My first boyfriend was black. We were 5. I didn’t know he was my boyfriend until my friends in kindergarten told me he was. Apparently, he was pretty certain of the fact, because he couldn’t stop telling people all about it.
“I grabbed her and pulled her into Mr. Singer’s (the janitor) closet and kissed her and now, she’s my girlfriend.”
It was quite the grade school scandal. It was also categorically false, but I never lived that 5th Ward School tale down. It became legend.
I first met Eddie when we were 4 year-olds at Headstart. Headstart is a preschool program that helps economically disadvantaged children with early childhood education, health, and nutritional services. It was founded in 1965, so it was relatively new when I was enrolled in 1971. It is an angel network of helpers. You know who helpers are, right? Mister Rogers, my aforementioned Dad, coined that phrase and it’s the best way I can describe the legion of teachers, aides, parents, and assorted individuals who have championed this invaluable program and given it the wings with which to soar. My daughter is a Headstart teacher. I haven’t got the words to adequately express how proud I am of her.
Anyway, that’s where Eddie and I met. It seems hilarious to say, “We met when we were 4” because saying you met someone conjures up visions of mixers and parties and chance encounters in a coffee shop – at least, to me, it does. It was more like we were out on the dusty playground and we threw dirt at each other, and chased each other around the swings, and rode the merry-go-round together, with a bunch of other kids. I can’t say, with any real certainty, that I remember him from Headstart. I already had a best friend at that age, and her name was Iva, and we met at the Crippled Children preschool we both attended as toddlers. Me with my neck, and her with, well, I don’t know what was wrong with her to make her have to go to Crippled Children, but we were fast friends, and my mother would pick Iva up for school, and later, for Headstart, because Iva’s mommy didn’t have a car. The point is, when you’re 4, you have a pretty limited scope of reality. Having a bunch of friends doesn’t matter when you’re 4. You just want to play, and laugh, and it doesn’t much matter if you have one friend or ten to do that with.
I do remember that, when I entered kindergarten, I recognized Eddie when I saw him from across the classroom. Back in those days, there was a school in every neighborhood, and Eddie happened to live in mine. Kindergarten was only a half-day in 1972, and remained so until my own kids were in school, and then it switched to full school days.
Back in those days, we also could walk to school. Yes, at the tender age of 5 years and six months, I walked to school. On the first day, my Mom walked me to school, but she trusted me to make my way home after. It was only a street-long block and up a small hill to our house, so I was good. I wasn’t scared. Back then, you didn’t have to be scared. Those first few days were kind of a blur; new friendships were forged, if that’s what you could call them. I still remember the other Lori in our class, who vomited on the floor the first day. I remember being taught how to shelter underneath our tables, where we sat, four students at each one, in case of a mysteriously-coined “bomb threat.” The idea was that, if there was a bomb, we were to drop to the floor and get underneath the table.
Being 5 year-olds, we knew absolutely nothing of nuclear weapons and the Cold War and any of that. Why anyone would want to go all Wile E. Coyote on us or our towering school was beyond our comprehension, but we practiced dropping to the floor and crawling underneath the table, where we giggled as the teacher commended us for our speed. The fact that our classroom was in the basement of a humongous, three-story brick edifice that, if bombed, would come tumbling down upon us, crushing and burying us, was something that escaped our childish wonder. We had a door to the outside in our classroom, but I guess that you don’t want to be outside when there’s a bomb, even if you won’t make it out from underneath your formica table alive.
My year of kindergarten is mostly a jumble of vague memories. Life had not begun to have its way with me yet. I remember that first day – and how I wet the bed. I recall having to go into the restroom so the teacher and the school nurse could examine my body for chickenpox when my mother sent me back after a feverish, itchy 10 days of what my mother and grandmother called “the worst case of chickenpox we have ever seen,” and my delight at being given my own clay (I can still remember that it was reddish, and slightly sticky, and how it felt and smelled) to put in the plastic container my mother had sent with me. That’s pretty much kindergarten for me. Oh, lots more happened; the teacher had a conference with my mother a month in to discuss placing me in First Grade because I was very advanced and “kindergarten bores her”. My mother politely demurred, not wanting to place me ahead of my own age group. Nowadays, we do this all the time. The name of the game is advance at all costs. I sometimes wonder what would have changed for me; I suspect not much. I made friends. I discovered art class, and music class. That was glorious.
Eddie and I would often walk to and from school together. He would always have a little gift for me when I would meet him at the bottom of my street; a little, plastic egg from a penny gumball machine with a ring in it. I would accept with a blush and wonder where he got them. When I asked, he said, nonchalantly, that there were machines in the offices where his daddy worked. “Why do you go to your daddy’s work?” I asked. His answer surprised and mystified me:
“My daddy runs the junkyard. I live in the junkyard.”
