On N. Luzerne St. the cool air cycles through the block like a whirlwind rattling your windows awakening you. You’ve got a bed sheet hanging over the window in an attempt to block the early morning sunlight, and a washrag stuffed down into the cracked wood just below the window sill to try to slow the wintry air from entering your bedroom. This is a bedroom that you share with your two younger brothers. The door to your mothers bedroom is shut, as it always is at this time of the morning. It’s usually almost noon by the time she rouses from her slumber and comes out of her cavern. Sometimes she’s accompanied by a friend, either male or female. The hostility that momma carries with her early in the morning is usually something the children try to avoid until later in the afternoon when she has her first drink. You get a few hours with her until she disappears into the cold night, and often end up praying that she comes home at all. Then there’s the occasional night in where her and her friends start with drinks on the front steps and eventually end up huddling in her bedroom in the early morning hours fighting over the remnants of whatever crack they have left.
You’ve raised yourself. Your cartoons raised you until your brother broke the TV, and you never got a new one. Thats when then the music raised you. The hip hop raised you, and taught you how to be tough and fierce. The boys up the street embodied everything that the hip hop spoke of. You wanted to grow up like the boys on the street. They were the only ones that you saw with money and respect. Not respect from others, but a self respect. The kind that didn’t have you walking, head down, avoiding the outside world as you walked back and forth to the store. When you were old enough, you dreamed that those boys would raise you and take over where the music had left off. Momma said to “keep the fuck away from them”, but at the same time you saw her on the corner talking with them frequently. When somebody shot Tay’s little sister, all the adults in the neighborhood called on them boys to fix it. When momma had gotten hurt that one night, it was those boys that she went to for help. That was the only time she stopped drinking for two whole days and didn’t come out of her room. Momma was changed for awhile after that. Rudy, one of the main guys up there, brought you and your little brothers food from the Chinese spot while Momma was hurt in her room. Nobody normally did anything like that.
The only time those boys got scared is when the police came around. The police were evil, they had took your Daddy away for good. One time when your Momma disappeared for two days, and you and your brothers huddled in the darkness with hushed tones fearful that she left you alone, you found out that it was the police that took her. You didn’t blame those boys on the corner for hating the police, you hated them too. They were devils and took all the good people from your neighborhood. Even the rappers that you listened to hated the police, everyone did.
You pull the sheet back from the window and look into the street below. It’s cold and windy, the only movement besides the trash blowing across the asphalt is Mr. Ellerbee. He is in his mail carriers uniform headed to work. This was his routine and was generally the only movement on this block until everyone else started waking up around 9:30am. On the next block up, all the boys were at work at 6am. They had real jobs selling a product to people that needed it. Cars circled all morning and they stayed busy shouting back and forth up and down the street. Guys ran back and forth in and out of houses, and down the alley bringing back more products for them to sell. People came from all over the city and counties to buy what they were selling. They made good money, and were very important. You couldn’t wait to go work for their business one day. Mr. Ellerbee was a slave, the boys up the street told you so. He had been working his whole life for the white man and had nothing to show for it. He didn’t have a car, and he still lived in this poor, broken neighborhood all his life. He didn’t get up when he wanted, or work when he wanted. He was controlled by the white man. Mr. Ellerbee was way too old to be working, and even though you understood what the boys up the street said, you still respected his determination. He was a hardworking man, but he was always angry. He was angry at your mother, and he was angry at the boys up the street. All he did was complain, so you tried your best to avoid him.
School started in an hour. It was time to go downstairs and eat some cereal and get your brothers ready to walk to school with you. You enjoyed school, it was fun being around the adults and other children. It was warm and safe there. Mrs. Eleni was your favorite teacher, she was like a mom to you. She was everything that you were taught that motherhood should embody. She was beautiful, she was black, and she had such warm eyes and a soft smile. She was always kind and patient with you. You wished you lived with her in her neighborhood. She always told you to be patient with your Momma. “Your mommas having a hard time, she’s got her hands full with you young boys. You be kind and help your momma!” She would tell you. You imagined that Mrs. Eleni lived in some far off land in the hills, but she told you that she lived right outside of the city. It only took her twenty minutes to get to the school, she once told you. She didn’t live far from Mr. Tom. Mr. Tom was your other favorite teacher. Her and Mr. Tom had called your Momma into the school one day when your brother had gotten into a fight. Momma was so angry that she had to come down there in the early morning. You leaned against the door that day trying to listen to them talk but all you could hear was Momma yelling and the soft voices of Mr. Tom and Mrs. Eleni. Mr. Tom lived close to Mrs. Eleni, but he looked totally different. Mr. Tom was a funny looking white man with a big nose and long hair, but he was your second favorite. He made the class laugh all the time, and he also was very kind.
