Chapter One I'm in a cappin' mood
I know divorce is supposed to be hard on kids, but when my parents finally did it, it wasn’t really that hard on me. They were so mismatched that the year before they got divorced, I often wondered if Dad met Mom by mistakenly wandering into a poetry reading thinking it was a Parliament concert. Dad was cool. Mom was Mom. They were both attractive, but other than that, they didn’t really make much sense. Their differences became louder every day. So when my mom didn’t come home one night, my first thought was, "I hope Dad’s new apartment has an elevator!" I was only seven, but I already knew how divorce worked. Dad moved out and got a cool apartment with a pool. We lived with Mom, of course—it was the mid-eighties and moms always got the kids. But we’d visit Dad on weekends, swim in his pool, and he’d buy us lots of stuff to make sure we still loved him. He would be there just to make sure that we were growing up to be cool, going to enough parties and dressing right. There would be two birthdays and two Christmases. And maybe Mom would move to a new neighborhood, and I would have new neighbors who liked me. Plus, if I was lucky, one of them might have a telescope.
But things didn’t quite work out that way. Dad really wanted us with him. And Mom apparently had some "work" to do on herself—which meant she needed to cut her hair and cry a lot. She started dating a Jewish guy in Mensa, who also drove a bus and had "depression." And, since she worked full-time, and Dad had always taken care of us during the day, they decided Mom should be the weekend dad with the apartment.
The process happened so quickly that I didn’t even get a vote on where I was gonna live. There was supposed to be a judge, like in the movies, who would take me and my sister into his chambers. Then he would clear all of the adults out of the room so no one’s feelings would get hurt, offer us a Werther’s Original, lean back in his chair, and say, "Okay, now level with me. . . . Who do you like better?" At which point I would say, "Mom." Not because I liked her better, but because I knew I was cool enough for Mom. And I felt that not being quite good enough for Dad might cause problems down the road— like I’d cramp his style and maybe he’d decide to leave me at a party. Of course, I assumed everyone wanted my little sister Anora—she was adorable. But when I asked Mom and Dad about the judge and the missing courtroom battle I was told that that sort of thing was for rich people and that normal people didn’t ask their kids what they wanted.
The terms of the divorce finalized, Dad announced he was giving me an allowance. I had to take care of my sister, meaning quieting her when she got hysterical and keeping her from wandering off in public places. And for that I got a dollar a week, which was totally a fortune because I measured it in Now and Laters. Then my dad promptly got a summer job doing construction to "show that bitch," which left my sister and me without daily supervision. "Not to worry," Dad said. "You guys are going to Government Subsidized Charity Club." Which sounded really awesome—like the Mickey Mouse Club or the Nancy Drew Fan Club.
Okay, the place wasn’t actually called "Government Subsidized Charity Club," but for now let’s call it that, or GSCC for short. Our first day at GSCC, we all climbed into Dad’s truck and drove down M. L. King, arriving at the side entrance of a building that was clearly used for something else. We walked up a rickety stairway to a side door and entered a dingy vestibule, where a counselor sat at a table picking lead paint off it. She had a clipboard and two jump ropes—which, combined with the two kick balls—brought the total number of toys in the facility up to four. In addition to the lack of toys, the entire place smelled like pee and cigarettes. I would not have been surprised to find out it was used as a low-bottom halfway house the rest of the year, and that every summer they kicked out people named Gimpy Carl and Staph-man McGee to make room for day camp. I peered from the entryway into a main playroom full of kids, and surprise! My sister and I were the only white kids there. I was also, from what I could see, the skinniest kid—in boxing, that’s what they refer to as "shit odds." It was then I decided that either Dad was cheap or we were just stopping by on the way to the real day camp.
"Well," Dad said, signing a clipboard and cementing that we were, in fact, in the right place. "Looks like you guys are good to go." I guess by "good to go," he meant that we weren’t standing on broken glass. But I smiled weakly, and I think he sensed my apprehension, because he got down on one knee, straightened my overalls, looked me right in the eye, and said, "Just, don’t take any shit," before walking out the door.
