Rolling with the Punches
Drums, Dominoes and Dulce De Leche
Jenifer Rodriguez’ fresh and vibrant essay comes from a prompt to write about summer in the city. Jenifer was born in Washington Heights (Upper Manhattan), but her mother is from the Dominican Republic. Jenifer’s mother would be away for 10 hours a day at her job, so Jenifer and her sisters and brother were often on their own. Jenifer wrote about her experiences 12 years earlier, during the hot August night of the 2003 blackout. She revised and enriched this essay, adding the specific kind of beer that the neighbors were drinking (Corona), the type of music that was playing (Merengue) and gave an example of a Laffy Taffy joke, which brought the reader right back to that memorable night in the city, when the electricity was turned off and everybody communed together on the streets.
The television announced that in a few minutes the Northeastern U.S. would lose power. It was Thursday, August 14, 2003 at around 3:40 p.m. and my siblings and I overreacted because we were all alone. My mother was working and we had no idea what to do. As we watched the news they warned us to buy all the necessary things for this blackout. So immediately my sisters and I got dressed to buy candles, water, canned food and a flashlight.
Our mother left us money but we had already wasted a large amount because we were hungry earlier in the morning. So, we broke into our piggy bank. We had just enough to buy two flashlights, candles, a pack of batteries and at least three cans of ravioli and meatballs.
At 4:10 p.m. our air conditioner turned off. “Don’t panic, we got this,” my sister said. Outside a man shouted, “Se fue la luz” (“The light went off”). My little brother was sleeping, so we were debating about leaving him while we went outside to get things. We argued which led to him waking up.
We went down the stairs and outside the temperature felt like 110 degrees. Walking towards Broadway on 160th Street was like walking in Times Square because there were so many distressed, confused people rushing around.
Our nearest 99-cent store was crowded and chaotic with 70 people filling their carts, running over each other, kids crying, people fighting over items. In less than 10 minutes the store went out of stock.
“Let's go to Pancho’s store,” I said. Pancho is one of my mom’s childhood friends who owned a store four blocks from home. When we got there, Pancho called out to us, giving us a bag of all the things we needed for FREE.
“Take this home. Your mom has been calling and she’s worried,” he said. “She’ll be home soon. Just wait for her in front of the building.” We waited an hour for her, anxious and dehydrated. By 6:30 she appeared; it was the best feeling ever. We cried from excitement and fear.
Upstairs, we turned on the battery-operated radio. They warned us that water would probably go off as well. Instantly, my mother turned on the cold water in the bathtub, filling it to the top. “In case the water goes off, we have just enough to shower,” she explained. She had also bought gallons of water for us to drink.
We prepared a cooler with bottles of water and juice, tuna fish sandwiches, ham and cheese, chips, cookies, crackers, cereal. You name it we had it.
Thirty minutes into preparing all the emergency equipment we were hot and exhausted. Around sunset a hammer banged against something. “CLANK, CLANK, CLANK”. A lady said, “Dale mas duro a esa pumpa, que me quemo del calor” (“hit the pump [fire hydrant] harder, I am dying of heat”). The guys from my block had opened the fire hydrant. The entire block applauded. I asked my mother if we could go outside. We took our things and headed out.
It was dark and gloomy in the staircase. In front of our building was my entire neighborhood and they had a party going on. Merengue was playing from my godfather’s car. Four men were playing dominoes; the women were talking, eating, and drinking Corona beers. The kids were running, playing hide and seek. Minutes later my dad appeared. I felt safe and I was able to play and get wet in the pump.
The block was noisy and crowded but everyone was getting along. My sisters and I decided to walk around the block. Each building had their own thing going on. Neighbors from building 539 were playing Drums (Bongos), Guiro, Claves and a six-stringed guitar, playing El Son Cubano. The teenagers from building 537 were telling Laffy Taffy jokes (“What do you get when you cross a pig with a Christmas tree? A porcupine!”) as they played dice and smoked weed. Neighbors from building 541, the Catholic seniors, were praying, holding their rosaries, hoping the night would go smoothly. We were well protected. We had cops patrolling the streets and for the first time we were able to do anything we wanted without getting in trouble. Around 9:00 we went back to our building .I saw a birthday cake. A Dominican cake to be exact, made of dulce de leche. The frosting was nicely decorated with patterns of flowers in my favorite colors; orange, plum and yellow.
