Friday, September 22, 2017


I was thirteen years old the night I helped my newest friends drag a massive cross we had hastily built near the train tracks that served as one of our hangouts. We got it to the top of the hill behind Stemmers Run Middle School, the highest point on school property, drove it into the ground until it was deep enough to stay up on its own, smothered it in gasoline, and set it on fire. As I write this, I understand that many of you are immediately wondering how a little Puerto Rican like me, one that could never easily be mistaken for white, ends up burning a cross in Middle River, Maryland. Well, the first thing I had to do was become white, enough.

My first semester at Stemmers Run could almost be considered mundane. Once I got settled in, after my mom finally replaced my Sikes with a pair of Keds, I managed to make a couple of friends. As usual, I gravitated towards the smarter, nerdier kids, in this case, Paul & Pete, two boys who were already good friends. They invited me over, and we walked the two miles to Essex to get to Peter’s house, where we played with his TI-99, an early home computer put out by Texas Instruments. Usually, we would stay at school playing Dungeons & Dragons until it would start getting dark, but as the days got longer, as April turned into May, the walk to Essex became more appealing.

Our geeky trio fell apart when Pete’s dad, who worked at Martins Airport, was abruptly transferred out of state, with only a few weeks left in the school year. Paul and I needed him as a buffer. Without him, we were constantly clashing. The tension came to a head when Paul came to my locker after school and insisted I wait until he got out of detention so we could hang out. I had just been sick and had missed a few days of school. 

I apologized, showed the small stack of assignments I had missed and needed to make up. Actually, it was just an excuse. I was already tired of Paul’s over the top personality. He insisted, and I refused, back & forth, until he snatched the papers out of my hand, tore them apart, and tossed them in the air so they floated down to the floor, like oversized confetti.

I couldn’t let that go. I had always been serious about my schoolwork, making up missed assignments as quickly as possible. More importantly, I couldn’t let other kids that might be watching think they could get away with anything like that. As the smallest kid in 7th grade, it was imperative that everyone knew my size wasn’t going to stop me from defending myself. I pounced on him, but we were promptly pulled apart and escorted off school property.

I was still steamed as I walked home. We were pulled apart too quickly. I doubted I would get another chance to beat his ass, and I was right. That was my last interaction with Paul.

I would get another chance to release that rage. On my way home, I ran into my sister. She was upset. Some boy had come on to her, and when she rejected him, called her a bitch, grabbed her by the arm and flung her to the ground. I ran off in the direction he had headed. I caught up to him in a small patch of woods that separated the two halves of Riverdale Village, the apartment complex we all lived in. “Hey, are you the motherfucker who just called my sister a bitch?” I yelled after him.

He turned around, and I immediately regretted what I was doing. He wasn’t much bigger than me. He didn’t look faster. There was just something about him that scared me, a wildness. “Yeah, so?”

“So, don’t ever touch her again. Don’t talk to her. Don’t even look at her!”

He wasn’t the least bit intimidated. He just stepped right up to me and cold cocked me in the face. I was down before I even realized I was going down. By the time I got up, blood now streaming from my nose, he was just about gone. I got a quick glimpse of the apartment he went into.

My rage only swelling, I wiped at the blood on my face and hurried back to my apartment. Tony was there. Tony was my mom’s boyfriend, at the time. He was a Marielito, coming over from Cuba during the Mariel boatlift. He claimed to have been a political prisoner, a master chess player who would have become a grandmaster if only he had pledged allegiance to the Communist Party. His lack of loyalty to the party had also kept him off the national baseball team, if he was to be believed. In truth, he was little more than a thug, a wannabe Scarface without the drive or the wits, only the propensity for paranoia and violence.

Tony hadn’t been able to hold down a regular job since getting to the states, so he mostly sponged off our family’s welfare benefits, only supplementing them with the occasional odd job. He loved to offer fatherly advice, in the form of Cuban proverbs. You knew your actions were about to be judged when he opened a sentence with the phrase, “Refran dice…” As far as I could tell, though, his favorite pastime was getting drunk with my mother on weekends and letting himself get drawn into an argument that would inevitably turn physical.

