Wisdom (Stock)

“I am disappointed in you.” “Do you not recognize the impact that old men had in molding the lives of little boys and girls in the past?” “How could you have ignored them?”

These are just some of the comments I received from readers of my Aug. 25, 2019 column where the focus was on those old ladies from our neighborhoods that forced my generation to travel down that “straight and narrow road,” back in the day.

I could not forget the older men of our neighborhoods of the past. Their images are still vivid as I see them on a street corner or on a vacant lot playing checkers from early morning until the late afternoon. These were regular checkers players that showed up at the same time and occupied the same space.

You might recall how one checker player was always deemed the champion; the one that everyone wanted to beat. Others, during their turn, tried to dethrone him. I can still see these men, with great intensity visible on their faces, determined to be victorious. Usually, the players sat on folding chairs. The spectators sat on crates. The regulars always brought their favorite crates with them with a pillow stuffed inside. The pillow ensured their comfort as they sat for hours observing the game and engaging in conversations.

Young folk, back in the day, would watch them with admiration and respect. Never did we hear profanity and arguments were virtually non-existent. Little bets, of no more than a nickel or a dime, were the closest these old men came to gambling. These men were special; we looked up to them. They were a part of the fabric of our neighborhoods and our families accepted them as characters who had a positive influence on the youngsters in the neighborhood.

If you were around during the mid to late ‘50s, I suspect that you saw them with their wrinkled faces and arthritic hands. These men were always clean and neatly dressed with their pants often held up with suspenders and a belt.

So, where are these men today? Unfortunately, they are no longer around and the wisdom that they bestowed on little boys and little girls can no longer be realized. If it was not the corner or a vacant lot, it may have been barbershops, park benches, churches, porches, backyards and homes where old men gave advice and guidance to make young men strong, solid and wise old men of the future.

Understanding the role that older men played in our neighborhoods of the past represents a major reason why some of our little boys today fail to become responsible grown men. The things we learned, the things we did and the things we observed are just part of a forgotten history from back in the day.

In reflecting on the old men of our neighborhoods of the past, I recall that some men would not go outside unless they were dressed in shirt and tie. This was truly, a back in the day practice. Some would sit on the porch or on the front stoop dressed in this manner. Some would just walk around the streets, going nowhere in particular, wearing a shirt and tie.

You may recall visiting relatives or friends of the family in the past, and the older men of the household would be dressed in a shirt and tie, even though they had no intention of leaving their home. I can still see one of my older neighbors outdoors working in his yard, wearing a shirt and tie. While a shirt and tie may appear to be totally out of character for working in the yard, this neighbor went a step further by wearing a white shirt.

Do you remember older men wearing suspenders along with a belt? Was this a sign of insecurity or was it a fashion statement? Older men were known for wearing hats. Today, whenever I see an older man tip his hat to a woman, my mind immediately goes back in time as this was the custom as well as the expectation.

Older men also took great pride in having a shiny pair of shoes. I have a bad habit today, adopted from our shiny shoe-wearing fathers and grandfathers, of using my handkerchief to wipe off my shoes. This was a popular thing for older men to do, back in the day.

Speaking of handkerchiefs, ask the next male with whom you come into contact if they are carrying one. In the vast majority of the cases, I suspect that the answer would be no. Back in the day, however, almost every older man carried a handkerchief. It was carried not only to clean one’s nose but as a fashion statement when it hung out of their suit jacket pocket.

Yes, our forefathers made it a point to be “clean” back in the day as they believed that what a man was had a lot to do with how a man looked. My father would constantly remind me “to look the part.” I remember and embrace my father’s words to this day. Given the current dress of our young people, I believe there is a need to package this characteristic from our bygone years and pass it on to our youth today. I am certain that you will agree that it could pay major dividends for the future growth and development of our young people.

Older men sat on all sorts of benches, chairs, stools, boxes and crates when they gathered to tell stories when they were not playing checkers. Young people were not readily invited to sit with the older men to participate in their conversations. Thus, the young people would stand within listening distance to hear these interesting stories. Much of the discussion would be about the few heroes that Black Americans had; back then, these heroes were mainly sports figures. While Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis dominated their discussions, we learned about unsung heroes such as baseball player Josh Gibson and boxer Jack Johnson. While I knew little about Gibson, I did hear fascinating stories about how many homeruns he had hit and how far he could hit a baseball. Wild stories of how Johnson would be given a speeding ticket only to ask the police to give him two because he would be returning the same way, are stories that were vividly told by the older men of the neighborhood, back in the day.

Every now and then, the older men would invite the young into their inner circle for a talk. The beckoning may sound familiar! “Come on over here young man. You are old enough for us to have a little talk.” When this happened, you knew that you had arrived. Besides stroking your ego, the results of such conversations had a lasting impact. You recall that there were some things that our dear parents had difficulty discussing with us. But, for the wisdom gained from the discussions with those older gentlemen who sat around in the neighborhoods, what we learned and how we learned things would have been from our peers, who, quite often, were totally misinformed.

“Boy, don’t you end up like me,” was a common statement. We were constantly reminded that the world was ahead of us and how we would live in that world depended on what we did. My favorite words from the old-timers were, “What you are begins with what you do.” While many years later, I would take philosophy classes in college, the first philosophers I knew were those older gentlemen who were found on the neighborhood street corners, back in the day.

The total disrespect demonstrated by many young people today, in their dealings with older people, in general, and older men in particular is enough to make you shudder. Such behavior was unheard of when I was growing up. In the past, these men had a license to discipline us. No approval was required from our parents. Do you think this would work today? What do you think would be the reaction if you spoke to a young person about the profanity that spills out of their mouths today? Even at a ripe old age, you would probably end up in a fight with the person you were speaking to as well as his friends and possibly his parents.

We loved those older men as their wisdom and advice were critical to what we ultimately did.

Most of the older men from our old neighborhoods were positive role models. They were men who understood the importance of leaving a legacy behind for our youth. Because these men no longer exist, the result is a generation growing and developing who often lack the desire and will to make themselves and our communities stronger. So, whenever you see an older man, whose clothing may be tattered; whose speech may be slurred; and whose health may be failing, remember that most of us who have survived and are prospering today are able to do so because of some older men who hung out on the street corners in our neighborhoods and interacted with us in a positive manner. In fact, most of us are sons, daughters and grandchildren of these older men who were in our neighborhoods, back in the day.

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at backintheday@phillytrib.com or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146

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