Sunday, July 31, 2011

Excerpt from Chapter 4 The Ghetto Will Follow You, Shades of Tolerance

Ronald, or Ronnie as his family called him, had pinch-able cheeks sitting up high under the biggest, saddest, dark brown eyes. Bertha would later claim he was her brightest skinned child, and chided him when he played golf as an adult and let the sun beat on his skin until it was so dark Cara and Mackenzie called him “blurple,” a combination of black and purple. He also had “good hair,” deep brown, soft, and delicately waved. He was small for his age and looked younger than his years.
From the time he was very little, he explained to me, he saw halos of color around every person: greens, blues, purples, oranges, yellows and reds.  He did not realize until he was much older that not everyone saw what he saw. He never considered it supernatural as I did when he first told me: a day in Bird Library at Syracuse University when I lost the necklace he had given me on my nineteenth birthday. I was standing outside the restroom in the library basement, blowing my nose and wiping my tears, when he came around the corner and hugged me.
“How did you know I was here?” I asked incredulously, “I was supposed to be in class.”
“I saw your aura – all purples and reds,” he said.
“You see auras?”
“It’s just the way I see,” he said, “I can see what people really look like. That’s why I want to draw them.”
I imagine him in childhood as often wearing a solemn expression – a combination of worry and anxiety. It must have made him look as if he bore the weight of his worries on his shoulders.
Yet he harbored a spark of mischief, a morsel of strength and knowing, and a sprinkle of infectious humor. His Grandma Nellie said, “That boy ain’t nothing but a desperado.”
I tell him, “You were mischievous – always getting into things.”
“Yup,” he says, grinning.
His problems, he told me, were curiosity and creativity. The solution, at least from his dad’s perspective, was to keep him still, to keep his creative energy and curiosity bottled up so they would not spill out as they often did.
The housing projects, lines of brick two-story apartments with tiny patches of lawn and concrete patios, covered one city block after another. The tenants were a mixture of race and ethnicity. Some of them had been displaced after the interstate went through the center of the city. The urban renewal initiative razed houses that were owned by a tight-knit community of blacks in the 15th ward, and the interstate cut the city in half from north to south, leaving a distinct division between the neighborhoods dotting the west side of the city and those dotting the east side.  Other tenants were newly migrated families from the South, like the Hagans, or immigrants from other countries. A few of the Onondaga left the reservation in Nedrow and moved to the city, ending up in the projects as well. The men looked for work at General Electric, Carrier Corporation, Chrysler or Niagara Mohawk, the utility where Sylvester Sr. became the first black sub-station foreman in the 1970s. Some families, like the Hagans, were only there until they could afford better housing; others would live there for generations.
The projects were full of adventure and peril, if a young boy could get past his watchful parents’ eyes. Ronnie had an innate ability for wandering alone and watching all the people and activities happening around him.
The projects, he says, taught him early on that the line between childhood and adulthood was often blurred. I wonder why I never figured that out as a child, hyper-vigilant and responsible, but still thinking I was just a child.
Ronald says he saw children performing adult duties in the projects while being largely unsupervised – running to the store for bread and milk, parenting younger siblings, using sex as bargaining chips for drugs or a trip to the NY State Fair. Men sometimes remained trapped in juvenile foolhardiness – hanging out on the street corner, drinking booze from bottles hidden in paper sacks, snorting cocaine or smoking weed, shooting craps and running numbers, dogging women and girls alike for sex.
Some of the kids Ronald knew from the projects would spend their adult lives in the same place they spent their childhoods or they were in jail or dead. The machismo the boys wore like armor as children, they wore like battle scars as adults: gaunt faces, missing teeth, and wild, yellow eyes with bodies ravaged by alcohol, drugs and the hard life. Girls, their sexuality a gift of hope for a better life, matured into weary women with pendulous breasts and sagging stomachs, tired, cynical eyes, whining children pulling at dress hems, and purses filled with food stamps.
Ronald learned in the projects that adults were sometimes untrustworthy – they could hurt you or steal from you. Sometimes they acted like children or just crazy. Sometimes they tried to sell a kid drugs or they’d beat a kid up because they were chasing after the same thirteen-year-old girl. Sometimes people spilled out of their apartments, screaming at one another, kicking and punching and pumping hands in the air to make a point. Or they had weapons, knives or guns that they grabbed in the heat of the moment.
Ronnie saw this while he wandered through the neighborhood, often times after his brothers told him to go home because they didn’t want him around while they were playing with their friends.
He says he felt distant as if he were watching a movie, part of the audience but not part of the action. But sometimes he got pulled into the action, and then, he tells me, he would be right in the center of it.
“Poverty forces things out in the open because there’s nothing to hide behind,” he says. I understand how this belief, offered to me as fact, stated without reservation, has become a lens through which he views people and himself.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Excerpt from Shades of Tolerance Chapter 2 Bloody Mick

