Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
By 8 AM my older brother, the cracker, has me in a suit, in his car and on the way to the courthouse, and it’s a whole damn hour before my date with the judge! He says he wants to get breakfast first, but wouldn’t you know it, as soon as he’s backed out of our little Jersey City driveway, he starts dishing out advice like he’s the Dalai Lama.
“Now, don’t smile,” the Cracker says. “Don’t smile because what you did is serious. And we don’t want the judge to think you’re being flippant about it. And don’t roll your eyes at me. I’m giving you good advice here. You need to appear remorseful.”
There he goes, staring me down with his Oakleys, using his cracker words—flippant and remorseful—and emphasizing them in his cracker way.
“Aiight, Doc! I won’t smile,” I tell him.
“Stop calling me Doc.”
But years back, he didn’t get into any of the med schools he applied to and had to settle for being an O.T. An Occupational Therapist. Now, if you ask me, there ain’t no shame in being an O.T., but my brother wanted the whole cracker dream: a BMW, a license plate with that little “MD,” and a blonde wife. Well, he got the BMW (previously owned, a little rusty, crappy A/C) and the blonde wife (“bottle blonde,” Moms is always whispering).
“Do you know why else I don’t want you to smile?” the Cracker asks.
“Yeah, yeah, I know.”
“Because your teeth look …”
“Why you denigrating my style?”
“I’m not denigrating your style! I’m giving you the facts of life. If you dress like a hoodlum, act like a hoodlum …”
“You definitely denigrating my style.”
“And stop talking like you’re black,” the Cracker says. “Newsflash, you’re not black. You’re Filipino.”
“Just like you ain’t white. But that don’t stop you from acting like Crockett.” The Cracker hates it when I call him Crockett, but I found pictures from his high school years, and back in the day, the Cracker was fond as fuck of wearing white linen suits, pink T-shirts and these faggot-y shoes called “espadrilles.”
“Is kuya gay?” I asked Moms. I was, like, 12.
“Your kuya’s not gay!” Moms said. “That was just his Miami Vice phase.”
“What’s Miami Vice?”
This was 1997, and Miami Vice hadn’t seen the light of day in years. But Moms dug through some VHS tapes. She’s mad about recording shows. And out came three seasons of Miami Vice. I couldn’t believe that wack show. I mean, it just exemplifies how Hollywood and America is racist. I mean, Tubbs isn’t even half a character. He doesn’t get his turn to shine. Meanwhile, Crockett gets the girls, gets to live on a boat, gets to own an alligator—he gets to be all individualistic.
Anyways, that’s what I wrote about in my social studies class for Mr. Horowitz, who is the shizznit, because he encourages us to question everything: history, the movies, TV, the newspapers. And I wrote a paper for him asking how come, as America is getting shorter and browner, Hollywood has to go to far-as-fuck Australia to find some of the honkiest-looking white people on the planet: Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett. Shorties who ain’t even hot! (I mean, speaking personally, I need a little more meat on my bones.)
But my point is this: It’s, like, with everybody interbreeding in America (e.g., the Cracker and his cracker wife), Hollywood is acting like we’re running out of pure white folk for the movies. We got to import pure blood or something.
Now, Mr. Horowitz, he loved my paper. He wrote me a note saying how insightful he found it and how I approached the topic with Deconstructionist fervor. (I had to ask him what that meant—Deconstructionist—but he and I straightened it all out.) Mr. Horowitz gave me an A-, too, even though he said he took issue with my conclusion, which was this: it’s the Jews’ fault Hollywood is all unrepresentative of America, because as everyone knows, Jews like Steven Spielberg run Hollywood.
But Mr. Horowitz took me aside, and he said he’d defend my right to say this about the Jews, because he’s a “champion of the First Amendment.” And he stayed true to his word. He put aside one whole class period to debate my paper’s thesis, and we went round and round arguing but not coming to any conclusion, like we was the United Nations or something! ’Course, it was hard for us to have a really thorough discussion of the facts, because outside of Mr. Horowitz, there wasn’t any Jews in my public school to defend themselves. In fact, there’s only one white kid in my whole year, and he acts blacker than anybody. (He got to!)
But pardon me, I’m getting away from the story I was telling you. I digress. Where are we now? Ah, yes: we’re cruisin’ down Newark Avenue and coming up to the Five Corners. A bank, a bakery, an old church, a parking lot, and a library: a little picture of Americana right here in Jersey City (just ignore the bum sleeping on them steps and all the candy wrappers and newspapers and shit). And the Cracker made me wear a suit, and leave my do-rag home. He’s told me not to smile.
When we stop at a red, he grabs me by the jaw and makes me open up. “Why the hell did Pops pay for them? They look so ghetto.” The Cracker is shaking his head at my gold teeth. But I sure as hell ain’t about to take fashion advice from a man who wears socks with his Tevas. And another thing: I’m not about to tell the Cracker the story of how I got Pops to pay for my teeth, because that’s a story between Pops and me. But seeing as you don’t know Pops, and that he and Moms retired to the Philippines and you probably won’t ever meet him, I’ll tell you.
