Tommy Webber is nine years old when his father, a founding minister of the East Harlem Protestant Parish, moves the family of six from a spacious apartment in an ivy-covered Gothic-style seminary on New York City's Upper West Side to a small one in a massive public- housing project on East 102nd Street. But it isn't the size of the apartment, the architecture of the building, or the unfamiliar streets that make the new surroundings feel so strange. While Tommy's old neighborhood was overwhelmingly middle class and white, El Barrio is poor and predominantly black and Puerto Rican. In Washington Houses, a complex of over 1,500 apartments, the Webbers are now one of only a small handful of white familes.
Set during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Flying over 96th Street: Memoir of an East Harlem White Boy is the story of one boy's struggle with race, poverty, and identity in a city and a country grappling with the same issues. Tommy's classmates at the exclusive Collegiate School for Boys, which he attends on scholarship, dare not venture above the city's Mason-Dixon Line of 96th Street into the unknown territory of muggers, gangs, and junkies. Tommy, however, slowly makes new friends on the local basketball courts and at church, and discovers a different East Harlem, one where an exuberant human spirit hides within the oppressive projects and drab tenements, fighting to break through the cracked sidewalks. Webber interweaves the nation's growing Civil Rights movement from watching on television the forced integration of Little Rock's Central High School to participating in the famous 1963 March on Washington with the subtler, more immediate changes he observes in the lives of his friends and neighbors.
In simple yet compelling prose, lit by the candor and innocence of childhood, Webber brings to life his East Harlem: children playing under gushing fire hydrants; the piraguas man and his pushcart of rainbow-colored icies; Fourth of July barbecues on rooftops; heated games of 5-2 on the public school courts; streets teeming with ugliness, anger, and despair, but also alive with color, community, and hope.
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About the Author
Thomas L. Webber is the founder and Superintendent/Executive Director of Edwin Gould Academy, a coeducational, residential treatment school for adolescents in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. He is considered an expert on the needs of so-called troubled youth and on the future of education in inner cities. A graduate of Harvard College with a Ph.D. in education from Columbia University, Webber is the author of Deep Like the Rivers, the acclaimed book on how African-Americans preserved and nurtured their values under slavery. Webber served for seven years as an elected member of Community School Board 4 in East Harlem, the neighborhood where he and his wife raised their family, the neighborhood they continue to call home.
Read an Excerpt
Flying over 96th StreetMemoir of an East Harlem White Boy
By Thomas L. Webber
ScribnerCopyright © 2004 Thomas Webber
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI'm in church the first Sunday in September when a boy about my age sitting two rows behind us across the aisle catches my eye. Squeezed in beside his mother and a woman who seems like either a relative or a close friend, he is constantly fidgeting, with his eyes darting everywhere but forward during the long, hot service. Right in the middle of the Spanish sermon, he lets out a yawn so loud it bounces off the church walls like an award-winning yodel echoing through the Swiss Alps. Much to Mom's dismay, I catch a fit of giggles. Nothing can rein in my laughing, not my mother's dirty looks, not biting my lip or pinching my arm, not even thinking about Jesus hanging from the cross with nails through his hands and feet.
After the service I persuade Mom to let me walk home alone while the rest of the family attends coffee hour in the church basement. She's relieved not to have to deal with me in front of the disapproving church elders.
The five blocks to and from church and home are familiar now, and despite the dire warning of my Collegiate classmate, I have yet to meet up with a mugger. Midway down 106th Street, I feel a hand on my shoulder, and the boy from church falls into step beside me.
"Hey, my name's Danny, Danny Strayhorn." He flashes a smile that spreads across his mouth and lights up his entire face. His two front teeth are missing, and the jagged, curved edges of the teeth on either side reach toward each other like two quarter-moons trying to touch across the gaping crater in the top of his mouth. Although he's shorter than I am, Danny has long legs and even longer arms. His skin is a dark leather brown.
"I know. You're Reverend Webber's son. Don't you hate the Spanish sermon? Booooring!" His whole mouth moves into action around the word boring.
"It is a little long."
"A little long? Man, when Aleluya Santiago starts preaching that Puerto Rican mambo-jambo, it's booooring from the first blip-diddily out his mouth to his last Aleluya. You liked my yawn, huh?" Danny looks at me with eager, dancing eyes.
"You got me in trouble with my mother. I had to bite my tongue to stop laughing."
"Better Mr. Santiago bite his tongue."
We are now outside the Italian Bakery on the corner of Second and 106th, and I hesitate, unsure whether to stop and go in or to keep walking. All I have on me is the single dime I held back from the offering plate. Throughout the long service, I'd been dreaming of a large, ten-cent icie, not a small five-center.
