Community Greens

People of all colors discussing evergreen ideas.

Borrowing From Peter To Pay Paul

When I was a kid, my mother said she was, “borrowing from Peter to pay Paul” so often I thought it was her favorite expression. When I got older I realized it was really her way of describing her weekly recurring fiscal cliff. Having grown up in Harlem, as an erstwhile partner, she was now a single black woman with 4 children living in a tenement building the Morrisania section of the Bronx in the 50’s. And Grandma came to live with us. Life was . . . good most of the time.Ruth_Vasser

Family and friends called her Babe Ruth, named after her aunt and shortened from Baby Ruth, not the baseball player or the candy bar. As a kid I used to chuckle to hear her very big, younger and only brother call her Babe Ruth. She will be 92 this year and there are very few folks alive that have the right to call her Babe Ruth. She has never said we were poor as children.  I have never called her Babe Ruth. Today I think I will kiss her and call her Babe Ruth because she has never made us feel poor.

I’d like to say we were poor because it’s fashionable to talk about how tough growing up was. It seems like a greater accomplishment if you start out farther back in the pack. My mother always said she had to raise her children and her sense of duty to that was as clear and unwavering as the flag on a fall day in McKinley Square opposite the fire house on Boston Road and 169th Street.

Even when she was laid off before Christmas, when I was 8 or 9, there were no laments or jokes about Santa being shot, but new bathrobes, coloring books and re-purposed crayons under the tree . That year I don’t recall cookies or decorating the tree the night before. She never bought a tree or wrapped presents before we went to bed on Christmas Eve, even in good times. It wasn’t until I had children of my own and faced difficult times I realized she had become accustomed to waiting to the last possible moment to buy the best she could afford. I don’t buy a tree or wrap presents until the night before Christmas. All those years, it drove my wife and kids crazy. Childhood can leave lash marks.

We had the worst looking tree I’ve ever seen that year, a scrawny thing about 2 feet tall set on a dresser with a strand of old gold and silver garland with the tinsel broken in several places. Grandma’s glass ornaments were too grand and too large for the tree but I insisted on hanging my favorite, the red one with the long icicle bottom with the sunken silver and blue center which always seemed you could crawl into it and be transported to the North Pole. Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, a zero-sum game that can be mastered and beaten, is the fabric of culture in minority neighborhoods.

Growing up in Morrisania was playing monopoly on a socially intimate level. In Morrisania, I lived on Franklin Avenue in an illegal basement apartment around the corner from Boston Road as Board Walk. The Boston Road Ball Room was a few blocks north. Morris High School, the first public high school in the Bronx was a few blocks south. In between was the movie theater, the record shop, the A&P supermarket and other ports of industry including “The Colored Store” owned by Miss Martha and her sister and Mr. Jack’s Liquor store where I bought my first bottle of wine.

Most of the business were black owned when I was small. There was even a black doctor who practiced out of a small white frame house on Boston Road. Mom always took us to him first and only took us to the hospital or health station when he said so. The Third Avenue Elevated Train Station at 169th Street was 2 blocks west. Prospect Avenue was a few blocks east. Crotona Park with its baseball fields, public swimming pool, clay tennis courts and rowing on Indian Lake, was a few blocks north. I learned to be an Urban Gardener in Crotona Park when I was 8 years old. The Public Health Station was on Fulton Ave, one block west, as was Bronx Lebanon Hospital and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.

St. Augustine’s Catholic Church was several blocks south, across the street from the Armory. I went to PS 63, next to the NY Public Library Morrisania Branch. The Morrisania Branch had a separate entrance for the Children’s’ Library and reading room. I felt really special as a child going to the library after school to do my homework until my mother came home. I was there, like a lot of kids in the neighborhood, with a single key on a dirty white shoestring around my neck under my shirt which I didn’t use unless there was an emergency. I attended the Methodist church between Franklin and Fulton not the Baptist church between Fulton and Third. On weekends, we shopped on Bathgate Ave. I remember Woolworths, the fish market and my Grandmother haggling with shop keepers.

Had my mother been pentacostal like Mrs. Rodriguez who lived next door to Mrs. Roberts, who was jewish, she might have said, “Desnudar a uno santo para vestir a otro,” undress one saint to dress another. So we grew up borrowing from Peter, not robbing him, to pay Paul, in a very rich environment. Today, as I and many of you out there stand on our own personal cliffs, I’d like to celebrate Women’s History Month by saying Thank you, Mom. I think you have paid Peter and Paul back.


Filed under: Community Green, It Takes A Village, , , , , ,

6 Responses

  1. friendsofbrookpark says:

    Yep, the case against Fresh direct too


  2. What a sweet walk through time and Bronx space. It is complete with a charming photograph. Happy Women’s History month everyone. Remember to attend a special Bronx African American History Project (Bronx River Sankofa) talk formulated around local women on Saturday, March 16 (3:30 p.m.) at the Langston Hughes Library in Corona, Queens!


    • czvasser says:

      Thank you. That’s my Mom’s HS graduation picture. Writing the post brought back lots of warm memories. I re-posted your Queens Library talk on my Facebook page.


    • czvasser says:

      I added the Bronx River Sankofa Image to the Community Green front page with a link to the site. Cheers!


  3. Ted says:

    Babe Ruth has paid us all, after all she gave us you….thanks Babe Ruth


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