So one day I go to the Newport Mall and meet my fellas, and we go up to the food court to chill and practice our rhymes, because there’s a talent show coming up at school. My rapper name is L-Crib, as in Little Cribaliscious, on account of what the ladies call my thin mustache and my baby-face. So after I try out some new rhymes on my niggaz, who say they’re feelin’ me, I go to the lavatory and who do I see coming out of the men’s but Pops. He’s supposed to be at work and I guess I’m supposed to be at school. It’s, like, 10 AM.
And then this Filipina girl comes up and takes Pops’s arm like they’re about to walk down the aisle. This girl is young, and she’s under the delusion that she looks like Shakira. Anyways, for a couple of minutes we all stand there just blinking at each other. You know—digesting the reality of what we’re seein’. Finally, I shake my head and pry my eyes off the Shakira lookalike, who is flat as a board up here and a little too chunky back here (even for me), and I stare long and hard at Pops, who looks down at his potbelly. And I’m like sad, yo. Real sad. Because I didn’t ever expect this shit. Not my parents. Other people’s parents. But not mine. Because Moms and Pops still act like they love each other. Once in a while, they even take a weekend at the Embassy Suites. To get away from it all. And here I am, catching Pops at this mall with some ho. And I go from sad to angry real fast. And something must show on my face, because Pops flinches like I’m coming at him with a baseball bat. And Shakira lets go of Pops’s arm and is taking a couple of steps backwards, walking all precarious-like because she got stripper shoes on.
Anyways, the long and short of it is: I was devastated! But I didn’t tell Moms, because she’s prone to angergasms as it is, and there was no telling what she’d do if she found this out. Things got real tense between Pops and me for a while, too, which is a shame, because he and I were tight before that. Whenever Moms would get on me about my clothes and my music—she’s always saying, “Did I sleep with a big, black man? Did I? Did I? No! Then why do I have one black son? Why? Tell me?”—Pops would tell her to calm her shit down and leave me alone.
But even though I never ratted on Pops, I realized a couple of months later that I couldn’t just let him get away with it. I mean, he be two-timing Moms and doing all kinds of damage to my psyche. And for that, he got to pay! So one day I call Pops at work and tell him to meet me back at the mall, the scene of his crime. And I go home that day with the new Jordans, the latest Sean John, and a sack of CDs, because I got the goods on Pops now. And that, honeys and playas, is how I got my gold teeth.
“What I did showed extremely bad judgment,” the Cracker says now, like I’m a baby and he’s teaching me how to speak.
When I don’t repeat after him, he stares at me hard and I see myself in his Oakleys. In my SYMS suit, and with my hair all straightened back out, I look like my bro. And if there’s anything I hate more than anything, it’s looking or acting like my brother. I am me, and he is the Cracker.
“Come on,” the Cracker begs. “Say it: what I did showed extremely bad judgment. “
I flash him a smile and say, “Crockett.”
“You wanna go to jail! You wanna go to jail!”
My bro is spitting all over the windshield, and I tell him so.
“What, you think you’re Chris Rock or something? How long do you think a little guy like you is gonna last in jail?” the Cracker says. “How long do you think it will take before you are everyone’s bitch? How long? Because it’s not like all the big bad-ass motherfuckers in jail are gonna say, Hi, there, Filipino man who thinks he’s black. Let us shake hands in solidarity, because we are all people of color. Do you think that’s what’s going to happen? It’s not. Your life is gonna be one never-ending blow job—and you’ll be giving, not receiving!”
“Yo, you been watching too much Oz.”
The Cracker shakes the steering wheel. “The judge could still change his mind about the whole thing!”
And this shuts me up, because the Cracker’s got a point. Everything—whether I spend time in real jail, my acceptance to the New College of Jersey City, and let’s face it, my anal virginity—depends on this meeting with the judge. This is because I was two days past my 18th birthday and the oldest person in the car when the police pulled me and my niggaz over and found all that bud on us.
Now, never mind that it was Tyrell who came up with the brilliant idea of buying our weed bulk. “Like buying the big Cheerios at the BJ’s,” Tyrell said. “Think of the savings.” And never mind that it was Pratik Patel who knew the source. I was the only one already 18, and the law says, bang! I’m it!
“Say it: what I did showed extremely bad judgment.”
I keep mum. The Cracker is now sweating through his baby blue Polo shirt. When I still don’t repeat after him, he screams, “I don’t want my little brother gang-raped!”
“Easy, easy, bro. Don’t worry, I got a little speech prepared for Judge Polowski.”
“You’ve got a speech? Lay it on me.” The Cracker’s tone: incredulous.
