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The Guys with the Eyes

I’m not sure what year it was, I’ll guess 1950. I do remember how hot it was, a heat wave so intense it had older boys frying eggs on the asphalt in front of 266 Camden Street. I had never eaten an egg but I had seen my father eating them, a ritual kind of eating, mindfully scraping bits of egg off his plate, bringing the fork slowly toward his mouth as us kids waited patiently for him to finish, waiting for the point when he would use a crust of toast to wipe up the yellow residue staining his plate. Then came the final step in the Ritual of the Egg…him breaking off pieces of toast crust, still with a hint of warmth, flavored with the moist, salty butter we savored. Usually it was myself, Danny and Honeydoll, waiting like impatient puppies for him to toss us each a piece of the luscious tidbits. Danny and Honeydoll would gobble theirs up, but I would hold the tasty morsel in my mouth for a few seconds, the juices of my mouth dissolving it on my tongue, the exotic combination of flavors, slightly burnt white-bread toast, the hint of butter. We could only dream of eating a whole piece of buttered toast.

Mommy was out on the back porch, cigarette dangling carelessly from her lips as she began selecting dampened items from her laundry basket. Next to the basket, on the warped, faded floor boards, was an empty Cheerios box of clothes pins. Slowly, with the grace of a zen master, she began her morning ritual of hanging the clothes out to dry. (Everything Mommy did appeared to be ritualized, methodical, nearly hypnotic). I loved watching her do ordinary things, except when her face would grow dark with anger, often over seemingly nothing; that’s when you knew it was time to run, hide or duck to avoid whatever she would be throwing at us; sometimes aimed at me, but usually at Danny for something he’d said to her. Danny loved to tell jokes and tease me and Honeydoll, holding us down and tickling us until we either screamed with laughter or rage. That was Danny, he never took anything seriously, sometimes not even Mommy; whereas I seemed to take everything seriously, often too seriously. Sometimes I couldn’t talk good, especially when I was excited, which seemed like every day for as long as I could remember. I would try to begin a sentence but the words just wouldn’t come out. The only thing that came out was something like: cuh-cuh-coodin’…and mommy would speak to me softly, with her repressed brand of love, and she would say: it’s okay Jackie, it’s okay, you can do it, you can talk; and I would begin to cry, my face screwing up, feeling heat on my cheeks, breathing fast-like, and the more I cried and the harder I gasped, the harder it would be to form a word. But if I could form one word, just one, sometimes other words would follow, and Mommy would place her hands on my little shoulders and look me in the eyes and say: okay Jackie, ok, ok…you can talk Jackie, you can talk. And sometimes I would begin to talk, and I had so much to say, too much to say…but I just couldn’t say it. And when I really couldn’t say it, I would run down the back stairs, across the dirt-patch yard and half-leap to the top board of the broken backyard fence and then scramble halfway up the dead apple tree and sit on my favorite limb, my favorite place in the world, my haven…my tree.

 

One day that summer, Danny decided to take me fishing at West Side Park, on the other side of Springfield Avenue, about eight blocks away. Very far away. I want you to hold Jackie’s hand crossing the street, Danny, understand? Sure Ma, I always do that. I was excited but not really sure what the act of fishing entailed. Danny asked Mommy for two safety pins and some string. She said, okay, but don’t lose them on me. Danny said, c’mon, and took me down the back stairs to the yard, where he broke a little branch off the apple tree and snapped it in two; then he cut the string in half with his teeth and wound string around both sticks. He then tied each line of string to the safety pins and we were on our way!

 

Springfield Avenue is a big street, with lots of cars, and I had never crossed it before. Danny kept running ahead of me, to tease me until I would get scared and cry. I had never waited for a red light before, either. When the light turned green, Danny took my hand, and as we walked across the broad avenue, I felt a sense of adventure. It was a few more blocks before we got to another big street, across which was an expanse of trees. Westside Park! I had never been there before. I insisted that Danny push me on a swing before we crossed a meadow to the lake. My sense of adventure was growing by the second! I had never been close to a lake before. We didn’t have a tv and I don’t remember lakes being described on the radio. It was really pretty, especially the reflections of trees on the water, the way they seemed to be moving on the surface. It was very hot and sunny and I was glad that Mommy made me wear my Brooklyn Dodgers hat. I loved the Brooklyn Dodgers, especially my hero, Duke Snider. I was surprised by what happened next; Danny lifted his shirt and pulled out a large spoon that he had sneaked out of the kitchen without Mommy knowing. C’mon! he said gleefully, we gotta find some worms! I’d seen plenty of worms before in the back yard and Danny always seemed to know the exact spot to dig for them. Sure enough, he scooped out some dirt very close to the lake-shore and found a few of them, squiggling around in a wormy panic. Danny scooped them up and carried them over to the lake-shore in his fist. Watch, he said, as he unwound the string from one of the sticks, opened one of the safety pins and stabbed one of the worms with it! I slammed my eyes shut and turned away. Danny laughed and said: c’mon sissy, your turn! I couldn’t do it, I refused to do it; so, he did it for me. Look! He pointed to some swirling surface water and said: See! I could make out the outlines of a few large goldfish. That’s carp! He said, we’re gonna ketch some carps! By then he had completely unwound the string on both sticks and handed me one. Just throw it in the water! He demonstrated his technique by flicking his wrist, his pinned worm hitting the surface of the lake a few feet away with a little plop. I held my string in the air, my poor little worm writhing in agony, then dutifully repeated the casting motion Danny had showed me.

