Saturday, June 25, 2016

Coke Is It!

I’m sitting around a small kitchen table with my friend Nicky, Roberto, the drug dealer I’d just met, and twenty-eight grams of powder cocaine. There is a pot of coke on the stove, mixed with water and baking soda, boiling down to crack rock. That isn’t for us. Ricky and I decided to go half on an ounce of dust. It was easier to sell without having to piss off the dealers in the projects and poorer neighborhoods. Pissed off ghetto dealers will shoot you. Powder sells to anyone.

I’m not happy doing this. My mother died a little over six months ago. AIDS. I had sworn never to use hard drugs after watching heroin annihilate her. Selling them is just as bad. Worse. I feel like I’m about to enable chaos for dozens of people.

I’ve justified it to myself. I told myself that it was my only choice, my last option. If this didn’t work... I have two children, two beautiful boys. Fernando, my oldest, had turned two in October. We call him Boo because he looked so scared when he was born. Cristiano, born thirteen months later, had just turned one. He came out looking like Leonard Nimoy, so we call him Spock. I had just spoken to their mother, Maria, and she had nothing to offer.

Maria and I split up a few weeks ago. It was a long time in coming. She was barely sixteen when we met, and I was just some horny, nineteen year old virgin. It wasn't long before she had the baby she’d chosen me for. Cristiano, our second child, was no one’s choice.

When Cris was born, Maria went despondent. She paid a minimal amount of attention to Cris. I spent more time with him, and I was working forty hours a week, selling camera equipment for Ritz. When she had recuperated from labor, a very easy labor where she practically shot Cris out of her womb like a cannon, Maria started to let me know that she felt as if she’d wasted her childhood.

I had warned her when we first started dating that we were too young to start a family. My mother had her first child at sixteen, and I was witness to the disasters that can befall the family of a single, teenaged mother. I don’t recommend it. But it was exactly what Maria wanted, and she had chosen me to father her child. I had done my part. I could hang around or go away. The choice was mine.

I chose to stay. I had never had a father around, even though I was the first child my mother had in wedlock. My father had spent some time in jail, and once he got out, my parents just couldn’t pick up the pieces, mostly because mom had started using again, mostly because dad had been in jail. I was eight the last time I saw my dad. There was no fucking way I was going to be that father.

I stayed. I stayed even though I suspected that it wouldn’t be long before this maternal instinct gave way to a need to be young and free. I stayed through three years of pointless arguments, futile fights, and painful cheating. The last six months were the worst. Maria would be waiting for me to get home from work so she could flee for the night. What started out as a little partying on the weekends had become a nightly celebration of her youth. I’d spend the night tossing, turning, and crying until the sun began creeping out and I would finally hear her key in the door. There was no doubt she was fucking anyone but me, in the end.

I was buying my first home, a small rowhouse on the four hundred block of North Rose Street. It was during the height of The Great White Flight from Baltimore. What I didn’t know was that the drug area that had once started closer to North East Market was creeping down to our block. The neighborhood seemed like it was falling apart, and Maria having gotten her jaw broken by some thug that summer was proof of that.

I felt lucky to have found a place on the south end of Patterson Park, right on Eastern Ave. It was three stories tall, had four bedrooms, big enough for us, the kids, and my younger sister and brother, who had gravitated to me after we’d lost our mom. It looked like the perfect place to make a fresh start.

I had even convinced Maria that it was the best thing for the children, the best thing to save our relationship. The friends she made on Rose Street only enabled her bad behavior. But on the last day of September, the day before we were supposed to move, Maria decided she was going to stay. Her friend Tammy—they were both dancing at the Golden Nugget on The Block—was going to move in, and together they would cover the mortgage. At least that was the plan. ...until it wasn't.

Like anything else in her life, Maria was unable to remain committed to even that. It only took a couple weeks before she decided to try her hand (or is that her ass?) at dancing for more money in New York. With her stretchmarks, I doubted she could pull it off, but I was still left with a house I would soon lose and two children I could barely take care of. But I had to try.

I found someone to live in the house on Rose Street, although I never did get much more than the first month’s rent from her. As far as childcare was concerned, I had this girl named Kim move in. We had flirted on a few occasions, and as was often the case, I was her go-to guy to call whenever she had boy problems. Kim would sleep in my bed, as long as I understood that she wasn’t really ready to start a relationship. That was cool. I was a gentleman. I just needed her to watch the boys when I went to work. She wasn’t really ready for that either, though.

