2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist
The N Train
The first porno magazine I ever bought was called Black and Busty. One Wednesday after school, Andrew Amato and Michael Marciano sent me into the Optimo on Bay Parkway with ten dollars and told me to get Hustler or Barely Legal. I looked the oldest, I was the tallest, and I was the only one in our sixth grade class who shaved—that’s why the mission fell to me.
I entered the store with my head down. I figured there was no way the lady behind the counter would sell a porno to me, and I hoped I wouldn’t get arrested for trying. I imagined the storeowner calling my mother and telling her I was a little pervert. I looked outside and saw Michael and Andrew huddled around a fire hydrant. I browsed the racks, picking up a copy of Psychology Today and pretending to read. Finally, I inched over to the wall of dirty magazines and movies. They were out in the open for anyone to see, and this Optimo had the best selection in the neighborhood. I felt like I was going to puke. I closed my eyes, picked one, and put it under my arm. I waited in line behind an old man buying scratch-offs and Pall Malls. When it was my turn, I put the magazine on the counter, cover down, and tried to avoid eye contact with the lady.
I paid. She brown-bagged the magazine and handed it over. I walked outside and the guys surrounded me. “What’d you get?” Andrew said.
Michael put out a hand to stop him. “Let’s go back to my place,” he said.
Michael lived in a big house on Eighty-Third Street. Grapevines hung from a trellis over the driveway and tomato plants grew through wire cones in the garden. We went inside, and Michael’s mother was sitting on the couch in the living room. She had a bag of popcorn in her lap and candy wrappers were shoved into the cushions around her. She was watching Love Connection. “Hello, boys,” she said without looking at us. “We’ve got some cold cuts and semolina bread, if you want.”
We hustled past her.
Michael’s room was cavernous. Magic Johnson posters were tacked to the walls. He had his own TV and Sega Genesis and Nintendo systems. Comic books and VHS tapes were piled high in milk crates overflowing from his closet. We kneeled around the bed like we were about to pray, and I put the bag down between us. I figured Michael should be the one to lead the way. But Andrew beat him to it. He grabbed the bag and shook out the magazine. There it was. Black and Busty. Andrew picked it up and flipped through the pages, as if the cover was a joke and the magazine would be full of something else. Michael and Andrew put their heads down on the bed.
“What?” I said.
“You owe us, Billy,” Andrew said. “We all put in for this. Black and Busty?” He held open the centerfold and looked at me like I’d just fingered his cat’s asshole.
“I picked with my eyes closed,” I said. “I was lucky I got anything.”
Andrew threw the magazine at me. I looked at it. I liked that the women were black. The only women I had ever seen naked were in movies, and they were all white. I stuffed the magazine into my backpack.
Michael went over to his stereo and put in a cassette of Licensed to Ill. “Nigger porn,” he said. “Christ.”
I doubt that was the first time I’d heard that word. I’m sure it had passed into my ears in songs and movies, but the way Michael had used it was different. Old Italian men in the neighborhood said things like tizzun and mulignan, but those words had distance in them. This seemed vicious, powerful.
A couple of months later, when school let out, my mother, stepfather, stepsister, and I drove to Florida. We were headed for Disney World and Universal Studios. In Virginia, a black state trooper pulled us over and gave us a ticket for going ten miles per hour over the speed limit. “Dumb nigger cop,” I said, after he’d gone back to his cruiser, and I felt tough. The word was thick in my mouth.
I taped everything back then. I had a little handheld recorder and stacks of blank cassettes. I wanted to be a writer, and I loved to tape my family and transcribe what they said and shape stories around it. I had the tape going when the cop pulled us over, when I said what I said. I found the tape buried in a filing cabinet when I was in college and listened to it. It was strange to hear myself as a ten-year-old, my voice full of Brooklyn, saying a word that I’d come to understand as hateful and wrong. I smashed the tape and scattered the pieces in garbage cans around the neighborhood.
When we got back from Orlando, I fell into my summer routine. It was 1989, and the summer meant stickball and stoopball. It meant daily trips to Jimmy’s Deli for Topps baseball cards, Spaldeens, and quarter drinks. It meant listening to ballgames on the radio in the front yard of our apartment building. It meant sitting on the high part of the jungle gym in my grandparents’ backyard at dusk and thinking about what it’d be like to have X-ray glasses, to be able to throw ninety, to be able to kiss Alyssa Milano.
