Things had been problematic in my house for a while. I’d say by the time I got to Junior High school, specifically the summer before, I became more autonomous, more self reliant, and resulted in spending majority of my time at the park to avoid my house and my parents as much as I possibly could.
I was zoned for J.H.S 185 Edward Bleecker, and that’s where I went. School, and education in general seemed futile and unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. Kenny reassured me that I was smart but I certainly didn’t feel intelligent. By this point all roads were leading to failure. I didn’t want to be a disappointment, but the truth was failure appeared to be inevitable. It seemed like the only realistic outcome. I would be a disappointment just as everyone and everything else around me was. I would have to go through the motions. Instead of reading Shakespeare in class, which I eventually read independently and enjoyed, I preferred the park to homework. I’d much rather run wild in the streets than do their science projects, or watch them move their mouths.
I counted each painful second I spent inside the confines of the city’s educational facilities. Each afternoon before homeroom, I would peer out the window at the benches across the street. I would see Martin and the Memorial Park Boys hanging out, drinking beer and playing handball. A section of those benches were removed and looked a bit awkward after being mangled with the buckshot of a sawed off Mossberg, courtesy of one of the myriad crews that terrorized the area. I wanted to be on the other side of the glass so badly, to be at the benches, to be with the crew.
I think that wherever I might be at any given moment I will always yearn to be somewhere else. I was incapable of happiness. Maybe I’m never satisfied, just like Prince’s mother. Can you be your mother’s child while also being a motherless child? Something to ponder on those long sleepless nights.
My first week in Bleecker was enlightening. We knew of graffiti crews and heard about the beef, the mythologies were passed down by word of mouth, but It wasn’t until seventh grade that it was witnessed first hand. Before the bell rang for school to begin I watched the older kids brawling in the schoolyard. Ninth graders in Starter jackets fighting at 7 o’clock in the morning trying to stab each other with screw drivers and slash each other with box cutters. I felt unprepared and embarrassingly childish.
That morning I woke up extra early to watch cartoons and eat cereal. G. I. Joe reruns and Cocoa Puffs, respectfully. I was still lugging around a drawing pad and nerding out on comics, obsessing over X-Force, X-Men and the New Mutants. These kids looked so much older, they had facial hair whereas I had none, and were trying to kill one another while I was basically still sleeping with stuffed animals. What little innocence I retained despite my family’s dysfunction was quickly absolved when I got to Junior High School. I couldn’t tell you who Edward Bleecker was or what he did to get a school named after him but it wouldn’t be long before I could tell you which writer was down with which crew and where they were from. A proper education.
I had a handful of fights under my belt prior to Bleecker, but it was little kid shit, fighting would be unavoidable, and I was nervous kid, so naturally I’d be nervous before a fight. It would take years to enjoy it, to own a little confidence in my capabilities, to hone a modicum of skill. A small lad, I took my lumps, my share of losses, but I tried to take my defeat like a man. No one ever told me I’d think about them for the rest of my life. There were bad winners, sore losers, and shit talkers, and I didn’t want to be any of those things.
The principal of Bleecker was a fat man, with a comb over and fetid halitosis, who waddled through the halls passing judgement on people 45 years his junior and always clutching a walkie talkie. I was certain he slept with it. He was not a fan of mine, and the feeling was mutual. I detested him for his conceit and lack of decorum. He held the heir of a dictator. I was a young, a person in need of supervision, if I got caught doing anything terribly wrong in school, or broke any laws outside of school over a 90 day period, which was extended, and got arrested I would get sent to Spofford, a juvenile detention center that was falling apart in Hunts Point, The Bronx. It would have pleased him had I slipped up, it made me more careful of my behavior, I still spent most of my school days in the Dean’s office. You’re on the chopping block, Colm, he would say to me. He enjoyed punishing people. He reveled in reprimands as food stains rejoiced on his button downs. The principal displayed sadistic traits and the word schadenfreude comes to mind whenever I think back on my adolescence.
