By: Ken Boone
It’s been 25 years since I last attended Franklin Plaza Day, and I can’t make it this year either. However, I told my friend Spoon, one of the event coordinators, that I’d like to make a donation for refreshments. This is where I’m from, and it’s the least I can do for a group of guys who literally saved my life!
Franklin Plaza Apartments were a collection of 20 story buildings in the East Harlem section of New York City, on the island of Manhattan. But to us, it was an oasis in the midst of urban crazy. For almost 60 years, it has stood tall, taking on all comers and coming out on top.
It has been 38 years since I first ventured out on my own. The first time I came back home was when I was in between apartments in my mid 20s. The next time was when I separated from my first wife. Both times I was warmly greeted by the guys who stayed in the neighborhood. We picked up where we left off, but with kids in tow.
When my mother unexpectedly passed away in December 2002, more of my friends from Franklin Plaza showed up at the funeral than did friends from the church I had attended and where my mother was a beloved member for decades. I don’t even know how my Franklin Plaza buddies found out – they just showed up, replete with rib-bruising bear hugs and broad shoulders that readily absorbed tears.
I was 5 years old when I got hit with a triple whammy – my parents split, we lost our house in Queens to foreclosure and Mom made us attend a vastly different kind of church, where I had no sense of belonging. The people in that church worshipped on a different day from that to which I was accustomed. They imposed a lot of restrictions on church member’s behaviors. Worst yet, they had an unwritten, yet well-established, pecking order. I reluctantly took my place at the back of the line at the “Thou Shalt Not” church.
Franklin Plaza was a new apartment complex, so we were all new kids, and thankfully, there was a strong sense of belonging there for me. That complex seemed to be part of an anthropological experiment to test the nature vs. nurture theory. We were surrounded by public housing projects, tenements that were inhabited by ethnic racial groups who resented being pushed out by urban renewal, and let us know it! We were targeted for harassment by our “neighbors”. We were bullied constantly. All of us except Vee, who became something of a legend because of his rare combination of fearlessness, loyalty, smarts, and humor. He never hesitated to go for it when someone picked a fight. We all looked up to him, even though he was shorter than most of us.
I’m Facebook friends with a lot of the guys now. I got dozens of friend requests immediately after Franklin Plaza Day 2018. I don’t who’s passed away since the last time I was there. I think I just want to keep them young in my thoughts.
Big Cliff “likes” a lot of my postings on Facebook. He was always that type of guy. He, Smitty, and Pretzel made up the core of the “Big Guys” group. They were a few years older than us, so they got first dibs on the basketball court, leaving us to use the garbage cans as our hoops. Sometimes we got picked to play with the big guys. We were mostly used as placeholders until one of their crew showed up. Big Cliff would even pass the ball to us from time to time. He was clearly a hero to us.
As you can see, most of us had nicknames, and most of the nicknames stuck to this day. Since it’s my blogging policy not to name names, my friends are easy to write about. Thank God for policy loopholes. My brother and I had nicknames, although they lacked imagination. He was Big Boone, whereas I was simply known as Little Boone. I’m actually four inches taller than my brother, but who’s counting?
We did suffer our share of tragedy and loss. We lost friends to murder, car accidents, drug addiction, and the ravages of unchecked mental illness. But we keep marching on. Forging careers as attorneys, accountants, academicians, musicians, cinematographers, to name a few, the kids from East Harlem have done pretty well in life!
I don’t remember when they began to celebrate Franklin Plaza Day. I do remember that it was always held on a Saturday, which was not convenient for me. You see, that was the day that my mother chose for us to worship. Her decision also prevented me from playing in the more influential basketball leagues growing up. There was a neighborhood music program that I couldn’t partake in.
The guys didn’t tease us. They would wave to my brother and me as we walked to the bus stop dressed in suits and carrying bibles. When we were younger, the Catholic guys would race out of mass to meet us in the basketball court on Sundays. The Baptists and Pentecostals would get there as soon as they could. Then we would play until our parents chased us upstairs to eat dinner and finish our homework.
These guys weren’t like “The Fellas” I referenced in a prior blog post and on my podcast. We came from various parts of New York City. Our pecking order was based on ability, and assholes were shunned. Some of us came from two-parent homes. Some were raised by a single parent. Others were foster kids. Some of us went to church on a day and time when the rest sat down with a second bowl of cereal to watch cartoons.
We’d have vigorous debates about everything from Tricky Dick Nixon, to our favorite athlete, comic book hero, or professional wrestler. And we all were very knowledgeable on every topic. But when it came to basketball, no one knew more than Spoon!
As I said earlier, I’m not going to be able to make it to Franklin Plaza Day 2019. In fact, I may never attend another one. Not that I don’t want to see the guys, but because I made a vow to myself that I would never return to New York City. There are too many mixed emotions for me there. I will make a donation to go towards refreshments. So when you pour that glass of iced tea, and the pitcher says “sweet tea,” you’ll know it’s Little Boone saying “What’s up, my brother?!?”
But wait... there's more!
About the Author
As owner of the Descant Music & Media Group, Ken is a creator and producer of several podcast shows. He is also a music producer, as well as a writer and an accountant for small businesses and nonprofits.