It’s a stunning winter’s day, a Saturday afternoon in Yonkers, New York, 1961. I close my front door behind me to the glorious sun on my face and a 30-degree chill invading my body. But my hooded black wool cape keeps me warm. I climb the hills of Wendover Road to the corner of Park Hill Avenue to wait for the Nodine Hill bus; I hear it before I see it, coming down Rumsey Road. The driver opens the door for me and, upon reaching the second step, I turn to the back and the beautiful smile of Tommy Blake. I’m so excited I could bust. It’s Christmastime and we’re going to Getty Square.
We met a few months ago in Hawthorne Junior High School at the beginning of our ninth-grade year. Tommy, however, would say we met in the nursery of the Professional Hospital, on our shared birthday, February 28, 1947. His birth certificate states his race as Negro. Mine is Caucasian.
It’s far from easy for us, in school or out, here or there. Deep prejudice is everywhere, though we rarely speak of it. Rather, we relish the time we have together. Tommy takes care of us. In public, he walks to my left, near the curb, a couple of yards in front of me; there are times he’ll be on the other side of the street until we reach our destination. He does whatever we need, based on the situation we’re in. As for me, I don’t think or see much of anything but Tommy Blake.
Getty Square offers a variety of stores in an area bordering the Hudson River, where north Yonkers meets south. It won’t be long before our bus arrives in the middle of the plaza. Green’s, Grant’s and Woolworth’s — five-and-ten-cent stores — sit together on Palisade Avenue.
Moving down the sidewalk, we become part of the bustle of holiday shoppers wearing heavy coats, scarves and hats. Snowflakes begin to fall. Smells of hot dogs and doughnuts fill the air. Christmas songs stream from store loudspeakers. And the lights, they’re just everywhere; red, blue, green and white, some flashing, some not.
Throngs surround us: people carrying big packages, talking, laughing. I glance up at Tommy for a moment. When I turn back, I see their smiling faces changing to hateful frowns aimed at Tommy and me. My eyes tear more quickly than ever before. The horror fills me with a rage I’ve not felt. Who do they think they are? Why don’t they leave us alone? I look up at Tommy again, hoping he hasn’t noticed the suffering as it crossed my face, but certain he has. Does he know it’s his pain I’m feeling, not mine? Gently he meets my eyes and says, “Smile at the people, Carol. Just smile at the them.”
I look away, confused. How can I smile? Then my anger subsides; I’ve learned to consider his words and trust his judgment. I don’t know where it comes from, but before long, I show a sweet phony smile for the passersby.
We step through Woolworth’s away from the crowd, to the small stores, one right after the other, on North Broadway. We gravitate towards The Little Swiss Jewelry Store, near the end of the block, to peer into the window at the sparkling displays. The door opens and out comes a short, elderly man with glasses and white hair, waving us into his shop.
“Merry Christmas, you two,” he says. “It must be freezing out there.”
“Yes, it’s very cold,” Tommy says. “Thank you.”
We enter the store to find dazzling jewelry, not the very expensive kind, but nice just the same. The owner works at the little desk in the corner while we browse. In one of the cases, tiny stars twinkle up at me. A little card says it’s a gold-filled rhinestone ring.
“Do you see something you like, Carol?” I’ll not have him spend his money on me, so I point my index finger at him. “Yes, I do see something I like,” I tell him, “and he’s standing right here!”
Our laughter continues as we head out a few minutes later for the bus.
“Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Sir,” I tell the shopkeeper.
“And, thank you for your kindness,” Tommy adds.
We trudge up the hill, leaving the Square behind. When there’s no one in sight, Tommy takes my small hand into his big one. And, with radiant faces, our backs stand straighter and our heads lift higher.
Carol Morelli writes: For over fifty years, I’ve been living my mantra in anticipation of writing it. If not for Susan Hodara and the exceptional writers in her memoir writing class, their advisement and encouragement, you would not be reading my story today.