My cousin Curtis is more than just my cousin. He’s my right-hand man. His moms (Inez Michaels) and my moms (Nadia Michaels) are sisters. But they rarely speak. I like to think of them as flip sides of the same coin. Both of them were single mothers trying their best to raise their children in the midst of a storm. Crack was at epidemic proportions. The Rockefeller drug laws were guaranteeing you a mandated prison sentence of fifteen years (minimum!) if caught with even small amounts of narcotics. And we were sixteen-year-old black boys growing up in the ghettos of New York.
Aunt Inez always worked hard for what she has. She had Curtis when she was fresh out of high school, but she never accepted any type of government aid. No welfare, no WIC, food stamps, Medicaid … nothing! That type of pride caused her to have to work two and sometimes three jobs to make ends meet. That meant that Curtis spent a lot of time at the home of our grandparents—we call them Grandma and Papa. Curtis’ father has kids all over the place and he don’t do shit for none of them.
My mother, on the other hand, could never imagine a life without government assistance. From the moment me and my sister, Olivia, were born, she supported us with the help of Uncle Sam. She gets it all: food stamps, Section 8, Aid for Dependent Children, Medicaid, disability … you name it, she gets it. My mother also participates in these scams they call “fair hearings,” which she usually wins.
For example, in our house on Grandview Avenue (which we rent with the help of Section 8), we had a fire in the kitchen once. It was a small one, but it was enough to cause my mother to apply for a fair hearing six months later. Her argument? She claimed that she couldn’t prepare meals for her children in the kitchen (which was bullshit ’cause we had steaks, fried chicken, and baked macaroni all the time) and was forced to use her cash—since she claimed that the food stamps they gave her were not enough—to purchase meals for us outside. She won that hearing to the tune of $4,700. That paid for the fifty-five-inch television she bought for the living room, and the leather sectional we sat on. As for the house we lived in, it’s a three-bedroom duplex with a sunken living room. Hardly what you would expect for a single mother of two on welfare. God bless America.
My moms always felt that Aunt Inez thought she was better than us. “Just ’cause she got a job and I get welfare don’t mean shit. If you ask me, she’s the fool! I never have to worry about where my next meal is coming from.” My mother’s logic was always questionable.
My mother also has a brother named Eli. It wasn’t short for Elijah or Elias or anything like that. Back in the day, black folks would name their children what most would consider nicknames, sometimes even initials (T. J., A. J., etc.). My uncle’s name is simple. So is his life. He has never lived anywhere except my grandmother’s home. In ’89, he was forty-two years old and had not had a job in his life. Him and my mother got along just fine.
Curtis and Aunt Inez lived modestly. They had a two-bedroom apartment on Continental Place, which was right around the corner from our house. Both of our houses were a stone’s throw away from the projects. I always felt that our houses might as well have been part of the projects. We went to school with all the kids from the projects. We played with all the kids from the projects. Ultimately, we found ourselves knee-deep in shit with kids from the projects.
Curtis is his mother’s only child. I always felt bad about that. Even though Olivia, my little sister, is a girl, she is still good company. She’s one year younger than me (despite the fact that we have different fathers), so the two of us are very close. Olivia and I never had a problem doing what we wanted or going where we wanted. Our moms didn’t care, as long as her government check came on time. Our fathers were both nonexistent. Mine left the minute my moms told him she was pregnant, and Olivia’s died in ’79 from some kind of cancer. As we got older, I became Olivia’s unofficial guardian. I took that responsibility very seriously. My moms never offered us any type of guidance. But the bills were always paid, and we both sported the hottest Adidas, Reeboks, or whatever was popular at the moment. I guess that contributed to our obsession with money. Money bought the finer things in life. And to us, nothing was more important than that.
