Walking in my father’s footsteps, and trying to find a new path
As I entered Bridges Juvenile Detention Center, otherwise known as Spofford, I was deathly afraid. I’d been shuffled through its barbed-wire fences in handcuffs and shackles, and so far, I could see little that distinguished my new home from an adult jail — the kind I’d seen on television programs like Lockup or Scared Straight. To me, the place looked more like Alcatraz than a residence for misbehaving children.
A short African man, the color of a ripe, unbitten plum, stood before me, giving instructions. He had a relentless gut that threatened the nerve of his belt, and I remember thinking the leather would give at any moment and send the metal buckle flying across the room.
“Move your hands,” the man said in a heavy African accent. Reluctantly, I placed my hands back at my sides.
I thought of American History X, Lockdown, and every other prison movie I’d seen where men were attacked and raped by muscle-bound gangsters. I was 11 years old.
“Lift up your testicles. Squat down and give me a big cough.”
I complied. I was terrified. I thought of American History X, Lockdown, and every other prison movie I’d seen where men were attacked and raped by muscle-bound gangsters.
I was 11 years old.
In his oaky baritone, the man spoke again. “Put on these,” he said, offering me a pair of white briefs — Superman drawers — and a brown one-piece jumpsuit with a Velcro seal down the torso. For my feet, black “Patakis” — sneakers with three Velcro straps in place of laces, named by Riker’s Island inmates in honor of the New York governor. I learned that the African man was called Mr. O. Over the next few weeks at Spofford, I would meet several other African staff members, all named Mr. O, each a descendant of what I thought of as the Men With Shiny Bald Heads tribe.
“You will be housed on unit B-3.” Mr. O’s impartial tone and nonchalant demeanor was unnerving. “Mr. Stanford,” he added, “good luck.” He guided me through drab halls. Up three flights of concrete stairs, scraps of gray paint peeling from the brick walls, and back to another hall where a mouse zipped across the linoleum, just missing my foot.
What exactly did he mean by good luck?
I spent four years of my youth institutionalized.
The door to unit B-3 was in line with the hideousness of everything else. An ugly wooden door featuring a Plexiglas window scratched with tags and gang slogans: Free Demon Loc, Blood up or shut up, Mikey Knockout, Young Gunners bitch. I was reading the words, unblinking, when Mr. O finally removed from his belt a ridiculous ring of keys, returning my attention to evading the rape that awaited me. Those’re some big-ass keys.
“Ms. Brown!” yelled Mr. O while opening the door. “You have one.”
“Send him in, O!” Her voice so far was the most appealing sound I’d heard within these new walls. It reminded me of my mother, who at any moment, I was sure, would liberate me, crashing through the wall like the Kool-Aid Man.
“What’s your name, little boy?”
I was at the head of a desk, face-to-face with a fortysomething black woman whose scars from teenage acne had followed her into adulthood.
“Aunray,” I answered, the scowl on my face working overtime to hide the fear betrayed by my voice.
“Aunray,” Ms. Brown repeated. “That’s unique. I like it.”
She worked through a sequence of formal questions. All the while, anxiety made my heart feel as though it might break through my rib cage. I held eye contact with Ms. Brown, fully aware that all the while I was being coolly observed by the most malevolent faction of boys I’d ever seen. Some were built like NFL linebackers; some had full unkempt beards; others had outlandish war scars, missing teeth, and machismo-shattering glares.
“Go into that closet in the hall on your right, Aunray. Grab sheets and a blanket. You’ll be sleeping in room 15.”
The best way to learn this shit is just to stay quiet and watch.
Through another door was a long, narrow hallway with 20 doors lining each side. One door led into a large bathroom with four toilet stalls, a single urinal, five sinks (each with its own scratched-up aluminum mirror), and a gym-style shower with four heads. Another door led to the office of the counselor, Mrs. Green; another into a room with janitorial supplies. A few doors bore large, dusty padlocks, and I soothed myself with the idea that the rapists were held captive behind them. Mine, room 15, was one of 30 rooms, or “huts,” and contained a cot, a wooden desk, and a stool.
“Yo, my nigga, where you from?”
My head jerked in the direction of the nasally voice. No sooner had I stepped across the threshold to drop the linen into my room than I was approached by a boy. His eyebrows were furled into a bushy, intimidating glower; a pouty underbite added to his menace.
“The Bronx,” I retorted. Lip curled. “Where you from, nigga?”
“Westside, Harlem. They call me Fatty Red. What’s your handle? You bang?”
This was nothing like those movies where the big guy is called Tiny or the skinny guy Muscle. Fatty’s name was befitting. He was short but enormously round, a planet unto himself, and waddled on the balls of his feet, I suppose to stay balanced. Also, he had fire-colored hair and freckles strewn wildly across his face, like God had taken a marker and went to town.
