Imagine you’re a kid living in public housing on New York’s Lower East Side. You’re playing baseball in Tompkins Square Park and you let a new kid into the game. Afterwards, the kid—Ripton—invites you back to his apartment, which turns out to be in a doorman building where he lives with his parents and his younger brother, Morgan. His parents let you keep coming around and eventually you move in. They give you money, sometimes they give you a hard time, they help you get through school and get started in life. They become your mother and father, their sons become your brothers, you’re all a family. Then imagine you’re not one kid, but five.
That’s the story of What Else But Home: Seven Boys and an American Journey Between the Projects and the Penthouse, a memoir by Michael Rosen C’81 WG’81 Gr’84 G’89, which tells the story of how he and his wife Leslie Gruss C’79 came to raise their “accidental family.” The story may sound like a fairy tale, but in Rosen’s telling it’s far from saccharine—more Dirty Dozen than Sound of Music—as the following excerpt makes clear.
“Try the eggplant,” I said. “We like it.”
“That looks nastEE,” Philippe said. The other bigger boys and Ripton agreed. “YO!” Philippe yelled and waved to the waiter across the room.
“Phil,” Leslie hissed.
“Sorry, sorry Leslie, sorry Mike,” Phil said. “I forgot.”
“What do you need?” I asked.
“The wontons didn’t come,”
“Yo Mike, why’s it a ‘lazy Susan’?” Carlos asked, spinning the plate.
I remembered the first time I ate charcoal-grilled steak, more than my parents could afford, gathered beside a family friend’s pool where we’d spend afternoons and evenings, the meat cut into bitesize pieces for us kids and put on the lazy Susan with summer ears of corn. That was the year JFK was murdered. “Like a mother who doesn’t want to walk around the table serving everyone. Spinning the food is easier,” I said.
“That’s lazy, dogs,” Phil said.
“It’s sexist, only the mother cooks and she’s ‘lazy’ if she doesn’t walk around the table serving,” I said.
“That’s how it is. I ain’t cookin, that’s wifey’s job,” Phil said.
“My mom doesn’t serve. She watches TV wif Jose and drinks beer. She’s not goin out of the house, since we got here,” Carlos said.
“It’s hard, son,” Juan said.
“In our house, Michael cooks, you see him.”
“My mom doesn’t know how to cook,” Ripton said.
“For real?” Will asked.
“We had maids, I never really learned,” Leslie explained evenly.
“Was they Spanish?” Carlos asked, all the boys watching for her answer.
“Sort of. When I was young, they were Brazilian, because my mother came from there,” Leslie answered.
“So you’re Spanish, sort of?” Phil asked.
The boys were rapt.
“My grandmother was in the Holocaust. My grandfather, too,” Ripton said.
“He was in the Battle of the Bulge,” Morgan said. Morgan liked armies.
“What’s the halacast?” Phil asked.
None of the other boys seemed to know.
“That was killing Jews, in World War Two, rah?” Juan finally said.
“Yup,” Leslie answered.
“And Gypsies, gays, intellectuals, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses—”
“Damn? Catholics?” Phil stopped me.
“But most Jews,” Ripton said.
“Your mother was in that?” Carlos asked. “That Holocaust?”
“That’s Oh-Dee,” Will said.
“How many niggas they killed?”
“Six million.” Ripton knew from the Heschel School.
“Jews, and almost as many others, five million,” I said.
“Yo Mike, that true?” Carlos asked.
“It is,” I said.
“Like eleven million people?” Juan asked. “Mike, how many people we got in New York?”
“Eight, I think, eight and a half million.”
“So that’s, like … more than New York,” Carlos figured. “Every person.”
“All of New York, then almost half of it again,” I said.
“After the war, my mother and her family went to Brazil.”
“But Leslie, I been thinking, why don’t your moms cook?” Carlos asked.
“Nigga, they rich, that why. You rich, you don’t gotta cook,” Phil said.
“She does know how, sometimes she did,” Leslie answered. “But the maids really cook.”
“They do, it’s Oh-Dee,” Ripton said. “In white dresses and my grandmother rings a bell.”
“For real?” Will asked.
The four of us said it was.
“My moms knows how,” Carlos said. “In the Bronx, before, she makes the best arroz con gandules, chicken with adobo and sofrito, not these vegetables,” nodding towards the mixed vegetables, “and that, what’s that—it’s nasty,” pointing to the eggplant.
“Eggplant,” I said.
“Only White people eat that,”
“It’s Chinese, Carlos. We’re in a Chinese restaurant,” I said.
“Yeah, genius,” Ripton chided.
“Yous stupid, Carlos. But that stuff does look nastEE,” Will laughed. “Carlos is right, gotta say that.”
“Ching chang chong,” Phil burst out.
“Phil, stop it,” I said, dismayed.
“Ting teng tong,” Phil laughed and the boys with him.
“Ching chang chong,” Ripton
“Sshh! Stop, it’s racist,” I whispered, embarrassed and angry.
“Sshh! Stop, it’s racist,” Ripton repeated, smiling to his buddies in abandon, his gums glistening.
I leaned over the table towards the boys. “I won’t allow it—not making fun of anyone else,” I hissed, loudly enough for our table and probably others to hear. “These people work hard, harder than you can imagine, they’re trying to make a living, not sitting in an apartment collecting government handouts.”
The teasing stopped.
“My dad loves Chinese people,” Ripton said.
