The construction had gone on for months, beyond the High Line, the elevated railroad trestle that ran above 25th Street, on the empty lots that had been Victory Gardens during the war. But the war had been over for a long time when the bulldozers came, biting into the dusty, reddish-brown earth of the lots, leveling them, making way for the big cranes that loomed starkly against the sky, like pieces of a giant erector set. “Public housing.” “The Project.” That’s what the big people called it. It was all they talked about that summer.
On the hot nights in July and August, after the sun had gone down, with the air breathless and thick with fumes from the refineries along the river beyond the project, the men sat and drank beer from the bottle on the front steps of the brick rowhouses. A few doors up the street the women sat in their own circle of folding beach chairs on the sidewalk, drinking iced tea. My father sat with the men, my mother with the women. I wanted to be part of the men’s world, a world of rough humor and cold beer and hard physical work in the factories along the Industrial Highway and words that I wasn’t allowed to say but that sounded good in my ears. I was too young, though, only twelve years old, so I sat on the curb a few yards away, pretending not to pay attention but listening closely as the men talked about the project.
“Can’t keep the niggers out,” a man would say. “Fucking drones at City Hall built the project just for them. Probably can’t get in there if you have a job. Got to be on relief. But niggers in the project don’t mean niggers next door. Not if people stand together. White people, I mean. If no whites move off this street, no niggers move in.”
The men, most of them, would murmur agreement, and the talk would move on, and the men would call the colored people “burrheads” and “shines” and “jigaboos” and “jungle bunnies,” and joke about how dumb they were and how they were drunk most of the time and how they generally didn’t give a damn.
My father sat silent through these conversations. From time to time, he sipped his beer. That was all. I had never heard him say the word “nigger.” He and my mother had told me that if they ever heard me say “nigger,” they would use the strap on me. They told me to say “colored” or “Negro”; they always said “colored” themselves. I did say “nigger,” of course, like every other boy I knew, but never where my parents could hear me. I was careful about that.
Sometimes, as the men talked about the colored on those summer evenings, I felt sorry for my father, who was reduced to sitting quietly on the steps and sipping his beer because he didn’t want to use a word like “jigaboo,” but didn’t want to become known as a nigger-lover either. I always felt better when the conversation moved away from the project and the colored, and my father could speak and show how smart he was, even though he never finished high school.
It was a Saturday in the fall when we saw the colored kid with the green hat. It was a clear day, sunny, no haze from the refineries. The project that the men had talked about on those airless summer nights was finished; the first families were moving in; and some of them were colored.
When I left the house that day, my mother asked me where I was going. She was in the kitchen, where she always seemed to be, standing at the counter, chopping onions or celery or carrots or something. “The playground,” I said, and she said, “Oh.”
The playground, of course. It was two blocks from my house, lying just this side of the High Line — the project was on the other side — and it was my home away from home. It had everything: basketball courts, tennis courts, handball courts, ping-pong tables, swings and a jungle gym and a sandbox for the little kids, and an outdoor pool that was open all summer. We played all sorts of games at the playground, but much of the time we just hung around. Of course I was going to the playground. Except for school and church and maybe a friend’s house, I didn’t go anywhere else.
It was quiet at the playground that day, not many kids around. Petey Karnes and a couple of other boys I knew were there. We sat on the edge of one of the steel ping-pong tables near the basketball court and talked and watched some kids shooting them up at one of the baskets. A couple of little kids were playing around the water fountain a few yards away. One of them wore a faded Phillies cap, the other a ragged yellow T-shirt. They would take turns filling their mouths with water, then chase each other, spitting the water at each other. We ignored them.
Petey Karnes lived on my street, down near the corner. His father drank beer with the men on the front steps in the hot summer nights. Mr. Karnes had a favorite name for the colored; he called them “spearchuckers.”
I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about. Sports probably. How the Eagles were off to another lousy start, that sort of thing. Sports were our big interest.
All of a sudden, Petey jabbed me with his elbow. “Hey, check this out,” he said, and he pointed across the street, under the High Line, towards the project. I followed his finger with my eyes. A colored kid was coming out of the project, heading our way. At that distance, half a block or so, only one thing stood out about him, other than the color of his skin: he was wearing a green hat, the kind that grownup men wore, with a brim and all. He paused at the edge of 25th Street, looking in both directions for cars, then trotted across the street, into the shade under the High Line. As he trotted, he held one hand on top of his hat, to keep it from flying off his head.