I spent a lot of time with my stepfather. He taught at P.S. 48 on Eighteenth Avenue and ran a day camp there in late June and early July. I went with him almost every day and met kids that were way different than the kids I went to school with at St. Mary’s. Most kids at St. Mary’s were Italian. Or half-Italian like me. A few pure-bred Irish kids stuck out. And there was one poor Pakistani boy who had the misfortune to share a last name with the guy everyone wanted to bend over and buttfuck with a Scud missile by 1991. But the kids at my stepfather’s camp were mostly black and Chinese.
I played baseball, dodgeball, basketball, tag, and ran relays with the kids at the camp. We spent our days in the schoolyard and never cared if we left. We ate lunches out of coolers—peanut butter and jelly, ham and cheese—and drank lemonade that one of the school secretaries made. We forgot about video games. I got to be good friends with this black kid that everyone called Hopper. One day, as I tried to drive past him for a layup, he blocked my shot and said, “Get the fuck out of here, nigger.” I cracked up.
On most weekends I went with my father to New Jersey. It only took a half-hour or forty minutes to get to the town where he lived with his new wife and his new kids, but we crossed three bridges and it felt like a totally different place. My father and I didn’t have much to say to each other. I barely felt like his son anymore. Stuck in traffic on the Verrazano the following Friday, I told him about Hopper. I repeated what Hopper had said to me after he’d blocked my shot. I laughed like it was the funniest thing since that long piss scene in The Naked Gun.
“Never say that word,” my father said. “It’s a bad word. Never say it.”
“Why?” I said.
I wanted to believe him. I’d been waiting to believe something he said my whole life.
Other things happened that summer. The Mets traded Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell to the Phillies, and I stopped caring about baseball. Paul’s Boutique came out. I went to see Batman, Weekend at Bernie’s, The Abyss, and Ghostbusters II. I won a contest for an essay about Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who had died on the Space Shuttle Challenger, and my mother took me to an awards ceremony in downtown Brooklyn. We went out for brick oven pizza afterward.
But one thing happened that made life immediately different: At the end of August, a week before my birthday, a black kid named Yusuf Hawkins and three of his buddies got off the N train in Bensonhurst. The wrong neighborhood. A group of white kids surrounded them, waving bats. “What are you niggers doing here?” one of the white kids asked.
The next morning I woke up and went to Jimmy’s Deli to get the Daily News for my grandparents. I saw the headline: BLACK YOUTH KILLED BY WHITE MOB IN BENSONHURST. My first thoughts were about the girl I had a crush on that summer, who lived right across from where it had happened. I wondered what her bedroom looked like. Did she see anything? What kind of stuffed animals did she have? What kind of nightgowns hung in her closet? Did she have her own TV? Were there pictures on her wall?
But the Yusuf Hawkins story came to mean more and more to me as the days went on. I stopped reading box scores and started following the case. I kept a spiral notebook filled with things I’d learned from the newspapers. Hawkins wasn’t much older than me, just a few years. The guys who had ganged up on him were the brothers of kids I went to school with. Reporters asked questions and people I knew said that these guys weren’t killers or thugs, that they were the stand-up children of stand-up mothers and fathers, that they were protecting the neighborhood.
In the weeks after, things got messier and messier. Three hundred black demonstrators marched through the neighborhood to chants of “Niggers, go home.” White hecklers held up watermelons. They complained that the Feast Day of Saint Rosalia had been ruined. I saw Hawkins’s mother and father on TV, and they looked like they wanted to die.
At my birthday party, I asked an older neighborhood friend what he thought.
“What was that kid really doing in the neighborhood?” he said.
I told him what I’d read and seen on TV, that Hawkins and his friends were there to see about a car.
“A car,” the guy said. “Sure.” He paused. “Certain things you don’t do.”
“He wasn’t looking for trouble,” I said.
“That’s what they say on the news. You’ve got to think for yourself.” He leaned in close. “What was that kid really doing in the neighborhood?”
Here were the facts: Keith Mondello and Joey Fama and a bunch of their friends had heard that Mondello’s ex-girlfriend was dating a black or Hispanic guy. They were outside of her house waiting and ready to pounce on anyone with dark skin when Yusuf Hawkins and some of his buddies came into the neighborhood to meet a guy about a used car. The initial reports had ten to thirty white kids jumping these four black kids. Ten to thirty. Three of the black kids got away, grazed by fists and bullets, mostly unharmed. Hawkins got beaten with baseball bats and was shot twice in the chest.
