Another year has passed since I graduated from high school and looked forward to a better life outside of 616, Mount Vernon, New York and MVHS. The day after I graduated from high school–twenty-one years ago this date–captured in a few short moments what life for me in the New York City area had become.
Tower Records, Friday, June 19th of ’87. With high school now over, I was in a celebratory mood. I took the 2 train from 241st to 72nd and walked the six short blocks to the great Tower Records on 66th. I had my latest Walkman, my first Sony Walkman, actually, and my book bag with my recent tape investments, including a few I’d bought at Tower Records the previous Friday. Investments like Fleetwood Mac’s Tango In The Night, Genesis’ Invisible Touch, and Glass Tiger. Glass Tiger, by the way, was a good indication of my state of mind, of how weird and disillusioning my life in ’87 really was. Boy was I pathetic.
I went into the store and began to browse the R&B and Pop/Rock sections for tapes. There I noticed some plastic wrapping on the floor, as if someone had taken a tape out of its case and stolen it. While I thought about the wrapper on the floor, three White security guards grabbed me and dragged me to a storage room downstairs.
“We got you for stealing,” one of them said, presumably the store’s head of security.
“You don’t have me for anything. Is this because I’m Black?”
“Well, how do you explain the wrappers we found on the floor and the tapes in your bag?”
“The wrappers were on the floor when I got there and the tapes . . .”
“You’re going to jail, asshole, when we bring the cops in here!”
“First of all, I’m not going anywhere. The tapes are all mine, and some of them I bought in this store last Friday. I have the receipt at home. Don’t you have ways to verify my purchases?”
“We don’t believe you!”
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe me. I’m under eighteen. You can’t hold me or turn me over to police without calling my parents. I’m not even from here, I’m from Westchester County, and my receipts are back home there.”
“If we were outside instead of in here, I’d slap you around, wise-ass!”
“Then I guess I’m the lucky one. Why don’t we check the receipts from your cash registers up front for my purchases from last Friday? I know they’ll show that I’m right and you’re wrong!”
The hotheaded White man who did all of the talking got up and made a threatening slap gesture with the back of his left hand before the other ones grabbed him and told him to calm down. They let me go. On my way out, I said, “I hope you learned that not every Black person coming in your store is a thief!” It would be ten years before I went into Tower Records again (of course, Tower Records went out of business at the end of ’06).
It seemed like that entire year was about me realizing that I was no longer just a kid doing adult things. I was an adult, whether I wanted to be or acted like one or not. I needed to stop seeing myself as twelve and five-four in age and stature. Others saw me for who they thought I was, a tall, young and dangerous African American male. To say the least, the incident at Tower Records was an indication that life after high school would be anything but easy and my learning curve to adulthood anything but smooth.
I’ve often wondered why did things like this always seemed to happen to me, especially since my motto back then was to keep quiet in public, to not say or do anything that would piss others off. I wouldn’t realize until a year or two later that someone as tall as I was (and am) and as hard-thinking as I was would stand out no matter what my demeanor was. The Tower Records incident was a reminder that though I had some reason to celebrate making it through four years of high school, five years with my abusive stepfather, and six years of Humanities, that there was plenty of work left to do. On myself and with others.