Ghetto Cowboy

Ghetto Cowboy

"The stables is nothing more than a few garages and some vacant lots with old buildings that look like they made outta scrap. I peek inside one. It's dark and smells all dank like horse. There's banged-up plywood and hay on the floor, and the ceiling is covered in cobwebs so thick, it looks like nobody ever cleaned up there before. The stalls is small, with no windows, and the wood is old and warped, like it's been there forever. There's maybe ten horses inside, all poking their heads outta their cubbyholes, looking at me like I'm the one who shouldn't be in the city. Why they need horses out here, anyhow? I don't get it."

If you've been to the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, you've probably seen horses in the City of Brotherly Love. Many of those Amish folk convey their goods to the Market via horse-drawn carts, and you usually see them parked outside. GHETTO COWBOY, which combines elements of the movie Boyz n the Hood and Elaine Konigsberg's story The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place (both old favorites of mine), is about the keeping of some other horses in Philadelphia, some that you've probably not seen even if you call Philadelphia home. Reading a tale about an urban neighborhood with stables reminds me of a surprise I encountered on my very first trip to California back in early 1980.

After spending all day working in an icy four-degree barn, I boarded a redeye flight from New York to California in order to visit some outstanding Nubian goat herds on the left coast. My first stop (on that lovely eighty-one degree January day in southern California) was at Longman's in Apple Valley, a valley town up in the mountains that had been home to Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. The "western" feel of the area made me think back to my youngest impressions of California: watching Spin and Marty on TV as a kid.

The second stop on my goat tour, which couldn't have been in a more different setting, was in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Reseda where, just a couple of blocks off of the main strip, I encountered a whole block of stables. There, amidst a bunch of horse facilities, a woman named Elinor Bruinsslot was raising some amazingly beautiful goats. In a somewhat related fashion, a young teenager named Coltrane will, in the middle of a down-on-its-heels northern Philadelphia neighborhood, find the beauty in an old racehorse. The horse is among those who have been saved from the dog food manufacturers by a pack of black cowboys.

Cole doesn't remember this area -- he was a baby when he and his mother left Cole's cowboy father behind and headed to his mother's hometown of Motown. But when Coltrane blows off seventh grade and is heading for real trouble, his frustrated mom packs him in the car and dumps him off with that cowboy father (Harper) who he's never known. Things are bad in this northern Philadelphia neighborhood. Harper and his black cowboy buddies are struggling to keep the stables alive in the face of City pressure to close them. Having the neighborhood's young people working with the horses provides an alternative to gang warfare, but the City and the gangs have these cowboys cornered.

Into the middle of this showdown comes the attitudinal Cole, who has not been near a horse since his diaper days. GHETTO COWBOY is the coming of age story of Coltrane and the fiery old racehorse he names Boo. It is a great story of community building and of the therapeutic effect of animals and of the history of black cowboys.

Recommended by Richie Partington, MLIS, California

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