Wednesday, April 22, 2009

From My 'Hood

I'll branch out from the family on this one and give you a sketch of my neighborhood.

The East St. Louis neighborhood I grew up in was called "Pollock Town." I didn't know the word was a slur to Polish people until I wrote a feature story in the Belleville News Democrat on Kermit "Boto" Haynes. My editor called me on the word, thank goodness, and it was abbreviated to 'Lock Town.

Anyway, it was a decent neighborhood during a time when neighbors knew you, your parents and your siblings. And, yes, adults were allowed to scowl at you as if they were your parents. There were many influences in that 12 to 14 block area.

There was, for instance, "Boto's," the local shoe shine parlor run by Kermit Haynes -- who was blind. He taught me and others how to shine shoes, but more important, he taught us what it meant to be a young man in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He had great wisdom and he was always there to listen to whatever was on your mind. He counseled and steered many of us away from the bad influences, and expected us to make something out of ourselves. He also would ban you from the shoe shine parlor if you acted like a dam fool. Before his blindness, Boto was a talented musician with the legendary jazz group, the St. Louis Crackerjacks, which did a lot of gigs in Kansas City during the Count Basie era. His brother was internationally famed concert pianist, Eugene Haynes. Eugene was a very nice man who marveled at knowing that he was the topic of a discussion I had, as a reporter, with former British Prime Minister, Edward Heath. (to be detailed later)

Other influences included the Y.E.W.O. (Youth Educational and Welfare Organization), one of the places where we would hang out and do all sorts of things. It was the main stage to showcase our talents in singing and dancing. It's where it all began for Phil Perry and the Montclaires! YEWO founder Larry Taylor was a reporter for the East St. Louis Crusader, and probably had something to do with me going into the field journalism. I recall going out on a few stories with him -- one a homicide. But as we found out later in life, he was not a man to be trusted.

Also among the influences in 'Lock Town was "the corner," where the lessons of street life were taught; "red hill," a toxic dump site that we used as a place of adventure; and Starlight Skating Rink, where I was taken to see Ike and Tina Turner. The neighborhood also had its fair share of accomplished people, including top city political leaders like Ester Saverson and Charles "Jew Baby" Myles. There were prominent teachers and doctors, too, as well as the city's best known undertaker, Marion Officer, whose son, Carl, would later become mayor of the city.

As a newspaper boy, I knew my way around the neighborhood. I made it a point to always be in good stead with the owners of local grocery stores and confectionaries. I even worked in a few of them, including Mr. Crisp's Confectionary and Margolis Grocery Store. It was always a pleasure to fill up on Root Beers along the way, either at Billups, a local pharmacy, or at Hudlins, a relative of the Hollywood movie duo, the Hudlin Brothers.

"The Bricks" were also a part of my 'hood. Long before people lived in public housing -- the projects -- there were the bricks. It wasn't pretty, but it was the reality of the times. As I look back on 'Lock Town, I can see that it was a diverse neighborhood, meaning that the poeple were at all economic incomes and status. Growing up in such an environment, I think, helped to prepare me for what would come later in life: a society with a broad spectrum of people, places and things.

It's a place that will live on forever in my mind, thoughts and actions.

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