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.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Your Eternal Dance



Some say you should be my queen,
but I am more fool than king.

A fool will not rule
or be ruled,
but is always open
to worship,
drawn to it,
like the flame
to the moth
fluttering
close enough
to be illuminated,
to have its magic
made clear.

I will not crown you
my Queen;
instead I will adore you,
pray under your divine light,
whisper your name
to the sky
to invoke you,
venerate you for the goddess
I know you to be.

Some say you should be my queen,
but regents are too prone
to tyranny, to staking claims,
to bending nature
to their own whims;
these things are beneath you.
Your proclivities lie
in creation, inhaling
death to exhale stars,
consuming stars
to excrete Life.

Some say you should be a queen,
but you rise
above titles,
beyond law,
past present or future.
I bow before you,
not out of obeisance,
but in reverence, hoping
that, given your place
in the pantheon of my heart,
you will allow me
to partake in your eternal
dance.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Bloom


Bloom
My Love,
my Moon,
my Muse,
my wide Night Sky,
my sweet lotus flower
O, sit ol' lotus,
perched upon your pad,
sit & stay with me
a while.

I want to watch
you bloom, under
the rays of the moon, watch
each precious petal
spreading itself
to embrace the Universe.

I cannot bear
to watch you 
hide inside yourself, 
within walls
you would build
to block out
the very light 
that makes you shine.

So be wise
my sweet lotus,
as you wander to ponds
old & new
your head wants left alone
while your heart wants to roam,
but your spirit will carry you
home.

Blood Moon

My latest Moon poem, composed a couple of days after last week's partially eclipsed Blood Moon...


Blood Moon

My moon bleeds tonight,
not from harm,
but because nothing can stay
Full, forever; everything
must empty
lest it burst.

My moon bleeds tonight,
& I worship her
as I always do,
more so, knowing
tonight we dance
in shadows
so thin,
only I can see

She feels
the sliver,
like black
thread dragged
across her body,
a taste of the wane
that is coming.

My moon bleeds tonight,
& She will draw me
to her & I will slide
inside & together
We release
release
the world around us
for the Universe
about Us,
release the heart
& the mind
for the spirit
We have been
neglecting,
release resentment
for Love.

My moon bleeds
for me tonight.
¿Will she bleed
for me, again?
Only Destiny
has that answer.
I only know
the moon
must bleed,
as must I,
as must we all.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Firefly


















firefly

My Muse
is a firefly
& temptation tells me:
trap her,
capture her
in a jar, screw
on a lid pricked
with just enough
holes to let
her breathe—
trap her so that I can imagine
she fires for me.

But she doesn't.

Fireflies fire
from their desire,
to flee, to breed,
to be! 


So I keep 
my firefly free
of jars or nets
or any constraints,
& she flutters & floats
& flitters about
& she burns,
she burns so bright
she ignites the sky,
& sometimes I catch
her just within sight,
on my right,
& confuse her
for a meteorite—
shooting stardust:
memories
of a Universe
more ancient than gods.

My muse is
a firefly, free
to fire anywhere,
& my blessing is
that she chooses
to burn brightest
near me.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Night Falls













Night Falls

Night falls
& I rise
to meet her,
bury my mountains
deep, so deep
her stars burn me,
turn me, I churn
& erupt
in torrid ash clouds
& magnificent magma.

My Night erupts
simultaneously, 

pouring
forth liquid life,
cooling my fervent fire,
whetting my thirst
in rivers that flow
to form oceans
where only desert—
empty wasteland—
once stood. I would 

be nothing
without Her,
my Night
bearing the water

of Life
to this once
barren Earth—
her air fueling
my fire inducing
her water infusing
my soil seeding
her air until
Creation
has been acheived—
& I am relieved,
knowing She leaves
Me with the arrival
of the Sun,
leaves me
with reminders
of our love,
crawling, swimming,
running, flying—
filling me
until my Night
falls again,
& I rise.