Q: How would you describe Poughkeepsie to someone who hasn’t been here before?
A: It’s pretty spotty, very seedy in some parts, and it can be rough. There are sections, where I grew up pretty much, that you don’t really want to go if you’re not from there. You could be in a great part of Poughkeepsie, and take a turn and not be in that great part anymore. It could even be one side of a street compared to the other. It’s a city that knows who you are. People don’t have to know you personally, but they know if you’re from Poughkeepsie. It’s like any inner city. If you’re from here, it’s about the way you walk, the way you move, the way you turn your head and look around. It’s the shoes and the clothes you wear.
People come here for all sorts of reasons, including to buy drugs, but mostly because it’s a metropolitan city, just on a smaller basis, with lots of different things going on.
Q: In that way, there isn’t another place like this in Dutchess County. Is that part of what you’re saying?
Q: So where is the Poughkeepsie you grew up?
A: It was kind of in the cracks. Main and White Street. Then the Charles Street projects [officially the Bixby Apartments]. But my brothers and I were all over the city. There are some gems here. Like College Hill is a great place, the sledding is great. We learned how to do backflips and frontflips on the golf greens up there [at the public course], and then we would be chased off.
Q: Where else would you go?
My brothers and I had no rules from as far as I can remember. Which was obviously different than for a lot of kids, who had strong parents and family. We didn’t have that. So me and my brothers were on our own, with free rein, including in the wrong places. But I also spent so much time in the Fall Kill creek that runs through the city, right past where we lived on Charles Street. I’d look for crayfish, look for turtles. We would make toy boats out of paper cups or whatever we could find that would float, and then send them down the water to race. We would chase them down the creek. It’s like a little corridor, so nobody knows what’s going on there. We used to swim there in little swimming holes that you wouldn’t know about. When you’re a kid, you don’t realize that it’s nasty water. You just enjoy yourself. There are nice little waterfalls in the creek too, down by the train station.
We would also go to Wheaton Park all the time, which was pretty near where we lived. That place was great for us. During the summer they had counselors there. In the morning they would open up a big green box full of games, like Connect Four. They’d play games with us, play basketball with us across the street. Then we’d walk up Clover Street, the counselors too, to a church across from the fire station, and get lunch in the basement. I think it was like a soup kitchen for all sorts of people.
They’d also take us on field trips, like to the Catskill Game Farm. All you needed was a parent to sign a permission slip, and then you’d show up at the bus. That was very cool stuff.
Q: Roughly when was this?
A: Late 1970s, early 1980s. From when I was around 10 years old to 12 or 13. It was so important to have that option at Wheaton Park, rather than nothing at all. And rather than hanging out with the older kids, because that’s where it ends up so often. I fell into that for a while. And older kids do different things, you know what I mean? That’s how you’d get on that path.
Q: Would the kids from Charles Street hang out together. Were you in each other’s apartments?
A: We were all “outside” friends. I don’t remember kids being in apartments together, unless maybe they were related. We were outside all the time. For me punishment also was to go outside. Those were different days. Now you don’t want your kids twenty feet from you.
We used to stop cars and clean off the windshield. And then a couple of kids would hop on the back bumper, and just take a ride for a couple of blocks. One time I ended up all the way down at the train station because the driver caught all the green lights. I was so scared because he was going fast.
There was this business called Candy Land that had a store and a factory, around Parker Avenue and North Hamilton. They made giant multi-colored lollipops, and we used to steal cases and bring them back to Charles Street. We had to go up on the loading docks, with forklifts going by. We were like a Navy SEAL team, six or seven ‘hood rats. None of us were scared to steal those boxes, but we were scared of the bees that swarmed around them, at least I was.
We had a game called “Blue Bees” where someone would hide a belt and everyone else would go look for it. The person who hid it would say, “Alex is getting hot, so and so is cold.” Whoever found it would yell “Blue Bees” and whip anyone running back to base. Big kids would trip you up so the person with the belt would catch you. Games like this I was scared to play, but they were also amazing. We had wheelie contests on our bikes. There was always competition. It’s always a competition in the city.
Q: Was this boys and girls together?
A: A total mixture, mostly boys, but some girls were down. Up until around 13, a girl could kick your butt in the neighborhood.
Q: What else do you think about Charles Street looking back today?
It was really something. I really feel like that was my family. It’s amazing the love I get from people when I see them now, or even on Facebook, even if we weren’t friends when we were kids. Forty years ago we might’ve been fighting each other every week. Now when we see each other, it’s like, “What’s up, man?”