“Oh snap, it’s my birthday, I almost forgot,” I said, out of embarrassment.
Everyone beamed their flashlights on me. All of a sudden my family and neighbors sang the Happy Birthday to me! Next thing I notice the entire block joined in too. It was the best birthday ever.
* Jenifer Rodriguez studied at Lehman College. Email: email@example.com
© 2020 Jenifer Rodriguez. This is an open access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution—Non-Commercial—No-Derivatives License (CC-BY-NC-ND), which permits use, distribution, and reproduction, of the full, original text for non-commercial purposes, provided the original author and source are credited.
A Glimpse Under Our Hijab
[Abdul, front and center, with some of his cousins in New Rochelle, 2004.]
Abdul: “Through poetic language I wish to make transparent my life in all the domains of my existence, as an intellectual, a pre-med college student, a son, a lover, a New-Yorker, and as a Muslim-American. I hope that my words can paint a beautiful story in the minds of my readers and set them free as it has done for me. To make transparent my religion, family, and culture to allow them to see and judge for themselves my life as a Muslim in the hopes of coming together, to accept and celebrate our differences because we are all human. We all have stories to tell and ears to listen with. These are glimpses of my life as a Muslim Indian-American, born to immigrant parents, growing up in New York.”
Coming from a life of poverty in Hyderabad, India, my father and his five brothers moved to New York to attain a better life for their families. The Bronx, with its cheap rent and rather large Muslim Indian community, soon became home. However, as gang violence grew rampant in the 90s and with our mothers being pregnant, my father and his brothers were eager to move their families out of the environment even if it meant living under a single roof. By 1997, they purchased a home in suburban New Rochelle and moved us out of the Bronx. As a result, there were five families and nineteen kids huddled together.
With always being around one another, teasing, joking, and playing, my cousins and I would always get into fights. Sometimes it was with Hamza; sometimes with was with Qadeer. “Stop cheating, harami! (infidel),” “You’re stupid!” or “Shut up, suwar! (pig)” would often roll off our tongues. With always getting into fights with them, I wanted to get my cousins out of my life; I wanted a new house.
Upon hearing my ungrateful complaints, my father was quick to remind me that he had nothing growing up. “I lived in a small shack and couldn’t afford shoes till I was eleven.” He repeated it so often that it made me think that that was his only answer to any question or demand I had.
When we weren’t busy fighting, my cousins and I were playing in our backyard. Every day was an adventure for us, whether we were playing hide and seek or baseball. On a typical summer’s day we played with a baseball bat and a Wilson tennis ball, shouting “Ball ko phenke! Ball ko phenke!,” (Throw the ball!)
Living in New Rochelle, I became accustomed to its Eden-like environment; lush and vast green lawns, fresh piney scent, and pristine streets that were comfortable and serene. I enjoyed my early childhood days despite having an overcrowded house. We were fortunate to have an extensive backyard, fitted with basketball hoops and a view of the City Hall resembling a miniature Versailles.
Living in an area with such amenities and luxuries made me realize how deprived the Bronx was. When we visited my grandmother there, I strolled down its grubby streets, holding my breath in disgust, till the point when I had to gasp for air. Simultaneously, I wondered why I was brought there because I was absolutely sickened by the pervasive odor and filth.
My grandmother lived in an old deteriorating building with graffiti covering the dark maroon brick walls. The bricks, the smell of piss and the sound of sirens wailing in abundance flooded my senses. It was a true concrete jungle.
The first time I came to visit Nanima there, cop cars swarmed through the streets. The siren of one cop car was soon replaced by a much louder one thundering away. So, I did what most six-year-olds would do, and sought refuge.
“Abu! Abu!”I cried frantically. “What’s going on and why are there so many police cars?!” We lived behind the police station in New Rochelle but this was just madness and chaotic. What scared me even more was my father’s unconcerned response. “This is the Bronx, Betoo,” he sighed. He explained to me that this is as normal as us hearing the cicada during a warm summer day or the sound of our own breathing, desensitized and zoned out to our ears but one hundred percent present. I looked around to assess the environment. People were laughing, shouting, swearing, and cars and buses were honking. Everyone and everything was so spontaneous. I kept looking around, analyzing all the simultaneous and rambunctious events.
