Thousands of people stood outside the court building on Centre Street in Manhattan. Some were fans, and some were protestors angry that he’d killed a gay couple. In an attempt to limit the amount of time the unwanted crowds spent surrounding the building, the court had pushed his arraignment to be earlier. I called the firm and briefed Tim on everything Reggie told me. I let him know I was waiting on the arraignment, and Reggie planned on pleading not guilty. Then I called my best friend, Gabby, and made plans to get coffee with her as soon as I got out of court.
Quietly, I sat on the benches in the courtroom and waited for Reggie’s case to be called. I reflected on everything he had said to me at the Precinct, and it brought back old feelings I thought I’d buried and healed from. It bothered me that he and other people in my race believed I wasn’t “black enough.”
My thoughts drifted back to my childhood. Every year around Thanksgiving, my dad took my cousin, Simone, and me to his old neighborhood, the Edenwald Houses in the Bronx. We were forced to stand in the schoolyard of PS 112 and hand out turkeys and food to the community. Simone was more like a sister than a cousin to me. She lived with us and was raised by my parents for most of her life. Simone’s mom, my aunt Joan was a junkie prostitute and was constantly getting arrested. Since she was always in and out of jail and unfit to be a mother, the courts gave my parents custody of Simone.
*** “Dad, do we have to go there?” I’d asked.
“Yeah, Uncle Curtis, do we have to?” Simone added.
“Yes, we have to and stop asking,” Dad replied. “It’s important to give back to the community.”
The last place either of us wanted to be on a Saturday was Dad’s old neighborhood.
“Those people are mean. I hate going there,” Simone said. “Me too,” Mom mumbled.
“You’re not helping, Maybelline,” Dad said.
“I don’t understand the reasoning of going to the ghetto and giving those ungrateful people food for Thanksgiving. They just take your free food and talk behind your back every year.”
“Those ‘people’ are ‘our people,’” Dad said. “I wouldn’t be the man I am today if it weren’t for my old neighborhood, and when you say things like that, you sound no better than the white people who say that blacks just mooch off the system. Yes, some of them are ungrateful, but a lot of them aren’t. We’re bringing hope to some of these kids, and it’s important to me. Besides, it’s good to toughen up our kids and make them appreciate the lives they have.”
“This is a good thing you’re doing, Curtis,” Officer Watson said.
“Yeah, if no one else says it today, thank you for this,” Officer Buckley added. Officers Watson and Buckley were the community affairs officers for the 47th Precinct. They acted as security and helped hand out the food my dad gave away to the community every year.
“Thanks, guys,” Dad said. “I used to live here. I know what it’s like to think this is all life has to offer. If I inspire at least one person or give someone just a glimmer of hope today, I did my job, and it’ll hopefully spark a change.”
I saw my mom roll her eyes.
“What? You don’t agree with what Dad’s saying?” I asked.
“Hell no,” she said. “This neighborhood is a graveyard, full of dead hopes, and buried dreams.” She pointed. “You see those women sitting there on the bench? Those old gossip hounds have been sitting there on those same benches since your father was a little boy. They haven’t gotten any better or worse. They just sit there like they’ve done all their lives—stagnant.”
“Come here, son,” Dad said.
I walked over to my father, who was organizing items in the truck. “This is the rare occasion when I’m going to tell you to ignore your mother. Your mom and I lived here together when we first got married, but she doesn’t have a deep-rooted history here like I do. In any community with impoverished people, you’re going to have crime and drugs. It’s easy to get pulled into the negativity and become a product of your environment, but it’s important to remember that not everyone is the same. There’s some bad in this neighborhood, but there’s a lot of good too. We’re out here today giving hope to people so they can see that the good can outshine the bad. Do you understand?”
I nodded, and he smiled. “Good. Now help me unload this truck.”
“You’re a good man, Mr. Turner,” a senior woman told my father.
“Thank you, ma’am. Enjoy your Thanksgiving.”
Dad had Simone and me handing out bags of food to go with the people’s turkeys. “Can I have one?”
Dad quickly turned around.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
Her clothes looked dirty and tattered. She was noticeably pregnant. Dad hopped off the truck and hugged her.
“Simone, come say hi to your mom.”
