17 to Life: A Black Boy Memoir


Title: 17 to Life: A Black Boy Memoir (On Accepting Love, Defining the Self & Living Free)
Author: Oronde Ash
Publisher: TBD… Anyone?
Publication Date: Fall 2008 (Full manuscript completed)
ISBN: In process
Contact: bygINCpresents@live.com
Website: http://www.orondeash.com
Blog: http://www.bygpowis.blogspot.com
Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/bygINCpresents


“Stay… Don’t go anywhere.”

Auntie Sonja would repeat that to my sister Annie and me every time we went to her job at Lennox Hospital in the Bronx, NY. She wasn’t being mean. I knew that a nine-year-old boy and his eight-year-old sister weren’t supposed to be locked in the nurse’s changing room for five hours at a time. But there we were, Annie and I fresh from the island of St Vincent, wide-eyed and ready for The States.

Island children with relatives in The States sleep sound and dream of living there. The States was a direct line to salvation St. Vincent would never provide. Those with a connection to that line were operators to my friends and me. With stories of material excess and opportunity island life limits altogether, the fortunate sons and daughters of St. Vincent –those with money, influence, government jobs or who attended the same Anglican Church I did– opened eyes to human capital. If someone had relatives, friends or an enemy in The States, they were angels back home. Operators like me gave away old clothes or excess food to starving, hungry, naked children in town. My grandmother, uncle and aunt in New Jersey would send more t-shirts, more books, more toys at Christmas, so it was no big deal. It wasn’t just the material. Ever since I was a child, Auntie Sonja and my grandmother had been granting me access to a human economy most of my friends were too poor to afford. And I loved them for that.

“Don’t do anything, you two.”

Auntie Sonja would drop by the lockers every few hours bringing sandwiches and tiny boxes of apple juice. “You’re really not supposed to be here,” she’d remind me. My mother told me that after coming to Brooklyn in the early 1970s, Sonja was on tract to become a head nurse. I didn’t want to get my aunt fired, so I stared at the bland walls or fell asleep on the long, wooden benches in the locker room. After two or three trips to the Bronx, fifteen hours in the locker room, I, naturally, wanted to see the beeping machines, talk to the doctors about what they were doing or even walk around Lennox Avenue. When we came up the subway it reminded me of a colorful island market. Music was playing, people walking and talking. I remember my mother took me to see the movie Beat Street and saying, “That’s where you aunt works,” when a Bronx hospital came on screen. I remembered the human movement in that movie –the locking, popping, rhythmic release. And it was all there outside the hospital door.

Whatever was around Lennox Hospital might as well have been on Mars because I was in quarantine. In three weeks, school was starting in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, so Annie and I had to be registered. That meant riding the train five hours round-trip to get prodded and poked with needles so we wouldn’t infect American kids with our island diseases. I wasn’t sick when we first got to New Jersey. It was late summer. The sun didn’t set until eight o’clock. That amazed me. In St. Vincent, it got dark at six thirty every night. Only The States could figure out a way to afford more sunlight for kids to play. Inside the house was another story.

In the two-story, three-bedroom house on Everts Avenue, I’d overhear cousins Gerry and Carla complain about the little privacy they had now that Annie and I shared their rooms. Gerry was okay. We shared a bed and wrestled, especially after watching Hulk Hogan, Big John Stud and the Junkyard Dog on TV. Most days if he wasn’t in Auntie Sonja’s rooms watching TV, he rode his bike to play with his friends while I stayed on Everts Ave and juggled a soccer ball. Still, Gerry did introduce me to rap music. He had pictures of Curtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Run DMC and other rappers in Word-Up magazine plastered all over his room. I didn’t get rap. To me, the human beat box was glorified spitting. The only good thing about the music was break dancing, which Gerry and I sometimes did. He would put me on his head like a helicopter blade and spin around until I fell on the bed. Those days were fun.

As for cousin Carla, she was all right. She and Annie looked like they were having fun playing with their dolls or watching cartoons like Rainbow Bright or Gem. She sometimes wrestled with Gerry and me so I guess she wasn’t that much of a girl.
Annie and I, Auntie Sonja, Gerry, Carla, Grandma, and for days at a time, my mom shared the house. About a month after arriving, Auntie Sonja found my mother a live-in job as a nanny to some white kids a few towns away so she was rarely there. Also, to avoid the commute between New York and New Jersey, Auntie Sonja slept with relatives in Brooklyn. Some weeks she’d be gone from Sunday through Thursday. So she was hardly there either. That didn’t stop her from constantly working on the house.