We were then led into the playroom, and other than the counselor who had checked us in, there was not an adult in sight. I quickly got out of the way as two bigger kids threw the red rubber balls at a younger kid’s head—some sort of two-on-one dodgeball. In the far corner there was a group of girls who were probably around nine, but looked like they were about sixteen. They laughed as they looked at a boy four feet away who was sitting on the ground crying. I decided to avoid eye contact and found a pole near the far side of the room to lean against. That’s when I realized—everyone was staring at me.
I heard a wail from across the room that was directed at me, but loud enough to grab everyone’s attention: "W’sup, marshmallow turd!"
I turned and saw it was coming from Caprice, a girl whose mother had braided half her head and then, I guess, moved on to something else.
"Nothing," I said, and went to grab my little sister’s hand and lead her out of harm’s way—thinking of my allowance. That’s when I realized Anora was gone. Probably looking for something dirty or poisonous to put in her mouth. I was all alone and being surrounded. The boys with the kick balls, the girls from the corner—everyone closed in on me as Caprice walked over and got in my face.
"Nothing? Is that what you said, Wonder Bread?" Caprice put a hand on her hip. "You look like your mama’s on welfare!" I desperately wanted to point out that that was like the pot calling the kettle white, but my lips had sealed themselves together with some sort of pussy glue.
Then a nine-year-old boy with an earring chimed in, "She’s so white, we got to wear shades inside." And the group of kids that had been gathering started laughing like it was the funniest thing anyone had ever said. That’s when I found my sister. She was next to another girl her age, laughing herself to death. It was around this time I began to seriously question my father’s wisdom in sending us to this particular child-care facility.
At around noon, lunch arrived, which brought the promise of some order to the day. I took my government- issued sack lunch out of the cardboard box and took stock. The brown bag contained: a bologna-and-American-cheese sandwich that was smushed into a weird shape in transport, a fruit that was mutantly small—but big enough to smush a bologna-and-American-cheese sandwich—a bag of chips, and a milk—condiments on the side. It didn’t seem so bad, but I didn’t realize at the time that I would be eating it almost every summer for the rest of my life.
My sister sat with a girl her age, and as much as I wanted the company, I wasn’t up for begging my little sister to let me hang with her. So I sat down in a corner behind a pole and began to eat my sandwich. I had just started on my sandwich when I got hit with what can only be described as an "arcing rope" of mayonnaise. I looked up and the boy with the earring was doubled over—pointing to my goo-covered face and shirt. And as I wiped mayonnaise off my cheek with a napkin, the boy with the earring threw the empty packet at me and said, "There you go, mayonnaise!" Then he proceeded to bend over and take my chips—the only part of the lunch that didn’t taste like refrigerator.
Over the course of our first day at GSCC, my sister made two friends, and I managed to crawl into my skin, the way one does when experiencing third-degree burns. And when my father came to pick us up, I could no longer use words. I grunted hello to him, and got in his pickup. It didn’t help that he was an hour and a half late, which meant that we were stuck waiting with the impatient counselor—and Darnell, the kid who smelled like pee.
On the ride home, my sister and I shared the passenger-side safety belt, which meant that I couldn’t ignore her as she excitedly recapped the day’s events to our dad.
"I have two new friends, Dad!" Anora said proudly. "Gitana and Rene. Rene and I made Chinese jacks and Gitana wants to do my hair."
"That’s great, baby," Dad said. "What about you, Mishna? You meet some folks?" But before I could say, "No, Dad. People hate me. Why would you send me to that evil lair of cruelty and injustice?" my sister was chiming in.
"Mishna met some people." Then she laughed. "She got roasted." Dad looked at me disappointed, and he could see it in my face—I did get roasted.
"Mishna," Dad said. "You can’t let people disrespect you. Get in people’s face. Be like, ‘Don’t mess with me!’ Remember, you’re my daughter. Throw an elbow if you have to."
"Okay, Dad," I said. But what I was thinking was, I know what he’s telling me to do, but how come it’s so hard for me to do it?