"You want an icie?" I offer, hoping he's either allergic or on strict orders not to eat anything before lunch.
"Sure. Why not?"
Danny pushes open the bakery door and strides boldly up to the counter like he's John Wayne entering a saloon. Behind the display cases, a woman with red hair and painted fingernails is arranging the cream puffs. Danny orders two large icies and slaps a quarter onto the counter.
"What kind you having?" he asks me.
"Make mines lemon."
After the lady scoops two large icies into their white paper cups, hands them over, and picks up Danny's coin, he tells her to keep the change.
Back out on the street, I ask if he always leaves a tip, and he says he does most times because he doesn't want them Italians thinking they're the only ones with money. I say that she seemed friendly enough.
"She's friendly enough when you buying," says Danny. "Otherwise scram."
At my building Danny doesn't wait to be invited in, he just follows me right up. Looking around our living room, he can't believe the number of books that fill shelves covering an entire wall. Enough books for a library, he concludes. He admires our piano, sitting down to pound out "Chopsticks," but is disappointed by the small size of our eleven-inch television set; he says his is a fifteen-incher, and he's pushing his mom to lay away for one of them big twenty-one-inchers. I ask him what his mother has to lay away, and he explains how some stores allow you to buy a big-ticket item like a television and then pay for it a little bit each week.
In our bedroom, I show him the view from our window. He points out the roof of his building on 101st Street, saying it's the one with the double-decker pigeon cage. "I climb up to the roof sometimes, to get away."
"To get away from what?" I pick up the binoculars for a better look.
"From everything." He grabs the binoculars. "Man, I got to get me one of these. You can see everything."
"Mom says I shouldn't look into anybody's apartment."
Danny takes dead aim on somebody's apartment.
When the rest of the family returns from church, Mom is quick to invite Danny for dinner, which on Sundays we always eat in the early afternoon. The first thing after grace, Peggy asks Danny how he got the hole in his teeth. I try to kick her under the table. Danny looks at Peggy, mushes up his mouth, and scratches the side of his face. Roller skating, he says finally. Peggy is about to ask something stupid like Did it hurt? when Danny cuts her off.
"I'll bet you can't do this." He puts two fingers deep inside his mouth, curls up his tongue, and lets loose with the loudest human whistle in the history of the known world.
At the sound of Danny's blast, even Johnny, who has been secretly scanning the Sunday sports section hidden on his lap under the tablecloth despite Mom's rule against reading at the table, sits up and takes notice. "Wow! Let me hear that again."
"Once is quite enough," cautions my father.
"Yes, sir," says Danny.
There is silence at the table until Dad asks what we all thought about the Prayer Pilgrimage held a few months ago in Washington, D.C. When none of us responds, he tells how thirty thousand Negroes, led by a young minister named Martin Luther King, gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, petitioning the government for the right to vote. Dad explains that Martin Luther King, who I never heard of before, is the same man who led a boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, so that Negroes wouldn't have to stand in the back of the bus even when there were plenty of empty seats up front. In most southern states, Dad says, Negroes are threatened if they try to go to the polls. And those that do make it to the voting place have to recite the Constitution backwards or they can't vote.
"Who knows the Constitution backwards?" I ask.
"Nobody," says Dad. "That's just the point. It's only Negroes they make recite the Constitution backwards. If you're white, you just go right on in and vote."
"That's not fair," says Peggy.
"No, it's not," Dad agrees.
Although I like to hear my father's opinions on things, I sometimes wish he'd be more careful what he talks about. Dad's main topics of conversation are religion and the condition of poor people, which for him are pretty much the same things: to Dad, religion is nothing if not serving the poor. He does sometimes discuss sports, but usually only after Johnny or I start in on the Yankees or the Knicks. At the moment, I wish he'd stop talking about the condition of Negroes. It's like we're talking about Danny ignoring the fact that he's sitting right there. I imagine how it might feel to be sitting with a family of Negroes I'm meeting for the first time and all of a sudden they start talking about white people. I'd want to crawl under the table.
After we finish eating, I ask Danny if he'd like to go down and play some basketball. I'm hoping we can go to the 109 playground, the one Rabbit told me about.
Once she makes sure Danny will stick with me, Mom okays my plan. Danny likes the idea of being my bodyguard and assures Mom that he'll watch out for me good. Before we leave, he asks me to walk him by his apartment so he can change out of his church clothes. I get the feeling he's not too thrilled by the idea of shooting hoops, but I take along my basketball just in case.
Out in the hallway, Danny heads for the stairs, saying that the elevator's too slow, plus it has piss on the floor. I agree with him that the smell of those dog puddles is hard to take. That's not dog piss, that's people piss, he says. Dogs know better, they're trained. Then he suggests that I ride the elevator while he races down the stairs. Before I can agree or disagree, Danny's off like a flash. By the time the elevator comes, stops twice for passengers, and makes it down ten flights, he's waiting for me by the mailboxes, not even breathing hard.