Upon entering the apartment building, the lobby reeked of a nasty stench. “Abu!!! What is this horrible?” I cried out. “Get used to this smell,” he replied. “You’ll be staying at your grandmother's for the next two weeks to spend time with your cousins.”
As we climbed the stairs and stopped in front of the apartment door, I held my nose. I remember impatiently waiting for the door to open, “1G”, imprinted on the reddish door. Suddenly, the door swung open. “Assalamalikum,” my Nanima said as she hugged us and welcomed us in.
My father looked irritated as we entered and I wondering if he also was upset about his decision to bring the family to this smelly place. We were seated in the living room and I was told to go into another room where the other kids were. However, I didn’t want to leave my father’s side. I thought that if I stayed with him then maybe he would take me back home to New Rochelle.
I thought to myself how small this place was compared to my home. I used to complain to my father that our house was congested, but this place made my home seem like a palace.
While my father was sipping his tea socializing with my grandmother, I was again directed to head towards a bedroom at the end of the dully lit and narrow hall. Upon entering the room, my Gujarati cousins Mohammed and Aslam approached. They were ecstatic to see me but they noticed that I didn’t feel the same way.
“What’s wrong?” Aslam asked but I couldn’t share how I felt.. What really went through my mind was that I was stuck in a place filled with buildings, lacking parks, fields, basketball courts, or any form of outdoor activity for a kid to enjoy during the summer days. There was nothing to appreciate about the Bronx.
As I was ruminating, a loud thud came from the bedroom window, startling us. We immediately got up and looked out, where a thin Pakistani boy around our age was staring excitedly right back at us, a blue ball in his hand. “Yo, Aslam, water park is open!’
Filled with excitement Aslam yelled, “Yo Altaf, for real! I’ll be there in a sec!” Aslam grabbed me and Mohammed by our hands shouting, “Adventure!!” As he pulled me I was confused. Waterpark? Here? There’s no way, I thought to myself; this is the Bronx.
We ran to the lobby, and I began to hear the roaring of a mountain waterfall accompanied by the laughter and screams of children. Aslam then pushed open the front doors, leaving me in a state of awe. Beyond the glistening mist that showered the streets, was a rusted fire hydrant from which water was now gushing out. As the water continued to come pouring out and into the streets, Altaf and other neighborhood kids were running through its stream, getting soaked and jumping around as it pooled under them. Upon joining them, I was no longer blinded with intolerance.
Instantly the streets transformed from a waterpark into a basketball court. Teams were made and we all began playing a game of intense rivalry. While dribbling the ball, we rushed down the streets to the basketball hoops that were shaped like fire escapes! The rule was, the higher up the fire escape ladder, the more points you scored. This was completely different from what I experienced at home. I was amazed to see the Bronx kids using the street and everything they had, to make it more thrilling and exciting. With no basketball court within the vicinity, they made a basketball hoop out of the spaces between the steps of the fire escape.
The next day I woke up to a delicious smell. In the kitchen to my Nanima was making fresh, warm, crispy parathas. My mouth watered as I sat down waiting for her to serve me one. I quickly devoured the buttery warm parathas. But what I enjoyed more than the parathas was my Nanima’s warm and heavenly milk chai.
My cousins were already awake and they had already eaten breakfast. “Abdulhaq! Hurry up so you can come join us,” said Mohammed. I quickly chugged down the chai that I loved so much to go ahead and join them. We headed out searching for more adventures.
During the next two weeks, I continued my routine at Nanima’s house. Every morning after having my crispy parathas and warm milk chai, I roamed with my cousins throughout the streets, especially around Jerome Avenue. We would have our small adventures to the corner stores, pizza shops, all on our own with no adults. We played on the streets and spied on the neighbors of adjacent buildings through our bathroom windows.
