By the time I was sixteen years old, I had been thrown out of two different high schools for truancy. I decided not to try school again but vowed to get my GED someday. In my mother’s house, you either worked or went to school. So, I got a job as a McDonalds cashier on Fifty-seventh Street and Eighth Avenue which was only a few blocks from where we lived. One day, Gwen Browne came in for a Big Mac and strawberry shake. We had grown up together and she still lived in the neighborhood but we had never really been friends. She had had a huge crush on my little brother, Brevard, when they were first graders and I used to tease him about it endlessly. She’d see him in the street and start grinning as he took refuge by burying his face in Mama’s side.
Gwen had always been cute but now she was a genuine beauty: tall with flawless chocolate skin, snub nose and a gorgeous mane of wavy hair that I wanted to reach out and touch. She was dressed in expensive designer jeans, a halter top and her earrings looked like they were real diamonds. I couldn’t see her shoes because the counter and cash register was blocking my view. We made small talk as I collected her money and food. There was nothing else to say – at least I thought there wasn’t. But she surprised me.
“What time do you get off?” she asked.
“Wanna hang out?”
“Me and Maria will be at the schoolyard around six. Come on by.”
Maria? The name wasn’t even vaguely familiar yet Gwen threw it out like I should know who she was talking about.
After she left, I realized I didn’t know which schoolyard she meant: P.S.111 on Tenth Avenue and Fifty-third Street where we had attended elementary school from kindergarten through sixth grade? Or, J.H.S. 17 down on forty-seventh Street between Eighth and Ninth where we had attended grades seven, eight, and nine?
After work, I usually bought some beer and went home to play records and read books.
By six, I was tired, but, since I had promised Gwen, I decided to check out the P.S.111 yard since it was only two blocks from my house. In any case, I didn’t feel like walking all the way to the other school.
It was a hot July evening and by the time I reached the schoolyard I was already sweating. To my surprise, there were at least a dozen teenagers already there. I peered through the fence, wondering how to get in because the school was locked up and closed for the summer. Gwen saw me and motioned for me to go around to the Fifty-second Street side. Once I was there, she opened the door and pulled me in. I looked back and saw the trick. Someone had broken the padlock that kept intruders out, but left it in place so that to anyone passing by, it looked intact.
Gwen was shapely and walked with her shoulders back, head up and ass switching from side to side like she was a movie star. Her laugh was a silvery tinkle. For a minute, I thought about trying to imitate her but I didn’t have the nerve.
I followed her over to the steps where everyone else had gathered and my heart started beating real fast. Right in the center of the crew was the Puerto Rican girl of whom I had been deathly afraid in both schools.
Gwen yelled to get the Queen Bee’s attention. “Maria!”
Over the years, I had seen her curse, threaten and kick the asses of boys and girls twice her size. Her best friend, Isabela, used to attend the weekly asthma clinic with me, Brevard and Sylvia when we were all in grade school. The clinic was held in St. Clare’s hospital on Fifty-second Street. We went there to get shots that were designed to keep an attack from coming on or limit its severity when it did.
Once Isabela became a bully, she may have left me alone because I had a breathing problem. Perhaps she had told Maria to take a “hands off” policy as well. I didn’t know but being so close to them scared me. They both had hair trigger tempers. What if I said the wrong thing?
Isabela was sitting on the steps now. She gave me a slight nod of recognition and then chugged down half a can of beer.
Maria turned and looked me up and down. I wanted to run but what would have been the point? I had never known and will never know life without asthma but I’d learned its limitations. I’d be out of breath and wheezing before reaching the corner – that is if I could even get out. That whole padlock business had looked tricky when Gwen had done it.
“You know Anita?”
The nerd had shown up at their party. Did they want to laugh or just dismiss me outright?
“How you doin?” Maria’s accent was thick, combining an aggressive New York attitude with the lyrical sounds of Spanish.
I looked down at my sneakered feet. “Okay.”
She looked over my shoulder. “Loco, dame un cerveza.”
One of the boys tossed her a beer. She promptly handed it to me and waited until I had opened it before speaking again.
I nodded and someone passed me a joint. The party had just begun.
On the evening that I joined Gwen’s crew, I was a lonely, angry, unhappy teenager. They were what I needed to feel like I was part of the world again. That evening, I was just a neighborhood girl who was tagging along behind Gwen. Maria didn’t expect that I’d come back the next night after my McDonald’s shift and the next and the next.
Gwen didn’t hang around much. It didn’t take long for me to discover that she only showed up when she absolutely had nothing better to do. Otherwise, she spent her time hanging out in the projects on Sixty Fifth Street with her boyfriend. When she wasn’t with us, I was the only black girl in the crew. Everyone else was Puerto Rican. I only felt uncomfortable when they spoke rapid Spanish to each other and I couldn’t understand a word. Otherwise, they replaced Michele, Arthur, Leslie and Michael. I had friends again. I realized that the only way to get along was to follow Maria’s lead. The crew called her Mahree and it didn’t take me long to start calling her that too, speaking in a Nuyorican accent whenever I was in the schoolyard with all of them.
