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Hunger in the Projects

America The Black Point of View: An Investigation and Study of The White People of America and Western Europe & The Autobiography of an American Ghetto Boy – The 1950’s and 1960’s – From the Projects to NAACP Image Award Winner, Volume One (Amber Books) by Tony Rose

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PART FIVE

PRELUDE TO THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF TONY ROSE

HUNGER IN THE PROJECTS

BY

TONY ROSE

 I wrote most of this short story of my life in 1968, when I was seventeen, and finished it in 2011. It’s about my quest to eat as a little boy.

 CHAPTER ONE

BLACK, UGLY AND CRAZY

It had been two years since my mother had gone crazy, four years since I had started to do time at the Whittier St Housing Projects, and one year since my sister and I had eaten anything of substance.  We were down to eating celery soup, made with celery sticks and boiling water.  We were below the ground poor people and lived in a three-room apartment, two bedrooms a kitchen/front room and a bathroom, on the fifth floor, on welfare, in a building with other poor people, all on welfare, all single black women with children, all poor, all hungry, all victimized with poverty and violence, in a housing project with seventeen buildings, seven stories high, containing five-hundred people per building, all poor, all victimized, all black, all hungry.

CHAPTER TWO

THE CHECK WOULD BE FUCKED UP

It was the Fifties and civil rights, the police, God and the church had not reached us yet.  This was old time welfare where you got a check on the 1st and the 15th of the month and God bless you if it was stolen by the big boys or your man or some man or the boogieman, cause that’s all you had and that’s all there was, there was nothing else.  We could eat from the 1st to the 3rd and the 15th to the 18th and then some shit would happen, and the check would be fucked up, my mother fucked up by her man or the boogieman and we would all be hungry again; and my mother would go crazy again and the violence would begin again and shit would happen and we would be back on celery soup again.  After the beatings, violence and hunger, my mother would check me at night to see if I was still breathing.

CHAPTER THREE

BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL

At eight years old, I lived in a strange surreal world of women and children, all who were as my mother always said we were, “Black and ugly and nobody wants us”.  We were all poor, black, ugly and hungry and nobody wanted us, and Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power and Black is Beautiful, hadn’t reached us.  In that world I began to forage for food. There were three grocery stores that surrounded the projects, all Jewish.  Joe’s on Tremont Street, Morris’ on Cabot Street and Al’s on upper Cabot Street.

CHAPTER FOUR

WORN OUT GYPSY WOMAN

Joe was okay, he was an old Jewish guy with a scraggly beard and looked old and tired.  I knew that he was from an alien world even then, because his wife sat in back of him all day, smoked black cigarettes and looked like the brown, old worn-out gypsy women, I had seen in the books I was beginning to read and love.  They smelled bad like we did and looked poor, so they fit right in except we had to give them money for food. 

CHAPTER FIVE

UGLY WHITE GHOSTS

 Morris was nasty and treated all of us like shit, he was fat and hated us.  He had been there long before us, when it was something else and he probably couldn’t get out.  There were people who lived across the street from the projects who didn’t look like us, they looked like ugly white ghosts and made fun of us.  There had probably been more of them at one time, but, now it was down to just all poor people who couldn’t get out.  Morris and his store smelled bad, but, he did accept the Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola bottles I could exchange for money, two cents a bottle, bottles I scrounged from the back alleys and surrounding lots of broken glass, garbage, shit and Cynthia.

CHAPTER SIX

FUCKIN GUYS ON THE COUCH

Cynthia was Ronald’s mother and all she did was sit around all day, drinking Pepsi, fuckin guys on the couch and having babies.  The Pepsi-Cola bottles I collected from her house all had roaches in the them.  The roaches would crawl into the bottles after she drank them and threw them on the floor or something and get stuck.  I knew a lot about roaches, in fact, roaches had been my first job.

