Growing Up Young, Black, and in East New York Brooklyn
I'm From East New York Where the Motto is Shoot or Die
I originally wrote this for Let’s Not Be Trash, but after pouring out a bunch of words, I realized that I kind of got lost in my story, and forgot what the goal was. This was supposed to be a piece that used a traumatic moment in my life to drive home the need for men to break the cycle of violence. I didn’t accomplish the mission. Instead, I got this, whatever it is. Figured I would throw this out into the universe, and if someone cares, good. If not, that’s fine too.
You think you know New York, You don’t. My childhood was a war zone, shit was never sweet. Everyone has a story, because of technology and literature, we have been able to listen to, read, and watch millions of them. We get to see their laughter, pain, struggle, and triumph. But those stories, no matter how accurate, or true to the writer, could never give you the unadulterated experience of a black boy's life. The fact of the matter is, no matter how accurately someone paints the picture for you, there’s a certain level of personal experience missing that blocks you from the complete truth. I’m writing today because I want to tell my story.
I have lived in many places, but, the place that I’ll always claim as my home is East New York, Brooklyn. I came of age at the tail end of the crack epidemic, the rise of gang violence, and the war on drugs. I learned “how to be a man,” in a tornado of “tough on crime” laws, Bloods, Crips, ABG’s, and the NYPD.
I remember growing up and being scared to death. Yeah, that was the emotion, I was afraid, always afraid of what I would have to face, who I would have to fight, what kind of energy I was giving off, and how that would affect me. Because a young black boy growing up in that environment had two options, take food by any means necessary, or become it.
If you became food, your life was over, everybody on the block would know that you were soft, take advantage of you, prey on you, and look for ways to use your shortcomings to their advantage. Everyone knew who the food was, and they were always an open target. A target for physical violence, for robbery, for gang initiations, for extra attention from the police, or just the shame of your peers. The best thing you could do was keep your head down and hope that trouble didn’t find you.
Sometimes that worked, most times, not so much. You see, where I come from, there wasn’t much of anything to keep the spirits up. Our community was depressed and ignored. Stripped of any valuable jobs or resources through white flight, over-policed by an aggressive and crooked police department, and ravaged by the crack epidemic. Add to the fact that my community was made up of nothing but black and Latino people, and you get the perfect mixture of circumstances that keep elected officials, businesses, and resources out of your space.
Instead, my streets were littered with crack vials, skelly courts, burnt-out cars, and abandoned buildings. It’s kind of breath-taking to reflect as an adult and realize how much of my childhood was defined by violence. Whether through the physical and sexual abuse I experienced as a very small child, the physical abuse from my step-mother, and father, or the regular violence that took place in the streets of East New York. Having said that, there is almost always a defining moment. Something that sticks out, no matter how much distance you put between it. Mine happened when I was 11 years old. It was election day, so we were off from school.
I was outside with my best friend Eric, and we were hanging out in front of the building. It was a bit of a dreary day, but we were happy to have a couple of moments outside. I had gotten a skateboard for Christmas the year before, so Eric and I were taking turns using it when a group of kids came up to us. There must have been 10 of them. I didn’t think much of them, kids walk around all of the time, but as they got closer, I felt a weird sensation in the pit of my stomach. Something was about to go down. I had the skateboard, so I was at the center of their attention. They surrounded me, and before I knew it, one of the kids punched me square in the face.
I remember the shock I felt from the punch and the anger that bubbled as I tasted my own blood. I looked to the oldest one there to do something about the slanderous behavior taking place. She was three or four inches taller than me and didn’t give a single damn about what I was going through.
I looked over at Eric for help, but he was frozen in shock, he didn’t know what to do. honestly, how was a nine-year-old supposed to react when a bunch of pre-teens and teens had just run up on his best friend? In the haze of it all, one of the older kids pushed me and grabbed my skateboard. He tried to run away but I went after him. It was a setup, at the time I didn’t know, the thought never crossed my mind. He leads me to the abandoned building around the corner from my house. It was known for two things, the place where crackheads hung out to do drugs, and an easy place to get caught slipping. I still remember the kid. He had light brown skin, emotionless black eyes, sandy brown hair, and a mischievous grin. You would have thought we were playing tag.
