Nicole Shawan Junior
“Anyone see that bitch at school?” “Bitch” shotguns from Tilly’s mouth like a refined jab. Her bug-eyes bulge out of sockets as we descend the steps of Hudde Junior High. In sixth and seventh grades, Tilly rocked a damp jerry curl. Now, she is relaxed bob with bangs that swoop like left hooks.
“Naaaah, son,” Rochelle says.
“Word God, I ain’t seen her all day.” I agree.
“That girl ain’t coming back to school til she grows summa huh damn hair back!” Dayna responds.
Andries Hudde Junior High is a predominately black public school in Midwood. While Midwood, itself, is a predominately white middle and upper-middle class neighborhood, Hudde pulls children from neighboring Flatbush, which is mostly diasporic black and working class. Black kids fill Hudde’s halls, cafeteria and classrooms. But, Hudde hosts programs for gifted students. These are programs where us black kids are tolerated because, somehow, we’ve managed to scrap our way in. These are the programs where white students are welcomed because, of course, it’s where they belong.
My crew though.
We are the smart ghetto girls who pock like blemishes the eighth-grade classrooms where white kids are safe from black Brooklyn.
We are, each of us, from and of the hood.
We are all black and brilliant and broke.
We are the colorful strings that rope through the eyelet of a JanSport’s front pocket zipper.
We are Brooklyn as fuck.
There is Talaya, whose skin is maple syrup rich. Talaya who lives in a massive apartment building not very different from the one I lived in during the five years I spent on East 18th Street. In her home, I learn that she is not Talaya, but Tilly. Tilly who is loud, confident, funny and who is also very serious about science projects. Tilly whose grandmother asks about her day as she flips sweet plantanos that crackle in oil over a flame. Tilly who possesses an accent that she wears like alligator skin, pulling it onto her tongue when immersed in the soul of her Panama-adjacent home. Shedding it for hard consonants and slick vowels when with crew in black Brooklyn streets. “Where you from, Talaya?” I ask. “Panama, mahn!” she replies through thick lips, as if it’s obvious.
There is Dayna. Dayna who sports denim polo shirts and multi-fingered gold name rings. Dayna who is biracial, “light-bright,” I tease, “Blackinese.” Dayna who lives in a huge Victorian house in Ditmas Park, where we bump our favorite jams and choreograph dance routines. Hot 97 is a burgeoning radio station “where Hip Hop lives,” the station boasts. The station is home not only to Hip Hop, but also to the Morning Show with Ed Lover, Dr. Dre and Lisa G. If you are young and black in Brooklyn, you are Hip Hop. If you are young and black in Brooklyn, you listen to the Morning Show as you get ready for school. If you are young and black in Brooklyn, you sing along with them when they sound their Roll Call, “What’s up y’all? Whatcha gotta say? Who’s on the phone with Ed, Lisa and Dre?” Dayna has been trying to get on the show for weeks. But everyone calls into the Roll Call. Her odds are slim to nil. Until, while pulling on my wheat brown Timbs, I hear, “My name is Dayna, but don’t call me D. If you wanna use letters, then use Q-T!” Yo, that’s Dayna!!!!! And that is Dayna. Always doing some crazy shit that makes the rest of us jealously exalt, “Yo, my girl D did that!”
There is Rochelle. Rochelle who is a ginger root beer bottle brown crazy Jamaican girl who sometimes packs a razor beneath her tongue. Rochelle who, at other times, wears gold caps on two of her bottom teeth. Rochelle who is stylish and rocks palm-wide gold butterfly earrings with the knuckle-big purple gem soldered in the center, between their extended wings. The ones I’m saving my allowance to cop. The ones that all the fly girls sport with our hair pulled up into high buns. Sour apple lollipops dangling from the corners of our mouths. At Rochelle’s house, her mother makes us miniature beef patties, curry chicken and rice and peas. Barrington Levy bumps from the small stereo with the single cassette tape holder that sits on the round kitchen table. In Rochelle’s bedroom, I learn to do my hair and makeup. I also learn “Now tell me who say dem wan hackle mi body, dem affi have a permit and a license fi mi.” Sometimes, her father is home. He does not smile. Rochelle has confided in me that she hates him. He is a womanizer with a mistress. A batterer with a pounding fist. I have seen the result of his handiwork. Rochelle wears bruises like her butterfly earrings.