When I asked my mother about it, she explained: Eddie’s dad was in charge of the daily operations of the junkyard, which was across the street and then the creek and began as a vast expanse of trash and treasure a hundred yards or so from its banks. I could see the mountains of cars, metal, and assorted other discarded junk from our front door. The junkyard was called “Goodmans” and Eddie’s dad was the caretaker. He, his mom, dad, and little brother, Petey, lived in a little house right in the center. Not too long after we started school, Eddie’s mom left, taking Petey with her, and moved to New York City, where she was from. My mother told me to be kind to Eddie. “He’s going to be sad and have a hard time,” she advised.
Eddie and his brother had the nicest, warmest, milk chocolate-colored skin I had ever seen. Eddie’s mom was like me, which is to say she was white. Eddie’s dad, a congenial, gentle, towering giant of a man, was much, much darker than Eddie and Petey. I loved to wave to him when he drove by our house in his truck, “Sonny!” I’d holler, and he would slow down, grin, and wave at me. “That Sonny is such a nice guy,” my Gram would say, “but at night, you can’t see him in that truck until he smiles.” Please don’t judge my Gram, born in 1912. She didn’t have a racist bone in her body. Her father was the caretaker of the cemetery where their home sat just below on the hillside. Her earliest memories were of being terrified as she and her siblings watched from their bedroom windows as the KKK burned crosses among the graves behind them. My great-grandfather would fearlessly trudge up the hill and put them out after the band of cowards had dispersed. Yes, this was the north, but yes, racism existed even here. Especially here, where we ruefully call our region “Pennsyltucky” because the Rebel flags wave and we have rednecks and sometimes because of the attitudes, you honestly think we fought for the Confederacy. The founders of our town were rough men, oil men, hard-working and ambitious. That working-class ethic still remains, even if the jobs didn’t.
As we grew older, Eddie used to tell the story of how he “fell in love” with me. “When we were in Headstart, I first saw you, and I knew you were like me, ‘cuz I thought you was Chinese.” I have told the Story of how I was often mistaken as having Asian heritage because my hair is nearly black, my skin is olive-toned, my head is pretty round, and my black eyes possess just a bit of a tilt at the outer corners. I had to deny it more times than I could count. As I got older, it changed from Asian to Native American. Sorry, folks, but there is nary an amoebic-sized smidge of Asian or Native American DNA in me; my Ancestry test doesn’t lie. And, I might add, so fucking what if there was?
It has always stuck with me, though.
“I knew you were like me.”
What did Eddie mean by that?I mean, I’m a human. Of course I was like him. But, I suspect that it had more to do with just looks. Maybe we did both look “different” from all the uber-white complected kids in our school, but we were both bullied a lot, too. I suffered from kids teasing about my lack of a paternal unit and then the usual girl-centric fights that cliquish gaggles of girls have. He, on the other hand, was teased for being black. He was teased for living in the junkyard. Those kids who themselves went home to dads who were drunks or deadbeats or who beat their mothers or their kids – our neighborhood had pretty much 50-50 lower middle class to low-income – thought they were somehow better than this boy whose father worked very hard every day but who committed some sort of societal faux pas because he lived in a house in a junkyard. Me? I’d have given anything for a dad like Sonny. He was worth 100,000 of those loser dads. I understand it now, but I did not then.
Sometimes, Eddie would lash out at me, chasing me, knocking me down, calling me names. He would change. He would not be the Eddie I knew. I was a little afraid of him when that happened. Again, I understand now. Life was having its way with him, and racism was a part of that life. Still, on one of the happiest days I can remember from childhood – the day The Male Sibling Unit was born – I was with Eddie, playing at the park. My dog had just chased him across the field and he was laughing uproariously at how “Whiskers wants to rip my pants in the butt” when my cousin, who was staying with us, called for me from across the street. Eddie followed me back to the house, always cautious, because there were parents who would tell him to “GIT” and he had to be careful. I beckoned him to come along. “What’s the matter with you?” I asked. “My dog might bite, but my grandma has false teeth.”
When my Gram told me the news, I spontaneously grabbed Eddie and hugged him. “I have a little brother!” I squealed. He let me squeeze him for a moment and then pushed me away, slightly embarrassed. “C’mon, gee! Little brothers ain’t that great. You’ll see,” he said, knowingly.
This is one of the last times we were really close; less than two years later, Eddie would leave Bradford to live with his mother in New York. His father died. “Brain tumor” was what I heard. I was terribly sad for Eddie, but out of sight, out of mind. New York City sounded exciting, and big, and I was a bit envious.
Life went on. I grew up, became a teenager, then a Senior in high school with hopes and dreams. Racism was still not a part of my reality. I had Asian friends. Bradford was possibly one of the whitest communities ever, but we did have non-caucasian doctors and businessmen. I think, when I was 17, we had exactly one black family in town. One or 500 – it wouldn’t have mattered to me. I don’t want to say that I did not see color; I was book smart about the problems, educated about the challenges of racism, civil rights, and the horrors of slavery and the Civil War that came to signify intolerance for it. I knew it existed. It just didn’t in my tiny, little world.