The gate to the playground was around the corner, on Simmons Avenue, but there was an opening in the fence near the basketball court, where someone had twisted one of the upright iron pikes in the fence out of the way. If you weren’t real fat, you could squeeze through the opening and into the playground. That’s what the colored kid did, taking his hat off, then putting it back on after he had squeezed through the gap.
I gave the colored kid a lot of credit for coming through the opening in the fence and into the playground. If the situation had been the opposite, if I had been outside the playground and a bunch of colored kids had been inside, some playing basketball and some just sitting around watching, I wouldn’t have thought of squeezing through the fence and going into the playground.
We sat on the ping-pong table and watched the colored kid as he walked slowly towards the basketball court where the kids were shooting them up. He looked to be a little younger than I was, good-looking for a colored kid, with smooth skin the color of coffee ice cream. He was wearing street shoes, which weren’t good for basketball, and of course the green hat, the kind a man would wear.
The kids playing basketball — five of them, all white of course — were more the colored kid’s age. They were just shooting them up, taking turns with the ball, rebounding for each other, feeding each other for second shots. The colored kid stood at the side of the court, beyond the white out-of-bounds line painted on the blacktop. Maybe he was shy about crossing the line. He stood and watched the five kids as they shot, and chased the ball down, and shot again. We sat on our ping-pong table and watched him standing there.
A shot missed and the ball bounced high off the rim of the basket, back out over the heads of the kids clustered underneath and over towards the side of the court where the colored kid was standing. He caught the ball, and for a second he hesitated, as though he was thinking of taking a shot himself, but he must have still felt shy, because he passed the ball back to a kid under the basket.
“Thanks,” the kid said.
A moment later, another missed shot bounced over to the colored kid. He made ready to pass the ball back again.
“Go ahead,” the kid nearest him said. “Take a shot.”
The colored kid dribbled a couple of steps forward, onto the court, and pushed up a one-handed stab. He missed badly. I was surprised. I thought a colored kid would be a better shot. It didn’t matter; the kids on the court weren’t that good either.
The colored kid joined the group under the basket, which is where I think he wanted to be all the time. The kids under the basket didn’t say anything. They didn’t seem to mind the colored kid being there. We watched from the ping-pong table.
After a while, one of the kids under the basket said, “How about a little three-on-three?” The other kids said, “Sure. Why not?” The colored kid nodded; he was willing to play. He had a little smile on his face. The white kids picked sides, and the colored kid’s team started to pass the ball in.
The colored kid held up his hand. “Please, hold it just a minute,” he said in a soft, high voice. He trotted over to one of the low concrete benches that ran along one side of the court, took off his hat, and placed it on the bench. Then he trotted back onto the court. “Can’t let anything happen to my new hat,” he explained to the white kids and smiled his little smile again. They nodded, one of them passed the ball in, and the game began.
From where we sat on the ping-pong table, we had a good view of the hat, which sure looked brand new. It was dark green, the color of a Christmas tree, with a narrow brim, and was made out of a smooth, velvet-like material, with a braided green cord instead of a hatband and a small, fuzzy green feather, flecked with red and orange and gold, tucked inside the cord. Colored men seemed to wear hats more than white men did — maybe it was because they did not like their short, kinky hair — but if I was going to wear a hat, I would not have minded wearing a green hat like the one on the bench.
“I got an idea,” Petey said. He slid off the ping-pong table and walked over to the water fountain where the two little kids were taking a break from spitting water at each other. He spoke to them in a low voice; he wasn’t very far away, but I couldn’t hear him. He gestured back over his shoulder with his thumb, towards the basketball court. A look of understanding came over the little kids’ faces. They smiled and nodded their heads. Petey smiled and nodded too, then he came back and sat down beside me again.
“Watch this,” he said. “Should be fun.” Without Petey saying anything, I knew it had something to do with the colored kid.
Out on the court, the game continued. The colored kid was playing with great deliberation. Each time the ball came into his hands, he looked first to make a pass to one of his teammates, rather than try to shoot himself. Only when he was completely open did he shoot. He slipped and slid a couple of times because he was wearing street shoes, but otherwise he was playing well. His team was leading too.
Petey nudged me with his elbow again. He jerked his head towards the bench where the colored kid had put his hat. The two little kids were edging towards the bench, keeping an eye on the basketball court and the colored kid all the time. You could tell they were up to something.
