Many who read my posts may judge me as a privileged, white male. You don’t know me. I was born and raised in the metro area between Milwaukee and Chicago. One of only two white families in a black neighborhood, my four sisters and I were raised by my single mother. I got nothing free.
NOTE: For context, I wrote this post weeks ago. Hoping much of the corona virus would be behind us all, I scheduled it to publish June 1, 2020. At the time the date seemed so far away in the future. I had been talking with several friends about racism for a long time and this essay is the result. The words are my own, the experiences are my own. The essay is meant as commentary on working class America, poverty and racism.
At a very early age, I knew what death was. It’d already happened. My step father died when trying to light a defective gas water heater. My sister, Bridget, followed soon after, dying a day before Christmas in 1971. I knew what it was to be beaten, robbed, and assaulted. It’d already happened. I was jumped by three for groceries I was carrying home. Beaten for my shoes. Knocked down with a baseball bat for my bike.
Before the age of ten, my two other, older sisters were long gone and I was the one taking care of my younger sister. I worked odd jobs. I bought bread, milk and flour with the nickels, dimes and quarters I earned. Food that fed us so we didn’t go hungry many times. By the age of fifteen, I was working 30 hours a week. By the age of seventeen, I was homeless but managed to finish high school on my own.
Thanks to the charity of a neighborhood friend, I had a place to live the summer before I joined the military. The military took me out into the world, to fields of battle and conflicts I never imagined. I left the military broken but resolved to not let everything that had gone before define me. I became an international bestselling author, having written over 100 professionally-published books for the top publishing companies in the world and then went on to write over 100 others released by small press and self-publishing. My books have sold millions and millions of copies. I earned this success by fighting to achieve it.
You may think my early life a hard one, perhaps even a terrible one. I don’t remember it that way. To me, it was simply my childhood. Across the street were the Hoople brothers. They, like my sisters and I, had little parental guidance. They were crazy dare-devils, always doing wild stunts, like riding their bikes out of their second-story bedroom windows, off rooftops into snow piles in winter. Visiting the Hoople brothers was always an adventure. Their house never knew a broom and dustpan or a vacuum, but they were kind and generous. If they had food or snacks, they shared. We shared, if we could, but mostly we had nothing to share.
Down the street was Mr. Orville, a widower. Neighborhood fix it man by day, neighborhood drunk by night. My mom had a kind heart. If she saw him lying out of the street, she’d help him home. Mr. Orville was an electrician by trade, mostly retired, when we knew him. He was always out in his garage tinkering, fixing small kitchen appliances and the like. Mr. Orville gave me my first bike, training wheels and all. I earned it really, or at least I thought I did by working for him after school, helping him fix things. It was well-used, second-hand, but to me it was the world—and Mr. Orville taught me to ride it.
Across and down to the end of the street was the house of my friend, Charles. Charlie really. Charlie’s house seemed so far away when I was little. Charlie and I met when my older sister walked me to the first day of kindergarten. He was walking to school with his older brother. I didn’t know it at the time, but his brother was sweet on my sister, and I think, my sister was sweet on him. That old school house at Janes School was over six blocks away. Red Apple School hadn’t been built yet or at least, I don’t think it had. That being 1971, and I starting kindergarten well before I should have on account of my mom mixing up my birthdate.
To get to Janes School, we had to cross busy Douglas Avenue, passing the hardware store and the Italian restaurant that marked the end of my world as a young child. The other end of my world was Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. To say Charlie and I became the best of friends is not to know the meaning of the words. Charlie and I became like brothers. We were brothers.
Everything unraveled for my family with the sudden death of my sister, Bridget, on the day before Christmas in 1971. Following so closely to the death of my step father, who died in that summer, it was too much for mother. By the first grade, my two older sisters were gone. One ran away to her father’s, or at least we thought she did. Another got a job working at Hardee’s, worked until she could afford an apartment of her own and then moved out. My sister and I never saw either again until many years later.
From then on, it was just myself and my younger sister, who I helped take care of and who followed me everywhere. Charlie’s older brother was around sometimes, as was his older sister, but not much. Charlie and I walked together to 1st grade and all the grades that followed, my sister in tow eventually to all day kindergarten and then beyond.
A shed in my backyard become our fort, a path between hedges behind Charlie’s house became our secret hang out. My sister, Charlie and I roamed every inch between Douglas Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, up to St. Patrick Street and down to Prospect and West. Root River a few blocks beyond was forbidden, as was North Beach and the Lake Michigan waterfront which was about five blocks past Janes School.
Charlie, my sister and I were fearless. The big kids jumped my sister and me for groceries. We came back with sticks and bricks. The big kids beat me up for my new red sneakers. We came back with Charlie’s older brother. The bike I earned by working for Mr. Orville, the one with training wheels that he taught me to ride, I was eventually robbed of after being knocked down with a baseball bat. Charlie’s older brother solved that one too and I’ll never forget it.