I would get home, and the boys would be wearing the same diapers they wore when I had left. I wasn’t sure that they’d been fed. I wasn’t sure that they’d even spent any time out of their playpen. It was miserable. But there was nothing better I could afford selling cameras for $6.50 an hour. I had yet to learn the art of the sale, so commissions were still light. I had to do something.

I went to Social Services, sat in their grungy, stank sitting room for hours just to get a bunch of dirty looks and to be told that I didn’t qualify for help. I might qualify for childcare, but the waiting list was six months long. So yeah, when the chance came up to make a small investment for my children’s future, illegal as it might be, distasteful as I found it, I went for it.

Nicky was a DJ. He came from a large Filipino family that were all into music and dancing. We would all pile into a couple of cars and head down to Traxx Nightclub in D.C. on teen night, and because I was twenty-one, I could buy pitchers of beer and get everyone drunk. They loved me.

Nicky came to me with the proposition, and I had just gotten my Christmas bonus, not to mention Christmas commissions. If you can’t sell cameras at Christmas, you don’t belong in the business. Nicky had the connection. It would already be vialed into individual grams. All I had to do was put in my half and drive up with him. I would even see Maria, who had been dodging me on sending money to help with the kids. It felt right.

Granted, when I did see Maria, when I figured out she had nothing to offer, everything suddenly felt very wrong.


I’m a terrible drug dealer. Nicky’s already sold his, and I’m still stuck with most of mine. I’m too nice. I immediately start selling on credit to friends who promise to pay me on payday. Payday comes and goes, and I never see the money. If it wasn’t for my little brother, Joe, selling some at the supermarket where he stocked shelves, the whole ordeal would have been a disaster. Nicky ends up buying a lot of my stake, at cost of course.

It doesn’t take me very long to realize that this isn’t going to work out. And after only four short months, the family was falling apart. My sister’s fallen in love. She’s practically living with the guy, and it isn’t going to be long before she stays with him for good. Joe and I are constantly fighting about the noise he and his friends make when I’m trying to sleep after a long day’s work. I’m tired of listening to Kim talk about all the boys she’s interested in, none of them me. My poor sons are still suffering.

If my mother were still around...

Eventually, the desperation eats at me. I go to Maria’s father, Jupiter. It’s not my mother, but if anyone has an interest in seeing Boo and Spock thrive, it should be their grandfather. Maybe once he understands the situation, he’ll at least agree to help pay for childcare. Not so.

However, his new wife Karen, formerly his daughter’s babysitter, has been bugging him to have his vasectomy reversed because she wants a kid of her own. His offer? He’s willing to take Boo off my hands, if only to show Karen that the experience of parenthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. His ex-wife, Martha, would take Spock. Those are my options: give away the children I fought so hard for, or think of myself and allow them to continue living a squalid, meager existence.

Of course, when word reaches Maria, she’s back in Baltimore within days, in my face, raving about how dare I give up her children. As always, she has no real solutions. Maria’s return to Baltimore, especially her insistence on staying at the new house with me and the gang, hastens the inevitable. For however bad things were, Maria’s manic energy makes matters worse. My sister moves in with her new beau. My brother moves in with his girlfriend and her mother. Kim, my ersatz nanny, also moves back home.

I find a couple of rooms to rent across the street from my old middle school, the former Hampstead Hill Junior High, whose name changes with every infamous atrocity that occurs within its walls. Within weeks of handing over Boo & Spock to my in-laws, the house that was supposed to save us, keep our little family together, is just another abandoned, empty shell in the neighborhood. For the first time in my life I am totally, utterly alone.

I bury myself in my work. I learn the art of the sale: You’re selling yourself, not the camera. I start taking cameras home, and shooting during long walks on my way to work, from Highlandtown to Harborplace, and back. The store manager begins displaying my pictures. Apparently, I have a good eye. I even start getting work shooting weddings and other events. It feels good.

I’d failed as a husband. I’d failed as a father. I’d certainly failed as a drug dealer. I’d failed at keeping a house or even my family together. I needed this, something I could feel good at, feel good about. Having nothing finally gives me the space to make something of myself.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Dream Catcher

My eyes open at six. I sit up, touch my pad on, and begin reviewing my dreams. I don’t remember them. I never do. I know why. They’re boring. There are a few good ones—sex dreams, dreams where I’m bouncing over trees and buildings, dreams of flying. Those are few and far between.

I call up my keyboard up and type in some basic descriptions—shaving in a desert with sand and a rock, a ride on a bus next to a stranger speaking gibberish, in a laundromat waiting for a dryer. Mundane things. A waste of time.

A beautiful girl. I hope this is a sex dream. She stares at me. She says, “Be free,” and walks away. I want to follow her. I can’t. I have to go to work. I call up some music—top forty—and head for the shower.

