I had loved him on TV, and now he was coming to the RKO Albee, just a few blocks from my apartment. The RKO Albee was one of those grand vaudeville/movie theaters built in the 1920s. It was said to be the second largest such theater in New York City after Radio City Music Hall. The Albee, by the time I made it there, was in serious decline. It was situated in downtown Brooklyn that once had many similar theaters, but downtown Brooklyn and large movie houses no longer remained fashionable. Shades of the grandeur that had once been in the Albee were evident, but seeing them took some faith and imagination, except for the bathrooms which remained magnificent.
Going to a movie there, however, was a bit creepy not only because of the auditorium’s deterioration, but also because of the size of the place. It is only a guess, but the theater held three or four thousand, and the first time I went there, for Diary of a Mad Housewife (who remembers Carrie Snodgrass? Richard Benjamin?), no more than a hundred of us were there. These numbers added up to a lot of empty seats, and an eerie feeling. (Diary remains in my mind not because I remember much about the movie, but because it was my first exposure to people talking back to the movie screen. With the size of the audience, it was easy to hear all the words of those who conversed with the on-screen characters.)
Now, however, it was not a movie coming to the RKO Albee, but James Brown. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business. The Godfather of Soul. Mr. Dynamite.
The wife and I got tickets. Good seats. Fourteenth row, just a little right of center. This time we did not feel as if we were alone in the Albee. I could not see an empty seat. We had a great view of the stage for the opening act, a comedian (perhaps, but I am not sure, Clay Tyson). The audience made it clear that it wanted him off the stage and James Brown on. I could only feel sorry for the comedian, and the clamor was made worse when James Brown with an entourage came down the side aisle. (Huh? The Albee did not have a stage door? Didn’t seem likely. Oh, you think that this was another ploy to whip up the crowd?)
Finally, the warmup was over, and there he was! Our good seats started to be less desirable. Not because anything happened to them, but because it seemed as if everybody who had been behind us left their seat and rushed towards the stage. Still we could see, but then all those seated in front of us stood up. Now to see we, too, had to stand, which we did. But then those in front of us stood on their seats so we had to stand on our seats. And finally, those in front of us stood on the arms of their seats, and soon, feeling precarious, we, too, were standing on the arms. And we saw a great show.
As we were leaving and I saw the crowd heading towards the exits, it hit me then that besides the spouse, I was not seeing another white person. I had not been uncomfortable before, but this realization made me a bit uneasy. Would all those thousands of black faces think there was something wrong with whites going to see James Brown? There was no reason to think so. The crowd was noisy and excited, but everybody was as polite as you could be in a crowd that size. But still, we seemed to be the only whites. Wasn’t there a good chance something bad might happen to us? At least this white had not confronted this situation before—one that many blacks no doubt had faced—of being the only one of his race in the place.
The Duffield theater was only a few blocks from the RKO Albee, but it had never been a palace, only a neighborhood movie house. It was there we saw The Great White Hope, with James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander. (I have had the privilege of seeing Jones on the stage a number of times, but from years ago the most memorable performances were Fences and Othello, the latter in a production with Christopher Plummer, Dianne Wiest, and, in a much smaller part, Kelsey Grammer.) The Great White Hope is the fictionalized account of the black boxer Jack Johnson. Once again, we seemed to be the only whites in the theater, but this time during the performance we were acutely aware of that. In the James Brown concert, our reactions were not much different from the rest of the audience, but that was not true at this movie. In this story about an extraordinary man’s confrontation with race and racism, there was a scene with a country preacher encouraging Johnson to prayer. The wife and I were moved, but, to our surprise, the scene brought derisive laughter from around us, the kind of laughter reserved for an Uncle Tom. I was acutely aware that I had not experienced what others in the audience had, and as we left the theater, I wondered if all those other exiting people were wondering what that white couple was doing there.
Part of the reason that we were in the minority at these theaters is that then, and for most of my years in Brooklyn, we have lived in neighborhoods where whites are in the minority. I regarded this as neither undesirable nor desirable. It was just a fact. Not surprisingly when I played basketball in one of the local schoolyards, which I did frequently before blowing out my knee in my 30s, as a white, I was in the minority.
It was an especially eclectic crowd at the hoop courts nearest to home. The neighborhood had a few whites, but also a sizeable group of Native Americans, who had been in construction in New York City, and were frequently, it seemed, on crutches. Their roots were from near Montreal, and when they found we were going in that direction for a vacation, they were quick to give advice about the places for food and drink on the way to Canada. There was also a group of Puerto Ricans that had been established in the neighborhood for quite some time having come to work at the then-functioning nearby Ex Lax factory. There were blacks with relatives in the Carolinas and some Argentinians who had migrated to South America from Italy before coming to the United States. As I said, an eclectic mix.
One day playing basketball, an argument broke out. I am not sure what triggered it, but soon I heard one kid yell an epithet at the other, “You’re white.” “No, I am not. You’re white.” Both were high schoolers. I knew one of them, whose mother was Puerto Rican and whose father was Native American. I did not know the other one, but he looked to be mixed race white and black. As the argument went on, I looked around and realized that I was the only white there. For a moment, with the “W” word being tossed around, I wondered whether I should be concerned but decided not to be. I was older and a fixture in that schoolyard and had done favors for the families of some of the other players. My guess is that I was not so much the white guy, as the old guy. I am not sure how the argument was settled, but it did not escalate into anything major. (This was not a typical incident. Although I played basketball for countless hours in the neighborhood, I don’t remember another time of something intended as a racial epithet.)
These incidents may have made me aware of my race, something that does not happen often to this white person, and probably not to most other whites either, but none made me feel deeply uncomfortable. Sometimes while jogging, however, I did feel threatened. I would often use my running as a commuting mode and sometimes that took me through parts of New York where my skin color made me stand out, including the South Bronx, then considered to be an especially dangerous neighborhood. I did feel conspicuous, and I sometimes heard what I only hoped were sarcastic remarks coming in my direction, but I soon learned behaviors that seemed to defuse potential problems. Almost always there was a mother with a baby in a stroller on the sidewalk. I would look intently into the stroller as I jogged closer, and when nearby I would smile and then look the mother in the eye and smile even more broadly. Almost always the mother smiled back, and her smile seemed to make others on the block relax. I would also look for young kids, usually boys, on the block. The ten year olds often did make veiled racial remarks, but my response was to urge them to race me to the corner. Most took up the challenge, and seeing me with a kid running neck and neck up the block also seemed to make others relax. (The kids invariably won. I want to say that I always let them win, but not always.)
These methods almost always worked when I ran in “bad” neighborhoods, but for some reason, I found they did not work to defuse any tensions in parts of Harlem, and mostly I stopped running there.
My running led to another incident that was not overtly racial but once again led me to think about my whiteness. I was running through a lily-white, affluent suburb north of New York City. I was not running in fancy running clothes, but, as was my wont, in cast-offs with hair that most would have thought needed a barber. Why affluent communities can’t afford sidewalks I don’t know, but as a result I was jogging on the side of the road. I was coming up to a nice car at a stop sign with a young woman in it. She saw me and the slightest look of panic came over her face. And then I heard the car locks click shut. I was amused. In the thousands of miles I had run, I was not aware of this happening before, but then I thought, I bet a lot of young black males have heard that clicking sound many, many times. And for some—think Ahmaud Arbery—much worse.