Hawkins and his buddies had gotten off the N train at Twentieth Avenue and Sixty-Fourth Street. They had stopped for batteries, film, and candy at a grocery store before walking down the wrong block at the wrong time. I remember wondering what they needed batteries and film for. I guessed that one of them had a camera and that they wanted to snap some pictures of the car they were going to see. It wasn’t Hawkins who was going to buy the car—it was one of his friends. The guy they had talked to was selling it for nine hundred bucks. When they crossed over to the schoolyard, Hawkins and his friends were surrounded and confronted. Bats and handguns were flashed. Though there was some doubt during the trial about who fired, Fama was ultimately identified as the triggerman. Everyone scattered after Hawkins was shot. White kids stashed guns and knives in cars, flung bats off into the distance.
In an interview with The New York Times, a woman named Mrs. Galarza recounted how she heard the gun go off twice, went downstairs a few minutes later, and found Hawkins in the schoolyard, shot and dying, a candy bar in his hand. Mrs. Galarza held Yusuf Hawkins and said, “Come on, baby. You’ll be fine. Take small breaths. Just relax. God’s with you.” The cops and ambulances didn’t arrive on the scene for fifteen minutes. Hawkins was dead on arrival at Maimonides Hospital.
The story stayed in the news for a long time. It brought us into a new decade. There were trials. Mondello got five to sixteen years. He was acquitted of murder but convicted of rioting, menacing, discrimination, and criminal possession of a weapon. Later, it was reduced to four to twelve. He got out in 1998. Fama wound up getting convicted of second degree murder by “acting with depraved indifference,” and he was sentenced to thirty-two years to life. He was sent up to Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York and won’t be eligible for parole until 2022. Other members of the gang were tried and received light sentences or were acquitted. Al Sharpton got stabbed in Bensonhurst at a march to protest the lenient sentencing; a drunk guy lunged out of the crowd and snapped a steak knife at him. Street artist Gabriel Specter painted a mural of Yusuf Hawkins on the side of a building on Verona Place in Bed-Stuy. Spike Lee dedicated Jungle Fever to him, though Do the Right Thing—a film that was released two months before Hawkins was killed—came a lot closer to getting at the larger problem that led to his death.
I continued to keep a notebook about the Hawkins case for a few years after the shooting. I started high school at Xaverian in Bay Ridge in the fall of 1992, and one day, a few weeks before midterms, I saw Joey Fama for President written in black marker above a urinal in the boy’s bathroom on the second floor.
I put a picture of Yusuf Hawkins up on my bedroom wall when I got home from school that day.
I was fourteen, and I knew what I didn’t want to be. It shook me up to realize that, though we were meant to have come a long way, we really hadn’t come very far at all. I saw the way that race troubles had burned through history, and I felt afraid. If nothing was any different now, what would happen in the future? How bad would it get?
I didn’t ever stop thinking about Yusuf Hawkins. I’m tied to his death through my neighborhood. The streets are haunted with his blood. What preceded his murder—those early exposures to racist language and attitudes, my own part in it—encompassed the whole experience. What followed, seeing how hate carried on, understanding that a high school kid could write Joey Fama for President on a bathroom wall, left me with a profound sense of grief. When I went to college and people asked me where I was from, I said, “Bensonhurst,” and they nodded, able to make only one association with the name. “Elliot Gould’s from there,” I’d say. “Out for Justice and Angie were filmed on Eighteenth Avenue. I grew up in the apartment where Gaspipe Casso used to live.” Soon after, I totally disowned Bensonhurst. I took census maps as bible: We lived a block into Gravesend. Gravesend: the name was poetry.
August marked twenty-five years since Hawkins was killed. He would’ve turned forty-one on March 19th. Like Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, his life was stolen from him. And ignorant people praise and protect Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson just as they praised and protected the boys of Bensonhurst. At a memorial for Hawkins in 1999, his father, Moses Stewart, said: “He died for something I did. I’m the one who gave him his color. He was born black because of me.”
I live in Oxford, Mississippi now. The history of hate runs deep here, too. On February 16th of this year, a noose was fastened around the neck of the James Meredith statue located near the library on the University of Mississippi campus and an old Georgia state flag (which features a prominent Confederate battle emblem) was draped on the statue’s shoulders. Last summer, back in Coney Island, the statue of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese outside MCU Park was defaced with racist slurs and swastikas. Davis and Martin and Brown are Hawkins all over again, and it’s heartbreaking. Hate thrives. All this evil just runs around, and you spend your whole life learning about it.