I can’t remember who told me that Eddie was back in town. He and his mother and brother had come back here, and I don’t know why. I think she had family here. My mother said something about New York being tough, and Eddie and Petey getting into trouble, and their mother wanting a better life for them. I do remember thinking, “Why here? Why Bradford?” I was solely focused on getting the fuck out of Dodge as soon as I could, and to me, going to New York City, with its lights and tall buildings and all the people and opportunities galore seemed absolutely wonderful. The movie Fame had enamored me of all things Big Apple. That’s where real shit happened. Anywhere but here, I thought.
Looking back, I empathize with Eddie’s mom’s hopes. I still don’t think this was the right place, though. Knowing what I do now, that is. Knowing that this place isn’t kind to other races. Oh, we say we are, we think we are, but hate permeates everything here, and racism is but the tip of an iceberg of angst and apathy and wasted opportunities that many citizens in this community sit atop, angry armchair warriors all. I can say now that yes, I see color. Do I judge because of it? Again, I have to admit that yes, I do. Is that a form of racism? Yes, it is. It is not the kind of racism that hurts people though; not the kind that passes negative judgment on them. It’s more of a blanket feeling of sympathy for them:
Oh, you’ve moved here, have you? I’m sorry you did, because this town is awful to outsiders. This town is awful to insiders. This town. Is awful. Period. Please don’t judge us by the kind of welcome you receive, though. Some of us, who have lived here our entire lives, are outsiders, too.
That’s the way in which I have been guilty of racism. I hope not to be judged by that.
Eddie and I met on the street one day, when I was walking home from school. He was a big, powerfully-built young man with the same, creamy-chocolate skin and jet-black hair that I remembered. His eyes were a tawny color, warm and tender, as he gazed down at me. His regard for how I had grown up was evident in his effusive compliments. “You’re not the little girl I remember,” he said, admiringly. I blushed, feeling warm. “Well, you aren’t a little boy anymore, either.” I replied. I don’t know why he wasn’t enrolled in school; I do know that he and his mom and brother didn’t live here long when they returned, and they ended up in Olean, New York, about 25 miles away and with a more diverse, racial demographic than Bradford. We talked for a few minutes and he asked me if he could call me sometime. I said sure, my number’s in the book. We parted; I walked away, feeling flushed and sort of unsettled. I had a boyfriend at the time. What was this, exactly?
True to his word, Eddie called a couple of days later. He cut right to the chase.
“I want to take you out,” he said, “to a movie, or dinner, or whatever you want. I just want to go out with you.”
“Eddie, I can’t,” I said, quietly. “I have a boyfriend.”
He was quiet for a moment, and then was direct and blunt. “Oh. It’s not because I’m black, is it? I didn’t think you were like that. Is it because I’m black?”
I felt gut-punched. Fuck! I raged inside, at war with my feelings. I kind of wanted to go out with him. But there was Kevin. Kevin was sweet. I really liked Kevin a lot, and Kevin seemed to adore me. The fact that I was even slightly indecisive should have told me chapters of information about how things were going to go with Kevin, but at this point in my young, inexperienced life, all I knew was that if you had a boyfriend, you didn’t cheat on him.
“Eddie, no. I don’t care what color you are. I just have a boyfriend. If you’d have called me a month ago, I would have said yes.” All that mattered to me was that he not think that I gave a crap about his race.
He was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “Okay. I just really like you is all. I always did.” After that, he became really cavalier, talking about gangs and fights in New York and how tough he had become. We spoke a little while longer, and then, I had to go.
When I got off the phone, my mother asked, “What was that all about?” When I told her, she smirked a little and said, “I knew he liked you 12 years ago. He said he was going to marry you.” When I exclaimed, “Uh…..WHAT????” she told me that Sonny had told her, when we were little kids, that Eddie would ask him to fish the little eggs with the rings in them out of the penny machine so he could give them to me because “Someday she’s gonna marry me.”
I lost touch with Eddie after that. Then, I married a man who pretended to be like me: accepting and loving of all humans. Hindsight is 20-20, but in any event, Eddie didn’t fare so well in this town. He would leave, then return. Each time, he was a little harder than rougher than he had been when he’d left. Life had its way with Eddie, and he got into a lot of legal trouble, and eventually died. I can’t remember what killed him, but I do know that we were only in our 30s when it happened.
I will always remember Eddie. He was one of my earliest, truest friends.
I’m not sure why I needed to write this, really. Well, yes, I am. It’s just a story from my life, but it’s also an offering, of sorts, to the universe. It is a tale of childhood, and a certain kind of color blindness. Maybe it illustrates ignorance, but I hope not in a bad way. When I had to explain the riots on the tv to The Male Sibling Unit last night, and George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, amongst others, Eddie popped into my memory. The Male Sibling Unit doesn’t understand racism. It isn’t even remotely a part of who he is. After I made my attempt to adequately explain the hate in this country to him, he was no longer innocent. I am sorry that I had to do that to him.
I am sorry for lots of things. I’m not so full of myself to think that going out with Eddie all those years ago might have changed the trajectory of his life, but I wonder now…..what if?
I would like to be able to talk to my friend again.