Curtis also had a lot of time on his hands, since his moms was always at work. Not wanting Curtis to get caught up in the ever-present street life, Aunt Inez sent him to stay with our grandparents in Park Hill for the summer. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and although I knew I would miss him, I figured Curtis would have a good summer eating Papa’s delicious cooking. (Contrary to the stereotype of grandmothers who throw down in the kitchen, Papa was the chef in the family. That was how he’d made a living all of his life and his meals could make a grown man cry!) But, despite Aunt Inez’s good intentions, Curtis found himself at the first major crossroads in his life.
Like me, Curtis had to attend summer school. I went to my regular high school for the summer. But Curtis had to go to the school closest to my grandparent’s house—New Dorp High School. None of us anticipated Curtis running into any trouble. Papa and Grandma lived in a modest house on a quiet street in Park Hill called Vanderbilt Avenue. It was close to the notorious Park Hill Housing complex, but far enough away that it felt a bit safer. However, since Curtis wound up in summer school, he also wound up in the midst of some of Park Hill’s biggest knuckleheads.
On the first day of summer school, July 5, 1989, Curtis called me.
“Yo, La,” he said. “These niggas out here think they real hard! Most of them mu’fuckas just stand around giving me the screw face. But this one nigga … they call him Jah like he’s God … he rolled up on me today, La!”
I had never heard my cousin sound so anguished. I knew he could handle himself since the two of us had gone toe-to-toe with our share of assholes in the ’hood. But this time, Curtis sounded like he wasn’t so confident.
“Jah, huh?” I asked. “What’s this nigga look like?”
“He’s about my height … six feet tall I guess. But this dude is a fuckin’ menace. All he keeps saying is, ‘You ain’t from around here, muthafucka. This is Killa Hill. We’re murderers out here. This is Killa Hill, nigga.’ His boys just follow him around and look hard but this muthafucka got a lot of mouth!”
I thought about what Curtis was saying. I was big for my age and I could be intimidating. I’m about six feet four inches, and my love of sports has blessed me with an athletic build. I thought it might be wise for me to round up some of the neighborhood thugs and take a ride to Park Hill to show support for my cousin. But then, he dropped a bomb I wasn’t expecting.
“La, the nigga pulled a gun on me.”
My whole demeanor changed when he told me that shit. “He pulled a gun on you?” I asked to be sure I had heard him right.
“Word, La! The nigga pulled up his shirt and showed me the handle of a gun in his waistband. He said, ‘Killa Hill, muthafucka! You ain’t from here, so don’t come here!’ I just walked off and caught the bus home. But I gotta face that nigga tomorrow, La. How would you handle this?”
Damn! I thought to myself. What a tough question to answer. I gave it some thought and said, “Don’t go to school tomorrow. I’ll come out there and we’ll take a ride up to New Dorp together.”
Curtis seemed content with this answer and we hung up the phone with plans to meet the following day. I called up some niggas from around the way who were the ride-or-die type. Everyone was down for whatever when it came to Curtis, so I was confident that we would prevail over any so-called beef.
The next day, I woke up at 10:00 A.M. and called all my boys to confirm our plans. Everything was on point. I took a shower and admired the muscles on my dark brown body in the mirror. I was ready to crack this nigga Jah’s face open.
We all met up and rode the bus to Park Hill. All the people on the bus looked scared of us: seven tall, black young men wearing do-rags and cold glares. I hoped that these Park Hill niggas would be just as intimidated. We arrived at my grandparents’ house, and I yelled through the screen door as I always do. Instead of Curtis, Uncle Eli appeared and unlocked the door to let us in. My uncle was tall like me, bald, with muscles that resembled a wrestler’s. I guess he spent his time working out instead of working a job. As we all entered, Uncle Eli seemed confused.
“What brings you over here so early?” he asked.
I told my boys to have a seat on the couch and I answered his question with one of my own. “Where’s Curtis at? Is he still sleeping?”
Uncle Eli shook his head. “Curtis left for school about an hour ago.”
Now I was confused. “He went to school?” I asked. “Are you sure?”
Uncle Eli nodded. “Yeah, I’m sure.” He pulled me into the kitchen so that we could speak in private. I knew something was up.
