Ronald, or Ronnie as his family called him, had pinch-able cheeks sitting up high under the biggest, saddest, dark brown eyes. Bertha would later claim he was her brightest skinned child, and chided him when he played golf as an adult and let the sun beat on his skin until it was so dark Cara and Mackenzie called him “blurple,” a combination of black and purple. He also had “good hair,” deep brown, soft, and delicately waved. He was small for his age and looked younger than his years.
From the time he was very little, he explained to me, he saw halos of color around every person: greens, blues, purples, oranges, yellows and reds. He did not realize until he was much older that not everyone saw what he saw. He never considered it supernatural as I did when he first told me: a day in Bird Library at Syracuse University when I lost the necklace he had given me on my nineteenth birthday. I was standing outside the restroom in the library basement, blowing my nose and wiping my tears, when he came around the corner and hugged me.
“How did you know I was here?” I asked incredulously, “I was supposed to be in class.”
“I saw your aura – all purples and reds,” he said.
“You see auras?”
“It’s just the way I see,” he said, “I can see what people really look like. That’s why I want to draw them.”
I imagine him in childhood as often wearing a solemn expression – a combination of worry and anxiety. It must have made him look as if he bore the weight of his worries on his shoulders.
Yet he harbored a spark of mischief, a morsel of strength and knowing, and a sprinkle of infectious humor. His Grandma Nellie said, “That boy ain’t nothing but a desperado.”
I tell him, “You were mischievous – always getting into things.”
“Yup,” he says, grinning.
His problems, he told me, were curiosity and creativity. The solution, at least from his dad’s perspective, was to keep him still, to keep his creative energy and curiosity bottled up so they would not spill out as they often did.
The housing projects, lines of brick two-story apartments with tiny patches of lawn and concrete patios, covered one city block after another. The tenants were a mixture of race and ethnicity. Some of them had been displaced after the interstate went through the center of the city. The urban renewal initiative razed houses that were owned by a tight-knit community of blacks in the 15th ward, and the interstate cut the city in half from north to south, leaving a distinct division between the neighborhoods dotting the west side of the city and those dotting the east side. Other tenants were newly migrated families from the South, like the Hagans, or immigrants from other countries. A few of the Onondaga left the reservation in Nedrow and moved to the city, ending up in the projects as well. The men looked for work at General Electric, Carrier Corporation, Chrysler or Niagara Mohawk, the utility where Sylvester Sr. became the first black sub-station foreman in the 1970s. Some families, like the Hagans, were only there until they could afford better housing; others would live there for generations.
The projects were full of adventure and peril, if a young boy could get past his watchful parents’ eyes. Ronnie had an innate ability for wandering alone and watching all the people and activities happening around him.
The projects, he says, taught him early on that the line between childhood and adulthood was often blurred. I wonder why I never figured that out as a child, hyper-vigilant and responsible, but still thinking I was just a child.
Ronald says he saw children performing adult duties in the projects while being largely unsupervised – running to the store for bread and milk, parenting younger siblings, using sex as bargaining chips for drugs or a trip to the NY State Fair. Men sometimes remained trapped in juvenile foolhardiness – hanging out on the street corner, drinking booze from bottles hidden in paper sacks, snorting cocaine or smoking weed, shooting craps and running numbers, dogging women and girls alike for sex.
Some of the kids Ronald knew from the projects would spend their adult lives in the same place they spent their childhoods or they were in jail or dead. The machismo the boys wore like armor as children, they wore like battle scars as adults: gaunt faces, missing teeth, and wild, yellow eyes with bodies ravaged by alcohol, drugs and the hard life. Girls, their sexuality a gift of hope for a better life, matured into weary women with pendulous breasts and sagging stomachs, tired, cynical eyes, whining children pulling at dress hems, and purses filled with food stamps.
Ronald learned in the projects that adults were sometimes untrustworthy – they could hurt you or steal from you. Sometimes they acted like children or just crazy. Sometimes they tried to sell a kid drugs or they’d beat a kid up because they were chasing after the same thirteen-year-old girl. Sometimes people spilled out of their apartments, screaming at one another, kicking and punching and pumping hands in the air to make a point. Or they had weapons, knives or guns that they grabbed in the heat of the moment.
Ronnie saw this while he wandered through the neighborhood, often times after his brothers told him to go home because they didn’t want him around while they were playing with their friends.
He says he felt distant as if he were watching a movie, part of the audience but not part of the action. But sometimes he got pulled into the action, and then, he tells me, he would be right in the center of it.
“Poverty forces things out in the open because there’s nothing to hide behind,” he says. I understand how this belief, offered to me as fact, stated without reservation, has become a lens through which he views people and himself.