“We were blessed this past year. Nobody passed away — right?”
A burst of applause followed Jesse Hameen II’s comment as he addressed the 2016 Annual Home Boys’ get-together, the 11th such gathering of old-school Dixwell neighbors and classmates who lived in the old Elm Haven public-housing complex.
The crowd gathered at the Webster Street Elks Lodge this past Saturday to share stories, engage in some good-natured ribbing, break bread, take account of the previous year, and plan for the next. Across the street sits the Monterey Homes housing complex, which replaced the old Elm haven after the city tore it down.
Though the old Elm Haven vanished decades ago, the community’s spirit clearly lives on.
The names of Home Boys who had passed before last year’s reunion were recalled by the group of 30 men as more than a half dozen names were mentioned.
“Up here where we are, we’re much closer to the graveyard than to the playground,” said Hameen. Another Home Boy confirmed: “Yes, more past than future,” which drew knowing chuckles from the aging group of men whose camaraderie, for some, has lasted more than a half century.
Hameen, a Home Boy reunion organizer (with Ed Byrd), is a well known percussion instructor with Neighborhood Music School and a drummer who has played alongside some of the best jazz musicians in the industry. Wearing his characteristic embroidered kufi hat, Hameen surveyed the audience to see how many remembered participating in PAL — the local Police Athletic League — which sponsored baseball teams as youngsters. Several hands shot up; others remembered playing basketball.
The event’s guest speaker, New Haven Police Sgt. Albert McFadden, spoke about the role of PAL, an organization of volunteer coaches who mentor city youth through a variety of sports programs and activities with partners at the Boys and Girls Club of New Haven.
As with their presentation of a $500 donation to the Pop Warner Football League this past summer during the demolition farewell ceremony and mural painting at the Old Q House, the Home Boys had prepared an oversized check representing their donation of $500 for PAL and its activities.
McFadden noted several familiar faces in the audience he had revered as a preteen, including Harold Butch Reid, nattily dressed and sporting a white ball cap, his name spelled out in rhinestone-like sparkles. “My father introduced me to golf at an early age as a caddie. Butch was a golfer at the time. Just to see these men as an 11 year-old, they looked like massive giants. Butch was dressed from head to toe — impeccable, just as he is today,” said McFadden.
For Reid, dressing up for golf “was part of the game.” Reid, who played as a golf pro in the New England professional golf circuit (now defunct) and was part of the Junior Golf Program in Phoenix, Ariz., said he played with golf champ Tiger Woods when Woods was a young player.
Another familiar face was former special constable Wayne Brooks: “He had so much knowledge of the law — I learned so much from him,” said McFadden. There was little exaggeration in McFadden’s claim to be standing on the shoulders of giants among those present, as he cited their impact over years of personal development.
If one thing is commonly understood among the Home Boys reunion cohort, it is the importance that role models and mentors play in the development of younger generations. Amid the alienation and frustration that have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement and the subsequent pro-police Blue Lives Matter movement, the Home Boys are helping to build bridges between the communities these organizations represent.
“We have African-American men and the police department coming together to benefit inner city youth, and appreciate the sacrifices that many of our good and concerned police officers are making in the New Haven community,” Hameen said.
McFadden noted that the PAL is making a difference. “The fact is that our children can and should see all officers of different colors — and there shouldn’t be a black or white issue,” he said. “Every officer has sworn an oath to serve and protect everyone, and they need to recognize that not only our children and our citizens, but our officers need to recognize that no matter what your biases or prejudices may be, if you take an oath, you need to honor it. I think PAL does a great job of getting everyone together, especially in working with our young in developing relationships than can last a lifetime.”
At this reunion, like those in past years, various hats worn by some Home Boys may have hinted at their past lives or current predilections.
Regardless of the hat worn, or their station in life, it’s a sure bet the Home Boys will be back again next year to celebrate their common roots, shared values, and hopes for a new generation. In the words of Hameen, “We were the good guys. It feels good every year to be with you guys. We came up at a good time.”