CHAPTER SEVEN

KILL TWO OR THREE HUNDRED ROACHES A NIGHT

 When I was four my mother told me that she had a job for me, she said, this is what I want you to do every night. She showed me one night by getting me up at 12:00 midnight, and said this is your job, and I want you to get up every night, and, she walked me to the bathroom and turned on the light and began killing roaches with her slipper.  I joined in with her and we killed roaches with our slippers for a while.  So every night, and, I’d been holding this job down for four years now, along with my paper route and my going to the store for people job, that I’d been holding down for two years, since I was six. So every night for four years now, I had turned the light on in the bathroom and with my slipper began killing roaches.  It was a surprise attack and I loved it.  See, the light would stun them for two seconds and I could kill at least a hundred of them in that brief moment or two.  I became very fast with my hands and I’ve always attributed that to the type of violence I could inflict upon my enemies as I got older.  I recommend it as a training technique for young fighters as they’re coming up.  I was fast, and could kill with my slipper two or three hundred roaches a night.

CHAPTER EIGHT

PEPSI COLA BOTTLES

Well, once I got the Pepsi-Cola bottles from Cynthia’s house and my other friend’s house and from scrounging around the project, I had to clean them, wash them out and get them ready for sale at Joe’s, Morris’s or Al’s. 

CHAPTER NINE

HOSTESS CUPCAKES AND TWINKIES

 Al’s was at the top of the hill on Cabot Street and it was owned by Al the Father, who was a quiet, clean man with an apron and sawdust on the floor, and Al the son, who was my friend.  Al the son had been feeding me for a year now; I used to come up to his store with my Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola bottles and he would give me two cents for each clean bottle plus a slice of cheese or baloney to eat.  Sometimes he’d give me a package of Hostess Cupcakes or Twinkies.  Al loved feeding me, he knew I was hungry, and I would save a cupcake or Twinkie for my sister, sometimes.

CHAPTER TEN

PRIESTS AND NUNS WOULD SAVE MY LIFE

I loved being at Al’s, it was clean in there and smelled of fresh meats and pickles.  Al the father was a short, hairy man and Al the son was a young, taller, hairier man with a kind heart for a poor, black, ugly, hungry child.  We would talk, about what I can’t remember, but, what I will always remember is that, that Jewish guy saved my life, too.  I was always up at Al’s.  Al’s was on the way to one of my other jobs, where I would shovel snow and run errands for the nuns and priests at the St. Francis de Sales Church Rectory.  They would feed me also, with cookies and little cakes and pay me a dollar to shovel the snow. There was a lot of snow in those Boston winters, especially in the Roxbury ghetto I grew up in, where I’m sure I never saw Santa Claus or a snowplow.  In six months, those priests and nuns at St. Francis de Sales Church in Roxbury would save my life too, and I would finally find God. But, that’s another story.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

VIOLENTLY BEATEN AND STARVED TO DEATH

One day I’m up at Al’s, it’s my eighth year, and I’m slowly being violently beaten to death and starved by my mother, and I smell, and I’m poor, and I’m hungry.  I know that there is a welfare check and it’s supposed to feed me, because this lady, who every time she comes to my project apartment, my mother hides stuff and tells us to shut up, says so.  I tried to find her one time after she left to tell her that I was hungry, but, I never could find her.  That day, Al’s behind the counter waiting on a customer, an ugly white ghost, those people way up the street from us.  These are the people that Al regularly serves and a woman from the projects comes in; she is the mother of a kid I know.  I’m slowly eating a piece of cheese Al has given me, and watching everything; there is something to do here, something important; I know there is, but, I can never figure it out.  But, I’m watching everything very closely, especially that day.