"What took you so long?" He grins. "I been here for days."
When we arrive at his tenement, between First and Second Avenues about two-thirds of the way down 101st Street, Danny tells me to wait on the street while he goes up to change. Although I'm not too keen on waiting by myself, Danny gives me no choice. I figure maybe his room is a mess or his mother has guests over.
The early Sunday morning quiet has given way to an afternoon frenzy of noise and people. Standing all alone, I feel out of place, an easy target for anyone who might want to bother me. It's one thing to be headed toward a clear destination on a known path - to be walking to church, the bus stop, or the basketball court - quite another to be standing all alone on an unfamiliar street. What will I say if someone asks what I'm doing here? What will I do if some kid tries to pick a fight?
As I wait, I watch a bunch of teenagers smack a Spalding off the stairs in front of a building. Three other boys take turns shooting a basketball through the space between the bottom two rungs of a ladder hanging down from a fire escape. On the curbs and in the gutters, kids spin tops, play jacks, shoot marbles, and ping bottle caps around a game board chalked onto the cement. Girls jump hopscotch and skip rope like I've never seen, two or three at a time on the same rope. In the middle of the block, a pack of kids run and squeal in the water streaming from an opened fire hydrant. Whenever a car comes down the street, one of the older boys gets behind the hydrant and reaches around it with an empty beer can, directing the spray up into the air and onto the passing vehicle.
I feel like I'm melting. No breeze cools the air. The warmth of the pavement rises through my sneakers, travels up my legs, across my stomach into my chest and neck, and comes to rest full force in my flushed face. The top of my head feels ready to pop off.
Dressed in a T-shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers, Danny finally returns and catches me in a trance, staring at the water flying from the hydrant, imagining how much fun it must be to direct the spray.
"You ever tried it?" he asks.
I say I haven't, and he asks if I want to. Worried that I might mess up and make a fool of myself, I suggest we play some basketball instead. Danny says it's too hot, grabs my arm, and pulls me into line behind the opened hydrant.
"Next up!" he declares, loud enough to be heard over the swoosh of the rushing water.
The shirtless teenager controlling the spray turns and sizes us up with a quick glance, then offers Danny the empty Rheingold can caved in at the middle. Danny springs into action. Squatting like Yogi Berra behind the plate, he reaches over the top of the hydrant with both hands and calmly lowers the can into the gushing water. The water immediately spurts up into the sky, like a soaring, gravity-free stream.
"You got to hold it real tight and bring it down real slow," he explains, darting the water to the left and right. A pack of half-naked boys scream in delight as the spray rains over them. After several minutes of showing off behind the hydrant, Danny stands up. "Now you."
Exchanging my basketball for his beer can, I try to copy each move I just saw him make. I crouch behind the hydrant and slowly lower the can over the top. As soon as the can touches the water, the force of the current pulls me forward, my chest smacks into the helmet of the hydrant, and I drop the can, which flies out into the street.
"That always happens till you get the hang of it," Danny says as he quickly retrieves the Rheingold can. "This time press up against the back of the hydrant before you lower the can. Then hold on like Godzilla."
I ease my chest against the hydrant and begin to lower my hands inch by inch. This time when the can hits the water, spray ricochets backwards into my face, forcing me to close my eyes. In the darkness, I hear shouts behind me: "Make it. Quick! Here he comes. Corre! Corre!"
I feel Danny tugging on my shoulder and hear his voice above the din urging, "Tommy! Come on. Come on!"
Nothing, however, can make me relax my death grip on the can. I continue to lower my hands and suddenly, instead of spraying backwards into my face, the water changes direction, shooting up into the air. Opening my eyes, I watch with satisfaction as my own mighty stream arcs into the heavens.
Too late I realize that no one is prancing under my spray. The street in front of me is deserted. Without warning, a huge hand on my shoulder yanks me off the hydrant with such force that I drop the can and fall backwards onto my butt. Standing over me is a pink-faced Goliath of a policeman swinging a giant wrench. Behind him Danny huddles against the wall of the nearest tenement, clutching my basketball like it's a stuffed animal.
"What have we here?" asks the cop, lifting me off the ground by my belt buckle.
Before I can respond, Danny takes a baby step forward and announces in a shout, "That's Reverend Webber's son!"
"And who the hell is Reverend Webber?" bellows the cop, not letting me go.
"Reverend Webber, who runs the East Harlem Protestant Parish and is the pastor of Ascension Church!"
"You don't say. And who the hell are you?"
"I'm ... I'm ... his friend."