I put on my reasonable white man’s voice: “Ahem! Judge, by dropping the ‘intent’ and ‘corruption of minor’ charges and sentencing me to a private rehab facility (the Cracker will be footin’ the bill) instead of jail, I think you sending the community an important message. And that message is: That marijuana, a.k.a., dope, a.k.a., bud, a.k.a., weed, a.k.a., trees is not that bad … That perhaps it is time our country take a enlightened stance on what Dr. Dre call the chronic …”
“Did you smoke some this morning?” the Cracker says. “You’re not going to be saying anything of the sort to that judge. You’re just lucky I dated Christina when I was at Prep.”
Ah, yes. Back in the day, when he was studying at St. Peter’s Preparatory for Boys, the Cracker was also tapping every white shorty who’d talk to his Don Johnson- worshipping ass. And this list of white honeys included one of the judge’s granddaughters, Christina Polowski, who went to the Cracker’s sister school St. Dom’s, up on Kennedy Boulevard a ways.
“Yo. Christina was the one with that bangin’ body right? And dat big nose, and she was always smelling like bubble gum and menthols. Hair done up in that scary, ol’ Jersey claw. That’s her right? Yo, I’m aksing you, am I remember the right white girl?”
The Cracker ain’t answering me. He’s shaking his head and working his jaw muscles. He’s mightily pissed off behind those Oakleys. But I just can’t let him know how grateful I am for the strings he’s pulled.
Because of the strings he’s pulled, here is what will happen: after breakfast, which I’m hoping will be at the VIP diner, because the air-conditioning is strong in there and I’m dying in this suit, we will go to the office of the nearly senile, egomaniacal Polack of a Jersey City judge who’s presiding over my case. I suspect the judge will, like the Cracker’s doing now, lecture at me about what I am doing with my life. I think he will chew my ear for a good long time, like he was Mike Tyson or something. And I will sit there in my suit not smiling. Basically taking it.
In exchange for the opportunity to blow his top at and get all righteous upon a delinquent such as myself, this judge—whose granddaughter used to wrap her lips around the Cracker’s lumpia every day after school, in our house, in my parents’ room while they were at work—this judge has arranged a deal with the prosecutor to charge me and my niggaz with minor offenses.
But rather than let me get away with probation, Judge Polowski wanted me to do some time. And now, the Cracker and I must make nice and appear grateful so that Judge Polowski agrees to let me do my time in a rehab kind of place instead of a gang-rape kind of place. This is our mission.
At the VIP diner, we take a booth, and when the waitress comes, I order a pizza-burger deluxe, a Coke and an apple pie à la mode. My brother looks at me like I am insane. It’s, like, 8 AM. Then, he says, “Bonnie was real disappointed in you.”
“What? She tell you different?”
I shake my head. Ain’t no way I’m arguing with the man about Bonnie, his wife. But I must say, it’s amazing how blind the Cracker is to the finer nuances of her personality. I mean, when he looks at her, he sure as hell ain’t just seeing Bonnie. He’s seeing Snow White, Wonder Woman, and Pamela Anderson Lee all rolled into one white woman. This is because as much as Bonnie is his “best friend and life partner,” like he said in his wedding vows, Bonnie is also part of the Cracker’s assimilation plan. Like the way Michael Jackson is adopting/stealing/breeding all those white kids o’ his.
But for a white girl, in fact, Bonnie is actually pretty dope.
What the Cracker don’t know: Bonnie ain’t all that averse to smoking a little ganja. The first time I found out she smoked was at my parents’ retirement party. Their despedida. Moms ordered lechon and pansit and adobo and kare-kare and dinuguan from the Fil-Am Restaurant, and we had the party starting at 3 PM because Moms is always saying Filipinos come late, so if you tell ’em a party starts at three, everyone will be there by six. But the Filipinos my parents know stampeded right in at 3 PM. And goddamn! They hit that buffet like they just crossed a desert to escape a famine.
Moms let me invite my niggaz over, too, so Pratik and Tyrell were there. And because it was raining on and off, Moms put us to work moving the food and sodas and beers from the back deck to the living room. Now, we ain’t living in no mansion, so our living room was jam-packed. I had uncles and aunts sitting on the floor, and it was like eight to a sofa.
And Bonnie was there, of course. She’s always, like, the only white person at these parties, and my uncles spend all their time scoping her out, because one thing about Bonnie, she knows how to dress. You know, to accentuate her assets. She had on, like, this little white skirt and this backless thing that was held up by a knot at the nape of her neck. And you know, when I kissed her hello, I had to close my eyes to keep from looking down the front of her blouse because it was kind of low-cut and I’m respectful that way.
