When I was growing up the West Side seemed to have a bit of everything.  There were at least Jews, Italians, Irish, African Americans and Puerto Ricans.  My name, Marion was, I would learn, a disguise of sorts.  Two groups, Italians and Puerto Ricans, dropped the ’N’ and depending on accents came up with the Mario that fit into their group.  Because I was always a little dark no one knew for sure.

I foolishly took french at the William J. O’Shea junior high school.  Spanish would be useful even today, well over 50 years later; so linguistically I could only be a white kid from the neighborhood.

The West Side was filled with characters, many had no name.  There was one who often walked right through the middle of our handball and stoop ball games, he was older, white, but I wouldn’t venture a guess as to how much beyond 40.

One day, he stopped to tell us the story of his almost mugging.  All these years later I’m paraphrasing:

I was walking up the block when out of nowhere this group of half a dozen PR teens surrounded me.  They wanted my wallet.  I wasn’t about to give it up so I started yelling and stomping my feet.  You lousy Puerto Ricans, I can’t stand the lot of you, I’m gonna get away, I’m going to San Juan.  They started laughing, must have figured me for crazy, and walked off.  I got to keep my wallet.

As a child, I was pretty much friendly with everyone.  It was the way I was raised.  Although, there were few African Americans in the circle around me except for Albert and “Elizabeth” (September 9, 2016) in my class and Helen, the housekeeper. There was also Danny who often accompanied Harold (family friend and my mother’s boss) who was African American.  Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics entered my life in abundance in junior high school and continued in my life in the pool hall.


I’ve written about “Tony” (July 18, 2016), the teenager with one arm and “Richie” (February 19, 2017), the alleged perpetrator of a school yard stabbing, both of whom I remember as Hispanic.  Both those experiences included violence from which I escaped.

I really led a racially and ethnically sheltered life.  I write it this way because then, as now, Hispanics came in all colors.  Unlike the black people in my life they spoke a different language, or english with an accent; their difference was different.

In my young mind the differences amongst us did not translate into socioeconomic class distinctions; that was too complex. I don’t think we saw the racial separations clearly either.

Racism is after all a learned behavior and in my home it was never taught or modeled.

Thankfully, what I was taught was carried forward to my children.


Silhouette by kjpargeter


9 thoughts on “Differences

  1. I remember Albert. In 6th grade at PS9 (1961), he was friendly and part of our little crowd. Then, at PS44 the following year, he began hanging out exclusively with other African American students, and showing off by verbally attacking us white kids. I confronted him on one occasion and said, “I know what’s going on. I see the pressure you’re under. And if we can’t be friends anymore, I understand.” And we weren’t. That was certainly the shape of things to come.

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  2. I grew up in Stuyvesant Town, which had no black and few Hispanic tenants. The differences were mostly between the Irish Catholic and Jewish residents. The priest at the Immaculate Conception urged his parishioners not to associate with their Jewish neighbors. As a result, of the two basketball playgrounds, one was considered Jewish and the other Catholic. There was also one Catholic gang that used to prey on Jewish kids. Fortunately for me, our playground (#7), was one where everyone got along and came to the defense of their friends. One time, when I was threatened by the gang, several playmates came to my defense, including one Catholic friend that no of the gang members wanted to challenge.

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  3. My Washington Heights neighborhood was cut in half — west of Broadway (where I lived) was Jewish and east of Broadway was predominantly Irish.

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  4. I grew up on 83 between west end and riverside, when we were young we played in the street and went to broadway for our moms cigarettes or groceries, then things changed, when Lindsey closed the mental health wards and put all the schizos on the street and so’s happened. Now it was dangerous, now shit happened to us that we can never forget. but still, we did survive, west 83 had the first block association that grew out of a dog walkers club (ban together for the late night walk), we had block parties and tag sales and regained our community. im proud of that


  5. I grew up on WEA and 79th street in the 1970s. You DID NOT walk on 80th street (except between B-Way & WEA during daylight and not alone until about ’79) period. The brownstones between WEA and RSD were always busy!


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