And a lot of the kids we grew up with are successful now. They have good jobs. I know some of them work for Central Hudson. Shawn Johnson has been there a long time. He’s also done a lot of comedy, and organized a lot of comedy shows at hotels and other places. He brought Mo’Nique to the Civic Center. Torrance Harvey, the mayor of Newburgh, he’s a Charles Street projects kid, and his brother. I had my own pizza place for a while. That’s what happens when you grow up in a certain way. It’s not even that you’re brave. You just don’t fear. You just say, “Let’s go, let’s do it.”
Q: Is that kind of attitude something important you’ve noticed over the years, compared to how other people are raised?
A: I’ve seen people who grew up on farms that didn’t have anything, and ended up getting an education. And you don’t have to grow up the way I did to have a rough life. I mean there are kids who grow up in giant million-dollar houses and their father beats the crap out of them for their whole life. As a kid, all I thought was that they had a silver spoon in their mouth. And when I got older, I realized anybody can have a [tough] life, a rough life, regardless of their financial situation. They may not have grown up in an inner city like me, but they can use the same grit to become successful. Unfortunately people in the inner cities really get [dumped] on by people from outside, like they’re dirt.
Q: Where do you fit in among your brothers? Were you close growing up because you were on your own a lot?
There were four of us, and I was the second oldest. From a young age we were feeding ourselves, figuring out how to get our clothes cleaned. But most of the time we just had dirty clothes. I don’t know how my youngest brother made it, I really don’t. We didn’t grow up with love. It’s not like we grew up in a family atmosphere where we had each other’s back. We were all like individual kids. But because of where we came from, I think is what made us strong in life.
One of my younger brothers went into the Army, and I think it saved him. Unfortunately he just passed away. My other younger brother works for Paychex [a payroll and human resources company]. My older brother is doing well as a contractor, and his wife has a salon. I know they work very hard, and they have a beautiful house up in Poughquag.
Q: What was it like when you got into your teens, and into high school?
A: When I was a teenager I lived in a group home in the city for a while, which was great. Just me, my brothers weren’t there. It was a nice house. Living there gave me structure and rules, and really kind of taught me what it was like to be a human being. I had an honest life. I had a summer job and I was going to school and had a nice pair of sneakers without having to scam to get them. But then the house wasn’t managed well and it closed. From there I went to living in a really shitty house that my Mom rented. Then that building was condemned. At that point I could have gone the route to start slinging drugs. It’s so easy to go that route. But I didn’t. I ended up staying with a friend’s family for like a year. I left school and got a job, and then I got a place of my own. I‘ve been pretty much a working adult from 17 on, but I also got my GED.
Q: How did you come to have your own business? And what was that like?
A: I had probably worked for about 10 years at Bennie’s restaurant by Stitzel Field, until I was around thirty. I could work there for as many hours as I wanted, 50 or 60 hours a week, so I was bringing home good money. When you work for a place, you think you know everything. Then you realize you don’t, when you open a place of your own. From Bennie’s I knew about making food, making pizza, cooking sauce, cooking soups. But as far as the business side, it was all new, taking care of the books, doing your quarterlies [taxes], invoicing. All that stuff is a bit different.
Q: How was it for you to learn so much on the job about owning and running a business?
A: I was lucky because I got into the business really cheap. I bought it from the landlord, and It wasn’t like I had to give him twenty grand. I had some money saved up, and I got help from one of my brothers.
It was hard. It was fun. I put in a lot of hours. There’s a lot of headaches, a lot of worrying, a lot of people to pay, and that’s not including employees. Lots of distributors and food companies. I think there were like 28 different entities to pay. I had that business for a few years, but I was going around in circles. I got to a point where I could tell I was as far as I could go.
I did make a lot of friends and good connections from the business. One of the Vassar College chefs was a regular customer, and we talked business a lot because he also worked at restaurants. Then he told me Vassar was hiring in the kitchen. There were benefits, stability, all the things I didn’t have. So that’s what I did. Exit stage left and I was at Vassar for fifteen years in the kitchen and working on the grounds.
Q: What kind of work do you do now?
A: I sell retirement plans, 401Ks to small businesses. I work for Paychex, like my brother. And the reason I got hired is because I had my own small business. It’s not like I had a lot of sales experience, I wasn’t a closer. But I had the pizzeria, and they said that’s just the kind of person we need. I’m doing pretty well now. Pretty much since I stopped trying to sell and just started being me, and talked to business owners as a business owner. I know their headaches, I know what they go through. I’m able to talk to clients and understand what they’re saying and feeling.
[Editor’s Note: Alexander Pelish was a lifelong resident of the City of Poughkeepsie when this interview was conducted, but he relocated out of state several months later.]