Anyways, the party’s going and going and me and my niggaz is sneaking beer, and Moms is yelling at the Cracker because he won’t karaoke. He thinks karaoke is below him or something. But I karaoke. Karaoke is da bomb. So when Moms calls me up I hit the mic and ignore the Frank Sinatra she’s putting on for me. Just because I have a deep voice, she says I should sing Frank! Instead I bust out with one of my rhymes. About when the brown man is gonna get his time to shine …
My niggaz are feelin’ me, and I look at Bonnie, and she looks like she’s feelin’ me, the way that blonde head of hers is bobbing. She’s even snapping her fingers, which, normally I think is a cracker thing to do. But she gets a pass from me. She can snap them fingers right off as far as I’m concerned.
Of course, the only person not feelin’ me is Moms. She’s yellin’, “Sing with Frank! Sing with Frank! The bouncing ball! The bouncing ball!”
A couple of uncles give me a holler: “He’s a rapper! A rapper! Let him rap!”
I get a big round of applause after I finish but Moms is standing there with her hand over her eyes and shaking her head. And part of me is like, keep your hand there, Moms. You don’t see nothing. That’s right. Not the ho Pops is banging on the side. But then I get this soft-like feeling inside. It ain’t Moms’s fault Pops is a man-slut, and it ain’t her fault that she’s brainwashed by this culture to think everything black is bad. It’s the way it is. And I got to educate people with my songs.
When me and my niggaz go out back to sneak a cigarette, Bonnie follows. She’s looking bored as hell. But she’s smiling at us.
“You brought the house down,” she says.
I get all tongue-tied and start talking like a cracker. “Thanks a lot.”
And then I start wondering where the hell the Cracker is—no doubt somewhere in the house not karaoking.
And Bonnie says, “I wish your brother were more supportive of your music. I think you’re really talented. I mean, even if it’s not something you do as a career, music is part of you, and he should—”
“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” I say. “So you don’t think I could make it? You don’t think I could hit it big?”
I’m offended. A star in the making needs true believers.
And Bonnie’s like, “That’s not what I meant,” and she stares at me for five seconds. Finally, she says, “What I mean is that you write inspirational songs. Quite political songs. And that means you’re not gonna have the audience of, say, 50 Cent. He sings about fame and money and girls. That’s like the lowest common denominator, you know. But singing your kind of songs—songs with something to say—always means you’re gonna have a smaller audience than people who go for the lowest common denominator.”
What can I say? The girl’s quick on her feet. Shoulda been a lawyer, not an O.T. like the Cracker.
And then Tyrell busts in. “Yo, yo, yo, what you got against Fiddy Cent?” he says, but joking like. “Just because a brother from the hood don’t mean he got to sing about bringing the hood up. This America. Even brothers from the hood got the right to be all hedonism.”
“Hedonistic,” I say.
“Yo,” Tyrell says. “Don’t be correcting me in front of the lady.” He gives Bonnie a wink, which gets her smiling.
Now let me tell you something about Tyrell: Tyrell is one tall, handsome motherfucker. Handsome with a capital H. And whenever he calls me the Yellow Gift Rappa and shit, I bust on him right back, sayin’, Son, put your nigga self in a loincloth and get on the cover of that National Geographic and that issue be like the highest-selling ever. All the white girls and homosexuals livin’ up in Hoboken be buying it up like it was wholesale gold.
And now I’m watching the way Bonnie is smiling up at him, how she’s swaying her body … You know, how she’s sending out her signals. And she’s probably not even aware of what she’s doin’. That’s the effect Tyrell has.
“I don’t have anything against 50 Cent,” Bonnie says. “I’m just pointing out that 50 Cent’s music is totally commercial.”
“I see, I see,” Tyrell says. And then because Tyrell is also a troublemaker with a capital T, he busts out a fatty spliff. And my eyes must have bugged out with panic. But Bonnie kind of just nods her head to the side, which is like a cracker way of saying, “Okay,” without saying it. And when I hold out the joint to her, instead of taking it, she just puts her head forward and tokes straight from my fingers. Her lips are, like, on my fingers and I remember right then I’m a virgin. And that Tyrell is a virgin and so is Pratik.
Anyways, with Bonnie leaning forward like this, I can’t help but look down her shirt. I should close my eyes, me and her being family and all, but I can’t. So even as I’m copping eyefuls of her two scoops, I start feeling guilty, feeling like I’m betraying my bro. And my niggaz are snickering now. But I’m like, this don’t mean nothing!
When Bonnie’s got herself a good lungful, she looks up at the back windows, afraid the Cracker is gonna catch her. Because he hates it when Bonnie smokes cigarettes—and that’s what she do sometimes—and I can’t imagine what he’d say if he caught her ass smoking weed with us.
Bonnie stays for one more hit, and my hands are like her human roach clip again. This time, she coughs out a big cloud of reefer madness, and when she catches her breath, she winks at all of us and says, “Don’t turn me in, boys.”
And me and my niggaz just stand there under the deck watching her backside go up the stairs like it’s the American flag shooting up a pole.
“Yo, your sister-in-law is aiight,” Tyrell says.