One last thing,” says the man at the front the crowded room, “I was so sorry to hear that Macy’s has finally filed for Chapter Seven.”

The room breaks out in a loud, sarcastic awwww.

“I know,” says the man, “we’re all heartbroken.”

Someone raises a hand.


“Are we buying them out?”

“Excellent question. We made them an offer last year. They turned us down, but I’m sure we can snap up some of their inventory as they liquidate. Anyway, that’s enough gloating, for now—at least until The Wal goes under. 

"This is inventory weekend. We have a lot of ground to cover, as usual. Let’s make sure we keep everything in order. Nobody wants to count all this shit, as is. Let’s not make our job harder.

“Redshirts, move out. Somnian, if I could just speak to you for a moment.”

I make my way to the front as everyone else filters back to the sales floor. “You asked to see me?”

“Yeah, we got a report this morning from Tech. They need you to go in for a scan, maybe some maintenance.”

“Sure,” I reply, “I’m off tomorrow.”

“They want to see you, today.” he says, “It’s probably nothing, but you know how it is. If something goes wrong, it can go really wrong. They’ve gotten approval to let you use some personal time. Rolley’s going to cover your shift. You can leave now."

The ride to Tech is always interesting. I live walking distance to work, so I don’t get to take the Red Line very often, except when I’m headed to the harbor. Shit at the Inner Harbor’s too pricey for someone like me. The only time I go is when I have company from out of town. Truth is, my friends can’t afford it either.

I pick it up right outside the mall. Everything starts off very barren as the train passes through the the commuter corridor that connects the city to its western suburbs—Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the mall, of course. We drop into a tunnel at the city line and pop back up a couple of minutes later in Edmondson Village. This part of the city begins like a suburb, with its lovely little houses and their lovely little driveways. Any sense of loveliness fades as we pass Edmondson Village Shopping Center.

Lovely houses give way to blocks of cramped rowhouses, many of them boarded up. Security is thick at Allendale Station—men in riot gear spread out on the platform, batons firmly in hand. The same is true as we pass through Rosemont and the MARC station. The Red Line has only been in operation for seven years, and they’ve already shut down the stations in Harlem Park and Poppleton. Anyplace you need to get to between the MARC and Howard Street means a long walk, not that anyone in their right mind—anyone not already living there, if you can call it living—would walk into the Red Zone. Even I wouldn’t be that stupid, and I grew up in the Red Zone.

I graduated from Harlem Park Middle in 2018. Things were different. After years of decline, groups had come in to work with the kids—planting gardens, teaching music and art, treating us like we were normal people, filling us with hope, dreams. And then everything began to fall apart.

The decline was gradual, but it felt sudden. No More Free Rides was the slogan that followed Make America Great Again. It spread like herpes among the Angry White demographic starting in 2020. No one was a victim of poverty. We were culprits, complicit in our condition. We all wanted nothing more than to collect a government check, live in subsidized housing, and have babies that the government had to pay for.

By then, I was in my junior year in high school. By the end of my senior year, deficit reduction meant the "free rides" really were over. Social programs that weren’t cut were eliminated. The national wave of Personal Responsibility rolled over every poor, urban neighborhood hitting neighborhoods like Harlem Park harder than a Japanese tsunami.

The groups that had been working there tried to reinforce their efforts, but having lost federal funding, too, there was not much they could do. As SNAP, what the old heads called Food Stamps, was phased out, soup kitchens and food pantries popped up all over to fill the void. Some voids are too big to fill. It wasn’t long before the riots started.

Rioting happened all over the country. Baltimore wasn’t unusual in that regard. You could say that 
the Freddie Gray riots in Mob Town back in 2015 were a precursor of what was to come. But the West Baltimore riot during the summer of 2018 was epic, nevertheless.
I was one of the lucky ones. My high school, Baltimore Polytechnic, had been proactive, identifying which of their students had special needs, students whose parents had their benefits reduced, or had lost them, entirely. They managed, with the help of alumni, to get us jobs so that we could at least buy uniforms and supplies.

I was on my way home, walking from the restaurant in Hollins Market where I washed dishes. I was making my way past a food pantry. What had started as a few people yelling in the unbearable August heat as I approached turned into everyone screaming at the top of their lungs, the crowd pushing, surging towards the doors of the pantry, the volunteers trying their best to hold them back. They had run out of food. I paused for a bit across the street, curious to how this was going to play out. I left as trash cans and tree branches began to fly through the pantry windows. When I heard the gunfire—repetitive, unceasing gunfire, not the sporadic gunfire you hear when the slingers are fighting for territory—my heart began to beat its way through my chest, fast and hard.

