There was this one particular afternoon, not unlike any other beautiful fall afternoon in the Bronx. We’ll get to this soon enough. But first …
I was brought up in a neighborhood where diversity and respect for elders were parts of life. My family, and we numbered many more than the average, were also proud members of the many families who belonged to a long line of public school believers. I don’t think I even knew of such an idea as a private school.
I did not know the Catholic school down the street was private. I must have believed it was not any different from my public school, except that everyone was Catholic, the students could have nuns as teachers, and they got to wear cool uniforms. (Remember, anything different to me was cool, and we believed in the bubeh meyseh, or old wives’ tale, that nuns could bring you good luck.)
Five days a week, Monday through Thursday after public school and again on Sunday mornings, I went to Yiddishe shule (Jewish school). It was similar to Catholic school with a few exceptions: Everyone was Jewish, we had no nuns, and, much to my little girl dismay, there were no uniforms.
The school was a renovated storefront on the other side of Crotona Park on Boston Road and could only accommodate one class grade at a time, so as we moved up in grades, our classes were held later and later into the evening.
Crotona Park is a major city park frequented by kids, families and lovers. The park boasted large playgrounds, huge boulders that seemed like mountains, and tall and fat trees with branches that seemed specifically designed for us kids to climb. There were huge lakes and miles of walkways with wooden benches for resting or daydreaming.
When I was around 6 years old, too young to walk that long way by myself, my older cousin and then a babysitter would walk me to and from class. Gangs roamed the area, more to protect civilians than to attack us. It was actually quite safe.
When I was old enough to walk by myself, around 10 years old, I would always leave home a little early so I could roam the park before class. I loved the monkey bars, the seesaw, the high slide and the swings.
My favorite scar is under my chin. My cousin and I were seesawing, and she jumped off. I came down with a thud and opened a gap in my chin that required stitches. No matter. It was the best of times. Seriously.
Back to the beautiful fall afternoon in the Bronx.
I always kept some money in my shoe. Sometimes paper bills, sometimes coins. This particular afternoon was no exception. On my way home from class, I always felt I deserved to be rewarded for going to school while my friends were hanging around the block, having a great time playing My Name Is with a Spalding or Double Dutch with jump ropes.
I am sure some were in the schoolyard playing basketball or watching others play. Some were rollerskating. I, on the other hand, was in Yiddishe shule.
What better reward than some form of sweets? The candy store had a humongous variety to offer me. If memory serves, Baby Ruth bars were comparable to winning the gold at the Olympics.
I left our apartment and headed toward the park, which served as a shortcut. Ten or 15 minutes into my trek, I noticed three older girls on one of the benches, girls I’d never seen in the park before, relaxing (or so I thought) and smoking (a bad sign I ignored, even though the intuition angel was jumping up and down on my shoulder).
I kept walking as if I was in total control of my body, which I wasn’t or I would have asked said body to stop shaking. I made eye contact, smiled (why be impolite?) and kept on shaking while walking toward my destination.
They came up behind me: “Where ya’ goin’, girlie?”
“To after-school class.”
“Got any money for after-school class?”
One of them announced to the others: “Bet she has money for a drink in this after-school class of hers.”
“Well, do you have any money?” I took off my shoe and gave them my $5.
They laughed hysterically as one of them said: “Hey, I never thought of that hiding place. We have to remember to check the shoes next time.”
Would you believe they thanked me for not making them beat me up, then left, still laughing?
I, on the other hand, held back my tears, kept shaking until I finally got to school and never told a soul I was a victim of a $5 heist. Until now.