Of Caterpillars, Churches and Cereal
Omar E. Fajardo
[Omar with his niece and mother at Drew Gardens in the Bronx.]
Omar wore a thick rope of colorful beads around his neck, but otherwise always dressed head to foot in white. He eventually told us that as part of his training to become a Lukumi priest he had to wear all white for a year and seven days. (Lukumi is an offshoot of the African-American Santeria religion.)
When I offered students extra credit if they visited the Leonard Cohen exhibit at the Jewish Museum, Omar was the only student who went. He waited on line for an hour, the only brown-skinned person, and he stayed two hours. I love thinking of Omar there, mesmerized by Leonard Cohen’s music and spirituality.
As a child I was always at some kind of church, Catholic, Baptist, Protestant, among others. I went to Sunday school and served as an altar boy. I was very dedicated. My siblings were bored at church, but I was making a connection with God. The more I went, the stronger the connection. I learned the prayers and would recite them whenever I had some free time. I even started praying every night before bed; if I forgot I would pray in the morning, as if my life depended on it.
Sometimes I would stay over at my grandma’s, a devout Catholic. She had statues and candles all over the place and she prayed throughout the day. I learned a lot from her and loved staying over because I would pray and fall asleep to the candlelight flickering off the walls. The more I prayed the stronger I got. This set the tone for how I would connect with God for the rest of my life.
Growing up we had a full house. There were nine kids and one adult. Two kids were from my mother and seven from my aunt. There were bunk beds everywhere. In the building everyone knew each other and we kids were always in the hallways or in each other's apartments playing. Every now and then we would get in trouble for fighting or misbehaving but usually we were good.
On the first of the month the food stamps came and off to the supermarket we went. Going food shopping was my favorite family activity. My mom would take all nine of us on this excursion; must’ve drove her crazy. The supermarket was huge, the aisles went on forever, the ceiling was really high and there was food everywhere. I was a chubby kid who loved food. The supermarket was like the chocolate factory from Willy Wonka’s, a smorgasburg. As soon as we got in there I make a beeline for the cereal aisle. There I would remain for the majority of the trip. I would look at the cereal boxes one by one examining, evaluating and grading them. I'd put them on the floor and arrange the selected ones in order of importance from maybe to definitely yes. I loved cereal. Like Tony the Tiger, I wanted to be Great. Naively I thought cereal would help me get there.
Time passed and we got older. In my teens my mother would only take me with her shopping. Even though there were three older girls, I was the eldest boy and could help her with the heavier things. When we got home the others would be waiting for us and come down to help. That continued till I moved out. Nowadays when I go food shopping it reminds me of those good times that I spent with my family. I always go to the cereal aisle and reminisce. I still love cereal.
My father was a drug dealer and user, who would come around every once in a while. Everyone was scared of him. Whenever he came around he would beat on my mom, punching, kicking and dragging her through the apartment. One night they started arguing then fighting and he started hitting her. The house was full of frightened children. I couldn’t take all the yelling and screaming so I went out onto the fire escape, climbed down the ladder, dangled off the last rung and jumped. I ran fast, as if death were chasing me, straight to the precinct which was one block away. I got there, winded, and told them what was happening. Within minutes we were back at the apartment. My father just stared at the cops and me, shocked. Of course my father was on his best behavior, acting all nice with the cops. My mother didn’t press charges so they didn’t arrest him.
Another time, it was mom's birthday and the whole family was there. My father came in all high and started fighting with her. He grabbed a knife to stab her and she tried to grab it. All I remember is getting on top of the table, walking over the cake, grabbing three huge porcelain plates and smashing them on his head, one at a time. He fell over, blood spewing from his mouth. My mother tried to help him, collecting his blood and crying. Someone called the cops they came, and again mom didn’t press charges.
My mom is named Milagros (Miracle) because she almost died at birth. She’s short and has light brown skin and thin, straight dark brown hair. When I was about seven, my auntie started doing drugs and Child Protective Services took her kids away. My mother, to keep the family together, took in my seven cousins as foster children. They didn't move out until they were grown. So we went from a household of three to ten overnight and it was a struggle for us all, especially mom. I always wondered how she managed to raise us alone and we all turned out well. However, she had a temper on her, like a little jalapeno pepper, her mouth would be on fire sometimes.
One day I went to Woolworth’s with my mom and wanted a toy. She didn’t have the money for it so I asked how I could make money. “You’re too young, my little man,'' she laughed. But I wouldn’t take no for an answer. Over the next couple of weeks I kept asking -- but didn’t push too much so as not to upset her. Eventually she relented. “Fine, go pick some cans. But don’t cross the streets.”
I got showered and dressed then hit the streets, or street to be more exact. I would walk around the block several times collecting cans at seven years old. I was a working man-kid, an entrepreneur, I was making money. It may not have been much but as a kid walking around with some cash in my pocket, I felt like I was the man, well little man. This made me a very secure child and taught me the value of a dollar at a very young age. That Christmas, I bought my mom and all of my siblings presents.
Every so often we would act up and feel the wrath of hell, the belt, jump rope or plastic bat to our backside...walk by her with one eye open because a shoe can just fly from across the room. She was very stern and disciplined with us, and with just the look you would know. We were a handful.
When I was eight, we moved to a different part of Harlem. It was late in ‘89, around Christmas. I loved the apartment -- a bigger two-bedroom -- but I hated the neighborhood. The building was doo-doo brown and Big Bird yellow and smelled like dead rats inside. We didn’t have any friends and hardly anyone spoke Spanish. At this time, I started having problems with school. I was misbehaving and getting into fights. Eventually I got kicked out and changed schools, from PS 125 to PS 161, and started doing much better.