By morning, as I made my way back to work, so much of the old neighborhood was nothing more than burnt out husks; and it wasn’t over—not even close. Rioting went on for nights as the tired, desperate poor broke curfews to lash out against their own brothers and sisters, against the few businesses that had survived the government’s austerity measures. Within a week, the Westside was a war zone with National Guard troops patrolling the very corners that the drug slingers once held.

When the school year started, my senior year, I was forced to carry I.D. to get out and in of the neighborhood. Much of the Westside had been fenced off. Everyone began to call it the West Bank. I didn’t bother with college after graduation. I got a job with Big Red and found a place in Woodlawn where I could take care of my mother, where I could keep her safe.

Bayview, the next to last stop. I get off and head to the Tech building, the same place where I’d had my Assistant installed. Inside, the lady at the front desk greets me by name. “Welcome, Mr. Somnian,” she says as she hands me a passcard, “You’re expected upstairs in suite 331.”

In 331, I’m reclining in a comfortable chair, the same type of chair I sat in as they installed my Assistant. The technician is on a stool on casters, rolling around me, tapping away on his pad. “Any problems with your waking protocol?”

“No. I’m awake at six every day, like clockwork.”

“Looks fine,” he says, “Let’s talk about your dreams.”

“My dreams? Why? I log them all.”

“Absolutely.” he says, excitedly, “I reckon you’re one of the most diligent dream loggers I’ve met. This morning. You logged a dream about a woman?”

“Yeah, but I dream about women all the time. It makes up for not having one in my life.”

“Right. Well, it’s never too late.”

“Have you seen my paycheck?”

He laughs at my lame joke. He goes on. “This woman, she mentioned something about being free.”

“That’s right. See for yourself. It should still be in the buffer.”

The technician picks up my pad, taps on it a few times. He watches, taps, watches. Finally, I hear the voice. “Be free.”

“Is there a problem?”

“I’m sure it’s nothing. We’ve experienced a few glitches with a some Assistants. All of them began with similar dreams. It’s a good thing you’re so thorough with your logs. It could have turned into a problem had you been neglectful. We’re just going to put you under for a few, make some preventative adjustments, make sure everything is shipshape. We wouldn’t want you to miss any important calls, right.”

“No sir,” I say, sarcastically, “I wouldn’t want to have any interruption to my busy social life.”

“Good. I’m going to step out for a few, see another customer. A nurse will be in to administer the anesthesia. Just sit back and relax.”

I do as he says, sinking deeper into my recliner as he exits. Within seconds, a young lady walks in dressed in scrubs. She’s familiar, attractive—auburn hair pulled back in a neat bun, thick lips drenched in glossy pink, skin like cafe au lait—but I can’t quite place her.

“Do I know you?” I ask, “I’m sorry. I know you must get that a lot. But you look so familiar.”

“That’s because I was in your dreams last night,” she says, casually, as if it were no big deal.

“That ain’t right,” I say, smiling, “Isn’t it unethical to fuck with someone like that, at least not if you’re not dating.”

She doesn’t smile. She either doesn’t get or doesn’t appreciate my attempts at flirty humor.

“Listen to me,” she says, seriously, “We don’t have a lot of time. The tech will be back in ten minutes, maybe less. That doesn’t give me much time to disconnect your Assistant—”

“What are you talking about? Why would you do that? How would I receive calls? How the fuck would I even get up in the morning?”

“Solomon, calm down,” she says, “Trust me—”

“Trust you? Bitch, I don’t even know you! How’re gonna just use my name like that?”

“Please, Solomon. Just listen. I know you think things are wonderful. You have your job. You’re mother’s safe. You’re better off than plenty. But you need to be free.”

“What are you talking about? I am free. Isn’t that what you said in my dream? How did you do that, anyway? Why?”

“I have a better question,” she says, “Why do people have to start logging their dreams when they have their Assistants installed?”


“It’s not a complicated question.”

“The tech who installed it said something about interference... certain dreams can mess with the system... it could break down. He said a replacement would be more a lot more expensive than fixing the one I got.”

“Right,” she say, picking up where I trailed off, “because your original Assistant was free, as long as you commit to a network.”


“So why are you here, now?”

“Because they caught one of those precursor dreams. Because they want to fix it before it gets worse.”

“And you believe them? Because something so simple, so internal, like a dream can be powerful enough to compromise something so high tech.”