“Sha” — my name was Aunray only to adults — “and nah, I’m neutral.”
Fatty and I spoke for a while. I learned that he was 14 and that he, too, was neutral. He taught me that I likely wouldn’t be fucked with because I was so young. He taught me that most everything of importance, control of the dayroom television and distribution of nightly snacks, was run by the Bloods. I was especially glad to learn that we showered with liquid soap — there was no way to drop it. More important, Fatty assured me, people weren’t raped in Spofford.
The best way to learn this shit, he said, is just to stay quiet and watch.
I heeded his words somberly. I learned that not unless you were a Blood should you sit in the front row of chairs in the dayroom. This offense was punishable with a beatdown by several boys. I learned never to give away your nighttime snack — even if you didn’t plan to eat it, throw it away — or you’d be casually extorted every night, forever. I learned that in Spades, a “crackhead” meant a possible book; you’d constantly hear people bidding their hands, “I got two and a crackhead.”
For the first week, it did me a lot of good “just to stay quiet and watch.” I maneuvered through my days stealthily. Fatty Red was fairly well-liked by the other boys. Since he was the only person with whom I talked, no one bothered me at first. But that peaceful interlude, like all good things, soon came to an end.
I was tested.
His name was Jason Swain. A 13-year-old from Brooklyn, he was a Crip, but even the Bloods hadn’t fucked with him, a testimony to his toughness. He was about my height, brawny like an action figure, with skin dark as Mr. O’s and a bald head that resembled a Milk Dud. But his most intimidating characteristic was that he had no nickname. Never Jay or Jason. Always Jason Swain.
It began in the cafeteria: Me pretending not to notice Jason Swain, at the far end of the table, glaring at me over his tray of rice and chicken. Fatty Red discreetly tapped me. “Don’t look,” he said, just above a whisper. “I heard Jason Swain tell Dirty that he doesn’t like you. Said he’s going to run in your hut later. You ought to make the first move.”
I remember first thinking: How the fuck can you dislike a mute? And then, why do they serve us milk for every meal? Nobody drinks milk with fucking chicken. Fear quashed my appetite. I attempted to remember all that I had learned before quitting karate, my katas: punch, turn, kick, punch, “Kia!” Turn, kick, kick, punch, “Kia!” This only caused my fear to intensify, though, as I realized that Jason Swain was hardly the type to play mannequin while I tried to kick his ass using a kata. Abort plan A.
“Don’t be shaky. I got your follow-up.” Fatty’s futile attempt at reassuring me. I was grateful to know that he would fight beside me, but no less shaky. En route to gym recreation from chow, with Jason Swain standing a dozen people behind me on line, my feet felt like cinder blocks.
What news is worse to a father in prison than to hear that your 11-year-old son, your only son, is also incarcerated? I endured the news with tears. I admitted to myself, in private, that I’d never been much of a father — let alone a good one — and I felt insincere. I felt like I hadn’t earned the right to cry.
I was five years into a 13-year sentence for loving the allure of street life. Loving the guns, the angel dust, each more than my own child. And I watched the paint peel from the rusted iron bars of my cell, thinking of all the “one things” I might have done to deter him from reliving my blunder: that one game of catch. That one conversation. That one extra minute. What little I know of Aunray is from visits and letters from his mother.
I’d always find myself on visits trying to make him remember some old story about an insignificant day we spent together.
Bondage was intended to be an endless cycle for black men in America.
“You don’t remember when you would stop and gather up twigs everywhere we walked,” I’d say. “And I told you, ‘You’d better stop collecting sticks or the girls will start calling you Crusty the Clown.’”
It had been one of those rare days that I was able to yank myself away from the streets.
Illuminated, in my memory, by the light of a blue moon. When I recounted the story to Aunray, though, he only stared at me blankly.
“You don’t remember?” I’d continue. “You would yell, ‘No, Daddy, I don’t want to be Crusty. No, please!’” He would smile, but he didn’t remember. And I knew he wouldn’t. In hindsight, I guess I told those stories for myself.
I realize now the truth in what Kadeem, the old Muslim brother, claimed about “the cycle.”
“Ray,” he said during one of our exchanges. “Your son has been reared within the darkness of your shadow.” Kadeem saw it all as part of a larger hidden agenda meant to subjugate the black youth of our nation. Even he and I, he said, had fallen prey to this scheme. Bondage was intended to be an endless cycle for black men in America.
He talked about the scores of fatherless households, the multitude of liquor stores in our neighborhoods, poor educations, and overcrowded housing projects. But I had enough scapegoats. I needed solutions. I needed, ever so urgently, to reach my son.
