Frank Gunn & Willie Mae Smith
Having grown up in downtown New Haven and spending summers in an amusement park didn’t give me much time in the Henry Street neighborhood I was born in.
When I was home, the friends I made in my neighborhood were as diverse as the downtown New Haven street people. My friends were usually older than myself.
I’m sure I took refuge from my brother, his friends and my mother, with an array of the neighborhood predictable residents.
Mrs. Powell was an older black woman who owned the house next door and lived in the basement. She would feed her army of chickens in the front and back yards. On the 2nd floor were her tenants, two of my favorite people- Frank Gunn and Willie Mae Smith. Frank Gunn was a big black man who would don a fashionable straw hat in the summer, loud flashy shirts and white or peach pants, with white buck shoes. He was dapper. He had gold and silver initialed rings on 3 or 4 fingers and gold id bracelets hanging off his wrist. and smelled sweetly of Old Spice cologne and after shave. I can still remember the singing commercial, “Old Spice means quality says the captain to the boatman; ask for the package with the ship that sails the ocean”.
I was crazy about Frank Gunn. He was sharp. He drove a big black Cadillac that took up two parking spaces (which was a real no-no- you were only supposed to park “in front of your house”). But no one dared mention this to Frank Gunn. Frank Gunn the neighbors said was a bookie.
Frank Gunn’s Cadillac had white foam dice hanging from the rear view mirror, rich red leather upholstery, and Venetian blinds in the back window.
I don’t know what Frank spent more time polishing, the chrome spoke wheels or the Cadillac itself. It was absolutely pristine.
Frank Gunn lived with Willie Mae Smith. Willie Mae was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, she was tall with cocoa brown skin, and wore the brightest red lipstick. Her smile was radiant. Willie Mae was stunning. Willie Mae was important. She was the only black woman around that owned her own beauty salon.
I wasn’t sure of the arrangement, but every summer for 1 month, Willie Mae’s sons, Bunny and Mickey came from North Carolina to stay with her and Frank. Bunny and Mickey were 12 and 14. I was 8.
Bunny and Mickey were always well dressed, wearing short sleeve plaid shirts and khakis. It was difficult to tell them apart. Both were tall with long strides and their slow southern drawls made them almost twin-like,
I became close to Mickey and Bunny. Their politeness with, “yes ma’am and no ma’am to any adult was charming. They treated me like a little sister. Bunny and Mickey would spend most of the day in their house reading books for their summer school projects. They were disciplined and Willie Mae was very strict with them.
After their assignments were over, they would gently knock on the front basement door of my house and ask my mother if they could please walk with me to Kane’s drugstore for a soda or ice cream. I was the old timer in the neighborhood and even though I was 8, I knew my way around.
I also knew the looks we got walking down the street. It was in the late 1950’s when racism began to rear its ugly head in our neighborhood. Some neighbors would actually ask my mother what I was doing with “those 2 black boys”. Thankfully, she either didn’t care, or knew they were safe. I’m not sure which.
I would walk down the street walk in the middle of them, feeling protected and special. The three of us were outsiders in our own ways.
No one came near us or bothered us. We would talk about books, Superman (my favorite to this day) and the movies.
Once I even got to go to the drive in Frank Gunn’s Cadillac with him, Willie Mae, Bunny and Mickey.
Their summer stay was short but they would both write cards in the winter.
I don’t know what ever became of Bunny or Mickey. Frank Gunn and Willie Mae ended up buying a house in the suburbs and we never kept in touch.
In 1986 I did my last photography exhibit. I went back to Henry Street, knocked on the door of the house I grew up in and asked if I could take photographs.I explained I had lived there and just wanted to go back.
This was a fairly dangerous thing to do. It was not the safest neighborhood, but I wasn’t scared. I was treated with the utmost respect and taken to all the other row houses and introduced to the occupants there.
All the kind memories I have of growing up have nothing to do with my immediate family.
Maybe that’s when I realized that the family of choice would be the best and only choice for me.