If Michael wasn't on the street playing trains, he was on the carpet in our shared bedroom with his prized Lionel engine. Our parents couldn't afford to buy him a new one, or invest in an electric- train set, complete with full length track, station, and signal boxes. That is why the dream of owning a train set was in his head long before the dream of performing.
Speed. I'm convinced our excitement as kids was built on the thrill of speed. Whatever we did involved going faster, trying to outgun one another. Had our father known the extent of our thirst for speed, he would have banned it for sure: the potential for injury was always considered a grave risk to our career.
Once we grew bored of the shopping-cart trains, we built go-carts, constructed from boxes, stroller wheels and planks of wood from a nearby junkyard. Tito was the "engineer" of the brotherhood and he had the know-how in putting everything together. He was forever dismantling clocks and radios, and reassembling them on the kitchen table, or watching Joseph under the hood of his Buick parked at the side of the house, so he knew where our father's tool box was. We hammered together three planks to form an I-shaped chassis and axle. We nailed the open cockpit—a square wooden box—on top, and took cord from a clothes line for our steering mechanism, looping it through the front wheels, held like reins. In truth, our turning circle was about as tight as an oil tanker's, so we only ever traveled in straight lines.
The wide open alleyway at the back of our house—with a row of grassy backyards on one side and a chain-link fence on the other—was our race-track, and it was all about the "race." We often patched together two go-carts, with Tito pushing Marlon, and me pushing Michael in a 50-yard dash. There was always that sense of competition between us: who could go faster, who would be the winner.
"Go, go, go, GO!" yelled Michael, leaning forward, urging us into the lead. Marlon hated losing, too, so Michael always had fierce competition. Marlon was the boy who never understood why he couldn't outrun his own shadow. I can picture him now: sprinting through the street, looking down to his side, with a fierce determination on his face that turned to exasperation when he couldn't put space between himself and his clinging shadow.
We pushed those go-carts until the metal brackets were scraping along the street, and the wheels buckled or fell off, with Michael tipped up on his side and me laughing so hard I couldn't stand.
The merry-go-round in the local school field was another thrillride. Crouch down in the center of its metal base, hold on tight to the iron stanchions, and get the brothers to spin it as fast as they could. "Faster! Faster! Faster!" Michael squealed, eyes tight shut, giggling hard. He used to straddle the stanchions, like he was on a horse, going around and around and around. Eyes closed. Wind in the face.
We all dreamed of riding the train, racing the go-carts and spinning on a real carousel at Disney. We knew Mr. Long way before we had heard of Roald Dahl. To us, he was the original African-American Willy Wonka; this magical man—white hair, wizened features, leathery dark skin—dished out candy from his house on the next block, on 22nd, en route to our elementary school at the far end of Jackson Street.