I can’t remember the reason but one day Mom and Dad decided
to move from the barracks in Weequahic Park to the Dayton Street
Apartments that were just down the street. At age 4 these were huge
monoliths of brick, steel and concrete to me. Rising out of the
ground like a huge concrete pillar boxes of World War II and it
easily dwarfed me at 4 years of age. Unlike today, the apartment
complex was relatively shiny new. No graffiti or broken windows
were apparent at this time. The grounds were kept clean and people
actually played baseball on the baseball diamond that was in front
of my apartment complex. The buildings were arranged so that they
formed two sides of a triangular armada around a huge open field
in its center. The field was surrounded by a chain link fence that
stretched for many hundreds of feet around its entire perimeter.
It was all intact without any broken links and in this field was
a baseball diamond, a football field and uncommitted open field
so people could do whatever sports or activities that they were
inclined to do. On the third side of this triangle was a school,
the recreation center, building maintenance and a series of smaller
apartments that were only 4 stories tall compared to the 12 or more
stories in the opposing monoliths. I can’t remember how many
of the large apartment buildings there were but I would guess there
was at least four on each side of the triangle.
Despite the reputation of the projects being a bad place to live
even back in these times, I have to say that there were many good
families living there just because they didn’t have the money
to live elsewhere. It seems that the post war era was a rough time
for a lot of people. Many were still trying to readajust their mindsets
to the peace time mentality and getting on with their lives. We
were all survivors in one way or another and many families were
struggling to survive, mine included. When I think about it, it
is very humbling to me and makes me proud that my parents were always
trying to bring our family to a better level of living.
In 1954 these apartments were vibrant centers of different nationalities
that were thrown together by the economic conditions of the times.
People were always hanging out in the front of the building where
there were some benches that people could sit down on. The tallness
of the building would, in turn, provide shade for the area making
it a nice place to past the time. In this mass of humanity very
few people showed me any animosity because of my Asian heritage.
When a black kid did call me a “chink”, another black
person that was much older stopped him and said how he would like
it if I called him a “nigger?” The kid looked at me
and didn’t say anything and walked away. I never heard anyone
in my building ever call me a “chink” again.
The apartments had small elevators that made moving of a large
or heavy item very difficult but somehow, people always managed.
They also had multiple stairways but the hallways were so narrow
that you could easily get claustrophobic when climbing them. When
you got to your floor the first thing that greeted you was the smelly
incinerator that accepted all your trash but the smell was very
localized to within a few feet of the incinerator. There were approximately
8 apartments on each floor. Our apartment was located on the third
or fourth floor and was the furthest from the incinerator. I often
wondered if this was by choice or just the luck of the draw. I’ll
Walking straight into our apartment you would see a small living
room that seemed big to me at the time but, of course, it wasn’t.
Next in the parade of small rooms came the dining room and kitchen.
If you kept walking straight you would see my sister‘s room
that had the only bathroom in the apartment to its left. Turning
right and then left a short hallway would greet you. At the end
of the hallway turning left you were heading towards my parent’s
bedroom and on the way you would pass my bedroom door. In each room
they had these huge radiators for heat in the wintertime that would
emit steam through a pressure relief valve when they got too hot.
I found that I could easily melt my wax crayons on it when it got
The hallway proved to be quite a recreational site for my sister
and I. We would set up some toy bowling pins and knock them down
with the balls that the game provided us with. There were a lot
of games we made up and they always centered on the hallway. They
included games like miniature soccer; hit a stick that involved
a rubber ball and a popsicle stick, a baseball game where you got
a base for every time the opposing player lets the ball bounce on
the floor when you hit it back to them, and many others. When we
would tire of playing games with each other I would take out my
wooden top, wrap my string around it and throw it down to the floor
and watch it spin. I would then try the many string tricks I saw
the older kids do but was never very successful at this. No, sorry,
there were no videos games here! It’s still the 1950’s!
The only other personal games available at the time were yo-yo’s.
I wasn’t very good at that either so I stuck to my wooden
top and baseball cards. I didn’t think of flipping for baseball
cards as a form of gambling back then but I guess it was if you
really thought about what we were doing. Farsies was a game that
was won by having the card that was thrown farthest. That person
would win all the cards that on the ground. This sounds like a simple
game to win but the catch of it was that the cards would bounce
off the wall that it was played against. Now depending upon how
hard you flipped your card against this wall determined how far
back that it bounced. Sometimes the difference was hard to see so
in that case, depending upon who you were playing with, a tie was
called and we would all re-flip our cards. If you weren’t
among friends then there would be fist fights over the results.