CHAPTER TWELVE

TWO BAGS OF GROCERIES

Al’s behind the counter, the woman from the projects is now being waited on.  Al is pulling items, cans, boxes, wrapping meats, cheese and bagging groceries for this woman.  Al says something to the woman and the woman says thank you. Al pulls something from the wall in back of him and writes on it. The woman walks off and I don’t see any money being given to Al by that woman, but, I see that woman walk out of the store with two bags of groceries in her arms.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

GET ALCOHOL, RUN NUMBERS,

GET CIGARETTES AND KOTEX

Now, this is very important, very important to me.  I know by now that everything has some monetary value attached to it.  That money can buy you stuff, that money can buy you food and that my mother never has any money, so we never have any food.  Now, I’ve been making some money for two years. I’ve got my shoeshine box for my men customers in the clubs, near the projects who I serve at night, while selling them a dime newspaper for a dollar; and my women newspaper customers in the projects with my running errands hustle, where I get the women’s alcohol, run their numbers and get their cigarettes and Kotex.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

ARE YOU ON WELFARE

I’m known by everyone, and in my eighth year, I own two buildings in the projects and carry a baseball bat in my newspaper sack, cause you can’t fuck with me and sell shit to my customers in my buildings.  I make enough money to buy something to eat for me and my sister, but, my mother takes it from me most of the time and we’re always hungry.  So anyway, the woman from the projects leaves without giving Al any money and I say to Al, Al, how come she didn’t give you no money!!, Al looks at me and then looks at me like he just saw me and says, Are you on welfare?, and I say, Yeah!!!, because, isn’t everybody, I mean, everybody I know is on welfare, I didn’t know anyone who isn’t on welfare, so yeah, Al, I’m on welfare!  And he says, “Come here”. So I walk up to the counter and look up at him and stand on my tiptoes so I can look over the counter, and he pulls down from in back of him a piece of cardboard with a lot of names on it, and he opens the door to the rest of my life and begins to save me and my little family, and he says, Do you get the check?.  Well, sometimes if my mother is depressed or sick or angry or upset, or too lazy, well, yes I go down to the basement of my project building and try to protect and get the check.  Often I’m not too successful when I have to do that. The check has already been stolen from the mailbox or the big boys will steal it from me or a man will or the boggieman will steal it from me, so my mother will then have to go to the welfare office and get emergency money and I will get beat the fuck up.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

SOME PANCAKE MIX AND SOME ORANGE JUICE

But, I know that something different is happening here, so I say, yeah, I get the check.  Al says, Good, here’s what I’m going to do, I’m going to bag you some groceries; some baloney, some cheese, some bread, some milk, some butter, some cereal, some pancake mix and some orange juice.  It was like nothing I had ever heard, I had never heard the sound of words like that, I had never heard all that together.  It seems so simple now, a few words, some basic food products, but, to me it was like nothing I’d ever heard before.  He said as he bagged the groceries, I’m going to give you these groceries today and when you need more you come back and I will bag you more.  On the 15th you come back with the check and I will cash the check and take off for the groceries I’m giving you, give you the rest of the money and bag you another bag of groceries.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

FRIED BALONY AND CHEESE SANDWICHES

I took the bag of groceries and went home to my project apartment and told my mother what Al had said.  I put the groceries down and told her that I was in charge of the check, that from now on I was going to get the check every 1st and 15th, that I would guard and protect the check, that she was not to get the check.  She looked at me like I was crazy and then my sister, my mother and I ate fried baloney and cheese sandwiches. In the morning we ate fried baloney, drank milk and had cereal for breakfast.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

PROTECTING THE CHECK

On the fifteenth I took a big knife from the drawer, went down to the basement and waited for the Harry the mailman. I told him who I was and what I was doing, and began a six year odyssey of guarding and protecting the check.  I held that deal down with Al until I was fourteen years old; until welfare cheese, welfare meat, welfare powdered milk and the big block of butter replaced my deal.  My mother was still crazy, but, not that crazy that she fucked with my deal, because, Al only dealt with me.  She still beat on me like a dog, but, the deal stayed intact and we ate.  Life got worse and better and worse and once in a while better, but that’s another story.