School’s just let out and we’re still talking about the beat down Tilly put on Juliet the day before. A lot rode on it and we knew it.
Were us smart girls as hard as we professed to be since sixth grade? Or would Julianne expose us as weak? I didn’t know how this one was gonna unfold. But, I did know that we were crew. We were ready to jump in. If necessary.
But, Julianne’s peoples stayed out of it. So, all we had to do was cheer and walk Tilly to her bus while poppin all kinds of shit after she laid it down. That same glee carried over to today. Except this time, we head down Nostrand to the pizza spot on Flatbush Junction.
Inside the pizza joint, we each cop “the special” – a slice of pizza and small fountain soda for $1.00. After we grab our slices, we stand on the Junction and eat, while cracking jokes on Julianne.
The B44 approaches.
“Aight, y’all, I gotta get home. Tilly, Imma call you lata.” I say.
“Lata Nik!” the crew calls after me.
I board the bus and pull out my bus pass from the small pocket on the front of my purple JanSport. This month’s bus pass is pink. I show it to the bus driver and he acknowledges it with a short nod. I bypass the token slot machine that welcomes riders like the Apollo stump does talent. Kids and bookbags crowd the aisle. Every seat is taken. In 1990s black Brooklyn, only the tough enter the rough terrain known as the back of the bus. If you’re a herb, you best stay your ass in the front. I squeeze through the bus’s stomach and head to its back. I’m not tough. But I’m no pussy either.
The seat that is set above the bus’s radiator opens and I grab it. I like the feel of this seat. It’s warmed by the heat that blows from beneath. And tucked in a corner, by a window. It feels personal, private, as if I’m chillin on my own stoop in late July. From it, I watch black Brooklyn fast-forward past. The B44 takes me from Midwood through Flatbush and Lefferts Gardens and will bring me through Crown Heights to Bed Stuy.
The sun smacks my face. Outside, an older man – in his mid-thirties probably – wears a denim pant suit with Kente pockets and a green netted tank top beneath the jacket. He bends over, peering and pointing into the hood of a car. A Dred who wears a white tank and yellow shorts stares under the same hood while fumbling around with something within it. Girls rocking Janet Jackson braids, tube tops and denim pun-pun shorts prowl in a small gang, laughing as they walk along. A slender elderly woman, who is dark as the Brooklyn earth in my backyard and seemingly as solid, pushes a grocery cart across the street. Dudes rocking baggy jeans and white tees hang in front of a corner store. One wolf breaks from the pack to help her cross the one-way traffic.
My red Walkman bumps a mix I created by tuning into Hot 97 and Kiss FM while recording my favorite jams onto a blank tape or over the contents of another. I bop my head and watch the sidewalks when I feel someone tap my arm. I look over to my left. A redbone with mild acne, green eyes, and a sharp line-up dressed in Polo from head to toe is sitting next to me.
He’s a Lo Life.
1990s black Brooklyn is known for its crews. The two most infamous are the Decepticons and the Lo Lifes. Both crews are deep in the crack game. But, the Decepticons are the largest gang. They have a female counterpart who mirrors their tactics – the Deceptinettes. The Deceps are most known for robberies, slashings and other assaults. The Lo Lifes are a crew whose members’ names usually ended with a hyphenated “Lo” like Shorty-Lo, Poppa-Lo, BamBam-Lo. Lo Life’s, like Deceps, are criminals. They rob shearlings, snatch chains and dump pockets. But they are most notorious for racking and boosting, yup, you guessed it – Ralph Lauren’s Polo pieces.
I unwrap my headphones from my head, pulling them behind my neck.
“Yea?” I smash and screw my eyebrows together.
He chuckles. “Hel-lo,” he responds, genteel on display.
“Hel-lo,” I deadpan, overenunciating each syllable.
He presses his chin to his chest and laughs quietly. Reserved. For his ears only.
“You from over here?” He returns his gaze, still smiling.
I nervously glance out of the window. We’re in Crown Heights.
“Yea, not too far from here. Over on Lefferts. What’s your name?”
I look out the window to Nostrand Ave. Homie is fine, but I don’t know him. There is no room for trust. Trust’ll get you snatched and tossed over a building. Happened to my cousin back in the 80s in Starrett City. Her mama still hangs onto the grief. I won’t have that for Mama.
“I’m Jimmy, Niki. Nice to meet you.”