Math class was usually uneventful. The teacher was cool. An amatuer body builder who listened to Hardcore, and vehemently loathed Kenneth Starr. He waded into politics often during class, but no one cared about his views or world events at this stage in our lives. He was outspoken and had an infatuation with the 42nd President of the United States of America. I was terrible at math, and had anxiety most of the time, always hoping not to get called on but at least I got to sit next to Maeve Fahey. After my discussion with Kenny I began to treat her differently. I always thought she was cute but I stopped treating her like I would one of the guys. I tried to see through time, I tried to see how she would be when she became a woman. Could Maeve be stunning in time, I thought so, but was embarrassed by girls and embarrassed by my feelings about them. I felt like we were friends, Maeve and I, but I acknowledged the fact that we never spoke outside of math class. I liked her spectacles and the way she spoke, and her handwriting was beautiful which mattered a great deal to me. Her hair was a little messy but it suited her. I liked more about her than I realized. I think I looked at her like a scientist looks at an experiment. I wanted to see her beyond her present form. What was her metamorposis going to be like? Can anyone really see into the future? Imagine if we could?
Maeve was always in the middle of a new book. She carried all her textbooks around, they were neat and perfectly wrapped in recycled brown paper. She wrapped her books and we wrapped beer bottles. She read everything necessary for her classes and then completed the rest of the text on her own, cover to cover, finishing long before deadlines and the end of the school year. I liked looking at who had the textbooks before me, and what graff might be scrawled inside it.
I asked her what book she was reading as the teacher had to leave the room for a moment.
“Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass. Have you read it?” Maeve asked, with a sweet voice. I liked the way her mouth moved when she spoke, her teeth were brilliant and imperfect but they were cute. The more I looked at her mouth the more I thought about kissing her. I had no idea how to go about that. I didn’t have the nerve then. I didn’t think she would want to kiss me anyway. I had only kissed one other girl and wasn’t all that confident that I was any good at it. I fumbled with anxiety before I even knew what anxiety was.
“I know the name of the book and I’ve heard of the author but I’ve never read it. It’s poetry, right?”
“Yeah. It’s a collection of poems written in the 1800s that he kept revising them his whole life. I’ll let you borrow it when I’ve finished if you want.”
“Supposedly Walt Whitman used to live here in Whitestone, it was very brief or maybe he vacationed here. Something like that. I think that’s neat,” Maeve said.
“What do you think is neat?” I thought it was neat that she used the word, neat.
“It’s cool that someone like Whitman walked the same streets as we do. You know? I think history is awesome and knowing a great writer was in our town. It’s kind of cool. No?”
“No, you’re right. It is cool? I apologize, I’m just nervous.”
“Nervous? What for?”
“I don’t know,” I said, with a little laugh. “I guess I’m always a little nervous.”
“Do you like to read?” Maeve asked.
“I do like to read. I don’t think I read enough. I like Shakespeare and Poe. I really like Emily Dickinson. They have a book of her’s in the Dean’s office that I read when I’m there and I’m there a lot. I like Stephen King and Clive Barker.”
“That’s great,” she said. “You should try Baudelaire and Rilke.”
“I don’t know who they are but I’ll read them because you recommended them. Thanks. There are so many books that I want to read that I haven’t yet. I want to read all the classics. I want to read Moby Dick. I want to read H. P. Lovecraft.”
“We can start our own little book club.”
“That sounds like a great idea.” I smiled pretty hard.
We were getting on well that day. A day that was the inadvertent start of our relationship. Everything was golden until Grant walked in even though he wasn’t in our class. He was roaming the halls, in his sagging Boss jeans and much too large Karl Kani shirt, dragging his untied Timbs across the dirty tiled floor. Grant was a Special Ed kid who got bussed in from somewhere outside of the district twenty-five school zone perimeters. He was skinny, muscular and had a dead eyeball rolling around in his right eye socket. Was Grant’s eyeball ever alive and if so how long was its lifespan? I never liked Grant because I saw how he acted toward other people, an arrogant bully, but until that morning we never had a problem before.
Grant snatched Maeve’s copy of Leaves of Grass, “What are you reading, four eyes?”