From our first weeks in The States, the house was growing. Auntie Sonja wanted a deck in the back so she had one built. Looking back, I think the house was a marker for my aunt’s independence. She came from a no-name island, the first one in the family to leave and make it. She helped her other siblings establish themselves in Canada, Brooklyn and New Jersey. They all were doing well. She had been married, divorced, raised two kids on her own. She even brought Grandma in to take care of her kids. For all her years in The States, she had worked to establish something uniquely hers. I’m sure to her construction meant change for the better. To a nine-year-old soccer-loving boy, dust in the air and two-by-fours in the backyard meant less room to play. Still, all sides of the house, except the one near the street, were reserved for Grandma’s garden. She planted tomatoes, okra and all manner of herbs and spices. When I kicked my soccer ball into her cabbage patch or fell on her mint leaves, I’d tiptoe around the garden, careful to rub away my shoe prints on the way out. Days when I broke her tomato stems, I felt she disliked me for messing up her stuff.

Next to the house, a gray Chevy Nova sat in the gravel driveway. The panels between the front and back tires were rusting. Some days I’d sit in the driver’s seat and pretend to drive around Scotch Plains. None of the women had a driver’s license so we walked everywhere. On the three or four-mile walk to Westfield to catch the New Jersey Transit train to Newark, onto the Path Train to New York City, we would pass elegant houses more together than Auntie Sonja’s fixer-upper. Even if they were smaller, to me the houses appeared bigger. The front yards were perfectly cut, not like our feeble attempt at a lawn, with the massive Christmas tree taking up most of the play space. Sometimes, a man would ride a little tractor across his yard. He’d smile and wave, we’d wave back. There were BMX bikes or remote control cars sprawled in the driveways, tempting, teasing, reminding me of all I didn’t have in The States.

I didn’t have a bike. In St. Vincent, I learned to ride my neighbor’s bike in thirty minutes. The kid was two years younger than me so his bike was uncomfortable. Still, his mom would bribe me into running errands by promising I could take the bike. One or two kids in town had a bike so I was a big deal when I rode one. Cousin Gerry had a bike, but it was too high. He was thirteen. I was nine. Even Carla, at eight, had her own little pink bike with a flower basket and bell on the handlebar. But I couldn’t be seen riding a girl’s bike now, could I? A Caribbean boy still had his pride.

I wanted a lot of things I began to see in The States. GI Joe action figures, a He-Man sword, a remote control car, Transformers, a football. I wanted to eat potato chips, hamburgers, Domino’s pizza or grilled hot dogs with the black lines on them like in the commercials. Grandma wasn’t crazy about junk food. We ate as healthy as the doctor said she had to.

The broccoli and cauliflower in her soups didn’t have the tastes I was used to. Even the yams, carrots, and potatoes lost their goodness. America seemed to rob the flavor in them. I detested Grandma for trying to force-feed me all that green crap. Once school began, and the lunchroom at Evergreen Elementary was ripe with juju beads, jellybeans, candy bars, lollipops, fruit roll-ups and talk of lobster and steak for dinner, I detested Grandma even more. We never ate any of that stuff. Couldn’t there be some variety in our diet? Didn’t she notice how skinny I was compared to everybody else in America? Pizza made people bigger. I picked up something on TV about complex starches and carbohydrates. They said it was healthy. Hadn’t she heard?

Television was teaching me a lot. We didn’t have TV in Barrouallie (barrow-LEE) –my island hometown. The older people told me the mountains surrounding our valley blocked the TV waves. St. Vincent offered a lot to look at. In America, I couldn’t see much because no one ever went anywhere. Television became my window to The States. Four were in the house. The biggest was in the family room –but nobody even went in the family room. Hard plastic covered the velvet sofas, making it uncomfortable for any family member. A twelve-inch set was in the kitchen –Grandma watched that one all day– another was in Auntie Sonja’s room and a nine-inch, black and white set with rabbit ears was in the basement. After school, Gerry controlled the set in Auntie Sonja’s room. He’d watch Good Times and Video Music Box for an hour and a half. He never watched the cartoons I liked, so I usually went to the basement if Carla and Annie hadn’t beaten me to it.