After thinking that the Bronx was a dirt hole, I fell in love with it. For some the Bronx was an area of danger and disgust, encouraging them to move out of it, such as my father. But for me, it was a joy, an excitement, a thrill, a freedom, and strength. Although the Bronx was not the prettiest sight, or a welcoming area it still felt more like home. Every day in the Bronx for me during my stay felt like a daring adventure. Even with the odor of urine, the bundle of weave [artificial hair] lying on the floor, and the piles of dog poop on the sidewalks, I came to love it. I realized that despite looking deprived of many luxuries, within its crowdedness the Bronx had a beauty and luxury of its own. Despite not having the amenities that I was fortunate to have, the kids of Bronx were able to have just as much or even more of an adventure. They helped me realize that I didn’t need a large backyard or a basketball hoop to have fun. In all its filth, the Bronx left me with nothing but cherished memories.
* Abdulhaq (Abdul) Syed is a Muslim Indian-American Student at CUNY Lehman College, majoring in Biology and Psychology. He aspires to become a physician in order to help underserved minority individuals to lead healthy lives. He also wishes to be a role model for children within these communities and provide mentorship to them, so that they may actualize their aspirations to become community-serving health professionals. Correspondence should be sent to Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2020 Abdulhaq Syed. This is an open access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution—Non-Commercial—No-Derivatives License (CC-BY-NC-ND), which permits use, distribution, and reproduction, of the full, original text for non-commercial purposes, provided the original author and source are credited.
Someone to Fight for Me
Joel wrote a riveting story about how he and his older brother had to fend for themselves, when they were 11 and 14 years old. His mother was only 14 when she had her first child, and both his parents had only elementary school education. While doing research for his memoir, Joel Alvarado learned that kids like him, who come from a family of low socioeconomic status and endure the disruption of having a parent deported, are at higher risk for emotional and behavioral problems later in life. Joel is beating those odds. He brought a dynamic, intellectual and mature perspective to the class discussion. After graduating in 2016, he became a middle school math teacher in the Bronx.
When I was 11, my father got deported to the Dominican Republic for attempting to sell drugs to a federal agent, and my mother ran away with another man, leaving my brother and me to fend for ourselves. Growing up without parents made me extremely vulnerable and made me a statistic in the at-risk population for becoming a drug addict, at risk of becoming a criminal and at risk of being economically challenged.
Fortunately, I did not fall between the cracks. I was one of lucky survivors who was able to weather this traumatic experience of growing up without my parents.
At the time, my brother was 14, working at a grocery store making $200 a week and was able to afford a room that we used to live in. We only spent what was necessary and budgeted ourselves very carefully. From the $200 my brother paid $75 for the room and we stretched the remaining $125 for the rest of the week. I will never forget the foggy smell of that tight room, where the only things that put a smile on my face were the pigeons that nested in our big old air conditioner. We were both given the ultimate test that solidified our bond. Although we were on an emotional rollercoaster, we made it through what we call the dry season of what was once a flourishing garden.
I was that kid at school that would always show up with the same clothes. I tried alternating clothes as much as I could, but there were very limited combinations; I spent about six months with the same black and red shoes. Looking back, at least I was lucky enough to have someone to fight for me. Seeing my brother struggle the way he did really kept me on task and focused on what was important at the time, school. I became so invested in my studies that I was the top student in most of my classes; however, that was not repairing the financial issues that we were facing. After about a year of misery, I managed to get a job at the store where my brother was working. I worked 25 hours a week and got paid $75 for it. It wasn’t much but I was able to buy my own things without depending on Jordan.
Slowly, I learned how to manage and how to budget myself in a way that nothing mattered besides the goal that I had in mind. Slowly, things were starting to get better. We moved into a bigger room and we both got better paying jobs working with our uncle. I became consumed with the idea that I never wanted to be broke again. I found myself working 70 hours because there was no going back. It got to the point where I was able to save enough money to become a partner with my uncle and invest in a bigger store that was built from the ground up. For the first time in a long time, I felt some sense of belonging. Although it wasn’t much, I felt like I had invested in a multimillion-dollar investment such as Google.
Although I still carry the emotional scars that crushed my childhood, I did not allow it to consume me completely.
* Joel Alvarado is a middle school math teacher. Email: email@example.com
© 2020 Joel Alvarado. This is an open access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution—Non-Commercial—No-Derivatives License (CC-BY-NC-ND), which permits use, distribution, and reproduction, of the full, original text for non-commercial purposes, provided the original author and source are credited.
