Spring, Early 1965
I remember it now, like it was yesterday; though as a child I had completely blocked it out of my mind. I was allowed to play on the front porch. But admonished never to leave it: the porch was my playground. There I threw a big yellow ball up in the air. My five-year old runty body tossing the ball underhanded as high as I could. I hoped the ball could reach the clouds and knock over one of them.
It was comfortable being so close to the house. It was a feeling I assumed I would keep forever. I didn't realize how fragile that security really was, because I believed we lived in a fort. Perhaps the smallest fort ever, but a fortress nevertheless. It seemed as if nothing could penetrate the walls of our home on Cherry Street, on Detroit's northwest side. The house shielded me from the turbulence—be it weather, political or otherwise. The house was impregnable red brick. There was even a small second floor offering additional safety, just in case.
At five years-old everything seemed bright and rosy. The home was so happy that one day it seemed like a party came to celebrate with me out on the porch.
At once, my eyes lit up. There were four smiling white men in suits—very formal but familiar—and an elegant black woman in a sleek, but plain, purple dress, my favorite color at the time. The man in front, who'd walked up the steps first, looked very jocular indeed, rotund and friendly.
"Hello, young man. How are you doing? What's your name?" He crouched down on his knees and stuck out his hand to me like I was someone important.
"Jamie, sir! Jamie Goldberg."
"Glad to meet you, Jamie. Do you know who I am?" He shook my hand with a gentle vigor. He was such a jolly hero.
"Uh ... no, sir."
"Well, my name is Jerome, and I am the Mayor of your wonderful city."
"The Mayor? ... of Cherry Street?" My eyes widened.
"Yes, Jamie." He chuckled. Everyone else laughed with us. He stood up. "Is your amazing mother, Ruth Goldberg, at home?" he asked, his voice ringing.
"Yes, sir! She is." I was so happy the Mayor thought my mother was amazing, such high recognition of this obvious fact was thrilling.
"Your honor!" gasped my mother who had opened the door behind me.
"Hello, Ruth. Good to meet you! And good to meet your wonderful son, Jamie."
"Your honor, I didn't know you were coming, too—is it that serious?"
"It is, we got trouble. I have Selma, Sam here and Phil. You know George?"
"By reputation, good to meet you. Congratulations on being the police commissioner."
"Thank you, Mrs. Goldberg."
"It's not a riot or something like that?" asked my mom.
"Well, let's just say we had a close scare," said Sam. Sam had a friendly face and a slight medium build. From bright and happy, everything turned tense and urgent. "We had another close one, out at Northern, parents are demanding what we are going to do about it."
"Mom, the Mayor said you were amazing," I boasted. She smiled awkwardly.
"She is indeed," a tall gaunt man, a Senator friend of my father's, said from behind the Mayor. Mom stepped up to him, and they hugged. To hug him, my mother had to stand on her tiptoes, something her small five-foot-one-inch frame was forced to do quite often. She wore her red hair up-swept making her look taller than she was.
Mom and the Senator hugged warmly and friendly. "Ruth, glad to see you again," said Phil.
"Phil, you know Ruth?" asked an impressed Mayor of the City.
"Of course, we're old friends."
"Fine, very fine," exuded the Mayor.
I suddenly remembered something my mother talked about the police commissioner, so I asked George, "Are you like the commissioner—of the Detroit police?"
"Yes, yes, I am."
"You look okay."
"Well thank you, Jamie." He laughed.
"You don't look like a bigot to me."
Everyone laughed at me. I blushed. I felt bad, but the skinny police commissioner looked kindly on me and patted my head, reassuringly.
"I am sorry to say, young man, bigots come in all shapes and sizes, but luckily you are quite right. I am not a bigot."
"George just replaced one," said Selma. She smiled at me, as if she approved of my mistake.
"Jamie, stay here outside. We've got work to do." My mother ordered. "And stay on the porch!"
The adults went inside and I stayed out on the porch with a ball, which I continued to throw up in the air. My next door neighbor Billy Schwartz, who was a couple years older than I, saw me playing and came over.
"Hi Billy, wanna play ball?"
"That's for sissies. Wanna see something neato?"
"It's down the block near the high school."
"I can't go there, Mom said I have to stay on the porch."
"Come on, you'll be back before she knows it."
I felt an urge to want to impress him. Still, I remembered my mother's warning not to leave the porch. But such an admonishment, was surely meant to keep strangers and other dangerous people away. Billy wasn't a stranger. I looked at Billy, he seemed to want me to go so eagerly. The compulsion to please him trumped my will to obey my mother. Against my better five-year old judgment, I conceded to the seven-year-old's dare and off we went.
Following Billy, we crossed the street. Crossing the street without my mother seemed very daring indeed, and wondered what more adventures would follow. We passed strange houses and buildings I had never seen before. It all seemed like I was walking in an urban wilderness.
We arrived at an open space behind a school, there was a deep dark pit. Billy climbed into the pit. He motioned me to follow him.
"Come on, you wanna see it, you have to climb down, too," he insisted.
I wasn't so sure. "What's down there?"
"You'll see, come on." Something did not seem right. But I gazed down the pit and saw Billy beckoning me.
I climbed down into the pit. I was scared because it seemed very difficult to get out of the hole. It was dark and stank a foul musty odor. The floor was clumpy, damp dirt not yet mud.
"Before you can play you have to be initiated," he challenged.
"What does that mean?"
"You have to prove you're ready, stupid, take down your pants and let's see you."
"Why do I have to do that?" I asked afraid.
"It's a special game and you need to be initiated, dummy. Here I'll show you." And with that he put down his pants showing off his naked waist-line. I had never seen another's naked groin before. It was fascinating yet repulsive. Billy suddenly had a nasty grin like an animal or monster, someone who could harm me. I felt an increasing urge to run away. But where? I wasn't exactly sure where I was. I felt obliged to the dare.
With more than a little trepidation I took down my pants. Just then a kid on a bike appeared at the top of the ledge to the pit. He laughed, "Hey you fruitcakes!" and he started to throw rocks at us. I felt deeply ashamed for being laughed at with my pants down like that. I quickly got my pants back up. "You fruits better beat it, the police are coming! I am gettin' outta here!" and he rode off. We quickly climbed out of the pit. We ran home but there waiting for me was my mother.
"Jamie! Where have you been?" Before I could even answer she turned me around and struck my behind. Billy Schwartz, safely next door laughed. I ran into my room crying. I felt such an incredible guilt for looking at Billy's body and baring my own. Mom didn't know about it but somehow I felt she did. And for this all to happen in front of those people who thought my mother was incredible was unbearably humiliating. I ran into my room, castigating myself for this humiliation. I felt guilty of something evil and wrong. I was going to avoid Billy and that pit at all costs. I swore I would stick by my fortress home from now on. That could be the only path forward to regain Mom's trust and love. I only hoped I wasn't too late.