I stayed away from those games because I didn’t have a need
to be in a fight every single day at this stage of my life. Then
there was Topsies. Ultimately this was a card game of strategy.
In the first round all the kids would flip their cards so they would
land a good distance away from each other. If you were skilled enough
and wanted a card that was in the first round, you could flip your
card so that it landed on top of any card that was flipped and you
would win all the cards and that round. Most of the kids waited
until the third or fourth round to top a card so that they would
win more cards. Then there was the old standby game of marbles but
I never played it much because I didn’t like losing my marbles!!!!
My room had a window that overlooked the apartment parking lot
and further out across the street that bordered the parking lot
was a cemetery. It was really kind of spooky at night especially
when some of the older kids would break into the cemetery and I
would see them moving around. Not my favorite memory!
Anyway Dad had a Jewish friend by the name of Al that also lived
in the projects but in a different building. I became friends their
youngest son Jeff and his three sisters called Leslie, Janis and
Shirley. Leslie was the youngest, Janie was the middle child and
Shirley was the oldest. Cookie was the oldest son but I hardly saw
him because he was old enough to be out on his own at the time.
Their mother’s name was Irene and she worked in a factory
and Al was a long distance bus driver. I would see our new friends
quite often either at my house or theirs. We would always play games
or just joke around to pass the time. I once had a fondness for
the youngest girl, Leslie, because she was close to my age and a
lot of fun to be around. Both families became very close through
the years but the glue that held this friendship together was definitely
our father’s friendship. When Al passed away followed by his
wife Irene this friendship was never the same after that. Jeff,
since he was a long distance bus driver like his Dad, helped my
parents in their move down to Florida by driving them down, a trip
he had made dozens of times on his bus routes. Mom remarked that
his experience as a bus driver made the trip a much more pleasant
one. Jeff remained in contact for a number of years even after Mom
passed away but by then his sisters had no contact with us whatsoever.
Jeff continued to keep in contact via cards in the mail and by an
occasional visit in person. The last time I heard from him he was
living in South Carolina with his new wife and I wrote to him to
inform him that Dad had passed away but never received a response.
I am hoping that he wasn’t miffed by not being invited to
Dad’s funeral but my sister and I wanted a very small funeral
and even had to tell my father’s brother to stay home. The
viewing was short and the burial was even shorter. He lived a good
life despite his humble beginnings. We both paid our final respects
and he now lies beside my mother in a west Orlando cemetery.
I would go food shopping with Mom and my sister while Dad was
at work. Mom had a basket that had wheels on it and she would load
it up and then some. That’s when my sister and I would help.
We would carry the extra bags of groceries while Mom pulled the
basket which was too heavy for either my sister or I. I remember
that we would pass a toy store on the way home and Mom would let
me window shop and ask me which toy I would like. When I picked
out one she would say “Oh, I thought you would like this one”
My response would be “Yes, I like that one too!” and
so I would know which toy I would be getting for my next birthday
or Christmas! Sometimes when I expressed a desire to have a certain
toy and we didn’t have the money for such things Mom would
try to appease me. One time all the kids had these balsa wood glider
planes that were very popular at the time. I wanted one very badly
and with the help of my sister’s friend whose name was Eddy;
my Mom made me a custom airplane! She copied the plane that Eddy
had and actually cut the wood out. Eddy put the plane together and
drew the lines that his plane had on it. It didn’t fly but
I was a happy camper because my Mom had made it! This single incident
was a great influence on my own creative side and I will always
keep that memory with me.
The recreation center of the projects was a great attraction for
me because they had some neat games like Nock Hockey, checkers and
assorted other types of games for us kids to play at no charge!
They also had craft classes that taught us how to make neat items
from craft paper. Nock Hockey was the most popular game and the
one that I liked the best. It was a table with a wood border around
it. In each corner it had piece of wood that was mounted to the
corner of the table at a 45 degree angle. The purpose of this was
to enable you to hit the wooden puck on it so that the puck would
bounce off it in such a way as to enable you to score points on
your opponent. The table had slots on each opposing end and these
slots were the goals that you were supposed to get the puck into
so you can score your points. It was also marked up so that it looked
like an ice hockey ring. Two small sticks served as hockey sticks
and gave you the means to hit the puck into your opponent’s
goal. The trick of it was to get around the wood block that was
in front of your opponent’s goal by hitting the puck and using
the sides of the table to make the puck bounce into his goal. Your
opponent was not allowed to block the puck. It was so much fun that
one time I lost track of time because I was winning and was late
for dinner. My Mom had to come down and saw me crossing the field
on my way home. I was surprised to see her and in a moment I knew
I was in deep trouble because she rarely came down onto the field.
