This is long form journalism, at least for a website and it’s the most in-depth I’ve gone outside of writing a book. This is the story of Walter, a teenage boy who grew up in New York City. Harlem to be precise. This story takes place mostly in the 1940s.
Harlem wasn’t exactly at the top of everyone’s list of desirable places to live in the 1940s and 1950s. It was a tough, poor neighborhood and there was almost a sense of doom about living there. When someone greeted another in Harlem with a friendly, “How are you?” the reply would often be “Oh man, I’m nowhere.” It was a distinctly Harlem thing, a way residents connected with each other that others from outside the neighborhood would never understand. I’m reminded of a quote by David Henry Thoreau that describes places like this Harlem where people shared this ennui. He wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” There’s more to the quote – look it up if you want – but these words fit Walter and his story into a tidy little box of misery.
Not every place starts off as the wasted dregs of the bottom of a barrel. Harlem certainly wasn’t always a slum. In fact at one time it was a great place to live. However, about 100 years ago that changed. By the 1920s, a huge surge of immigrants from the South (like Walter’s family to come) remodeled Harlem into a slum. Between 1920 and 1930, New York’s black population jumped 115% from this southern immigration. And then the Great Depression hit. Unfortunately for blacks who had moved to Harlem, they won the reverse lotto and got the lowest-paying jobs while at the same time paying huge rent. It was like being thrown into the spin cycle of a washing machine with no bell or timer to end the cycle. That was daily life for Harlemites and it was a time when “give us this day our daily bread” actually meant something. Not like today where finding food is the least of our problems and we have all the junk food, fried foods and candy we want. Indeed, when it comes to the food department things have changed so much that North America is now fighting a battle against the expanding paunch. How the times have changed.
To cope with high rent, Harlemites carved up five and six room apartments that had originally been designed for wealthy families and took in whatever renters they could find. People were packed in like miserable sardines, suffering and sweltering in tenements – this was before air conditioning was common. About 500,000 people lived in Harlem and it was the biggest black neighborhood in the entire country. It was built to hold less than half of that. Overcrowding was putting it lightly. Poverty, squalor, gambling, prostitution and juvenile delinquency came along too, like unwanted guests at a dinner party. Schools were overcrowded too. And run down. During school hours, students impatiently waited for their liberation, watching the second hand of the clock slowly pass by each pip. By the time school was done for the day students were like rocks sitting in the pockets of a hundred poised slingshots: All day they had been pulled back, learning their ‘rithmetic and reading Dick and Jane novels. By the end of the day, frazzled teachers were only too pleased to release their unruly students back into the streets.
There wasn’t a lot for the kids to do and they looked for excitement in the nooks and crannies of their streets. Anywhere they could find it or anything to do to dull their minds to their cramped existence. They banded together into street gangs, roving to and forth like army ants scurrying to battle. A thirst for love and rebellion tied these gangs together.
But, it wasn’t supposed to be like this.
New York City was supposed to be the Promised Land. The shiny apple of opportunity was just waiting to be plucked from the tree of plenty. Whoever had the gumption, energy and courage could do so. The great American dream was for everyone. One grandma told her grandson on the long bus ride from Augusta Georgia to New York that everyone in Harlem had their own indoor bathrooms, electricity, running water and everyone had big cars they drove around in. Hunger pains would never happen again. Claude Brown, a famous Harlem writer later wrote that moving to Harlem was “goodbye to the cotton fields, goodbye to ‘Massa Charlie,’ goodbye to the chain gang and most of all, goodbye to those sunup-to-sundown working hours.”
I can imagine the excitement of moving to the Promised Land slowly turn to bitter reality for thousands of blacks who moved into Harlem. Blacks like Walter and his family who moved from South Carolina. The first immigrants must have arrived with high expectations and an excitement in their bellies. Perhaps a high paying job waited for them. Or a better school for Johnny and Suzie. But by 1950, that was a pipe dream. When you wake up enough times in the morning staring at the mirror with nothing for you other than a poor paying job, danger in the streets and a dump for a home, anger bubbles up. Or as Claude Brown put it, “now their children inherited the total lot of their parents – the disappointments, the anger. To add to their misery, they had little hope of deliverance. For where does one run to when he’s already in the Promised Land?”