It seemed like a long time had passed as we sat on the lake-shore, waiting to catch some carps. Danny retrieved his line a few times, tossing it at different spots, encouraging me to do the same. Which I did, for a while, until I began getting bored. I wanna go home! I whined. We can’t go home yet, we just got here. I wanna surprise Mommy with a fish! I hung in there for a while but finally threw my stick down and said: I’m goin’ home! Okay, he relented, but make sure you cross at the corner and wait for the light to be green, and look both ways when you’re crossing. Just go that way and when you get to that big street with the light you’ll know where you are. Okay, I said, as I began walking back across the meadow toward the big street I didn’t know the name of. When I got to the corner, I was amazed to see so many cars! The light was red and I was feeling a little scared as I waited for it to turn green.

 

You want a piece of candy, little boy? I looked up to see a tall man looking down at me. Yes, I said. C’mon, hold my hand and I’ll help you across the street. The candy’s in that building over there. Where do you live, little boy? Camden Street. I know where that is. C’mon, let’s cross. He gave me a big smile and I noticed that his eyes looked a little different from other people’s eyes. He seemed nervous and stare-y. We crossed the big street and when we got to the door of the apartment building on the corner, he opened it and gestured for me to follow him into the dark hallway. C’mon, the candy’s upstairs, he sort of whispered. I followed him up the stairs to the first landing but instead of continuing, he sat on the second stair and told me to be still. He then unzipped his pants and took his pee-pee out, the biggest pee-pee I had ever seen. He put his hand gently behind my head and guided me toward his giant pee-pee. I was surprised to see a little white worm crawling out of the end of his pee-pee. Just as his pee-pee was almost to my face, he suddenly stood up, zipped his pants up and rushed past me down the stairs. I sat there wondering when I was going to get my candy, when I heard someone coming down the stairs from the next floor. It was a lady. What are you doing here, little boy, you look like a little angel. Are you lost? Where’s your mommy? Where do you live? Camden Street. C’mon, I’ll show you how to get there. She took me out into the street and pointed in the direction of Camden Street. Go ahead now, and be careful crossing Springfield Avenue.

 

I began walking slowly toward Camden Street, feeling confused about what had happened and why the man ran away like that, wondering if he would be coming back with my candy. And I was very hungry. I knew Danny had some jelly bread in wax paper in his back pocket but I didn’t get any. As I was passing the back of a grocery store, I noticed a garbage can with no lid on it. I looked into the can and saw a cob of corn with the green stuff still on it. I picked it up, removed the green stuff and began nibbling the raw corn as I walked toward Springfield Avenue. I crossed the Avenue with the green light and got to my building a few blocks away. As I climbed the stairs to my house, I was feeling like I had done something wrong. Mommy was sitting at the kitchen table, peeling potatoes, when I entered. She glanced at me, turned away then turned quickly back around saying: Where’s your brother? Fishing. What? He let you walk home alone? I’m gonna kill him when he gets home! Why did you leave, Jackie? You’re too little to be crossing Springfield Avenue. The worms, I said. What? I didn’t like the worms.