I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t the most articulate kid. In fact, if I needed to express myself, I had learned that my best bet was to break something and hurt myself to get my point across. Hurting myself was like my sign language. For example: Breaking glass and getting cut meant, "I strongly disagree." And hitting the wall until I broke a knuckle meant, "You have a point, but you aren’t seeing the whole picture." And curling up into a ball in the fetal position and crying meant, "This isn’t over."
But none of these devices seemed to work at GSCC. When I hit the wall with my fist because someone said my mother was so bucktoothed that she could eat corn on the cob through a fence—everyone just laughed at me more. Plus, the counselors got pissed at me for making them find the first-aid kit. So, I was defenseless and mute the rest of the week at Government Subsidized Charity Club.
And that week was hell. My whiteness was the butt of every joke. And with every public humiliation I became more sensitive, not less. So, as a last resort, I tried to avoid everyone. If someone looked at me, I moved out of their field of vision as quickly as possible. If someone looked like they were about to talk to me, I walked away. And at every opportunity, I found nooks to crawl into and places to hide. After a day or so of avoiding all human contact, I started to think of myself as stealth-ness itself, like a phantom lurking through the shadows—or better yet, like a ninja.
I had just settled into a broom closet with, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret when one of the counselors flung the closet door open and stood angrily above me, tapping her foot.
"What’s wrong? What are you doing reading in here all by yourself ?" "I’m really comfortable in here, if you just want to close the door."
But instead she said, "No! What you need to do, is you need to go join the rest of the kids!" I popped my head out of the closet and looked across the room. Rodney, an obese child, was setting his friend’s jeans on fire. While Jamal, the boy with the earring, pointed out that a younger boy had a crooked dick.
"Please can I stay here?" I asked.
The counselor said without hesitation, "I can’t watch you in no closet!"
But I just sat there unable to move, hoping she would change her mind and let me stay. I put on my most imploring face, but she just started looking at her nails. I tried opening my book again, and she cleared her throat and rolled her eyes. And while she looked at me impatiently, I slinked out of the closet and joined the rest of the kids.
Jamal welcomed me with a "skitch" to the back of the head. That’s basically like hitting someone in the back of the head, but you graze it. So to the untrained adult eye, it looks playful.
Then Caprice belted out, "Her ass is so flat, it looks like two saltine crackers that done lost they box!" Kids cackled and pointed and grabbed their chins and said, "Cap" and "Roast."
"What are they doing?" I asked Darnell, because his pee smell made him accessible to me.
"Well," Darnell said. "You just got capped on. That roast is ’cause you’re roasted."
"Capped on?" I asked. But I was too low on the totem pole for even the pee-kid to talk to me for very long.
He just said, "Yeah," as he walked away.
And so, I found out that day that what was happening to me was called, "getting capped on." And it wasn’t about the intelligence of the insult. Caprice and Jamal were not particularly clever, but they had confidence and could work a crowd like Marc Antony. The one who needed to borrow some ears.
I became immediately fascinated with Caprice and Jamal’s fearlessness. When I looked at capping as a skill, it was completely foreign and exciting to me. In fact, half the time, the caps didn’t even make sense. Caprice came up to me on the side porch that day and said, "You look like a broke-down Teddy Ruxpin." And even though I didn’t get it, people laughed. I wanted that kind of confidence. And later that day when Jamal said I was "a powdered dooky doughnut," a voice rang out clear as a bell in my head: Hey, I’m funnier than this guy!
I had no idea where the voice had come from, since I had never even told a joke. But the voice was uncanny, and for whatever reason, I believed it.
So for that next week at GSCC, I got taken down over and over again by their caps. But at night, I practiced capping like an upstart fighter training for a championship. I had seen that movie Rocky and I fancied myself kind of like Rocky, if he could talk. I practiced in the mirror, trying to place my hand on my hip just so, while rolling my neck for emphasis. I tried snapping in a Z. I tried closing my eyes and waving my hand in the air. And I tried every possible ending for a sentence that starts out: "Your mama."
The next Monday morning, as my sister joined her friends Gitana and Rene jumping rope. I walked into the playroom with my usual apprehension and took a seat on the floor with my copy of Highlights, Jamal, the earring-wearing terror, saw me from across the room and headed toward me with a self-satisfied look on his face. Caprice and posse followed closely behind him, as Jamal swaggered up to me and said with a smirk, "Morning, Mush-na."