Ralph Ellison, a novelist who lived in Harlem in the Great Depression had a deep connection to the neighborhood:
To live in Harlem is to dwell in the very bowels of the city; it is to pass a labyrinthine existence among streets that explode monotonously skyward with the spires and crosses of churches and clutter underfoot with garbage and decay. Harlem is a ruin — many of its ordinary aspects (its crimes, its casual violence, its crumbling buildings with littered areaways, ill-smelling halls, and vermin-invaded rooms) are indistinguishable from the distorted images that appear in dreams and, like muggers haunting a lonely hall, quiver in the waking mind with hidden and threatening significance. Yet this is no dream but the reality of well over 400,000 Americans; a reality that for many defines and colors the world. Overcrowded and exploited politically and economically, Harlem is the scene and symbol of the Negro’s perpetual alienation in the land of his birth.
The Harlem of the 40s and 50s – the time period of this story – thus exposed itself in an array of pathologies: the man ducking in and out of traffic shouting and throwing pretend grenades that had actually exploded in World War 1. A boy joining in a rape-robbery of his own mother; a man beating his wife up in the park using strict boxing rules – no punching below the belt or rabbit punching (punching the back of the head). Two men holding a third while a lesbian slashed him to death with a razor blade. Or boy gangsters flashing homemade zip guns and shooting gang rivals.
A brief word about these gangs. They were real and they were deadly, even with rudimentary weapons. Sometimes they even got real guns in their arsenals. Here’s just one example of that. In September 1945, in Harlem, five members of a gang called the Slicksters stopped another teenager. Witnesses described them as “tough-looking.” The first Slickster placed his .38 caliber revolver against the victim’s right shoulder and pulled the trigger. He stumbled and fell to the sidewalk, when four other Slicksters joined in. One boy held his gun against the victim’s right hip and he too pulled the trigger. Another boy did the same thing shooting the left hip. The other two boys moved forward and each fired a bullet into the victim’s legs. Despite his numerous wounds, the victim somehow got up and started running only to collapse forward onto his face in a bar and grill. There are other violent stories of these gangs I can share including murder, not just of gang members, but innocent bystanders.
And now, we are ready to jump into Walter’s story. It was important you got a sense of what Harlem was like in the 1940s and 1950s. For as I mentioned at the very beginning of this story, Walter and his family didn’t just move to New York. No, they moved to Harlem. Walter was one of those restless, young black teenagers in Harlem looking for a better a life.
It was May 20, 1949 and it was the dead of night. The time was 3:00 a.m. and Chew Teck Joon, a Chinese man had just entered his apartment house at 517 West 124th Street in Manhattan. Why he was up so late isn’t clear. Maybe he had shift work and he just finished another day and all he wanted was to get some sleep. Or maybe he was out on the town and the fun was over. Two teenage boys were also in Teck Joon’s building, hanging around and up to no good. But these two boys didn’t live there. They should have been fast asleep in their warm beds. As Chew Teck Joon was about to open the door to the hallway, one of the boys pointed a knife at his stomach and the other placed a hammer on his forehead. That’s what the report actually said: that the hammer was “placed” on his forehead. How does one place a hammer on another person’s forehead? Was he gentle about it, with the cold steel a reminder of what could be? Or was the hammer roughly placed against his head, giving the impression they could smash it in at any moment?
Scared out of his mind, with a knife at his belly and a hammer on his head, Teck Joon didn’t resist. The boys took a pay envelope which had $45 inside, $1.17 in change, personal papers, a wristwatch (worth $24) and an umbrella (worth $9). In total, the boys got away with $79.17.
