No matter where we have been, no matter who we have become, no matter where we live now, there’s the place where we are from, where our roots are planted. My roots are in Brooklyn. I grew up in Brooklyn. Like that famous tree from literature. In the Marcy projects. From a kid playing stickball throughout the projects to a Marine on the beachhead of Grenada to a beat cop patrolling the same area when “community policing” was resurrected to a… When I finished serving my two tours with the Marines, I attended a Marcy Day or two, always on a hot Saturday in August, would see some of the people I had grown up with. Some still lived there. Years later, when I was a beat cop, they were still there. And all of these years later they remained. And their grown children. It was depressing. The buildings looked smaller, not as tall as my child’s imagination had seen them then, and drab, the red-brick dirty, looking like some mythical giant had walked across them with muddy boots on. People in the projects were making a big deal out of Jay-Z, the rapper and businessman, also out of Marcy, proud of him, of course, since he demonstrated that something good could come out of the projects; but he was eight or so years my junior and by the time he was busting beats I was on the beachhead in Grenada, very far from Marcy, as I had planned. I couldn’t get far enough, since the most painful memory in my life lived there, which, of course, kept pulling me back.
In the car I cruised down memory lane, slowed down on Park Avenue, the other Park Avenue, as we learned to say. I turned on to Marcy Avenue. It was here that the ghosts lived, where my older brother, Hannibal, two years my senior, was killed by a rival gang member. Hannibal and Alexander. My father named us and called us his little generals. The name stuck. When we were kids, up until when we became teenagers, everyone in the projects called us little generals. My brother was a born leader, probably would’ve grown up to be a general if not for the accident of birth in the Marcy projects. I wouldn’t say it was the next best thing, but my brother was a Minister of Defense or some such title in the Marcy Chaplains. People from Marcy and the surrounding projects, Tompkins and Sumner, still spoke about him. He was the one expected to do good if not great things. He was tall and strong and played every sport effortlessly. And he was smart. An A student bored out of his mind in school, he would come home and read, not watch TV. My father didn’t graduate from high school, but he made it a point to educate himself. In our apartment we probably had a better library than the public schools we attended. Following in my brother’s footsteps, whom I idolized, I read every title he did, right after him. I didn’t read as fast and didn’t comprehend what he did – the two-year age difference between the two of us was a big difference at that age — but when I graduated from high school I was reading at the college level. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X as well as The Art of War. That’s how diverse my father’s library was. I turned left on to Nostrand Avenue. I still hadn’t figured out why my brother had joined a gang. Well, gangs were different then. Gang members were really protecting their turf, protecting the old people and the kids. You never heard of innocent bystanders being casualties of these strange wars. No. Never. I could remember being shooed inside by a gang member when war was in the air, even if there was a hint of war in the air. And now, another ghost from my past had resurfaced, I was certain. I’d check when I got back to the office. I turned left on to Myrtle Avenue, slowed down and looked across the avenue toward what looked like a concrete wasteland. When I was a kid, there were these impossibly competitive basketball games going on every day during the summer and on into fall. People in NYC talked about the Rucker basketball tournament. They needed to come downtown to Marcy projects on any given summer day when I was growing up. I could still hear the basketball pounding on the concrete, the “swish” of the chain-linked net when a long-range jumper was made. “Gimme the ball, gimme the ball, gimme the ball.” The refrain, from my brother, who wanted the ball in his hands at a decisive point in any game. When he got the ball, it was sheer magic. I’ve heard how the great ones, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, and of course Magic and Michael, and I can’t leave out the legends from the New York Knickerbockers, Earl “the Pearl” Monroe and Clyde “the Glide” Frazier, and the indomitable Willis Reed, played at a level that others, no matter how good, couldn’t even imagine. Come on! Wilt the Stilt scored 100 points in a regulation game! Mike never got close to that. In one game my brother scored about 70 points. He approached that level of focused intensity. He could shoot from long distance or take it to the hoop. He had this head fake, his eyes looking to the heavens for approval before he defied gravity, that got defenders off their feet and into the air while his feet, in white canvas low-cut Chuck Taylors, were firmly planted on the concrete. As the defender elevated he would go around him, heading to the hoop with so much speed it was frightening. One time, I swear, when he got airbound, he jumped right over this six footer. Okay, maybe the six footer ducked slightly, but in my memory my brother took flight and jumped clean over the “defender” and slammed the winning basket home. Coming back to the present, I saw a solitary kid pounding a basketball on the concrete court, making a move toward the hoop. I smiled. Maybe the next Michael Jordan. I speeded up, turned on to Marcy Avenue. I had circled the projects countless times, now and then, lost in the past lane. I accelerated, turned left onto Park Avenue and headed back toward downtown Brooklyn. Before I knew it, I was under the BQE. This neighborhood was going through a metamorphosis. Converted warehouses into condos, new condo developments going up, big plans for the Brooklyn Navy Yard, one block north from Park Avenue on Flushing Avenue.
Park Avenue turned into Tillary Street. I caught all the lights to Cadman Plaza which, when you turn left, going southbound, turns into Court Street. I turned right on to Joralemon and then right on to Clinton and saw a car pulling out. Just a block and a half from my office. I fed the hungry meter and made my way up to my office.