“She more than aiight,” Pratik says. “And she nice and thick for a white girl.”
“Shut the fuck up!” I tell everyone. “Respect!”
So like I said, what the Cracker don’t know can’t hurt him. And here I am in my suit, napkin tucked in my collar, mouth full of pizza burger. When I choke my burger down in three messy pizza-burger bites, I hit them French fries like they’re the only thing standing between me and the heavyweight championship of the world. Next, the apple pie goes down like the Titanic.
I ain’t telling the Cracker, but the closer we come to my appointment, the more nervous I get. In fact, it feels like I got bionic butterflies up in my gut. But the Cracker ain’t payin’ attention to me. He’s on an all-protein diet, and he’s busy with an eight-egg omelet. (Egg whites only, naturally.) Fucker ain’t fat. But he’s obsessed with his body-fat percentage, which is a goddamn cracker thing to be obsessed with.
When I order a coffee, the Cracker says, “You don’t drink coffee.”
“How do you know what I drink and don’t drink?” I say. The Cracker shakes his head. “Ingrate. You’re an ingrate …”
“Your thank-you card is the mail, aiight!”
The Cracker looks down at his egg whites. But I’m sick and tired of him rubbing my nose in the fact that he helped me out. And besides, in my humble opinion, there are other contributing factors as to why the judge is coming down easy on me and my niggaz. Because let me tell you something about us: we’re some of the best students our sorry-ass public high school’s ever seen. Pratik has, like, the third highest GPA in the school; I’m president of the Pan- Asian Student Union, president of the EMCEE Club and co- editor of the poetry journal (so what if we ain’t had funding to publish in two years). And Tyrell—he be the soccer team. The coach been talking college scholarship for him since day one. It’ d be hard for Judge Polowski to sentence our asses to the max, because it’d be a public relations disaster if the school lost us on some marijuana bust.
Still, I am the only one who really got to worry, on account of me being 18.
Now, the Cracker’s mouth is moving and moving as he delivers another speech, but I ain’t listening, because like I said, the food ain’t agreeing with my stomach, and it’s only when he starts up again that I hear him: “What I did showed extremely bad judgment.” He looks at me like I’m in potty training and if I poop in the bowl he’s gonna be the happiest daddy on the planet.
“Shut up wid dat!” I say, as the waitress arrives with more coffee. The waitress is this wrinkled old white woman with pink hair. She got her VIP uniform on—black pants, black vest, white shirt and a name tag sayin’ “Beth.”
“Here you go, hon,” Beth says.
When I smile my thanks at her, she takes a step back because of my teeth. And the Cracker jumps in: “I keep telling him it looks stupid—”
Beth stands there for a second, and then she says, “Well … Well … To each their own, right?” And she smiles. But I can tell she doesn’t really mean it—she just doesn’t want to be jeopardizing her tip. So when she asks where two “sharply dressed” boys like us are heading, I say, “To the courthouse. I gotta go see a judge.”
That shuts Beth up real nice. And when she passes by later with pancakes for another table, she and my bro exchange looks—like they have it all set up to send me to jail and throw away the key.
I bite my tongue, because I want to call out, “Well, Beth, your teeth don’t look so great either. They stained from your waitress’s lifetime of coffee, cigarettes, and disappointment!” But I don’t say anything. Fuck! And it’s not because I’m afraid the Cracker’s gonna reach over and smack me upside the head. But because my stomach’s really killing me now.
“Be right back,” I say to the Cracker. I run to the men’s, where I notice two things right away. First, the urinals are all covered up with white plastic bags and duct tape like those mummy urinals you see once in a while. There’s a sign posted over one, too, saying brokken in red marker.
The second thing is that the bathroom is all choked up with that bum smell. Usually, the VIP is pretty good at keeping the bums out of the bathrooms, where they go for their bum showers and shit, scrubbing their armpits in the sinks and breaking down their crazy-people packs like they’re soldiers making camp.
But sure enough, I see two dirty-ass bum sneakers in the one stall I need really bad. I lean against the door leading out and clamp my butt cheeks together. I pray the bum isn’t going to live and linger in that stall like bums sometimes do—as if they’re paying rent or something. I wait and wait and then call out,
“What the fuck you doing in there, bum-man!” No answer, and my eyes start tearing from the bum smell. I know all kinds of bum particles are climbing up my nostrils, and I’m afraid it’s gonna catch on my suit.
And then the door comes thumping alive at my back; the Cracker’s banging on it. “Hey, we got to go!”
“Can you wait one minute!”
Maybe the banging set the bum off or whatever, but now he’s letting loose with this wild agitated moaning, like them animals you see in zoos that just moan all day and walk in circles because they’re demented from not getting to hunt and having their food thrown in their sorry-ass faces. The bum makes those kinds of noises.