Gwen disappeared for two weeks and, when she came back, she cracked up laughing when she heard the way I pronounced “Mahree.” I saw her checking out my gear and then she pulled me to the side.
“What are you doing?”
She flicked at each article of my clothing. “Your titties are hanging out of that halter, those jeans are way too tight and you need to take off those marshmallows.”
Marshmallows were snow white shoes with a soft, high platform. Black teenagers did not wear them. I looked good and I knew it.
“Don’t tell me what to do.”
“Miss Anita, you are not Puerto Rican.”
“I know that. I just like the outfit.”
“And what’s with that accent you were doing when I came in?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I turned angrily and walked back to the crowd, grabbed a Colt 45 from Isabela and sat down on the steps. No one else knew what Gwen and I had been talking about. It was like a silent, black pact.
My transformation had been quick and thorough: I got a Puerto Rican boyfriend named Hector “Tito” Concepcion. who happened to be the best friend of Maria’s boyfriend, Weedo. That meant the four of us hung out all over the city and we became real tight. Whoever had the Queen Bee’s attention was very, very popular. The crew was into me in a big way.
Sylvia and her boyfriend, Carlos came in to the schoolyard one day and the festive atmosphere changed. That little girl who had shared her candy necklace with me in kindergarten so long ago was now one of the neighborhood drug addicts. She was so high, she could barely walk. Some folks said that she was a pill addict, others said it was heroin. Her eyes were half closed and she slurred when she spoke. I had seen her like this many times over the past year and the sight always made me feel awful. But I always stopped and chatted with her before moving on. The girls hugged her and then glared at Carlos. He had not grown up in the neighborhood. No one knew where he had come from. What we did know was that Carlos treated her like shit.
Sylvia said, “Hi, everybody!”
Carlos murmured something in her ear.
“What you talkin’ about? We just got here.”
Rumors had gone around that Carlos had started hitting Sylvia.
Carlos looked at the guys who were just waiting for him to do something stupid. He laughed nervously. “I know, baby but we gotta get somethin’ to eat before we get on the train.”
Sylvia slurred. “I’m not going.”
She sat on the steps and we all tried to make conversation with her.
Carlos stepped forward. “We have to go.”
Maria glared at him. “My little niece said you were pushing her in front of the A&P last week.”
“No I wasn’t.”
“So my niece is a liar?”
He turned red and stared at her with hatred in his eyes. “We have to go.”
Maria wasn’t through with him. “Look at Sylvia! She is so tiny and you are so much bigger than her. Push me. I dare you.”
He looked at the guys.
Maria advanced toward him. “Don’t worry about the boys. I promise they won’t jump you. Push me, bastard. I’ll kick your ass all by myself.”
Sylvia stood up. “Leave him, Mahree.”
Maria backed up as Sylvia went to stand by her man.
“I’ll see you people later. Me and Carlos gonna go eat.”
We waved at them and watched as they left the schoolyard. They were practically at the corner when Carlos started yelling at Sylvia. He was calling her everything but a child of God but he did not hit her. He wasn’t crazy. He knew we were watching and that he would be attacked if he put his hands on Sylvia.
Despite the time spent at my job, hanging out with the crew, going to the movies with Tito, I still thought about Michele. What lies had Dad told her to cause the burning hatred in her eyes? Did she go to high school? Was she still dancing? Why hadn’t I had the guts to tell her that my father was dangerous?
I did everything I could to keep memories of the past at bay and fit in with my new friends. Once, they were talking about their swimming experiences and who among them was the best. I started bragging about what a great swimmer I was. Actually, I couldn’t swim at all and was afraid of the water but at that moment, I felt their interest in me was lagging. I had to do something. The lie was a huge mistake.
Brevard didn’t understand what was going on with me.
“Have you defected to a new race?”
“I saw Tito with another girl.”
I shrugged. “So, it could have been his cousin or something.”
“You think you’re his only girlfriend?”
“No, you’re not.”
“What are you talking about?”
His eyes grew hard and angry. “Tito has lots of girls.”
I stomped down to Forty-sixth Street Park where Tito played basketball. I shouted his name until he ambled over, grinning widely and put his arm around me.
“Where you going?”
“I came here to talk to you.”
He kissed my forehead. “About what? “Somebody told me that they saw you with another girl.”
“What’s her name?”
“I don’t know.”
He shrugged. “Then I don’t know how to tell you who she was.”
