Lawrence – My Hometown
By Richard E. Noble
Jasper Smith was the only black kid I ever knew growing up in Lawrence. Willie Laird has recently informed me that he was a Hispanic – I guess he still is. Willie’s mother was supposedly the first Hispanic woman in Lawrence, arriving sometime in the 40’s. I knew Willie’s mother spoke a foreign language but so did my grandmother. Most of my buddies had a parent or grandparent who spoke some “jibber-jabber” also – who cared.
We had no black problem in Lawrence when I was growing up, nor did we have a Hispanic problem. We really didn’t have any racial or ethnic problems – not us kids anyway. For our parents, it was not so easy.
Though my Polack mother would never acknowledge it, my Irish father was shut off from his siblings because of his marriage choice.
I met Jasper at the St. Rita’s school yard basketball court. It was very dark. The streetlight in front of Plonowski’s Funeral Parlor was out. It was so dark that I was only shooting lay-ups. I saw a kid walking through the school yard from Arlington St. He was silhouetted by the streetlight on the corner of Arlington and Hampshire. With the light at his back, all I saw was a figure. When he got to the court he asked if I wanted to play a little one on one. I said sure and tossed him the ball. As he dribbled the ball with his back to me, I noticed that he had funny hair. When he spun around to take a jump shot, I saw he was black. This was the closest that I had ever been to a black person in my life. I was in the sixth or seventh grade. I was eleven or twelve years old. That would make the year 1954 or 1955. The modern day Black Civil Rights Movement was just getting started. I had seen black people on TV but never had I seen one up close and personal.
It turned out that Jasper lived at the end of Arlington St. towards Broadway. Since I lived on Chelmsford St. we walked home together. We passed my pro-model Voit basketball back and forth and dribbled up the center of Arlington St. The Voit basketball had that hard leather sound when it hit the pavement. I didn’t like the balls that had that spongy rubber sound – very unprofessional.
It was dark with a streetlight working here and there. Kids often threw rocks at the dangling, streetlight bulbs putting them out of commission. When they were busted they buzzed like a giant cricket. The city finally caught on and covered the bulbs with a difficult to break, hard, glass dome cover.
There were no cars and no people on the street. It was after 9 o’clock – it was late. My new buddy told me on our walk home that his name was John Smith but that everybody called him Jasper.
I remember being very curious. Every time we got under a streetlight that was working I took a closer look. I can still remember how fascinated I was to see a person whose skin was actually black – I mean black, not brown or tanned or olive. Jasper had dark black skin. It was shocking to me. I could hardly believe it. I don’t know why I felt this way but I remember these feelings distinctly. It was kinda like discovering that Frankie Squires had six toes or Nancy Sullivan had an extra “baby” finger.
The next day when I went to school, the nun gave us a serious speech. None of the other kids knew what she was talking about but I knew right off.
She spoke of “different” types of people and how all people are to be treated equal. She was very serious and it was clear that she was nervous. Specifically, she mentioned that we would be having a new kid in our class and this kid would be “different” from the rest of us and that we should treat her with kindness and respect. The little black girl in my class was Jasper’s younger sister. I don’t remember her name. Jasper was a grade or two above me.
Jasper’s sister stayed at our school only a day or two – I think she felt smothered. All the other girls doted on her as if she were a celebrity. Jasper loved the attention so he hung in at St. Rita’s. Everybody wanted to be Jasper’s friend. He had a party.
He played on the grammar school basketball league as we all did. What I remember most was his underwear. He didn’t wear jockey shorts. He wore similar type shorts but they were longer. When he ran around on the court his underwear would slip down below his uniform trunks. Nobody else in the entire league had an underwear problem like Jasper’s. But nobody said anything. Everybody noticed, but nobody said a word. Jasper was the toast of our little white kiddy world – and he loved it.
He hung out at Nell’s with us on the Corner. Whenever the cops would come and start taking names and Jasper told them that his name was John Smith they would get extremely upset. The rest of us would always come to Jasper’s defense. “He ain’t lyin’. That’s his name, John Smith. And he never met Pocahontas either.”
On occasion the cops wouldn’t believe us and they would take Jasper over and throw him into the back of the cruiser. But while they continued taking our names one of us would always sneak over to the cruiser and “bust” Jasper out. Jasper would take off running and they could never catch him. After a few months most of the cops accepted “John Smith” as legitimate and went along with their usual and customary intimidations.
He would come over to my house and play basketball in my back yard with the rest of us from St. Rita’s Pintos, Ponies or Mustangs. My uncle Ray had set up a basket on the top of the garages behind our tenement. We would open the garage doors under the basket so that we could drive in for lay-ups. My uncle didn’t always have all the garages rented out, so that stall was usually empty. I will never forget the expressions on my relatives’ faces the first time they saw Jasper playing in their back yard. To say the least he stuck out like a chocolate in a bowl of marshmallows.
Jasper was also a boxer and everybody seemed to know him. A bunch of us were walking home from the boy’s club across from the Common on Haverhill St. one night and as we passed the St. Mary’s auditorium just before Hampshire St. a man came popping out the door. There was a special event going on. This man called to Jasper.
“Hey, Jasper, you are just the guy I’m looking for. One of my fighters didn’t show up. How about you filling in for me?”
The rest of us didn’t know what was going on. He was asking Jasper to fight in the Silver Mittens or some such thing. Jasper really wasn’t interested, but we all went nuts.
Because we got Jasper to volunteer for this guy, the man let us all in for free to watch the fights. This was the first “professional” boxing match that I had ever seen.
Jasper won on a unanimous decision and we all cheered like crazy. His opponent was really terrible. He danced around the ring for the entire first round and Jasper had to chase him all over. Finally Jasper caught him with a good one. The other kid got totally offended. He put his boxing mitts onto his hips, stood with his shoulders back and his chin jutting out and said, “Oh, you want to fight huh?” Everyone in the audience turned and looked at one another and then burst out laughing. But from that moment on he was chopped meat. He dispensed with all he had learned and began running into Jasper with his arms flailing. Jasper stayed cool and boxed the hell out of him.
Jasper eventually moved out of Lawrence and went to Lowell or Haverhill. He was still just a teenager when he got killed in a terrible car accident. He was messed up so badly his parents kept the casket closed.
The funeral parlor was filled with white and black people. Jasper had as many white friends as he had black buddies. He was a super friendly kid. He was only a snapshot in my life but his brief appearance remains bright and clear in my reverie to this day – and we are talking over 50 years past. He was certainly more than a pair of drooping underwear. We did many things together and shared many laughs. He laughed constantly.
After the first encounter at St. Rita’s I don’t ever remember thinking about his black skin in the same way. It didn’t go away or rub off, but all in all he was just like the rest of us in Lawrence – all the same yet all quite different.
Richard Edward Noble is a freelance writer and columnist. His local column, the Eastpointer, won the first place 2007 humor award from the Florida Press Association. He has published several books. All of his books can be viewed and purchased on Amazon.com. Contact Noble Publishing for bookstore discounts and volume sales at firstname.lastname@example.org.