For days all I could think about was the camping trip. As the date neared my stepfather scheduled an excursion to the sporting goods store to get the supplies I would need for my trip to the woods. We had the list of clothing and equipment in hand and headed to the store.
Being poor in the ghettos of Brooklyn and the Bronx during the 1970s was normal. It was so normal for me that I did not realize I was truly poor until I was about nine or ten years old. I did not really have a concept of poor because every one in our neighborhood was just like us. I do remember seeing some type of wealth on TV, like the Love Boat and Dynasty, but I thought it was mostly fantasy. Later I realized there were multiple levels of wealth and poverty in the world. We always had a place to live and ate dinner each night, so I did not consider us “poor” until the excitement of joining the Cub Scouts faded.
After leaving the Brownsville section of Brooklyn my family moved to the South Bronx. We lived on Kelly Street and Longwood Avenue, in the Hunts Point section. Back then our building lay next to an abandoned one for several years. When that building was torn down all the rats ran over to find new homes in our building. We lived with rats for a few days until they found permanent homes. It was a crazy time. I remember my stepfather fighting off a big rat with a broomstick in our kitchen one day. My stepfather won. Another time I woke and flew off my bed, terrified to find a dirty rodent lying next to me.
The good thing about the abandoned building coming down was we now had a huge vacant lot of bricks for our playground. I remember my sister and I would join the neighborhood kids in playing tag on the cement field. It became a skill to run fast and keep your balance through the uneven turf and not get tagged. A secondary talent was running through the field without getting a piece of broken glass or a rusty screw in our foot. I was one of the few successful kids. We considered ourselves quite gifted.
Eventually, to keep us out of the rubble next door, my parents sent me and my sister to a center they had found a few blocks away. The brown and yellow building housed the local Police Athletic League. I remember thinking it was nice of the police to create a place for us to play, and it was free. We went there several times after school. I played pool and ping pong most days and my sister joined a sewing class. One afternoon a flyer advertising a meeting for the Cub Scouts caught my eye. The idea of joining a specifically male group was pretty cool to me so I began going to meetings.
I learned the Cub Scouts was the first level a boy needed to complete before joining the Boy Scouts. The meetings taught us about honor and loyalty and prepared us for an annual camping trip. Soon the camping trip was all we could talk about. The Cub Scout leader provided us with consent forms and a list of items we would need for our wilderness adventure. The idea of actually walking around in the woods was fascinating to me, but also scary to think of sleeping on the ground with a bunch of strangers in a far away place. The new experience would outweigh my fear, so I told my parents I wanted to go camping.
The bell to the door of the Army and Navy store rang as the whiff of newness permeated my nostrils. The smell of leather and fresh cotton filled the air, mixing with the old wood of the floor and stocked shelves. The store was filled with rolls of military and camouflage clothing and all types of outdoor supplies.
I was a kid in a new kind of candy store. We looked at the sleeping bags and tents, lanterns and canteens. Then we examined the Cub Scout uniforms and the big heavy duty knapsacks. My stepfather carefully looked at the price tags for all the items on my list and said we’d come back to some things. He remained relatively silent as we browsed through all the goods. We picked up a blue belt here and a Cub Scouts cap there and continued through the shop. We then added a yellow Cub Scout handkerchief and headed for the counter. My stepfather paid for the limited items and we exited, hearing the bells hanging from the door ring once more.
We never went back to the sporting good store and I did not go on that camping trip. It was then that I realized we were poor. I subsequently stopped going to the PAL after-school program. I was too embarrassed and ashamed of showing my face again at that place. I was disappointed I couldn’t go camping, but I was more disappointed to realize then that there would just be certain things my family could not afford.