When the Cracker tries to open the door again, I lean against it with all my might. “Just wait!” Then I get cramps like I am nine months in labor. I limp to the stall and peek into the crack. “Please, bum-man, open up.” No answer. And all I see is one of the bum’s eyes staring up at the ceiling. I bang on the door, and that eye doesn’t move. The bum just moans some more.
I’m closer to the bum now, and the smell is stronger than ever. My eyes keep on watering, the way Moms’s eyes used to go when she watched Silkwood or Terms of Endearment on tape.
The Cracker screams through the door that we are coming up to being egregiously late, and I start thinking, Judge Polowski is going to change his mind and he’s gonna send my ass to gang-rape jail.
Then the bum flushes the toilet, and I start believing maybe he’s done. Maybe he’s getting out. So I wait. And wait.
The big smelly fucker ain’t going nowhere. But I let myself believe that maybe he was done with whatever his whacked-out bum mind thought he was doing in there— piloting a spaceship or traveling through time or whatever. I let my guard down. And of course, that’s when it happens.
I soil myself. Like an infant. My human mess runs down the backs of my thighs and my calves to my socks and my good pair of Aldos.
“What’s that smell!” the Cracker says, when he pushes the door open.
“It’s me, Crockett!” I’m by the wall next to the sink, between him and the stall, and I stick my backside out to show him. I put my two hands up against the wall. A perp about to be handcuffed. An inmate about to receive the ass- raping of the century.
And he laughs. He laughs!
“This ain’t funny!” I tell him.
“Yeah, it is. Now, clean your ass up. And I’ll call the judge. Tell him we’ll be late.”
“Tell him we’ll be late? I can’t see Judge Polowski like this!” But the Cracker’s gone.
I drop my pants and kick them away. I kick off my shoes and step on the toes of my socks to get them off, too. Squatting in front of the sink, I reach for the paper towels.
In the mirror, my face is red and shiny, like a candied apple. On the wall next to the mirror, someone’s written in small black print, For great head, call yourself. I rest my cheek on the cool edge of the sink.
Then as I’m throwing my pants and socks in the garbage the bum finally pops the latch and steps out of the stall.
He’s a big fat black guy and because he’s wearing four winter coats on this hot summer day, he looks gigantic, especially around his gut. When I look at his grimy face, I realize that the one eye I saw through the crack in the stall door wasn’t looking up at the ceiling. He just has a lazy eye. His good eye, his right eye, is looking at me.
“Why couldn’t you get the fuck out of the stall like five minutes ago!” I say. I wipe my eyes, which are still tearing up because of his smell.
And the bum says, “Hello. My name is Terence. I see you have gold teeth. That’s very interesting. Very interesting. You could be the subject of a little anthropological inquiry—no! Inquiry sounds so serious and academic, so cold. Let’s call it a little anthropological study I’m conducting. Don’t get me wrong, now. This is my life’s work. And I am not without ambition. It’s just that I don’t like to get pompous about it. Hmm, you don’t mind if I …” From the folds of one of his coats, the bum takes out a busted-up radio that’s got half its wire sticking out and is missing its knobs. He talks into it like it was a tape recorder. “Subject: Oriental. Age: Perhaps 16, 17. Wearing suit top but no pants. Distinguishing features: Gold teeth, like a person of the Negroid race might wear.”
“What the fuck you babbling on about, bum man?” I say.
And then the Cracker comes in with Beth. I pull down my shirttails to make sure she can’t see nothing. “Can’t you knock?” And all four of us stand in that cramped, stinky bathroom around the garbage can, which I’ve pushed to the middle of the floor.
“Put these on,” the Cracker says, handing me his purple gym pants and white Asics—weak! But what choice do I got? I do the one-legged kangaroo dance and pull his nylon pants on. Then I step into the Cracker’s sneakers, which are way too big.
Beth, meanwhile, opens the door and screams out into the restaurant, “Hey, Jose, get in here with the bucket and mop.” Then, she whispers to us, “I ain’t cleaning this.” She tells the bum: “And you’d better get out of here before my boss calls the police. Because he will.”
But the bum isn’t paying attention to her. He just keeps on jabbering about whatever it is: “Subject seems to have recently lost control of his bowels. And now he is borrowing pants and footwear from a friend—a fellow Oriental.”
The Cracker takes one glance at the bum, and his eyes glaze over. “Now, let’s go,” the Cracker says.
But Beth, who’s standing there with her fists planted on her hips, takes a good long look at me and says, “You better clean up his face first if you two are really going to see a judge. He’s been crying.”
“I wasn’t crying.” I try to explain that it was the bum smell.
“Hey,” the Cracker says. “Save some of the waterworks for the judge.”
“I wasn’t crying! It was the smell.”
Pointing at me, the bum then says to my bro, “He has gold teeth, like a Negro.” And now my bro looks at the bum and says, “Yeah, he thinks he’s black. He even raps. About the ‘white man’ and all that.”
