As far back as I can remember there were fences that separated us.
The line for us was the Patio Deli on Linden Boulevard. This was the demarcation your sneakers needed to be on the friendly side of come night fall. There was an ‘us’ and a ‘them’; two uniquely compelling sides to this fiery equator that had been sewn by previous generations, and who were we to question it? All that we knew was that we had a side of the fence, and we had to own it.
Sports and music had no use for fences. In these worlds, black and white kids were teammates. We rooted for the Yankees and the Knicks. We spoke the same language. And perhaps no musical artist fused that gap better than Prince. His quixotically extravagant lyrics and moodily amorous melodies tore right through our restless spirits and pushed us to imagine the world differently.
Prince was the electrical storm that shattered the disparate entanglements of our black and white world with lyrics that riveted themselves to our wildest imaginations. It loosed us from stereotypes inside an abject bliss whose momentary lapse was full of reason and righteousness; all the things we somehow could not muster inside the day to day.
When you discovered Prince, you had arrived at the musical equivalent of a moon landing. He sang the words of Milton with an indefatigable funk, and you knew . . you just knew that you were listening to music that would book passage into history. And he existed, right there in the great big middle of disco jeans and bubble jackets and designer sneakers and multi-plexes.
I moved away in the fall of ’86, so I was almost a year removed from the place I had called home when it achieved notoriety for what would come to be known as the incident at Howard Beach. This nuanced reference provided the veneer for the worst case scenario of those fences when a bunch of white kids formed a lynch mob, with baseball bats in tow, chasing three black men from the neighborhood late one night. They put one of those men in the hospital and they chased another down onto the Belt Parkway, where he was struck and killed.
It would be several years before I went back to visit with my girlfriend. I showed her all my old hangouts and we grabbed lunch at New Park Pizza on the Boulevard- a place that had become famous for all the wrong reasons as it was where the chase had ensued on that horrible night years earlier. The sadness of the place stuck to my bones as we sat there and talked about better days and old friends, and ghosts.
And then I took her to the narrow little alley behind my old apartment building where me and my friends used to play stickball, pretending it was Yankee Stadium because it felt that way to us. Back then. Before the fences ventured away from that field of play and into our real lives. Everything was different now, every single thing. And it was as if Thomas Wolf was busy telling me that maybe he was wrong . . maybe you really shouldn’t try going home again.
I took my girlfriend by the hand, holding tightly to whatever came next, chasing the ghosts to the other side of the fence. Her smile carried me home, to the one I’d found away from all this madness. And as if Prince had enlisted the lyrics to lift me from the rain of a melancholic afternoon, she was wearing a raspberry beret.
The very same kind you’d find in a second hand store.
(Check out Dale’s female choice over at A Dalectable Life. And no, Debbie Gibson didn’t make the cut.)