 

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It was a couple of years later…I had joined the Boy’s Club on Fairmont Avenue that summer and for some reason they waited until winter to begin swimming lessons. I didn’t care, I was just so happy about the lessons. They told us to go into the locker room and take all of our clothes off. None of us had a bathing suit and none of us thought anything of it. I remember standing at the edge of the indoor pool, the strong smell of chlorine, the counselor’s voice reverberating off the high walls; standing there with all the other little boys, receiving instructions about holding our noses before we jumped in; then all of us jumping in together, bobbing gleefully to the surface with huge smiles on our faces. Afterward, we all scrambled back up to the edge of the pool and formed a raggedy line, our pee-pees shrunken so small they nearly disappeared back into our bodies. The counselor blew his whistle and told us to go to the locker room and dry off, then go home and come back next week. I noticed one of the junior counselors, a big boy, smiling at me in a way that cheered me and made me want to talk to him. But little boys didn’t talk to big boys. I merged with the crowd of other little boys, dried off in the locker room, got dressed, put on my coat and hat, went out to the street and began the long walk home to Camden Street. It was a cold, mid-December day, dark before five. I was a little concerned about getting home after dark, but I knew that it would be okay with Mommy—that is, if I didn’t get home too long after dark. I had just crossed Fairmont Avenue and was walking toward home, passing by a closed gas station with a couple of cars parked in front. As I passed the gas station, someone stepped out of a darkened doorway and approached me. It was the junior counselor, the one who had been smiling at me. I was about to say hi, when he pulled a knife out of his pocket, opened it, held it close to my ribs and said: slide under that car over there. I did what he said, I slid under that car on my back and he slid in next to me. We were side by side, our faces very close to the underside of the car. I felt the point of the knife on my throat and heard him say, in a threatening tone: take your pee-pee out. I did what I was told and he touched my pee-pee and asked me if I felt anything. I said no. He touched my pee-pee again. Same question, same answer. He then pushed the knife a little harder on my throat and said: I’m gettin’ outta here, you stay here for an hour. If I see you get out sooner than that, I’ll kill you. He was whisper-yelling at me. I was scared and confused. He slid out from under the car and disappeared into the night.

 

I don’t know how much time had actually passed, and I was too scared to move, but after a while I took a chance and slid out from under the car. I stood up cautiously, glancing both ways, expecting him to come at me with the knife. I began walking again, confused, feeling so hungry my stomach was growling. I saw a little tree ahead of me and reached up and plucked a couple of leaves off a lower branch, stuck them in my mouth and chewed them—but I could not swallow them. I gagged, spit them out and resumed my walk toward Camden Street. I breathed a sigh of relief when I crossed Fourteenth Avenue, glad to be back on my block. As I walked toward my building, I began to worry about getting home so long after dark, worried about what my mother would say. But I reassured myself that at least I had a good excuse. When I reached my building, I climbed the front steps with a foreboding feeling. I don’t know why, I had a good excuse. I climbed the stairs to the second floor, turned the knob, and opened the door. My mother was sitting at the kitchen table, cigarette in hand. I said, hi Ma. She turned around and shouted: where have you been? I was worried sick! I explained to her, as well as I could, what had happened. Her eyes grew big and she screamed at me: what did you do! What did you do! She pulled me into the darkened bedroom that was off the kitchen and screamed to Daddy, who was in his chair in the living room, a glass of beer in his hand. Give me your strap! Daddy quickly appeared and handed her his strap. My mother had a wild look in her eyes as she held the strap out in front of me. Pull down your pants! I did what I was told. She threw me onto the bed and began whipping my hiney with the strap. This was not like the spankings I had become used to. She was whipping harder and harder, all the while screaming at me, whipping as hard as she could: How could you do that! How could you do that! How could you do that! Whipping me harder and harder until she suddenly stopped and stomped out of the bedroom toward the living room, screaming at my father. When I realized that the beating was over, I pulled my pants up and dove onto the bed, crying hysterically, feeling the searing pain in my hiney. I was confused, wondering what I had done wrong, why she had beaten me so hard. After a while I slid off the bed, stood up and looked into the living room where Mommy was arguing with Daddy. I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there, wondering what to do. I never trusted Mommy again.

 

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My first year in public school was the happiest time of my life. It felt so good to get away from the strict nuns, and to get out of going to eight o’clock mass every morning, except Saturday. For five school years I had lived in fear of coughing, burping out loud, or, god-forbid, giggling during class. Like most of the kids I knew, I lied to the priest in Confession every Saturday. A feeling of guilt would hit me almost as soon as I had completed the Sign of the Cross. But the guilt quickly lifted, replaced by the feeling of elation that came with exiting the church and walking happily down the street, unburdened by the guilt that had driven me to Confession in the first place. I had hated Holy Communion from the first, the weird taste of the thin wafer dissolving in my mouth, the priest’s mumbo-jumbo as he placed it on my tongue, the false feeling of righteousness that I felt afterward—strangely mingled with the memory of having lied in Confession the day before. I mean, c’mon, the priest was asking me to determine my degree of punishment. What was I supposed to do, tell him the truth? I had figured out that confessing to things like: I talked back to my mother; I stayed out late; I cursed, and so on, would only get me, on average, one Act of Contrition, ten Hail Marys and ten Our Fathers. There is a photo of me, taken on the day of my First Holy Communion, tie askew, a faraway look in my eye. The photographer kept asking me to smile and I refused. He finally gave up and snapped the picture. I look like a crime reporter who had witnessed too many homicide scenes. Smile? You expect me to smile? I just had a wafer placed on my tongue by a man wearing a gown and a weird hat. I was kneeling before a marble rail, one in a line of other boys, waiting, with my mouth wide open, as the priest came toward me with a golden chalice in one hand, trailed by an altar boy holding up the long train of his gown. He stopped before me, made brief eye contact, and placed the wafer on my tongue. The Jesuit priest who had trained us for this Holy Ritual had emphasized, more than once, that it would be a Mortal Sin to swallow the wafer whole.