The two boys bolted out of the vestibule, and Joon immediately shouted for help. Other Chinese people in the area heard his shouts and told a nearby Patrolman from the 30th Precinct who was on duty nearby. The Patrolman went into a building the boys entered and found them on the stairs going up to the second floor landing. The boys claimed that they first went to the roof, where they inspected their ill-gotten gains for about 10-15 minutes. They were arrested when they descended back down the stairs. The Patrolman didn’t see any evidence the two teens had been drinking. One boy said they didn’t drink any liquor before the armed robbery, but the other said they had been drinking earlier that night, but weren’t drunk at the time of the crime. When the policeman asked them where they got the knife and the hammer, they refused to answer although later the boy with the knife claimed he found it in Morningside Park three or four days previously.
When the patrolman searched the boys, one had a large hammer, Joon’s watch and umbrella. The other had a switchblade with a 4” long blade and $1.17 in coins. There was no way they could wriggle out of this one. One of the teens admitted that they picked Joon as their victim because “he looked easy,” and that he “looked like he had some money.” They ordered him to “stick ‘em up,” and according to them, Joon immediately raised his hands so they had no reason to use the knife or hammer on him. This was a different story than what Joon shared.
They took his umbrella because it was raining and they didn’t think Joon needed it since he was already home. The preposterous selfishness with this reason shows the morally bankrupt state of mind they were in. Certainly they were lying about not using the knife and hammer on him.
Because the vestibule was well-lit, Joon identified both of the armed robbers to the Assistant District Attorney. Thankfully he wasn’t injured, although I wonder how long it took him to recover from the experience. The $45 in the pay envelope was never recovered. Supposedly Joon told the boys to “take everything” and since the $45 was in the pay envelope, it might have been thrown out with the other stolen papers. It could be the two robbers didn’t even know they had $45 in their possession, no small amount of money to the boys. The Patrolman thought that a passing pedestrian might have found the pay envelope and taken the contents. Or maybe nobody found it and the envelope fell into a sewer, or got swept up with other garbage, never to be found, an entire week of working flushed away to who knows where – a complete waste.
Actually the fact that he had his pay envelope with him tells me that Teck Joon probably got paid that day and was on his way home from the night shift. In the 1940s and 1950s, the average wage of the lower class was $30-60 per week. Losing $45 would have been crippling to Joon and I wonder how much scrambling he had to do. To help put it in perspective, imagine you lost a week’s worth of wages in a violent robbery. Would you be put out? Did Teck Joon have to beg the landlord for extra time to pay? Did he have family to help him with groceries or medical? Did he have to borrow money from the local loan shark and have that debt hanging over his head reminding him to pay up or else?
I’m not sure how Teck Joon dealt with this robbery, but I do know about the two boys. Who were these urban brigands anyhow? Were they close partners in crime, fast friends from birth? Or was this merely an aimless, chance encounter between two thieves, greased by a desire to make an easy buck?
Well, it turns out that the two boys had been close friends for six or seven years up to this terrible May night. One boy was Herbert Taylor and the other – the object of this story – was Walter, aka “Hatchethead.”
Not only had Herbie and Walter been friends for years, they had actually participated in a similar crime three years prior. It happened on June 1, 1946, and both Herbert and Walter brazenly held up a woman on the street in the middle of the day. They used a knife to hold her up and got away with two bucks, keys and personal papers from her purse. Both boys were arrested only two blocks away from the scene of the crime. The precedent had been set and although there was a three year gap between this armed robbery and the one in 1949, I wonder how many other heists they committed in the three year gap that weren’t found out by the police. I ask you: do you think they stopped robbing people for three years only to start again in 1949?
Thing is, Walter knew that Taylor was a bad character, but he still associated with him because according to him, “a friend is a friend, no matter what he does.” Herbert was lucky to have such a loyal friend.
Herbert Taylor was born in South Carolina and was the youngest of 9 children. His father died when he was 5 years old and it destroyed him. He reacted to his father’s death with “feelings of insecurity” and developed neurotic symptoms, became unstable, tense and had “memory drops.” His mindset soured like milk sitting in the hot sun.