By the time I was ten I was in the Boy Scouts and loved camping. One summer day I went to my grandma’s and my aunt and cousins were there. As I walked in my cousin Jason ran over and said they were going to give me a present. I got really excited, wondering what it could be. I walked over to my aunt smiling. She smiled back suspiciously and took my hand. We walked to the end of the hallway next to the mailboxes and there under the stairs was my cousin’s bike. She asked if I wanted it. I gleefully said yes and jump and hugged her. My cousin handed his bike down to me. We ran outside and my cousin went to the basement and came back up with a new bike his father had bought him. His bike was nice but I loved the one he had just given me. It was blue with red stripes, real shiny and fast and had amazing breaks. It was a beauty. I was the happiest kid in the world. I went home and was zooming up and down the streets. All the kids on the block were jealous and kept staring. I kept that bike until it was my turn to pass it down to my little cousin.
I have always loved the outdoors. Growing up in NYC it's hard really hard to find a good quiet place. There's always people, traffic, some kind of noise that doesn't allow you to escape. I have always biked everywhere and found little treasures in this city. I have found mountain tops in Washington Heights and lakes in Brooklyn and the Bronx. However the place I've fallen in love with lately is Drew Gardens, a slice of heaven on the Bronx River. I have found a lot of peace and tranquility since I started tending to this small garden.
One day, while volunteering at a clean-up event in Concrete Plant Park, I met this guy Joseph Sanchez. He worked for the Bronx River Alliance, an organization in charge of restoring and maintaining the river. We exchanged numbers and I began working with him to help beautify the river. During my first week we took a canoe and paddled down the river. We canoed past the Bronx Forest and as we approached the Botanical Garden I finally heard silence. It was so peaceful. We continued on through the Bronx Zoo. The sounds of nature were everywhere. We carried the canoe down the waterfall and passed the rapids before coming back to humanity. This has become my new favorite place. The Conservation Crew, five of us plus a manger, were responsible for cleaning up the southern eight of the twenty-four miles of river, parks and paths in the Bronx River watershed. Our area was vast, from Bronx Park, along the northern Bronx border with Mount Vernon and Yonkers in Wakefield on 242st to its mouth along Soundview Park that empties into the Long Island Sound. The Conservation Crew also actively assists the Parks, Forestry and Recreation departments to create a more sustainable ecosystem.
Last week my seasonal position ended. I am truly going to miss this job, my coworkers and going out on the river. Hopefully next season they’ll call back and rehire me. I love this job. The crew and most of the office staff were good, honest, hard-working people. They are real and woke; and care about making a difference.
In my early teens, I moved in with my grandma. It was so cool because I had my own room. She snored really loud, like a train crashing into a tractor trailer loud, but I loved it. There was peace and quiet. I could finally hear myself think for once. I was able to focus on myself and concentrate on my schoolwork. I took care of my grandma when she came to the States. My grandma would only be in the States for three to six months out of the year, so I had a free crib for most of the year. I went to school and maintained good grades. I got a job stocking shelves in the bodega down the hill, across from my girlfriend’s building. This sense of independence opened my eyes to different aspects of life. It made me mature and grow up. The responsibilities of adults, their struggles, and the reasons why they sometimes did what they did, seemed clearer to me.
My father sometimes worked for a taxi service and next to it was a small Pentacostal church which I attended -- when I couldn't make it to the big Catholic church, the Church of the Ascension. Later the small church became a Botanica, a religious and spiritual artifact store. When I transferred to PS 161, I stayed in touch with my friend Carlos, from my old neighborhood. By Junior High, we both on the track team so we would practice and hang out sometimes. Carlos’s family owned the Botanica. I would go there and feel weird but at peace. It reminded me of these strange gatherings that they would have in that building years prior, that momz would take me to. It would seem Christianish, but a lot more spiritual. Carlos’ momz gave me a necklace with seven different colors. I liked the necklace and wore it for many years.
A couple of months after I moved into the building, in 2005, I met this guy Timothy, who lived on the second floor. We met entirely by accident, two drunken fools yelling “Yurp” in the hallway, over and over, until we met up….seriously. After hanging out with him, I realized he was into the same religion that that Carlos was into. He was just beginning his spiritual journey in the religion, Yoruba. It came over from Africa, through the slave trade. The same way children grow up to be similar to their parents, yet are different, so did Yoruba adapt and evolve in the New World. The slaves that came over practiced Yoruba and many other religions, like Palo and Ifa. When they arrived in the Americans many had to change how they worshipped. It was illegal for slaves to worship, so they had to hide and commune secretly. Africans synchronized the African deities to the Catholic saints. From Yoruba one branches out to Lukumi in Cuba, Candomble in Brazil, Voodoo in Haiti, Shango Baptist in Trinidad and Tabago.
Timothy was practicing Ifa, traditional African worship. At first I paid it no mind, but my curiosity was peaked, and I started asking questions. He invited me to go their house meetings to learn, and I did on occasion. Soon after he started focusing more on Lukumi, because he appreciated their social structure better. About a year later he was getting crowned and becoming a priest in the religion. He is very smart, hard-working and a pleasure to be around. After I moved out that building I thought we would lose touch but we didn't; we build a very strong bond and nurtured our friendship through the years.
A couple years ago, in 2015, I decided that I wanted to embark on my journey. Again after some serious soul searching I realized that I would be honored to have Timothy be my godfather. I fought it for some time but it was only natural. I had seen Tim turn his life around right before my eyes. He went to BMCC and dropped out. He took some time off, and then somehow he got it together and transferred to Hostos, then went to City College, Columbia, and now he’s at Rutgers getting his PhD in anthropology. I witnessed his transformation.
I started working and saving my money for the ceremonies and studying their rituals. I would go to the drummings and love the people, their music and the ambience. My godfather never pressured me but I was hooked. I became part of their spiritual community. I struggled, saved my money and did my ceremonies. It was a bumpy road but my religious house had my back. This summer after over four years, I finally got crowned as a priest in the Lukumi religion. When you get crowned you get married to the Orisha of your head and make a pact to dress in white for one year and seven days. I am in that process now.
I have been on this spiritual journey for some time and I'm just beginning. As I sit here listening to Fernandito Villalona, my mom’s favorite artist, my thoughts are scattered. Remembering the past, reliving the present and creating the future. Recognizing our ancestors whose shoulders we stand on. Trusting in faith and believing they will always lead me on the right path. Knowing that in my unwavering faith I’m trying hard not to falter.
* Omar E. Fajardo is a conservationist and will soon be ordained as a Lukumi priest. He plans to graduate from Lehman College in 2021 with a Bachelors degree in Environmental Sciences and Mathematics. Email: email@example.com
© 2020 Omar E. Fajardo. 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.
My Grandmother’s Frying Pan
[Cavrille O’Garro in 2016, after earning her Associates degree in Human Services]
Cavrille O’Garro worked long shifts at a hospital in Brooklyn, then came up to the Bronx for class, and still had the spirit to charm us with her stories. All of her essays were captivating, but the ones about her mother and grandmother were especially moving and vivid
Many of my classmates idolized Mrs. T. L Trench, the principal of the Walkerswood All Age School in the parish of St. Ann’s, Jamaica. Mrs. Trench talked with a lot of authority and besides that, she was the pianist in the school and in the Methodist church that my mother and grandmother were members of.
My mother was the principal’s housekeeper when I was in grade one. The principal’s residence was on the same land as the school, so it made it easier for my mother to bring me to school and pick me up. I was subject to disciplinary actions all the time because my mother worked for the principal; I was not able to get away with anything.
During school sometimes I was able to see my mother as she hung clothes on the clothes line. I also smelled the lunch she cooked as I played tirelessly with my classmates during break time.
The summer before grade two, my mother came home from work with very exciting news; the principal asked her to be the school’s cook. Of course she accepted the job because she would now get a better salary.
My mother cooked hot lunches, make the best fried dumplings, stew beef, chicken, and rice and peas for over three hundred students per day. Almost every student in the school purchased lunch. Parents realized that their children were bringing back home their lunches that they had prepared.
My mother was now one of the most prestigious cooks in my community. The residents who lived in the community also came to the school to purchase lunch because this was extra revenue for the school. All the meals were freshly cooked every day. My mother found ways to feed children who were not able to pay for lunch, because she believed that no one should ever learn on an empty stomach.
After 18 years, at age 58 my mother retired. After that, when there was a special event at the school or in the community, she was asked to prepare the meal. The principal never took no for an answer. My mother was later given an award for her excellent service in the community. Approximately two months after I had given her a medical card that I had received from purchasing medical insurance from Blue Cross Blue Shield, she told me that she needed to go to the doctor because she was feeling bloated. The next six months she was in and out of the hospital for days at a time. She entered the hospital for the last time on the first day of May, 1994; she died the last day of June.
The nursing staff at the hospital was very sympathetic to my family. They could not believe the magnitude of people who visited my mother daily. Sometimes there were so many people, the hospital staff had to initiate schedule visiting times in small groups. She had cooked for the Walkerswood All Age School for eighteen years and although she died over twenty years after retiring, residents of the community still talked about her.
She was named the number one cook in the history of the school.
My grandmother was a beautiful woman, filled with patience, love and pride. She was always ready to teach new things. Even though she is very traditional in her disciplinary style, I never refrained from going to her house because there was always something new for me to learn. Her house was just a happy home.
Going to her house was the meeting place for me to see my cousins. She babysat most of her grandchildren especially when we had days off from school.
As I walked the path up the hill to my grandmother’s house with my brother and sisters I would smell the pastries that she baked. Entering the house through the kitchen, I saw her kneading the flour relentlessly, just to get the right kind of dough she wanted, perfect to make the coconut biscuits she didn’t have enough hands to sell. While the biscuits baked, she waited patiently to remove the gizzards from the oven as she turned the small crispy sprat fish in the large frying pan. That pan held many memories to her childhood.
The frying pan that granny used to bake her pastries in was taken from her own mother’s house, during the time she was sick, fearing that someone would take it without her knowledge. My grandmother used the pan for frying and baking cakes, coconut gizzadas, coconut drops, and greater cakes.
My grandmother was also a midwife. She was very clean and meticulous. Her bed was always so neatly made you wondered if she really slept in it. In her room was a white pleated dress hanging on the back of the door. I always thought that the dress was for special service although I had never see her wear it to church.
One day while she was frying fish, there was a loud knock on the door. She rushed to the door, as if she had been waiting, then she rushed to her room and came back in that white pleated dress, white stockings and white shoes, carrying a small black satchel, similar to the one I saw my doctor with.
I was the youngest of the twelve children in the house. My older cousins, brothers, and two older sisters were now in charge of me. I asked them granny had gone; church was not in session but she left in her white church dress.
“Did you hear the airplane that just passed,” one of my cousins said. “That is the airplane granny is going to get the baby from.” Of course, I believed them because I was too young to know where babies came from.
When I was eight years old, and was able to read the family planning leaflet I found in my mother’s room, I realized that I was not told the truth about the birth of a baby. I could not be angry with the information that was given to me, because my cousins were not told the truth either.
My grandmother was a midwife without a college degree. She delivered most of the babies that were born in her community. My mother had eight children and six of them were delivered by my grandmother. I was the sixth and last one of my mother’s children that my grandmother delivered. Some of my classmates were also delivered by my grandmother. Let me proudly say this, “Granny never lost a baby.” ____________________________________________________________
* Cavrille O’Garro works as a Patient Technician at Wyckoff Medical Center. She graduated from Lehman College in the Spring of 2020 with her bachelor’s in Social Work. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2020 Cavrille O’Garro. 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 Worst Teenage Experience
[Raquel is second from the right, with her parents and sisters at her uncle’s 50th birthday party.]
Raquel Torres’s detailed account of every-day life during the time her family was homeless reads like an adventure story. She conveys how her family’s sense of humor helped them get through that tough time.
The worst part of eighth grade was hopping on the uptown six train, purposely missing my stop so my friends wouldn’t discover the real me. I was known, from the students to the teachers, to be one of smart yet distracted seniors in the school. How could my popularity not interfere with my studies?
I was too busy focused on my appearance to notice the things going on at home.
Makeup always caught my attention and beauty was my thing. I’d apply mascara on my lashes and a touch of Milani lip gloss each morning prior to heading to school. I’d rush out before my mom could force me to wash it off. Consumed in my teenage world, I didn’t pay attention to what was happening at home. My mom and step-dad hadn't been seeing eye to eye for the last six months. She always mentioned leaving him but I didn't see it happening. She loved that man like no other and this wasn’t their first time down this road. Their relationship was like, Mr. & Mrs. Smith. They’d get into a physical altercation to only make up the following morning. This was a norm which explains why I never worried.
Until one day, the second worst day of my life. My real dad rang the bell at Evelyn’s apartment. I was confused as Daddy never showed up unannounced. The first thing he said was how good it smelled. The aroma of sofrito wafted through the air and it was impossible for anyone to leave without the scent attached to their clothes. Evelyn’s mom immediately invited daddy to stay for dinner.
“No, I came to pick the girls up. We have to pack some clothes.” I was in state of shock, all sounds dampened within seconds. I could only hear those words replay in my mind. I didn’t know what was happening but I knew something was about to change. My mom would never have us pack clothes to stay with Daddy in the middle of the school week.
We made our way upstairs to my mom and step-dads’ place. My dad already had the keys to the apartment which worried me some more. “Did something happen to Mami? Is she okay?”
“No, my love, no.” He didn’t want to say much. As I packed five pairs of Pepe jeans, shirts and five Timberland boots and underwear, my sister walked through the door. I asked if she knew what this was about but her stubborn ass ignored me. I proceeded to grab my tooth brush, hair brush and gel.
We walked up 169th Street in complete silence. When the 35 bus came we walked to the back as my dad preferred. Five minutes into our ride, my dad spilt the beans, saying that mom and Jose were splitting up. We were going to a shelter because no one would co-sign a lease for a new apartment and this was her last resort. I couldn’t believe my ears. A shelter?
“Yes, and I’m sorry I couldn’t do more.” My dad made too much money to qualify for a low income apartment and none of my family members would loan my mom a stupid signature. The last thing I could think of is going through the system; my mom always made sure we were straight. I guess she really had it with my stepdad, but I loved him as a dad. I couldn’t fathom the thought of mom leaving him for good.
My sister took it as a joke but I couldn’t take it as lightly. We met up with my mom at the EAU (Emergency Assistance Unit) at 151st Street and Grand Concourse. We had to go through metal detectors just to get inside to the intake office; I could only imagine the type of place it was. When we crossed to the other side, there were people sitting on the floor and it smelled like bums lived in that place. I was so disgusted, I didn’t even dare take a bite of food in case of germs.
For the next two weeks, we had to sit in the EAU from 4 pm until 8 or 9 pm. That was the time the big yellow school busses arrived to pick us up and drive us to crappy hotels in various parts of the city.
One hotel was more like a nasty, scary townhouse in Harlem across the street from a Kennedy Fried Chicken. The floors screeched as we walked over them and the stairs were so old you had to hold on to the railing in hopes not to lose your balance and bust your ass. I was already over it. I wanted my queen-size bed on Union Avenue. The bathroom was full of roaches and the toilet had shit smeared on the wall. I could barely brush my teeth without gagging. I couldn’t believe we were going to live in these conditions until further notice.
Every morning, we had personal alarms, knocking our doors from five to six in the morning. “Uggh!” I’ve never been a morning person and now even less. I didn’t want to awake to my misery. My mom rushed us to get ready before the bus left without us. We got ready within ten minutes, grabbed all our belongings, and rushed down to the yellow school bus. That was only the beginning of our day. From the hotel, the bus took us back to the EAU to check in, and then we could go about our lives. My sister and I walked to the 149th Street train station together every morning. She kind of made my morning with her jokes about how she loved being in the shelter. I’d laugh but as soon as we parted ways my misery would sink back into my soul.
Two weeks in and out of shitty hotels, my mom’s case worker finally told her she had a permanent hotel for us to stay in while our application was processed. That same day, after school we moved into a hotel on 101ST street and Broadway. She said it was like a studio apartment, we had our own kitchen bathroom and room. I wasn’t too excited but I was sure it was cleaner and safer than the places we’ve slept in.
Going to school was the easy part, leaving was the hard part. I used to ride the train with about three close friends who also lived in the Bronx. Although I no longer had to ride the train to the Bronx, I did so anyway. I didn’t want my friends to notice any changes in me. I took the train to my regular stop and headed to my cousins’ house to wait for my mom to pick me up. She hated that my sister and I did this. She complained about our school being closer to the hotel than our cousins’ house. I didn’t know my sisters’ reason for going there but sure knew mine.
Three weeks later, I became familiar with the area and got used to living in that big hotel with hundreds of mini studio apartments. It was starting to feel like home. One day I walked in to notice Mami bought new blankets and quilts, curtains, a shower-curtain set with matching purple rugs. She brought my TV and Playstation and my sister’s 3-way pager. I knew she was trying to make it feel like a home for my sister and me. That was the first day I felt at ease, the first day I felt comfortable calling this place my home. I remember taking a shower, getting into bed and playing The Sims before going to sleep.
The next day after school, my sister and I went to Evelyn’s house. The doorbell rang and once again it was my father. This time he wasn’t as quiet as the first time; I guess he thought we were over the whole shelter thing. He informed us about returning to the EAU. I was pissed off. “But why!!!” Those were the only words I could utter. My face immediately filled with tears. My dad hugged my sister and me as he said he was sorry but things would be just fine. I didn’t want to go back to that stank place or to the shitty hotels. I wanted this nightmare to be over but it was only the beginning.
Raymond and Samy, my two older brothers, decided to get off the streets and into the system with us. My mom told us that was the reason we had to leave our studio apartment on Broadway. I hated them for this.
“Why did they decide to come now? You offered before we got in the first time and they said they would be just fine!” I was furious. I couldn’t stand to see any of their faces. I wanted to run away, far but how far could I’ve really gone before the cops found me and returned me to my misery.
We went through the school bus process, back and forth to stinky hotels but for only a week. I guess they found us a place in a hurry due to our family size.
A bus had transported us to the Lower East Side. On our way down the FDR Drive, I was imagining how the place would look. I asked myself, “Would it be like the studio apartment on 101St or ghetto like the EAU?” As we arrived in the neighborhood, the van took a turn into the projects. I was scared as fuck. We pulled up to a huge building which looked like a school. When we got in, there was a line of people checking in. The security guard told us we could step out to grab a bite if we’d like. My brother Sammy insisted on getting Chinese food. We bought the food and returned to the place. The guard immediately directed us to the cafeteria. It literally looked like a school cafeteria, a huge open space with tables, six microwaves, no stoves, four sinks and a television. I could barely eat the fried rice after noticing I’d be eating in this cafeteria for God knows how long. I didn’t see myself living in this place. My mother didn’t like that part but she didn’t say anything until later that night.
We returned to the lobby where my mom was to check us in. She spoke to the guard while the social worker finished with the family in front of us. It only took for the guard to tell my mom my sister and I were too beautiful young ladies, to get us out of there, not to spend one night there, he insisted this wasn’t the place for good girls like ourselves. My mom didn’t play when it came to her girls. My brothers could defend themselves, but my sister and I were her precious babies. The social worker called out, “Ms. Nieves, you’re next”. My mom wasted no time in telling her she was not spending the night. She gave the excuse of there being no elevator in the building and showed her doctor’s papers to prove she is medically ill. Thankfully the social worker took it well and asked the driver to escort us back to the EAU. At that point I wasn’t upset as I heard the conversation between the guard and my mother. I even noticed how the people who lived there looked at us as if we were fresh meat. I was happy to return to the EAU. Before we left, my mom showed her appreciation to the guard by giving him a hug and about ten dollars to buy dinner.
On our way back, all I could hear my mom say was, “Thank God I didn’t stay. Thank you for that guard, Lord, and my girls, Lord.” My lady would do anything to make sure we were safe and I couldn’t be upset with her because of that. Back at the EAU, we made jokes on how bad our day had gone. We didn’t know what was worse, the Chinese food or that cafeteria. We embraced everything about the EAU and I was okay with sleeping in another shitty hotel for the night. My mom’s case worker told her there was a place in Spanish Harlem but it wasn’t ready for another day. She looked at us and we smiled then she proceeded by telling the lady she will take it. That night we ended up in a hotel on Central Park West. It was one of the cleanest we’ve ever slept in. I thanked the lord because I knew he made that possible. We fooled around the entire night, we made the best of our situation and for once I was okay.
* Raquel Torres studied at Lehman College. For correspondence email: email@example.com
© 2020 Raquel Torres. 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.
Everyone Calls Me Melvin
Monroe Anderson had been a rapper who’d achieved some success, so when he wrote about that, he instantly gained status in the class. He maintained our admiration though, because his gift for storytelling extended to his prose. He also listened keenly to the other students and provided astute insights.
There I stood, nothing much more than a needle in a haystack. At least that’s how I felt as a 26-year-old man among nearly 30 other men who were older and presumably far more experienced in life than I. However, I was named to be in charge of their well-being for one full night that I’ll remember for eternity.
My mother introduced me to Gracepoint Gospel Fellowship Church during one of the roughest periods of my life. Eventually I was baptized there and we both became members. She was heavily involved in the media ministry where she videotaped Sunday services. During one of the tapings she’d heard that there was a ministry to serve homeless people being held at Gracepoint so she volunteered to serve food. The president of this operation, Jenny, informed my mother that they also needed men to stay overnight as chaperones. I decided to help out.
I grew up basically middle class, and shunned homeless people and viewed them as drug addicts. I've seen people sleeping on sidewalks plenty of times but I had never spent significant time or had an impactful conversation with one. I didn’t know what to expect of this night. I truly believed that I’d signed up to watch over a bunch of limping hunchbacks who spoke in slurs and smelled like an alleyway. I thought that somehow it would be just my luck that I would have to break up a fight or stop someone from kneading through someone else's bag.
When I arrived it was nothing like I expected. I walked into the gymnasium where Sunday services were held, and where on Wednesday evenings some members played basketball. This is where the homeless men would be staying overnight. My mother was smiling, and standing behind a long gray folding table, serving food alongside a few other church ladies. The lights were bright and nothing smelled funny. “Am I in the right place?” I thought to myself.
Several men were sitting at different tables eating their food quietly. Some of the men had already begun to lay down their belongings so they could rest. Another simple-minded idea came to mind: “Wait, you guys have belongings,” I thought.
One of the church’s staff approached me and gave a the rundown of what the night should be like. “Just be present and supportive if they need anything. This is a good group and shouldn’t cause any trouble.” I decided to sit in a chair and observe as much as I could.
A sense of serenity circled throughout the atmosphere of the gym. Some of the men were quiet and stayed off to themselves, laying in a sleeping bag as if it were the most comfortable of mattresses. Some of the men were reading or listening to music with headphones. Some joked with each other with a six-inch voice in their native language, and others went to the bathroom from time to time. I selfishly thought to myself -- what's the point of being here? I’m not doing anything; this is a waste of time. But, I said I’d stay for the night so I just sat.
As I stared into the reality of my surroundings empathy started to fill my spirit. The fact that by this time I was the only person sitting in a chair while so many others were sitting or lying on the floor bothered me. I became more disheartened when I noticed many of the men were preparing sleeping bags or a cushion of clothes and towels to sleep on the floor. Meanwhile, I had a comfortable bed with pillows and sheets at home.
One man was still awake and sitting on a set of stairs near the church’s altar. He was thin and dark-skinned with cornrows, and looked to be in his 50s. His hands were veiny but his face looked strong like a flexed muscle. I thought it would be a nice gesture to at least acknowledge him.
“Hey, how are you?” I said.
“God is Good young man.”
I expected him to say, “I’m fine,” or maybe something to the effects of, “I’m trying to maintain.” His response didn’t seem to mirror his circumstances.
He said that he’d run into financial difficulties after losing his job and so many other people experience the same. He would usually stay at his sister's house but she was out of town during that specific weekend. He had the Holy Bible in his hand filled with pen marks as if he’d been studying for a midterm exam. He eagerly spoke to me about what he was reading and how important it was for people to study the bible and understand what God wants from us. He was extremely knowledgeable and spoke with deep passion. I asked him about his take on the end times and what signs he thinks we will see before Jesus returns. “The signs are here, the stage is already set, fire from the sun will breach the Earth when he returns,” he said. His words scared me but they also enlightened me. We talked for over two hours before I asked him his name. He said with pride, “Everyone calls me Melvin.”
Then and there I realized I was in the right place at the right time. In no more than a couple of hours my gratitude and view of the world changed. My chaperone-experience and conversation with Melvin was filled with valuable lessons that would somehow come to be beneficial in my future. It was clear that I was so naive and oblivious to the world around me for thinking homeless people had no family or were alcoholics, crackheads or drug addicts who would probably live out their life in whatever condition that caused them to fall short of their goals. How ignorant of me to attach the label of drug addict to the homeless as if the two are a pencil and eraser.
I learned that peace of mind shouldn’t be governed by the comfort of being able to lock my bedroom door. I was thankful and proud of what my parents were able to provide for my sister and me. I understood that many people, including my parents, were a few misplaced paychecks away from being homeless as well. I returned home to my mother grateful that she invited me to volunteer for the homeless ministry.
* Monroe Anderson is an African-American teacher who uses his background in mathematics, basketball, and music to educate underprivileged youth. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2020 Monroe Anderson. 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.
Chaos on the Grand Concourse
[Eric is at left with his wife and children.]
Eric Agyenim-Boateng’s generous spirit and storytelling panache enriched our class in the summer of 2017. This essay reflects his daily life in New York City as an émigré from Ghana, a husband, a father of three, a taxi-driver, and a student working towards his bachelor’s degree. Eric is now a middle school math teacher and he also tutors math and runs annual workshops for prospective math teachers at Lehman College.
By the time my alarm went off at 6:00 a.m., my son Kaikle was already dressed and almost ready to leave for LaGuardia Airport. His flight was not until 8:45 a.m. and I had informed him the previous night that we would set off from the Bronx at 7:00 am. He would be traveling alone for the first time to the Rocky Mountain High School on a scholarship trip for the next six weeks. He'd never been away from the family for that long.
LaGuardia Airport was currently under major construction, so I could not park the car and spend the last few moments with Kaikle before he got on the flight -- but I was on standby until he finally sent me a text message when he boarded the flight. It was a privilege to have him in the “High School Squared Summer Program” through the recommendation of his academic advisor.
After monitoring Kaikle’s flight I started my work day. I needed to work very hard to catch up on rent that week. The city was quiet for a Friday, a getaway weekend because of Independence. It was also when you see the most tourists in New York City. My working day usually starts at 7:00 a.m. and by 1:00 p.m. I expect to make close to $150. But that day I had been driving for two hours without a ride request. My car--a black Mercedes Benz GL 450, 4.6 liter--is not very friendly on gas in such a situation.
I personally do not like the summer, especially in the New York City because I feel very uncomfortable with the way some people dress, the garbage left on the sidewalk tends to smell very bad and I spend more money on gas in business. Meanwhile, more and more people tend to walk and use Citi Bike ride share -- which also means a plummeting in income.
I found a great parking spot at Central Park West by 72nd Street so I took a break. For the next hour or so, I walked around and occasionally leaned on the four-foot wall around the park, watching joggers, cyclists, couples kissing, parents and children running around amid the trees and grass. As I stood by the Children’s Zoo, I thought, why not go home and take Chacha to a park on this beautiful day? Chacha is my baby girl. She turned seven last April and is getting ready for second grade.
As I walked towards my car, my cell phone signaled an Uber SUV ride request and I accepted. Then my wife called.
“Hello sweetheart,” I said,
“There is chaos on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, so please avoid it if you can,” she told me. “A doctor has been shot and many others are injured.”
While I was on the phone with her, I heard a big bang at the apartment door. It was so loud it seemed like someone was trying to break into our apartment. She was quiet for a moment and my daughter ran to her in the kitchen, terrified. My wife decided not to answer the door but as she peeped through the hole, she saw about eight NYPD officers, some in plain clothes. I told her not to open the door until I got home.
I canceled the ride request and was home in the next twenty minutes. I don't how I made it in that short window but I did. I hope I didn't break any of Bill De Blasio's “Vision Zero” rules and regulation. I walked into the building and was astonished to see the police commissioner, James P. O'Neil, descending the last set of stairs in my apartment building. One of the officers that was with him asked me if I lived in the building.
“Yes sir,” I responded.
“Which apartment?” he asked again. After I responded 5H, I asked him if we were safe in the building. He then asked if I knew the African that lives in apartment 6J; Bello is his name. I stood there and thought for a moment. I knew there was an African in apartment 4K but not 6J. The officer asked me how long I had lived in the building and I answered fifteen years. He showed me a picture, which I later saw on the news that evening., and asked if I had ever met that gentleman. I never recalled meeting him. We might have taken the same elevator once but I didn't recognize him.
Dr. Bello, a former employee at the Bronx Lebanon Hospital, allegedly shot and killed a fellow doctor and injured many other hospital employees on June 30th, 2017, had been living one flight above my apartment floor for two years. The apartment was under police surveillance for about two days.
Chacha was terrified by the whole incident and the police presence thereafter and kept asking questions like, “Why did the police knock so hard at the door? Didn't they see the doorbell? Why are the police still here? What are they looking for?”
* Eric Agyenim-Boateng earned his MS in Mathematics Education from Lehman College in 2019 is now a New York City Department of Education middle and high school mathematics teacher as well as an embedded tutor at the annual Lehman College Math CST Workshop. Eric is originally from Ghana and is married with three children.
© 2020 Eric Agyenim-Boateng. 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.
Although the Storm Blows
[This is the little coqui pin that Amanda Lopez bought at San Juan Airport.]
Amanda Lopez’s essay about a small gold pin in the shape of a frog tells the story of what it was like to live through Hurricane Maria and what life was like in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the storm. She brought us into that storm and showed us how hard it was for her family to wrench away from their island home, but also why it was necessary. I knew her story belonged in this anthology.
Tiny, gold, cheap, and probably made in China. That would be the physical description of a little coqui pin I wear when I can bear to look at it. I bought it on the morning of November 3rd, 2017, in San Juan International Airport. A cheap trinket for tourists to give to someone as a last minute gift from their trip to sunny Puerto Rico. I found it while wandering around aimlessly that morning in the airport terminal with my mother, trying to keep ourselves occupied during the long wait for our flight to New York. We were finally escaping the hell that was breaking out on the island after Hurricane Maria left my homeland destroyed and dangerous to stay in.
A duty-free shop was our first stop that morning, my mother looking for some rum to take to her sisters as a gift. The shop attendant was a tiny, nerdy looking girl with thick glasses and pigtails, which made me wonder if she was even old enough to sell liquor. My mother didn’t think twice to ask her for a recommendation, and this girl started to whip out bottles of everything she had for us to try. She told us all about her favorite cocktails and I realized she was a bit of a party animal as she got us drunk with shots of Bacardi and DonQ. We were more than happy to accept this, as my mother and I were nervous about the trip ahead (and neither of us would dare say no to free booze). We did leave once she started bringing out bottles of expensive scotch, still sober enough to know that flying while completely wasted wasn’t a great idea.
The next stop (that I can remember with the alcohol in my system) was the gift shop. Among the flags, mugs and t-shirts was a bowl filled with different pins. Among them I found this little gold one in the shape of a coqui, a tiny frog native to Puerto Rico, that is famous for its singing at night. The thing was tacky and I wouldn’t have looked twice at it before, but I was sentimental and still drunk, so I took it as a reminder of my home. I really wanted a plushy of a coqui instead, but I didn’t have enough cash on me and bank card readers were still not working, so my debit card was as good as useless. We got our things and boarded that plane to what we thought was salvation. I can still remember being completely silent as the plane made its ascent, but screaming like hell inside my head. I didn’t want to leave.
When I look at it now, one scene in particular comes to mind. A few days after the hurricane hit, and after we were forced by the government and US military to evacuate our homes, when we were staying in the gym of a Boys and Girls Club, I went looking for my mom outside. It wasn’t too late into the night, but it was so dark that if you wandered away far enough from the diesel-powered generators you wouldn’t be able to see your own nose on your face. I was hoping to find her and get a few puffs of one of her awful tasting Ashford cigarettes before she finished it. I found her by following a tiny orange light that hovered at about her height. She was looking at her cellphone when I got to her, which was odd. There was no phone service or any other kind of communication in any part of the island. We were completely cut off from the rest of the world, and at this point any hope for a cellphone being useful was foolish. I asked her what she was doing, and she said recording the sounds. She told me to listen very carefully. I did, but besides the generators, there was nothing. She again told me to listen for something that I hadn’t heard in a long time.
When I concentrated, I heard it. Coquis, a lot of them. It was almost deafening, but I didn’t notice it at first because this was something I grew up with. For years, their numbers had declined, causing fears that they were in danger of being wiped out. This night, though, you would never be able to guess they had any trouble. I felt wrapped in a blanket of their calls, a feeling that took me back to when I was a little girl. My mom just looked at me and said, “See? They’re alive. We’re alive. We’re still here.” I didn’t know what to say, tears starting to fill my eyes but I willed myself not to let them spill. There was no time to cry right now, our only option was to stay strong and carry on. It would be a lie to say that her words didn’t have an effect on me, though. By then we realized how bad things were, and no one knew how we would get out of this situation, but she was right. We’re here. We’re alive.
For weeks after that I would see and feel how bad things were, and how good things could be, but the constant would be the sounds at night. These little frogs thriving in the destruction of everything, coming back from the brink after what felt like the end of the world. They were small, but loud and determined to keep living, and it felt like that was the Puerto Rican spirit then. We are so small, we were so hurt, but we would get out of this somehow, we would live! I was never one to give much thought to feeling pride in where I came from, but in those moments, I learned what it felt like to love a place and people more than words can ever say.
It’s been two years since those days, and I can’t always look at this pin. There are months at a time where I keep it tucked away somewhere in my jewelry box, because I know I’ll want to throw it against a wall. There’s a lot of pain associated with those memories of life after Hurricane Maria. There are other times when I get nostalgic for those times in the dark, reminiscing with my parents about our lives because we had nothing but each other’s company, listening to the night’s creatures sing and dream of better times and the future. It’s a strange feeling to miss such a horrible time, but there are so many moments I’m fond of in those horrible months.
* Amanda Lopez is a Junior at Lehman College studying Sociology with a minor in Data Science. She hopes to go on to earn her master's degree in Data Science. Email: Amanda.email@example.com
© 2020 Amanda Lopez. 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.
Inspired by Trishna
I’m only including this short piece that Shanique Bowden wrote about a classmate because, while praising her classmate, Shanique was articulating what we all want for ourselves, and hope to achieve through our writing. (The rest of Shanique’s fascinating story could be a book on its own.)
I was deeply inspired by my classmate Trishna Ramsamooj to write as fiercely and unapologetically as possible. Her personality is so strong and exuberant that whenever she spoke she made you want to stop and really listen…and not just in person but more importantly in her writing as well. She is honest and bold and there is no better way to live life. So, I try to write in a way that is similar to playing darts; a way that is blunt, forceful and daring. I was also inspired by Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird because every time I would start to feel ashamed of my past or get depressed all over again, I remember Lamott’s words, “We write to expose the unexposed…truth seems to want expression.” I find solace in these words. I needed the truth for me, and hopefully others will find my truth to be relatable and know they are not alone in their struggles.
Writing throughout this course has been therapeutic for me. Most essays represent me at my most vulnerable; I genuinely feel like I have turned myself inside out so that the truth could come out. After writing some essays, I was haunted by painful memories. It took me days to recuperate after writing them; I would be on the bus or walking to school and memories would come back that would make me take a minute to let out a good cry.
Writing encourages me to draw on memories I have hidden in my unconscious and helps me to figure out why they were buried there in the first place. My writing represents healing…and while I know I will struggle with forgiveness for some time, I can confidently say I am no longer angry. Lamott says, “When you open the closet door and let what was inside out, you get a rush of liberation and even joy” …through my writing, I was LIBERATED.
* Shanique Bowden graduated summa cum laude from Lehman College in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in Biology. While in college she was employed by the Wellness Center as a dental awareness advocate. Shanique is now working as dental assistant while she waits to matriculate into a dental program in New York. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2020 Shanique Bowden. 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 Single Book
This is an excerpt of a poem that Nabeela wrote at the end of the semester, spring 2015 as a gift for the whole class.
Where paradise is defined as the first sublime bite of breakfast.
Soon no more was I
an identity ashamed of its existence.
If in this country, people like them
fuel their pens with emotions instead of ink,
Then no more will a story like mine or a million others
not feel a part of America,
A single book.
* Nabeela Van grew up in India and moved to the United States after her mother died when she was 16 years old. She is a chemist by day and poet by night. She is also a court-appointed special advocate, providing emotional and administrative support to youth in, and aging out, of foster care. Email: Nabeela.email@example.com
© 2020 Nabeela Van. 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.