Me and my cousin Skinny stood by ourselves in the large foyer that led to the front doors. It‘s the first day of high school for us. The year is 1973. Our freshman year. We gaze out through those front doors to the sparkling blue sky that opened up majestically above us, the American flag rippling in the mild breeze, high up the flag pole on the front lawn.
Heaving a synchronistic sigh, we check out the scene in front of us - the paintings of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson adorning the foyer walls, our new classmates spread among us in the hall, chattering excitedly in their own little groups. Fresh faced girls with spindly filly-like legs, blond crew cut jock types punching each other in the arms, scientific brainiacs with Clark Kent glasses, peeking about nervously. Everybody – the kids, the paintings - had one thing in common, though. They were all white. Painfully white. The kind of white people who should never be exposed to bright sunlight. Thank God me and Skinny had some color, I thought to myself, owing to our Sicilian heritage. At least we were olive –skinned. We could get brown in the summer. These other kids –no hope.
Suddenly, a dilapidated school bus from like- the 1950’s- comes chugging up the street, clouds of smothering black smoke spewing from it’s tailpipe into the picturesque background. It is immediately followed by another equally monstrous relic, as their brakes screech, the gears groan and the buses lurch to a thumping halt right in front of Roselle High.
The joyous buzz reverberating through the foyer quickly dissipated, replaced by an overwhelming crescendo of threatening laughter, cursing and yelling from the outside.
I could sense the collective shiver rise from our group inside as the doors to the ancient vehicles creak open, and the noise threatens to pierce the sound barrier. One by one they pour out. Giants. Imposing Black giants- and those were the girls. Then the boys swagger off the bus- or should I say- grown men? At least compared to us. I mean, most of us- well especially- these pink complexioned Puritan types, were still probably years away from even sprouting pubic hair yet. Me and Skinny glance at each other and then back over to the stunned crowd among us. From the expressions painted on their faces, I figure it must have been akin to the experience of the American Indians as they witnessed the Spanish Armadas and musket bearing Conquistadores invading their shores.
They advance towards us, dancing to the portable concerts hoisted upon their shoulders in the form of boom boxes, howling, sneering, jive- talking and slapping palms.
Sportin’ wild afros and black du-rags around their heads, confidently displaying cut-off t-shirts. Even their tattoos had muscles. They smoke Kools, scoffing down fifteen-cent bags of Doritos and a mysterious brand of grape soda. One of them gulps down the last drop of that soda and defiantly smashes the bottle to the pavement.
“Oh shit!” A chorus of cheers and shouts rises up from his friends.
At that moment, I am sure that every one of us boys standing in that foyer experienced the same basic sensation- that of our pre-pubescent wee-wees shrinking up into the recesses of our white Fruit of The Looms.
As they come bopping triumphantly through the doors, one of the dudes spits a wad of grape Bazooka gum right into Drew Phelps’s face – miraculously, it sticks to the lens of his glasses.
“Oh shit, check this white mo’fucka out!”
A bunch of them nearly fall down cracking up, stamping their feet loudly, while gathering around him. We were doomed. We knew it. They knew it. The era of busing had finally arrived in Roselle, New Jersey- and nothing was ever going to be the same again.
Our family had moved to Roselle from Brooklyn about three years ago, in large part to avoid this very type of situation. Brooklyn had been marred by a series of race riots during the late 60’s- totally rocking the community at large and unsettling our traditional Sicilian clan.
There was other turmoil going on too- the Puerto Ricans had invaded the neighborhood, moving into a couple of tenement buildings and making a racket playing the bongos at night while they got drunk on Bacardi. Protests, demonstrations and flag burnings against the Vietnam War also dominated the period- but it was the race riots- that’s what finally made our families contemplate the previously unthinkable. Leaving Brooklyn.
Skinny’s father, my Uncle Richie (my father’s brother) was the first one to take the plunge- discovering and making the voyage to the New World. A year later we followed.
You have to understand what a major drama that was in itself. See, I don’t think anybody in our extended family had ever left Brooklyn before. Not even to go to Manhattan - which was like fifteen minutes away. Not even for a visit. Not since my grandfather and Aunt Genevieve, and a couple of others, had sailed over from Sicily during the Great Depression. I mean, there was no reason to leave.
The Italians owned that part of downtown Brooklyn- and had for generations. Everything was there.