Herbie’s first tangle with the long arm of the law happened when he was 15 years old. He grabbed a woman pedestrian, pressed what she thought was a gun into her side and tried to rape her. He got probation for that.
Herbert’s next arrest was in April 1946 when he broke into a tailor shop, but this case was dismissed. Then it was the June 1, 1946 robbery with Walter mentioned above.
Between the two teens, Herbie was more aggressive than Walter and he was sent to Warwick. Warwick was where juvenile prisoners under the age of 16 did their time. Less than a year later, Herbert was sprung from Warwick and he moved to Sumter, North Carolina with his mother. In November 1947, he stole a bicycle and was sentenced – get this – to work on a chain gang. They sure didn’t fool around in Sumter, North Carolina.
Although he was sentenced for a year to the chain gang, Herbie was released after three months and moved back to New York City. When he got there, at some point he joined a fighting gang called the “Midtown Manhattan Midtown,” for self protection.
I doubt the gang was really called “midtown Manhattan Midtown.” It’s too awkward to say. Imagine being a member of the gang and calling out to the enemy right before a fight that “we’re midtown Manhattan Midtown!” No, it had to be something more simple than that.
I’ve been studying New York City youth gangs for 20 years and I am confident that Herbie’s gang was simply the “Midtowners.” The Midtowners were a real gang at that time and in that area too. As luck would have it, Life magazine had a photographer named Gordon Parks who followed the Midtowners around the Harlem streets in 1948, taking pictures of the gang. The images are timeless, and you can easily find them online. There’s one of a gang leader with a cigarette balanced on his lips as he stares out a shattered pane of glass onto the street. In another the Midtowners take refuge in an abandoned building after being attacked by an enemy gang. One of the members has a brick in his hand, ready for battle. Another somber picture is of two Midtowners gazing upon the body of their pal, laid out in a coffin in a Harlem funeral home.
The Midtowners were a “feuding gang,” and the pictures Parks took showed violence and even murder. Like all these aggressive gangs that had suddenly sprouted all over New York City, the Midtowners were a bellicose bunch. They must have been a large gang because they separated themselves into six groups by age and experience. It started with the Tiny Tims, who were the beginners, mere 12-year-old babies. It went up in age from there, going from “Kids,” to “Cubs,” to “Midgets,” to “Juniors” and finally “Seniors.” The most active Midtowners were the Midgets, led by their President, “Red,” who had led them since 1946, when the former President was sent to jail for shooting the member of a rival gang. Like all gangs in New York City, the Midtowners had their own “turf,” an area where most of the members lived. Red’s Midtowners were concentrated on a block on West 119th Street.
Although nothing was said about Walter being in the gang, there are several reasons why I think it’s a fair bet he was: his close friend Herbert was a member and they had committed crimes together; the time frame was in the point where Gordon shadowed the gang. And finally Walter lived at 282 West 127th Street, six blocks south of the Midgets. And as we saw, Walter’s previous crimes were very much like what a gang member would participate in. It was also noted that Walter’s block was “highly congested and delinquent.”
Walter wasn’t a stranger to gangs and knew about their existence already when he was only 6 years old in 1937. This was before the time gangs were a well-known problem in NYC. He was watching a gang fight when he was hit in the left eye by a chucked rock. Walter suffered considerable vision loss and it appeared to affect him for the rest of his life. Innocent bystanders getting hurt by these gang fights were not as unusual as you might think. In fact, one 9-year-old Harlem girl was killed while watching a gang fight from her window.
Walter, who, as a teenager was described as a “quiet, sad-looking young Negro who at times seems to be in a world of his own,” was born on in Orangeburg, South Carolina. He was the second oldest of three children.