I had a problem with people. The problem was I tended to find reasons to dislike people. In doing so as I got older I alienated myself from people outside of my circle of friends, my crew. If you weren’t from Memorial Park or with the team then I didn’t interact with you. It might have been a self defense mechanism. I didn’t like assholes unless I grew up with them. I didn’t like people who were unable to find faults in themselves, if you know what I mean. It made absolutely no sense to me that a boy with one functioning eye would mock a girl for wearing glasses or having poor vision. It made me furious, though I acknowledged it was tame in comparison to what he could have said to her, it still bothered me enough to dig my teeth into my lips, and clench my fists underneath my dirty desk. When I got to that point of anger I typically felt the urge to bite down, sinking my front teeth into my hand to stifle my temper.
“Nothing that would interest you, Grant.” She politely asked for the book back.
“I said please.”
“Say it again,” he demanded, flipping through the pages.
“Just give her the fucking book.”
“No one is fucking talking to you, Colm.” Grant said, “Shut the fuck up before you get yourself hurt. I’ll shove this book down your throat.” Grant closed the book and threw it at Maeve, hitting her in the chest before falling to the ground. Bits of paper that she had written notes on fell everywhere around her desk.
“You fucking piece of shit.”
I ran straight through the desks, and one desk dug into Grant’s legs, but it didn’t help me none since he was able to catch me unguarded with a hard right immediately, before I could get a punch off. Once we were off and running I was able to throw a couple but Grant got in a few better ones before the teacher entered the room and ripped us apart. It wasn’t how I wanted the fight to go but that’s how life was, things don’t always go your way. My right eye was instantly swollen and already changing colors but at least it was alive and operational, not like that fuck’s dead eye. It was a quick fight but a fight nonetheless. Unlike many people from where I come from I made no excuses for my loss. Thirteen year old Grant got the better of Thirteen year old Colm. That was how it went.
In a lot of neighborhoods in Queens you’re remembered for a trivial act that happened before you weren’t able to grow body hair or before you lost your virginity. Some people don’t grow so they presume that you haven’t grown as well. They think that everyone is still in that stunted immature span of time and lying stagnant with them. It’s an ignorant notion. I subscribe to the ideology that you are not wholly defined by who you were in high school, or even worse, junior high.
As the teacher kindly escorted me out of the class, I pulled away from his tight grip. “Hang on, “ I said, walking back to Maeve to help her with picking up her notes. I think the notes embarrassed her the most. I would never see Grant after junior high school but I’d always hate him for what he did to Maeve, even though it went against my principles, I don’t like absolutes, there’s exceptions to most rules.
She looked at me thankfully, “Book club tomorrow night.”
“Book club. I can’t wait.”
Maeve thanked me.
I wouldn’t be able to meet the boys at the benches after school that day. At least not immediately after. Grant wept when they called his grandmother. My house was called while I sat in the Dean’s office, thinking of Maeve and rereading, Because I Could Not Stop For Death. I spent a lot of time in the Dean’s office, and I liked Dean Samson, regardless of the fact we were adversaries.
A tall man with a protruding Adam’s apple and bushy hair who dressed in autumnal colors. I liked being left alone in his office to read, which at that moment I wasn’t but acted like I was. I would regularly snoop through a rolodex on Dean Samson’s desk that had some local crews but in reality it didn’t even scratch the surface to the amount of graffiti crews there were in Queens, let alone the entire city. Each card file had the name of the crew and whatever meanings the school knew or thought they knew, and the members listed underneath the crew, currently enrolled and the alumni as many of the members listed had already graduated to high school, most of whom I presumed were off to Flushing High School.
They had my name, COLM RYAN in bold type, I loved seeing my name in print, they had me listed as being a member of MPB, which I wasn’t officially yet. The school personnel had seen me hanging at the park and because I knew the older kids they assumed I was down with that crew. I was flattered, honestly. 21 PARK wasn’t fully established yet, some of us were a crew before we knew what a crew was, but by the time we graduated Bleecker, 21 PARK would join the ranks of Dean Samson’s rolodex.
