Sunday, July 23, 2017

Hey Fat Man!

From my perch atop the wood fence behind my tenement apartment in Chicago, Illinois, if I spied the delivery man driving through the alley I gave him a shout out: Hey fat man! The big negro would smile, wave through the open window and respond with a cry, Hey skinny boy!  It became a game for both of us. I was four years old.

My father was finishing his studies for a master degree in criminology at the University of Chicago. On the side, he worked two jobs to support his young family. We were poor, but I did not know it. My mother stayed at home, minding me and two younger brothers.

I had a tricycle that I rode on the pavement behind the apartment. One day a woman was hanging wash on a line and I accidentally bumped my bike into her pail of clean clothes. Oh my, did she lash out scolding me. It was the first instance of human rage I ever experienced. I began crying loudly. My mother came outside, gathered me safely in her arms and apologized to the neighbor. I remember mother was embarrassed—another new feeling to me. Thus the beginning of learning about differentiation.

I played at a nursery school in the afternoons. It was a big place in Hyde Park for the children of poor families. We had guided play, meals, nap time on cots, and recess where we ran outdoors on a concrete playground that had a stagecoach in the corner. My first playmate was Darnell. He was black and I am white but neither of us knew. We did not know how to differentiate. I can still remember the love between us and pure joy of innocent comradeship. We were soulmates!

Our building was heated in the winter by a furnace in the basement that burned coal. During the cold months, a huge mound of black rock was piled out back. The building janitor was responsible for keeping coal in the furnace. He became friends of ours and one night my father took me to see him shoveling coal into the furnace. In the darkened room, the fiery furnace sounded with roaring flames. The iron doors opened. I stood at my father's side, reaching to hold his hand. The fire was at my eye level just feet away. I felt the warmth and saw the dancing light—like magic. Then the doors shut with a clang and we went upstairs. I could feel the love of my father and the janitor. They too witnessed the simple beauty of the moment; made special through my first experience of it.

I always slept with my brother Wade. One Sunday morning when I woke up, he was not beside me. I went to my parents and asked where he was. He could not be found. We looked all over. My mother was so frantic she looked under the living room couch although it only had an inch of space. In despair, the janitor was called upstairs to help us. I went in the darkened closet near my bed. Lifting up a pile of dirty laundry on the floor, there was Wade—fast asleep. Everyone gave out a cry of relief and some laughter followed. 

I will never forget my mother getting down on her knees and looking under the couch.

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