His father was born in 1914 and worked hard in a cotton mill in Orangeburg; South Carolina had a long history of cotton mills beginning in the mid to late 1800s. Walter’s father was one of those workers – many of whom were children – who toiled away, putting themselves at risk of getting “brown lung,” depending on what part of the process they worked at. Brown lung happened when workers inhaled lint while working near carding machines which took raw cotton and smashed it into flat sheets that were called “card.” Sometimes entire families worked in these factories.
Even though his father came from a good family, unfortunately for Walter, his mother and siblings, his 5th-grade educated father was a drunkard and didn’t support his own family. When he was drunk, he was abusive and brutal to his wife and children. He also cheated on his wife with many other women, even bringing them into the family home.
Walter’s mother was also born in South Carolina (Colleton County) in 1913 and did one better than her future husband, achieving a 6th grade education. Her father died when she was about 14 years old and two years later she got married, but “didn’t know what it was all about.” Sometimes it’s a good reminder for us all to really think about how young people got married back in the day. Nobody gets married at 14 anymore, at least in North America. And if they did, it would be the talk of the town. And yet this wasn’t an unusual practice decades ago. If you can’t imagine what it would be like for Walter’s mother to get married at such a tender age, imagine getting a wedding invitation in the mail for a 14-year-old you know. I doubt Walter’s mother had a proper wedding with invitations, but setting that scene up in your mind is helpful to understand Walter’s family.
Not surprisingly, with Walter’s father’s two-timing and brutal nature, the parents separated when Walter was 4 years old and the father moved to Columbia, South Carolina, then later to Washington D.C. He never sent support money to his family, and by the time Walter was getting into trouble in Harlem, he hadn’t seen or heard from his father for years.
When his parents separated, Walter’s mother was pregnant and with the father out of the picture, she moved in with her widowed mother (Walter’s maternal grandmother) who took her daughter and grandchildren in. Because her daughter was pregnant and couldn’t work, the grandmother had to work and supported everyone the best she could by doing day and domestic work, laundry and cleaning. She worked all day and came home to do laundry for other customers in the evening.
After a year, Walter’s mother moved north, leaving all her children with grandma to support, only sending intermittent and small amounts of money back home for support. Granny worked so hard, she had no time to care for the children who were pretty much left to themselves except when a well-meaning neighbor sometimes checked in on them. The family was very poor and sometimes there wasn’t enough food to eat. Perhaps this is the reason that Walter’s grandmother “exploited him for every cent that he earned.” Walter’s grandmother was a simple woman, “childlike” was the word used to describe her. She accepted conditions and behavior in the home as satisfactory that would never be considered acceptable by those with higher standards.
Walter attended a public school in Orangeburg, South Carolina and according to grandma, Walter liked school, didn’t cut class and didn’t have any behavior problems. All was going well. Except for one problem. Although he generally got along with the other kids, he sometimes had fits of rage which became characteristic of him.
To get closer to her daughter who had moved north, Walter’s grandma visited relatives in New York City to get a lay of the land. The first time she went to scout things out it was for two weeks and the second for three months. During both her visits to savour the fruit of the Big Apple, she left Walter and his siblings with relatives. She was “sure they were content.” The reason why she wanted to move to New York City was because she had health issues. Perhaps it was working herself to the bone to care for her grandchildren that played a part in that. Moving to New York City allowed her to be closer to her daughter and other relatives in case she needed financial help. Not that she could really count on her daughter for anything as past experience showed. She finally moved there permanently in 1943.
When she moved to the city, she got a different home from that of her daughter, but the children were in and out of both homes from that point forward. I couldn’t help but feel that the children were being pawned off and shuffled around like a macabre game of hot potato. School in New York City was uneventful for Walter; that is, until 1946 when he was in Grade 8. Walter skipped school a lot and his workmanship was poor. His conduct was marked as B and C and on the days he didn’t skip, Walter was often late arriving to school.
Later, when he was in a reformatory, a teacher in the institution said that Walter was friendly and quiet and could “fall asleep in a minute’s notice.” He also acted like a clown in most classroom situations and tried to cover up his inadequacy. Walter played himself off for a fool and with no effort gravitated to those with the same outlook. This quote explains it fully:
Basically, this boy feels that he does not have what it takes to get along with others in terms of ability. Because of this low estimate of his own capacity, he does not try in most of the situations.
