The Rotten Little Brother: A Memoir

Updated on 8/1/2011:

Back when I was a skinny little kid in elementary school, I was a member of the Cub Scouts here in Queens, New York. It was a grand time filled with crafts, camaraderie, youthful play, and after-school cartoons on TV. We would always gather just a few blocks from school in the home of one of my classmates, a boy named Victor, and to this day I can recall the sinfully sweet taste of his mother’s cakes and cookies.

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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 have 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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