“Who are—”

“That doesn’t matter. Not now. We don’t have the time for introductions. The reason they want you to log your dreams is because they knew that it would be a matter of time before someone would figure out how to broadcast right to your head. We’ve finally jumped that hurdle.”

“Who’s we?”

“Seriously, Solomon, shut up. It’s not important, not yet. What’s important is that you understand that we chose you. You grew up in the West Bank. You went to Poly. You have a unique understanding of life on both sides of the fence. We need you inside. We need people that understand that it’s wrong to isolate and ignore a whole segment of society just to balance a budget so that those who have plenty can keep more of it, that it’s wrong to turn neighborhoods into nothing more than feeders for prisons 
to keep them profitable and hold wages down.”

“What do you expect me to do about it?”

“Solomon, are you happy?” she asks, casually, as if the conversation hadn’t just been frighteningly serious.

“I’m fine.”

“Lot’s of people are fine, Solomon. Are you happy?”

I can’t bring myself to answer.

“It’s okay. No one’s happy. We’ve all just been sold a hardline to permanent contentment. We’re given just enough to keep us from being miserable, just enough for us to forget those who are. You can end this. All you have to do is close your eyes and let me disconnect your gps and take you offline. Or I can put you under, and when you wake up, you can go back to your life of... contentment, if that’s what you want to call it. Decide now.”

It so much to process. “And then what?”

“Close your eyes, Solomon, and find out.”

My eyes close.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Beads: A Dream

“Oh, I have a project due on Monday.”

This doesn’t surprise me. I’d been through this enough times with my older kids, now grown men, to be surprised by these sudden revelations. Hell, I’ve been through this enough times with Malcolm, already. The pattern was the same. The pattern was always the same. I no longer even lost my temper.

“That’s fine, Mal, but you know we’re in Baltimore for the weekend. We’re going to have to do it while we’re here. Do you have a supply list?”

“No. I left the information sheet at school.”

This is also no great surprise. We had tried various ways to keep Malcolm organized—reminder notes, a folder that stayed in his bookbag where he was to keep all his important papers so any needed information was always accessible, but the notes and folders always seemed to end up lost, or forgotten.

“But that’s okay, Freddie. I really only need one thing.”

“Oh, yeah? What’s that, kiddo?”


Beads. That’s easy enough. Baltimore has an infinite supply.

I think about taking him to Beadazzled, or one of the other high end shops stocked to the gills with a dazzling variety of the tiny plastic or glass jewels. They cater to the do-it-yourself, neo-bohemian spirit that had begun sweeping over the city years ago, when we realized that what we could create on our own would always be more precious than anything that could be found in a store. Granted, there is plenty of pre-made jewelry, as well, for those less creatively inclined, or those who have run out of time.

But the truth is that we were already headed uptown. To turn around now wouldn’t make sense. Admittedly, there’s the issue of cost, too. Some individual beads at the high end stores can cost more than what I have in my pocket, and I don’t want to spend too much on a project I have too little information about. There’s no point, especially when 33rd and Greenmount is so close.

“No worries, kiddo. I know exactly where to go.”

You can always tell when you’re getting close to the corner of 33rd Street and Greenmount Avenue at night because of the grim, red and blue glow illuminating the black sky. The city begins strategically setting up pairs of cop cars at the McDonalds at 29th Street, and they keep running up Greenmount, in pairs every couple of blocks, all the way up to 40th—a not so subtle attempt at a reminding the populace that the city is still in control.

It’s been that way since before the most recent uprising, and I imagine will remain that way for far longer. More important than reminding criminals who’s in control, it makes the residents feel safer, safe enough to come out and shop on a hot, summer night, where, without the lights, the shops would simply close at dusk, and the residents would stay cooped up inside, or spend their money outside their own neighborhoods.

Tonight must have been particularly active. The pattern of pairs had been broken, and there were several cop cars congealed right at 33rd, the red and blue lights flashing in a rabid, frenetic pattern on the streets, up the walls of the storefront rowhouses, out into the night sky. The sidewalks are lined with young black males lying prone on their stomachs, hands behind their backs, knees pressing into the gutters—lined up like tunas on a dock after a big catch.

“Just stick close to me,” I tell Malcolm as I sense his nervousness. I casually draw him closer, enough to comfort him, but not enough to offend his independent tween sensibilities. “We’re almost there.”

We enter the store, a lovely old storefront on the northwest corner made more beautiful by the sheer, seemingly endless mass of beads covering the display windows, the chaos creating a expressionistic mosaic wrapping around that corner, more elaborate than anything Pollock could have concocted. Even Malcolm is agog at the immensity of it all—or he would be if the drama outside the doors hadn’t have bled inside.