The bum rubs his greasy chin and eyeballs me hard, like I’m some long-lost fossil he’s been hunting for all his life. “I see,” he says. “He could be a very interesting addition to my anthropological study. It’s my lifework. At the risk of sounding immodest, I’m going to shatter the very foundations of how we human beings look at ourselves.”
And then he talks into his radio again: “Subject practices the Negro musical form known as rap or hip-hop. Further evidence that we Negroes are not an ‘acquisitive’ race, in that we invent new forms, new styles, but these styles are then unleashed upon the world with no cultural ‘copyright,’ so to speak … “
My bro and Beth shrug at each other. And then Beth takes the last of the paper towels and starts rubbing my face. “Now, you better get yourself together, kid. Whatever you’re going to see this judge about, it’s showtime.” On her hands I smell Lysol Lemon Scent.
“Sir,” the bum says to the Cracker now. “You wouldn’t happen to have five dollars.”
“Hey, don’t be bothering the customers!” Beth says, as she wipes my face.
“It’s to fund my inquiry,” the bum says. “It’s lean times for those of us who venture outside the realm of ’accepted’—read: docile—research these days. Innovation and daring are no longer respected or rewarded. I believe history will judge these days to be a stiflingly stagnant period in the sciences. So, sir, how about that five dollars.” As he talks, his eyeball does loops, like it’s trying to follow a mosquito.
“I don’t have change,” the Cracker says.
“Where the hell is that Jose with the mop?” Beth says, as she keeps wiping at my face.
“You can stop cleaning him up,” the Cracker says. “He looks good enough.”
And then the Cracker grabs my shoulder to pull me away. But I pull Beth to me.
“Ooof!” she says. “Easy, kid. I could break. Easy!”
But I hang on tight.
“Come on, let’s go!” the Cracker says, tugging on my arm.
“I do accept larger denominations,” the bum says. “Or singles.”
“Hey, kid, you better go,” Beth says, when I squeeze her even tighter.
“What is your damage!” the Cracker says. “We’re already late!” He tugs at my shoulder again, and Beth screams “Whoa! Whoa,” because she’s getting dragged along. Meanwhile, the bum just keeps murmuring nonsense into his broken-ass radio.
Well, here I am, back at home, nursing a little baby spliff. It’s afternoon now and hot as Hades out here on the deck, but at least I’m out of the Cracker’s purple gym pants. I’m finally rocking the Sean John and my Lebrons, and for the first time all day, I feel like myself.
As far as my talk with the judge, that actually went all right, too. I mean, after I got myself worked up about it, Judge Polowski turned out to be a pretty chill dude. He didn’t yell or scream in my face all Cracker-style. In fact, I thought he wasn’t going to talk to me at all, because when the Cracker and I got there, he was so busy he hardly looked at us. He was staring down at his desk most of the time, signing all this shit that his clerk, a foxy momma I couldn’t help but give the eye to, was bringing him every five minutes or so. So I just sat there looking around the room. He had big important-looking books lining his shelves. He had a picture of himself smiling with ex-President Clinton—the man!—on the wall. He had his diplomas framed behind glass up there, too.
I also spent some time looking at his bald spot. His bald spot had skin peeling and hanging off it like the red paint on the side of our house. The little hair he did have went around that bald spot in a gray, frizzy ring. His head looked like a coconut that somebody had scalped.
Meanwhile, my bro was sitting beside me, and he reached over and tapped me on the shin with his penny loafers to get me to stop shaking my leg. That’s a habit I picked up from Moms. We could be, like, on a family vacation, chilling down at the shore or whatever, and I swear, even though she didn’t have a worry in the world, Moms would be sitting on that beach shaking her leg like she had something hairy crawling up it.
Anyway, when the judge did finally look up at us, he talked to the Cracker first. “So Christina is married now. She and her husband Jim have two kids.” He turned this picture frame around to show us two girls with pale skin and brown, slanty eyes. Then he turned another picture around, and I saw Christina and her husband, who was either Chinese or maybe Vietnamese. Obviously, the girl never got over the yellow fever.
My bro nodded and said the polite things about how cute the judge’s great-grandkids were. And he asked about Christina, who’s living down in Rahway these days.
Meanwhiles, I looked at the Cracker and thought, all this family talk is the last thing he needs to be hearing right now. As I may have mentioned earlier, he and Bonnie have been busy with the interbreeding, only they haven’t had much luck. It’s been, like, over a year and because the walls of our house are thin, I’ve heard all the details about the Cracker’s sperm test (all good) and Bonnie’s “abnormal” 22-day cycle. If it goes on much longer, they’re going to start up with injections, hormones, and all that.