“Lamin,” he said, “did Curtis tell you about this cat at his school who’s messin’ with him?”
I nodded. Obviously, Curtis and Uncle Eli had discussed the situation at hand. He continued. “He told me about that faggot, and I told him that anytime a nigga pulls a gun on you and don’t shoot, he ain’t a real gangsta! Every real gangsta knows that you don’t pull your gun unless you’re prepared to kill a muthafucka.”
I nodded in agreement, but this still didn’t explain why Curtis went to school without me. “So, what made him go to school alone?”
Uncle Eli poured himself a glass of Kool-Aid as he responded. “I told him not to let nobody punk him. Running from a nigga makes him feel like he got the upper hand. Ain’t no punks in the Michaels family.”
I wanted to make sure that Curtis was alright. “Well, I’m going to the school with my crew to make sure Curtis can handle himself,” I said. I exited the kitchen and joined my boys in the living room. They were engrossed in conversation about how they intended to put a serious hurting on these cats, when the doorbell rang.
Uncle Eli went to answer the door just as my grandfather, Papa, entered the room. Papa was the coolest old man on Earth. Whenever he went out—even if it was just to the supermarket—he always wore a sharp hat, which he’d dip to the side. His face was always clean shaven and his look was distinguished. Papa was the type to walk around the house wearing a Hugh Hefner—style bathrobe, dress socks, and house shoes … with a Rolex on his wrist. You had to respect his style.
“Hey, young bloods,” he greeted us. “What it is?” Papa never caught up on the latest slang. He just stuck to what he knew. My friends smiled at the dapper old man with the old-school swagger and everyone greeted him warmly. Papa patted me on my back and smiled. “How’s my boy doing today?” he asked.
Before I could answer, Uncle Eli entered the living room followed by about seven police officers. The look on my uncle’s face was grim. My heart sank. Immediately, I wondered what had happened to my cousin.
“Are you the guardian of Curtis Michaels?” a female officer asked Papa.
He nodded. “I’m his grandfather. He’s staying with me and my wife for the summer.” As if on cue, Grandma entered the room with a worried look on her face.
“What’s going on?” my grandmother asked.
The female officer spoke again. “Your grandson has been arrested for assault with a deadly weapon.”
As the room erupted in shouts and chaos, my grandfather spoke over the noise. “What happened to my grandson?”
The officer explained, “Curtis had an altercation with someone by the name of Joshua Cook. According to school officials, this Joshua kid is a spitfire … likes to start trouble, quick–tempered … a real handful. Apparently, Joshua singled your grandson out and badgered him. This must not have been their first altercation, since your grandson brought a firearm to school with him today to protect himself—”
“A firearm?” my grandmother seemed incredulous, but I noticed the look that Papa shot at Uncle Eli. I knew that Uncle Eli kept an unlicensed handgun at the top of his closet, and so did Curtis. Suddenly, I understood why Curtis had been brave enough to go to school alone. Papa looked pissed.
“Yes,” the officer responded. “Curtis hasn’t given us a statement yet. But, some of the other students told us that Curtis was being harassed. Apparently, Joshua was following Curds—yelling threats at him and humiliating him. Curtis, it seems, pulled out the gun and shot Joshua in the chest at point-blank range.”
Silence filled the room.
“Where is Curtis now?” Grandma asked.
“At the 123rd Precinct being processed. He’ll be arraigned this afternoon.” As the officer spoke, her walkie-talkie interrupted, noisily. She removed it from her pants and spoke into it. “Come again.” The words spoken by the person on the other end of the walkie-talkie sounded like gibberish to me but the looks the officers exchanged gave me chills. The officer in charge looked sadly at us and said, “Joshua Cook just died at Staten Island Hospital. It appears that Curtis will be charged with murder.”
That was the very moment that I went from a boy to a man. My cousin … my best friend was going to jail. I knew that neither one of us would ever be the same.