You may have heard other people say this, but I really did grow up in the best place during the best time. We lived in a floor-through apartment in a four-story brownstone on the best block in Brooklyn.
After school, the girls would be jumping rope or playing Potsy, or maybe hit the penny, using a rubber ball called a “Spaldeen.” The boys played punch ball, stickball, and sometimes stoop ball. And all the kids would play hide-and-go-seek together.
There were always adults outside -- usually sitting on kitchen chairs -- gossiping, playing dominos, and keeping an eye out to make sure everyone was OK. In fact, many years later, Spike Lee made a movie on our block. Do the Right Thing came close to capturing the street life that made it such a great place to grow up.
By the time I was a student at Girls High, it was clear that I was destined to do great things. But occasionally, I would have the same strange dream. As I stood before the Pearly Gates, Saint Peter had a very quizzical expression.
“That’s it? Double Dutch champion of the sixth grade?”
Was this some kind of warning? It didn’t make any sense. I had very good grades, I would go to Brooklyn College, and my future was unlimited. But when I tried to convey this information to Saint Peter, he would fade out, and seconds later my alarm clock would start beeping.
My dad and mom both grew up in the neighborhood. He played for the City Champion Boys High baseball team, and was considered one of the best hitting outfielders in the entire city.
And my mom? Well, she was so pretty that no other girl wanted to run against her for the title of “Miss Girls High.”
But there was a war going on. Dad was drafted a week after he graduated, and he spent the next two years with a “colored regiment” in the Pacific. He returned home with a chest full of medals.
During the last two years of the war, Mom had a job at the Navy Yard. A whiz with numbers, she was hired right out of high school as a bookkeeper – the only colored person to hold that relatively high-paying position.
Dad was demobilized during the middle of a pretty serious recession. He was eligible for membership in the “twenty-six twenty club” – twenty-six weeks of collecting twenty dollars in unemployment insurance benefits. But he decided to follow his dream: to play in the Negro Leagues.
Although a little rusty, he was confident that he could still hit. He managed to get a tryout and was hired on the spot. His dream had come true!
A historical footnote may be in order. Because Major League Baseball was, like most other important institutions in post-war America, for whites only, the only opportunity for Negro players was the Negro Leagues. Of course, that would all soon change, when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to a contract, and he opened the 1947 season in the starting lineup.
Dad actually knew Jackie: their paths crossed while they were playing for rival teams in the Negro Leagues. I remember Jackie and his wife – Rachel -- having dinner at our house. In fact, I still have a photo of Jackie and Rachel, Mom and Dad, and me with my younger brother Dan, standing in front of our building.
My mom and dad had met a couple of years after the war. She had her own bookkeeping business, and even had another young woman working for her.
And Dad? After a couple of years in the Negro Leagues, like all the other players, he saw the writing on the wall. Once Jackie broke through what was known as “the color line,” the Dodgers and a few other Major League teams began signing more Negro ballplayers – quickly depleting the Negro Leagues of its stars.
Dad knew he would never make the cut. He sometimes remarked that “Jackie Robinson is a friend of mine, but I’m no Jackie Robinson.”
So he took the post office exam, aced it, and became a mailman. He made a decent living, and got to spend most of his time outdoors.
When Dan and I were still quite young, we used to ask our parents if they fell in love when they met.
“No”, they both answered, “It wasn’t love at first sight.” They were in love with each other long before they ever met.
Falling in love was a very important matter to teenagers. By the time I started Girls High, I was hanging out with John, a boy who lived just a few blocks away. He, of course, went to Boys High. If my claim to fame was my prowess at Double Dutch, then his was being the best stickball player in Bed-Stuy – a title that was actually claimed by countless other boys.
My parents were very fond of John, and he often ate dinner with the family. John idolized my dad, and truly loved my mom. She was always pushing this dish and that dish on him, and my dad would observe, “Honey, if you keep feeding John all that food, he’ll be too fat to marry Della!”
No matter how many times he would say that, it always got a laugh. But marriage or no marriage, John was indeed already part of the family.
Even after our friendship evolved into something much more serious, John loved sitting in the living room with my dad, talking about the Dodgers, who had deserted Brooklyn years before, and, of course, the old Negro Leagues. My dad was a natural born storyteller, and John would one day write about some of the things my dad told him.
John could sit with my dad for hours talking baseball. I can still remember a couple of particularly tall tales they would tell and retell.
One was about the legendary Satchel Paige, who was considered the greatest pitcher who ever played in the Negro Leagues. It fact, it is still argued that, had he been allowed to play in the Major Leagues during his prime, he might have been acclaimed the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball.
So how great was Satchel Paige? Well, no one had ever thrown a baseball as fast as he did. Decades before they began using radar guns, Paige’s fastballs were barely a blur to the naked eye.
One day, Paige and his catcher decided to have a little fun. Paige wound up and threw perhaps the fastest pitch he had ever thrown. The catcher positioned himself to catch a ball that was thrown across the middle of the plate.
Less than a second after Paige released the ball, the batter and the umpire heard it thud into the catcher’s mitt. Later, the batter would swear the pitch was so fast, he never saw the ball. As the catcher tossed the ball back to Paige, the umpire raised his right hand and yelled, “Steeeeerike!”
