The Fence on Madison Street

by

09/05/2021

Neighborhood: Williamsburg

On a blistering August afternoon in 2012, I visit my childhood neighborhood in Williamsburg after a 50-year absence and approach a teenage girl who sits on a wooden shipping crate in the front of a house on Madison Street. 

I’m standing in front of a wrought iron fence that forms a boundary between us. She tells me that her name is Janetta. I ask if Priscilla still lives in this house.

Priscilla was my best friend when I was seven years old and Priscilla was nine. Our bond was sealed on a cold, dark Halloween night. I was straggling home and biting into a slice of bologna with one hand and holding on tight to a bag of goodies with the other hand after trick-or-treating.

It was getting dark, but my mom, knowing how much I liked to hear the thump, roar and squeal of the train as it went by, let me stay on the corner of Broadway and wait for the train to pass by. She walked down our street and stood in the front of our house to keep an eye on me. The train thundered past and, as I turned from Broadway to walk down Madison Street to my house, I heard my mother hollering to me, “Come here, Florie, hurry up.” I hesitated as I hadn’t finished the two-slice-layer of deli meat that Tony the butcher had given me as a Halloween treat.

Standing next to my mother was a dark-skinned girl I didn’t recognize. As I approached, Mom said, “I want you to meet Priscilla.” Then she asked me to open my trick or treat  bag and give my treats to Priscilla. That upset me and even after my mom later explained, I still didn’t understand why only two families had opened their doors to give Priscilla a treat.

Between sips Janetta tells me that Priscilla has moved to another house. I notice that Janetta is wearing bright lime-green crew socks with her name printed on them and remember that Priscilla wore bright colored socks every day of the week. Lime green, neon yellow, orange, and a bright pink on Sundays. I tell Janetta that I used to live in the house next to hers. I point. 

She stares at me for a moment and then replies, “I know.” It is now my turn to stare.

She tells me a story.

“When I was younger, growing up on this street, whenever I’d leave the house and go out to play, my grandmother warned me to stay away from the black iron fence along the sidewalk.”

In the neighborhood, the block-long shiny black wrought-iron fence separated the homes from the sidewalk. That fence with its ornate upright wrought-iron leaves was a familiar fixture and it remains indelibly present in my memory.

Janetta continues, “Grandma Priscilla would grab hold of me by my shoulders, look me in the eyes and warn me: “Child, you must never lean on that fence, never reach your hands between those bars, never touch that leaf. Never play anywhere near it. Do you hear me? Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

Janetta then tells me a story that was told to her by Grandma Priscilla. She says it’s a story that circulated around the neighborhood and one that became community lore, offering wisdom to children across the generations about safety and good sense. Grandma Pricilla would recite, “There once was a stubborn child who lived on the block, who lived next door, when there used to be a fine house to live in. She got pushed into the fence and got hurt real bad.” Janetta turns to me and says, “When I saw your scar, I knew it was you that Grandma was talking about.”

My home was a “fine” three-story-row house with pale green siding. Each floor was a one family apartment with bedroom in the front, living room and dining room in the middle, and a kitchen in the back with a large laundry chute. We lived on the second floor and the kitchen window opened to a fire escape. 

During riots that took place in the 1960’s, this fine house was burned to the ground. A two-story, modern building now stood in its place. But the fence was still there.

The “story” Janetta was told happened when I was ten years old. I had received a Schwinn bicycle for Christmas. My parents were not home. Against all warnings, I took my new bike outside on my own. I rode near the fence so that I could grab hold of its bars when I lost my balance and tipped to the side. The fence could keep me upright.

Two teenage boys, one white and one black, ran down the street. I later learned that they had been fighting while standing on the El platform (now the J train). One tried to push the other into the oncoming train and failed. Angry and full of adrenaline, one boy then chased the other down the steps from the elevated train and on to Madison Street to the place where I was riding my bike. I became a shield; one boy grabbed the handlebars and the other reached around my back trying to hit the other.

At some point, the boy holding my handlebar turned to run away at the same time the other boy behind me moved to my side. The force of the two boys circling the bike tipped it sideways toward the fence. While trying to save myself from a fall, my arm went through and was impaled on the wrought iron leaf that adorned the fence.

A young woman walking down the street saw me tangled between the bike and the fence, ran to me, and removed my arm from the wrought-iron leaf. Flesh was torn amid a bundle of bones that remained unbroken and intact but visible. My bicep was hanging outside the arm. Blood was everywhere.

During the commotion, Priscilla’s mother kept her in the house until the trouble was over. Later, when I came home from the hospital and spun my legs around to get out of the car and onto Madison Street, Priscilla came out to meet me and walked next to me as my bodyguard. She protected me against kids running and playing and bikers racing down the street and kept them from bumping into me.

Weeks later, when the thirteen stitches were taken out and the bandage was removed, Priscilla was the first one to see the damage. “They call them blanket stitches,” I told her as we looked frightfully at the three-inch scar, a pinkish white raised line with dots on both sides.

Janetta stares at my arm which, if truth be told, is not nearly as decorative as her tattoo.

What I remember most clearly and viscerally from that time is not boys I knew who were killed in gang activity, physical abuse, or seeing someone get shot. It’s not the property destruction and graffiti or waking up to broken windshields on every car parked on the street. And it’s not teenagers stealing cigarettes and alcohol from the grocery store. What I remember, condensed into one spontaneous moment, was the shock of having experienced violence for the first time. 

It wasn’t until years later, that I learned to be concerned about the safety of others outside my immediate family. Only then did I awaken to the realities of my own ignorance about others who lived on Madison Street and faced suffering every day.

***

Flo Gelo was born in Brooklyn, where she lived until her early teens. She’s published numerous articles in professional literature about illness, death and dying. This story is one in a series about her life on Madison Street.

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