I grew up on 115th Street, in Harlem USA, during the 60s. It was a small city block sandwiched between Manhattan Avenue to the east and Morningside Avenue to the west. Morningside Avenue ran parallel with Morningside Park, which stretched from 110th street up to 125th street. On the other side of the park, was Morningside Heights, Amsterdam Avenue, Broadway, Columbia University and what we all called the white section. Historically speaking Morningside Heights was the place that George Washington used to watch the British Navy because of its high elevation and view of the Hudson River.
My block was my haven. And though it wasn’t tame by any stretch of the imagination, is was my safety zone, because at ten years old being away from 115th Street was kinda scary back then. Each side of the street was lined with three, five story walk up tenement buildings. It seemed the sun always shined even in the winter, and the adults would sit in the park in the summer, on those green park benches, drinking Ballentine Ale, Shaffer Beer, Bacardi Rum, Ripple or Gallo wine, as they played, Bid Wiz, Tonk, 21 Black Jack, and Poker, watched the kids play in the block directly across the street, and waited for the number to come out.
“What’s leading today?”
“Seven. What you play?”
“I played, 357!”
“Did you combinate it?”
“Shoot, you know I did. I learned my lesson last week!”
And the bench would roar with laughter.
115th street was a play street in the summer. The city would block the street off with police barricades so no cars could enter the street from Manhattan Avenue. On any given day there could be fifty kids playing in the middle of the street. The girls skipped rope and jumped double-dutch. The boys played strike out or skullies. Skullies was a game where you’d slide flat round objects like poker chips, coat buttons or car decals on the street surface into painted boxes dispersed on the street. The goal was to slide your piece into the 13 boxes before anyone else. You could knock other tops away in the process of trying to get yours in. The idea was to have a top that could slide easy and hit hard. The harder your top hit, the further it would knock your opponents top away from the boxes. That’s why it took three or four poker chips glued or gummed together to make one that could withstand the hits or also glide safely into a box. Skully games were intense, and no car was safe parked on our block because the car decals made the best skully tops. If you could get an Eldorado top or a Cadillac top you were doing good because, they were heaviest and glided faster, and would knock any other top far away which made your chances of winning better. But if you did get a car decal you always had to watch out for the owner. It could end quickly and badly. We spent hours playing skullies until it was time to play stickball. Stickball took precedence over all the other games. When it was time for stickball every other game moved to the sidewalk. We’d play stickball games among each other and against other blocks.
One summer, when I was around ten years old, a black stretch limo pulled up at 115th Street and Manhattan Avenue. It sat there for awhile, while everyone stopped to watch. We were not accustomed to limousines pulling up and stopping, no less. After a few minutes a white chauffeur got out of the car, which was also very odd. He opened the back door and out stepped Willie Mays. Willie Mays!!!!! I couldn’t believe my eyes. We went crazy. He gave out baseballs and signed autographs. I couldn’t believe it, the “Sey Hey Kid,” was actually standing in our block. Then, to everyone’s surprised he asked if he could stay and play stickball with us. Oh, this was too much. This was way too much. I was never more excited. It was just way too much, but he stayed, and played for about 30 minutes. People were hanging out of their windows watching. He even let us strike him out once. But, then he hit one that seemed to fly into the white section across the park, and he caught every ball we hit out to Morningside Avenue. Afterwards, he waved goodbye, got back in the limo and drove off. When he left, everybody stopped playing and just kinda sat around in disbelief, taking the moment in, adults and children. It was dust, and the sky had that beautiful, orange, yellow, amber, summer color as it slowly set in the west. It was as if we’d all experienced the same dream. But it wasn’t a dream. It was real. We played stickball with Willie Mays himself, the “Say Hey Kid!,” himself.
115th Street was not all fun and games though. It was a tough block and had a reputation of having some tough kids. The kids on 115th Street hung together in groups by age. Pretty Boy Bobby, Buck Tooth Ronnie, Four Eyed DD, and Kool James, were in the seventeen to twenty-one age group. Smokey, Smitty, KK, Mason, Prune and Jimmy, were in the thirteen to seventeen age group. Raynard, Bryce, Little Greg, Lenny, Little Gary, Killer, and Cowboy, were in the ten to twelve age group. Cowboy was my nic- name back then because of my love for cowboy shows like “Rawhide” with a young Clint Eastwood.
LEVY LEE is a multiple award winning writer of over twenty produced plays, that include For the Love of Freedom, The Bow Wow Club, The Guest at Central Park West, The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel, The Stuttering Preacher and The Last Revolutionary, to name a few. As an actor he has appeared in over sixty productions, On Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theatre and abroad, including, the Pulitzer Prize winning, Tony nominated, The Kentucky Cycle and the acclaimed London production of Ms. Ever’s Boys. His directing credits are highlighted with productions of Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman, Javon Johnson’s Breathe, and Josh Wilder’s Leftovers. A number of his play adaptations have been optioned by Hollywood studios and production companies as well.