Community Greens

People of all colors discussing evergreen ideas.

Happy Birthday, Barbara!


Barbara and her friends walked, talking and laughing, down Franklin Avenue towards 169th Street. I listened to every word they said, acting like I wasn’t there. My big sister and her friends were on their way to the Delite Record Shop on Boston Road to buy the Ray Charles single, “I Can’t Stop Loving You”. It had shot to the top of the R&B charts and the girls couldn’t wait to get it. Barbara was turning 18 on Saturday and wanted the hottest 45’s for the house party they were having at Sharon’s. Sharon’s mother was a night duty nurse and left for work at 10 pm. She wouldn’t be back until 10 am the next day. The party would be un-chaperoned and the teenage conspirators thought, with careful cleaning, no one would ever know it was anything more than a girl’s sleepover.

Every now and then one of Barbara’s friends would say something an 8-year-old shouldn’t hear and glance over to see if I had been listening. Of course I was, but I would turn my head to watch a car go by or kick a pebble to prove my attention was elsewhere. Barbara never looked at me. She knew I wouldn’t tell. I had learned long ago not keeping her confidence meant no attention and, sandwiched between older and younger brothers, I needed Barbara to look out for me.

Jean mentioned George and Barbara stopped, tipped her head down and looked at her the way mom would glare at us when we were bad. George was 10 years older than Barbara and she had been dating him for 2 years. Mom didn’t like it but, as a single mom, she had her hands full raising 3 younger boys, taking care of an ailing mother and dealing with a teenage girl. Barbara breathed out as though she were about to say something then turned and walked on. The girls hesitated for a moment before they fell back to chattering.

The conversation began again when Barbara asked Harriet who she was inviting. The girls mentioned this boy and that one and, as they got to the corner, Barbara cued me to “play” somewhere else. I turned right and headed for the Fulton Avenue basketball courts next to the Public Health Station. Barbara and the girls turned left and headed towards McKinley Square.

There were lots of nights Barbara had come in past curfew over the last year or so. And lately, there were some nights she didn’t come in at all. Mom would lock and chain the front door every night, but Barbara shared a room with grandmother and, whenever she wanted, would sneak out through the window. Grandmother would dutifully leave the window unlocked so Barbara could sneak back in. Mother and grandmother had awful arguments about Barbara. Mother would threaten bodily harm and grandmother would swear bodily protection. Barbara didn’t come home after her 18th birthday party.

She and George moved into a ground floor apartment on St. Paul’s Place. Their apartment was right on the corner of Crotona Park South and Fulton Avenue. It was a block or 2 from a nursing home, which later became a drug treatment center, and ultimately the Fulton Correctional Facility. I would visit her after “working” in the Parks Department vegetable garden in Crotona Park. Sometimes my mother would send my younger brother and me over to my sister’s for Sunday dinner. Barbara had never learned to cook but somehow managed to make edible meals most of the time. My brother and I would get home in time for our Sunday bath and The Wonderful World of Disney. We would tell mom about dinner, but she never asked any questions. For a long time, mom and Barbara didn’t talk.

Grandma died the next year. A year later, NYCHA approved us for an apartment in the Webster Butler Houses. The apartment was at 420 E. 169th Street, just 5 blocks from where we lived at 1330 Franklin Avenue, and still in Morrisania. Mom, my 2 brothers and I, 4 of us instead of 6 now, finally moved from the unlicensed, unheated, rat filled basement apartment we’d been living in and mom had been trying to get out of for so long. It had fewer rooms than mom wanted, so my older brother never got his own room. We made new friends and settled in quickly. At 10 years-old, my life started all over again.

Barbara died of heart failure 8 years ago while watching TV with mom. She died 3 weeks before she was going to retire from NYC Social Services. She had really been looking forward to retirement. She died 4 weeks before Charli, her first niece, was born. She had really been looking forward to the first baby in the family. Barbara’s 70th birthday would have been today. I miss her. Happy Birthday, Barbara!



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