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.

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