Pray Without Seasons
Gertrude melted everyone’s hearts when she described how her father, when they lived in Ghana, would bring the kids pineapples and mangos -- and Gertrude would name each fruit after countries she wanted to go. Her father recalled, “Nobody could eat Zimbabwe until you were ready to eat it. Your siblings used to be so angry at you.”
My family was trying to escape from armed rebels, searching for the refugees’ bus, during a civil war in Liberia, 1993, when my mother gave birth to me in the bushes. My umbilical cord got caught onto a honey locust thorn and detached. They feared I wouldn’t survive and my loud cries didn’t make the journey any less stressful.
I was wrapped in an orange and black Kente cloth, a traditional Ghanaian gift from my Ashanti grandmother. On the lining it says “Pray Without Seasons.” As my mother ran with me, she prayed no matter how loud I cried. At this point they had already lost their home, some relatives, their jobs, their dignity and pride. They were determined not to lose my siblings and me.
Trekking for two hours with a parched, hungry and weeping newborn and other children was never a part of their plans but they made it work. On their way to refuge, they came across a barefoot young girl about fourteen years old who lost her mother while trying to escape. She was so scared and she barely had any clothes on. My father took off his slippers and gave them to her. My mother begged the girl, Yeneh, to come with us, reassuring her that my family would help her. She eventually told us that rebels forced her family from their home. Her mother was beaten and raped in front of her, as a bargain with the rebels to let her daughter go. She was concerned she might never be reunited with her mother again.
My mom and dad took turns carrying me. My dad stumbled upon some egusi leaves, a plant that restores good health and brightens eyesight. He mashed the leaves on a rock and gave me some in hopes that I would stop crying. I finally did. When they got closer to the bus station they stopped for a bit to get my mother situated. She was still bleeding from the birth. My father took off his undershirt and created a diaper to catch the blood.
Up ahead hundreds of people were crying and hugging each other. Yeneh recognized one of her mother’s friends. She quickly ran over to her and the lady told her that her mother had died while trying to escape from the rebels. She was found lying naked in the mud in the middle of the woods. My mother grabbed her and hugged her, reassuring her that we were her family now and she wasn’t alone.
My parents left their birthplace not by choice but because they were forced out. They settled into the city of Accra and began rebuilding what they had lost.
In Accra, if you lived in a hut, it meant you were poor; if you had a house made of cement you were middle class; if you lived in a two-story cement home with a fence around it and a gateman, you are considered affluent. I was content with the house my father built for us. We were middle class people. We didn’t have a fence, or the proper roof, but we believed that we would progress by moving elsewhere someday. Deep down inside my parents knew they wouldn’t be in Ghana for long.
My mother was a fisherwoman, and my father was a construction worker and a full time student. At six years old I was thinking of ways to help my parents bring in more income. I convinced my father to build a garden in our backyard, assuring him that he wouldn’t have to worry; it would be my responsibility. He agreed and I was more than delighted to take on that task.
I grew tomatoes, onions, peppers and mangoes. Later I asked for a swing and a bench. My father never turned down my requests. On most days I slumbered in the garden until my father came home. My family was separated during mornings, but together at night. I anticipated those nights. My mom would cook a delectable meal and we would all share one large bowl and talk about our day with our mouths full. Those are the times which I vividly remember.
They lied. They told me the United States would be very clean and I could press a button on a machine and chicken will come out. I can select the flavor I wanted whether it’s spicy or honey glazed, the machine would provide it. It was all a ploy to motivate me to be eager to come here. I was devastated that Yeneh did not come with us because she was pregnant and wanted to stay back home with the love of her life. I first arrived in the United States at age eight, in the fall of 2001. We were stuck in the airport waiting for my aunt; her car had a flat tire in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge. We were stuck at that airport; so many thoughts were going through my head. “Does this mean no more chicken?” I asked my dad “Don’t worry you’re going to get all the chicken you want” he replied. I tried to stay awake and be content and hopeful but ended up falling asleep on his lap. I woke up to the sound of my mom’s voice; she kept saying “Woowww” in amazement. The cool breeze hit my face as I looked out the window at tall buildings across the large body of water. It was absolutely stunning, such a wonderful site. I was so used to seeing huts and houses with zinc roofs, that I wanted to jump out of the car, run across the body of water and just hug the buildings. I suddenly wanted this never-ending bridge to come to an end.
