A Jamaican's View of New York in the Mid Sixties

 

I was seventeen when I landed at Kennedy Airport in 1964 with my friend Ronnie.  We came to New York to visit my mother, who I had not seen in twelve years, and to go to the Worlds Fair in Queen. My first challenge was to find my mother because I did not have a recent picture of her. The problem was solved when a middle age woman walked up to me and said, "I am your mother."  She was kind and loving, but she was still a stranger to me. Since I was five years old, she left me in Jamaica under the care of Mrs. Maxwell, who was a friend of her cousin. Mrs. Maxwell ran a boarding house in Kingston, where I received little or no personal attention, so it felt bizarre to have anyone fuss over me the way my mother did from the moment we met. I was a skinny, timid teenager who was never the focus of love. But, my mother's twelve years of lost love came gushing out as she embraced me and promised that she would fatten me up. 

 

We got in a car and drove to my mother's home in the Bronx where she lived with her partner, Mr. Ken. She lived in a three bedroom apartment on the first floor of a house on Rosedale Ave near the Saint Lawrence Ave Subway station. I was overwhelmed by what I saw as we drove on the highways, across the many overpasses, and over that large Whitestone bridge. I never saw so many big cars in my life because Jamaica had banned these big cars with long tails and massive hoods from their roads. However, these images matched the pictures of New York, which I formed from conversations with the many people who had been there. My experience felt like a dream. I was excited, anxious, and a little uncomfortable because I did not know what to expect from this new relationship with my mother.

I formed my first impressions of New York at the Worlds Fair. My mother would wake me up before she went to her three jobs, cleaning a doctor's office on Park Ave, working as a maid at the Shelton Towers Hotel and cleaning another office before she came home to make dinner. She made an effort to fatten me up before she left home by giving me a raw egg every awful morning, but I endured it most of the time because I could feel her love. Ronnie and I would get dressed, and Mr. Ken, an unlicensed taxi driver, would drive us to the Worlds Fair. The Fair was fascinating, like nothing I had ever experienced before. Seeing the exhibits that promised future innovations that would make our lives easier and pleasurable was very uplifting for me. Seeing color TV for the first time. But the show that stayed with me was "It's a Small World." Seeing the children of World sing their mind-numbing song made the World Fair a hit that I will never forget.

 During that summer,  Ronnie and I had many adventures around New York.  Our neighbor and close family friend, Cherry and her husband, Roy, took us around the city in their light blue Hilman Minx which Roy named Betsy.  We attended dances to celebrate Jamaica's recent independence from Briton at the Manhattan Center. We took bus trips to parks in Westchester to escape the hot summer heat in the Bronx and danced to the sounds or the Temptations and the Supremes during that summer of 1964.

I remember going to a party at City College in upper Manhattan with the daughter of a family friend and her boyfriend. This party was my first experience of American dance with primarily black teenagers. The party was very different from the Jamaican parties I knew. I would politely ask a girl for a dance, and they would look at me as if I was crazy as an American boy would grab her arm and pull her to the dance floor. I learn fast, and by the end of the night, I had found myself a dance partner. I danced so much that I did not notice that the girl that brought me to the dance had left for home without me, and I did not know my way home.  I hung around with the girl I was dancing with until she decided to go. I asked her how I would get to the Pelham Bay line. She told me that I should come with her to 125th Street, take a bus across town and pick up the Number 6 train on Park Ave and 125th Street. It was 3 AM as I stood on 125th Street waiting for the crosstown bus, worrying that I might be robbed or taken advantage of because I had heard so many bad things about Harlem. The bus finally came after what seemed like a very long wait, and I caught the No. 6 train to St Lawrence Ave and arrived home around 4:30 Am that morning. 

My first brushes with racism

 Growing up in a primarily black country, sheltered me, for the most part, from racism. The Jamaican national motto, "Out of many, one people" based on our multicultural roots of Whites, Chinese, Indians, Syrians, and Blacks had clouded my perception of racism. Don't misunderstand me. Jamaica had its problems, but these challenges were more firmly rooted in class conflicts than race.  My friends and I heard of Martin Luter King, but since we did not have television, we did not know too much about the plight of black Americans. I remember wondering why most of the black singers at the time, like Nat King Cole, had processed their hair. Men treating their hair was not common in Jamaica. The stories I remembered were mostly word of mouth anecdotes from people who had come to America and had returned home.  My cousin, Kenneth, who worked as a farm worker would tell me about the living conditions of migrant farmers in the south and how Jamaican farm workers would deliberately cut off parts of their limbs so that they would get some money and return to Jamaica. However, the messages that stuck with me most was the warning of a Trinidadian dancer who lived in my neighborhood. He was a wise older man who would describe the poor working conditions and disrespect he had faced when he danced in New York City.  He said that the only time he felt accepted in America was when he worked in the Steam Baths in lower Manhatten because these baths were often a gathering place for gay men and my dancer mentor told me that these baths were the only places where black men had some degree of equality.

