How well I remember that summer day in 1938 when the Wibecan family moved into our new home at 917 Lafayette Ave. in Brooklyn. It was a typical three-story, two windows-one-door-wide brick row house. To my younger brother, Jay, and me it was heaven — our own room to share, a back yard and twice as much space as the cramped apartment on Halsey Street that we had just left.
The extra-wide, two-way street sang with the music of children. Older boys played stickball in the middle of the street, girls jumped rope on the sidewalk and younger kids played marbles in the dirt.
We were in a wonderland of immigrants, full of new sounds and sights and populated by people of various colors and languages. The tempting aromas of new ethnic foods drifted out the windows and called to us as we passed by. It was a cultural experience for all. Diversity was not something we discussed across the dinner table, we lived it.
Jay and I quickly learned the lore of our new surroundings. Ronnie Levy’s mother kept a band of chickens in her backyard, led by a colorful rooster that regularly announced the rising of the sun. Mr. Phillips, a tall, gaunt, elderly man who lived alone and rarely ventured outside, was a vampire, we were told — and we didn’t doubt it for a minute.
Larry Weinstein became my academic competition. By decree of my father, my report card had to look at least as good as his or I was in trouble. Burton Tunkel and I would sit on his front steps at night to identify the constellations and solve the mysteries of the universe.
Most of our fathers smoked cigarettes, and smoking became a rite of passage. We boys looked forward to the time when we would become men, cigarette in hand, smoke curling from our nostrils. Every once in a while one of us pilfered a cigarette, which we shared in the playground, trying our best to look grown up.
Ronnie and I read the same books — King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, Sherlock Holmes and the like. To emulate our heroes, we made shields out of bushel-basket tops and swords from wood scraps scrounged from the local greengrocer. My mother sewed and usually had enough scraps of material around to make capes and masks for us.
Life was idyllic in many ways. Drugs and gangs hadn’t made the scene yet. The occasional fist fights were just that and, more often than not, ended in a black eye or bloody nose followed by a friendly handshake. We kids were in and out of each other’s homes and regularly shared the sources of the enticing aromas.
I didn’t have any African American friends in that neighborhood. Although there were several African American families living nearby, they didn’t have children my age. As for racial prejudice, there was none that I was aware of. These were immigrant families and hadn’t been around long enough to pick up the worst of America’s bad habits. To most of the adults, there were simply good kids and bad kids. As long as we were polite and well-behaved, we were welcome.
But as we entered our teenage years things began to change. Not only were my companions dispersed throughout different high schools, but for some odd reason they seemed to disappear on weekend evenings. It was a while before somebody told me why. They had started to have occasional weekend parties and their parents, who had become Americanized by now, forbid them to invite me for fear that I might hook up with someone’s daughter.
Little did they know that I had plenty of parties to attend — I just had to walk across town to the African American neighborhood where most of my parents’ friends lived. As time went by, most of my close friends became African American, though it didn’t start out that way. Looking back it didn’t seem like segregation, but in a way it was. My parents may have had the right idea when they chose a place to live, but it didn’t work out as they had planned.
Ken Wibecan is a retired journalist. Once an op-ed and jazz columnist, later an editor of Modern Maturity magazine, these days he and his two dogs enjoy the country life in Peru. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.