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I keep on my laptop desk a corner of chalky red brick. It’s all that’s left of Cassboro Apartments, 444 Peterboro, Detroit. I found this memento among broken boards, shattered glass of the recently razed, four-story building. The red brick anchors childhood memories for me.
At the time of the onset years of World War II, Peterboro was lined with a half dozen house dating back to the 1880s, and four apartment building dating to the 1920s. Several of the houses had fenced victory gardens, alive with flowers and small vegetables.
In 1941, I was five when we moved into the Cassboro’s apartment 114. My father, a factory worker, was 35; my mother, a laundry helper, 30. To this day I have no idea how and where they met, nor do I recall their demonstrating any affection for each other in my boyhood presence. We were not an affectionate family.
We lived in four small rooms, which might have provided family warmth and privacy, but my father’s mother, matriarchal, southern-born Granny Lottie Lee Alexander came to stay.
She was related to Robert E. Lee. She prepared our dinner meals. She called me “Granny’s Lil’ Bubba.” I was 18 when she died.
The Cassboro was built in 1920 (I remember a pre-refridge ice box, gas stove, a milkman with horse-drawn van). There were 60 apartments, owned by a Mr. Burston. Each month he drove up in his black sedan, collected rents, chatted with landlords Mr. and Mrs. Hoag. He rarely noticed us kids.
I liked landlord Hoag. He laughed a lot, showed me a basement storage room filled with furniture and toys. His wife was cranky. She caught me talking to Japhus, the building janitor, who was washing front porch windows.
Japhus told me he had seen a dead cat brought back to life after being stuffed with sand. “You’re not to speak to him,” Mrs. Hoag squinted. “Do you understand, Alexander?”
I carefully avoided her, though once I hid under a staircase listening to her gossip with sedate Mrs. Barnes who lived on the fourth floor. It was a scary thing to do.
The Cassboro was filled with kids. I didn’t mind being an only child.
There was Betty Renny, whose ailing mother could sleep nights only by sitting upright. There was blond Patsy Katja, who had the best comic books to trade. Tomboy Joan McGonagle, who I heard through gossip did “things” with Tommy Tudman in his unmarried mom’s bedroom.
There was Danny who lived across the hall. His clubfoot mom caught us, each age 8, showing our unbuttoned trophies in an abandoned car parked outside her window.
There was Tommy Black, at 116. From my bedroom window one summer evening I saw his mother’s breasts when she left the bathroom light on. Tommy came out as a teenager.
There was red-haired Deanie, 13, who asked me, age 9, just for fun when his parents were gone to take off my clothes. For my silence, he gave me his Captain Midnight ring.
There was teenager Bobby Hendrix. At Christmas time his mother invited neighbor kids in for Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” recordings. She smoked with a cigarette holder, acted like screen-star Betty Grable.
When I was 12, Bobby got us kids to play draw-a-dare. He wrote dares on paper scraps. You got points for each challenge accepted. I wanted to do more than kiss the living room fish bowl, but I wasn’t sure just quite what.
One day Bobby popped naked into the hallway. He had just showered, answering to a friend’s knock. To this day I can still see his soapy, suntanned skin, flashy teenage smile, muscular body shake and shiver.
It was a daredevil moment just as I was conveniently passing by. Other sucessful and more daredevil encounters would occur from time to time as I moved into my coming out teens.