The basement was dark and dank, the floor tiled, with no rugs or carpets. It got miserably cold even in early fall. The changing seasons were something I had to get used to. I had arrived in the heat of summer with my mother and sister. The States was green. Gardens were growing. Our little clan was finally joining the bigger Ash family. I met the aunt and grandmother who had given me so much, the cousins who had sent me their children’s books and spare clothes. Then fall came, with it the fear of fitting into a new school, my mother not being around, my sister playing with her new friends, Gerry with his buddies, me and the cold basement. Even the heat didn’t want to stay down there. Add to that my gnawing fear of being alone in the dark –too many stories from home about jumbees and black magic– and I swear I’d hear voices talking behind me. It took a lot of my nine year-old nerves to stay but the reward was worth it. GI Joe, Transformers, He-Man, Diff’rent Strokes, Benson. I got what I wanted. All I had to do was put up with minor problems like cold feet and fear.

When I didn’t feel like staying in the basement, I’d shuffle back and forth between Gerry’s TV and Grandma’s. There wasn’t much variety in her viewing. She was addicted to one network all day long: ABC. Monday Night Football was the only good part of the ordeal. Grandma didn’t know anything about football –except for the Superbowl, which we all watched in the family room– but she was loyal to ABC, so she watched MNF anyway. I had fallen in love with American football, especially the college game. I never heard voices in the basement on Saturday afternoons nor was I hungry or upset. Something else was going on down there: I learned.

Football taught me American geography and a bit of the country’s personality. Oklahoma and Barry Switzer were in the Southwest Conference, next to, but not in the same league as LSU. The Crimson Tide hated their SEC rivals at Auburn, even though the Tigers had an incredible runner named Bo Jackson –who I kept hearing about over and over again. Army vs. Navy was the biggest game of the year, except any time Notre Dame played a ranked team. At Penn State, Pitt, Ohio and other Northern schools, they ran the ball straight ahead because the fields got too hard for running backs to change directions in late fall. In the SWAC and SEC they liked the option while in the WAC and PAC-10 they threw the ball because the weather was always nice in California.

To be a quarterback you had to be at least 6’2”, 180-200 lbs. and white. Runners and receivers were black, tight ends and offensive linemen –usually the smartest guys on the team, according to the Chevrolet Scholar-Athlete Award announced at halftime– were white. Linebackers were black, except for middle linebackers, who were usually white, along with their head coaches.

Saturday afternoon football, specifically Notre Dame Football, made me want to go to college and experience the excitement. (South Bend sounded so much like its own glorious country; it would be another year until I accepted that it was an actual town in Indiana.) I wanted to see Touchdown Jesus with my own eyes. “All you have to do is get a soccer scholarship,” I voice would offer. That’s the way all the black kids did it in the movies I saw.

On TV, the black kid was always the go-to receiver or running back. He never got the blond-haired, blue-eyed head cheerleader or even said much on screen, but it was obvious he was going to college on a scholarship. I saw my tract before me. Scotch Plains was a soccer-obsessed town. I was shocked to see the level of interest for my island game. Maybe God was looking out for me? Why did bless me with athletic ability? Why send me to a town where the high school team had been state champs in soccer two years in a row? I was sure God had a plan for me. I had talked to Him every night since I could remember. My first ambition in life was to become a pastor in the Anglican Church. Even though my faith was waning in America, I still accepted the fact that God worked miracles for those who abided by His rules.

Bob Ross, the gym teacher at Evergreen Elementary, saw me play soccer and immediately recommended me to one of his softball buddies, Joe McEvoy. Mr. McEvoy called Grandma and she had Gerry take me to the middle school fields one Saturday morning. There were ten or twenty games going on at once. Parents were clapping and yelling, balls flying all over the place. The fields were actually green grass instead of dirt patches made by goats grazing on them all day. There was no pathway cutting diagonally across any field from years of people walking through it –like in Barrouallie. There were no kid’s teams back home. We played in the streets, on the beach or in the park after the older guys were done. Soccer was organized in Scotch Plains.

Gerry found Mr. McEvoy who gave me an orange shirt and sent me to kick around with the other boys in orange shirts. We won that day. Saturdays with the McEvoy family introduced me to the pleasures of the American spirit. I had gotten to know them well during the course of our undefeated, championship run.

There was Joe –who was on the team with me– his sister Jennifer, three years older and mom and dad; the perfect American family. They had a pool, cable TV, a basketball hoop (with a net), all kinds of balls and toys in the garage. Joe’s room was full of posters of athletes, actors, comic book heroes. His carpet –in his room– was strewn with baseball cards, action figures, new clothes. He even had his own TV. Mrs. McEvoy asked him what he wanted to eat and she promptly made it. When they went shopping, Joe got to pick out his favorite cereal or candy. Most importantly to me, the family talked. “We never do that in Auntie Sonja’s house,” I thought.

