The Neighborhood: A Memoir

Dear Reader: Before you read further, I must warn you that some parts of the following entry are quite graphic and could disturb sensitive readers. Reader discretion is advised.
Dancing with my mom at my wedding.

Dancing with my mom at my wedding.

Nestled within the southeastern portion of New York City’s Queens County is the section in which I live, a place of tree-lined streets and wood-frame houses that has been the home of my family since 1958. Geographically, my neighborhood lies southeast of the transportation hub that is Jamaica, northeast of the land of two-family homes that is Springfield Gardens, and pretty much due north of bustling Kennedy Airport.

My earliest recollections about the neighborhood start from around 1967, when I was five years old. I remember that the area was still somewhat integrated at that time, with a few white faces starkly visible in the landscape of dark-skinned people. None of the blacks with whom my parents associated referred to the white people by name, opting instead to refer to them by nicknames. Among those so nicknamed was “Legless Charlie,” a double-amputee diabetic; “Doc,” meaning Doctor Schwartz, a kind, elderly physician who both lived and worked in a large house just a few blocks from my own; the “Crazy Lady,” a scrawny witch with salt-and-pepper-hair who would stand in front of her house in a nightgown and scream about “You damn [N-word]s!” at the top of her lungs for hours on end until her throat turned raw, even as her sheepish husband hid from view; and the “Scaredy Cats,” a family of terrified whites who were absolutely petrified at the thought of living in an increasingly dark-complexioned neighborhood.The area began as a haven for white suburbanites in the mid 1920s, changed to become a community of middle- to upper-income whites, hepcats, athletes, and soul musicians from the 1940s through the 1950s, and by the time I came around, it was a racially mixed, middle-income neighborhood. But as more financially secure blacks came, more and more racially insecure whites fled the area in an exodus of pink.

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It Sounds Like…

Scientific analysis is a thing that, by nature, is cold, dispassionate, logical, and wholly objective, and as such it cannot clearly define something as varied and personally subjective as the concept of music. Although definitions of music exist, scientific definitions gravitate toward music theory, not music itself. So in the sterile, detached world of scientific analysis, music is generally categorized as a form of audible sound, and that’s about as clear as the definition gets. In similar fashion, the sterile, detached realm of things scientific commonly defines sound as vibratory energy transmitted through material classified as elastic mediums. Now before distended images of Whoopi Goldberg’s “Oda Mae Brown” character from the movie Ghost go running through anyone’s head, it must be explained that an elastic medium is matter that undergoes some degree of stretching or compression as caused by vibratory energy. This definition usually means the presence of air or water, not fortune tellers (sorry, Oda Mae). We hear sound through the air and while underwater, but the perception of outside sound while underground or in a locked chamber is possible if the sound source is powerful enough to vibrate the elastic medium (in this case, the walls and air) surrounding the listener. So while it’s hard to think of rocks, metal, and people as even minutely elastic, they are to the extent that each can vibrate to a certain degree and thus conduct what is the scientific definition of sound.

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