Mr. Tom was the first real white man that you had ever spoken to, and he made you realize that not all white people were bad. You had seen your Momma argue with the white people at the offices downtown before, and the white policemen, but never Mr. Tom. There were a couple white teachers at school, but other then them and the police the only white people you ever saw were the ones that came in the early morning to buy from the boys up the street. They came in car loads every morning and you wondered what kind of neighborhoods they all lived in. There were so many of them on TV, but never in your neighborhood, it was all so confusing. Mr. Tom once told you that there were people of all colors all over the world, and that there were white people in rich neighborhoods and even in neighborhoods just like yours, even right there in Baltimore City. He always told you that you weren’t ever poor unless you were poor in spirit. He said he met many people with a lot of money who were poor.
You wish your two favorite teachers would adopt you and you could go live with them, and come to school every day, even on the weekends. Home was so much different then school, and these people were so different then Momma and her friends. You wanted to be old enough to work with the boys up the street so that you could afford a home in your teachers neighborhood and be friends with them outside of school. Yet, when you told Mr. Tom and Mrs. Eleni that you wanted to work for the boys up the street they begged you not to. They never said bad things about the boys, but they said that it was better to learn a lot in school and get a real job like Mr. Ellerbee. You knew better though, Mr. Ellerbee was never happy, he was old and miserable. If you worked with the corner boys then you could afford a car one day and go visit your teachers in their homes. Maybe you could meet lots more happy people, instead of the angry black folk in your neighborhood and the angry police that came to visit it.
It wasn’t long before you learn that some of the boys on the next block disappeared. The evil policemen came and took them away. Rudy told you on the street one day that he could use your help. He would pay you as long as you could count good and if you could be a fast runner. This was the day that you had been waiting for. You could start a real job, and save up to buy a car to drive out of that neighborhood. Maybe even a big shiny car like all of your favorite rappers had. All your rappers sung about the things that the boys up the block did, and how it made them rich, now it was your turn. You might even be able to save your mother.
Rudy had your job set up like this: Man-Man stood on the corner and when a car pulled up they told him how many pills they needed. Man-Man would turn to you and hold up how ever many fingers they needed. Often it was only one or two fingers but sometimes it was as many as ten or twelve. You were good with your numbers, and made sure that you never messed your job up. Once you got your signal, you would run way back into the alley underneath the tire and pull out the bag full of pills. You count out how many pills are in there and then run them back to Man Man, who hands them into the car for the money. After the car pulls off, usually another pulls up. Sometimes, there were lines of cars parked at the curb. There were all kinds of people, lots of white people, black people and even an asian person once or twice. A lot of black people came on foot and waited on the corner for their pills.
The pills were clear and you could see the tan powder that was inside. This powder helped people not be sick. You never understood why the police wanted to lock people up for selling these pills that helped people. People wanted these pills, they needed them, some of them begged for them. A lot of these white people were very young, they could be children of these evil police officers. They come down here begging for these pills and the police take the boys away for selling them. It made no sense and was very confusing. You are only helping them get what they wanted and needed. No wonder people hated the police.
Another confusing thing to you were the pills themselves. You knew that no one actually swallowed them. You had seen some of the corner boys twist them open and sniff them before. When you were younger you had seen your Daddy and Momma put them in a needle and go to sleep many times. It wasn’t until Daddy disappeared that Momma stopped taking the pills and started smoking that other stuff to feel better. What you didn’t understand though was that the pills made you sick. The only way to not be sick was to take more pills. Why would anyone take the first pill, then? It was all so confusing. The only thing you knew is that you would never try the pill. You didn’t want to be sick like these people, you wanted to help them get better by giving them what they wanted. The best part is that you would make money and have a job by doing it.
Twenty dollars a day is a lot of money to an 11 year old. You hid it in your mattress, and only took a little bit out every once in awhile to buy you and your brothers food when Momma would disappear. The boys up the street became your family. Mrs. Eleni and Mr. Tom were still your favorite teachers but they weren’t from your neighborhood, they just didn’t understand. Maybe when you bought a car and came to their neighborhood they could find you a job there making more money, but right now you just had to survive. You began to pull away from them for now because you didn’t want to disappoint them or hear them tell you to stay away from your new family. Your new family loved you because you worked hard and you were invisible to the police. This was the neatest trick of all, you noticed that if you just kept your mouth shut that the police didn’t pay attention to you at all. Maybe they didn’t expect such a young child to have such a grown up job.
Days went by, then weeks. You stopped going to school because school wasn’t making you money. A truancy officer would show up at your house, but you weren’t home and Momma was asleep. Your brothers still went to school, and after school you would bring them home dinner. Momma was growing more and more distant, and things were changing around the house. Mr. Ellerbee would scowl at you now, because he knew what you were up to. It was just jealousy, you’d think to yourself. You would retire before that poor old man ever did. The money was stacking up, and you had hundreds now. You had to get very creative with your hiding spots now because if Momma ever found it, she would take it all. You loved Momma, but Momma was sick too, she hurt herself and everything else and she didn’t really mean to. Maybe when you had enough money you could fix her. You could take her to Mrs. Eleni and Mr. Toms neighborhood and give her a new life where she could fix herself.