I tried half heartedly to run past her but she caught me and proceeded
to scold me for being late. I tried to make excuses but Mom was
not letting me get away with this. I was never late again!
And then there were the rock fights that I had with other kids.
This was a potentially lethal type of warfare but most of the kids
did it anyway. I would always stand behind the nearest chain link
fence when these types of fights broke out. The fence would provide
me some protection from being hit but most of the time nobody got
hurt despite the hail of rocks that were flying though the air.
We were kids and our aim wasn’t all that good but one time
I threw a rock and it bounced off the wall that a kid was standing
in front of and to my horror, it hit the back of his head and opened
a big gash in his head. He was crying and he put his hand on his
head where the stone hit and it came away all bloodied. I was so
scared that I ran home and swore I would never throw another rock
at anyone ever again. My rock fighting days were now officially
over! In the winter, when there was lots of snow on the ground,
my sister and I would go out into the field and build our own snowman.
I didn’t have the strength then to lift the big snow boulder
we made for each section of our snowman so when one of the older
kids offered to help, we gladly let him. There were a lot of kids
doing this and it was fun to see all the different shapes that were
created as the snowmen were built.
When the spring time came everyone was playing on the huge field
and having a good time. My sister was talking to her new girlfriends
when one of them took a liking to me and gave me my first kiss on
the lips through the playground fence. I was kind of embarrassed
because a couple of my friends and I were playing football at the
time but they never said a word to me and so I was relieved. I had
not yet started school at the time but I was playing around in that
immediate area with my friend Jeff when we spotted this red box
on the pole outside of the school. Jeff wondered what it was and
I suggested that he boost me up so I could see it. I saw an arrow
pointing downwards on the box so I pushed the handle in that direction.
The alarm that rang was so loud that it startled both of us. We
came tumbling down from my perch and both fell to the ground in
the confusion. Jeff looked at me and I said “We better run!”
and so we did. When we got to the field side of the fence, we were
standing there when we saw a fire truck pull up. The firemen were
running all around asking where the fire was in loud voices. Well
that was a lesson that I learned the hard way. I never went near
another fire alarm again and warned many other kids not to touch
On the first day of Kindergarten my Mom accompanied me since I
was scared of this new adventure that awaited me. She stood by the
wall with the other parents while the teacher conducted the class.
My attention was so taken that I didn’t even notice that my
Mom had slipped away but she was there when school got out and I
remember being happy and excited when she looked at my work that
I did in school. As the days went by, the novelty of attending school
wore off and it was at the end of one of out rest periods where
we put our heads on our desks that I learned that I had a problem
that would follow me throughout my life. I didn’t hear the
teacher calling an end to the rest period and kept my head down
on me desk. I wasn’t asleep, my eyes were wide open when I
finally heard the teacher’s voice speaking to another teacher
very close to me “I think he’s sleeping” she said.
I immediately raised my head and said “No, I’m not”
with a smile on my face. They both just looked at me and walked
away. From that day on, I would look for the teacher ending the
rest period rather than listening for her. I never told my Mom that
I did this but what does a 5 year old know about hearing loss? The
first grade experience started by moving the entire class to a different
room in the school and we had a different teacher. I remember that
we also had a student teacher that was very pretty and I used to
leave her one of my graham crackers as a gift during one of our
break times. When she found the cracker she smiled and said “Thank
you” to me because I was the only one that was smiling at
her!! She never did anything except to listen to the class so I
assumed that’s what student teachers do.
From there it was off to the big school which was about three
blocks away and in a different building altogether. Mom walked with
my sister and me on the first day of school and then we were on
our own. I remember doing crazy things after school on the way home
like playing with the tar bubbles that formed in the street when
it was hot out. I would always get a spot of tar on my clothes no
matter how careful I was while I did this. Mom would get angry at
me and I promised her that I wouldn’t do it again. A couple
of times after that I broke my promise but luckily I managed to
find a longer stick to poke the bubbles so I wouldn’t get
any tar on my clothes!
Then I had a couple of acquaintances that walked part of the way
home with me when I spotted this neat swing in a tree. The property
it was on belonged to a house that hadn’t been occupied for
a long time so I decided that I didn’t need anyone’s
permission to take a ride on it. Under the protest of my walk home
buddies, I jumped on the swing and began pumping my legs to get
it to swing higher. Just as I reached the highest point of my back
swing the rope broke and I came crashing down on my butt. Boy, was
I in pain! My butt was hurting big time and my acquaintances just
stood there and looked at me in horror. I asked them not to tell
anybody about my mishap and then, for some reason, they laughed.