"Yeah? Well beat it."
Danny retreats a step or two, then holds his ground. The cop glares at Danny, hesitating a second before turning his attention back to me. He sets me on my feet, lets go of my belt, leans his flushed, fat face down toward me, and speaks right into my ear. "Son, I got a piece of advice for you. Don't hang out with these niggers and spics. They'll only get you in trouble." Then he swats the back of my head and proceeds to close down the hydrant with a few twists of his mighty wrench.
I take three steps over to where Danny is standing, and we head down the street, walking double time.
"Wow that was a close one," says Danny, when we have put a full block between us and the cop. "What'd he tell you?"
"Not to let him catch me at the hydrant again or else." I am afraid to repeat what Goliath really said. How could a policeman say such a thing? At home, nigger is an absolute no-no, worse than the worst curses imaginable. Dad says calling a Negro "nigger" is the biggest insult you can hit him with, worse than calling him a pig or an asshole even. Just the sound of the word nigger sends chills down my spine. And spic, I know instinctively what that means: that one's for Puerto Ricans and means they're dirty, ignorant, despicable. I decide not to tell anybody, not even Johnny, what the cop said.
My butt hurts, my chest hurts, my shirt and pants are soaked. I've had enough excitement for one day and decide to head home. We walk in silence to my building, where not wanting Danny to come up, I turn and say good-bye.
Danny asks if he'll see me next Sunday and I say yeah. Then he asks if I'm gonna tell, about the cop and everything. I say not a chance, and he breaks into a big smile of relief.
"And thanks for not leaving me there alone."
"No problem," says Danny. "Just, next time, run when I say so."
Danny doesn't wait until Sunday to reappear. The next Saturday, on my way home from the 102nd Street courts, I find him waiting for me on the bench in front of our building. He greets me with his gap-in-the-teeth grin. I ask him if he wants to go find the 109 courts together. Danny says he's not too big on basketball, so I ask him about baseball. It turns out he's not too big on sports period. Mostly he likes hit songs, TV shows, and movies; at home he's got a stack of forty-fives a mile long.
Together we head inside. Waiting for the elevator is the elderly woman Mom chatted with on the way to church our first Sunday in East Harlem. In place of her red bowling ball hat sits a fruit bowl sprouting bananas, apples, and oranges. Parked in front of her is a shopping cart filled with groceries, and next to her stands an enormous lady. I'm so amazed at the fat lady's size that my mouth drops open; I can't believe anyone so overweight can still walk.
She takes one look at my gaping mouth and in a voice that rattles half of East Harlem shouts at me, "What the hell are you looking at?"
I feel my face get hot, stammer "Sorry," and turn away from her.
Excerpted from Flying over 96th Street by Thomas L. Webber Copyright © 2004 by Thomas Webber . Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
Flying over 96th Street is not the usual story of dreary slum life, but a tough, riveting, and honest account of a white minister's son who grew up in East Harlem. A story that grips you and keeps you reading to the last page, it is a classic memoir in the mold of Angela's Ashes and Notes of a Native Son.
A powerful and compelling story. A young boy lives, learns, and grows-almost against his will-into a wonderful adult, devoting his life to making the world a little bit better. Beautifully written. Hard to put down.
It takes just the right mix of hard-boiled professionalism, holy boldness, and tender loving care to finally arrive at what we call humanity when dealing with the lives of other people. This book is the story of one dedicated man's inspired attempt to make the journey.
Diversity may be the hardest thing for society to live with, and the most dangerous thing to be without. Slowly but surely Tommy Webber approaches the goal that should be ours as well -- to celebrate rather than to fear our differences. This is a wonderful, poignant, funny, and most readable book. I loved it.
In this delightful book, Thomas L. Webber returns the memoir to its sacred and foundational purpose: to witness. As Webber narrates his coming-of-age in a style that is emotionally fluent and intellectually perceptive, we learn firsthand what it was like to grow up a young white boy above 96th Street in 1960s New York as the country was being rocked by the Civil Rights movement. A song of innocence and experience, Flying over 96th Street informs as it entertains -- as all great memoirs do.
Tom Webber had the most interesting childhood of any white person I know. This is the fascinating, wonderfully observed story of his experiences growing up in East Harlem.
Bravo to Tom Webber for such a beautifully written and sensitive reflection on his boyhood as a white kid growing up in black and brown Spanish Harlem in the 1950s and 1960s. His unique vantage point helps debunk commonly held stereotypes about Spanish Harlem, its people, youth, and race relations in general, and strengthens our connections to one another through an understanding of our shared history. Webber has created a blend of heartfelt innocence, historical document, and social commentary in this warm and multitextured memoir. Webber's sincerity, optimism, and honest insights are refreshingly uplifting.