Why you should care
Because tomorrow is promised to no one.
Crown Heights has always been kind of a weird neighborhood in Brooklyn. Haitian and other Caribbean transplants living uncomfortable shoulder to uncomfortable shoulder with Hasidic Jews. It wasn’t always as uncomfortable as when the 1991 riots — sparked by an accident involving Rebbe Schneerson’s motorcade and two Guyanese children — erupted, but ill-at-ease just the same.
In the early 1970s, though, it was a different place with a different vibe, and it’s where I lived. On a block of duplexes, bookended by apartment buildings right on the big thoroughfare of Utica Avenue. Record stores where I’d buy my records, butcher stores where I’d go buy meat for dinner and try not to stare too much at the tattooed arms of Holocaust survivors.
I was 9 years old and, in general, everything was OK. I had started to lift weights; in fact, this was THE year I had started lifting weights, making manifest a certain kind of kiddie machismo. This included dirt-lot scuffles, slap boxing for fun and very much the kind of stuff I did not do at my tony elementary school outside the neighborhood.
In December 1971, it snowed like mad. Booted and suited, we — me and three of my buddies, the Brothers Etienne — pulled each other up and down the sidewalk on a sled until fatigue set in.
“Sledding?” The 17-year-old slapped me in the face, spinning me around and down to the snow.
“Too bad we don’t have a hill,” we moaned. With the Rockwellesque prospect of snowy-day delights like sledding down hills filling our heads, we remembered the small park that sat on the other side of Utica. It was closer to the projects than we usually went but it had hills, snow on those hills and probably, this close after the snows, a paucity of dog poop, ever a New York hazard pre-Giuiliani, whose pooper-scooper laws changed what had been a long-running and smelly city gag.
“Let’s go to the park.” It was further than we usually went, and we broke for a bit to tell our parents where we were going. A park, a sled, snow, kids. They signed off immediately, and off we went.
One sled, four of us, two comfortably fitting on the sled, and it was a blast. Up the hill, bombed down the hill, back down, cutting curved lines around trees. Yeah, it was a blast. So much of a blast that when we saw other people enter the park, we didn’t take much notice. It was winter, it was a park. Nothing strange at all.
What was strange was about 14 of them, a mix of Dominican teenagers, suddenly standing at the top of the hill where two of us were waiting for the sled. Standing and looking at us.
“Huh?” OK. Now the radar was turned on. They were way too close for comfort, and they didn’t look comfortable, which made us very uncomfortable.
They formed a loose semi-circle around us, and now mostly me since I had spoken first. The hill was at my back.
“I said, ‘WHAT’S UP?’ ” He was about 17 years old, I would have guessed. I have no idea how tall since, at 9 years old, there were a lot of people taller than me.
“Just sledding.” My two friends down the hill who had grown up in Port-Au-Prince knew enough at this point to stay down the hill. Smart move.
They formed a loose semi-circle around us, and now mostly me since I had spoken first. The hill was at my back. The 17-year-old nudged a kid closer to my age forward. He was maybe 11, though physically someone I could have easily taken under different circumstances. All part of an arithmetic I did in my head. I wasn’t sure what they wanted, but the way it was shaping up, I was guessing me and the nudged kid were going to fight.
“Sledding?” The 17-year-old slapped me in the face, spinning me around and down to the snow. I scrambled back to my feet, not wanting to get whatever was coming to me without being able to use my legs to run if there was a chance. When I stood, the 11-year-old was in front of me, watching me, as the 17-year-old hissed, “Say it again.”
I stood, saying nothing. The 17-year-old walked toward me, packing ice and snow into a tight ball about the size of a softball. He handed it to the 11-year-old, who mashed it into my face. I started to raise my fist and, as I did, everyone leaned in a little. Everyone but the 11-year-old in front of me. He just stood and watched me. Not angry. Not not-angry. Affectless, in front of me and packing another snowball.
I lowered my fist; they leaned back, and I just looked at him. Into his eyes. This moment was his and mine, and I’d not let him off the hook and wanted it known that as long as this wrong was happening to me, I’d be witnessing, remembering. The second iceball, because at this point it was more ice than snow, hit and I wiped my face. This happened two more times before the 17-year-old said, “Let’s go” and just as quickly as they showed, they left.
The two of us on the hilltop walked down to join the other two. We walked back, across Utica in silence.
Six months later, my family moved out of Crown Heights and over to Flatbush. Sixteen years later, I sort of figured out that I had probably been a reprisal since we weren’t robbed. For what? Probably always a good question, even if in this instance it would remain unanswered.
And my takeaway? I guess that sometimes it rains on the just and the unjust alike. Cold comfort, though, on a cold day in December.