A month later I enrolled in PS 316, very excited to wear a navy blue and white uniform. I was the only African in my class, I spoke a different language, and I always isolated myself from my peers. I never did like the lunches; they smelled like garlic mixed with hot dogs especially the beef patties. The only thing I was fascinated by was the pizza and fried chicken, of course. Even though I didn’t receive the chicken through a machine, I was absolutely pleased with the taste. The cheese and the crust of the pizza was my favorite. I use to peel the cheese off the pizza and rip off the crust and eat it. I thought broccolis were trees and I just couldn’t bring myself to consume trees.
I was never able to walk home from school by myself, even though it was five minutes away from home. My dad was so overprotective and he had every right to be. There were lots of awful things going on in that neighborhood. Every day there were fights and some nights I would hear loud noises that sounded like fire crackers, but there was no celebration afterwards, just ambulances and cop cars.
No one told me about winter or how brutal it could be. My family wasn’t rich and it was hard to find a jacket that would keep me warm at an affordable price. I use to wear layers over layers, just to prevent my body from becoming numb.
I went to sleep away camp in New Hampshire. Trees surrounded the camp; we had to drive at least an hour to start seeing city lights. There were bunks, cabins, tents and all of my peers from different parts of the world, that’s why the camp was called “World Fellowship”. I met kids from China, Germany, Poland and Madagascar. It felt great getting away from my parents. I felt a sense of independence; peace and most importantly I didn’t wake up to my mother demanding that I completed my chores prior to going outside. It was always scorching hot outside, and the trips to the pond were so long, by the time I got there I was discouraged to swim. I tasted things I didn’t know existed. I started eating things like roasted duck with a hint of hot sauce, and spring rolls that were filled with vegetables and snail. I would sit in the tree at times and read my favorite saga Twilight. Some mornings, I woke up to birds chirping. My favorite weather was the rain, for some weird reason I loved it when the rain hit the zinc of my bunk. Not being around social media and technology made me feel more in tuned with nature. I understood the importance of quiet, I heard my thoughts more and for me I valued that a lot. Coming from a city that never sleeps, I appreciated the difference.
I was sleeping when my cell phone rang in my dream. It was 11:00 pm and my mother’s voice sounded so desolate. I knew it was serious because she called me by my native name, saying, “Nyemadie grann ou te mouri”. It felt unreal, I thought I was still dreaming. Reality hit when my warm tears dripped on my thighs. Hearing her say that my grandmother in Liberia had passed away took a toll on my whole being. I wish I could’ve prevented heart failure. My heart burned and I asked, “Why God?” It felt like the world collapsed on my chest. I couldn’t breathe properly. My bunkmates woke up in fear, hearing me sob. When I told them the bad news they shared my sorrow, staying up with me until the sun came up.
Suddenly mornings were so cold. Rainy days felt lonely, sad and uncomfortable. My grandmother was on my mind every day, my heart always felt heavy. I barely ate, food didn’t taste so important anymore. I walked into my camp leader’s office breaking down and said I want to go back to New York. I wanted to be there for my mother.
Traveling on that bus back to the city was bittersweet. I was on that bus thinking of things to say to my mother to cheer her up. I remembered thinking, “When I get home I’m going to do all my chores before she even tells me.” I wanted to do everything and anything to help her. In the back of my mind I missed my World Fellowship friends. I missed the pond, reading in the trees and picking berries. As soon as I arrived in New York City, 42nd Street was so noisy with cars, tourists, children and families everywhere.
I finally arrived home and embraced my mother with a warm hug and told her, “I’m here for you”. That look on her face was priceless. I saw hope and I felt needed. That feeling of knowing that I was helping her get through such a tragic time by just by being there was the most amazing feeling in the world. I missed World Fellowship, but I knew I was welcome to come back anytime.
* Gertrude Kobbah will graduate from the University of Rochester School of Nursing with a BSN, RN degree in the summer of 2020. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2020 Gertrude Kobbah. This is an open access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution—Non-Commercial—No-Derivatives License (CC-BY-NC-ND), which permits use, distribution, and reproduction, of the full, original text for non-commercial purposes, provided the original author and source are credited.