The aroma of freshly made canolis and Italian pastries wafting from Marino’s as you walked down Court Street- especially on Sunday mornings, right after Mass at St. Paul’s. We’d get our still- warm loaves of Italian bread there for the big Sunday dinner later that afternoon. Loved that smell. There was Tony the Clothes Man, who looked and acted like Peter Lorre’s character, Ugarte, from Casablanca, all bug-eyed and nervous. He came to our house every month with a selection of suits, pants and dresses. Jimmy the Parking Lot Guy, who after smoking five packs of Viceroys a day for 35 years contracted throat cancer, had to get a voice box surgically put in and was still smoking. The salt-water Taffy and the pink cotton candy we’d get when we took the D Train down to Coney Island, and the whole family would make a day out of it. My grandmother (one of them), and my Aunt Flossie lived in the apartment downstairs from us with their beagle, Lucky. That was our neighborhood. That was Brooklyn in 1969. It wasn’t perfect- it could be noisy and grimy, and smelly sometimes in the summer- but it was all I knew. And then it all changed.
So its moving day, the whole family is packed up and we’re following the moving van over the Verazzano and Goethal Bridges as we drive into Roselle, which, by the way, is only like 25 miles away from Brooklyn, but might as well have been another nation. Disbelief and instant alienation flood over me as we arrive. It was like we had somehow driven onto the set of “My Three Sons”.
Row after row of neatly trimmed hedges and meticulously maintained front lawns, some even displaying those Negro lawn jockeys holding lanterns. My sense of alienation grew, followed by heart palpitations. Despite being surrounded by some of the more notorious ghettos in the northeast (if not the country) - Newark, Elizabeth, Linden- all of which had experienced their own share of racial unrest until fairly recently, Roselle had somehow managed to remain frozen in a 1940’s type of purity. A quiet little enclave insulated from the changing times. No sooner had we pulled up to 506 West 3rd Avenue, and exchanged cheerful embraces and bear hugs with our long lost brethren, Aunt Tina, Uncle Richie, and the family, then my cousins, Skinny and Ricky, whisked me off around the corner to meet their friend, Michael Marone.
Almost immediately, we’re surrounded by what appears to be a gang of “bullies” - although the only reason I’m able to surmise this was because I had just recently seen the James Cagney movie- “Angels with Dirty Faces” on TV. There must have been at least 15 or 20 of them, probably all around our ages- between 11 and 13 years old. All wearing these longshoremen- type caps lowered down over one eye. They actually had dirty faces, too - and runny noses.
“Say, where do you fellas think you’re going?” snarled the apparent leader of the gang as he walked up to us. Silence. I scrutinize my cousin’s faces. Incredulity followed.
“Hey, I asked you rummies a question!” the leader continued.
“We’re going over to Michael Marone’s house.” Answered Ricky.
The tough steps over to me, looking me up and down.
“Who’s the squirt?”
“He’s our cousin Joey- he just moved here from Brooklyn today.” Responds Skinny.
“So another Montaperto, huh? Or maybe I should call you- Monta-turdo?”
He looks back at his minions, who start cackling on cue.
“Um, are you guys supposed to be- like- a bad version of The Bowery Boys, or something?” I finally pipe up.
“So- a real wise guy, ay? I oughta knock your block off right here.” He says, poking a finger into my chest for emphasis.
“Listen, pipsqueak, seeing since you’re new here and all, I’m gonna cut you a break. I’m Butch Finnegan, see, and I’m the duke of this turf, but next time I catch you round here, you’re face is gonna be lousy with knuckles, see? Got it?”
With that, he puts his two fingers in his mouth and lets out a shrill whistle- the whole gang quickly dispersing.
For a minute I just stand there, too stunned to move. I mean, how are you supposed to react to that kind of behavior? I really didn’t have much experience with “bullies.” At least not this kind, anyway. In Brooklyn, there were some rough kids who you learned to stay away from for your own good, like this insane Puerto Rican kid named – Goodie- ironically. He was only like eleven or twelve, but he always carried a switchblade, his face was all scarred up and his father and brother were incarcerated for everything from armed robbery to rape and murder. You basically evaded him at all costs.
But these guys, I don’t know, it was like they had all gone to the official Edward G. Robinson- “You Dirty Rat”- school for bullies.
