Betrayal can be like an atomic blast. Even when expected. Even when you’ve steeled yourself for the impact, the light, the heat, the electromagnetic pulse of betrayal. It leaves you disoriented, disillusioned and in need of someone else’s help for perspective. There are a couple of examples of betrayal that left me wondering about the goodness of humans, that explain my not-so-insignificant amount of timidity around some people sometimes.
Like when I found out about my ex-stepfather’s idiotic and deceitful plan to make me a man by having a neighborhood thug rob me of $10. It was June 25 of ’82, the last day of seventh grade and the first day of my summer of abuse. My mother, my brothers Maurice and Yiscoc, and Darren’s Clearview School counselor Mrs. Karen Holtslag were at Wilson Woods Pool. My mother and Mrs. Holtslag were there to discuss Darren’s “progress” and his psychological needs. Me and my two younger brothers were there to have fun. My mother gave me a $10 bill to buy some snacks at the concession stand for everyone. As I walked over dreaming of hot dogs and mini-pizzas, careless me had the bill only half in my right hand. An older kid magically materialized, ran by and snatched the money from my hand.
When my stepfather found out about my tragic error, he demanded that I tell him exactly who stole the money. “I’m not sure. I think it’s some guy named ‘Pookie’,” I said. Maurice walked over to me, poked me in the chest, and told me to get the money back from Pookie in two weeks. I said that “I can get the money from Jimme,” but he didn’t want to hear that. I pointed out that Pookie was much bigger than me, and that I didn’t know where he lived. Maurice told me to “find out where he lives!” Otherwise I would get a “whuppin’.” After eleven days, I received my whuppin’, plus kicks to my ribs, welts on my right leg and butt, at least a half-dozen punched to my face, a busted lip, and a knot on my head. I think I might’ve also had a concussion. There were at least five other incidents of varying intensity between July 6 and August 1 that summer.
About a year later, I saw Maurice and Pookie in the middle of a conversation near the Vernon Woods projects. I was on my way home from grocery shopping in nearby Pelham. I saw them from a distance, and figured that they didn’t see me. So I hid behind a tree across the street from the Getty gas station and a closed grocery store, where Maurice and Pookie talked. They were laughing and joking around, having what appeared to be a friendly conversation. I thought that I was mistaken, but how could I forget who my mugger was? My stepfather, who knew where we were that day in June ’82, had paid Pookie with my mother’s money to mug me at the pool. My carelessness had only made it easier for Pookie to do his job. It was my stepfather’s warped way of making me a man. What he did was steal my childhood.
Another example involved the way some of my former classmates acted toward me from the moment we threw our caps into the air when we graduated in ’87. Right after the ceremony at Memorial Field, it started. I’d walk down the street to the store, see, say Gordon or Kiam, say “Hi,” and get no response at all. The few times I bumped into Tomika, Ms. Red Bone would stare straight at me, then straight through me, all as I said “Hi.” She just kept on walking, as if I were less than a ghost.
By the beginning of August I honestly thought that these people, my classmates for so long, were showing their true colors. They just didn’t like me, not me because I’d been a Hebrew-Israelite or me because I was poor or me because I listened to Mr. Mister more than I did to Luther. It was all about me, something within me that they detested. Every time it happened, it made me feel low and left me in doubt about myself.
“You can’t pay any attention to that. They’re all just jealous,” E said when I told her about the ghost treatment over lunch one day. She and I worked for General Foods (now part of Kraft Foods) in Tarrytown that summer.
“Of what? Of me?,” I asked in disbelief.
“It’s because you’re not trying to be anybody except yourself,” she said.
“That’s a good theory,” I thought, but I didn’t really believe it. E was fully in my corner, and much more obvious about it than anyone else.
This went on for two summers and a holiday season, between June ’87 and December ’88. By the middle of my sophomore year, though, it didn’t matter, because I started to realize that the many of the people I went through Humanities and to MVHS with didn’t matter either. It got to the point where the silent treatment I was getting was downright laughable. I mean, it wasn’t as if these folks had been dear friends and then turned on me. The way I saw it, they were assholes, not much different from my stepfather.
My life in no way compares to literally surviving Hiroshima, Nagasaki or Chernobyl, for that matter. But there are emotional atomic blasts whose long-term effects on us body, mind and spirit can last for a lifetime or even for more than a generation. We can truck in all the non-irradiated earth, grass and tree we want. We have to dig up the radioactive in our lives before we can plant fresh dirt and seeds. Thankfully, I managed to do that years before Noah was born.