Madonna (in an early publicity shot) lived on the fifth floor of this tenement building at 232 E. Fourth St., where she hung out with Clarke before hitting it big.Photo: Brian Zak/NY Post; Getty Images (inset)
“But fellas kept coming to me with the paper and asking if one of those kids was me. I couldn’t lie and told them the truth.”
He hopes Madonna, whom he called Sis, will get in touch so he can hand her a personal letter explaining how much she meant to the gang and how much pride they take in her success.
“I am happy for her because she is a beautiful person,” says Clarke. “She didn’t judge or discriminate and helped all the people she could.
“She had a lot of love in her heart, and she’ll always be my older sister.”
Clarke, an orphan who was raised in poverty by his grandmother, first met Madonna in the early ’80s after she moved to Alphabet City from her native Michigan. She rented a walk-up at 232 E. Fourth St., a stone’s throw from his tenement building.
They were introduced by a pair of brothers named Danny and Junito, who lived in Madonna’s apartment building. “There was a lot of racism with the whites, blacks and Puerto Ricans, but Sis didn’t care about the color of your skin,” says Clarke. “She was this mad cool girl, and she fitted in.”
At the time, Madonna was dating Bronx DJ John “Jellybean” Benitez, a friend of Danny’s, who told the teens to look out for his girl when she came home late from the recording studio or after performing gigs at nightclubs. “We policed the block,” says Clarke, whose five-strong gang TFK was an acronym for “Those F–king Kids.”
“We’d be out on our skateboards or playing skellies [a street game] and, if any outsiders came in, we was skeptical and on their case.”
Mid-’80s: As Madonna shoots to fame in the ’80s with global hits such as “Like a Virgin,” Clarke, posing below with pals (second from right), spends his days hanging out on the Lower East Side. He drops out of high school after 10th grade and, as he describes it, starts “hustling on the streets.”Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection
1990: Around the time that Madonna is selling out concert halls across America, Europe and Asia with her “Blonde Ambition” tour, a carefree, 21-year-old Clarke is working in construction.Photo: Getty Images
1995: Madonna’s star continues to soar with an honor at MTV’s Video Music Awards. Clarke poses with his adorable 1-year-old son, Lamont Jr., at a photo studio on Delancey Street on the Lower East Side.Photo: Getty Images
2002: Madonna and daughter Lourdes at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Clarke poses for a family shot during a prison visit with his wife, Tanya, and a 7-year-old Lamont Jr.Photo: Dave Benett/Getty Images
The youngsters quickly bonded with Madge, who would hang out with them for hours at a time on their rooftop and stoop. “Sis kept the radio right there, by her side,” recalls Clarke. “If she didn’t have her radio, she had her guitar and she was singing and dancing.
“On summer nights, Danny’s mom would call to us: ‘Hey, go get your friend Flaca! Tell her to come sing for us.’ ”
Other times, they would sit on the floor in Madonna’s sparsely furnished apartment and eat pizza.
“We were tough dudes, and you didn’t want no one to see your weak side, but Sis listened to me,” says Clarke. “I got into a lot of arguments with Danny, and she’d say, ‘C’mon fellas,’ and calm it down.
“We were poor. We didn’t have the latest fashion or the latest jewelry, but she liked our style. We didn’t have much, but we had a whole lot because we had each other.”
He believes she included them in Corman’s photo shoot because she wanted to share the experience with her “little brothers.”
Although Madonna didn’t talk much about her burgeoning showbiz career, they knew she was destined for bigger things.
“We just didn’t know how big,” recalls Clarke. “She was 100 percent committed to making it. Sis was successful on the inside, so currency was surely to come.”
Madonna left the Lower East Side in the fall of 1983, around the time of the release of her self-titled debut album.
Clarke has bittersweet memories about her departure because he never got to say goodbye.
“One day, Junito was sitting on the stoop and the dude looked down,” he recalls. “ ‘Sis broke out,’ he said. ‘Sis left.’
“I tried to cushion the shock, saying that maybe she’d be back. Maybe one day she’d come in a limousine, and the door would open, and she’d say, ‘Get in,’ and give us tickets to her show.
“As a kid, you hope for that kind of thing. But none of it ever happened. We just went on with life.”
The gang broke up in the mid-’80s, after three members moved out of Manhattan. One has since passed away, and Clarke, who started his 20-years-to-life sentence in 1999 for second-degree robbery of a factory, has lost touch with the others.
“I got into the negative lifestyle, hustling on the streets,” admits Clarke, whose rap sheet included firearms possession. “I’m not dead, but I’m buried alive here in jail.”
The father of one is eligible for parole in 2017 and, if Madonna agrees to a meeting, hopes to catch up with her and her family for old times’ sake.
“I don’t want anything from you, Sis, but I hope you get to read this article,” adds Clarke, directly stating his message to Madonna. “Loyalty over royalty. I know the love you had for us kids is still true.”