I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son (7 page)

BOOK: I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son
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I turned on the lantern end of my emergency flashlight and started jotting impressions. The heat, light, and cicadas made the experience not unlike lying inside an incandescent bulb. It wasn’t long before I dozed. A “FUCK YOUR FACE!” chant roused me from half sleep; I checked the program and couldn’t be sure if it was coming from the Psychopathic Records Karaoke Tournament or the wet T-shirt contest hosted by Ron Jeremy. Then I was asleep.

In 1992, my parents went into real estate and its law and began making money. Almost instantly—my mother had been in the business three weeks, my father a little longer—I was pulled out of Boys and Girls Club baseball and enrolled in a tennis academy on a private island. I received a new wardrobe of tiny white shorts, white polos, white loafers. My parents bought a conversion van, with a TV and VCR in the back, and took us on long vacations to ominously named Blue Ridge precipices, “Mount Exsanguination” or some such. There were art lessons. Ninten
plural. A family portrait was taken and mailed with season’s greetings, four months ahead of Christmas.

We were at our first Dolphins game, a preseason game, marveling at the champagne and chicken fingers in the luxury suite, when one of the many TVs cut in with news that Hurricane Andrew had made an unanticipated ninety-degree turn
to the west. It was going to intensify into a Category 5 storm between the Bahamas and Miami.

Police cruisers rolled through our neighborhood and ordered evacuation as Biscayne Bay crawled over the seawall. Except for what fit into duffels, we each wrapped our favorite belongings in a heavy-duty garbage bag that was left on top of our beds. They’re eerie even in memory, polypropylene sarcophagi. We piled into our van with our dogs. We raced a fast and black sky inland to Papa’s.

We rode out the storm in my grandfather’s bathroom, the safest part of his cinder-block house. We took turns standing on the lip of the filled bathtub to look between the slats in the boarded-up window. First came a five-hour block of destruction, after which my family, along with the rest of the city, went outside to tour the damage. Miami was leveled, cast yellow. It seemed to quaver inside of the eye’s half hour of anxious peace. I was seven years old, desperate to run from building to building and sample the damage. I felt a kind of fluorescent joy. The liberation of disaster. Then came five more hours of bookending storm. My dad looked ill, haunted, like the ghouls in
Evil Dead.
He kept sweating and making jokes about losing everything in the drink. When it ended, my parents drove me and my sisters straight to the airport.

My mother had called in a favor from her extended family in New Castle. My sisters and I were going to live there for a while. Before we boarded that plane to Pittsburgh, we had no idea we had cousins. They were the family my late grandmother left when she and Papa moved to Miami after World War II. Papa had heard there were jobs there for fishermen, which he was not—but anything was better than a coal mine.

My sisters and I stayed in the drafty empty nest of my great aunt, a fierce nonna recently widowed of her long-haul-driving husband. She was the cook at the bar-and-grill our cousins collectively
owned and operated. They all pitied us for having fallen to them from a higher station. They went out of their way to treat us as they thought we were accustomed—they bought me a Game Boy, a New York Yankees hat, and Michael Jackson tapes. September in Pennsylvania got too cold for the clothes I’d brought, so they took me to the consignment shop and sprung for a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sweatshirt. On it, Raphael challenged any and all to

! I asked my cousins how that first word read, and they said it was “see-mon.”

It wasn’t until we came home to South Florida that I understood our home had been destroyed. Twelve feet of storm surge had washed over it. Only half of what remained was habitable. When school started back up, the district mandated that my sisters and I be taken out of class once a week and put in a support group, where we colored in pictures of newer, better homes. For Christmas we covered the water damage with gift wrap. My dad was jobless within the year.

We rebuilt our house with insurance money, sort of, and remained there for decades, leaks, mold, and zoning codes be damned. We never lived as high as before the hurricane or as low as immediately after it. When I got back from the Gathering, I learned that my parents had closed on a deal to sell the house to the neighbors. Then they put their stuff in the van and lit off for California. The neighbors demolished the house posthaste.

I was awake and jackknifed in my tent after a juggalo hollered “WHOOP, WHOOP!” right outside it. Those in the vicinity returned the call, and it redoubled on the trails, an aural telegraph relaying the A-OK. Security stayed near the front entrance; juggalos were very much in charge here. Adam and his brother were gone. I’d slept for five hours, and now it was
early evening. The bigger acts were beginning their sets, and everyone was making their way to the main stage.

