As most who read me know, I wrote a book about the worst of my growing up years three years ago, Boy @ The Window. I wrote about how I saw things between the ages of eleven and nineteen during the 1980s. I covered everything from a preteen’s fantasy life and Black masculinity to child abuse and domestic violence. I dug into my memories for haunting moments of poverty, for examples of ostracism, for stories about my family, my high-achieving yet soulless classmates, and for any oases of good moments, too.
Or so I though. (And no, it’s not just that I should’ve given the book to another professional to edit.) I focused so heavily on what turned me into the professional, writing, teaching, fairly erudite and extremely goofy me. Really, too heavily, as it turns out. I forgot that there had been a me prior to World Book Encyclopedia and Black America, Starling, 616 East Lincoln Avenue, the Hebrew-Israelites, and Humanities. That even younger me apparently had a story to tell. It was a story that I should’ve told, but I didn’t, I couldn’t remember. Maybe part of me really didn’t want to recall. No, I had to finish Boy @ The Window, publish it, and promote it for a year before I reacquainted myself with that splinter deep in my mind.
I found it, too, in a story that didn’t quite add up. The story that turned me into all of me, good, bad, and yes, obviously ugly began forty years ago this month. Well, it actually started with Christmas 1975. My Mom and my father Jimme had bought me a Big Wheel for Christmas and my sixth birthday, because my birthday comes two days after Christmas. I had begged them for this ride for months, at least as early as that July. I was so happy that as soon as I could, with my dark blue winter coat and all, I rode up and down South Sixth Avenue’s blue-slate sidewalks with it. I thought I was the coolest kid on my block!
The 400-block of South Sixth was one of two and three-story homes with 150-square-foot front yards with interlocked steel gates, and ample backyards. But there were few kids for me to play with, at least kids my age. This despite Nathan Hale Elementary holding up the southeastern end of the block. I rode around that stark early winter-looking block for days, with hardly a toddler to greet me.
Back then I had no trouble talking to anyone about anything, including how I felt. By the end of first grade, a girl in my class named Diana had taken a liking to me. She had skin the color of butterscotch, and bright hazel-green eyes to go with her puffy lips. Diana’s light brown hair was always a mess, but then again, I could pick out a piece of corn or a grain of white rice from my jet-black knotty roots more days than not.
We kissed several times, in class and on the short walk up South Sixth back to our homes. We even attempted to French kiss a few times, including once in class before being caught by our teacher Ms. Griffin. All I know was, there was a lot of spit and tongue involved. When I’d ride my Big Wheel after school, and see Diana on the rough and bumpy asphalt playground between my house and the school, I’d let her ride on it. And we’d continue with tongue practice sometimes, too.
When the school year came to an end in June, Diana and her family moved away. I waved her goodbye as they drove away from South Sixth, me riding my Big Wheel down the block behind them. I felt sad to lose such a good friend.
But I still had my Big Wheel. For weeks after the end of first grade, I rode it around the block and on the school playground. Sometimes my older brother Darren would be there, but most of the time I was by myself. With Diana gone, there were no kids my age around. It was the summer of 1976, and like most parents back then, mine were only interested in seeing me come home for lunch or dinner, not in me being inside all day.
Inside was a second-floor, two bedroom and one bath flat within the three-story tan and off-white house that was 425 South Sixth. We had a separate entrance, giving us the appearance of living in our own home without actually owning the place. It sometimes seemed spacious, except when my Mom and Jimme would fight, or when Darren would take my toys, or when my Mom went into the kitchen and made fried porgies and whiting or chitlins. On many a day during our short two and a half years at 425 South Sixth, I stared at the cars parked or rolling down the street. A dark-green ‘68 Chevy Camaro here, a grape-colored AMC Gremlin there. The Chevy Monte Carlo series from between ‘69 and ‘75 was my favorite back then. Maybe it was how high the curvy back-end of the car seemed raised an extra foot off the ground. That summer, though, my Mom and my father weren’t home often to engage me in the car model guessing game that I liked playing when I was bored.