I took a deep breath. “Tito, you seeing anybody but me? He laughed and ran back to the basketball court. I wanted to pick up a rock and hit him in the back with it but he would have quit me on the spot.
Mama found out about my new life on a Saturday morning when a crowd gathered across the street and started screaming “Negrita, come down!”
She was making the bed but stopped for a moment and looked outside. “What the hell is going on out there? Goddamn Spanish kids out there yelling at this time of morning.”
I said nothing, just kept helping her with the sheets and blanket. But Brevard appeared in the doorway of the bedroom that Mama and I shared.
“They want Nita.”
Mama looked confused.
Brevard burst into laughter. “Those are Nita’s new friends.”
“What is that they saying?”
“They call her Negrita.”
Mama looked at me. “What does that mean?”
Before I could explain, Brevard did his own translation. “Little nigger girl.”
Mama flew to the window and stuck her head out. “Stop that goddamned noise. If you looking for my daughter, her name is Anita. And she has a goddamned doorbell. “She slammed the window. “Tell your friends to ring the bell and speak through the intercom.”
“Get out. I’ll finish the bed myself.”
As I left the room, I could hear her muttering something about “goddamned kids always making a racket.”
My hand was on the doorknob.
What did Mama want now?
“I wanna talk to you about what Brevard said. Why they call you that? Come back here!”
“Never mind, mama. It won’t happen again,” I yelled over my shoulder.
I gave Brevard a venomous look and ran down all four flights of stairs. By the time I reached the bottom step, I was out of breath and had to hang on to the bannister for a minute. Could it be true? Was Brevard right? Were they really calling me little nigger girl? Were they making fun of me like I was some kind of plaything, a plantation pickaninny?
By the time I crossed the street, I was thoroughly pissed and ready to pummel every single one of them into a pile of mush. I yelled. “Do not call me Negrita anymore. None of you. Ever.”
They had been laughing and chattering but suddenly there was silence.
“What’s wrong with you?” This came from Esperanza. “You sick?”
She put an arm around my waist.
I softened and gave her a smile. “No. I’d just rather be called by my real name.”
Isabela shrugged. “Fine. Let’s get outta here. I want to hit Coney Island before it gets too crowded.”
The subject was closed for everyone else but no one yelled at Maria without having a good explanation. No one changed rules in the group without her permission or she raised hell until things returned to the way she wanted them. She grabbed my arm roughly and I winced as we lagged behind the group during the walk to the subway.
“What the fuck was that about?” she asked angrily.
I told Maria what Brevard had said and she laughed so hard and loud that the crew and strangers stopped to stare at her. She couldn’t walk. She couldn’t move. All she could do was laugh – her head thrown back and tears streaming from her eyes.
We all waited until she pulled herself together.
There were shouts of “What’s so funny?”
But we were best friends by then and she wasn’t going to blurt out my business like that.
“Anita’s brother is one crazy little dude.”
Then she whispered in my ear. “You tell Brevard that he is wrong. Nobody calls you no little nigger girl or any other crazy shit like that. I would stomp their asses into the ground. But Brevard always makes me laugh. Oh my God, he is funny. What is a pickanninny? ”
I told her very briefly about plantation life for black children during American slavery.
“Anita, none of us even knows nuthin’ about no shit like that.”
It didn’t matter. I wasn’t turning back. Brevard had spoiled my new name.
That night, half drunk and bored, we were back in Manhattan and just hanging around the schoolyard. A tall, overweight kid called Saint came up with an idea. We could go up Amsterdam Avenue and sneak into the swimming pool that was near the projects.
We did and the lie which I had forgotten came back to haunt me.
“Anita, let us see you swim.”
“Come on, what you waitin’ for?”
I heard my friends, saw their excited faces and my throat closed. Only Maria saw my fear. For just a second, our eyes met and I know that she saw the truth. How was I going to tell the rest of them that I had lied?
I just stood there.
Saint and Weedo picked me up and threw me into the pool. As I went down, I heard a scream. It was Maria. “Ay Dios Mio, Anita can’t swim!”
There was a flurry of motion above me and the same two guys hauled me out of the swimming pool. I lay on the ground, wet, humiliated and scared.
Everyone was very shaken about the incident. And they were mad. There were a few people in the group who were eighteen – Saint, Weedo, Maria and Isabela. If I had drowned, they could have gone to jail.
Anita Diggs is a writer and editor. She is the author of A Mighty Love and A Meeting in the Ladies Room. She holds an MFA in Memoir from Hunter College.
People in Hell Want Ice Water is the title of my memoir-in-progress. It is a coming-of-age tale involving violence and loss. Negrita takes place during my 16th year when I was desperately in need of help. Without knowing it, the crew that I joined made me laugh again and pulled me back from despair. Unfortunately, it was just a brief reprieve. I still had one giant loss ahead of me.