At the bench, they paused. The colored kid was absorbed in the game. The boy in the yellow T-shirt snatched up the green hat, then he and his friend in the Phillies cap dashed back to the water fountain. The colored kid played on; he did not know they had taken his hat. Only the four of us sitting on the ping-pong table knew.
I thought I should say something. Maybe to the two kids, tell them to put the hat back, maybe to the colored kid himself, I didn’t know. I shifted my weight on the ping-pong table, as if to get up, and I tried to speak at the same time, but the only sound that came out of my mouth was a strangled croak. Petey heard the crippled little sound and gave me a sharp look, as if to say, “What are you, some kind of nigger-lover?” I eased my weight back onto the table.
The little kids put the hat upside down in the shallow metal bowl of the water fountain. Yellow T-Shirt turned the water on. The crown of the hat began to collapse as the water splashed into it and soaked through its sides. When the hat was filled with water, Phillies Cap snatched it out of the fountain and slung it at Yellow T-Shirt. Water sprayed every which way as the hat sailed dripping through the air and sank in a soggy, dark-green mess at Yellow T-Shirt’s feet.
Petey got into it then. He was charged up. He hopped off the table, cupped his hands, and yelled at the colored kid. “Hey, nigger! Yo, nigger! Look what they’re doing to your hat, nigger.”
“Hey, Pete,” I said. “Take it easy.”
He ignored me. He yelled the same things again, only louder.
Out on the court, the colored kid was still wrapped up in the game, sliding a little in his street shoes, rebounding, passing, taking the occasional shot. He either didn’t hear Petey yelling, or if he did, he didn’t understand what Petey was saying. Then the ball rolled out of bounds, and play stopped for a few seconds. Petey kept yelling. The colored kid looked over at him then, and you could see in the colored kid’s eyes that he was beginning to understand what Petey was yelling at him. He looked shocked and hurt at the same time, as though someone had hit him, and he took a step toward Petey, but Petey just pointed towards the water fountain.
“It’s not me, nigger,” he said. “It’s your hat. Look at your hat. Look what they’re doing to your hat.”
The colored kid looked where Petey was pointing. Near the water fountain, the two little kids were chasing each other again. Yellow T-Shirt carried the misshapen, dripping green hat in his hand, holding it out, away from his body. The colored kid’s eyes got big and white, and he gave a little cry of alarm. Yellow T-Shirt paid him no mind. He threw the hat at Phillies Cap. This time the hat did not sail; instead, it plunged crookedly to the ground, and something spilled out of it when it struck. Phillies Cap was prancing, taunting Yellow T-shirt. The colored kid started towards them.
“Look out,” Petey yelled. The two little kids turned and when they saw the colored kid coming, they sprinted away, leaving the hat behind them on the ground.
The hat lay on its side, almost entirely collapsed, and something kept oozing out of it. The colored kid went over and picked it up. It was wet clear through and had lost all its shape. The colored kid cupped his fingers and scraped a handful of loose stones out of the hat. The little kids must have filled it with gravel from the ground around the fountain.
The colored kid looked around. The two little kids were watching him from a distance, their bodies tense, poised to run away again if they had to. We were watching too, and so were the basketball players. With their eyes, the little kids were laughing at the colored kid, daring him to go after them. I couldn’t see Petey’s eyes, but I bet they were amused and hard and defiant at the same time too. The eyes of the basketball players were dull, like marbles.
The colored kid stood there for a while, clutching the hat in his hands, looking from the little kids to us and on to the basketball players, and then back again. No one was speaking now; no one moved. At last, the colored kid turned and walked away from the fountain, across the basketball court, towards the fence. He walked slowly, with his back straight, as though he was making a special effort to pretend nothing had happened. As he reached the gap in the fence, one of the basketball players said, “Well, that’s the end of that game.”
At the fence, the colored kid turned around. He was holding the green hat in front of him with both hands, as if he was afraid of dropping it. He looked at all of us again, the little kids, the basketball players, the four of us on the ping-pong table. Petey looked right back at him, but I didn’t. I was glad when the colored kid turned again and squeezed through the gap in the fence and started across the street, away from the playground, leaving a little trail of water behind him, from the drops that fell from the green hat.
A couple of minutes later, I made up a reason why I had to go home right away. All the way home, my throat was dry. When I walked into my house, I went straight to the kitchen, ran a glass of water, and drank it right down. My mother was still standing at the counter. She was shaping handfuls of ground beef into meatballs. “You’re back,” she said. “How were things at the playground?”