What made this worse for me was that my Mom and my father Jimme were getting a divorce. Only I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew was that things seemed different. They weren’t fighting as much. My Mom had bought all new furniture for her bedroom and the living room. She even bought a Polaroid camera, to take pictures of herself while wearing a scarf with earth-tone artwork around her head, all without makeup on. Even though anyone over eighteen seemed old to me at six, my Mom seemed ageless, like she would be in her twenties forever, a shade of brown consistent with my own medium dark with copper undertones. I thought it was a good picture of her.
My father had never been home for more than a few days at a time, with his binge drinking and all. He was a night janitor at Salesian High School in New Rochelle, but hardly made it home during the day. My diminutive father worked this job years after losing his custodian job with the Federal Reserve Bank in downtown Manhattan, but still acted as if he worked as a banker on Wall Street. My brother Darren and I would sometimes be with him at Salesian whenever he took an evening shift. My Mom’s shifts as one of the dietary supervisors at Mount Vernon Hospital varied, between 7 am and 3 pm during the day and 3 to 11 in the afternoons and evenings. So, some days she was home when I was on one of my Big Wheel adventures. Sometimes Jimme was home. Sometimes, I was with my babysitter Ida or one of my dad’s drinking buddies.
And, there were days I was alone. On a lonely Wednesday in July, just a week and a half after the bicentennial Independence Day, my Mom left for work. She was on a 3-11 pm shift that day. She told me, “Keep your butt upstairs while I’m gone.” Then she left. No one was home. Darren was at his Clear View School in summer day camp. God only knows where Jimme was.
I did that day what I always did when left alone. I got on my now nearly worn out Big Wheel wearing my blue and red-striped t-shirt and dark blue shorts, and rode it down to the school playground. It had rained earlier that afternoon, and the asphalt was still wet from the summer showers. I skidded along the playground, and noticed two things. One, the air still smelled of rain, even though there were breaks in the clouds. Two, a group of four older Black kids had taken over the swing area.
Something had told me to not go over by the swings, but my Big Wheel’s skidding and sliding brought me over there anyway. As soon as I ended up near the swings, the four older boys surrounded me. One of them grabbed me off of my Big Wheel, while another took my ride. I yelled, “Give it back! Give it back!” The lightest skinned one in the group, their leader it seemed, came up to me, unzipped his pants, and said, “You get it back after you suck my dick, muthafucka.”
I shook my head, but then one of them threatened to destroy my Big Wheel by banging it on one of the swing poles. Crying while being held by two of the twelve or thirteen year-olds, they pried open my mouth long enough for the light-skinned leader to stick the tip of his penis in my mouth. I felt the dry meat on my tongue long enough to want to throw up.
“The little muthafucka’s sucking my dick!,” the light-skinned one yelled while laughing.
They started laughing so hard, I was able to pull myself away from them and grab my Big Wheel. While I ran and rode, the four boys kept yelling, “You a faggot! You a faggot!” One also yelled, “You a dukey!”
I rode straight home and tried to forget what just happened. But I couldn’t. My Big Wheel now had a crack in it, between the back of the seat and the back axle. It wasn’t broken, but it was definitely damaged. My Mom noticed it a few days later. “That’s what you get for leaving the house,” she said after I told her about the Big Wheel and the older boys trying to break it. I didn’t tell her about the other part.
I’ve complained for years that my ability to remember has been both a blessing and a curse. But I didn’t deliberately hone this skill until after I turned nine. Between the age of four, when Nixon resigned, and my first time running away, three weeks before my ninth birthday in December 1978, I have lots of memories. Those memories are those of a young child drifting from day to day, as they should be. The result, though, was not being able to recall details like being molested at six. Until twenty months ago, I remembered it as a vague attempt. And not as the damaging, trauma-inducing incident that it really was (to be continued).