My sister Peggy, the oldest of the five Liuzzi children, was ten years old when I was born. Peggy recently told me she quickly realized Ma had no interest in taking care of me. She thought maybe Ma was overwhelmed or too tired, so she stepped in and made sure I was fed and changed. For the next eight years, she was more a mother than Ma. She would enter my life again when I most needed her as a teenager in an interracial relationship.
I was four when Peggy lost me, or, should I say, we lost track of one another.  Had I paid attention, I would have been right at her side. It was 1961, and she doesn’t recall the incident. Yet the panic and fear of those few minutes stayed with me.
The family was at Thatcher State Park, just outside of Albany, on a summer day. Peggy, tall in my eyes, with ash brown hair, hazel eyes behind cat’s eye glasses, pale skin and freckles across her nose, held my hand and took me over to a food stand to buy small cups of soda. She let go of my hand to carry the sodas back to our picnic table. Without her hand to guide me, I did not follow her. I stood in the crowd of shorts and skirt-covered legs and sandaled feet, overwhelmed by the size and number of adults. I grabbed a hand.
“Oh, my. Whom do you belong to?”
It was a lady’s voice, but not one I knew, and I was too shy to speak. I looked up at her. Her face seemed far away, and her cheeks, rosy with circles of blush, seemed to slide toward her chin as she looked down at me. Her Jackie O. sunglasses hid her eyes, making her seem alien and frightening.
“Where’s your mother?” she asked. I thought she sounded angry. I still held her hand. I pointed toward the picnic tables. “Let’s walk that way and see if we can find her.”
“There you are,” Peggy said, marching over and grabbing my hand. “Thank you. She didn’t follow me back from the stand.”
“Keep an eye on her,” the woman said, turning and walking back to her group of picnickers.
A nightmare haunted me after that incident. We were at Thatcher Park and Ma was calling me because it was time to go home. She stood under a large oak tree in her short-sleeved black dress with the white collar and white buttons on the bodice and sleeve caps, her silhouette all breasts and belly. I ran over, and she grabbed me. She pulled her face off, and underneath was her true face, that of a witch with a long crooked nose and craggy, green skin. I screamed. She took me back to her cave. Her longhaired scarecrow husband, dressed in denim overalls and a red and white plaid flannel shirt, sat cross-legged before a fire pit. A tin plate of food balanced on his knee. 
“Good stuff,” he said while chewing.
I stared, and the witch cackled.
“That’s your little brother. Now I’ll cook you for my dinner.”
She picked me up and held me over the fire pit. I kicked and screamed with all my might, and the flames licked my Keds.
But that was how it was with Ma and me. I always thought she regarded me as if I were covered in pricklers; and I always regarded her as the mother in my dream who devoured her young.

Peggy was born on November 4, 1947. Frank came two years later on October 4, 1949. He was chubby when he was young and drank skim milk instead of whole. His ears stuck out from the sides of his head, made worse, Ma said, because he wore a cowboy hat crushed down over his ears for the first six or seven years of his life.  I had a hard time pronouncing his name when I was little, something about the ‘f’ and ‘r’ troubled me, and I called him Winko.
Rocco was born five years later on Frank’s birthday in 1954. “Take him back,” Frank told my mother, “he’s not what I asked for.” Rocco was the baby Ma said she almost died having. He was the largest baby, and I always imagined he was too heavy to stay inside her tummy. She told the doctor at delivery that if he had to choose, he should save the baby. Ma had a sweet spot in her heart for Rocco, letting him put his feet in her lap so she could rub them. He was a child of few words but he knew how to use a pencil and drew for hours a day. His nose was broad and flat, and Ma said he was part Aborigine. I imagine Ma liked how the word Aborigine rolled off her tongue and how it caused any neighbor or stranger to whom she mentioned it to stare at her with wide eyes and open mouths. But I liked believing Rocco was part Aborigine, and when I was in elementary school, I announced it whenever I could fit it into conversation.
 I was born three years later on May 30, 1957 at 5:30 a.m. Ma’s abdominal muscles were so stretched by the time I came along that I languished sideways in her womb. The nurses piled rolled blankets at her sides to coax me down into the birth canal headfirst. Hearing Ma tell the story of my birth, I believed my turning headfirst into the birth canal was the first of many times in my life that I would do my best to please others. But there was no pleasing Ma, no offers to rub my feet, and I stopped trying early on. Princess was not a word she had used to describe me before the day she learned I was in love with a black man.
Andy was born one month before my fourth birthday on April 29, 1961. I remember Ma pregnant with Andy. I kicked her in the stomach while she washed my hair at the kitchen sink, her baby-filled tummy pressed against me, and she left a red handprint on my shoulder blade where she slapped me.