I remember the streets. I remember the cracked and crooked sidewalks forming patterns like neurons. I’ve seen life through these patterns, made new forms, retreaded old ones, and used them all the time like stencils. Concrete is my sounding board, my advisor, and hardship my silent navigator. No matter where you go there you are.
I live in the suburbs now. “The place” my friend says, “where married people go to die.”
Yet I remember the two-family homes in my hood, leaning like they partied too hard—paint chipped front doors the corners rat-chewed, rusted hinges on rotting wood, and big shiny new locks like the gold Jesus pieces on the hustlers parked out front. The housing projects a never ending parade of bricks—warm and cozy in the winter, warm and cozy in the summer, and every season in between. Our faces began to resemble the bricks.
I remember the rooming house I shared with two addicts and how they’d roller-skate uphill all day long. The two sisters who looked nothing alike, one of them had a baby, and when we got rowdy they’d become silent and invisible. They shared the attic apartment with a haughty Argentine the addicts were coaching-up from cocaine to crack. And the pervert on the first floor with his underage looking “friends.” And the landlord his three daughters and two sons—the oldest barely nine-years-old and his wife back in the motherland crying and sweating it out on
Deportation Avenue. Nine-year-olds do knock on the doors of strange and addled men, to demand the rent. Rivers of malt liquor, blood, rum, and tears cut right through that house.
I live in the suburbs now. I practice a new kind of survival—of symmetrical lawns that must be green, greener than the next and the next after that. And perfect. “Listen, why don’t you use my guy?” “Because everyone on this street uses him.” I shrug. The patches of barren dirt and no grass are my answer to all of this. A giant clock ticks here all the time. We kneel and worship the clock. We rise from bed, eat, go to work, eat, come home, eat, do the kid things, sleep, and do the same thing again the next day. The clock is a demanding god. He wants it done the same way every day. Here the neighbors say, “Be smart. Vote for Romney,” or, “You can’t trust those people. They’re terrorists, all of them,” and sprinkled in between, “How’s it going?”
This isn’t the violence I’m used to. I live in the suburbs now, myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from myself.
One day the bricks came out my pocket. You see, sometimes neighbors write litanies and actually believe you want to hear them. And on my small patch of miserable lawn, the one asymmetrical thing in the middle of all these perfectly manicured squares surrounded by driveways and BMW’s, shaded by oak, chestnut, gum, and pine trees, the pattern of the concrete emerged.
“You know,” he started, “you should repave that sidewalk,” then “and that siding could be power washed.” After that, “You think you got enough garbage cans in your yard?” And, “Around here we usually only keep two.” And, “This ain’t Elizabeth you know.” And, “You should be careful with all that sun you’re getting. You’re starting to look like Obama.” He reared back for another one and I jumped in on the beat, the one in my head. What you eat don’t make me shit.
I remember my grandmother’s mop stick. To play stickball I’d use my grandmother’s mop stick. To play fight on Saturdays, after the Kung-Fu double feature, I’d use my grandmother’s mop stick. I used a steak knife to cut it in three pieces and with a shoelace from my sneakers and some duct tape made a three section staff. I was the man on the block like huh, allow me to demonstrate the skill of Shaolin! It was worth the ass whooping my grandmother gave me.
I remember my first full time job—six bucks an hour under the table. I stopped drinking Old English 800 Malt. I still bought my food from the chicken shack. Commercial streets consisted of Korean owned stores that sold imitation name brands, chicken shacks owned by Middle Easterners, the occasional pizzeria or Chinese restaurant, and small liquor stores. On payday I walked down the long streets and bought 22 oz. German beers, then hit the chicken shack for a huge beef rib slathered in barbecue sauce, a double cheeseburger and a deep fried chicken breast. Then I’d move along the stained, garbage riddled streets to my hole-in-the-wall, the working man’s jackpot. And when the beer ran out I ran to the bodega. I can still hear merengue, bachata, salsa, and love ballads played over the sound of the deli meat slicer.
Night was the hook. The half dead street lamps created more darkness. And from the pitch-black side streets, the sudden alleyways, and idling cars, violence exploded. Yes, I was afraid, but also alive. I got snuck [see: punched in the face unexpectedly] a few times. I regrouped with my posse and came back [see: large group and “Now what, bish?”]. The cops were always around, making sure we stayed real chill. Content with scraps off capitalism’s table—that we only howled at night, and that we only ate each other.
But the day was just as capricious. I remember a drug deal gone bad, in broad daylight, my friend “R” the drug dealer got stabbed, and the posse chased after the crack fiend. I remember my friend Felix, blocks away, with fate guiding him to our turmoil, rounding the corner. A corner we’d turned thousands of times. A corner occupied by drunks from morning to evening and Monday thru Sunday, beautiful women in mini dresses jumping quickly in and out of cars on Friday and Saturday nights, and young hustlers in loud cars blowing kisses and hooting with no concept of time. Rounded that corner—his eyes always on the lookout for us. He saw us, and the hate in our eyes in the background, and the object of that hate, the crackhead, in the foreground. And there was no time, no way to measure the brevity of that breath. He tried to help us, to stop that man, but there was no time. And the crackhead shanked him, and took him. This is the violence nobody was used to, but we learned to expect it. I never lived here. I survived here.
I live in the suburbs now. This is a different kind of survival, a different violence—here it is a perversion of idyll. We take and we want and we want and we have. Here there are toy lightsabers, Sony PlayStations, Nintendo Wii U’s, Blu-ray players, flat screen televisions, iPads, iPhones, Mac book pro’s, and home alarm systems. Here there are baseball gloves, bats, cleats, basketballs, and pristine courts that have rims with nets. Here there is Lacrosse. Food spoils in refrigerators and kids aren’t hungry at dinnertime. They aren’t hungry. The streets here tell me nothing. And residents say the same things: “They’re quiet, good people. They mind their business. Their house always looks so nice.” You can look but you won’t see anyone. We’re all pronouns without antecedents here. Every house is quiet, neat, and unassuming. My grandmother taught me to fear what I can’t see.
I live in the suburbs now. I worked hard for this, strove for this, yes sir’d, no mam’d, and overtime’d for this. And I forget home for this—from time to time. Home is nothing to write love songs about: there is no romance, only the memory of hunger, adrenaline, pain, the growl of the wolves, and the cries of the meek.
 Naughty By Nature “Uptown Anthem”
 Muriel Rukeyser: “The Poem as Mask”
 Jay-Z: “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)”
 Movie: Shaolin Vs. Lama
 Mos Def: “Hip Hop”
Image via Richard:Fraser