 

Being in public school, after five years of strict, repressive discipline in parochial school, marked the beginning of the burden of Catholic Guilt being lifted forevermore from my shoulders. I was incredulous my very first day of fifth grade at Camden Street School. The teacher hadn’t arrived yet, the boys in my class were running around the room, shooting spitballs and generally creating havoc. The girls were all seated and relatively sedate, compared to the boys. But most of them were turned partially or all the way around in their desks, as they gossiped and giggled with their friends. I couldn’t help thinking of the cathedral-like silence before class in Catholic school every day—never mind the first day after summer vacation. The chaos was interrupted by the door opening and my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Curvin, entering the classroom and announcing, in a quietly authoritative voice: Okay, I want everybody to quiet down and return to your seats. I had never seen a Black woman dressed up like that. In fact, I couldn’t recall seeing any adults dressed up so nice. I was used to nuns, in those black, severe outfits they wore, the stiff-white front of their veils covering their hair. Once she had all the kids settled down and seated, she said: hello boys and girls, welcome to the fifth grade….

 

I think I fell in love with Mrs. Curvin the moment she began to speak. She was to become the first positive adult role model in my life. From the start, she respected my intelligence and willingness to participate in discussions. Sometimes she would call on me just because she wanted to hear from a boy. (She knew I was as smart as the smartest girls in the class.) At that time, I was still a severe stammerer, often knowing the answer but unable to articulate it. (But she kept calling on me anyway). Sometimes I would stand up and begin to stutter: uh, uh, uh, un…and the meanest boys would laugh. I would sit back down, humiliated, my face red and burning, wanting to run screaming out of the room.

 

One day I raised my hand and asked to be excused to go to the bathroom, which was located in the basement. Mrs. Curvin issued me a hall pass; I took it, left the room and headed down the wide, silent staircase. When I emerged from the bathroom after doing my business, I saw, in the near distance, the school janitor, Alex, beckoning stiffly. I had noticed recently that Alex would look at me in a way that made me uncomfortable, as if he thought he knew something about me. Something about the way he was looking at me that day frightened me. Rather than continuing down the hall toward him, I turned and ran down the darkened hallway, not knowing where I would go, just knowing I had to get away from him. I turned left at the end of the corridor and saw a door marked: FURNACE. I opened the door, looking for a place to hide, and saw a coal pile to my left. I crouched behind the coal pile and waited; and listened. I was afraid that Alex would open the door. I heard the bell signaling the end of the school day. I stayed there, hidden behind the coal pile for I don’t know how long, when I began to hear people calling my name…Jaackie…Jaackie…Jaaackie. At some point I emerged from the furnace room and was seen by one of the searchers. I was brought upstairs and interrogated briefly in the school Office, as to where I had been and why I had run away and hid in the furnace room. I was reluctant to offer an explanation. They told me, wait here, and after a while a policeman came and drove me home to the projects. We didn’t have a phone. My mother asked me, what happened? I didn’t know what to say. I returned to school a couple of days later. Mrs. Curvin never asked me why I had run away and hidden in the furnace room. She just smiled warmly at me, gave me a little hug, and told me to take my seat. Mrs. Curvin was more a mother to me that day than my mother had ever been.

 

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One day, in the Spring of 1955, I saw a notice in the Community Center that announced: SUMMER CAMP. Any projects boys wanting to go to summer camp that year could pick up an application and bring it home to be signed by a parent. Summer camp? What the heck was that? I had never even seen a cow, never mind summer camp, which I assumed had to be out in the country somewhere. I took the application home; my mother signed it without hardly glancing at it. One August day that summer, a bus appeared in front of the Projects Office. A bunch of us boys boarded, with bundles of our belongings. We were on our way to summer camp! I’m not sure where it was, but it was only about two hours from Newark. All of us boys, Black, White and Puerto Rican, watched, mesmerized, as the urban landscape we were so used to turned into countryside. The bus pulled off a highway and continued along a two-lane road to camp something-or-other—I forget the name. The driver came to a stop in a small parking lot, close to a cluster of cabins, with a few larger buildings, all overlooking a beautiful little lake. As we emerged from the bus we were “greeted” immediately by a wild-eyed Italian kid from South Bronx, who charged at us with a raised pitchfork, screaming that he was gonna kill us all. Luckily, a camp counselor grabbed him around the waist and took the pitchfork from him. Welcome to camp. None of us were scared, we were projects boys, who was gonna scare us? But still, we had some reservations about what we had gotten into. We learned, shortly afterward, that all the boys in the camp were from either Harlem, South Bronx or Newark.

