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Story of friendships shared in new book by Elon parent

The father of an Elon University freshman has authored a new book, What Else But Home: Seven Boys and an American Journey Between the Projects and the Penthouse, telling the true story of what happened when his oldest son befriends five children from Manhattan public housing projects on an asphalt baseball field in 1998.

Published by PublicAffairs, the book by former New York City real estate developer Michael Rosen explores the “chasms of race, class and economic difference” that he and his family began to bridge one day near their penthouse on the Lower East Side.

Ripton Rosen, who enrolled as a freshman at Elon University this fall, took the first steps as a 7-year-old that would lead to local children Kindu, Carlos, Philippe, Will and Juan becoming not just longtime friends with Ripton and his younger brother Morgan, but “brothers” and “sons” in the Rosen family.

Michael Rosen spoke by phone with the Office of University Relations about his book, bridging economic and racial divides, and how he and his wife, Dr. Leslie Gruss, learned of conditions faced by the underclass as they watched their two sons forge bonds on the baseball diamond with a quintet that he calls the “bigger boys.”

Q: How did your family’s relationship with Kindu, Carlos, Philippe, Will and Juan evolve over the years?

“Ripton walked us onto the baseball field. Without him and his intrepidness, the family that we grew never would have happened. He invited these boys home after the game to play video games, and in the beginning there were more kids, ten or a dozen from the park who were coming. Boys continued coming to our house through that first summer, and things started to change for all of us when we became more involved with the kids’ lives. For example, we decided we needed a half hour of reading time every time the boys came to our house.

“We went to a bookstore together, which was quite a scene and something that I’ve written about in a chapter called ‘Books.’ Each boy picked out a book, and we instituted reading time. We just slowly, slowly started to do more things with the boys. Going to restaurants together. Going for ice cream. I took Carlos and William shopping for baseball gloves that very first summer, and that’s something a dad normally does with his son. I don’t know if I knew or didn’t then whether there were fathers who would take them for gloves, except William and Carlos were coming the field each day and borrowing gloves from other kids. And I didn’t want them to have to do that.”

Q: Because Ripton and Morgan were in grade school at the time, how were their ideas of race and class shaped by this experience?

“Ripton’s 19 now and Morgan’s 16. For relatively privileged kids, they have a profound understanding of the deprivations of poverty. They understand its trauma. They understand inner city life. That’s not something many teenagers who look like Ripton and Morgan appreciate because there aren’t that many families that bridge the divides we have. We did it by chance. But I’m certain, if others did, that much of the poverty in our country would disappear.

“A man who reviewed What Else But Home on Amazon wrote how there aren’t many books that bring to life race and class disparities among people who live only a few blocks from each other but in very different mental and moral universes and follow radically different life trajectories. I thought, ‘Wow he’s right.’ It just so happens that on that field, in that space, baseball enabled race and class disparities to come together. That bond often disappears when the game’s over. People show up on a baseball or football field, or on a basketball court and play together, interact intensely, but after the game, they pat each other on the shoulder and go their own way. Ripton didn’t allow that. He brought the kids into our home.”

Q: The boys from the baseball field, did they have resentment early on of the privileges Ripton and Morgan had?

“I’m sure it was there. Not that they expressed any to us, but how couldn’t they? … There has to be resentment in a kid’s mind who lacks too many things, the most important of which aren’t material. Two parents healthy, alive. Food always in the house. When they saw Ripton and Morgan getting a Walkman or getting the sneakers they couldn’t afford, that had to be hard. And differences have continued with us, but we’ve tried to wrap everyone in family. In giving and getting, in responsibilities and chores, in expectations of achievement. It doesn’t always work, but mostly it does.

Q: What was the reaction from the boys’ families? Was there animosity? Appreciation?

Michael Rosen at a recent book reading.