One of the narrow aisles is blocked with several police officers, knees, hands and feet busy into the backs and necks of three young black boys, none of them older than Malcolm, their pockets bursting with stringed beads. I can’t help but to think why so many officers are needed to subdue three children. One of the officers, a sergeant, barks at us to wait. I recognize him. We went to high school together.

“Garrity, right?”

He looks at me quizzically. “Do I know you?”

“Yeah! We came out of Poly the same year.”

“French Fry?”

“Yeah, but nobody calls me that, anymore.”

“Right. Sorry about this. Things are crazy, you know.”

“ I can see that, but these are just kids, though.”

“Yeah, well, a dog is just going to grow into another wild animal if you don’t train them right.”

I don’t know how to respond to that.

“Is that your kid?” He asks, snapping his chin at Malcolm.

“Sort of,” I reply, “he’s my stepson.”

“Well, keep him safe,” he advises me, “and keep him away from these animals.” Garrity stretches an arm out, as if to protect us from the danger of the three boys now being dragged out of the store, hands zip-tied behind them, pockets still bulging with cheap beads. Once they are out, he looks back at me. “Nice running into you,” he says as he follows his squad and quarry back onto the streets.

Now that the store is clear, I let Malcolm loose, tell him to pick out what he needs. While he does, I can’t help thinking that the only thing separating Malcolm from the kids we just watched getting dragged out, aside from location and upbringing, is that no one can tell Mal is black just by looking at him. I wondered how he would be regarded, how he would be treated, if his skin showed more of the truth.

“I can’t find anything.”

“What do you mean, kiddo? Look at all these beads!”

“I know, but these are all on strings. They already have their patterns.”

I don’t understand, but he doesn’t have his assignment sheet, so there’s nothing for me to reference. “That’s okay, kiddo. There’s a store I can take you to tomorrow where the beads aren’t already on strings. We’ll try again, tomorrow.”

We walk out and cross Greenmount. There, Malcolm sees a kid he recognizes. Carlos, a boy he had gone to school with when we still lived in the city. He was carrying fistfuls of stringed beads. I stop to let them talk, a chatter I can barely understand, but soon enough they are on the ground going through Carlos’ collection. I hear a light pop, followed by an explosion of beads up in the air and hitting the sidewalk like plastic rain. I go to interfere, thinking this is the result of some unwarranted tug of war, but stop myself when I notice that the are still happy, still laughing.

I watch as they both sweep the beads together with their hands, create a mosaic, right there, on a 33rd Street sidewalk stained with years of grease, sweat and blood. After a while, the mosaic becomes a pile, and the beads are all gathered and poured into a clear plastic bag.

“You want some?” Carlos asks Malcolm.

“No, that’s okay,” he replies, before Carlos takes off running in some seemingly random direction.

“Freddie, is the store still open?”

I look behind us. The lights are still on. “I think so, kiddo.”

“Can we go back? I think I know what I need now.”

“Good!” I say as we head back to Greenmount, “let’s try it, again.”

Monday, March 7, 2016


Nike already ruled the world by 1982. Seeing the already ubiquitous swoosh on the box my mother pulled out of a shopping bag was the first fragment of hope I had felt since being dragged from the urban melting pot of Jersey City, New Jersey to the very white, barely suburban town of Middle River, Maryland. I say dragged because there was no choice. There was no discussion. There was only waking up one morning in January, and instead of going back to school after a dismal winter break, we packed all of our things that would fit in the car and drove south.

We had no warning. We didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to our friends. My sister, my baby brother, and I were just suddenly yanked from everything and everyone we knew with no reasonable explanation I could recall. This was nothing new.

My mother was notorious for never staying in any one place for any lengthy period of time. We would come home from our usual summer vacation with my grandparents in Puerto Rico, and we’d already be moved into a new apartment, sometimes have to start fresh in a new school. What made this move unusual was that it was happening in the middle of a school year. For as erratic as my mother could be, she valued our education, and was usually careful not to disrupt that. Even more unusual was the choice to leave New Jersey.

Other than the lush, wild mountainsides that surrounded my grandparents’ home on the island my mother was born on, the streets of Hudson County were the only ones I’d ever known.

Union City, Jersey City, and Hoboken were never much different from each other, streets full of cheery people, the sounds of Disco and Salsa blending in the air, the aroma of Cuban and Puerto Rican food mingling just as easily. However often we moved, as long as we were in Hudson County, we were home. I had no idea, as we drove into Maryland on that gray December day, that I would be an adult with children of my own by the time I saw any part of Hudson County, again.

