The prompt yesterday was to write about the home you lived in when you were 12. I had to work yesterday, and like last week, I gave myself the day off from The Daily Post. I could do today’s prompt, but growing up in housing projects in Brooklyn in the 1960’s is too good to pass up.
We lived in apartment 7C on the seventh floor of 415 Lafayette Ave in Lafayette Gardens, a seven building project that opened in 1962. I moved there with my parents, Agustin and Maria, my brother Luis who was 5 years younger and my sister Elsa who was in the middle. In 1964 my mother added my foster sister Cheryl Ann.
My three siblings in front of the flagpole in 1968. I was a budding photographer.
When we moved in only five of the seven buildings were finished, and the first couple of years were peaceful and idyllic.
By 1968, the year I was 12, it was a whole different ball game. The last two buildings added were the largest at 20 stories each, and were filled with section 8 families. We knew them as welfare families, whose adults did not work. It was also the year that Martin Luther King was murdered, and LG being 70% African-American it was a place of simmering anger and resentment. I remember running all the way home from school the day after it happened, being chased by the black kids in my class, some of who were my friends.
It was called Lafayette Gardens because the tenants were encouraged to plant gardens in little plots out in front of the buildings, on what we commonly called “the grass.” There were little steel poles with chains to keep people off “the grass” and you could get a ticket if you went on the grass.
My mom’s garden was a lot more elaborate than this present day LG garden.
My mom was an ace gardener, having grown up on a farm in Puebla, Mexico, and our building won first prize every year until NYCHA got tired of holding contests. We lived in a three-bedroom apartment and paid $90 a month for most of the 17 years we were there.
There were plastic slipcovers on the couch and two easy chairs my parents had bought on lay-away from J. Michaels in downtown Brooklyn.
The plastic slipcovered couch.
One day when I was 11 I found a snake in the hallway, it had escaped from a neighbor’s apartment. I caught it in a bucket my mom gave me, with the aid of a dustpan. We took it to the 88th Precinct on Classon Ave. where the desk cop said; “we’re gonna cook it and eat it for lunch.”
I see the turtle is still there.
We played in the concrete playgrounds that had concrete animals; I still remember the turtle that’s in this picture. There was also a dolphin and animals I can’t remember. We played skelly on pre-painted skelly squares, and there was a ball field and handball courts on Franklin Ave.
There were kids whose favorite pass time was to call the fire department to say a kid was hanging from the rail on the roof, we would all go outside to watch as the firemen trained their spotlights on the edges of the roof.
Our building and 411 across the street were known as the twins, they were the only 13 story buildings and they faced each other. When I was 12 I begged my mother for a telescope for Christmas so I could look at a girl named Evelyn who lived on the 5th floor across the grass. I could see into her bedroom window. I told my mom I wanted to look at the stars.
I went to Francis Scott Key JHS on Franklin Ave, and the year I was 12 won a writing contest that I didn’t even enter after writing an essay about how nice it would be to spend sometime in the countryside, somewhere I’d never been before. My prize was 2 weeks on a dairy farm in upstate New York. It was my first time away from home.
I say I didn’t enter it because I knew nothing about it, one day my English teacher told me she’d sent in my essay and it had won. There were 15 winners from all over the school system, and one day we all went to a big lunch at the Board of Education building on Livingston Street. My parents dressed up and were very proud.
There was a movie theater on DeKalb Ave; I think it was called the Majestic. On Saturdays my mother would give me $2 and say “take your brother and sisters to the movies.” It was 50¢ for kids and two bucks got us all in. We would watch old Warner Brothers cartoons, Laurel and Hardy and Flash Gordon serials, then whatever the feature was. I remember Godzilla and Mothra and a whole bunch of Christopher Lee vampire movies.
The year I was 12 my friend Carlos’ older cousin Arami took us to see Dr. No in the afternoon, it was an adult movie and you could only get in with an adult. It was the first time I got aroused watching a movie.
Arami was a Cuban guy in his 20’s with a car and two missing front teeth. One day he took us to Yankee stadium, my first and only time there. He bought us hot dogs. I don’t remember who won the game.
The night he took us to the game was right after Martin Luther Kings’ assassination, and the news of riots all over the country had everybody rattled. I remember being in the car and driving along Bedford Ave and seeing hundreds of Policemen in riot helmets and big plastic shields. It was scary and exciting at the same time. I was praying we would be able to get home after the game and that my family would still be intact.
The year I was 12 was also the year of Laugh-In, the summer of love, and my first kiss. At Francis Scott Key JHS, girls would write their names on a slip of paper and put it in a hat and the boys would pick out a slip. You were supposed to go in the closet with the girl and kiss her.
The fist name I picked was Shelly Quarrels, the shyest girl in the class. I was surprised she even put her name in. She was a skinny, quiet black girl who wore really long dresses and white socks with Mary Janes. This at a time where most of the girls were wearing the shortest skirts they could get away with.
It was a very chaste kiss; we did not know you were supposed to stick in your tongue.
In August I turned 13 and things started changing at a breakneck speed. I wasn’t ready for what was to come.