Tony saw the blood smeared across my face, but even before he could ask, I told him everything that had happened. He insisted I show him where the boy lived. I took him across the open quad that was surrounded by the two story buildings that made up our block of the apartment complex, then across the quad the next block over, to the apartment I had watched the kid enter. Tony beat on the door until a short, older woman answered, and he immediately cut into his broken English, so flawed that the only word that could be made out was the occasional sprinkling of “motherfucker.” The lady, obviously the boy’s mother, looked scared and confused. I jumped in and explained. She turned her head and hollered. “Billy!” He came to the door, and all that cockiness had dissolved into fear.

She introduced herself as Sue, and she made Billy apologize to me and promise not to harass my sister, again. It should’ve ended there, but it wasn’t long before school was over, and perhaps out of sheer proximity, Billy Cook had become my closest friend.

His family had cable, a luxury we couldn’t afford, then. I would go over to his house to watch videos on Mtv with him and Joe, his younger brother. He introduced me to his crew, a group of boys from families as broken as ours. Together, we would haunt the parking lot at the Mars Supermarket a couple of blocks from Riverdale Village. We would help people with their groceries, collecting quarters and the occasional dollar bills, until we could pool together enough money to afford a pack of cigarettes, a fifth of liquor, & enough Coke for us to chase it with. We’d have just enough left over to buy a few slices at the pizza shop and dump some quarters into the Ms. Pacman machine. If we got chased away from Mars, we would walk the quarter mile up the road to the Giant.

I wasn’t new to drinking. My mom was liberal enough to allow me the occasional sip of beer or wine, even the occasional shot of Bacardi. It wasn’t difficult for me to adapt to drinking regularly. I enjoyed the sensation. The numbness was preferable to how aware I often was that I didn’t fit in, that I was far from the place where I did, where you’d walk out of your home and straight into a wall of Disco, Salsa, or Hip Hop, sometimes all three colliding into a sonic wall of beautiful chaos. Drinking with my new friends was preferable to the drinking and violence I had to deal with at home. By the time I got home, walking off my buzz on the way, everyone would be in bed. I had missed any drama.

In Riverdale Village, the soundtrack was heavy metal. We would ride around Middle River on our bikes—or in my case, not owning a bike, on the back of someone else’s—singing Ozzy, Scorpions, Iron Maiden at the top of our lungs. We would ride along the train tracks until we got to this wooded area where we could congregate, but stay invisible. We set coins on the track to see how flat they’d get. We’d build terrible forts that would fall apart, almost immediately. We fought.

I wasn’t the only small guy in our crew. There was a boy named Keith. He was the youngest, just having turned twelve. Keith was pale, with bright red, closely cropped hair. Despite being younger, Keith was still a tad bigger than me. Billy came up with the idea that the two smallest ones in the crew should fight, to see who was the most badass little guy. The fight didn’t last long. We exchanged a few blows until Keith caught me upside , the head, sending my glasses flying. Everything stopped. Everyone of us were in the same situation. We all knew how expensive it was to replace things like a pair of glasses when benefits only covered a new pair every other year.

“I can see! I can see!” I shouted. We all laughed. I bent over, picked up my glasses, inspected them enough to see there was no catastrophic damage, and put them back on. We were still laughing, with echoes of “I can see!” coming from the others, as we walked on to find something else to do.

I was led to believe we had rivals, crews from the neighboring towns, like Hawthorne and, of course, Essex, though I never saw them. Apparently, they took on the name of their respective towns. Not us. Middle River didn’t sound as cool as Middlesex. Middlesex wasn’t a even town so much as a business district. Just beyond the part of I-695 that went over Eastern Boulevard near the school, it divided Essex from Middle River. We did spent plenty of time there, especially at Skateland, the closest roller rink, where Billy taught me how to stay on my feet, and by the end of the summer, skate backwards. It’s also where the closest library was, where I’d spent plenty of time, before Billy.

The closest I got to the library after was the time near the end of the summer when we were all supposed to meet up with a high school girl behind the library. She had promised to fuck us all. I was the only one of the group who was still a virgin, if you can believe the claims of a bunch of teen boys. It's unlikely I was the only one lying about it. I got as far as the shopping center, behind which was the library, before Billy pulled me aside.