And yet, beneath all this, there was a small flicker of hope for Walter academically. It turned out that when he made serious efforts to make a good impression, he had an unusually good vocabulary. And when someone tried to deal sympathetically with him, Walter actually put in a good effort. But who would be there to show him that sympathy he desperately needed? A grandma with health issues who worked day and night for her grandchildren? Or a father who was somewhere in Washington D.C., doing who knows what? Or would that love come from a mother who could care less about her son?
Attending high school at Benjamin Franklin was no better than elementary school. His attendance was spotty; his work poor and conduct fair. His academic achievement was underwhelming and when he reached the 5th term he left. I wonder what would have happened if someone came alongside Walter to show him the love and guidance he needed? Maybe the great vocabulary he had might have lead to becoming a writer. Or a poet. Or a playwright. Anything really. Maybe underneath the layers of neglect, there was a Mark Twain inside Walter. Or to be more contemporary to Walter’s time, maybe there was a James Baldwin hiding inside. Baldwin was a Harlem writer only seven years older than Walter. He was already on his journey to becoming a famous novelist. All that was needed was someone to burnish and polish away that neglect…
When investigators poked into Walter’s life to understand him, they only got a vague, hazy idea of Walter’s interests, hobbies and activities from his own relatives. If your own family struggles to explain who you are, you know you’re in a bad spot. However, they gave enough for us over 70- years later to get a picture of Walter:
- He did his share of the housework
- He enjoyed playing ball in the street (probably stickball, a favorite activity of New Yorkers during this time)
- He liked to swim and taught himself how to dance by attending parties
- He liked to sing and was in the Sunday school choir when he lived in South Carolina
- He learned to play the piano and took lessons free of charge from a family acquaintance in Orangeburg. He practiced on this person’s piano. When he moved to NYC, he wanted to continue playing the piano and the church actually gave him one. Unfortunately Walter didn’t have a spot to put the piano.
- Walter didn’t like to read and went to the movies weekly.
- He attended church and summer school during his first years in NYC, but this stopped when he started hanging out with rebellious neighborhood kids.
- Walter was a member of P.A.L. (Police Athletic League) and the St. Martin cadets.
- He shined shoes and when he got older delivered ice. In the summer and fall of 1946 he was a messenger boy at Western Union.
Walter’s family situation was severely disturbed. He lived with his grandmother, but he and his siblings frequently visited his mother’s home. That shows how amazing the bond is between a mother and child. Even neglecting her own son, he couldn’t help but visit her. She applied for home relief in 1944 ($129.25 per month) and had two out of wedlock children with two different men. She also “took other men indiscriminately into the home.” She worked intermittently.
Walter’s relationship with his mother was abysmal. She showed little love and affection for him. Why? Because he was supposedly “mentally retarded” and “aware of her indiscretions.” Walter certainly wasn’t “mentally retarded,” so her reasons for withholding love for her child had more to do with the fact that she knew her son knew about her reckless behavior. Walter himself described his mother as a “rowdy type,” who “likes to fight around, drink and has lots of friends coming and going.” Authorities said Walter’s mother was “amoral” and reacted to her son with “hostility and shame.” It’s obvious Walter’s mom wasn’t baking cookies for him and his friends, helping him with his homework or tucking him into bed at night.
And yet…If there were aggressive or hostile feelings towards his mother, they were buried deep inside Walter and he did not express them. In fact, he was very much attached to her. He longed for her acceptance and love. This was an impossible position for Walter. According to a psychiatrist, he displaced “his inner hostility to the outer world.” Instead of focusing his aggression upon his parents, he displaced it against society in general.