I had him alone and was tired of the games. He was about the same height as me, but much lighter. I thought I could take him, I knew I could take him. He tried to punch me, but his swing was wild, I backed out of it, then kicked him in the stomach. He doubled over and I pounced, pummeling him with wild swings, doing everything I could to make him hurt as much as he and his friends had already hurt me. He didn’t go down easy, and before I knew it, we were in a full-on scuffle. Someone pushed me from behind and I fell. If you have ever been jumped, you know that the number one rule is to stay on your feet, because the minute you fall, things are going to get ugly. I hit the ground, and before I could react, I was being stomped out by what felt like 1000 different feet. I tried to curl into a ball to protect myself, but they kept going. Then I tried to stand. I was about halfway up when it happened.
I’m not sure who did it, but someone took the skateboard and hit me square across the face. It knocked me out for maybe a minute or two, I’m not really sure. All I know is that I heard the kids laughing and running away. When I got up, I felt something hot and sticky on my face, it was blood. The attack didn’t just leave me bruised, the impact of the skateboard, cracked my forehead open. There were a lot of things that happened after that but what stands out most is the fear I felt as blood poured from my head, dripping all over my face and staining my clothes. I went into autopilot, crying and screaming as I ran back to my building, I thought I was going to die. When I made it back to the block, Eric was standing in the same spot I had left him. When he saw me, his face turned white.
My stepmother, Terri took me to the hospital, we had a tumultuous relationship, but whenever I needed someone or something, she was there. I have a lot of feelings about our relationship, and the role she played in my life, but I’ll always give her that. Despite the amount of blood loss from the accident, I only needed five stitches. We were in. and out of the hospital in no time. But that wasn’t the end of my ordeal. Terri had to go back to work, so she left me at Eric’s house with his mom, Patricia.
I remember laying in Patricia’s bed, tears in my eyes, head pounding, and. fingers tracing through my brand new stitches. Patricia, Eric, and everyone in the house did everything they could to make me feel better about the situation, they told jokes, brought me my favorite foods, and encouraged me to play video games, but I was reeling. I layed there trying hard to hold back the tears, wondering how people could be so mean, and then I heard a voice. It was my dad.
“I wish they would have fucking killed you and threw you in a fucking Dumpster”
My dad had come home from work early and when he saw me, he wasn’t happy.
“This is what I left work early for? To see you in fucking stitches?”
“I wish they would have fucking shot you in the head and stuffed you in a box!”
I tried to defend myself,
“Fuck you, I wish you were dead. You wasted my time, and now I can’t go back to work. Do you have rent money, do you have money to replace the skateboard? No, you don’t. I’m sick of your shit”
With that, he stormed out of the room. I thought about hyping up how I felt in the moment. But the truth is, at first, I didn’t feel anything. It wasn’t until an hour later in Eric’s room, watching TV when the emotions poured in. His mom overheard the conversation between my dad and me. She came into the room, sat next to me, and softly stroked my hair while apologizing for my dad’s behavior. The tears started falling down my face, but I hated myself for it. My weakness caused me to go to the hospital, my father to lose hours at work, and the expectation that we would be receiving an expensive new hospital bill.
I promised myself that I would never have a moment of weakness again. On that day I was food, but I wouldn’t let anyone else punk me, hurt me, or make me look weak. I decided that the hurt I felt from my father’s words wasn’t worthy of a man, and with that, I embraced the rage, hate, hurt, and anger that would drive me for many years.
To survive in East New York in the ’90s, you needed that kind of pain and hatred, especially if you were a boy. There were too many enemies that needed to be destroyed, in order for you to survive another day. And I was ready to become a monster.