Mr. Liu brought a dozen orange wedges and fortune cookies and placed the bill beside me with only the thinnest façade of a welcoming smile. “Could I have some more tea?” Leslie asked him. Ripton and the bigger boys refused the oranges, crushed the cookies and read their fortunes. A waiter came and poured tea. Leslie ripped open and emptied four packets of sugar into the small cup, spraying white granules onto the stained tablecloth as her hand trembled, stirring the bottom with a chopstick.
“Yo Mike, what does this mean?” Carlos held his fortune in front of me, pointing to “suitably.” “Your talents will be recognized and suitably rewarded.”
“In a way that fits, like, if your baseball talent is really good, people will recognize that, and recruit you. Being recruited ‘suits’ good talent. Does that make sense?”
“NiggaMike,” Carlos shook his head.
“Does it make sense?”
“Well, yeah, but I’m not sure about ‘suitably.’”
“Ya wanna go outside?” Ripton asked the bigger boys. “Can we go?” he asked us.
“Sure,” Leslie answered.
“But stay on this block, near the restaurant,” I said.
There was one fortune cookie left—Leslie and I agreed to share it. I counted the cash for our bill. They hurried out and Leslie showed me our fortune—“Love is like paint, it makes things beautiful when you spread it, but it will dry up if you don’t use it.”
“Excuse me,” a man nearby called over. He was in his midfifties, roundish with thinning white hair moussed back. “Excuse me, but are you with Big Brother, or Fresh Air, or some program?” He was wearing a long-sleeved, blue-and-white-striped button-down shirt. He and his wife, white haired also, were comfortably tanned. “I hope we weren’t making too much noise,” I said, but of course we were.
“No, not at all,” he said smiling, and his wife the same. “Are you counselors?”
“We’re just friends—our sons and their friends,” I said.
“Oh, how nice. Bless you,” the woman said, drinking plum wine.
“Mr. Rosen, so many boys?” Mr. Liu held my hand again by his stool.
“I’m sorry we were loud,” I answered in English.
“They’re boys,” he said. “But so loud.”
Leslie and I looked left and right when we got outside and the boys weren’t there. Truck transmissions and air brakes screeched as long haul and short riders slowed to the red light on the Manhattan Bridge exit in front of Grand Sichuan. I couldn’t hear but saw our boys playing tag on the raised island between the crowded feeder street in front of us and the main stream of traffic coming off the bridge beneath the triumphal arch and colonnade at its footing, Paris and Rome, an ignored treasure by the architects who planned our Forty-second Street public library. “Let’s go,” I yelled to the boys, who weren’t supposed to be on the other side of the street and couldn’t hear me, running beneath the bas-relief of four Plains Indians at full gallop, bows drawn and arrows flying, one buffalo falling, one calf helpless beside her, others fleeing terrified. Buffalo and lion heads, swords and shields, the bows and keels of galleons in low relief lined the sides of the arch. The boys were standing and looking when I got to them. A half-naked Indian woman stood beside a half-naked pioneer boy halfway down the column. “Yo Mike, you see?”
Carlos pointed and smiled, a bit bashful and a bit brazen, only us guys. The boys smiled, watched me, pointing to a matching couple on the other side of the arch, different symbols, the same breasts and nipples.
“What you think?” Phil smiled. “Are these decent?”
“They’re art, women have breasts,” I answered. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“But Mike, Iiiii …” hesitating. “Would you like to see your sister up there?” Will asked.
“Dad doesn’t have a sister,” Ripton said.
“Or—some woman in your family?” Phil asked. “With nipples, that’s decent? I don’t like to see that, not wif my family.”
“It’s art. That’s art.”
“That dude’s brolic, that’s all I got ta say,” Juan said of the winged man, chiseled. “What’s that, up there?” he waved at the arch and colonnade.
“Suckup, you lookin at the girl,” Phil said to Juan.
“I don’t know, I’ve never been here,” I said.
“You never been here, you?” Phil asked.
“It’s a bridge, genius,” Carlos jabbed.
“It’s beautiful, but I’ve never seen it. We’ll look this up when we get home.”
“That’s okay,” Phil answered.
“Let’s go, Leslie’s waiting,” I said.
Ripton started looking for a cab when we got to the other side of the street.
“Let’s get ice cream,” Leslie called Ripton back from the street and the boys together on the sidewalk.
“Where?” Ripton asked.
“Ben and Jerry’s,” she answered—nearer our home, on Third Avenue.
“Let’s take cabs,” Ripton argued.
“Let’s walk,” I answered.
“Cabs,” Ripton insisted.
Will went to Ripton. “Listen to your dads, it’s not far,” he said.
Twenty minutes later, walking into the ice cream store, lining up between the ropes, I was acutely aware of how un-White we were, the only Spanish and Black people in Ben & Jerry’s. This place of friendly Holstein cowherds, shining stainless steel countertops, childlike graphics and eccentric ice creams named for an assortment of chic middle-class concerns wasn’t made for inner-city people without money means. Wholesome college-age boys and girls with the gleam of limitless possibilities smiled and said hello, asked what we wanted, scooped, sprinkled and poured for us. Customers glanced at us, courteous in looking away and back to their conversations when I made eye contact, except for one man in one couple. He gaped. The boys joked and poked. “He keeps lookin,” Carlos said in a gentle voice, licking his double-scoop Chocolate Fudge Brownie in a sugar cone.
“We’re unusual,” I said.
“Now you see,” Carlos said.
“What it’s like.”
From What Else But Home: Seven Boys and an American Journey Between the Projects and the Penthouse, by Michael Rosen. Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.