No one ever believes I’m from here. “What’s out there,” people would ask, and I’d say, “nothing but the Bronx Zoo.” And where I grew up. It’s just like I remember it except I don’t remember the sky being so grey. Then again the last time I was in this neighborhood was the day we packed our shit and bounced to Riverdale, and that day was as covered by waves of heat as it was by waves goodbye. Past the bodega we drive and I nod my head, surprised at the fact that the oddly detailed graffiti of the Tim Dog mural is still next to the cleaners, the Puerto Rican with the once grey hair now stands at the deck of his house with a full head of white and a face carved with wrinkles. There isn’t a single soul on the block except him and us. “He’s still here,” my mother chuckles.
We approach the corner of Grand Avenue, and what a grand sight it is to see that not much has changed on my block either. That red thing with the buttons to call the police and firefighters is still there, and I’m more in shock that I still don’t know what that’s called than I am at the fact that it’s still standing. The bricks on the corner building are still separated enough to climb if your hands were small and ashy enough like mine were on the day I watched my family panic because I’d pretended to be lost.
Looking back, I don’t understand why I did it either. I was just a child and didn’t really know what it meant to feel lost (even though getting lost was one of my biggest fears), but I don’t know if I understood that my loss would’ve scared my mother—that was never my intention, I swear…at least I don’t think—but I guess if I could think of any reason why I did do it, it’s probably because I wanted to see if they’d feel sad if I ever went missing.
“I don’t know what possessed you to do that. You were never like that,” mama says looking back at me as I gaze out the window of the passenger seat. “To this day,” she continues, “I still don’t know where you were, or what happened. It makes me sick to my stomach just thinking about it.”
Typical kid things, one could rationalize, but to this day I don’t know where I was either—mentally I mean, because that’s some sociopath type shit—watching my mother and sister go crazy looking and screaming for me. My mother always trusted me enough to wait for her in front of the building whenever I ran out of the apartment before her, so why I hid behind the building at the end of the block, I don’t know. Why I never responded to the times she and my sister called my name, still don’t know. But I guess some karma I don’t believe in got me good for putting my mother in a frenzy that day because only a year after that lovely incident I almost got my ass kicked by Davon in the fourth grade because he found out Eva liked me instead of him.
My mother drives slowly as we approach the front of my building, but not before I see it all unfold before my eyes again just like the day it happened: a young, blurry Davon letting go of his little brother, dropping his Jansport, taking off his coat, and stepping right to my face after I nearly shook the shit out of my pants and laughed nervously in his face. By that time in the fourth grade at least more than half of the boys in Ms. Cueto’s class, including Davon, had already been talking about Blood and Crip initiations and telling me not to wear blue or red unless I wanted to get fucked up (and thus began my obsession with black), so it’s pretty safe to say I got the scare I deserved before my neighbor Justin rescued me from him. Life goes full circle I guess.
Before I know it, there it is, 2181: six stories of memories overflowing through the cracked glass on the entrance door. The building still looks like it’s made of red sand and dust while the buildings and houses around it look like they could really use a new neighborhood. We double park between the schoolyard next to my building and the super’s entrance way. I hop out of the car to see if I’ll feel another crashing wave of memories, but instead a young hooded boy, no older than my seven-year-old nephew, turns from playing alone and waves enthusiastically at me through the beaded gate like he recognizes me from behind my black wayfarers. I try to make out a face, but all I see is two fat cheeks, a jungle gym that was once green and yellow, now green and red, and more boys playing basketball in the background. Whose kid is he and how does he know me? I retreat to my mother’s car awkwardly and laugh with her because honestly, how would anyone except Biemba, whom I heard was still living in my building, possibly recognize me in black velvet with a topknot, a beard, and shades?
After I jump back into the car, we circle the block one too many times, driving under the tossed shoes on the telephone and power lines above the streets, and if I’m not mistaken, that pair of chucks are still there as they have been all my life. We turn one too many heads as we stop and stare at the second floor, where we used to live. Behind us are the houses where Minham and Minhaj grew up, and that other house that once burnt down and became a home for a stray Siberian husky is now the foundation for an ugly clay building.
My mother points out that four of the windows on the side of my old building belong to 2C, and three of the four windows now have air conditioners that weren’t there when we moved. “I wonder who lives there now,” she says, “last time I checked Justin and his family were living there.” It’s strange to think someone lives where I lived and is building memories exactly where I’d once built mine. From inside, the sun always seemed to shine on our building, or maybe it was because we had sheer curtains and every light looked bright that way. “You know what, the boys look happy,” my mother interrupts. “It doesn’t seem that bad.” But it was never that bad, even when it was.
I’ve welcomed ghosts that can’t see me, coming here, welcomed memories I thought I had forgotten me, replaced me with other boys and girls who played and lived in the same places I did, as I have replaced. But as the hood stands, so have my ghosts waiting for me to press play. Coming here is more than visiting the place I grew up; it is growing up again to play in that schoolyard and watching my window break during slugfest. It was watching Stephanie stand by the fence that divided the yard from the jungle gym and watching my younger self contemplate approaching her. But those boys will never see that because their memories are not of falling off Zoomie scooters, or of David and his crew doing the Harlem shake while Renee tried to stop a ball in the sky by throwing his catching glove at it. It’s not of kickball and not of the burning dumpsters that smoked through my fire escape window. The only memories me and those boys might share are the ones of the legendary vakas sitting by the gates, waiting for something to happen so they could gossip about it, maybe because being in their apartments was worse than being outside. And those kids of theirs, those kids who probably felt more at home eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the yard than in their actual kitchen, or dining room. But I might be wrong. Who knows where they migrated, or what street corner they occupy now. Home will always be, whether it’s for me or someone else, whether it’s outside, or in.
We circle around the neighborhood for one last wave before we drive back home. My mother often says that we were a family. Happy once. I can’t help but wonder if we reflect on home as fondly as we do because we no longer live in 2181, because we left the nest we built together, or because happiness is beyond just the place; it’s the people who were there when we made it. We cross the bridge, park the car, and begin to walk home. I hear a loud flap circle and descend from above to the ground in front of me. A black, velvet crow waddles with a long, thin branch before it flies up and away. She’s a building a nest somewhere.
About the Author,
A lot of horrible things happen when I’m around. People begin to smile and have a great time. It’s really quite awful. As if it wasn’t bad enough that my cool kid qualities are highly contagious, I also write, photograph, draw, sing, and probably have cooler hair than the person next to you. You might assume that such an eclectic variety of talents would make me quite the bundle of joy and intrigue, but really it just adds onto what a nightmare I really am.