The Struggling Hero
Griffith: “Through my writing I’ve come to see how many things I’m not over. My mind has covered up a lot of the traumas I’ve endured. Through writing, I’ve noticed how alive my traumas really are, living through my fears all this time. I have not completely processed, understood and overcome all the winters of my life.”
As I made my way through life I was social out of necessity. Growing up I looked different than most of the neighborhood. By 10 years old I had a lot of friends who would scream out my window and ring my doorbell for me to come outside to play at different hours. The schedule of my life was spent running around making friends and learning how to navigate between social circles.
When I was 10 years old, the kids from the neighborhood would get together in front of C.E.S. 109. That's the elementary school most of us attended. Sometimes the kids from the closest blocks would come to play games in front of my house. I was the kid that lived next to C.E.S. 109 and they would all be in front of my house screaming my name to come out to play. “Griffith! Griff! Yo! Yo,” they’d scream. I would walk to my window and tell them whether I wanted to play or not.
They knew the deal: I had to watch Toonami and Dragon Ball Z, which were on Cartoon Network where I would watch Anime (a genre of Japanese cartoons). The main Anime character and my childhood hero, Goku, would train and train to test himself against the strongest people around. This characteristic became a part of me. I would run as fast as possible in my hallway while there were commercials, practicing before heading outside, always trying to get faster.
Once my cartoon was done I would see how many kids were outside. Most of the time we got three blocks’ worth of kids coming to Popham from Andrews and Montgomery Avenues. As we grew up we played football or basketball but never baseball. But on Popham we played Manhunt. All the nearest basketball courts were controlled by different gangs and blocks, and were far away for kids our ages.
There would easily be 30 of us playing Manhunt ranging from ages 9 to 14. When we played I would wait until they all caught each other so they could then chase after me. I loved to prove how fast I was. Often, we would “cut ass on each other,” something I learned quickly when socializing with the neighborhood kids. “I don’t know how you're so fast, Griff, you’re not even black,” they’d say. “It’s probably because Dominicans don't wear socks and that makes you light on your feet,” or some other racially influenced joke. Quickly I’d tell some racist joke from the 90s and early 2000s that would not be politically correct today, or I’d make a joke about the next guy to continue with the aggressive banter and not have the spotlight on me. They all knew my weak spot, the “hot mom” jokes that led to instant fights.
When playing Manhunt we would climb the school gates and hide in the back of the school. Other kids would climb nearby fire escapes, anything to make it difficult for the girls and the less athletic kids to catch us. The police stopped us many times, and we would tell them what we were doing, and they’d drive away. Every night ended with us telling the most horrible and racist jokes to one another. In the morning I would wake up with scratches and aches from the night before. We didn't stop playing games together until we were 18 years old.
While my mother was growing up in the Dominican Republic, the dictator, Trujillo, was ethnically cleansing the Dominican side of the Island of our Haitian neighbors. On many occasions my oldest uncles went into hiding in the mountains, so they wouldn’t get harassed by law enforcement. On many occasions my mother saw men hanging from trees along the road where she would sell fruit. She always dreamed of leaving the countryside and moving into the city, Santo Domingo.
To get to school she would hitch-hike alongside the main road or walk about 11 miles. This one time, two men tried to grope her and her friend, but they ran and screamed for help. The neighborhood men saved them and apprehended the men. They were never seen again. Some years later my mother and one of her brothers, Juan, left to live with distant and more well-off relatives in a bigger town for the promise of a better life and employment. She was roughly 10 years old.
A little over three years later my mother came back to the countryside because her oldest three brothers who worked at the town’s gas station got mugged, shot and killed. Juan was there, and he hid during the homicide and robbery. He was able to later point out the police officers involved in the killing. Eventually they escaped and went into hiding. The family went into economic and spiritual shambles shortly after. This led my mother and two sisters to leave the country for a better life in the U.S. for everyone by sending remittances.
I live the motif of the struggling hero. As I grew up my mindset changed, I wasn’t an idealist anymore. I ruminated because of recurring situations with malevolent people. For years I brooded on the idea that I wasn’t safe, that I was being preyed upon. But as my body grew so did my capacity to believe in myself.
* Griffith Nunez graduated from Lehman College in 2018 with a degree in political science. He has been accepted into the New York Police Department and will begin training in the fall of 2020. Correspondence should be sent to Email: email@example.com
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