My first brush with racism came when my best friend, Ronnie, and I was walking home from a movie in the Parkchester area of the Bronx. Parkchester was primarily a white community in the sixties with a few Black and Hispanic families like my own who had recently moved in. As we walked towards my home, a car of young white boys drove up and screamed at us.  "Niggers!!!  What are you doing around here?" This question was a rhetorical question because they did not wait for an answer. They came at us full speed with their car. We turned and ran as fast as we could dodging and changing direction often so that the vehicle could not catch us. We ran until we reached the safety of my mother's home with wide eyes and racing hearts.  

The racism I experienced was not limited to young white boys. I remember walking in the Bronx late one evening, and an old Hispanic man saw me coming and jumped to the conclusion that I was going to rob him. So, he pulled out a big knife as I came closer and swung it wildly at me. I stepped aside out of his reach and kept walking. The stereotyping continued on the subways. As I was changing trains at a subway station in Manhattan, a white man decided that I was a thief. "You thieving son of a bitch," he yelled and came running at me with hate in his eyes. I ran and with him following close behind. We ran around and around the subway station until he was tired. He walked away cursing as he went, and I jumped on the first train that arrived at the station. The avalanche of racism continued as I walked the streets in Manhattan. As I walked past the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue, a limousine driver called me over. "Clean my car," he suggested. I declined, and he began to berate me and my race. "This is why your people will never get anywhere in the world. I will keep my twenty-five cents." I quietly took my leave and wondered what did I need to do to get some respect in America.

 

The police reflected the values of the society.  They were just as racist as the people they served. I heard stories of police brutality but had not experienced it myself until one night in the Bronx; I took a cab from Gun Hill road to my home on Rosedale Avenue. My cab ride started typically but around halfway through the trip, flashing lights appeared as the police pulled us over.  The cab driver was confused and told me that because I gave him wrong directions, he was now going to get a ticket. I apologized profusely and mentioned that I was new to the Bronx, and I did not know my way around.   However, instead of a violation, one policeman had drawn his gun and pointed it at me from the front of the car. I was shocked.  What was I doing that caused the policeman to stop the cab and pull his gun at me?  I soon found out as the policeman shouted to the cab driver, "Is he holding you up?" "What?" I could not believe my ears.  "Holding him up!!!!"   "Is he crazy?"  I started to shout back at him, "I am not holding anyone up. I am just trying to get home."

Meanwhile, a second policeman walked to my window with his hands folded behind him.  He was calmer than the other, and I thought that he would surely understand that I was not holding up the cab driver.  I turned to him as a voice of reason and said, please tell your partner that I am just trying to get home.  He turned, and I could see his gun pointed at my head. He said nothing, turned again, and walked away. They gave us no explanation and no apology. They just drove away. They were the police, and they would have killed me if I had made the wrong move and would not have known why. I imagined at the many young black men received much worse than I experienced that night because at the time cries to end police brutality was rampant. 

Over the next few years, I encountered many other ouvert experiences of racism like taxi cabs passing me on the street even though they can see that I was soliciting them; people moving away from me on the subway and people dropping bags of garbage off their high rise apartment buildings as I walked below. However, one of the most stinging experiences of racism I encountered in New York in the '60s was from a doctor. I had an ear infection, and my mother, who cleaned a doctor's office on Park Avenue asked her boss if she could bring me in to get his expert opinion on my symptoms. The doctor agreed, and I went to see him at his Park Avenue office.  He gave me a thorough examination and determined that I needed to see a specialist. So, he referred to a doctor at Ear, Nose, and Throat Clinic on Third Avenue very close to his office.  I set up an appointment, and my mother and I went to the Clinic.  After signing in and waited in Waiting Room for about an hour, a nurse came up to us and asked us if we were there to see a doctor in her office.