“Ayerrrr three more!” Man-Man shouted as you came running out of the alley handing him two pills for the carload of white faces in front of him. It was an extremely busy morning, and you were panting from running back and forth in and out of the alley grabbing handful after handful of pills for these customers. “Why couldn’t I just stand here with the bag and hand them off instead of all this back and forth running” you’d think to yourself. Rudy, was the boss though, and what he says goes. He said it was harder for the police and the thieves to find the pills back in the alley that they guarded.
You run into the alley to grab the three pills and as you come jogging out you freeze in your tracks. Your Momma standing there talking to Man-Man. Her hair is matted, and her pajama pants have burn marks in them from a dropped cigarette. This is the first time you’ve seen her in three days. Her nose is runny and she wipes it with the back of her hand as she looks up at you with cold watery eyes. “What the fuuu…..” She says as she’s cut off mid sentence by Man-Man. He turns to look back at you and says “Thanks lil bro, get me two more”. You run back into the alley, running from that horrible sight of your mother standing there. Running with more intensity because you are doing this for her. You will get her these pills for her sickness for now, and soon, very soon you will have a car to take her away from it all. Heart beating through your chest, and panting from repeated trips in and out of the alley you approach the two of them gripping these two pills in your hand. In spite of the hurt and shame in your mothers eyes, you are here to help. You proudly deliver them directly to her instead of Man-Man, and she puts the cash into his hand. She is at a loss for words, and head down walks briskly away. Not even a thank you, but that’s okay. You know that she will thank you one day. She will thank you one day when you’re in a big old house together, maybe even with a pool and a butler. She will love you so much then.
It was an extremely busy morning on the strip and Rudy gave you an extra $20 for a job well done. “If I eat, everybody in my circle eats shorty” he said as he pats you on your back sending you off into the late afternoon sun. You walk head held high down the two blocks to the front steps of your old brick row home. Your brothers should be getting home from school any moment and with todays extra earnings you’ll get everyone cheeseburgers and soda for dinner. It’s time for a mini celebration. As you open the front door you brace yourself for Mommas attack. You know that she’ll act like she’s mad that you were working with the boys up the street, but that won’t last long once she sees the money that you made to buy dinner with. You also prepare to battle her for that money, you’ve already made your mind up that if worse comes to worse you will give her half.
As the door creaks open into the dark dusty house, it is eerily silent. Beams of light poor in though the front door as it swings open and your heart sinks as your throat locks up at the sight before you. The lack of furniture on the ground floor gives you clear eyesight through the dark foyer into the kitchen. There at the kitchen table is your mothers lifeless body slumped forward. Her head dangles between her knees and vomit pools on the floor beneath where her head hangs. The needle, the dagger of death, clings to her harm like a leech refusing to let go of its lifeless prey, and there on the table lie the empty two pills that you had so proudly put in her hand earlier that morning. You thought that these pills were supposed to make her better, why did they not help her? You rush into the dark house yelling “Mommmmmaaa” and lift her heavy head into your hands and look into her lifeless eyes to confirm your fears. Momma is gone. The woman that you planned to save was poisoned by the medicine that was meant to help her.
“Help, Help!!!” You scream into the dark house, as tears well up. Shrieking you yell more. Mr. Ellerbee bursts through the door and rushes toward you. You cling to the old man as he holds you tight looking at the tragedy before you. “Oh my sweet sweet child he whispers”, your tears wet his postal uniform as you cling to his leg. Your brothers walk through the door moments later and the chorus of crying strengthens. Mr. Ellerbee makes a phone call and suddenly the house is flooded with police and paramedics. All of your hidden money means nothing now, you wish it would all burn along with the very house that you are standing in. You wish the police and paramedics would burn with it. You want to run but you have nowhere to run to. The confusion inside the house matches the confusion inside of your head. The last time the police were in your house it was to take Daddy away, and now they are here taking Momma away. Soon the white people would come take you and your brothers away too. What does it matter anymore? Where can you go to get away from the coldness inside of you? How can you go anywhere to escape your past? You have nothing left in life except bad memories, and no matter where you go or what you do you will be judged.
Oh yes, you will be judged. For every bad decision, for every mistake, for every missed opportunity you will be judged by those who never had to walk in your shoes. Those who are in authority, those who make the decisions that will guide the course of your life will judge you for doing what you were taught as a young boy. For doing what only comes natural and doing what you believe you are supposed to do, you will be judged. Your life is a trial by fire, and although you were born a perfect soul, your environment shaped you and molded you through hardship and pain and you react the only way you know how. Unfortunately, for that young man, you will be judged.