The big kids were much bigger by then and much more likely to get their older siblings involved in our squabbles as well. But Charlie’s older brother came back with the bike all the same. I remember his shirt was torn, his lip was bloodied and his right eye was swollen. He had the biggest of grins on his face though and he said to me, “There you go little man.”
With the exception of Sanford and Son, which Charlie’s older brother let us watch with him sometimes, we didn’t watch much television in those days. My house had a little black and white set that didn’t catch much of anything except WGN Channel 32 out of Chicago. But in March 1973, Charlie, my sister and I became fascinated with The Six Million Dollar Man. We had to sneak into Charlie’s house to watch the show because he had the only television that could catch ABC and because us kids weren’t allowed inside on account of making too much of a racket. Lee Majors became to us a larger-than-life superhero.
By the summer of 2nd grade, Charlie, my sister and I broke past the boundaries of Douglas, King, St. Patrick and Prospect and West. It was mostly the library that drew us as a refuge. The library was a gateway to new worlds, a place where no big kids could chase us down the street. The first books my sister and I discovered weren’t picture books. They were Ripley’s Believe It Or Not books. We were fascinated by them and I’d read them aloud to her. Soon after a librarian amazed at my reading skills and comprehension introduced me to Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson. Then 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Round the World in Eighty Days, Treasure Island, Kidnapped and more became to us as the most cherished of friends as I read them aloud again and again.
By the summer of 3rd grade, even the library so far away wasn’t far enough. Charlie, my sister and I, all on bikes by then, given to us by Mr. Orville, rode to the Root River where we’d spend the long, sunny afternoons after I finished my work under the Horlick Drive bridge next to Horlick Park catching crabs using raw liver. The liver was three Pepsi or Coke bottles back then, a dime and a nickel, or at least the grocer gave it to us for that. Horlick Park wasn’t razed back then and made into ball fields. It was a wooded island with paths crisscrossing it and Root River encircling it. We didn’t do anything with the crabs we caught really, except watch them crawl around in our buckets and eventually release them when it was time to bike home.
With the sun heading low, we’d race home where I’d try to scrounge up dinner for myself and my sister. Sometimes on days when there was no dinner to find, we’d head over to the Hoople’s instead to see what the crazy brothers were up to. The youngest of the three was almost my age, but we didn’t hang out much on account of him having to stick with his brothers all the time. If the Hoople brothers weren’t around, we’d head to the hide out behind Charlie’s and wait for him to finish dinner. Playing pirates in the hedge hideout with sticks as swords and bricks as cannons was a good way to pass the time. It was only the once really that Charlie accidentally hit my sister in the back of the head with a brick after a particularly volatile sea battle amongst the pirates. It did, of course, require stitches. Six long ones, sown in by my mother while my sister screamed and cried and I tried to sooth her.
The last taboo Charlie, my sister and I shattered was North Beach and the Lake Michigan waterfront, which we did in the spring of 4th grade and throughout the summer before my sister and I moved away from the city. I never really knew why the waterfront was taboo. Maybe it was because I’d fallen into a pond and almost drowned one time when I was with my step brothers on a rare visit to see my absentee dad. I think I was there following the funeral of his then wife. I remember seeing her cold in her casket and crying the biggest of tears as I for some reason couldn’t push thoughts of my sister, Bridget, and the step dad I vaguely recalled out of my mind.
I didn’t mind not having a dad in my life. It was my normal, and besides Charlie’s family was my family too. We were brothers. It didn’t matter to us that I was white and he was black. It never even occurred to us that the color of our skin made us different—and no one around us told us any different either. The big kids around our neighborhood tormented us—not because my sister and I were white—but because they were bullies and that’s what bullies do.
Tragedy affected my childhood. Poverty affected my childhood. The crushing weight of working class America affected my childhood. Race did not—and yet it seems in the 45 years since my childhood the world still has not caught up to the place we were then. A place where the color of our skin did not matter to any of us who lived it. That tragedy is more searing and enduring to me than anything I experienced in my childhood. Wouldn't it be wonderful to live in a world where everyone just was?
Thanks for reading, I’m William Robert Stanek, Microsoft’s #1 author for nearly 20 years, and author of over 250 topselling books. In closing, I hope it's clear to you dear reader that this essay is about the hardships of poverty and working class America. It's not actually about being black or white or experiencing racism. The lack of racism, the fact that the color of our skin didn't matter, is the point. Having a tough life as a white person isn't a comparison to being black in America. Having a tough life isn't what determines blackness. Many black people didn't have a rough life. They may have grown up in a Cosby Show atmosphere. They may have had a nice house in a lovely suburban town. Their parents may have been respected members of the community, business owners. They may have been good students, good citizens, but still experienced racism just because of color.
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