I’m 17 years old and it’s a Saturday night.
I’m driving my mother’s 1994 blue Honda Accord with two of my friends in the back seat. We’re about to get on the freeway to check out this party when we see two of our other friends riding in the opposite direction. So we both pull over and because I haven’t seen the other two guys since they dropped out of school, we have a little reunion on the side of the street.
We laugh, clown a little and try to figure out where we want to go. Everything is all good; the weather is warm, the women are out and it’s just a care-free atmosphere. Then we all stop talking as we notice a police car pull up behind us.
“Hey is everything alright?” One of the cops asks us, not out of concern, but to put us on the defensive.
We tell him “yeah” like, of course everything is OK why wouldn’t it be?
“Whose car is this?”
“That’s my mother’s car,” I respond quick and agitated.
“Hey don’t get an attitude with me bro. I’ll have everybody here lying face down with their hands behind their backs.”
Then another squad car pulls up and as I stare at the officer who is doing all the talking and is now a few steps away from me and I experience an epiphany. It felt like that moment represented a perfect culmination of my teenage experience — it was as if my ethnic identity had now become perfectly clear.
When I was 13, I remember walking home from school one day and having a black woman around my mother’s age, with huge burning eyes, ask me if I had any rocks to sell her. By the time we were 15, everybody asked us for dope; Mexicans, White people and black folks as well. They would ask me, my cousin and our friends for drugs while we walked home from football practice with our pads on like that was our one purpose on Earth.
And when we went to the corner store on E. 15th, down the street from my cousin’s house, to get some Now & Laters or some Funions or Donald Duck orange juice, the old Korean lady would shout “Philly Blunt?” as she held two cigars up, one in each hand, behind the cash register. And we would have to tell her, just like we told all the dope fiends, “NO!”
So now there are like five cops gathered around us and I suddenly understand that I, along with my friends, are now fully-grown monsters. I mean if criminality had a color then it was the same complexion as us. If criminality had features then it would look exactly like our reflections in the mirror. If criminality had a dress code then it would wear its pants, shirt and shoes exactly like we did.
“I got a report about a fight … is there any fighting going on here?”
“Naw, no fighting.”
“Can I see your drivers license?”
I show it to him and he looks at it with a flashlight because apparently he needs to analyze every letter and every number. When he’s done, he tells us to have a good night and both of the squad cars speed off to their next confrontation.
My friends and I stay there for a few minutes and try as hard as we can to regroup. But needless to say, we find it to be impossible.
good piece. just read several of your pieces on here. good. look forward to reading more.
for what it’s worth, a poem i wrote years ago:
SEE, YOU DON’T KNOW
See, you don’t know how it is
people see you comin’, cross the street
– don’t be they shunnin’ you, just
you big, you a man, you black, you dark,
an’ they afraid. They scared. Sometimes
they don’t even know what they do.
You don’t know how it is
see them Nike signs say, “Just Do It!”
but you still chained to your own memory
chained to junkies noddin’ on the steps,
piss-smell everywhere, an’ Day Man
beatin’ all your dreams outta you with a fungo bat. Chained
the way mama once chained me
to a radiator down the basement
for two days. I passed out.
I dreamed I was in Hell. I dreamed
I was a white boy dreamin’ I was black,
I was gon’ wake up
in a big clean room all my own, that smelled
See you don’t know, could be
this nigger just be thinkin’ he need
diapers for he baby, or he sad
his grandmama done died, but you
just cross the street, all the same.
Don’t matter who I be, don’t matter
Martin and Malcolm been here and gone,
don’t matter they got all
kinds of fancy niggers on TV. Don’t matter
you gonna watch “Fresh Prince” or Venus Williams
when you get home.
you just cross that street.