Had the umpire even seen the ball? The answer is “no.” That’s because Paige hadn’t actually thrown it. He just went through his pitching motion. The catcher pretended to catch the ball by pounding his fist into his mitt.
The umpire had not noticed the ball that the catcher had hidden in his hand. That’s the ball he tossed “back” to Paige.
So, was this story actually true? Only Paige and his catcher would ever know for sure.
Dad and John had another story, which, for some reason I liked as much as they did. It was about another player in the Negro Leagues -- who was an extremely fast runner. How fast was he? He was so fast that when he got up out of bed to turn out the light, he was back in bed before the room got dark.
John and my father often talked about the Dodgers, who had moved to Los Angeles when we were just seven or eight years old. While I can barely remember them, I do remember that awful day they tore down Ebbets Field.
I loved watching John and Dad having such a good time, but some of my friends would tease me about it. They wondered if John was using dating me as a pretext for hanging out with my dad. But trust me: John definitely loved me in ways that he could not love my dad.
By the time we started Brooklyn College, John and I began to talk about someday getting married. We were now “going steady.” Just in case you’re not familiar with this term – which was quite popular in the 1950s and 1960s -- it meant that you were in an exclusive relationship. It also meant that you had a date every Friday and Saturday night.
Another question is whether this relationship came with what are today termed, “benefits.” In some cases, yes; in some cases, no.
And in ours? Sorry, but a lady never tells.
In the middle of our sophomore year, I sensed that something was wrong. Then, one of my friends said she saw John hanging out with another girl.
At first, I ignored this. Then, another friend came to me a similar story, but in more vivid detail. So this time I decided to have a serious talk with John.
He was very up front. Yes, he had been “fooling around” a little bit. Then he placed his hands on my shoulders, looked me right in the eye, and declared, “Della Johnson, I will always love you!”
And yet, before the words were out of his mouth, I knew it was over between us. I believed what he said about loving me. But there was something else that bothered me. Something about trust.
John was loving, and he was truthful. But going steady did mean something. I knew that there would always be another girl he would find to “fool around” with. His hands were still on my shoulders. I kissed him lightly on the lips, and left the room.
Maybe we never should have gotten this involved in the first place. And maybe now that this phase of our relationship was over, we could remain friends. But that wasn’t to be. A few weeks later, John transferred to Howard University. He wanted to be in Washington, and he was going to become a journalist.
Did I ever predict that my future was unlimited? Well OK, maybe I was trying to look good in front of Saint Peter. And besides, considering that I was a Negro woman coming of age in the late 1960s, there weren’t a heck of lot of great career choices out there.
My mom had really made a go of her bookkeeping business, and now had three women working for her full-time. When the parlor floor apartment just downstairs from us became available, she decided to rent it. Before that, she’d been renting a small storefront on Nostrand Avenue. Now, she would have two locations.
I had inherited her facility with numbers, and was majoring in accounting. I was helping out more and more, and worked for her full time every summer. I liked the work, and got along great with the clients. They were mainly small business people who couldn’t afford to hire a full-time bookkeeper.
So when we talked it over, it made a lot of sense to work for her full-time after I graduated. By then, I was involved with the man who would become my husband. Roy was, as we used to say back in those days, “very devoted.” But even though Roy was a rabid baseball fan, he did not spend hours discussing this subject with my dad.
They say that time flies when you’re having fun. My husband and I have just celebrated our twentieth wedding anniversary. Our son, Martin, will be starting high school in the fall, and his big sister, Lorraine, is a freshman at Princeton. Everyone says she looks just like me, but I sure as heck don’t look eighteen anymore!
Roy and I still live in Bed-Stuy, just a few blocks from where I grew up. Even though we’re both from the neighborhood, when we bought a fixer-upper brownstone, some folks looked upon us as gentrifiers. Our parents still get quite a laugh out of that. “There goes the neighborhood!” became a family punch line.
Over the years, John and I completely lost touch, although for a while he and my dad talked on the phone. John did indeed become a journalist, and a few years ago he got a regular column in the Washington Post. Dad told me that maybe once or twice a year, he wrote something about the old Negro Leagues.
From time to time I wondered if he ever married, but as far as I knew, he never did. I smiled to think that my old boyfriend might still be “fooling around.”
When we were having Sunday dinner one spring evening, Dad handed me the book review section of The New York Times. A memoir, Brooklyn Days, was the lead review. I took it home with me and read it over and over. There was confirmation that we had indeed grown up in the best place during the best time.
Two weeks later, while on his book promotion tour, John came to Princeton to give a talk. Afterwards, Lorraine joined a long line of students who hoped to meet him. Finally, it was her turn.
She handed him an envelope.
While tearing it open, he kept glancing up at Lorraine. Then he asked, “Who are you?... You look so familiar!”
“No, we’ve never met. But my mom wanted you to have that.”
John studied the photo he had been holding. After just seconds, Lorraine could see him struggling to hold back his tears. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
It was an old black and white photo. There were two people looking directly at the camera – a tall man with his arm around a teenage boy. They were standing in front of an apartment house. There was a sign: “Ebbets Field Apartments.”
John burst into tears. Lorraine handed him some tissues. She knew that John had recognized himself and her grandpa.
Then John looked directly at Lorraine and said, “My God! You could have been my daughter!”
A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math and economics books.