My story with Ezra began 81 years ago, in the East New York section of Brooklyn, so often pictured in his books. We met in summer school, he was 14 and I was 12. Ezra had failed algebra because he wasn’t interested in math, I failed because I corrected my teacher. Our bond as friends was cemented that summer. We were two boys without hope, from poor homes, living in depressed times, seeing no good prospects ahead, much as the youth of today must feel, without training or jobs in sight.
But though there were problems, and poverty, as far as we could see, we were curious about the world. Ezra painted, I read, we talked, but never of dreams of our future. Our love of learning drew us together. We walked to the library together whenever we could. When the books at the Stone Avenue Branch had been exhausted, we walked to the Arlington branch, located in a wealthier neighborhood, endowed with a better book collection. There, we passed grander homes from which we were separated by an invisible wall. Beyond that wall we knew one could find opportunity, recognition, and connection, unattainable to us.
We walked each other home after each outing, back and forth, back and forth, he the taller, older, thinner, I the smaller, younger, his arm slung over my shoulder, heads touching, talking, talking, talking. He was Peter, I was Archie. I was the explainer of all things scientific, like Archie, who won the pet prize, for his germ pet. He was the dreamer, I was the pragmatist. We promised to stay friends, always, and continue to walk each other home. And we were best friends until his death, at the age of 67. Though he is not with us in body today, his work is, and our friendship continues for me, through this exhibit at The Jewish Museum, for my lifetime, he is still walking me home. Despite everything, and through all these years, we remain, two small boys, eyes wide open, intensely curious about the wonders of the world.
Dr. Martin Pope is Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at New York University and President of The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation