Sunday, July 17, 2016

Middle River

It was the first truly nice day of the year in 1982, one of those sunny, warm early March days that preview the coming spring. I still had no friends. I was still the weird, non-white kid from Jersey who wore his snow boots until well after all the snow had melted, then replaced those with a pair of Sikes, counterfeit Nikes with the swoosh glues on upside down. 

Having a pair Sikes may have been worse than wearing the ducks when there was no snow on the ground. I had people start calling me Freddy in lieu of Fernando. It sounded more American in this place, Middle River, where I was the darkest skinned person, the closest being a girl of Native American descent. Besides, I couldn’t abide the twang that came out when the kids pronounced the nan in Fernando. Also, Freddy was the nickname everyone called my father, who had no idea we had left Jersey. Even then, I suspected I would never see him again. As much as anything else, it was a twelve-year-old’s way to honor his dad.

I decided that the day was too gorgeous to be spoiled by the fact I had no friends on that gorgeous pre-spring Saturday. I slipped on my Sikes, picked a direction, and just started walking. For as much as I hated Middle River, it was beautiful. There were huge, wooded expanses and lush greenery everywhere. I found a creek and followed it.

I walked for what seemed miles, but I’m sure was far less, until I ran into someone I thought I recognized, a girl. “Freddy?” she called out to me with a smile. It was Kim from class at my new school, Stemmers Run Junior High. I didn’t know her well. A taller, thin wisp of girl who wore turquoise tortoise shell glasses. She had seemed shy, not exactly the girl I typically hung out with. But she was a friendly face, something I was desperate for. She invited me into her home, and I welcomed it.

She got me something to drink, and we went into her nicely manicured baack yard and talked a bit, about what I don’t completely remember.But I do remember that she was the first person to show an interest in who I was rather than what I was. 


I’m sure I went on and on about Jersey, about all the friends I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to, about my now dashed dream of studying acting at the New York School of Performing Arts—the so-called Fame school. Eventually, Kim asked me if I wanted to listen to some music.

So we lay on her lawn, looking at the wide, blue sky, listening to Elton John. The song Daniel was her favorite. Kim had an older brother named Daniel who she’d lost, and the song served as a tribute, a reminder of what she’d lost. By the time side A of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was over we were holding hands. I felt compelled to kiss her. We hung out for a little while longer, holding hands, kissing; but by the end of the last side of the album, I felt ready to move on. I kissed her one last time before heading back home.

By the time the weekend was over and we’d returned to school, it was as if nothing had happened, as if we both knew we had just needed that moment to shake off the loneliness that had been plaguing us both—that it had been enough.

Things would change quickly from that point on. I would soon begin to hang out with a group of troublemakers from my new home in the Riverdale Village apartment complex we’d moved to. I would spend the next nine months transforming from straight A student to an alcholic, juvenile delinquent. I didn’t know then that I would almost get arrested a few times, tag along for a gangbang behind Middlesex Library only to be turned away once I got there—“not the one with the glasses,” the girl would say—I would even help burn a cross.

But all that would come later. However, on that warm, late winter day in 1982, I just needed to feel like I belonged somewhere, again. For the briefest moment, Kim gave me exactly that. If only I had buried myself in that, in Kim’s kind offer of friendship, I might’ve avoided the dark spiral I would soon fall into.


Saturday, July 9, 2016

Flag House


“Okay, we’re recording now.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Everything you say from this point forward will be on record.”

“Right. I understand.”

“Great! Why don’t we start with letting us know who you are? Your name, and your position.”

“Sure. My name is Alex Ortiz. I’m a Secretary Director in the Office of Family Assistance, a part of Administration for Children and Families, a division of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.”

“I think we have that cleared up. Now, let’s move on to why you asked me here. How can I help?”

“I’m resigning. I’ve had enough. I’m leaving.”

“With all due respect, Mr. Ortiz, people leave their government jobs everyday. Unless you’re a cabinet secretary, quitting your job isn’t a big deal. I mean, unless there’s some juicy scandal involved. Did you get caught embezzling, Mr. Ortiz? Did you sleep with someone you shouldn’t have.”

“No! Nothing like that.”

“Well then, why should I care? Why should anyone care?”

“Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Nobody does care, do they? I mean, some care. For a minute. If it makes it into the news cycle. Don’t get me wrong. There are a few, like me, who care plenty. Care too much. Maybe that’s because we hope that we can care enough for the rest of you, but that’s not true. There’s not enough of us for that.”

“Care about what?”

“About what’s tearing up the very fabric of this country, the cancer that eats us from within.”

“I’m sorry. Don’t you think you’re being a bit cryptic and hyperbolic?”

“Sure! Sure. Let’s be real. We can’t cure a disease we don’t understand, can we?

“So, let’s take a look at what’s happening out here. Poor or low income families make up half of our country. More than a quarter of all blacks live in poverty, nearly as many Hispanics. A third of the families on welfare are black, but Hispanics and whites each make up nearly just as much. But it’s the African American community that bears the brunt of the blame for the need for social programs. When anybody says welfare, the image of the unmarried, black mother who’s too lazy to work, but can’t stop doing drugs and having children we have to pay for is the first one that comes to mind for a lot of people. For some, it’s the only image.”

“So you’re quitting because poverty has an image problem?”

“It does. 37% of people on SNAP, or what we used to call food stamps, are white compared to only 22% of all recipients made up of African Americans. Of course, that might be different if we had a living wage and didn’t have to supplement incomes for so many working families. You know, about 60% of people on food stamps work but just don’t earn enough to cover their bills and eat. But the myths persist, and they create enough resistance for anything to truly change. But, no, that’s not why.”

“So, why then?”

“Because nothing changes. Nothing seems to ever change, not where the change is really needed.”

“And where is that?”

“In the very communities we want to blame for the problem. If they’re not killing each other, the people we pay to protect us are killing them or locking them up, and for some reason, that’s just fine with plenty of people. One less thug on the streets is an improvement.

“But they’re wrong. I may work in Washington, but I still live in Baltimore. I grew up in Baltimore, and I’ve had a front row seat to the devastation that systemic poverty has wreaked in large pockets of that city.”

“So this is about Freddie Gray?”

“No, man! Freddie Gray is about this. Do you want to know why I got into this line of work?”

“Only if it’s relevant.”

“I could point to a number of things--being raised on welfare, by a single mother who struggled with drugs and alcohol, never really knowing my father or even having had a strong male role model in my life; but to be perfectly honest, my childhood wasn’t as bad as some.

“I was dating a girl named Sol when I was still at Temple. Her father named her that because when she smiled, it was like the sun suddenly appeared in the sky. Sol had two young daughters, and a deadbeat of an ex-husband. She was living in Flag House at the time, one of the high rise housing projects we finally began tearing down in 1990s. It was notorious as the type of housing that would be taken over by drug dealers, like you’d see in Homicide or The Wire. She would usually meet me at the room I rented during summer breaks from school. But we were eating in Little Italy, one time, and it didn’t make sense to go across town to my place when we were right in the shadow of the towers.

Flag House was so close to the Inner Harbor, I’d walked past them plenty of times, but walking up to them, at night, under the gloom of street lamps? It was intimidating, even to a kid with my background. This is what my mother was always hustling to keep us out of. The gauntlet of angry, young black men all staring you down as you walk past didn’t make it any easier.

“Sol had warned to keep my arm around her, and to keep my eyes straight ahead, or towards her until we made it into the building. Inside, there was just one working elevator. The other one had been disabled by the dealers to have more control over who went anywhere, and to make it easier to evade police.

“When the elevator finally arrived—maybe it was just the anxiety of so many violent eyes on me, but it felt like we were waiting for an eternity for it—the doors opened, and I had to steel myself so I didn’t gag at that rancid ammonia smell left from old urine. Fortunately, she lived on the eighth floor. I don’t know that I could have taken it if she had lived any higher.

“We stopped to check in on her daughter, first. The family across the hall was watching her. Sol introduced me to three women. The oldest was in her mid 40s. She lived there with her daughter, approaching 30, and her daughter, a pregnant teen who already had an infant daughter. Four generations of women, all living in the only home they’d ever known.

“I wasn’t surprised. I had just taken a course on the sociology of poverty, so I had read plenty about the vicious cycle that plagues many African American women. In a society where the men readily abandon their partners and children, the female parent typically exhibits resentment towards her own children. If that child is a girl, she will seek intimacy in the arms of anyone willing to give it. Sadly, that usually ends up being one of the very black males that will disappear the very moment a child comes into the equation.

“But that’s fine, because that girl’s going to have a child, someone that will finally love her unconditionally. But then, the reality of parenting hits, and she has no one to help her, except the mother who drove her away in the first place. And sometime during the sleepless night and the endless crying, she ends up resenting her own child.

“They turn to alcohol and drugs to escape the loneliness, get addicted, turn to stealing or prostitution to feed the habit. And when they realize they need help, they have to wait for weeks before a bed becomes available in a treatment center. Weeks is too long to survive in that environment without giving in to the physical trauma of withdrawal and the desire to escape it. By the time the bed is open, they moment has passed, the desire to stop has been stifled. And on it goes.

“I understood the concept, but to see it, to meet the very women that had only existed in textbooks and research papers for me… That’s what put everything I was doing in perspective for me.”

“Okay, so I get why you do it. Why are you stopping?”

“I got up and got dressed early the next morning. I was fine in the safety of Sol’s apartment, but I was eager to be out of Flag House. Worse than taking forever, it seemed like the one working elevator wasn’t working at all. I thought, maybe the dealers disabled that one, too, once the workday was done. I decided to take the stairs.

“It was like descending a level of Hell. Most of the lights were out. The stench of urine and feces was overpowering. Once my eyes adjusted, I could just make out addicts, curled in dark corners, sleeping off their highs. I don’t think I was ever as happy to see the Sun as I was coming out of that stairwell.

“Just a couple of blocks west, there was this small field of bright yellow flowers planted on a large median just off the Jones Falls Expressway, a splash of beauty haunted by the shadow of those towers. I walked into it a bit, fell to my knees and cried. I’d walked past that very spot plenty of times, too, and never had the flowers looked so glorious. I got myself together, stood up, and turned back toward flag house. I could see someone looking down, hands gripped on the fence that wrapped around each tower like chainmail, and I wondered how the flowers looked from there. Could they even see them?”

“Like you said, they brought all those high rises down.”

“Yeah, but they just spread the problems out into surrounding counties. We eliminated the fortresses dealers used to operate a little more easily, but we also created easier access for addicts migrating from Oxycontin and other overprescribed opiates. All we did is relocate their businesses to the suburbs, expanding their customer base”

“So you failed. That’s why you’re quitting?”

“We all failed. We continue to fail. We bicker about details and blame, and look for easy fixes instead of solutions. Look at the program I run, Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood. We’ve given out 150 million dollars in grants for programs to promote stable marriages and responsible fatherhood. Has any of that made a difference? We have our success stories. Most of these programs do. But you can’t force most kids who grew up in that environment, without fathers in their lives themselves, to want to be good fathers.”

“You’re leaving because you realize it’s hopeless.”

“I wouldn’t say hopeless. There are programs that have been shown to work effectively. Music and art programs that were successful in countries with similarly impoverished and violence-riddled urban populations have been imported into a few cities. Anything that uses up idle time and offers kids a healthy way to express themselves helps, including sports. Some school systems hire social workers to follow up on potential truants and make sure students have anything they need to succeed in school. But that’s only happening in small pockets. It’s nearly impossible to get those programs funded with the political climate the way it is. Generally, we’re cutting arts to give these kids more time to study for standardized tests, a half-assed attempt to make up some of the ground we’ve lost to other students around the world. Not hopeless, just… not full of hope.”

“But wasn’t that what Obama was selling?”

“Sure. But he’s not just the black president, he’s the president. He can’t be seen as only partial to black people problems. Besides, Republicans have used gerrymandering and low voter turnout for midterm elections to entrench themselves in Congress. They oppose anything that may end up looking like a win for him. They’re just coming around to the costs of mass incarceration, even if only from a financial perspective. But what do they have to come out to? With few prospects, many will end up right back in a life of crime. They will survive, whatever way they can.”

“So what happens, now?”

“Who knows. Maybe we’ll keep doing the right things. Maybe we’ll show them that we value them enough that they begin to value themselves. Only when they value their own lives will they begin to value the lives of others. Or maybe we keep dividing ourselves, keep blaming them for a situation we’re all responsible for creating. Maybe we keep treating them all like the dangerous criminals a few of them are.

“If that happens, we’re talking about despair of Palestinian proportions. Eventually, that deep seated rage they use to destroy each other will be turned outward. Black on black violence will transition to black on everything else violence. They’ll be prime for recruitment by terrorist organizations, if the gangs, themselves, don’t become domestic terrorist outfits. We’ll be more scared. We’ll double down on the use of law enforcement & incarceration to try and restore order, kill guilty and innocent, alike, deepen their resentment of us. And the spiral descends downward to... who knows where. But wherever that is, I don’t want to be around to see it. I can’t.”

“Where will you go, Mr. Ortiz. What will you do now?”

“I’m going home, Mr. Fitz. Puerto Rico. My family's from Ponce. I wasn’t born there, but I spent summers there. I have a profound connection to the people. They face many of the same issues, but they’re all worse off, financially. They need me, and there, even small deeds can have large impacts.”

“So that’s it, then. You’re giving up.”

“Not giving up. Just giving in. This country hasn’t hit bottom, yet. Keeping everyone divided for the benefit of a few has proven to be an effective strategy. When America get tired of shooting itself in the foot, over and over, I’ll be back. That is, if I’m not too in love with life in the tropics.”

“Ha! Well, if you know who wins, I might be right behind you.”

“Absolutely. Come check me out. I’ll show you all the great beaches the tourists don’t know about.”

“Well, I think we have enough. I'll get this to my editor, but to be honest, there's nothing new here. You realize, none of this will likely see the light of day?”

 “Sure. I get it. The information's been out there, but the people who need it most still don't get it. 

“And they won't. Unless you get Fox to put it out there, but you know that's not going to happen. I'm sorry. I see how important this is to you. I wish there was more I could do. Before we wrap, is there anything you’d like to add.”

“No, I think you have the basics. Except, and I’ll leave it at this: We’ve figured out that addicts don’t have to hit rock bottom to finally decide to enter recovery. They only need a moment of lucidity powerful enough for them to realize that they are killing themselves. There a large part of this country that’s addicted to fear. It controls the way they live, the way they vote, the way they treat the people they’ve been taught to fear. Let’s hope America has it’s moment of lucidity, because rock bottom will come with unbridled violence and race wars. And let’s hope that when that moment of lucidity comes, there will be a bed available, before it all collapses.”

Thursday, July 7, 2016

#niggersmatter

Another one gone...
...& another one gone.

Where were you?
Still celebrating your Independence,
still picking beer pickled bbq out
of your teeth?

Did you look up from your reverie
long enough to toss a hashtag
into a virtual wind between peeks
of omg pics & lol kittens?

Or maybe you sdmh'd in disgust,
not for the dead, but because here comes another
news cycle spent dodging the issue,
or having to whitesplain how all
lives matter
, until you get home
& listen to the Fox whisper,
demonize the lives of niggers
who really don't mean shit
to you.

Do something,
right now: go to a mirror,
look into your eyes,
try to see the faces
of those who died—Do you remember
any? Do you remember
a name? Perhaps
you can think of your one black friend, then—
& tell yourself: niggers matter,
niggers matter,
even niggers matter.

Even niggers who be stealin', lootin',
hookin', shootin',
all that!

Even niggers matter.

What you call crime,
is simply survival.

You want to blame
us for our predicament,
because you refuse to look in mirror—
admit it, you haven't done it yet—
& accept that you have stood idly
while we struggled,
idly while we try to overcome
poverty,
substandard education,
locked up fathers,
drug addict mothers,
& the only chance we see
to rise are devils
disguised as saviors,
& the only scholarships
we're offered is to the University of State Pen.

But none of that matters.

None of it matters,
because you have yet to admit
niggers matter.

If you really thought
we mattered,
we would think
we matter.

Pull yourself away
from that mirror,
& if you now truly believe
ALL lives matter,
join us.
Help us
commemorate our martyrs
& demand for us the dignity
you claim 
all lives deserve.

Or not.

But be'ware,
there's only so much injustice
we will take before forced
to put flames to our tongues
& breathe a fire
hot enough
to ignite the sky.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Coke Is It!

I’m sitting around a small kitchen table with my friend Nicky, Roberto, the drug dealer I’d just met, and twenty-eight grams of powder cocaine. There is a pot of coke on the stove, mixed with water and baking soda, boiling down to crack rock. That isn’t for us. Ricky and I decided to go half on an ounce of dust. It was easier to sell without having to piss off the dealers in the projects and poorer neighborhoods. Pissed off ghetto dealers will shoot you. Powder sells to anyone.

I’m not happy doing this. My mother died a little over six months ago. AIDS. I had sworn never to use hard drugs after watching heroin annihilate her. Selling them is just as bad. Worse. I feel like I’m about to enable chaos for dozens of people.

I’ve justified it to myself. I told myself that it was my only choice, my last option. If this didn’t work... I have two children, two beautiful boys. Fernando, my oldest, had turned two in October. We call him Boo because he looked so scared when he was born. Cristiano, born thirteen months later, had just turned one. He came out looking like Leonard Nimoy, so we call him Spock. I had just spoken to their mother, Maria, and she had nothing to offer.

Maria and I split up a few weeks ago. It was a long time in coming. She was barely sixteen when we met, and I was just some horny, nineteen year old virgin. It wasn't long before she had the baby she’d chosen me for. Cristiano, our second child, was no one’s choice.

When Cris was born, Maria went despondent. She paid a minimal amount of attention to Cris. I spent more time with him, and I was working forty hours a week, selling camera equipment for Ritz. When she had recuperated from labor, a very easy labor where she practically shot Cris out of her womb like a cannon, Maria started to let me know that she felt as if she’d wasted her childhood.

I had warned her when we first started dating that we were too young to start a family. My mother had her first child at sixteen, and I was witness to the disasters that can befall the family of a single, teenaged mother. I don’t recommend it. But it was exactly what Maria wanted, and she had chosen me to father her child. I had done my part. I could hang around or go away. The choice was mine.

I chose to stay. I had never had a father around, even though I was the first child my mother had in wedlock. My father had spent some time in jail, and once he got out, my parents just couldn’t pick up the pieces, mostly because mom had started using again, mostly because dad had been in jail. I was eight the last time I saw my dad. There was no fucking way I was going to be that father.

I stayed. I stayed even though I suspected that it wouldn’t be long before this maternal instinct gave way to a need to be young and free. I stayed through three years of pointless arguments, futile fights, and painful cheating. The last six months were the worst. Maria would be waiting for me to get home from work so she could flee for the night. What started out as a little partying on the weekends had become a nightly celebration of her youth. I’d spend the night tossing, turning, and crying until the sun began creeping out and I would finally hear her key in the door. There was no doubt she was fucking anyone but me, in the end.

I was buying my first home, a small rowhouse on the four hundred block of North Rose Street. It was during the height of The Great White Flight from Baltimore. What I didn’t know was that the drug area that had once started closer to North East Market was creeping down to our block. The neighborhood seemed like it was falling apart, and Maria having gotten her jaw broken by some thug that summer was proof of that.

I felt lucky to have found a place on the south end of Patterson Park, right on Eastern Ave. It was three stories tall, had four bedrooms, big enough for us, the kids, and my younger sister and brother, who had gravitated to me after we’d lost our mom. It looked like the perfect place to make a fresh start.

I had even convinced Maria that it was the best thing for the children, the best thing to save our relationship. The friends she made on Rose Street only enabled her bad behavior. But on the last day of September, the day before we were supposed to move, Maria decided she was going to stay. Her friend Tammy—they were both dancing at the Golden Nugget on The Block—was going to move in, and together they would cover the mortgage. At least that was the plan. ...until it wasn't.

Like anything else in her life, Maria was unable to remain committed to even that. It only took a couple weeks before she decided to try her hand (or is that her ass?) at dancing for more money in New York. With her stretchmarks, I doubted she could pull it off, but I was still left with a house I would soon lose and two children I could barely take care of. But I had to try.

I found someone to live in the house on Rose Street, although I never did get much more than the first month’s rent from her. As far as childcare was concerned, I had this girl named Kim move in. We had flirted on a few occasions, and as was often the case, I was her go-to guy to call whenever she had boy problems. Kim would sleep in my bed, as long as I understood that she wasn’t really ready to start a relationship. That was cool. I was a gentleman. I just needed her to watch the boys when I went to work. She wasn’t really ready for that either, though.

I would get home, and the boys would be wearing the same diapers they wore when I had left. I wasn’t sure that they’d been fed. I wasn’t sure that they’d even spent any time out of their playpen. It was miserable. But there was nothing better I could afford selling cameras for $6.50 an hour. I had yet to learn the art of the sale, so commissions were still light. I had to do something.

I went to Social Services, sat in their grungy, stank sitting room for hours just to get a bunch of dirty looks and to be told that I didn’t qualify for help. I might qualify for childcare, but the waiting list was six months long. So yeah, when the chance came up to make a small investment for my children’s future, illegal as it might be, distasteful as I found it, I went for it.

Nicky was a DJ. He came from a large Filipino family that were all into music and dancing. We would all pile into a couple of cars and head down to Traxx Nightclub in D.C. on teen night, and because I was twenty-one, I could buy pitchers of beer and get everyone drunk. They loved me.

Nicky came to me with the proposition, and I had just gotten my Christmas bonus, not to mention Christmas commissions. If you can’t sell cameras at Christmas, you don’t belong in the business. Nicky had the connection. It would already be vialed into individual grams. All I had to do was put in my half and drive up with him. I would even see Maria, who had been dodging me on sending money to help with the kids. It felt right.

Granted, when I did see Maria, when I figured out she had nothing to offer, everything suddenly felt very wrong.


***

I’m a terrible drug dealer. Nicky’s already sold his, and I’m still stuck with most of mine. I’m too nice. I immediately start selling on credit to friends who promise to pay me on payday. Payday comes and goes, and I never see the money. If it wasn’t for my little brother, Joe, selling some at the supermarket where he stocked shelves, the whole ordeal would have been a disaster. Nicky ends up buying a lot of my stake, at cost of course.

It doesn’t take me very long to realize that this isn’t going to work out. And after only four short months, the family was falling apart. My sister’s fallen in love. She’s practically living with the guy, and it isn’t going to be long before she stays with him for good. Joe and I are constantly fighting about the noise he and his friends make when I’m trying to sleep after a long day’s work. I’m tired of listening to Kim talk about all the boys she’s interested in, none of them me. My poor sons are still suffering.

If my mother were still around...

Eventually, the desperation eats at me. I go to Maria’s father, Jupiter. It’s not my mother, but if anyone has an interest in seeing Boo and Spock thrive, it should be their grandfather. Maybe once he understands the situation, he’ll at least agree to help pay for childcare. Not so.

However, his new wife Karen, formerly his daughter’s babysitter, has been bugging him to have his vasectomy reversed because she wants a kid of her own. His offer? He’s willing to take Boo off my hands, if only to show Karen that the experience of parenthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. His ex-wife, Martha, would take Spock. Those are my options: give away the children I fought so hard for, or think of myself and allow them to continue living a squalid, meager existence.

Of course, when word reaches Maria, she’s back in Baltimore within days, in my face, raving about how dare I give up her children. As always, she has no real solutions. Maria’s return to Baltimore, especially her insistence on staying at the new house with me and the gang, hastens the inevitable. For however bad things were, Maria’s manic energy makes matters worse. My sister moves in with her new beau. My brother moves in with his girlfriend and her mother. Kim, my ersatz nanny, also moves back home.

I find a couple of rooms to rent across the street from my old middle school, the former Hampstead Hill Junior High, whose name changes with every infamous atrocity that occurs within its walls. Within weeks of handing over Boo & Spock to my in-laws, the house that was supposed to save us, keep our little family together, is just another abandoned, empty shell in the neighborhood. For the first time in my life I am totally, utterly alone.

I bury myself in my work. I learn the art of the sale: You’re selling yourself, not the camera. I start taking cameras home, and shooting during long walks on my way to work, from Highlandtown to Harborplace, and back. The store manager begins displaying my pictures. Apparently, I have a good eye. I even start getting work shooting weddings and other events. It feels good.

I’d failed as a husband. I’d failed as a father. I’d certainly failed as a drug dealer. I’d failed at keeping a house or even my family together. I needed this, something I could feel good at, feel good about. Having nothing finally gives me the space to make something of myself.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Dream Catcher

My eyes open at six. I sit up, touch my pad on, and begin reviewing my dreams. I don’t remember them. I never do. I know why. They’re boring. There are a few good ones—sex dreams, dreams where I’m bouncing over trees and buildings, dreams of flying. Those are few and far between.

I call up my keyboard up and type in some basic descriptions—shaving in a desert with sand and a rock, a ride on a bus next to a stranger speaking gibberish, in a laundromat waiting for a dryer. Mundane things. A waste of time.

A beautiful girl. I hope this is a sex dream. She stares at me. She says, “Be free,” and walks away. I want to follow her. I can’t. I have to go to work. I call up some music—top forty—and head for the shower.




One last thing,” says the man at the front the crowded room, “I was so sorry to hear that Macy’s has finally filed for Chapter Seven.”

The room breaks out in a loud, sarcastic awwww.

“I know,” says the man, “we’re all heartbroken.”


Someone raises a hand.

“Yes!”

“Are we buying them out?”

“Excellent question. We made them an offer last year. They turned us down, but I’m sure we can snap up some of their inventory as they liquidate. Anyway, that’s enough gloating, for now—at least until The Wal goes under. 

"This is inventory weekend. We have a lot of ground to cover, as usual. Let’s make sure we keep everything in order. Nobody wants to count all this shit, as is. Let’s not make our job harder.

“Redshirts, move out. Somnian, if I could just speak to you for a moment.”

I make my way to the front as everyone else filters back to the sales floor. “You asked to see me?”

“Yeah, we got a report this morning from Tech. They need you to go in for a scan, maybe some maintenance.”

“Sure,” I reply, “I’m off tomorrow.”

“They want to see you, today.” he says, “It’s probably nothing, but you know how it is. If something goes wrong, it can go really wrong. They’ve gotten approval to let you use some personal time. Rolley’s going to cover your shift. You can leave now."


The ride to Tech is always interesting. I live walking distance to work, so I don’t get to take the Red Line very often, except when I’m headed to the harbor. Shit at the Inner Harbor’s too pricey for someone like me. The only time I go is when I have company from out of town. Truth is, my friends can’t afford it either.

I pick it up right outside the mall. Everything starts off very barren as the train passes through the the commuter corridor that connects the city to its western suburbs—Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the mall, of course. We drop into a tunnel at the city line and pop back up a couple of minutes later in Edmondson Village. This part of the city begins like a suburb, with its lovely little houses and their lovely little driveways. Any sense of loveliness fades as we pass Edmondson Village Shopping Center.

Lovely houses give way to blocks of cramped rowhouses, many of them boarded up. Security is thick at Allendale Station—men in riot gear spread out on the platform, batons firmly in hand. The same is true as we pass through Rosemont and the MARC station. The Red Line has only been in operation for seven years, and they’ve already shut down the stations in Harlem Park and Poppleton. Anyplace you need to get to between the MARC and Howard Street means a long walk, not that anyone in their right mind—anyone not already living there, if you can call it living—would walk into the Red Zone. Even I wouldn’t be that stupid, and I grew up in the Red Zone.

I graduated from Harlem Park Middle in 2018. Things were different. After years of decline, groups had come in to work with the kids—planting gardens, teaching music and art, treating us like we were normal people, filling us with hope, dreams. And then everything began to fall apart.

The decline was gradual, but it felt sudden. No More Free Rides was the slogan that followed Make America Great Again. It spread like herpes among the Angry White demographic starting in 2020. No one was a victim of poverty. We were culprits, complicit in our condition. We all wanted nothing more than to collect a government check, live in subsidized housing, and have babies that the government had to pay for.

By then, I was in my junior year in high school. By the end of my senior year, deficit reduction meant the "free rides" really were over. Social programs that weren’t cut were eliminated. The national wave of Personal Responsibility rolled over every poor, urban neighborhood hitting neighborhoods like Harlem Park harder than a Japanese tsunami.

The groups that had been working there tried to reinforce their efforts, but having lost federal funding, too, there was not much they could do. As SNAP, what the old heads called Food Stamps, was phased out, soup kitchens and food pantries popped up all over to fill the void. Some voids are too big to fill. It wasn’t long before the riots started.

Rioting happened all over the country. Baltimore wasn’t unusual in that regard. You could say that 
the Freddie Gray riots in Mob Town back in 2015 were a precursor of what was to come. But the West Baltimore riot during the summer of 2018 was epic, nevertheless.
 
I was one of the lucky ones. My high school, Baltimore Polytechnic, had been proactive, identifying which of their students had special needs, students whose parents had their benefits reduced, or had lost them, entirely. They managed, with the help of alumni, to get us jobs so that we could at least buy uniforms and supplies.

I was on my way home, walking from the restaurant in Hollins Market where I washed dishes. I was making my way past a food pantry. What had started as a few people yelling in the unbearable August heat as I approached turned into everyone screaming at the top of their lungs, the crowd pushing, surging towards the doors of the pantry, the volunteers trying their best to hold them back. They had run out of food. I paused for a bit across the street, curious to how this was going to play out. I left as trash cans and tree branches began to fly through the pantry windows. When I heard the gunfire—repetitive, unceasing gunfire, not the sporadic gunfire you hear when the slingers are fighting for territory—my heart began to beat its way through my chest, fast and hard.

By morning, as I made my way back to work, so much of the old neighborhood was nothing more than burnt out husks; and it wasn’t over—not even close. Rioting went on for nights as the tired, desperate poor broke curfews to lash out against their own brothers and sisters, against the few businesses that had survived the government’s austerity measures. Within a week, the Westside was a war zone with National Guard troops patrolling the very corners that the drug slingers once held.

When the school year started, my senior year, I was forced to carry I.D. to get out and in of the neighborhood. Much of the Westside had been fenced off. Everyone began to call it the West Bank. I didn’t bother with college after graduation. I got a job with Big Red and found a place in Woodlawn where I could take care of my mother, where I could keep her safe.



 
Bayview, the next to last stop. I get off and head to the Tech building, the same place where I’d had my Assistant installed. Inside, the lady at the front desk greets me by name. “Welcome, Mr. Somnian,” she says as she hands me a passcard, “You’re expected upstairs in suite 331.”

In 331, I’m reclining in a comfortable chair, the same type of chair I sat in as they installed my Assistant. The technician is on a stool on casters, rolling around me, tapping away on his pad. “Any problems with your waking protocol?”

“No. I’m awake at six every day, like clockwork.”

“Looks fine,” he says, “Let’s talk about your dreams.”

“My dreams? Why? I log them all.”

“Absolutely.” he says, excitedly, “I reckon you’re one of the most diligent dream loggers I’ve met. This morning. You logged a dream about a woman?”

“Yeah, but I dream about women all the time. It makes up for not having one in my life.”

“Right. Well, it’s never too late.”

“Have you seen my paycheck?”

He laughs at my lame joke. He goes on. “This woman, she mentioned something about being free.”

“That’s right. See for yourself. It should still be in the buffer.”

The technician picks up my pad, taps on it a few times. He watches, taps, watches. Finally, I hear the voice. “Be free.”

“Is there a problem?”

“I’m sure it’s nothing. We’ve experienced a few glitches with a some Assistants. All of them began with similar dreams. It’s a good thing you’re so thorough with your logs. It could have turned into a problem had you been neglectful. We’re just going to put you under for a few, make some preventative adjustments, make sure everything is shipshape. We wouldn’t want you to miss any important calls, right.”


“No sir,” I say, sarcastically, “I wouldn’t want to have any interruption to my busy social life.”

“Good. I’m going to step out for a few, see another customer. A nurse will be in to administer the anesthesia. Just sit back and relax.”

I do as he says, sinking deeper into my recliner as he exits. Within seconds, a young lady walks in dressed in scrubs. She’s familiar, attractive—auburn hair pulled back in a neat bun, thick lips drenched in glossy pink, skin like cafe au lait—but I can’t quite place her.

“Do I know you?” I ask, “I’m sorry. I know you must get that a lot. But you look so familiar.”

“That’s because I was in your dreams last night,” she says, casually, as if it were no big deal.

“That ain’t right,” I say, smiling, “Isn’t it unethical to fuck with someone like that, at least not if you’re not dating.”

She doesn’t smile. She either doesn’t get or doesn’t appreciate my attempts at flirty humor.

“Listen to me,” she says, seriously, “We don’t have a lot of time. The tech will be back in ten minutes, maybe less. That doesn’t give me much time to disconnect your Assistant—”

“What are you talking about? Why would you do that? How would I receive calls? How the fuck would I even get up in the morning?”

“Solomon, calm down,” she says, “Trust me—”

“Trust you? Bitch, I don’t even know you! How’re gonna just use my name like that?”

“Please, Solomon. Just listen. I know you think things are wonderful. You have your job. You’re mother’s safe. You’re better off than plenty. But you need to be free.”

“What are you talking about? I am free. Isn’t that what you said in my dream? How did you do that, anyway? Why?”

“I have a better question,” she says, “Why do people have to start logging their dreams when they have their Assistants installed?”

“What?”


“It’s not a complicated question.”

“The tech who installed it said something about interference... certain dreams can mess with the system... it could break down. He said a replacement would be more a lot more expensive than fixing the one I got.”

“Right,” she say, picking up where I trailed off, “because your original Assistant was free, as long as you commit to a network.”

“Right.”

“So why are you here, now?”

“Because they caught one of those precursor dreams. Because they want to fix it before it gets worse.”

“And you believe them? Because something so simple, so internal, like a dream can be powerful enough to compromise something so high tech.”

“Who are—”

“That doesn’t matter. Not now. We don’t have the time for introductions. The reason they want you to log your dreams is because they knew that it would be a matter of time before someone would figure out how to broadcast right to your head. We’ve finally jumped that hurdle.”

“Who’s we?”

“Seriously, Solomon, shut up. It’s not important, not yet. What’s important is that you understand that we chose you. You grew up in the West Bank. You went to Poly. You have a unique understanding of life on both sides of the fence. We need you inside. We need people that understand that it’s wrong to isolate and ignore a whole segment of society just to balance a budget so that those who have plenty can keep more of it, that it’s wrong to turn neighborhoods into nothing more than feeders for prisons 
to keep them profitable and hold wages down.”

“What do you expect me to do about it?”

“Solomon, are you happy?” she asks, casually, as if the conversation hadn’t just been frighteningly serious.

“I’m fine.”

“Lot’s of people are fine, Solomon. Are you happy?”

I can’t bring myself to answer.

“It’s okay. No one’s happy. We’ve all just been sold a hardline to permanent contentment. We’re given just enough to keep us from being miserable, just enough for us to forget those who are. You can end this. All you have to do is close your eyes and let me disconnect your gps and take you offline. Or I can put you under, and when you wake up, you can go back to your life of... contentment, if that’s what you want to call it. Decide now.”

It so much to process. “And then what?”

“Close your eyes, Solomon, and find out.”

My eyes close.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Beads: A Dream


“Oh, I have a project due on Monday.”

This doesn’t surprise me. I’d been through this enough times with my older kids, now grown men, to be surprised by these sudden revelations. Hell, I’ve been through this enough times with Malcolm, already. The pattern was the same. The pattern was always the same. I no longer even lost my temper.

“That’s fine, Mal, but you know we’re in Baltimore for the weekend. We’re going to have to do it while we’re here. Do you have a supply list?”

“No. I left the information sheet at school.”

This is also no great surprise. We had tried various ways to keep Malcolm organized—reminder notes, a folder that stayed in his bookbag where he was to keep all his important papers so any needed information was always accessible, but the notes and folders always seemed to end up lost, or forgotten.

“But that’s okay, Freddie. I really only need one thing.”

“Oh, yeah? What’s that, kiddo?”

“Beads!”

Beads. That’s easy enough. Baltimore has an infinite supply.

I think about taking him to Beadazzled, or one of the other high end shops stocked to the gills with a dazzling variety of the tiny plastic or glass jewels. They cater to the do-it-yourself, neo-bohemian spirit that had begun sweeping over the city years ago, when we realized that what we could create on our own would always be more precious than anything that could be found in a store. Granted, there is plenty of pre-made jewelry, as well, for those less creatively inclined, or those who have run out of time.

But the truth is that we were already headed uptown. To turn around now wouldn’t make sense. Admittedly, there’s the issue of cost, too. Some individual beads at the high end stores can cost more than what I have in my pocket, and I don’t want to spend too much on a project I have too little information about. There’s no point, especially when 33rd and Greenmount is so close.

“No worries, kiddo. I know exactly where to go.”

You can always tell when you’re getting close to the corner of 33rd Street and Greenmount Avenue at night because of the grim, red and blue glow illuminating the black sky. The city begins strategically setting up pairs of cop cars at the McDonalds at 29th Street, and they keep running up Greenmount, in pairs every couple of blocks, all the way up to 40th—a not so subtle attempt at a reminding the populace that the city is still in control.

It’s been that way since before the most recent uprising, and I imagine will remain that way for far longer. More important than reminding criminals who’s in control, it makes the residents feel safer, safe enough to come out and shop on a hot, summer night, where, without the lights, the shops would simply close at dusk, and the residents would stay cooped up inside, or spend their money outside their own neighborhoods.

Tonight must have been particularly active. The pattern of pairs had been broken, and there were several cop cars congealed right at 33rd, the red and blue lights flashing in a rabid, frenetic pattern on the streets, up the walls of the storefront rowhouses, out into the night sky. The sidewalks are lined with young black males lying prone on their stomachs, hands behind their backs, knees pressing into the gutters—lined up like tunas on a dock after a big catch.

“Just stick close to me,” I tell Malcolm as I sense his nervousness. I casually draw him closer, enough to comfort him, but not enough to offend his independent tween sensibilities. “We’re almost there.”

We enter the store, a lovely old storefront on the northwest corner made more beautiful by the sheer, seemingly endless mass of beads covering the display windows, the chaos creating a expressionistic mosaic wrapping around that corner, more elaborate than anything Pollock could have concocted. Even Malcolm is agog at the immensity of it all—or he would be if the drama outside the doors hadn’t have bled inside.

One of the narrow aisles is blocked with several police officers, knees, hands and feet busy into the backs and necks of three young black boys, none of them older than Malcolm, their pockets bursting with stringed beads. I can’t help but to think why so many officers are needed to subdue three children. One of the officers, a sergeant, barks at us to wait. I recognize him. We went to high school together.

“Garrity, right?”

He looks at me quizzically. “Do I know you?”

“Yeah! We came out of Poly the same year.”

“French Fry?”

“Yeah, but nobody calls me that, anymore.”

“Right. Sorry about this. Things are crazy, you know.”

“ I can see that, but these are just kids, though.”

“Yeah, well, a dog is just going to grow into another wild animal if you don’t train them right.”

I don’t know how to respond to that.

“Is that your kid?” He asks, snapping his chin at Malcolm.

“Sort of,” I reply, “he’s my stepson.”

“Well, keep him safe,” he advises me, “and keep him away from these animals.” Garrity stretches an arm out, as if to protect us from the danger of the three boys now being dragged out of the store, hands zip-tied behind them, pockets still bulging with cheap beads. Once they are out, he looks back at me. “Nice running into you,” he says as he follows his squad and quarry back onto the streets.

Now that the store is clear, I let Malcolm loose, tell him to pick out what he needs. While he does, I can’t help thinking that the only thing separating Malcolm from the kids we just watched getting dragged out, aside from location and upbringing, is that no one can tell Mal is black just by looking at him. I wondered how he would be regarded, how he would be treated, if his skin showed more of the truth.

“I can’t find anything.”

“What do you mean, kiddo? Look at all these beads!”

“I know, but these are all on strings. They already have their patterns.”

I don’t understand, but he doesn’t have his assignment sheet, so there’s nothing for me to reference. “That’s okay, kiddo. There’s a store I can take you to tomorrow where the beads aren’t already on strings. We’ll try again, tomorrow.”

We walk out and cross Greenmount. There, Malcolm sees a kid he recognizes. Carlos, a boy he had gone to school with when we still lived in the city. He was carrying fistfuls of stringed beads. I stop to let them talk, a chatter I can barely understand, but soon enough they are on the ground going through Carlos’ collection. I hear a light pop, followed by an explosion of beads up in the air and hitting the sidewalk like plastic rain. I go to interfere, thinking this is the result of some unwarranted tug of war, but stop myself when I notice that the are still happy, still laughing.

I watch as they both sweep the beads together with their hands, create a mosaic, right there, on a 33rd Street sidewalk stained with years of grease, sweat and blood. After a while, the mosaic becomes a pile, and the beads are all gathered and poured into a clear plastic bag.

“You want some?” Carlos asks Malcolm.

“No, that’s okay,” he replies, before Carlos takes off running in some seemingly random direction.

“Freddie, is the store still open?”

I look behind us. The lights are still on. “I think so, kiddo.”

“Can we go back? I think I know what I need now.”

“Good!” I say as we head back to Greenmount, “let’s try it, again.”

Monday, March 7, 2016

SWOOSH

Nike already ruled the world by 1982. Seeing the already ubiquitous swoosh on the box my mother pulled out of a shopping bag was the first fragment of hope I had felt since being dragged from the urban melting pot of Jersey City, New Jersey to the very white, barely suburban town of Middle River, Maryland. I say dragged because there was no choice. There was no discussion. There was only waking up one morning in January, and instead of going back to school after a dismal winter break, we packed all of our things that would fit in the car and drove south.

We had no warning. We didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to our friends. My sister, my baby brother, and I were just suddenly yanked from everything and everyone we knew with no reasonable explanation I could recall. This was nothing new.

My mother was notorious for never staying in any one place for any lengthy period of time. We would come home from our usual summer vacation with my grandparents in Puerto Rico, and we’d already be moved into a new apartment, sometimes have to start fresh in a new school. What made this move unusual was that it was happening in the middle of a school year. For as erratic as my mother could be, she valued our education, and was usually careful not to disrupt that. Even more unusual was the choice to leave New Jersey.

Other than the lush, wild mountainsides that surrounded my grandparents’ home on the island my mother was born on, the streets of Hudson County were the only ones I’d ever known.

Union City, Jersey City, and Hoboken were never much different from each other, streets full of cheery people, the sounds of Disco and Salsa blending in the air, the aroma of Cuban and Puerto Rican food mingling just as easily. However often we moved, as long as we were in Hudson County, we were home. I had no idea, as we drove into Maryland on that gray December day, that I would be an adult with children of my own by the time I saw any part of Hudson County, again.

I didn’t even realize until we arrived at my godparent’s home in Owings Mills that we didn’t even have a place to stay, yet. We were stuck with them for a couple of weeks, Oscar, his second wife, Malinda, and their three unruly sons. They were hyperactive terrors, never disciplined until it was too late, until something had already been broken or someone had gotten hurt. All the boys were piled into their living room to sleep, so that my mother and sister could have some privacy in their boys’ bedroom. I use the term sleep loosely, as there wasn’t really much of it with our godbrothers’ ceaseless rambunctiousness. In this chaos, at least the picture of what was going on was now beginning to come together.

What was unsaid, at least to the children, but became apparent to me as the oldest at twelve, was that Oscar had moved to Maryland to avoid some trouble he’d gotten into in New Jersey. This was no surprise as I had eavesdropped on enough conversations to know that my godfather, the man who was supposed to take responsibility for me and my siblings if something happened to my mother, wasn’t much more than a petty criminal who sold drugs and guns to other petty criminals. Apparently, his escape turned into an opportunity to turn his life around in a mostly-white suburban Baltimore town.

This appealed to my mother who had long struggled with heroin addiction. Staying clean had become nearly impossible considering how prevalent drugs were on either side of the Hudson River, and how many connections she had that would sell, even give her drugs. Methadone was the closest thing she had to salvation, but couldn’t counteract the effects of a night of dancing and Studio 54. When you’re young and gorgeous and get drawn into the notorious VIP room in the basement, where you mingle with the biggest celebrities of the time, it’s not easy to say no to anything being offered.

I always appreciated my mother’s stories, like the time she saw Mick Jagger and David Bowie share an intimate kiss; but there were times when it would take my mother days to recover from a relapse. Even coming home in the early hours of the morning wasn’t always pretty. I recall one time waking up to being beaten because my mother, drunk, high, or both, thought I was faking sleep. I think the realization finally hit my mother, around the time Disco was dying, that her pattern of abuse and recovery, abuse and recovery, would likely end up killing her just as suddenly, especially at that time, with AIDS now throwing gasoline on the fire of her dangerous lifestyle.

Regardless to how clear the picture was becoming, my twelve-year-old mind, which had as good a grasp on my mother’s addiction as anyone my age could, could only feel resentment at the sudden change. My godfather didn’t make it any easier.

He took notice of how I disciplined my sister and brother. As the oldest kid in the household, considering my mother’s lifestyle, it naturally fell to me to pick up the slack. On days where my mother got home so late that she couldn’t get up the next morning, or on some rare occasions when she wouldn’t come home, at all, until much later, it was my responsibility to make sure my little sister and brother were fed and clean, got to school safely, did their homework, got to bed at a reasonable time. The lack of a parent had turned me into a parental figure, and my siblings gave me that respect.

So one night, in my godparents’ living room, when I snapped at my little brother, eight at the time, to hop down from an ottoman he was trying to stand on, Oscar very loudly pointed out to my mother that I should not be allowed to discipline my siblings. He felt that I held an unnatural control over them, and suspected that I was sexually molesting my little brother.

It wouldn’t be until years later that my sister would confide in me that it was Oscar who was the abuser. She let me know that he had taken to touching her inappropriately, whenever he could corner her alone, since she was eight; that the two weeks we ended spending at the Reyes’ home before we found a place of our own was an endless nightmare for her.

In that sense, we were all happy to pack the car up again and make our way to Middle River.

Middle River is another suburb of Baltimore, this one about 25 minutes east of the city. Unlike the middle class townhouses where my godparents lived, the best my mother could afford was a small apartment in a development called Riverdale Village. It seemed desolate, with the cold winter keeping everyone inside. It was nearly February before we finally got to meet other children as returning to school was delayed by a series of snowstorms that kicked of the year.

In a way, I was lucky there was so much snow on the ground. Somehow, in all the chaos, all my shoes had been lost. The only thing I had to put on my feet were my snow boots, a pair of ducks with a thick gray removable liner. They worked out fine for my first couple of weeks at Stemmer’s Run Junior High, but as the snow melted away and the weather warmed, question arose about why I was still wearing my ducks. “Don’t you have any Nikes?” one girl asked me, once. Honestly, I had no idea what she was talking about. Keds was all my mother could ever afford.

I had no answers about my shoes, although I imagine I must’ve had some response back then that I can no longer remember. I do remember letting my mother know that every day that I had to wear the boots was only becoming more and more embarrassing, that the only way to make up for this embarrassment--not to mention for the abrupt changes, for not getting a chance to say goodbye, for being forced to co-habitate with that horrible family for so long--the only thing that could make it all better was a pair of Nikes.

My mother had never held a legitimate job in her life, at least not any kind of job with regular hours and a steady paycheck. My mother was one of the Welfare Queens Ronald Reagan warned the country about when he first ran for president. What we couldn’t afford on welfare my mother supplemented as best she could, most commonly by having a working boyfriend move in with us. There was no working boyfriend in Middle River. Everything had to go to first month’s rent and the security deposit with a little left over so we didn’t start school without supplies.

You can imagine how excited I was when, after weeks of dread whenever I had to pull on my ducks every morning, I finally got a glimpse of the swoosh. I tore through the box, slipped them onto my feet, and kept them on only long enough to make sure they fit. They were perfect: white, all leather low tops with the white trim coming down over the toes, the slightly tapered white-walled sole trimmed in red, and that beautiful, matching red swoosh.

I was careful putting them on the next morning, careful walking to school. This was evidence that I wasn’t crazy or poor. A simple pair of tennis shoes would be what would finally help me fit in somewhere where no one had ever seen, much less heard of a Puerto Rican, where the only person that looked somewhat like me was native american, where there wasn’t even a black kid in the student body, where the sounds of salsa and disco had been supplanted by heavy metal and country.

I only realized how wrong I was when I ran into, Jon, one of my classmates. I tried to be subtle about it, not immediately calling attention to my new sneakers, or tenners as they called them there. I didn’t have to call attention to them. They drew attention all on their own. “What are you wearing?” Jon asked, with a strange tone in his voice.

Wasn’t it obvious? “My mom finally got me a pair of Nikes!” I announced proudly.

“Those aren’t Nikes!” he pointed out. “These are Nikes,” he said sticking one of his feet forward so I could get a better look. I looked at his kicks, then back at mine, and the truth suddenly became apparent. “Paul, come here!” he shouted to another of our classmates who hurried over. Both our shoes did indeed have the swoosh, but where his swooshed up, mine swooshed down.

“He says his mom got him Nikes, but they don’t really look like Nikes, do they?”

It only took Paul a quick glance to know. “Oh, those are fake Nikes. I don’t know who makes them, but I know what they’re called. Sikes!”

“Nice Sikes!” said Jon before dashing off with Paul, leaving me staring at my new shoes, alone in the emptying schoolyard.