The setting sun made candy floss out of the clouds. A kid leaned against a tree and faced the procession with this sign:
. The helicopter had not stopped—nor would it stop—buzzing ’Namishly overhead.

I paused at a carny food booth to buy a cheesesteak. I took my sandwich to a large wooden pallet to sit and eat, but I was shooed by a child huckster who was using it as a stage. “What up, fam. Help a juggalo get home. Three dollars for one kick, five dollars for two.” He wore a red jumpsuit and had braids like dead coral. On the back of his jumpsuit was the Hatchetman, Psychopathic Records’ logo and Kokopelli. The Hatchetman is a cartoon profile of a guy with a big head, the aforementioned braids, and a goatee, who’s running with a hatchet in one hand. Over the course of four days, I saw the Hatchetman stitched onto shirts, pants, cheer shorts, bikini tops, beanies, caps, and shoes; I saw it shaved into heads and chests; and I saw it tattooed on so many pounds of lacquered flesh—on arms, shoulders, and forearms, over the avian bones on the backs of hands, across necks and asses, in the lee of breasts, on calves, clavicles, and feet.

A topless woman wrapped in the Canadian flag walked up next to me to watch, her boyfriend behind her. She noticed the VIP signboard around my neck.

“What makes you so special?” She was ghost-colored, but her eyes were blue to the point of looking colorized.

I stammered something about maybe trying to write about the Gathering. Then I asked if they’d met any other international juggalos.

“Fuck yeah we have,” the boyfriend said. He was bullish, his head shaved. “Finns, Australians, English, Japanese.” He was
from Windsor, Ontario, right across the border from Detroit. He’d been waiting ten years to go to a Gathering. He wanted to know: “You going to shit all over us like every other newspaper?”

“They want to shut us down,” the woman added. “If this was political, they’d shut us down.”

Her boyfriend leaned in: “Look, dude, there’ve always been juggalos. It’s just, before ICP, nobody gave us a name. We were just walking around in Bumfuck by ourselves, you know? But get us all together? Tens of thousands of us? And everybody wants to shut us down.” At this I nodded, but I didn’t know who “everybody” was; overall, the Gathering seemed more ignored than persecuted. “Just tell everybody the truth, ninja,” the boyfriend said. “Tell them what we’re like. Maybe when they read it, they’ll be, like, ‘That’s me, that’s where I belong.’ ”

A man working a barrel grill paid his three dollars and had his kick. The kid didn’t even need to catch his breath before reprising his spiel. “Man, I was a punter in high school,” the griller said, shaking his head. “I heard them shits pop.”

The valley that held the main stage and carnival was filled with juggalos. After sunset, the only light came from the stage and the winking bulbs of the Octopus, the Swinger, and the Hustler. I lingered in the light of the rides, scribbling notes and drinking the Nattys I’d brought. Several worse-than-mediocre acts came and went from the stage, and the juggalos chanted “FAM-I-LY” at the ones they liked.

I felt it necessary to get more than a little buzzed that night. The nigh-illegible notes I took in the rides’ glow became suffused with a false and beery insight. After one of the cars in the Hustler rained solid waste upon me, I wrote, “In another time, these people
wouldn’t have belonged to unions, or the Elks.” When a group of teens who hid their faces with bandannas passed me by, I wrote, for reasons that remain inscrutable, “Ohio is SHAPED LIKE AN ANCHOR!!” and underlined it hard enough to tear the page.

I also wrote that juggalos seem far more comfortable around black people than your average middle American, and I stand by that. There were a handful of black dudes at the Gathering who weren’t performers, and their interactions with juggalos were some of the most natural black-white interactions I’ve ever observed. It was just guys talking to one another.

By the time Naughty by Nature took the stage, I was good and drunk. They kept spouting malapropisms like “We’re glad to be at the juggalo!” and “Much love to the ICP posse!” As with the rest of the non-juggalo rappers performing at the Gathering—including Tone Loc, Warren G, Rob Base, Slick Rick, and Coolio—they were clearly in it for the money. All I wanted was to hear “Hip Hop Hooray,” but they kept demanding that I and everyone else chant “WHITE BOYS!” first. Meaning Naughty by Nature misunderstood their audience. They saw the crowd as another mass of white boys, same as at every other gig they’d played over the past two decades, and they betrayed a little passive-aggressive weariness. The juggalos around me seemed mostly confused. Their collective, grumbled response could be summed up as: “These guys don’t understand that we’re just like they are, or like they used to be, before they made money.”