Whenever I was around the McEvoys there was never a raised voice. Of course, that could have all been for show but I didn’t care to know reality then. Just like on TV, I was living with the perfect American family. I was accepted. I’m sure they knew I knew I didn’t belong in their house but we played the acceptance game every weekend. For once in all my time in The States, I felt like an American, alive with all the material excesses island lore swore was commonplace here. I felt cared for, almost complete. Mrs. McEvoy spoke softly, listened and catered to my needs. She knew what this country was all about.
The teammates I interacted with on the weekends had input in their lives. They were being prepared for an America that wanted people who knew what they wanted; prepared to participate in a society of independent thinkers. Island life prepared kids to be thankful for what little they got. In St. Vincent, kids were seen and seldom heard. In America, kids talked. I wanted to talk but I couldn’t fashion the words. I had never practiced this new, American way of living in the world.

There were issues on my mind. New stimuli flashed questions and comments across my senses but it seemed impolite for a fourth grader to talk to adults in Auntie Sonja’s house so I never posed questions. It was frustrating not being able to explore or articulated my own ideas. I would feel myself bubbling and knew something was itching to come out.

One day I playfully slapped a classmate named Chuck across the face. Chuck and I had just gotten in a scruff on the football field because he was kicking and tripping instead of tackling. That wasn’t fair. Rules were rules. On the steps leading into the building we started tugging at each other and soon began swinging wildly. We both got sent to the principal’s office. Grandma gave me a whipping when I got home that day. I was sure she didn’t like me.

There were other incidents where it seemed I was trying to articulate some silent emotion. One Sunday morning, I didn’t feel like going to church. It had nothing to do with the Baptist service, the preaching style, or anyone in the congregation. I liked church. I had always liked church. I felt special when I answered Bible questions the other kids didn’t know.

It was going to be a hot day and I knew I would pass out before the two-hour service was up. Grandma was standing in the front doorway ushering me, Annie, Carla and Gerry. I was sick of being buttoned up. My shirt and the tie, both hand-me-downs, were too big or too tight. Back home, I was the one giving clothes away. Moreover, my white teammates wore jeans and sneakers to their church. Why did I have to dress up to talk to the same God? Not fair.

“I don’t want to go to church,” I mumbled. Grandma wasn’t trying to hear me. As we got to the bottom of the steps, thinking she was out of earshot, I turned to Annie and said, “I hate her.” Grandma opened the door, walked down the three steps, grabbed me by the arm and slapped me across the face.
“You must learn some manners,” she said. “Now, go to church.”

More signs of frustration with the house began appearing. The neighbor’s apple tree hung into Auntie Sonja’s front yard. Especially in late fall, apples would drop off and rot on her driveway. Every day I saw worms crawling out of the apples. Annie and I tasted blood in the apple juice Auntie Sonja would buy. We were the only ones in the house who tasted the blood. We figured the rest were just used to it. To this day, I don’t know why my sister and I both tasted blood in the apple juice –but we did. She and I would dump our full glasses into the sink when nobody was looking. The apple juice tasted fine at my white friend’s houses? I wondered why that was.

For the most part, I kept calm in the house. Playing soccer and spending some Saturday afternoons –or weekends, if we had a tournament– with the McEvoy family provided needed respite. No matter how much I smiled, even after Mr. McEvoy took Joe and me to the Meadowlands to watch the Kareem, Magic and the Lakers play the Nets, I was not happy. I didn’t know what happiness was supposed to mean to me but I knew I was not feeling it.

Happiness used to be so simple. If my father gave me a quarter, I was happy. If my mother said I could go to the beach in the morning with my neighbor Jerry, I was happy. If I ate a mango, bought roasted peanuts, licked an emptying jar of peanut butter, watched a kung-fu movie at the theater, rode a bicycle, ate two spoonfuls of Klim powdered milk and Milo, I was happy. The rent for happiness had gone up in The States and I couldn’t pay. The Ashes were too poor on ideas about how to get the most from why and how we were living.

“I’m cold,” a whimper inside would tell me. I had heard that same voice before in St. Vincent when I was happy. In The States he wanted to speak but had trouble being heard. “I’m not dumb,” the voice would promise me. “I want loud. I have to come out.” One day he did.

Maybe I had enough of the classroom walls at Evergreen? In Barrouallie, the school didn’t have inner walls. The building was one open space like a warehouse. I could look over and see all my friends in the next class or hear them when they talked. There was a collective energy feeding me all day.