It was around this time that Lieutenant Pernell approached my cell.
“Stanford,” he said smugly. “I received your request to correspond with your son in juvenile detention. Permission granted.”
Thirty minutes into gym-rec and Jason Swain still had shown no overt hostility toward me, but I knew I had to strike before we got back to B-3. While he shot basketball with Dirty, I offered myself pep talks. Gangsta Boo told me this story about how my father had once kicked a man through the glass of a bodega. Party Bob said my father had once fought a guy named Kev on the rooftop of a building and punched his eyeball from its socket — now he’s known in the neighborhood as “One-Eyed Kev.” I drew inspiration from these stories like gospel music. Replaying in my head were my father’s own words: “You have my blood in you, the blood of a lion.”
With that notion in mind, I advanced on my target. He crossed over, bounced the ball between his legs, and then faked. Dirty jumped, giving Jason Swain the right of way to an easy layup. Neither had noticed me. Dirty checked the ball to Jason Swain, who was posted at the free-throw line.
You have my blood in you, the blood of a lion.
In one swift motion, I cocked my fist, simultaneously lifting my knee, like I was pitching hardball. Dirty’s alarmed expression caused Jason Swain to turn his head toward me right as I swung. My punch landed, like a mallet, on the square of his jaw. Jason Swain’s eyes rolled into the top of his head as he fell, in slow motion, pounding the hardwood floor with a thump. Then, silence. I remember thinking that I’d killed him.
Jason Swain’s seemingly lifeless body shuddered and, breaking the silence, drew in a deep snore. I sighed, relieved that the boy was alive. The gym went into an uproar, 30 boys, all at once, yelling ‘Oh, shit!’ and my chest swelled with arrogance.
“Yeah, nigga.” I stood above Jason Swain boasting. “I got the dead arm, bitch. One-hitter quitter.”
His eyelids fluttered, and he stared at me stupidly from the floor. Ms. Brown seemed astounded, moving away from the commotion to yell frantically into a walkie-talkie. True to his word, as Jason Swain staggered to his feet, Fatty Red threw a basketball in his face, rushing him with a flurry of blows. Fatty was fast; his movements defied his weight, defied gravity.
I turned in circles, awed, taking in the pandemonium.
I spent four years of my youth institutionalized. I received letters from my father, filled with what I believe was intended to be guidance. “Your dad was a beast,” they’d say. “If you ever feel tension and find yourself having to fight, always bomb first.” But also in those letters, he’d say, “Peace, I am now Muslim. Allah, the most merciful, is the one and only God… I have changed my name legally to Mustafa.” The letters were often as confusing and abstract and hypocritical as they were helpful.
Fatty Red was dead. Jason Swain, too, was dead.
My father was home, no longer practicing his religion. I’d heard from someone that he knocked out the bouncer in Sue’s Rendezvous, a strip joint, and I found myself embarrassed that there ever was a time when he’d prayed five times a day. I wasn’t doing much better myself — worse actually: 24 years old and in prison again, two years into a five-year sentence for loving the allure of street life. Loving the guns, the promethazine, each more than my own child.
It was a Saturday when I was summoned via the prison’s PA system: “Stanford, three, one, zero, two, report downstairs properly dressed for your visit.” The announcement reminded me of a more innocent time, back in elementary school, when I used to get called to the principal’s office. Only this time I was eager, nervous, hoping not to perspire too much in my good polo shirt before I made it downstairs. I hadn’t seen my five-year-old son in eight months.
Before opening the gate that led downstairs, Acosta, the housing officer, asked me, “Stanford, you ready for your visit?” I lied and said yes. An all-too-familiar feeling overcame me as I descended the stairs, a feeling I used to get before seeing my own father, back when the world assumed I was too young to see the wrong in a place enclosed by barbed wire. My mood darkened with each stair taken, and I swam through my guilt into the visiting area.
I could see my baby-momma, with whom I didn’t get along all that well, point and say to my son, “Siah, look at Daddy.” He smiled. What a smile.
“Aunray,” my baby-momma began, “your son is so bad.”
She told me about his iPad addiction, temper tantrums, and custom of beating up his older sister. To this litany, I merely smiled and asked, “Why’re you being bad, Siah?” He could have hijacked an airplane and—on this day, at least—I surely would have replied with a silly grin and a gentle query: “Why’re you being bad, Siah?”
I reminded my son of our insignificant moments, the ones that I cherished and replayed in my head every night when the lights were out and the cells were locked.
“You don’t remember?” I asked him. “You tried to introduce yourself to the pigeons in the park — ”
He just stared at me blankly.
“And they kept flying away, and you cried, ‘Daddy, the birds are not my friends.’”
At this, he smiled again.