But anyway, back to the judge—so Polowski finally turned to me. He looked at me with his foggy eyes for a long time. And I expected him to get all in my face. But the old judge must have still had kids on his mind, because kids is what he went on about. How having children changes the person you are. How you end up loving your kids more than you love yourself. And how he himself would have given up the one thing that he loved, the thing that he thought defined him as a person—being a judge and sitting on that high-and-mighty bench—he would have given it all up for any of his kids or grandkids or great grandkids. And then he said he didn’t expect a “youngster” like me to understand.
But actually, I’ve thought about kids a lot. And I don’t plan on having any. Because they might get in the way of my musical career. I got new rhymes to write, new messages to give this fucked-up world of ours. I’m gonna have to make do with the occasional comfort of groupies and all that.
The judge went on talking and talking, and pretty soon I realized the Cracker and me may as well not have been in that room with him. Because Polowski was in one of them zones people get into sometime, following an idea in their head.
Thankfully, his foxaliscious clerk came in and said he had another appointment. And he finally turned to me and looked at me hard and said, “I’m showing you leniency, boy. Leniency. You had better appreciate this second chance.”
“Yes, sir.” The words came out of me like a burp.
So that’s how it went with Judge Polowski. I thanked him for his “leniency” and shook his bony hand. I couldn’t help myself. I even bowed a little to him, like I was Chinese. And then the Cracker and me drove home in silence. It was coming on lunchtime, and when we pulled into the driveway and walked into the side door that leads to the kitchen, we found Bonnie. She was heating up the spaghetti Bolognese the Cracker cooked last night Filipino style – with hotdogs and ground beef.
She said, “Not feeling so good, so I came home early.” She was wearing jeans and a loose white T-shirt and stirring the sauce with Moms’s old wooden ladle. “How’d it go?”
And the Cracker started to say, “It went fine, fine, even though this one got sick at the VIP—”
Bonnie smiled at me and nodded like she was real happy that it was all over with. And I bet she was, because she’s good people like that. But then I saw them bags under her eyes, and how as soon as she’d smiled her mouth went back to its straight line. It seems like months since she’s really smiled. I knew what was up, so to give them some privacy, I went straight up to my room, changed my clothes and rolled my afternoon spliff. By the time I came back downstairs, the Cracker and Bonnie were nowhere to be seen. But I could hear them starting up, because aside from being a closet dope-smoker, Bonnie is also a screamer. The Cracker meanwhile is a dirty talker. Oh my god is he a dirty talker. That boy could make R. Kelly blush.
Now here I am out on the deck, smoking and talking on the cordless three-way to Tyrell and Pratik. I’ve told them how the judge had mercy on me, how I’m going to rehab instead of real jail. And Pratik starts busting jokes, saying that rehab is weak, because the worst I got to put up with in there is white kids who got blond dreads, love Bob Marley and complain their parents don’t love them and shit.
And I’m saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” into the phone, because Pratik is my boy. But to be honest with you, I’m not really feeling him. Instead, I’m wondering, what would have happened if the Cracker hadn’t known Christina? What would have happened if the judge hadn’t shown his mercy?
And now Tyrell busts in and asks me to rhyme.
I say to him, “Son, it’s too hot to rhyme.” I even wipe the sweat off my brow, like he could see me. But Tyrell keeps after me and starts beatboxing over the phone. A little bit of snare, a little bit of high-hat, and a lot of bass. And what can I do? One of my boyz is laying down a baseline for me. I clear my throat and stand up and walk to the edge of the deck like it’s a stage. I face our backyard, which is wild because I haven’t cut the grass in weeks. And I start nodding my head to Tyrell’s beat. Usually, I can come up with impromptu rhymes like that. But today, I need to warm up.
Tyrell, however, is beatboxing the best I ever heard him in his life. Frankly, he’s blowing me away. He’s going on with this super-intricate rhythm. He’s touching places he ain’t ever gone before.
And Pratik is yelling at him, “Go on, son! Go on!” Then Pratik joins in, and what he lacks in natural rhythm he makes up for in doggedness. He just goes and goes, tripping all over himself, being all clumsy, but he don’t stop. And he and Tyrell are like dueling beatboxes, spitting all over their phones, for which they’ll get yelled at later. But right now they don’t got a care in the world. They’re just waiting for me to jump in. And I nod my head and give them a little “uh-huh uh-huh” and then I go down in a stuttering ball of flames.
“Sorry, yo, let me start over.”
I try again, opening my mouth. But nothing comes out. The words just ain’t coming. It’s like they’re stuck up there in that special part of heaven where God keeps the ill rhymes. So pretty soon, I stop trying altogether. I just stare down at our deck and listen to Tyrell and Pratik, nodding my head to the sounds they’re making. And for the first time ever, I end up doing the unthinkable and leave my boyz, my niggaz, hangin’.
Gerónimo Madrid’s fiction has appeared in Perspectives and storySouth, and his travel writing has been featured in the New York Times and other publications. Currently, he is a Hertog Fellow in the MFA in Creative Writing at Hunter College. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.