “Sandy Hamilton!”
“This section is dedicated to Marble Hill’s 225 members who are active in the business world.
“We sincerely hope that you will network with each other to your mutual advantage, continue to expand, be an example to others, and reach out to fellow members of the Marble Hill Family.”
La SCAT Jazz Club
449 Lenox Avenue
New York, New York, 10029 (Harlem)
449 LA aka SCAT – Showcase For Artists
– Quartier Harlem
It was an astonishing bit of news that came from the street fighter. She had come full circle to a place where music was the universal healer replacing angry confrontation on the hard childhood turf.
In the hub of Harlem’s jazz universe, she was showcasing budding musical talent. Transformed into a nurturer of musicians–mother to the Muse, she shared a common pursuit that brought us together.
To wrap up a very long-winded story that had an O’Henry twist, I contacted Sandy by e-mail some 50 plus years after our coming to blows, and described at length how I still carried anger in my heart about our fight.
“Yes, I was that girl who never had a fight.” (Did she mean that she had to have one to mark her territory in a new neighborhood?)
“Thank God, your mother was the wise one and invited us up,” she continued. “Shirley, so sorry for that behavior but we didn’t get into it, and I’m very happy because you probably would have kicked my butt! …”
She signed off with:
“I’m doing OK, running a Club called 449 LA SCAT on Lenox avenue SCAT– a ShowCase for ArtisTs– and the musicians love it.
“We’re having a great time, but dealing with artists is not easy. I have my days with ya’ll but it’s beautiful. Should you come to NYC, please give me a call or come by…
“Shirley, I’m happy that you are doing well, and that music is your love. Take care and hope to hear more. Love ya, Sandy.”
I noticed that she had included me in the “Y’all” universe of musicians. I was no longer a gang assault victim.