BY LOUIS C. WARD
Robert Nathaniel Connor was my friend and brother from another mother. We grew up together in Harlem New York over 70 years ago.
I vividly remember how we met. He lived across the street from my great grandfather, Christian Anderson’s house, a brownstone on 120th Street in Central Harlem. When I would visit my great grandparents, I would often see Robert. We would play skullies, hot peas and butter, baseball and other fun-time activities with other kids on the block.
I attended P.S. 103 and Robert went to P.S. 144. I transferred to his school because of a fire drill incident I was involved in at my school. In the 1950’s school fire drills were taken very seriously and playing or fooling around wasn’t tolerated. Students weren’t unruly or disrespectful and certainly didn’t bring weapons to schools. Yes, it was a different time.
During the fire drill, another student hit me in my back and I returned the punch, which resulted in other students losing their footing on the staircase and about six of them fell down the stairs. The principal immediately contacted my mother and told her to come to the school and get me because I was being discharged to P.S. 144.
My Mom took me to P.S. 144. I wasn’t given a reading test and placed in class 5-1, the top fifth grade class, with Mrs. Ann Mersereau, a caring, but no nonsense Black teacher. I was shocked when Robert shouted my name as I entered her room. I believed that was the beginning of a friendship that lasted almost 70 years.
When my great grandmother passed on to glory, my Mom and I moved into my great grandfather’s house, right across the street from Robert, my new best friend and Brother.
Robert and I both had issues with the older kids on the block. They used to make fun and talk about Robert because he was born in the Virgin Islands and his parents were West Indian and still had the accent. They messed with me because I was chubby and the new kid on the block. This was a plus for both of us because it created a serious bond between the two of us…we complemented each other.
We didn’t need the older kids. We decided to do our own thing. We did too, from stealing together and splitting everything down the middle, doing school stuff like hanging out at the library on 124th Street, especially on story telling time and holidays like Halloween, and going to the park to play baseball, basketball and handball, our favorite, and smoking weed and drinking beer when we were older.
Robert and I believed we were better and more sophisticated thieves than our older counterparts on the block. We planned our stealing events. Case in point, Robert and I wanted ocean champion bathing suits. We used to swim a lot and these were professional bathing suits made out of silk. We “cased” out the sports store for two days and discussed how we were going to steal them.
Robert ran track and he was fast. The plan was for me to take the bathing suits out of the store and pass them on to Robert who was waiting outside and he would run get on the subway and we would meet up at home. If I got caught, there was no merchandise on me so I thought they would have to let me go. They never caught either one of us. It was a successful heist.
We thought we were professionals until we were both caught stealing in Gimbels. Although we were in high school, we still did our thing. I got “busted” for stealing some shirts and Robert got “busted” for stealing some music. He was always a rhythm and blues guy and even published some songs he wrote. This was a separate incident; we did it on our own. After we were given a warning and told not to show our faces in Gimbels again or we would be locked up, we decided that our professional career as thieves was over.
My Mom and I moved to the Southeast Bronx during my junior year of high school. Robert and I kept in contact, but we eventually went our own ways for a while. I saw him in Mt Morris Park one day and he was telling me he was going to Harlem Prep to prepare him to go to college the next year. I was attending night school for my last year of high school.
Some time had passed and I saw Robert again. He was attending SUNY New Paltz in upstate New York. I was partying too much and had just failed out of Bernard Baruch College and had to take a semester off. He invited me to his school where they were having Black Student’s Weekend and also interviews for their Project 3 program for Black and Hispanic students who wanted to apply for admission to the college. His exact words: “Come on Louis, you can have some fun, meet some nice females and apply to go to college with me…like old times you and me together.”
I went to Black Students Weekend. It was great and I had a nice time because Robert introduced me to Georgette, who I married in 1972 and Robert was the best man at the wedding. I also applied to attend SUNY New Paltz and I was accepted.
We have stayed close ever since. Robert became the godfather of our three children and eventually he was introduced to Georgette’s first cousin Billie, whom he married. We did many family events together.
I could ask Robert to do almost anything for me, except spend money. He was cheap…some would say frugal. NO! Cheap! I remember when I was at home in Florida and called him about 1:30 am and asked him would he please go get my son, who was in New York, dealing with an alcohol addiction problem. Without hesitation, Robert said yeah and went and picked him up and stayed with him until 9 am in the morning and took him to an alcohol treatment program.
Both Robert and I were fortunate to marry beautiful, strong, and loving Black women, who gave us great kids and weathered the storms we put them through. Addiction was a major storm in Robert’s and my life. Fortunately, we eventually got clean and sober and have been ever since. Our children are successful and productive. I have nine grandkids.
Robert, my best friend and Brother, died from Cancer September 14th, 2022. He’s missed but not forgotten!