 

I had never seen anything like our cabin. It was surrounded by forest, with a view of the lake. There were bunk-beds and screened windows. We quickly got to know the Harlem and South Bronx boys, discovering that we had a lot in common. Once settled into our assigned bunks, we sat around wondering what would happen next. Almost simultaneously with a loud, ringing bell, a camp counselor entered the cabin and announced that it was time for dinner. He beckoned us to follow him down a narrow path to the Mess Hall, a rustic building situated scant yards from the lake-shore. What followed was a bit astonishing to all of us. We were assigned seats around long, communal tables and served, what to us, was a once in a lifetime feast! There were pitchers of milk and cool-aid on each table. The meal that was served to us was like a dream. Meat, potatoes, vegetables, salad, and, most remarkably, a delicious dessert of chocolate pudding with whipped cream! We had died and gone to heaven! The following days were a pattern of swimming in the lake, nature tours and lectures, sumptuous meals and a general feeling of camaraderie. It was like a dream. My best friend, Romano from Italy, was in the bunk below me. We stayed up late, just talking, being told to shush by the other boys. I wanted to stay there forever.

 

One of the lifeguards had taken a special interest in me. One day he asked me if I would like him to teach me to swim in deep water, out past the restrictive ropes. I said, yeah. I couldn’t tell how old he was, probably about sixteen. He invited me into the water. I was able to wade all the way to the ropes. Once past the ropes he held me in a life-saver grip and began to stroke out into the lake. I didn’t think anything of it, pleased to be out in the middle of the lake. At one point, I looked up toward my cabin and noticed a group of the New York boys jumping into the air, waving their arms, whooping and hollering, obviously aimed at me and the counselor. At that, the counselor turned around and started stroking toward the shore. You’re a good boy, the counselor said to me, as we emerged onto the narrow beach. I didn’t know what to say in return.

 

That night, after another incredibly satisfying meal and a sing-along, I and a few other boys trudged contentedly along the darkened narrow path to what we now considered to be our temporary home. After a period of aimless chattering with my cabin-mates, we all retired to our bunks. Suddenly, the door was flung open and a group of New York boys burst into the cabin. Several of them came toward me. Two of them jumped onto my bunk. One of them held my legs down while another straddled my chest and pulled out his dick, trying to force it toward my face, as I tried in vain to push him off me. He was a big kid and had an evil grin on his face. Time stopped. In her warped wisdom, my mother had given me a hatchet and hunting knife for Christmas that year. I had brought them with me. The hunting knife was stashed under my pillow. I pulled the knife out from under the pillow and screamed at the guy with his dick out: I’LL KILL YOU MOTHERFUCKER! The two of them jumped off the bed and headed for the door. I ran out the door after them, waving the knife, screaming: Come back! I’ll kill you! They kept running down the path. I heard one of them laughing. Laugh all you want! I’ll kill you bitches! As I entered the cabin, some of the boys were giggling nervously. I fought to control my breath, a ringing in my ears, feeling light as a feather, feeling rage, muttering incoherently about what I would do to them if they came back. One of the Harlem boys said: dang, you bad! I wasn’t bad. I was just…none of those guys with the eyes was ever gonna fuck with me again.

 

Camp was over the next day. We were told to pack up our stuff and meet in the parking lot to board our respective buses. I reached under my pillow and found that my hunting knife was gone. The buses, those headed for The Bronx, Harlem and Newark, were parked in the lot. Me and Romano went over to the Harlem bus and waited for the boy I suspected had taken my knife, the one who had told me I was bad. As the kid approached, Romano and I blocked the door. He tried to step around us. I said, gimme back my knife. He grinned at me and said: what knife? I said, you ain’t gettin’ on that bus with my knife, kid. A friend of his looked down from the bus as if to say: what the fuck? The boy was calm, maintaining his innocent grin as he retrieved my knife from his duffle and said: be cool, man. I said, fuck you be cool. And that was that. C’mon Romano, let’s go home.

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