It was ridiculous how many crews existed, the school had only listed a handful of cliques from Whitestone, Flushing and College Point, as well as some kids from 34th Road, Latimer and The Bland housing projects. It was just the tip of the iceberg. It showed how little Dean Samson and Bleecker’s administration knew about the subject.
A plethora of crews rocked in those days, a seemingly endless arrangement of letters and numbered streets and parks, and in no particular order: WSK, TMR, BBG, OFB, BTS, 194, 22 PARK, BILLMAR, KAC, KVC, TCS, DWS, DMS, RIS, TDK, DBI, DTB, KKB, RTS, SPFLD, FPV, WRB, KRT, ROT, KED, SD, TSK, RTA, TSD, 6 cents, BS, KPB, TU, 357, RTD, BYI, LOD, LOB, SPORTS, GZ, FTR, NWC, BTW, XTC, NRG, FU, GMC, UC, 32, AFC, SFP, GAS, MDC, MCI, CWB, WKS, BFB, IF, IK, MTA, HTE, ABK, 113, OUT, TN, TO, OTC, OTS, TKP, TRK, 41st, TCN, KAW, BP, AVR, GTP, TCK, 718, IDS, UE, 429, YB, DPO, 420, DCT, KRY, 192, 193, TFM, STH, LFT, ACM, SMART, VD, FUK, RFW, KSR and a thousand more. I would be remiss if I failed to mention our own confederation of crews under the banner of Memorial Park Boys: HR, THK, UBM, 1211, KOA, ATR and 21 PARK/XXI.
Some crews became legendary, long before that adjective would be thrown around loosely, while other crews disappeared into obscurity. Graffiti was polytheistic, and not everyone in every crew achieved a god like stature. There were crews that made you look over your shoulder on your long walks home and others that made you laugh. I was partial to the history of it all, I loved the war stories, devouring all the folklore that was passed down drunkenly over graff covered checker tables and garbage pail fires. There were crews you wanted to be down with and those you wouldn’t push if they paid you.
There were the other gangs too, but I personally always viewed gangs and graffiti crews to be different, two similar but different animals. Some gangs had more of a presence than others, and maybe you would hear rumors of getting slashed if you wore a certain color on a specific school day at 3:00. Lucky for me all of my shirts were black.
The Dean called my house multiple times only to catch our answering machine. Grant’s grandmother had come and gone already. She dragged him out by the hand and he whined like a small child who didn’t get his way or knew he was catching an ass whipping once he got home. If I was intimidated by Grant before, I was no longer after that. When we were alone in the office together Grant tried to be friendly, I paid him no mind. No pardons were being handed out, no axes were being buried. He wanted to be my friend but I knew it was bullshit, and he would be right back to being a cunt next time any onlookers were around. That was how a lot of people worked where I’m from. I wasn’t fooled. After the tenth time the dean rang my house, a decision was made to let me go home and to specifically have my father come in or call tomorrow, which was unlikely, but who knew. I would serve a two day suspension for my involvement even though I was only defending Maeve’s honor. Two days off from school was a win.
The Dean was secretly pleased that my mother didn’t answer. He hated having to deal with her, and I was happy to avoid any further embarrassment after the last time she was called in. We were both relieved. I got caught doing something stupid. It was in the early hours of the school day and I was up to no good but so was my mother. She had already put away a few small bottles of blackberry brandy when the phone rang. Little bottom shelf bottles I’d find empty in the garbage. She came in stinking and irritated. The three of us sat in a small room, much like the interrogation room in cop movies. Claustrophobic room, table, chairs and tension. She slurred and repeated herself. Each argument she posed was illogical, and indiscernible but she was trying to defend her son, albeit horribly. So props for that.
No matter how bad her decisions were I knew my mother loved me. With that being stated, I still wouldn’t want to relive that again, though I wouldn’t have to. I think that was why Dean Samson made the suspension easier. Normally they wouldn’t let you leave, or give you a consent form to sign and bring back for a suspension, this wasn’t a field trip. I wasn’t going to confess that she was gone. The Dean had seen a little glimpse into my house that day.
We don’t always know what goes on behind the windows of the houses we wander by, and sometimes it’s better off we don’t know, and even better that you just keep walking. Walk on home, boy.