The other kids laughed and said, "Ooooh," which hardly seemed called for. But it baited Caprice to one-up him.
"Look at her," Caprice said. "She’s such a cracker, if she has a bowl of soup she dunks herself."
The crowd ate it up, and in an attempt to soak up some of Caprice’s laughs, Jamal repeated her punch line as though he had come up with it. "She dunks herself!" The desired result was achieved—the attention returned to Jamal.
What happened next was one of the most magical moments of my entire life. I remember turning to Jamal and the words coming out of my mouth as if in slow motion: "Am I being talked to by a burnt chocolate chip cookie?" I had the neck roll and everything.
The cap came out of my mouth before I thought it through and was an amalgamation of things I had heard around, so it surprised me when a girl named Myvette shouted, "It’s true! He dark!" And I realized I had just told a "He’s-so-black joke."
The crowd was surprised and started roaring, and so I decided to push my luck. I took a second to regroup before striking again—this time at Caprice. I put my hand on my hip and said, "Your mama’s so lazy, Jesus will come back before she finishes your hair!"
The laughs of the excited kids washed over me like manna. They grabbed their chins and cried "Cap!" and "Roast!" They pointed at Jamal and Caprice. Then something happened that I hadn’t expected—something wonderful. Rodney slapped me five! Even with a messed-up knuckle it felt good.
That summer I learned Uno, and Chinese jump rope, and Chinese checkers, and Chinese jacks and double Dutch. I learned hand-slapping chants that had the N-word in them—I had no idea what I was saying. Like "Downtown Baby," which was totally inappropriate for me to be chanting, but none of us knew that. I went through the various hand slaps and acted out gestures with Caprice and Gitana chanting along with them:
Downtown baby—down by the roller coaster (roller coaster
with your hand) Sweet sweet baby—I’ll never let you go (hugging yourself ) Just because I kiss you—don’t mean I love you so I like coffee— I like tea I like the colored boy—and he likes me I say, Hey, white boy!—if you ain’t shy Call me a n***** and I’ll beat your behind!
I also learned that if I wanted friends, picking up bugs was a no-no. And I got better at capping every day. I was pretty good for a white girl. But there were other cappers who were better than me, for sure. At night I would lie in the top bunk of my room and fantasize.
Maybe if I come back every summer and really practice capping . . . maybe one day, I could be the best. Then it hit me, Maybe I could even find a way to cap for a living? That seemed too good to be true, so I second-guessed my own fantasy. Nah . . . I’ll just stick with being an anesthesiologist, I thought as I lay in bed sniffing my Mr. Sketch markers. Or a Solid Gold Dancer. Yeah, like the pretty white one with the crimped hair. I threw my head against my pillow as I contemplated my preferred order of things I wanted to be when I grew up:
Solid Gold Dancer
Governor (presidents have a tendency to get shot)
Assassin (someone needs to do all that shooting)
About halfway through the summer we started to have visits with our mother. I saw this down time as an opportunity to take my capping to the next level. Mom had moved into the top floor of the house of a solar architect and his family, and she was a Buddhist now—it was "part of her process."
So when we got to her house and checked out our room, I told her, "You ain’t no Buddhist, you’re a booty-ist."
"What did you say?" she asked.
To which I replied, "You’re so dumb, you thought Buddhism was about booty." It wasn’t one of my finer moments, but Anora laughed.
"What’s going on?" she asked Anora.
My sister smiled and rolled around on her bed and said, "Mishna capped on you."
That was when Mom bent over, looked me right in the eye, and said in a very sincere voice, "I really don’t like being capped on. It hurts my feelings." Hippies have a way of sucking the fun out of everything.
I couldn’t really cap on my father, either. He was happy that I was getting along at GSCC, but my few attempts at capping on my father (the six-foot-four, two-hundred-pound ex- linebacker) were experiments in fear.
One day after day camp, I had swaggered up to him on the sofa where he was outfitting the broken TV knob with an adjustable wrench, and said, "You’re so ugly, the itsy bitsy spider saw you at the other end of the water spout and decided to take his chances with the rain." That was when he pinched me in a place between my neck and shoulder, like a Vulcan, until I went limp.
