The first time I became aware of the existence of black people was in grammar school. There was a black boy several grades ahead of me, and he was the smartest kid in my school. He was also the only black attending the Catholic school in my Italian and Irish Bronx neighborhood.
The first black person I met in my life robbed me at Yankee Stadium when I was 8 years old. Behind him stood 3 black teenagers coaching him on how to properly mug a young white boy. They got my quarter.
There were no black families in my neighborhood -- except of course, for the family of the smartest guy in my school. Nobody bothered them, they had always been there.
Otherwise, blacks were not allowed in my neighborhood. In fact, any black foolish enough to challenge this would invoke the wrath of the "association." The "association" was a bunch of Italian guys who thought they were Mafioso, violently patrolling the neighborhood with vigilante zeal.
Black interlopers were chased and beaten. I'm not sure if this applied to the women. Men never hit women back then. After all, there was a certain chivalry and code of ethics to racism back in the day. It's easier to hate when you have rules.
My neighborhood had a reputation. Blacks stayed away.
None of this sat well with me. My mother taught me well and raised me right -- everyone was the same, regardless of where they came from or how they looked. Plus, I didn't like the "association." A bunch of guys with baseball bats riding around in cars looking for some black ass to kick was wrong.
In 1972, I started high school. I worked on an ice cream truck in the projects, where there was nothing but black people with a few Puerto Ricans thrown in for good measure. I bought the truck in 1976.
It was a wild place, dangerous with lots of drugs and violence, and staggering poverty. I saw kids with no shoes, ragged clothes and probably little to eat. You knew they were never going to get money for ice cream. I remembered how it felt watching other kids get ice cream while my mother couldn't afford to buy it for us.
I gave away a lot of ice cream. In fact, about 7 or 8 years ago I was in a bar and a middle aged black man came up to me and asked if I was "Willy Merrymaid." He looked familiar to me -- I could see the little boy he used to be in his face.
He thanked me for how I treated him and all the other kids when he was little. He told me that giving away free ice cream to the kids who couldn't afford it or didn't have enough money was important and made a difference.
From the second I started working there, I had a connection with the people in the projects. We were the same. I grew up poor and I was watching them do so as well. I made friends -- a few I still have today.
When I was 17, I started dating Carol. I used to take her to my house when no one was home. One day, a guy from the "association" came to my door. I'd seen him around and I didn't like him. He had one eye that looked at you and one that looked away. Because of his "association" ties people were afraid of him.
Crazy-Eyes told me I couldn't bring a black girl into the neighborhood. I told him to go f@%k himself, and that I lived there and would do as I pleased. He left. I didn't tell Carol what happened. He came back one more time to tell me the same thing, with the same results.
At about that same time, I was driving around when I saw a black kid arguing with 3 white kids. He was about 10 and the white kids were a little older. They were pushing and shoving and I knew what was coming. The black kid was presenting himself well, but against three, I didn't think he had a chance.
I stepped in between them and told the white kids to stop and go home. They turned and walked away, but the black kid was irate. I had to physically hold him back from giving chase, which angered me -- I thought I was helping him.
I demanded to know where he lived and before he could answer I told him to go home. He told me that he lived here and that he would do as he pleased. I assumed that because he was black, he didn't belong. I always felt guilty about that.
One night, while I was following my ice cream truck to the garage, a station wagon ran a red light and hit my truck, which was driven by my very black Puerto Rican employee. Also in the truck, were his equally dark brother and my friend V.
My 1955 Metro didn't have a scratch. His car was not so lucky. He got out, incoherently screamed something and then staggered to the payphone on the corner. After making a call, he went back to his car -- I assumed for his insurance papers.
I returned to my car and my girlfriend. David, Israel and V, stayed outside the truck.
Within a few minutes, a station wagon pulled up, double parking across the intersection, facing us. Five guys with baseball bats lumbered out of the car and started across the street towards V and my workers.
Quickly getting out of my car, I put myself between the men and my crew. One of them was my friend, Crazy-Eyes. We all started yelling. I told them they weren't going to attack anyone. I told Crazy-Eyes, their leader, that I lived here and that this was my truck and these were my employees. And that their man had run the red light.
Crazy-Eyes asked how I knew this, because I wasn't driving. I told him I was tailing right behind and could see the light. I also told him to look at his guy. The man was plastered. As he turned towards him, the man turned away. And that was the end of that.