Maybe it was longing for island warmth? Every day I woke up in this new state and it got colder and colder. The leaves outside –green when I got here, like leaves are supposed to be– were turning orange and purple and red. The trees were dying –the blood rushing to the leaves before they fell and got trampled on the ground. All the kids at Evergreen trampled on the leaves and laughed as they squashed the life out of them. Then the snow fell and covered up the death.
It was close to Christmas. I hadn’t spoken to or written to my island buddies since I arrived in Scotch Plains. I cut my dad and all my godfathers off because TV taught me they were inconsiderate fools. The Just Say No to Drugs campaign opened my eyes to the idiots my dad had surrounded me with. On the island, I saw his friends and him smoking ganja when we hung out. Weed was no big deal. My father was in his mid twenties when I was born, and a Rastafarian to boot. All his friends were the same age and into Rasta as well. From the age of five or six, his friends would let me roll joints and smoke with them. I was one of the fellas. Surely, they must have known what was best for me?

But one of the commercials on TV warned that smoking marijuana killed brain cells. I figured the reason I was getting C’s and D’s on my report card was because my father killed my brain cells. I surmised that ganja was the reason I was forgetting my friends and the things we used to do, why I feel alone and paranoid, why my brain refused to work like it used to. I never reasoned that island memories were falling back because I was adjusting to a completely different culture. Old St. Vincent had to make way for new America. The summer comforts of my life were being swept under the snow and melting away. I blamed my dad for my psychic limbo and summarily cut him out of my life.

It’s sad to think about the sudden, assuredness of my decision. In only six months, I had tuned against the man I loved above all else –the man I ran to when my mother and her new boyfriend tried to hurt each other in front of the town and only succeeded in embarrassing me –the man who spent hours helping me develop my soccer skills. My father bought me my first Bible. He talked to me about God in a human way, and not the fire and brimstone terror of the pastor’s pulpit predictions. (I didn’t speak to my father until years later. “He can’t be the one who made you dumb,” I’d hear a voice whisper. But I didn’t hear him. I was losing the connection.)

Maybe all this uncertainty caused me to erupt that Wednesday afternoon in school? Maybe I was a brat who didn’t get his way one day and threw a tantrum? Whatever the reason, I snapped.

The class had just returned from lunch and we had our usual fifteen minutes of free time to draw, read, write, whatever. I wanted to practice typing on the computer but somebody beat me to it. I was upset. I wandered over to the window and stared outside, not trying to think of anything in particular. Soon I started feeling sad and kept staring out the window even after Mrs. DiPeppi called me back to my seat.

That day, I hated life. I hated the snow, the cold; I hated my family, myself. I hated America for not being real. I hated not knowing anything or having anyone. I hated this state.

I didn’t laugh the way I used to on the island. I was special there. I missed being a special boy, nurtured by a town that always seemed to look out for me.
I missed me.

That Wednesday afternoon, I decided to end the hours holding anxiety and frustration inside. Someone had to feel the wrath of a boy slowly going wrong.

“If you’re good, we’ll watch Slim Goodbody today instead of Friday,” Mrs. DiPeppi told her fourth grade class.
I didn’t give a damn about Slim Goodbody. His Lycra suit with a painting of the human organs all over was something he could remove when the camera was off. I had to live in my crazy, confused black skin every minute of the day. I was a Slim Nobody from nowhere anybody cared about. I didn’t wear myself on the outside like the American kids seemed to do. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to in this new place. Nobody saw the real me. Nobody saw the volcano. Nobody felt the hot magma burning away. But they would.

“I HATE YOU ALL! I HATE YOU ALL!” I wrote on a blackboard at the back of the room. Then I wrote the names of all the kids in the class. They were shocked by what they saw. Mrs. DiPeppi calmed the class down quickly and came to where I was.
“What’s wrong, Oronde?” she asked. Hadn’t she seen?

“I HATE YOU ALL! I HATE YOU ALL!” I said to her.
She tried to get me to go back to my seat at the front of the room, but it wasn’t her day. The day was for me to be with the voice I was hearing inside. The day was for me to listen to his pain again and again. I sat at the back of the room, facing the dying world outside. I was cold. I wanted to go home.

1 Response to “17 to Life: A Black Boy Memoir”

  1. 1 Sankofa Literary Review, Editor
    July 23, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    Wow this was deep. I can’t wait until we have our interview on BAN. Ella

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