“Oh, no, there’s never been animosity. It’s a complex relationship. In Kindu’s family, he told us years later that his brothers and his mom were saying, ‘Why don’t you go live with those white people?’ There are 13 kids and the lady who is raising them, Elaine, is a great aunt by marriage. Kindu’s mom is dead. Kindu’s dad is dead. Elaine is raising Kindu’s mom’s children and Kindu’s mom’s sister’s children, and the older brothers went out to the street to earn a living, and it’s hard out there, and they didn’t want Kindu to follow their path. Elaine is a saint, she’s a hero. All the mothers are. Carlos’ mom asked us to help him, and it’s been the same with almost every boy at different times, where their moms had asked us to help, because they love their children.

Q: How did your friends and neighbors react when you brought the boys into your lives?

“In the beginning people were saying that the kids were taking advantage of us. Family said that. Friends said that. And they were right. Of course they were right! They’re kids. Of course they were coming for the Nintendo because they didn’t have Nintendo, and they were coming for Hot Pockets and Stouffer’s macaroni, because it was endless in our house. That’s the nature of life. We like to pretend that everything is pure, for the sake of it, like, ‘Oh they would just come over for a deep and undying friendship for Ripton,’ but human life always has two aspects to it. There’s love and affection and then there’s utility.”

Q: When did that change?

“The bigger boys started referring to Ripton and Morgan as ‘my brothers’ in Spanish. I think it was when the boys started talking about themselves as brothers, and Leslie and I came to a point where we realized that the five “bigger boys” were deep into our lives and we never wanted to pass them on the street one day and look away, which is how we really do deal with the discomforts of class disparity.

“Everyone – well, I don’t want to say everyone – that’s how we manage. We just look away. And we didn’t want to do that with the boys. That is the nature of how we live. We knew the kids were cute and sweet but that they were growing up and there could come a time when we would want to look away, and we vowed never to allow that to happen. And that was crossing a boundary. There’s a sociologist who calls those ‘moral boundaries,’ when someone’s on the inside and you won’t look away, and somebody is on the outside and you will look away because it’s uncomfortable.

“So we used to go on vacation, Leslie and I, with Ripton and Morgan, and we became increasingly uncomfortable leaving New York and not taking the bigger boys. We started going away with them. And I think people saw that. We took a trip across the Eastern seaboard. We went from New York down to Miami and Key West, and then to New Orleans and then up through the South. I think as people saw us traveling together, they understood, ‘Wow, these people really are a family.’

Q: Based on your experience, what do you think is the biggest misunderstanding that middle and upper class America has about children born and raised in public housing?

“Public housing is complex. There’s some public housing that probably is not oppressive. The lives that our boys led, there’s a lot of oppression. There’s a lot of racial and class oppression …

“I’ll say something I’d love you to think about at Elon. We were at your New Student Convocation and you gave the freshman acorns. President Lambert told the freshmen that they have everything in their hands now to grow into the strength and beauty of an oak tree. There’s a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist, Thich Nhat Han, a very profound man, and he says, ‘When you see the tree, you have to also see the clouds above it, and you have to see the rain that comes from the cloud, and you have to see the sunshine, and you have to see the ground, the dirt, the fertility, and everything that goes up into the tree to make it grow.’ I was sitting there and I was thinking, ‘No, no, no, you haven’t given them everything. You’ve given them the acorn. But you also need the sunshine, you need the warmth, you need the rain.’ These things have to join with the acorn, for a tree to flourish. That’s all our job.

“Those are the things that these kids, our five “bigger boys” and so many others, are missing. You can’t just fix the schools. Yes, lots of schools in places where we live are broken. All around the country. There are great teachers, but the system is broken. But the kids need so much more than just schools. For example, I have experience with fatherless boys. They need mentoring. They need stability. And that’s a problem, a very large part of the problem of poverty in this country. Families need help to help their children. We can do that, it’s not so hard.”

For more information on Michael Rosen and the book, visit www.whatelsebuthome.com.

Eric Townsend,
10/22/2009 11:21 AM