It only got worse in the next few weeks as I began to meet our neighbors. Our next-door neighbors to the left were the Holdens. They had two kids, John and Phillip, who wore what appeared to be their father’s clothes. They both sported those “Wild Root” haircuts, and carried their tubas and trombones with them wherever they went. Their idol was John Phillip Sousa – “the father of marching band music”- and they had collected all his compositions. Each day they received three hours of piano lessons from their 350-pound German music teacher, Herr Krieger, who would constantly shout things like “Schnell! and “Sofort!” at them. Sadly, they also carried The Sound of Music lunchboxes to school.
Across the street, right next door to my cousin’s house, lived the Finks, John and Clara. Clara Fink wore fake diamond encrusted butterfly glasses, and was the town librarian. Nobody could really figure out what John did, although they did notice he liked to make papier mache weather owls. Their daughter, Marcy Fink, was around my sister’s age. She had bright red hair, wore four-inch thick brown-framed glasses, and for reasons unknown, would dress up as a Pilgrim every Thanksgiving, parading around the neighborhood to spread salutations of good cheer.
Our paperboy’s name was Robert Hunter, who looked very much like a pixie, actually an Amish pixie, if that’s possible. He had a twin sister, Rebecca, who looked exactly like him, except that she had long hair, and they shared the paper route. He smiled humbly, and she actually curtsied when they collected. I had never actually seen anyone curtsy before, at least not since Dorothy did it in “The Wizard of Oz.”
We even had a barbershop quartet, which consisted of Jack the Barber, who had a face like a permanently depressed carp, Mr. Coogan, the dour liquor store owner, Gustav, who had water on the brain, and owned the local hardware store, and finally, Mr. Krokowski, who worked himself up from soda jerk to be the proud owner of Matty’s Soda Fountain. They comprised the town council, kind of like the town elders, and were generally considered to be Roselle’s moral watchdogs.
I envisioned myself retreating to the isolation of my new bedroom for the rest of my life, alone with my statue of Napoleon, reading incessantly, and drawing pictures of former U.S. Presidents.
The Holden boys, to their credit, did their best to try to welcome me to the neighborhood, but it was kind of like Liberace and John Wayne trying to hang out.
As a sort of house-warming gift, they presented me with a copy of one their favorite books – “The Hardy Boys Adventures”. They loved these books. Obsessed with them. They’d be constantly reading them, that is when not being browbeaten by Herr Krieger. I was pretty curious to find out what was so great about them- and that very night I lay down on my bed and started reading.
After the first couple of chapters, my heart started pounding, but I kept going. I could feel the anxiety building in my chest. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t concentrate. I threw the book down. Pissed. I picked it back up again. I turned to the back cover, groping for answers to what I was feeling. This is exactly what it read:
“ Handsome, intelligent and athletic, the Hardy Boys help solve many thrilling cases - after school hours and during vacations - as they follow up the clues they unearth in their quest to bring criminals to justice.”
WHAT? I mean, I had trouble just finishing my homework on time, and these guys were solving crimes after school hours? From that point on, I despised The Hardy Boys and everything they stood for, that sentiment eventually spreading to a mistrust of white people in general.
I then began questioning the validity of everything I had ever taken for granted about those really white TV shows I had watched as a kid in the 60’s. Like for one thing, how was it possible that Patty Duke had an identical cousin? And from Scotland, no less? Also, exactly why did a “hot dog make her lose control”- as they sang in the theme song?
These were important questions, and I was only just starting to become suspicious of these things.
Fortunately for me, I wound up totally bonding with my cousins, or I really would have turned out to be an 11 year old Howard Hughes. I really didn’t know if I would get along with them, because they were the cousins I didn’t really know that well, since they lived all the way on the other side of Brooklyn from us- the Gravesend section.
But we clicked, we kind of developed this us-against- them mentality, and created our own little world. Ricky was a year older than me and Skinny, a big, chubby kid who we always taunted about being enormous. He was a super-braniac, maybe even a genius, and he would spend hours on the toilet bowl with the bathroom door locked, reading everything from Ray Bradbury science fiction novels, to the entire collection of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s, to the Green Lantern comic books.
Skinny, on the other hand, was small and wiry, and had a wicked sense of humor. He loved the Yankees, and the reason for his nickname was obvious.
The thing that I really liked about them, though, was that they were kind of creative; they were a little “off”. For instance, they had no real concept of time, or at least the theory of being in school on time. For some reason, I think they figured that school was sort of like an open-door policy, or an Open House. Like- “Oh, don’t worry, come in when you can- there will be cookies and refreshments waiting for you when you get here!”