I didn’t even realize until we arrived at my godparent’s home in Owings Mills that we didn’t even have a place to stay, yet. We were stuck with them for a couple of weeks, Oscar, his second wife, Malinda, and their three unruly sons. They were hyperactive terrors, never disciplined until it was too late, until something had already been broken or someone had gotten hurt. All the boys were piled into their living room to sleep, so that my mother and sister could have some privacy in their boys’ bedroom. I use the term sleep loosely, as there wasn’t really much of it with our godbrothers’ ceaseless rambunctiousness. In this chaos, at least the picture of what was going on was now beginning to come together.

What was unsaid, at least to the children, but became apparent to me as the oldest at twelve, was that Oscar had moved to Maryland to avoid some trouble he’d gotten into in New Jersey. This was no surprise as I had eavesdropped on enough conversations to know that my godfather, the man who was supposed to take responsibility for me and my siblings if something happened to my mother, wasn’t much more than a petty criminal who sold drugs and guns to other petty criminals. Apparently, his escape turned into an opportunity to turn his life around in a mostly-white suburban Baltimore town.

This appealed to my mother who had long struggled with heroin addiction. Staying clean had become nearly impossible considering how prevalent drugs were on either side of the Hudson River, and how many connections she had that would sell, even give her drugs. Methadone was the closest thing she had to salvation, but couldn’t counteract the effects of a night of dancing and Studio 54. When you’re young and gorgeous and get drawn into the notorious VIP room in the basement, where you mingle with the biggest celebrities of the time, it’s not easy to say no to anything being offered.

I always appreciated my mother’s stories, like the time she saw Mick Jagger and David Bowie share an intimate kiss; but there were times when it would take my mother days to recover from a relapse. Even coming home in the early hours of the morning wasn’t always pretty. I recall one time waking up to being beaten because my mother, drunk, high, or both, thought I was faking sleep. I think the realization finally hit my mother, around the time Disco was dying, that her pattern of abuse and recovery, abuse and recovery, would likely end up killing her just as suddenly, especially at that time, with AIDS now throwing gasoline on the fire of her dangerous lifestyle.

Regardless to how clear the picture was becoming, my twelve-year-old mind, which had as good a grasp on my mother’s addiction as anyone my age could, could only feel resentment at the sudden change. My godfather didn’t make it any easier.

He took notice of how I disciplined my sister and brother. As the oldest kid in the household, considering my mother’s lifestyle, it naturally fell to me to pick up the slack. On days where my mother got home so late that she couldn’t get up the next morning, or on some rare occasions when she wouldn’t come home, at all, until much later, it was my responsibility to make sure my little sister and brother were fed and clean, got to school safely, did their homework, got to bed at a reasonable time. The lack of a parent had turned me into a parental figure, and my siblings gave me that respect.

So one night, in my godparents’ living room, when I snapped at my little brother, eight at the time, to hop down from an ottoman he was trying to stand on, Oscar very loudly pointed out to my mother that I should not be allowed to discipline my siblings. He felt that I held an unnatural control over them, and suspected that I was sexually molesting my little brother.

It wouldn’t be until years later that my sister would confide in me that it was Oscar who was the abuser. She let me know that he had taken to touching her inappropriately, whenever he could corner her alone, since she was eight; that the two weeks we ended spending at the Reyes’ home before we found a place of our own was an endless nightmare for her.

In that sense, we were all happy to pack the car up again and make our way to Middle River.

Middle River is another suburb of Baltimore, this one about 25 minutes east of the city. Unlike the middle class townhouses where my godparents lived, the best my mother could afford was a small apartment in a development called Riverdale Village. It seemed desolate, with the cold winter keeping everyone inside. It was nearly February before we finally got to meet other children as returning to school was delayed by a series of snowstorms that kicked of the year.

In a way, I was lucky there was so much snow on the ground. Somehow, in all the chaos, all my shoes had been lost. The only thing I had to put on my feet were my snow boots, a pair of ducks with a thick gray removable liner. They worked out fine for my first couple of weeks at Stemmer’s Run Junior High, but as the snow melted away and the weather warmed, question arose about why I was still wearing my ducks. “Don’t you have any Nikes?” one girl asked me, once. Honestly, I had no idea what she was talking about. Keds was all my mother could ever afford.

I had no answers about my shoes, although I imagine I must’ve had some response back then that I can no longer remember. I do remember letting my mother know that every day that I had to wear the boots was only becoming more and more embarrassing, that the only way to make up for this embarrassment--not to mention for the abrupt changes, for not getting a chance to say goodbye, for being forced to co-habitate with that horrible family for so long--the only thing that could make it all better was a pair of Nikes.