I had 2 fights in the projects. The first started out as an argument and turned violent. As 3 black guys were holding me back, he reached over and cold cocked me. I shook off the punch and the 3 guys, and went after him. He jumped in a car and sped away. In a rage, I punched the window of my truck and broke it. It must have been a lucky shot.
There were many people there and I was well liked. The only reason they held me back was the whole white/black thing.
The second fight was more interesting. "St. Nick" was a wannabe stick-up guy who preyed on the project's old, meek, and weak. He had been testing me for a while, probing, but never crossing the line. Then he robbed my worker, by grabbing the change machine through the window. He only got about $8, but I knew if I let it go, he would be back; he would own me.
I grabbed David, Israel, Rueben, and my friend Joey, a tough Italian kid from my neighborhood. When I saw St. Nick, I screeched to a halt, jumped out of the car and ran towards him, throwing a right hook which glanced off the side of his head.
He ducked and tried to back up. I hit him with 8 or 9 good, solid uppercuts. When his back hit the wall we went down, with me having him in a headlock.
There must have been 40 or 50 black guys there and various others including V, all rooting for Nick -- except for V. It was the black/white loyalty thing again.
Skirmishes broke out, but my 4 guys kept it mostly honest, as I kept tightening and tightening my arm around his neck.
After 10 or 15 minutes, a couple of black guys got to Nick and pulled him off the ground. His mouth was bloody and his lips were purple. There was no white in his eyes, only red. I realized that I had almost suffocated him.
Nick never came near me again.
In my life, 3 of the 4 guys who pulled guns on me were black.
I wrote about one before. Another, very nervous, had a .22 caliber revolver to my right temple, as I turned my body away from him to hide the 6 crisp hundred dollar bills I had in the breast pocket of my white shirt. The last never got the gun out of his pants. It looked like a .38 caliber revolver and when he went for it, it slipped down the front of his jeans.
As he tried to pull it, the hammer must have become caught in the waistband of his pants. As he yanked, I back-pedaled. Sliding to the floor with my left leg extended, I drew the .380 Walther PPK I had strapped to my ankle. He ran away.
Yet with all that, of the dozen or so people I truly love in my life, 6 of them are black.
There's V, whom I have known for 40 years. For a good part of those 4 decades, I have introduced her as my sister. My friends, from the neighborhood, threw around the "N" word liberally -- I have never used the word. Yet, I never saw any ever treat a black man differently than a white man. It was just what they did, the language they heard and learned growing up. Eventually, they learned not to do it around me.
In the same way, it can be said that V is the most racist person I know. She doesn't like Spanish people, or white people (me excluded), or Jewish people. For that matter, she doesn't even like other blacks. Yet, in her life, she saved people, taking in men, women and children as they slid to the streets, those who had nowhere to go -- she was often their last hope.
There are people walking the face of the earth today who owe their lives to her. It didn't matter what color or nationality they were. She was an equal opportunity savior. I was there. I saw it, and I judge her by the content of her character and not the color of her rhetoric.
This March, her daughter unexpectedly died at 37, leaving behind a six month old baby. I had watched that little girl grow up.
In her late 50s, she is now raising her granddaughter. I never end a visit or a conversation without telling her how much I love her.
Then there is Carol -- the same girl Crazy-Eyes from the "association" told me I couldn't bring around. I am the Godfather of her daughter Kimberly and I never end a visit or conversation without telling her that I love her as well.
Lastly, there is Jenna. I was running a school uniform company and I made her my manager at 17. Out of the 2000 plus people I have had working for me over the years, I would rate her as the top manager. We tripled sales while cutting employment by two thirds.
We always kept in touch and until recently, I babysat her infant daughter once a month. I love her and her daughter.
V and her granddaughter, Carol and Kimberly, Jenna and Kai, they are family.
Do we need a conversation on race? I'm not so sure. I think I stand with Martin Luther King Jr., who believed in the power of love over hate.
Love and time heal all wounds. A black woman and her sons live across the street from me. All those "association" guys are dead and though members still patrol, there is no chasing and beating. They give out government cheese and try to help anyone who asks. As the racists of my youth expire they are replaced with people who don't care about skin color.
Soon, no one will care.
As for me, I'm going to hold those I love close, and ignore those who will not let go of the hate.