Simone scrunched up her nose and looked embarrassed.
“Nah, I don’t want to.”
Joan sucked her teeth.
“Fuck you, then. I don’t want to talk to your stupid ass either, little bitch.”
She turned back to my father.
“Can I just get my food now?”
“In a minute . . . Who’s the father for this one?” Dad asked.
“The same one as the last one, Silky.”
“No mother in their right mind would name their son Silky. What’s his real name?” “Why? You gonna get your cop friends to look him up? I’m not tellin’ you shit.” “If you want this food, you will.”
“You ain’t shit, Curtis. His name is Sammy Miller. Are you happy now? Gimme my shit so I can go on with my business,” she said, sticking out her dirty hand. “You look like you’re about to have this baby any day,” Dad said. “Are you still using?”
“That’s none of your business. All I want is my fucking turkey, come on.”
“I know you’re not working at the job I got you at Payless. The manager told me you quit after a week.”
“I didn’t want to be a slave to that damn chump change. I make more in two hours on the street than what I made in two weeks working there.”
“It’s called honest work, Joan.” Dad shook his head. “Your phone is cut off, and the last I heard, you were evicted from your apartment. Why don’t you stay with us for a while?”
“Curtis—” Mom snapped.
Dad held up a hand to stop her. Mom sighed and shook her head.
“I don’t need your help, and I don’t want your fucking pity,” Joan said.
“You heard her, Curtis,” Mom said. “You can’t save anyone who doesn’t want to be saved. Leave her be.”
“Listen to your wife,” Joan said. “I’m doing fine. We’re barely even blood.” “You’re my sister—”
“I’m your half-sister. Your cheatin’-ass daddy fucked my momma, and I was the result of it. We were never supposed to be a family. I was a mistake, and our sperm donor of a father made that clear by never being in my life.”
“It doesn’t matter how it happened. You’re still my sister, and he cared about you,” Dad said.
“Sure, he did.”
“Before he died, he told me everything. He wanted me to correct what he never had a chance to.”
“It’s too late for all that.”
Simone was scowling at Aunt Joan.
“Stop staring at me, you little bitch. I should’ve swallowed you.”
“Joan! That’s your daughter,” Mom yelled.
“I don’t like her lookin’ at me like I’m a piece of shit.”
“Ben, take Simone and go play basketball while I talk to your aunt Joan for a bit,” Dad said, handing me a basketball from the truck. We left them talking and went to the courts.
“I hate her,” Simone said.
“She’s not bad. She’s just on that stuff,” I said. “Dad said once she cleans up, she’ll be good.”
“Uncle Curtis always sees the good in people, but she’s not good. She’s an evil witch, and I never want to be like her.”
I was in the middle of a jump shot when someone pushed me from behind. I hit the ground hard. I hopped up and turned around with my fist balled. It was JJ, a heavyset kid around my age who tormented me every year at this event. He was laughing with a bunch of other boys.
“What are you going to do about it, pussy?”
I glared at him and didn’t respond.
“What are you doing on our courts, punk?” JJ asked.
“First off, I’m not a punk, and second, my family is handing out food for Thanksgiving, like they do every year. I’m just shooting around with my cousin.” JJ stepped up, got in my face, and shoved me again. “Yeah, your punk-ass father is tryin’ to win Brownie points in the hood by handing out scraps again.” “You and everyone else are taking them too, so what does that say about you?”
“Oooooh,” the boys behind him said.
“Yeah, we take your father’s free shit, but he still gets no love here,” JJ said. “You and your family think you’re saints for coming around here once a year and treating us like charity cases. Everyone knows your family uses this shit as a tax write-off. Your pops is an Uncle Tom. He doesn’t care about us, and we don’t give a shit about him. Once y’all leave, we laugh at his sellout ass.”
I hated JJ because I knew he was telling the truth. I figured most of the people at this event were only mooching off my dad but didn’t really care about him. “Shut up, you ugly, black monkey, before I tell Uncle Curtis not to give your bum-ass family any food,” Simone said.
“Before I tell Uncle Curtis not to give your family food,” he mocked. “Listen
to you talkin’ all proper and shit. You sound like a white girl. Mind your own business before I pay your momma five dollars to suck my dick.”