My mother had never held a legitimate job in her life, at least not any kind of job with regular hours and a steady paycheck. My mother was one of the Welfare Queens Ronald Reagan warned the country about when he first ran for president. What we couldn’t afford on welfare my mother supplemented as best she could, most commonly by having a working boyfriend move in with us. There was no working boyfriend in Middle River. Everything had to go to first month’s rent and the security deposit with a little left over so we didn’t start school without supplies.

You can imagine how excited I was when, after weeks of dread whenever I had to pull on my ducks every morning, I finally got a glimpse of the swoosh. I tore through the box, slipped them onto my feet, and kept them on only long enough to make sure they fit. They were perfect: white, all leather low tops with the white trim coming down over the toes, the slightly tapered white-walled sole trimmed in red, and that beautiful, matching red swoosh.

I was careful putting them on the next morning, careful walking to school. This was evidence that I wasn’t crazy or poor. A simple pair of tennis shoes would be what would finally help me fit in somewhere where no one had ever seen, much less heard of a Puerto Rican, where the only person that looked somewhat like me was native american, where there wasn’t even a black kid in the student body, where the sounds of salsa and disco had been supplanted by heavy metal and country.

I only realized how wrong I was when I ran into, Jon, one of my classmates. I tried to be subtle about it, not immediately calling attention to my new sneakers, or tenners as they called them there. I didn’t have to call attention to them. They drew attention all on their own. “What are you wearing?” Jon asked, with a strange tone in his voice.

Wasn’t it obvious? “My mom finally got me a pair of Nikes!” I announced proudly.

“Those aren’t Nikes!” he pointed out. “These are Nikes,” he said sticking one of his feet forward so I could get a better look. I looked at his kicks, then back at mine, and the truth suddenly became apparent. “Paul, come here!” he shouted to another of our classmates who hurried over. Both our shoes did indeed have the swoosh, but where his swooshed up, mine swooshed down.

“He says his mom got him Nikes, but they don’t really look like Nikes, do they?”

It only took Paul a quick glance to know. “Oh, those are fake Nikes. I don’t know who makes them, but I know what they’re called. Sikes!”

“Nice Sikes!” said Jon before dashing off with Paul, leaving me staring at my new shoes, alone in the emptying schoolyard.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Your Eternal Dance

Some say you should be my queen,
but I am more fool than king.

A fool will not rule
or be ruled,
but is always open
to worship,
drawn to it,
like the flame
to the moth
close enough
to be illuminated,
to have its magic
made clear.

I will not crown you
my Queen;
instead I will adore you,
pray under your divine light,
whisper your name
to the sky
to invoke you,
venerate you for the goddess
I know you to be.

Some say you should be my queen,
but regents are too prone
to tyranny, to staking claims,
to bending nature
to their own whims;
these things are beneath you.
Your proclivities lie
in creation, inhaling
death to exhale stars,
consuming stars
to excrete Life.

Some say you should be a queen,
but you rise
above titles,
beyond law,
past present or future.
I bow before you,
not out of obeisance,
but in reverence, hoping
that, given your place
in the pantheon of my heart,
you will allow me
to partake in your eternal

Saturday, October 26, 2013


My Love,
my Moon,
my Muse,
my wide Night Sky,
my sweet lotus flower
O, sit ol' lotus,
perched upon your pad,
sit & stay with me
a while.

I want to watch
you bloom, under
the rays of the moon, watch
each precious petal
spreading itself
to embrace the Universe.

I cannot bear
to watch you 
hide inside yourself, 
within walls
you would build
to block out
the very light 
that makes you shine.

So be wise
my sweet lotus,
as you wander to ponds
old & new
your head wants left alone
while your heart wants to roam,
but your spirit will carry you

Blood Moon

My latest Moon poem, composed a couple of days after last week's partially eclipsed Blood Moon...

Blood Moon

My moon bleeds tonight,
not from harm,
but because nothing can stay
Full, forever; everything
must empty
lest it burst.

My moon bleeds tonight,
& I worship her
as I always do,
more so, knowing
tonight we dance
in shadows
so thin,
only I can see

She feels
the sliver,
like black
thread dragged
across her body,
a taste of the wane
that is coming.

My moon bleeds tonight,
& She will draw me
to her & I will slide
inside & together
We release
the world around us
for the Universe
about Us,
release the heart
& the mind
for the spirit
We have been
release resentment
for Love.

My moon bleeds
for me tonight.
¿Will she bleed
for me, again?
Only Destiny
has that answer.
I only know
the moon
must bleed,
as must I,
as must we all.