What I couldn’t get out of my skull was the thought of their rough, grimy hands all over my clean sneaks. What I couldn’t get out of my heart was this joy-grabbing stone I felt there. Partly because of these two thugs trailing me now, but more because I knew Jermaine wouldn’t be here to protect my neck this time.
He would never, ever be coming home.
My daddy, Benny Rachpaul, had bought me these sneakers when I turned twelve over the summer. I wasn’t about to let two older boys strolling down 125th Street snatch them off me.
Besides me being humiliated by it, my mother would whup my butt if she knew I had let some dudes swipe my shoes. And then, when he found out, Daddy Rachpaul would drive over and whup me again.
I flipped up the collar of my blue parka and continued down 125th Street, but rushed my step a little bit more. I heard the two boys following me quicken their pace. Their footsteps behind me crunched on the ice that much faster. My heart was beating faster too.
The streets around me were cheery, though. Harlem’s main street was laid out tonight with bright lights, and Christmas tunes played constant on loudspeakers. I guess to put you more in the Christmas spirit.
But for me, there was nothing, and I mean nothing, that would ever make me feel Christmassy again. I was through with it.
Done with all of the Christmas music, wreaths, ornaments and happy holiday shoppers. I had decided weeks ago that I would never be happy again.
Because it wasn’t fair.
Wasn’t fair to get robbed of somebody I thought would be there for the rest of my life. Someone who was supposed to spend this Christmas with me, plus lots more Christmases!
It also wasn’t fair that I couldn’t even walk down 125th Street without being harassed. Rushing along down the sidewalk, I glanced up at all the men who were passing. All of them older and most of them Black like me. I was the youngest one out here and one of the few who felt scared to walk down this street.
For us young brothers, taking a stroll down here, even on Christmas Eve, was not relaxing at all. I felt like I had put my life on the line, straight up.
All of these old dudes lived in a different world from me.
I crossed the street and dipped into a gift shop on the corner. Grinning wide smiles, my two “buddies” waited for me outside, one of them sitting down on a fire hydrant and wiggling his fingers at me like I was a little infant in a stroller.
I sucked my teeth and turned toward the salesclerk.
“Happy holidays, my young man,” the clerk said. “Help you find something?” For a minute, his eyes peeped outside at the two boys waiting. He frowned at them.
I watched them leave and sighed with relief. The clerk cocked his bald head to one side.
“I need a excellent Christmas gift,” I said. “One for my mother, and another one for her, um, friend. And for my father. But I don’t have much money.”
“Last-minute shoppers,” he said, smiling at me. “Come on. We’ll get you straightened up. You’re lucky we’re open this late on Christmas Eve--125th Street is shutting down.”
125th is a big street that runs from the East River on the east side of Manhattan to the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan. The street cuts right through the neighborhood of Harlem and is where most of the main stores and shops and businesses are. The Apollo Theater, the Adam Clayton Powell Building and the Studio Museum are all lined up along 1-2-5. If Harlem was a human body, then 125th would be its pumping heart, throbbing all the time.
I don’t know what the neighborhood’s brain would be.
As I flew back toward home, I suddenly realized how heavy the gifts were that I had just bought in that shop. Ma and Yvonne would both be happy, I hoped. And Daddy, with his gift too.
But the bag handle cut into my fingers.
And just as I switched the plastic shopping bag to my other hand, I saw them. Across the wide blacktopped, slushy street, those two older boys had caught sight of me again. I started to step even faster down 125th Street, toward St. Nick, hoping I could make it to the border before they could catch me.
Where I live, it’s all about borders.
When you’re a little kid in Harlem, you can pretty much go anywhere and do anything as long as you’re careful. But when you start to get old--about my age, twelve--things start to change.
You can’t go everywhere.
You got to start worrying about crews. Crews are like cliques. Groups of mostly boys, and sometimes females, who hang out together. Mostly for fun, but for protection too.
And each crew got its territory in their neighborhood. And if you ain’t from that hood, or a member of that set, you need to stay out.
When I was young, I used to have a friend over on East 127th Street. His name was Cody. We used to play boxball and dodgeball on East 127th all the time, even though I lived on the West Side.
Nowadays when I see Cody and he’s with his crew, we don’t talk at all. He just glares at me like I’m about to get jumped. He does it because we live in different places and we’re old now.
That’s how crews work.
So tonight, when I finally turned off of 125th and onto Eighth Av’, the boys following me had to stop right there. There wasn’t no real roadblock set up for them. If they had really wanted to, they could’a kept on following me, right up the block and straight into St. Nick projects.
But if they’d done that, somebody would’a jumped them boys.
“Yo, whattup, Lolly,” Concrete said to me when I walked up the path into St. Nick. We slapped hands. “Lolly Rachpaul,” he said again.
“Hey, ’Crete,” I said to him. “How Day-Day?”
“He fine,” Concrete said. “Thanks for asking. How your moms?”
“She fine,” I said. “Merry Christmas!”
“Yo, man, I don’t celebrate White Jesus Day no more!” he shouted. “This is the holiday of the Oppressor.”
Concrete, about thirty, was ten years older than what Jermaine would’a been. ’Crete was what we called him. I didn’t even know what his real name was, and he probably didn’t know that my real name wasn’t Lolly, which is what everybody called me.
“Sorry, man,” I told him.
’Crete didn’t even live in St. Nick, but he was always there, hanging around the big courtyard at its center. As far back as I remember, he had always been in that courtyard, peddling weed. He was a dealer, or “street pharmacist.”
The place where I lived, the St. Nicholas Houses--otherwise known as the projects--was like a big family. Just like in a real family, you got some “relatives” you’re cool with and others you can’t stand, or who act up all the time.
St. Nick Houses was just like that.
It was home.
I got to my building, where I lived with my moms, walked in through the broken door and took the steps, because our elevator was jacked up too--the city didn’t never fix nothing.
Seven flights of stairs!
About half the way up, the stairwell got all dark. The lights on this floor had burnt out, meaning I had to be careful climbing stairs in the gloominess.
Being in the dark forced my brain to concentrate more on the smell, which was mostly laid-over pee. You got used to it, though, the pee smell.
Just then, I raised one foot up and hit something. Something big and lumpy. The big lump jumped and clubbed my leg.
I stumbled back and almost tripped down the stairs, until I realized the big lump was Moses. Who was a old drunk man. When it was real cold outside, like it was tonight, he sometimes slept in the stairs.
Until the kids ran him out of here.
Or the cops.
“Merry Christmas, old drunk,” I said to him.
“Show respect, boy!” he shouted after me. “I ain’t no drunk. I only booze it up twice a year--”
“Yeah, I know, Moses: when it’s your birthday and when it’s not your birthday.”
His jokes, I’d heard them all before.
Moses cackled like a old witch in the darkness while I continued climbing stairs.