Jimmy? Hmmm, no “-Lo?” I find out that Jimmy no-Lo listens to rap and reggae. Jimmy has a beautiful smile. It stretches past his cheeks to his eyes, causing them to shrink into almond slices. It does not hide, waiting to be seen. It’s free and frequent and sends caterpillars fluttering beneath my skin. Jimmy is raised in Brooklyn and has a little sister. I tell him I have five brothers. This is a lie. I don’t smile when I say it. My eyes are focused on his. I’m an only child. But, I routinely tell people that Amin, Shawn, Hakeem, Dwight and Duval are my brothers. Though they’re my cousins, it pours from my mouth, morning-breath-easy. I’ve rehearsed it many times. It makes me feel safe. Less likely to become victim.
“So, can I get your number?” Jimmy asks.
For the next couple of weeks, Jimmy and I talk every day. Sometimes, I catch him by calling a payphone he hustles by. Other times, I call his house. When Jimmy isn’t around, a woman with a thick accent always answers. Later, I ask him, “Where y’all from?” I wonder if he’ll say Jamaica or Guyana or Trinidad. These are the islands where the sun baked my Coolie friends, like Kimesha and Yumi. But my ear knows better. Something about her accent is different from those. It is not of wind and string, but of hardwood and goatskin hide. It does not sing sweet notes and lulling melodies, but pounds palms and stomps feet. Her accent is Tanbou, Bata and Saworo.
“Haiti,” he says.
Jimmy and I make plans to meet up over the weekend at Empire.
Few things scream black Brooklyn weekends: Downtown’s Fulton Street and Albee Square Malls, Coney Island and the Empire Roller Skating Rink.
Empire, as we call it, is a squat yellow one-level brick building that takes up a massive chunk of Empire Boulevard between Bedford and Rogers Avenues. In Crown Heights, it sits in the shadow of Ebbets Field, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ former homefield.
On Saturdays, either Mama drops me off or I ride the B44 to meet up with Rochelle there. In our baggy jeans, we rent worn-down leather, red-wheeled roller skates. Rochelle and I circle the rink for hours. Then, Mama picks us up or we hop back on the B44, heading in opposite directions. It is our thing. We never invite the rest of the crew. But, Rochelle is on punishment. I call Amin.
Inside the rink, Amin’s eyes grow wide. This is his first time stepping foot into Empire and my new world. My world after Bushwick and Fort Green and Park Slope. My world after the first crackles of crack cocaine in glass pipes.
Empire is like black New York City nightclubs. The DJ spins a mix of diasporic bangers, interspersing Reggae, Hip Hop, R&B, and Soca. Amin does not know Reggae because he has never done a stint in a Caribbean neighborhood. But I have. I lived in Flatbush for years. And while I live in the Stuy now, most of my friends still live there. Shit, most of my crew is Caribbean.
The DJ booth hovers, elevated above the crowd, in the back. Disco lights bounce from wall to floor to opposite wall. There are two rinks – an outer rink and an inner rink that, together, form a Cheerio. Above the inner rink, smoke plumes rise into the air and dissipate into the ten-foot high fake palm trees. The ones with the pink and blue neon lights that form the shape of leaves at their peak. Some of the lights blink as if gasping for air. Others have fully given up on life and don’t pretend otherwise, while others shine brightly amongst the shadows and billowing smoke.
Several groups skate in lines with leaders whose bodies exclaim the pace, direction and flow. The folks behind them bend slightly forward, attaching their hands onto the waists of the skaters before them. They roll smooth as marbles across the polished maple floor. While the groups do their thing, others skate in couples or alone. Forward, backward. Dipped low with a leg extended before them. Legs lacing and weaving like lanyard.
In the inner rink, I spot Jimmy. He’s sits near a woman with blond fingerwaves and a front tooth spangled in gold who bogles to Shabba Rank’s Ting-A-Ling. A short distance away, another woman’s box braids cushion her crown as she butterflies on her head.
This is black Brooklyn. Black Brooklyn back when we danced and skated. Black Brooklyn back when we swayed and sang out loud to the music that played. Black Brooklyn back when crack’s crippling fires still burned around us.
I turn towards Amin and flash him a wink.
“There goes my boy, Jimmy!”
“Jimmy, who, Nik Nik?” Amin asks.
But, I don’t respond. I just nook my arm around his and head towards the palm trees.