My mother answered in the affirmative, and the nurse turned and disappeared upstairs. Another half an hour went by, and finally, I heard my name called and I could go upstairs to see the specialist.  My mother and I took the elevator to the third floor. As we got off the elevator, we could not miss a doctor standing in front of the elevator.  He immediately confronts us, "how did you get my name?"  My mother nervously responded, " my son is very sick, and my boss, a doctor on Park Avenue referred me you so that you can help my son."  As  I watched the scene, I thought to myself that my mother would do almost anything to help me. The doctor snared and turned to me, as I stood in the hallway in front of the elevator, and said, " Show me your ear!"  I turned my ear to him, and he glanced in it for a few seconds and concluded that I was fine and did not need to see him. As I stood there on the third floor of that figured Clinic, I thought that this man would do anything to keep us out of his office. We turned and left the Clinic as sick as I was before I entered. 

Sometimes the racism was not directed at me, but I could hear and feel it anyway.  In 1969 when the New York Jets won the Super Bowl, I was riding in an elevator with two men, and I overheard a conversation between the men.  The men were the owner of a night club on the roof of a hotel across the street from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Lexington Ave in New York City.  The men were planning a party to celebrate the Jets who had just won the Super Bowl. They wanted one of the stars of the Jets Super Bowl victory to attend. Joe Namath was the star quarterback, and he was the one they wanted, but he was in so much demand, that they decided that they would not be able to get him. So, they were settling in this conversation which Jet to invite if they could not get Joe Namath. 

"Who was the next star of the game after Joe Namath?" asked the first man. "Matt Snell," answered the second man. "He scored the only TouchDown."  "Is he a Negro?" "Yes," replied the second man. "Let's not have him.  Who was the next star?"  "Emersion Bozzer" replied the second man.  "Is he a Negro too?"  "Yes," answered the second man.  "Let's not have him.  Which white player was a star in the game?" They continued to search for a white star of the Super Bowl until the elevator reached their floor.  At that point, they noticed me. They realized that I had overheard their entire conversation, and I was black.    So, they turned to me and said, "why should we have Negros at our party when they were a small minority in our society."  With that comment and before I could answer, they got off the elevator and disappeared into the night. 

Strange occurances during my early days in New York

It is never wise to fall asleep on the subway in New York City, and it is particularly dangerous to be drunk, sleeping at night on the tubes. Well, I witnessed the consequences of both these situations. The first situation occurred on the Pelham Bay line at the Parchester terminal. As the train pulled into the station, a drunk man was sleeping on the bench across from me. The train stopped, the doors opened, and before I could walk out of the car, a man ran past me into the train and within seconds removed the man's shoes, and clean out his pockets as the drunk man continued to sleep. I was shocked and amazed by the speed and brazenness of this thief. I quickly got away from the area before he turned his attention to me.

On another occasion, as I was getting off a subway at the 42 Street subway station, a drunk was exiting the train behind me. As the man stumbled out of the subway car, the closing doors of the train caught the edge of his jacket. Since he was so drunk, he took too long to extricate his coat from the grip of the door. The train was off, pulling the man on the platform as it went. "Oh my god!" I thought. "He going to be killed." But, he somehow got loose before the train exited the station. I was relieved, but before I could finish feeling that emotion, the man got up off the ground, staggered to his feet and then fell head first onto the train track which had an electrified third rail. "He is dead now!!" Either an oncoming train would kill him, or the third rail would electrocute him, or he would break his neck from the fall. None of these things happened. He got up and with the help of other onlookers, got off the tracks safely and staggered out of the station.

 

I learned that it was never safe to travel alone in New York City at night because either people would try to pick you up or they would try to mug you. Walking home from the subway late one night, a man in a car drove up to me. He said nothing. He just drove right next to me as I walked on the sidewalk. I was wondering what is this man planning to do. I stayed calm as his car rolled slowly a few feet away. I don't know if this was a ritual, and he expected a response from me, but I remained silent and ignored him. After about five minutes, he turned away without exchanging a word. This car incident happened a second time in Greenwich Village as I walked towards my subway station after attending a club. This time the man spoke. "Are you cruising?" "Cruising? What is that?" I replied. "I guess if you don't know what it is, then you must not be doing it." He drove off with me scratching my head. It took me a while to figure out what he was asking.

 

Being mugged was another major fear in New York City during those early days. I never experienced that trauma, but for one occasion when I was waiting for a train at Penn Station in the middle of the afternoon when I noticed a man watching me as I ate my sandwich. Our eyes met, and this was the sign he was waiting to see. He got up. Walked directly to me and took my lunch out of my hands. I figured that he needed it more than I did.