This is part of a series about New Yorkers who have recently relocated to the Bronx. It’s called The New Bronx.
Al Lewis is an excellent chess player.
We’re sitting at a table in the Fred Samuel Playground on Malcolm X Boulevard in East Harlem. Lewis brought his own chess set to the park. Ask him when he started to play and he’ll shy away from the answer.
“Oh, I’ve been moving the pieces around for a long time,” Lewis says, beating me again on our third game.
He told me he only played a little bit when we first met.
I fared better this match than I did the first, when he beat me in four moves. But I can tell he’s annoyed I keep losing so quickly, so I move over and let another guy play who’s been watching for a while.
Lewis, with his long, grey dreadlocks, freckled nose and wide eyes stares intently at the chessboard. He moves the pieces with swift ferocity. Every play is precise, with intention. He doesn’t think a long time when it’s his turn.
A better question for Lewis turns out to be this one: When did he get good at chess?
Sometime in the last ten years, he tells me. When he was in prison.
Lewis was born February 12, 1943. He’s 72. He grew up fatherless in Red Hook, Brooklyn with a brief stint out on Long Island. He doesn’t know how many siblings he actually has. He suspects he has many brothers and sisters out there he doesn’t know about.
“I’ve been making love and fighting them my whole life,” Lewis says. “And I don’t even know ‘em.”
He thinks he met his father once at a friend’s house when he was a teenager. But only because someone told him a guy hanging out there was his dad. They’ve never spoken.
He remembers seeing one brother in the 1980s when they saw each other across the subway platform at the World Trade Center.
“We stopped, embraced and talked for a bit,” said Lewis, fishing a bottle of medication out of his small backpack. “But if I saw him on the train sitting across from me today, I wouldn’t recognize him.”
This was all before Lewis was homeless.
Talk to Lewis for just a few minutes and you’ll realize he’s lived a difficult and complex life. He says he went to prison in his teens for a stealing cars and then later, for murder. He held down a job after that, before getting addicted to crack cocaine. He spent the majority of the 1990s on the streets before going to prison for, as he puts it, almost killing a woman while high on crack.
Lewis comes to Harlem to play chess because he hates the Bronx. He lives in a halfway house in University Heights because he has no other choice.
Lewis is HIV positive and suspects that his condition is was what helped him get assistance from The Osborne Association.
Osborne helps integrate prison inmates back into society by providing access to housing, health and educational programs. Through Osborne, Lewis was able to find a place to live, a doctor, and begin working on his GED.
But that doesn’t mean Lewis likes his situation. He doesn’t feel connected to the community, saying, “There’s too many Puerto Ricans.” Lewis, who is rail-thin and walks with the help of a cane, says he has to walk long distances, just to find cheap bread. He has some family still in Long Island, but he doesn’t see them very much.
Lewis pays his rent and lives off of his Social Security. He keeps a small, immaculate room in an old, two-story house on University Avenue near Bronx Community College. It’s on a wide street full of old houses, community housing complexes, other halfway homes, and a grand church. Next door is as youth mentorship program. But Lewis doesn’t really hang out in the neighborhood. He like to stays in his room. He listens to talk shows on his radio. He loves to watch DVDs, but his player has been acting up recently. He doesn’t interact with many people in the house, because they are, as he sees it, too young and disrespectful.
“I don’t get a long well with kids,” said Lewis. “I’m a loner, I’ve been a loner my whole life. The less you know about me the better.”
But you wouldn’t know he’s such a loner walking down the street with him. Lewis says hello to almost every person he passes, especially women. Females of all ages always get a greeting. Lewis will look at everyone and say as a “Hello, ma’am,” or “How you doing? You look beautiful.”
People are the biggest reason Lewis comes down to Harlem, or occasionally Washington Square Park. He enjoys feeling connected.
The park is full of interesting characters while kids play basketball nearby. Everyone seems to know each other and holler hellos as they walk though. Several groups of guys come by to watch the chess matches. I watch Lewis beat another guy at chess and then eventually loses to a young guy in a baseball cap. Even though Lewis didn’t like the way the guy played, you can tell he enjoyed the game. He’ll spend whole days in the park just to feel connected again. Something he doesn’t feel in the Bronx.
When people hear Lewis’ stories, he says people are often shocked. But because he’s kind and working hard to improve his life, people give him the benefit of the doubt.
He’s sworn off drugs. He says won’t even smoke cigarettes anymore. Lewis says he’s been given a second chance on life and wants to live it to the fullest.
Part of this means finishing high school. Lewis goes into the city a few times a week to take GED classes. He says he enjoys learning, but since some much technology has changed in the years he was either in jail or homeless it can’t be easy. Lewis doesn’t own a computer, although he does have a little Samsung Galaxy smartphone. But he doesn’t know how use email, download music or search YouTube.
And then sometimes life holds Lewis back. He’s recently had an eye infection that has kept him from his classes. And Lewis acknowledges that his mind isn’t what it used to be. He will occasionally get lost on the subway and have to depend on other to help him get home. Osborne has insisted he use Access-A-Ride to get to the city now, instead of using the trains.
The sun is no longer high in the sky and a cool breeze kicks up the freshly fallen leaves. Lewis stomach begins to hurt. He closes his eyes and takes sharp breaths as his large hands hold onto his small abdomen. But asks to play one more game of chess. I lose again, of course.
We make our way back to the subway to the Bronx as the sunlight flashes golden on the windows of the East Harlem buildings. As we slowly walk, Lewis says that, yes, he’s struggled in life, but he wouldn’t change anything. He likes who he is and doesn’t feel all that different from everyone else.
Lewis continues to say hi or nod his head to everyone met pass. Mothers walking their children home from the park. A group of guys laughing in front of a deli. A man with a bandaged leg sitting on a bench.
It takes a long time to get up and down the subway stairs. Lewis stops to catch his breath several times, and has to sit down when we reach the platform. We’re in the middle of rush hour and everyone is trying to get home. We have to wait for a few trains to pass so Lewis will be able to get a seat. A young lady offers her spot to him. He thanks her and takes it.
Lewis looks around and then up at me as the crowded above ground train grinds along Jerome Avenue. “We all don’t differ that much from each other all that much. Not when the cards are on the table.”