All of this hurt Walter’s emotional growth. There was no male role model to show him how to grow up as a man, learn how to shave, play catch with or give advice on girls. Not only that, Walter was rejected by a “well meaning but incompetent grandmother.” He must have been a very confused boy. All of this was the bedrock for the choices he made for anti-social attitudes and activities.
From an early age Walter was an unstable boy. However, his Grandma insisted that he was obedient and a good boy until his later teens. For his part, Walter complained that his grandma disciplined him unfairly and used corporal punishment. His mother tried to hide from the Court of General Sessions that before he turned 16, Walter ran away from home, once for two weeks. Walter himself admitted staying out late, even before he was a teenager. He also hung out “indiscriminately” with any youths who would accept him (Midtown gang?).
Walter was restless when he slept, talked in his sleep and had many bad nightmares. Sometimes he got violently angry, so angry that it would be “enough to kill you.” Twice he fought with his mother. He complained about pain in his eyes and for a time he was at Bellevue Hospital to correct a cross eyed muscle. When he was around 13 or 14, he fell down during a quarrel with someone and hit the back of his head on the cement and was knocked out cold. He was taken to Harlem Hospital and they treated him for 24 hours. After this accident Walter’s grandma said “he never did act as though he had much sense.”
Like yeast baked into bread, the home was larded with tension. Constant arguments flared up between the mother and her children, resentment festering about her relationships with different men and about supporting other men’s children. One particularly bad fight was about her latest pregnancy. Also around this time when she was pregnant that she was charged with disorderly conduct, although I’m not sure what she did.
The picture for Walter and his siblings was bleak. He had virtually no chance for developing like a normal child because of bad relationships in the family. Walter was insecure, unstable and lived in a bad environment. He also felt self conscious and was very sensitive and nervous. Just another poor kid struggling living in Harlem. After he was arrested for robbing Teck Joon, Walter was described as “slow moving and… quite mentally dull.”
Walter gambled heavily with dice and cards and often went to pool rooms and house parties. As mentioned before, he hung out with “very aggressive neighborhood youths.” Again, I wonder, were these the Midtowners gang? This would fit the description of a fighting gang. Walter went to public dances as much as he could, not just because he enjoyed a good dance, but because it gave him an opportunity to “kid along with the girls.” Walter’s favorite movies and radio programs were stories about crime and prison. He rarely went to church. When he did go to church he went to Metropolitan Baptist Church, a white stone façade building with polished orange granite columns, stained glass and a roof that pointed towards heaven. The other church Walter attended was the Church of Seven Lights where his uncle was the pastor. But instead of making a regular habit of going to church and learning at his uncle’s knee, Walter preferred to visit brothels. Which he did regularly. Drinking alcohol was a passion and he bragged that he could drink a pint of whiskey in one sitting without becoming drunk. I don’t drink, so I have no idea if this “achievement” is noteworthy.
Walter was a “tall, gangling, simple-minded” teenager with bulging eyes. They tested him and the results said he wasn’t psychotic. However, he was a dull boy with normal intelligence and was an immature teenager – not the first one to exist. Walter was aggressive, anxious and insecure.
In short, Walter was a mess.
In 1946, Walter’s grandmother, aunt, uncle and four children were crammed into a 5 room apartment. Walter slept on a folding cot in the same room as his grandma. Despite his complaints about her ham-disciplines and rejection, surprisingly Walter was still fond of her and spent a lot of time with her. But that relationship wasn’t perfect. One time he had an altercation with his grandmother; apparently he gave a smart ass answer to a question and she hit him in the mouth. He said that he “pulled back” and the grandmother thought he was going to hit her back, so she told him to pack his stuff up and get out. So he ran away and went to Boston of all places, along with a friend. When he came back home, he went to his shoe-shine spot on West 4th Street which is where he met Herbie, the boy who was with him when they robbed the woman in 1946. This was where Herbert’s idea for the both of them to “pull a job” germinated. Walter needed the money and agreed with Herbert’s plan. However, according to Walter, there were too many cops around to pull a job and the locks they tried to jimmy were too hard to open. So, with no job to pull, they mugged the Chinese man instead.