His friends laughed. Simone looked embarrassed, and JJ noticed. “Yeah, my dad said the whole hood fucked your mom in the ass for twenty bucks. How much you charging?”
Simone cried and ran over to my mom. I watched Mom storm over to my dad and yell at him. More kids joined the growing group around JJ and me. Our bickering and shoving drew the attention of the grownups. JJ’s dad walked over to us and egged us on.
“Boys, that’s enough,” Dad said, separating us.
“What’s the matter, Curtis?” JJ’s dad asked. “Your boy too soft to fight his own battles?”
“I see you still haven’t changed, Jamel. You’re still the same bully you were as a kid, and now, I see you’re training your son to follow in your footsteps.” “Whatever, nigga. I can’t help that your boy is too soft to survive around here.” Dad patted me on the shoulder and fired back, “He’s tough. I just don’t want him to beat your kid’s ass in front of all his friends.”
“Get the fuck outta here with that bullshit.”
JJ’s dad turned to the cops.
“What do ya say, Officers? Can y’all let the boys fight a fair one for two minutes?” Dad nodded in agreement with the officers.
“You sure, Curtis?” Officer Buckley asked.
“Absolutely,” Dad said.
“Officer Watson and I are going to finish packing up the truck. When we get back, whatever business that needed to be taken care of needs to be over with. You got two minutes until we get back.”
“That’s all the time we need,” Dad said.
I looked up in terror at my father. He faced me.
“Are you crazy, Dad? I’m not fighting him,” I said.
“Look, son, you’ve been training to box for two years now. I got you into boxing so you’d know how to defend yourself if the time ever came. Well, the time is here, son. People like JJ will keep picking on you unless you stand up for yourself. You can take this kid. Win or lose, you have to stand up for yourself.” “Curtis, you done coaxing that pussy into fighting?” JJ’s dad asked. “You ready for him to whoop your son’s ass?” Dad fired back.
“Now, don’t anyone get involved in their fight, or you’ll answer to me, y’all hear?” JJ’s dad said to the crowd.
“Yeah,” was heard throughout the sea of people.
JJ balled up his fists as his father pushed him toward me. My heart pounded in my chest. I slowly raised my fists as we faced off in the middle of the street, circling each other. JJ threw a wild haymaker that I sidestepped. I didn’t want to fight him, but I didn’t want to get picked on anymore, either. JJ hit me with a quick jab and right hook that staggered me. The crowd cheered him on and heckled me.
“Kick this Oreo’s ass, JJ,” someone in the crowd shouted.
He moved in to throw a right cross, but I ducked and hit him with four good hooks to his ribs. His breathing doubled. He wheezed and charged toward me, swinging wildly, but I dodged his punches and swept his foot. JJ stumbled onto the concrete, scraping his face. I turned him over, mounted him, and rained down blows.
I thought about all the things he and his friends said about my dad. I thought about all the times I came here, and he and the other kids made Simone and me feel like we weren’t black enough because we didn’t live in this neighborhood, and I kept swinging. Tears streamed down my face. Blood poured from his nose and mouth as I hit him repeatedly with haymakers and elbows. My knuckles were raw, the blood from his face dripping down my fists. I was crying hysterically when my father dragged me off him. JJ was rocking back and forth in pain.
Officer Watson touched my shoulder.
“All right, everyone, the show is over,” Officer Buckley said.
The look on the crowd’s faces showed they were disappointed that the cops were stopping the fight. JJ’s legs wobbled as his dad yanked him up off the ground by his Mets T-shirt and popped him upside the head with his palm.
“I can’t believe you lost to that punk. I’ma beat your ass myself when you get home. I raised you to be tougher than that,” his dad said.
I wiped my tears with my shirt and walked with my dad back to our SUV. Mom yelled at him the entire ride home, and after that day, Dad never took any of us with him to the old neighborhood when he gave back to the community.
Reggie reminded me of those kids from the old neighborhood who used to heckle
me. He showed me that the internal battle I struggled with every day and thought I could handle was real and slowly eating at me. To him and most of the other black people I’d met, I was an Oreo. It didn’t matter how dark my skin was. Reggie reminded me of how most of the world viewed me: a sellout. An Uncle Tom. A disgrace to my race.
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