As I'm certain is true for many of us, for most of my adult life I've painted a picture of having grown up in a tough low/middle income city housing project, as if I was once a character out of "Good Times," as if Jimmy "JJ" Walker had been playing shortstop next to me in game of punch ball in the Big Park. (Change that...Jimmy didn't look very athletic. We'd have probably put him in the sprinkler just to catch any rare balls that came off the park house roof...)
I always presented myself as someone that had succeeded despite having grown up on the wrong side of the track. I thought it made me seem more remarkable, giving people the image of someone that had scratched and clawed their way to adulthood, and who came out whole despite meager circumstances. It was a lie, and each of us lucky enough to have come through the projects in our era know it. Instead of knife fights growing up, our idea of dangerous was sneaking through "security" at Sea Gate to hang out at the "Riv." Instead of worrying about whether we'd have enough money to eat, our fear was falling off the wooden maze while playing blind man's bluff in the "little" park. Instead of drive-by shootings, we were worried about how to get our Spalding back from the two or three ladies that would incessantly sit on the benches on the cobblestones in the middle of the big park and would refuse to give our ball back if it accidentally rolled towards them, or what we'd do if the Pensy Pinkie would split in half while playing stick ball off the park house wall. What a wonderful, magical place we lived in then, when losing a game of basketball in the Cheesebox meant you were going to go for a quick swim in your cut-off shorts to cool off before you could get back on the court, where a half drawn shade in your apartment window meant that it was time to come up for dinner, and where instead of dead-beat dads, we had men like Leo Rich organizing stick ball games for us.
When my kids were growing up, I took them back to the projects to show them just how tough an upbringing their dad had gone through, when the truth was that I was brought up in the closest to paradise that I've ever known. I wanted them to appreciate all that we now have, when the truth is that my fervent hope for them is that they someday experience the true unbridled joy we shared growing up there, surrounded by hundreds of good kids, knowing even the name of the park man (Gene) who's job was to loan out checker boards to kids, where there were ALWAYS enough sparklers to go around to the kids that didn't have them on Tuesday night fireworks nights. No, none of us grew up on the "wrong side of the tracks" as I've so colorfully painted to business and social acquaintances through the years. I wouldn't trade those summer mornings on the beach, those happy nights at the "Y" playing ping pong, those days sneaking peeks at the latest "Archie" comic (before Coopey kicked us out), those road trips against the other "Y's," those times of knowing every mother playing Mah Jong, of knowing not a handful, but hundreds of other beautiful boys and girls in my age bracket, for all the summers kids now spend in Europe, for all their organized soccer leagues, their magnet schools, their Wii's, their double mocha latte's, their designer threads. Personally, I'll take a cheeseburger deluxe, a chocolate egg cream (with a side of water poured in a cone-shaped cup) at the Hubba Hubba any day of the week.
There must be a reason that so many of us are drawn back home, now so separated by miles and experiences and the passing of years. Perhaps it's that we were raised in Nirvana, but that we didn't even know it at the time.
Lattman's sister's brother