I was a white, middle-class teenager, but where I’m from I was the exception. My Miami high school was five times the size of the average Florida school and 80 percent Hispanic, 10 percent black, 10 percent other. Most of the student body qualified for free or reduced-cost lunch. My friends were Cuban, Nicaraguan, Haitian, Brazilian, Panamanian, Colombian, Bahamian, Mexican. Few of their families could be considered solidly middle class. They were working-class immigrants, born overseas or else first-generation American.

Assimilation is a fascinating thing to watch happen. The
metaphor of the melting pot is pretty spot-on. Over time, immigrants’ original cultures are rendered, and they take on the essence of ours. That’s what stewing does—it takes disparate ingredients and imbues them with a single general flavor. In Miami, most people I knew assimilated. They put on polo shirts and said “dude” and drove circles around malls on weekends. They affected middle-class white adolescence, with quite a few cultural tics. (For instance, their Super Bowl parties included
and boner grinding.) As an American, you have to believe that’s something everyone strives for, becoming the “we.” You feel good seeing it. You’re a little affronted if someone doesn’t strive for that inclusion.

In my high school, the kids who assimilated had a derisive term for those who didn’t:
Short for
Fashion could be reffy, as could hair, mannerism, inflection, you name it. The assimilated kids picked on refs, who were considerably poorer. They screamed “INS!” and waved lit matches around refs’ oiled hair. The refs never protested. They shoaled along walls and stared straight ahead, always maintaining the same imperturbable expression.

Me, everyone mostly ignored. Sometimes I got pushed into the hydrangea bushes and called white boy. Sometimes Latinas feigned interest in me while their unseen
busted guts behind lockers. But, foremost, I was an anomaly. And, at the risk of sounding ludicrous, I never felt white, except by default. White America was very far away. It was a nation my parents expatriated from; like my Cuban friends, I figured that one day I’d get to visit my homeland. The glimpses I caught on TV or in movies were bewildering. Ski teams? Blond cheerleaders? Battles of the bands? We had a hip-hop showcase, with the final coming down to a Hot Boyz clone vs. a Dead Prez ripoff. Our school’s homepage looped Trick Daddy’s “Let’s Go.” Our senior class song was “Tipsy” by that one-hit wonder J-Kwon.

In the night I was roused by three juggalos attempting to enter my tent. I struggled to hold the zippers together, hissing “Go away!” until it became an incantation. “The fuck is up with this ninja?” said one of them. “We just want to pass out, ninja,” said another. Sometime later I woke up needing badly to pee. The tent’s zippers, broken now, wouldn’t budge. I guzzled a bottle of water and used it as a receptacle; this I did every hour on the hour for three hours. I missed Coolio’s 4:30 a.m. set but could hear it anyway. The juggalos finally came to rest at dawn. The cacophony they made—burps, coughs, hacks, pukes—sounded like a bodily orchestra tuning up. A sleepy “WHOOP, WHOOP!” followed someone’s long brown note.

After tearing a hole in and birthing myself from the tent, I went on an early-morning circuit of the grounds. The nearest port-o-potty had been blown up in the night. RVs that also served as mobile tattoo parlors were opening their doors at 7:30. The treetops in the distance made a rampart against the sky.

I stopped at the Spazmatic Energy Sauce pavilion to mix a tube of coffee crystals into a bottle of water. Juggalos in various stages of undress slumped everywhere over everything. A young mother led her son to the other end of my picnic table. He sat down to breakfast on an elephant ear and grape Faygo. His mother pulled the tab on a can of beef barley soup. She rubbed an eye with the heel of one hand and sipped from the can with the other. Hanging from her neck was a homemade advert scrawled on torn cardboard that read
. She lit a menthol and took a swig from her son’s Faygo.

The mother was in a bikini top and her son was shirtless, a yang of black paint smeared on one side of his face. They were probably a combined thirty years old, yet stretch marks mottled
their bodies. Fat dangled in dermal saddlebags as empty as the calories that made them. Again, I bring this up not because I’m body-snarking, but because I’ve only ever seen these physiques in places—the Bronx; Liberty City, Florida; New Castle—where dinner comes from either Burger King or the convenience store.

BOOK: I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son
12.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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