Coming from a rigid Catholic school background in Brooklyn where you would never dare to be late- this secretly delighted me. There was something deviant about it, somehow. For years, I don’t think we’d make it to school on time maybe more than three of four days - no matter how many times we’d get yelled at or punished.
It wasn’t like we purposely set out to be late either, when we headed to school in the morning. But pretty soon we’d get to discussing last nights episodes of Star Trek, which we probably had seen ten times already, and would begin debating the hidden cosmic meaning, Gene Rodenberry, the shows creator, was trying to explore. Suddenly, we’d be in the episode- spontaneously becoming the characters- improvising our own show. Ricky would always be Spock, of course, Skinny would be Captain Kirk - and I would always want to be Khan. Khan was played by Ricardo Montalban, and even though he was only in that one episode, it was our favorite episode. The main reason I wanted to play Khan was so that I could practice Ricardo Montalban’s accent. I loved it. “I’ve hurrrt you Kirrrrk- and I want to keep on hurrrting you.”
So we’d be running around Smith’s Woods, through backyards, over fences, using sticks as phasers, and rocks as communicators. It was this totally magical experience of complete freedom - of transcending boundaries- and it seemed so real. A lot more real than those stupid arithmetic problems in school. Before we knew it, though, it would be around quarter to ten in the morning, and we’d be like- “Oh my God- school!!” Making a crazy dash through various shortcuts and side streets, we would finally arrive at Washington School, breathless, flushed, leaves in our hair, and dirt on our faces. Mrs. Lombardo, or one of the other teachers, would be thoroughly exasperated. The other kids in the class, noticing the ever present mud on our shoes, whispered rumors among themselves that we had actually walked through the graveyard every morning on the way to school, and that we were probably devil worshippers.
It went on pretty much like this for the next few years, more or less, as we formed and disassembled clubs- most notably “CLUB UFOR”- which stood for- “Unidentified Flying Object Research.” Our very official research consisted mainly of running around the neighborhood streets in the dark of night with a single pair of binoculars shared among us, scanning the heavens and periodically shouting - “That’s a UFO if I ever saw one!”
Our only real natural predators were Finnegan’s Gang, and we often brilliantly outmaneuvered them. Other than that, our main challenge seemed to be evading the all-encompassing gaze of “Bones”, “the ancient, mummy-like ticket-taker lady at the Park Theater, where we would sneak in to see 50 cent R-rated double features, like Lina Wertmuller’s “Swept Away” and “Seven Beauties.”
Little did we know what lie ahead of us.
Actually, the first sign of trouble, an omen that events were about to change in Roselle, had occurred almost a year before this bussing situation- on Thanksgiving Day, ironically enough. Marcy Fink, done up in her traditional Pilgrim finery, was just about to set out on her annual rounds through the neighborhood, when suddenly, a pack of three Doritos -eating black girls, virtually appearing out of nowhere, surrounded her.
“Shit, bitch- you ain’t even no motherfuckin’ Pilgrim!”
Taunting her, they jostled her around between themselves, finally slamming her down on her front lawn, shoving her face in the mud, and in the process, breaking her brown-framed glasses. As if that wasn’t enough, they made off with her Pilgrim bonnet, too! And laughed about it!
News of the assault soon spread all over town as the residents of Roselle expressed shock and outrage. How could something like this have happened? On Thanksgiving- of all days- and in broad daylight?! Who were these black girls, and where did they come from?!
On that following Monday, the front page of The Roselle Spectator ran a front page photo of a shaken Marcy Fink, still dressed in Pilgrim garb, kneeling on her front lawn with a sour looking Mayor Andrews, as she held up her mangled glasses. The boldface headline above read:
PILGRIM GIRL ASSAULTED ON THANKSGIVING DAY
The town council, led by the taciturn liquor storeowner, Mr. Coogan, angrily demanded a thorough investigation into the incident, even suggesting the possibility of forming a posse to bring the culprits to justice. Tighter police measures. Maybe even imposing a curfew. Other residents of the town viewed it as an isolated incident, but Mr. Coogan knew better - he saw it as one of the first steps to an unravelling of the fabric of Roselle’s society. His insight later proved to be correct as Roselle finally lost a bitterly protracted court battle to ban busing on a decision handed down by th
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish