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Summer Reading: New Books With a Jersey Connection -- 'A Chance to Win'

The Masons were among the first black families to live in Zion Towers, and they weren’t exactly welcomed. Soon after they moved in, Clara stepped into an elevator and started riding it down with an older white woman who sneered, “I’m going back up and calling Rabbi Klein, because he told me when I moved in there wasn’t going to be any blacks coming in here.”

“You got something against blacks?” Clara asked.

“Yes,” the woman said. “They have too many babies.”

The rabbi often stopped by to inspect Clara’s apartment—more often than he did her neighbors’. After looking around, he’d say, “Miss Mason, I am so proud. You have all these kids and your apartment is spotless.” She thanked him, but she wanted to say, What do you think, that all black people are dirty? After that, Clara was afraid to let her kids play in the hallways for fear that she would get kicked out. But years later, she would recall the inspections fondly; they reminded her of a time when people cared enough to keep the neighborhood clean.

Clara made a decent living, but she developed excruciating ulcers that doctors blamed on stress. An ill-advised surgery removed parts of her stomach, but she remained in chronic pain and was unable to eat much. She was forced to quit her job and go on disability, but her government checks barely covered rent and groceries. Clara’s three oldest children moved out of the house, leaving only Rodney and Darlene.

Rodney, the baby, was a quiet, pensive boy. He kept to himself and did not give his mother much grief. If he did something wrong, all she had to do was flash him a stern look and he would burst into tears. He grew up tall, slender, and bowlegged, prone to long bouts of silence and a habit of biting his nails. He was obsessively hygienic; he refused to wear anything stained and took long showers that often made his sister late for school.

When Rodney was six, Clara showed him a photograph and pointed to a man she said was his father. He was thin, light skinned, with a mustache, and was laughing. Rodney wanted to ask Clara why that man was so happy, but before he got a chance, she took the photograph back and put it away. Rodney never saw it again, and his father remained a fuzzy snapshot of a memory. He was rarely spoken of at home; Clara only acknowledged her husband when someone else brought him up, and then she quickly changed the subject. If Rodney asked her about him, she would reach for a cigarette, light it, and shoot him a look that said, Boy, why are you bugging me with this?

But his curiosity grew. The other boys at Peshine Avenue School talked about their fathers all the time, and when he went to their houses to play, the men were always around. Rodney wanted what they had. “What was my father like?” he asked his oldest sister, Pam. “Did he look like me?” She replied brusquely. “Rodney, he was your father. Him and Mommy used to get into it, but he was a good father, and he died.” For years, that was about all anyone would tell him: that James was a drunk, that he beat his mother, and that he passed away when they were young. He learned to live with the unanswered questions but told himself he’d ask his mother about it again someday, when he was older.

Rodney spent most of his childhood outside, playing sports. Each building, and block, had its own baseball, football, and basketball teams and challenged each other to games in a section of the park they called “the battlefield.” Rodney became one of the neighborhood’s biggest and best athletes, and Clara signed him up for the South Ward Little League. He loved the regimen—the daily practices, the repetitive drills, the cookouts and parades, the adult men who seemed to care so much about helping him do well. He wore his first uniform—white polyester pants, candy-striped stirrup socks, tight powder-gray T-shirt with Braves in burgundy across the chest—to school on the day before his first game in spring 1976. He became a star pitcher and fantasized about making it big and coming back to visit the neighborhood, kids chasing after him like he was Muhammad Ali. With his success on the field came an aura of cool that attracted the affections of girls and the envy of boys. Many of the younger kids started calling him Brown Hornet—after the superhero in the Fat Albert cartoon series—because of his long face and stiff voice.

At home, Clara had increasing difficulty keeping the kids fed. They ate whatever was in the cupboard, which was sometimes just a can of beans, or cereal, or syrup sandwiches. Their neighbors saw what was happening and tried to help. One woman across the hall would go food shopping for them; others invited them over for dinner. Rodney didn’t like having to depend on others. He felt a growing desire to change things. Lying in bed with his stomach growling, Rodney would tell himself, I can’t go another night like this.

In the summer of 1981, when Rodney turned fourteen and was preparing to enter his freshman year at Malcolm X. Shabazz High School, he approached a man who sold joints in his building. Rodney asked if he could help out, and the man agreed, apparently figuring that he would make more money in the long run with an apprentice. He gave Rodney 100 joints, which Rodney sold for a dollar apiece, and took home $30 or $40. Soon, Rodney was selling 250 joints a day and pocketing $100. The money opened up his life, giving him not just the cash to join other kids at the pinball machines and hot dog joints, but also to buy groceries. He didn’t tell Clara where the money came from, and Clara chose not to ask.

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