“Listen, Freddy,” he said, “she said everyone’s okay, except for the one with glasses.” I was the only one in the group who needed glasses to see, at all. I got it. There was no point in my coming along.

“That’s fine,” I replied, “I’ll find something else to do.” I watched them walk behind the shopping center before I turned around to go home. On the walk home, I wondered if it had anything at all to do with the fact that I wore glasses, or if it had everything to do with the fact that I wasn’t white.

But times like those were few and far between. For the most part, Middlesex made me feel like I belonged. When I next saw them, they downplayed the encounter behind the library, telling me that she had smelled bad, so they just let her blow them before moving on. Once I developed a taste for hard rock and foreswore the WWF for the WCW, I was really no different. I might not be white, but at least I wasn’t black.

There were no black people in Middle River, at least none that I remember. Black folk were just the people we would hear about on the news, getting arrested for drugs and murder in Baltimore, about twenty minutes west of us down Eastern Boulevard. They were little more than rumors of race riots taking place after school in places like Patterson Park, instigated by black kids from notorious schools, like Hampstead Hill Jr High.

Despite my early upbringing in the diverse melting pot that is the New York Metropolitan area, I was not immune to racist thinking. Some of my mom’s closest friends were black. Hell, Puerto Ricans came in all shades! But my grandmother held a deep seated fear of non Hispanic Blacks, a fear that easily carried over to me as I watched the news and we discussed it among our crew. Blacks were taking over the city and taking the decent working class jobs away from whites. That’s what we were all taught. It came as no surprise that we wanted to cap off the summer by burning a cross at our school.

We stood there, around our flaming cross, and I genuinely felt nothing. Not hate. Not fear. Just an inkling of guilt that I swallowed down with whiskey and chased with Coke when the bottle of Jack made it back to me. We stood there, until we saw the flashing blue lights pop up over Eastern Boulevard. We jumped the low fence that separated school property from the woods surrounding it and scattered.

School started up again that fall, but the partying never stopped. School became just what wasted time before I could be free to hang with the crew. In the fall, we volunteered to work at the haunted house at Cox Point, setting it up and taking roles as ghouls and zombies. As Christmas approached, we abandoned our grocery carrying enterprise in favor of singing Christmas carols door to door for cash. I was settling into everything except the my schoolwork, but I had become oblivious to my grades. My effort had become minimal, but it’s not like I cared enough to want to change.

And then I came home to find out that Tony had finally found a real job. In Baltimore.

We had been here barely a year, and we were moving, again—another new year, another new town, another new school. As I went around to each of my teachers to get my grades, it finally became apparent how much I had neglected my schoolwork. I was failing everything except English, Drama, and Art. I was barely passing English! I think I was lucky that Ms. Fleming, the English teacher was also my Drama teacher, that she had seen my potential for both, maybe. Or maybe she just felt sorry for me.

That Saturday, I had to force my goodbyes, not just to Middlesex, but everyone that I’d become acquainted with because of them: Billy’s older brother, Chuck, the most level headed of the Cook family, who once flew out of his apartment to smother a scarecrow we’d set on fire with a lighter and a can of hairspray; Tasha, the cute, blonde girl I’d had a crush on since moving to Middle River, who when I told her I was moving finally invited me into her apartment and gave me the most amazing kiss I’d ever had up until then; and of course, Sue Cook, who despite our less than hospitable introductions, treated me like a son.

The following Monday, as my family was barely settled into our tiny apartment on Pratt Street, two blocks from Patterson Park, my mom walked me through the main doors of the notorious Hampstead Hill Jr High, my new zoned school. I sat in the guidance office, head down, as Mr. Gregory reviewed my transcripts. I could feel him looking at me for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time before he finally spoke.

“You know what I’m looking at, right?” I nodded, sheepishly. “Let me tell you what I see. I see a kid who doesn’t look like these grades. I can’t imagine that these grades are who you really are. So, this is what we’re going to do. Since these grades aren’t you, we’re going to ignore them. We’re starting over, here. I think we’ll see the real you, soon enough.”

I fought to hold back tears all the way back home. Once I found some privacy, I set them free. I needed to start again, but there was no part of me that wanted to. I had sacrificed so much of myself to belong in Middlesex. Now, I was right back to feeling like ever belonging anywhere was just an illusion.

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