I never did get that one but just the same, they didn’t stay
around for too long.
Another incident was when it rained heavily and I had to wear my
rain boots to school. Little did I know that one of the boots had
a hole on its side! Tromping through all the puddles I was confident
that my feet wouldn’t get wet. I was in for the biggest surprise
of my young life when I got to school. My feet felt kind of wet
and when I took off the rain boots I saw that my shoes and socks
were soaking wet. When I wiggled my toes, I could feel the sloshing
of the water between my toes so I knew it was bad. I spent the early
morning in the nurse’s office drying off my feet and waiting
for my mother to bring me dry socks and shoes. When Mom arrived
she was a little annoyed. “Did you go stomping through the
puddles again?” she asked me. I hung my head and said “Yes,
Mom” With that she looked at the nurse and smiled. The nurse
smiled back and then walked away. I hurriedly put on the dry socks
and shoes and gave the wet ones to my Mom. I kissed her goodbye
and then got back to class.
I didn’t know what it was like to be scared until the rumor
about a monster man started to circulate around the neighborhood.
I chuckle at this story now but when you’re 6 years old it
wasn’t funny. I was told by a number of my classmates that
he had purple skin and smoked green cigarettes. Yikes! No one under
the age of 6 was laughing at this because the monster reportedly
like little kids and ate them for dinner!! It was then that our
neighbor, who was a teenager at the time, came over and talks to
me mano a mano. He had heard the rumors and told me that they were
false. He asked me whether I had actually seen this monster and
did so without the slightest trace of a smile on his face. I replied
“No” “Has anybody else you know seen it?”
he asked once more. Again I said “No’ “Then it
doesn’t exist!” He admonished me. I remember this vividly
because he had freed me of the fear that had been gripping me for
what seems like weeks but it was only a couple of days. His nickname
was “Gooner” and he lived in the apartments on the same
floor as my family. We would see him sporadically and he would play
games with us when he was bored. He was always teaching us the right
thing to do in different situations. Common sense always marked
his approach to problems and I respected him for this characteristic.
My sister and I never found out why he was called “Gooner”
but we never laugh at this odd name but just accepted it as his
When I was promoted to the second grade, I met a little girl named
Marilyn that seemed to hold that mysterious key to my attraction.
She was in the same class as I was and we sat next to each other.
Her father was the milkman that delivered our milk in the morning
and her family lived in the apartments that were next to the school.
The only thing I remember about her was walking her home one day
when one of our classmates came running up to us and snatch the
hat that Marilyn was wearing right off her head. He wouldn’t
give it back and just as I was about to catch up to him, he did
the unexpected. He threw the hat up into a tree and it got stuck
on one of its limbs. Marilyn was visibly upset and told me she was
going home which was just a short distance away. I proceeded to
climb the small tree and manage to get her hat. It must have been
winter because I don’t remember any leaves on the tree. The
brat that had tossed it up into the tree took off running and I
let him go because I felt it was more important to get Marilyn’s
hat back to her. I brought it to her house and knocked on the door.
Her Mother answered the door and I explained what had happened and
gave her Marilyn’s hat. She said thank you with such indifference
that even as a young kid, it was a message that I recognized and
she closed the door. I never saw Marilyn outside of school again.
And then I was promoted to 3rd grade and I’m now 8 years
old. For some reason I was assigned to an extension school that
was located further away from home. It was actually in the basement
of an apartment house and there was only one class there where we
had the same teacher for the entire day. I remember that someone
wrote a curse word on the boy’s bathroom wall and the janitor
told our teacher. No one owned up to this misdeed and so we were
all punished by having no recreation time. Then I was walking home
from school one day and I crossed a street in the middle of the
block to get to the main school playground. Well one of the school
crossing guards saw me jaywalking and told me to stop. I was kind
of startled and instinctively began to run. To my great surprise
he began running after me! I then led him on a chase through the
neighborhood until I ran out of breath and let him catch me. He
was only a year or two older than me but he brought me to the school’s
office where I was reprimanded and sent home with a note to my mother
that told her what I had done. Needless to say, my Mom was furious
with me and told me under no circumstances should I ever jaywalk
again. I never saw that kid again because I took a different way
home to avoid him. The school year had ended and my family moved
to the Weequahic section of Newark.
I know that today the Dayton Street projects stand in ruins with
all the windows broken and the apartments empty. The fences are
all down and the buildings are graffiti ridden to the point of being
more than obscene. I would imagine that it would be cheaper for
them to demolish the buildings instead of trying to renovate them.
Yet another place where my memories will be erased by time.