My first recollection of Middletown, Ohio, where I grew up really began at about four years of age. By that time, my parents had separated. I had an infant baby sister, and I was
living on Baltimore Street with my grandmother and my mother’s younger siblings, Sonny, Ritchie, and Tido, all in their teens.
The house on Baltimore was a large, red brick building. It was a complex, odd-shaped house and that made for lots of places for a kid to play, to hide, and to think on his own. By now, my name had been changed by my mother from Rudalgo Alonzo Adams to Jan Rudalgo Adams. Rudalgo Alonzo, in her opinion, was way too ethnic, and let’s face it, I
wasn’t really Latin, I was pure American.
There were no white kids growing up in our area of Baltimore Street. In fact, Middletown, Ohio, was quite segregated (but we never really knew it, or rather we never gave it any thought). The absence of whites was something we took for granted and frankly, it was all
the attention it ever got from me. I knew they existed but they just weren’t
part of my world, and my world seemed huge. There were fields and wide open
spaces in which to run and play everywhere. It was a young boy’s paradice.
In reality though, Middletown was just a small Midwestern town of approximately twenty thousand people. The largest employer was Armco Steel Corporation and all over town you could see their influence. Everybody worked for them and all the men from our
neighborhood worked in the mill. It must have been hard work because they all
complained about it, and they all came home plenty dirty; their jeans, shirts,
and faces covered with black soot.
The greatest advantage in growing up in Middletown, however, was that
you, but more importantly, all the grown-ups, felt safe. I guess it was a lot like Mayberry in the Andy Griffith Show. Me and the other children who grew up on Baltimore Street would spend hours playing football in the field across the street during the fall and baseball in
that same field during the summer. What I remember most is just being able to
run – free to run and ride my bicycle.
My greatest Christmas as a child was the year I got my first Chuck Taylor Converse All-Star basketball shoes. I was six years old. It was a signal from my mom that I was growing up. I had changed from the nondescript 99¢ sneakers to a real shoe, with a name. I hugged
my mother real hard that Christmas morning. She had done a wonderful thing: she
had made me one of the guys. I now had shoes like the rest of the kids. I was
the youngest of the boys growing up in that neighborhood and those shoes made
me feel as big as the other kids. That Christmas there was a light snow but even that couldn’t hold me back. I bundled myself up, put on my new sneakers, and went outside to run. I had to break them in.
My grandmother, Alice Gates Roberts, was a beautiful and kind woman and what was particularly interesting was that she, along with my grandmother Alberta Hicks, about 12 miles away in Hamilton, Ohio, were the people who really raised me during my early years.
Oddly though, as most black people go, both of them were very light-skinned and could easily have passed for white. I was told my mother had an aunt who actually did. My most vivid memories of growing-up are memories of them.
When you think about it, 18-year-olds, though having the ability to reproduce children, don’t have the ability to rear them. They are still trying to discover who they are. In
America we consider this as dysfunctional, being away from your birth parents a
lot of the time, but I believe that grandparents are in fact more able to take
on that task. They are more patient, they certainly have the wisdom of time,
and more importantly, they are not trying to discover who they are. They are
really trying to share with you who you can be.
My father was gone by that time, which was alright with me, mainly because my only recollection was of him giving me a beating for some offense that was really only in his mind. I think it haunted my mother though. As I got older she, believing that I was somehow harboring some massive amount of anger toward him, always encouraged me to
reach out to him. I considered myself indifferent. I really didn’t have enough
information on him to feel one way or the other. I never thought much of his
absence either because most of the other guys’ dads weren’t around either.
Mothers and Grandmother’s were our source of parental strength. It was all I
ever knew and it was the way, I guess, that I believed it had always been.
That is why the most devastating moment in my young life still rings true as if it happened yesterday. When I was nine, my grandmother, Alice, died of a stroke on the living room sofa. I watched the paramedics trying to revive her. I can still see her mouth
twisting toward the right side of her face and her eyes rolling back in her
head. Everyone was running around the house screaming and crying. I just stared
The person most affected at that time was my mother. My nickname was Trick and I remember her coming to me crying, holding me and saying, “Tricky, what are we going to do without Grandma?”
I didn’t answer her. To this day I’m not sure one was required. I had really no emotion at that time. I just stared at Grandma lying on the couch. I didn’t know what was going on, or how to feel. I really didn’t quite understand that Grandma would be gone and for some reason never coming back. I guess at some level I understood that she would always be with me. It was 1963.
The time after my Grandma’s death was dark and lonely for me, but mostly vague. I spent more and more time alone, and books became my companions. I’d sit in a hidden corner in that old house and allow my imagination to run wild. It was also at that time that I began to psychologically become two different people. Perhaps it is symbolic of my name
change. On the one hand, I was that quiet, mannerly, sweet, loving child who
spent time with his grandmothers, and yet, after my grandma’s death I became
isolated (and extremely protective of the child in me). And so, in a sense,
there was Jan, the sweet little kid, and Jan the protector, the strong, wise,
defender who was mature beyond his years and would protect that young boy at all cost.
It is also at about this time that I began spending more time with my paternal grandmother, Alberta Hicks. I spent all of my summers with her. She had remarried and had three children –Tony, Patricia, and Paula – who were all much older than me. I don’t really remember a lot of time with them. They had their own discoveries to make, and a
little kid was just in the way.
My grandmother, Alberta, became my confidant and my teacher. My mornings would start with her at the kitchen table eating fried potato pancakes and collard greens. That by far was my favorite meal and I would have eaten that three times a day without any complaints if she would have let me.
After breakfast my Grandma and I walked the half block down the street to the “Rib Shack” (really the Southside Dry Cleaners), a combination dry cleaner and convenience store my grandparents owned. My grandmother pressed clothes on the dry cleaners side of the store. I wasn’t allowed over there. She didn’t want me near the steam presses.
My job was to run the convenience store, which consisted of counting change and eating
as much candy as I could before lunch time. As I got older the trips to
Hamilton, became less and less until finally they stopped. My attention turned
to sports and my summers were for knothole baseball. At fourteen I played
pitcher and third base and batted clean-up. On the days when I was not playing,
I worked as an umpire for the smaller kids at $1:25 per hour.
My most tender moment with my Grandma Alberta occurred a few years later. She was getting older and I was now off to college. I had come home for summer break. (During those times, I always made two trips. The first was to Woodside Cemetery to see my
maternal grandmother, Alice Gates Roberts, and tell her how I was doing. I’d
wind through the roads of Woodside Cemetery and park in front of her grave, and
just get out and talk. It was a peaceful time for me, and it helped me get a
lot of things out that I needed to get out. I wasn’t good at sharing the things
I was feeling; so I saved them up and talked with Grandma about them. I would then get back into the car and continue south to Hamilton, Ohio, to see Alberta
On this occasion, she was in a very talkative mood and explained to me
how she had grown up in Bethel, Ohio, a member of the only black family in town.
By now Grandma was in her nineties. Her most vivid remembrance was that of
graduation from high school. None of the white kids would walk across the stage
to receive diplomas with her. Finally a Jewish girl consented to do it. This
Jewish girl, of course, was from the only Jewish family in Bethel. What was interesting
to hear was that at 18 years of age, the only thing my grandmother wanted to do
was move away from Bethel. She didn’t talk of a career. She didn’t speak of
wanting a family. She just wanted to get away from Bethel, and she did.