Maybe the reason why Walter felt he needed to “pull a job” was because his own work record as a teenager was rather lacking. He was employed at Western Union from Jul.6, 1948 to Sep.24, 1948 and earned .65 cents an hour. He continually came late to work and then quit. Then he worked for a hat company on East 38th Street just before his arrest on May 20, 1949. He quit the hat company hoping that he could get a job at the Pennsylvania Railroad, which didn’t happen. Other than these two jobs Walter only had odd jobs. But to be fair to Walter, these odd jobs must not be sniffed at. Turns out that Walter worked long nights since he was big enough to go out and sell newspapers or shine shoes. This hurt his academics because he didn’t have as much time to do homework. And when he lived in South Carolina, he spent most of his school years working in the fields. So his own work record was contradictory; he was a hard worker, but not all the time. This is also extremely helpful to understand why he had so many troubles with school.
By the time Teck Joon was returning home early in the morning on that May 20, 1949, it was too late and he would pay for the constant drip of disappointment in Walter’s life. So was Walter remorseful for robbing Teck Joon with a hammer? Well, he admitted his guilt, but denied he was going to use his hammer to strike the victim. But that’s as far as it went, an admission of guilt. The investigator observed Walter showed “little remorse” and that he was shrewd and often tried to cover this up by acting stupid.
Walter was charged with 1st Degree robbery, 1st Degree Grand Larceny, 2nd Degree Assault and CDW (Carrying Dangerous weapon). But, like most crimes, the initial charges were dropped, and on July 27, 1949, Walter plead guilty to 2nd Degree Robbery. His pal Herbie also pleaded guilty to 2nd Degree Robbery.
Walter was sent to an upstate reformatory where he plodded along, neither wowing anybody, but neither causing too much trouble for himself or others. That is, except for one month in July 1950 when he was disciplined for refusing to work, fighting and disorderly conduct. Other than this one bad month, Walter generally got along with everyone and did his time mopping, scrubbing, drying dishes and peeling potatoes. He went to school in the reformatory to improve his arithmetic and spelling. Walter did his time with a yawn and was paroled in November 1951.
Walter didn’t violate parole and from this point on he disappeared from the public record, or at least that I could find. His choices upon leaving reformatory were to live with his grandma or mother. However, both options seem doubtful to me especially since his grandma was suffering from health issues and by the time he got out, they would only be worse. As for his mother, Walter himself knew it wouldn’t work because he didn’t get along with her. Not only that, his mother only visited him once in his entire incarceration. Although, in her defense, the trip was long and arduous from New York City. The best option Walter could take – and what he was interested in doing at first, was to move to St. George, South Carolina where his Uncle Willie and Aunt Corrie Mosley lived. They lived on a farm between St. George and Reedsville, South Carolina. However, after some time, Walter thought that farm work wasn’t for him and maybe he would like to return to NYC if he could get a good job there. He wanted to try tailoring or shoe repair, although he had had no experience in either job. The tailoring option might have worked for Walter because he had “fairy good hand skills.”
I trawled through lists of Walter’s name that matched his birth date to see if a death notice had been registered. Unfortunately I found zilch. I can only hope that when Walter returned to NYC or South Carolina, that he was able to find a well-paying job. He was good with his hands, so maybe he did go into the tailoring industry.
This is the problem with stories from decades ago: finding the whereabouts of the protagonist is tricky. In Walter’s situation I hope he turned his life around, reconciled with his mother and lived to a ripe old age.
Before this story concludes, I will leave the last word to Teck Joon. Being a victim of a violent crime is traumatizing and in his case, losing a week’s wages must have been crippling. I only hope the best for him, and hopefully he found a way to get over the armed robbery and have a normal life.
I hope you enjoyed this vignette, a frozen-in-time moment of the life of a teenager growing up on the hard streets of Harlem. If this story resonates with you, please share with those who you think will appreciate it.
Copyright © 2021 David Van Pelt
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