But I assumed that the reason he Vulcan-neck-pinched me was because the cap wasn’t very good. So next day, I decided to make fun of his head shape, with a surefire winner I had stolen from Rodney. Dad, however, didn’t laugh or high-five me. In fact, he didn’t react at all. He just quietly grabbed some nuts from the nut bowl and began cracking them with his bare hands. He did this in silence for a while, looking me right in the eye before saying, "I’m not about to take it from my daughter in my own home. . . . I take it from the Man every day."
"Okay," I said.
Then his voice got really low and he grabbed my chin in order to look at me in the eye and said, "This shit stops here."
Which I assumed meant, "Go pick on your sister."
My sister endured all kinds of verbal abuse from me during this time. It didn’t even bother me that "your mama" jokes directed at my little sister were "my mama" jokes. And I used her as a sounding board for all my new caps. I found I could measure the effectiveness of the put-down by how berserk she went. She would sit watching TV, and I would walk into the living room and make some declaration about how smelly she was or how much the ugly stick liked her. If she glared at me and went back to the TV, it meant the cap needed tweaking. If I got her to yell at me or throw something, I was definitely on to something. And if she whirled her arms, in a move that could best be described as "the windmill" and clubbed me about the head in a flurry of blind rage—I had a winner. I didn’t hit back, though. Hitting her back meant facing Dad and the five fingers of death. So I happily took the licks as payment due for her allowing me to use her as a focus group.
Every day at GSCC Club I learned something new. Like Caprice taught me that throwing psych! on the end of a flattering comment was an awesome way to make a fool out of someone.
You could walk up to any unsuspecting person and say, "Nice shirt . . . PSYCH!" It was cheap, but it was almost more effective than a straight cap, because you couldn’t brace yourself for it. The only way to brace yourself for a psych! was to already think you were a piece of shit—which, if you did, you were capping at a Jedi level. Faggot was also en mode, thanks in part to Eddie Murphy. None of us knew what a faggot was, but it rolled off the tongue like butter, and I used it as a comma.
When the end of day camp came, I found myself a little sad. I was really gonna miss everyone, especially Caprice, who had made me a very pretty Chinese jack as part of an alliance against Jamal. I thought it would be nice if just once all her hair was done, but I didn’t have the skills to finish it, so I drew her a picture of Jamal with breasts.
The counselors announced that, for the last day of camp, we were required to do a performance for all of the parents. They suggested a song and dance number about our experience at Government Subsidized Charity Club. Which was strange, because all we did all summer was sit in a dank room and make fun of each other while they sat in an offi ce and handed out the occasional kick ball. So, the number we wrote was called "I’m in a Cappin’ Mood." We sat in a circle with a small Casio keyboard that someone had brought in, and wrote caps for ourselves to the prerecorded beats. Jamal and Caprice wrote for the younger kids like Anora, Gitana, and Rene, who couldn’t write their own caps.
The night of the show we stood in a line on a makeshift stage, swaying back and forth as we sang the chorus;
I’m in a cappin’ mood (clap, clap)
I’m in a cappin’ mood (clap)
Then one by one we stepped downstage to deliver our own personal cap.
Jamal, who was standing next to me, was first. The room was filled with the twenty or so parents who had bothered to show up on the last day of camp. They watched patiently, knowing that it was penance for the months of almost free child care. Jamal fearlessly stepped forward and stayed on beat as he committed to the delivery of his cap.
Keep your shoes on
If you don’t mind,
’Cause your feet smell like
A cow’s behind.
Then the whole group did the chorus.
I’m in a cappin’ mood (clap, clap)
I’m in a cappin’ mood (clap)
My turn. I felt my stomach turn into knots as I stepped in front of the row of kids trying to keep the beat with my rhythmless body, while I delivered my cap.
You’re so poor.
It’s really sad.
I was at the junkyard.
And I bought your dad.
I got a laugh and it felt like coming home.
Through the rest of the performance I joined in on the chorus and watched the rest of the caps, thinking that they didn’t quite measure up to the caliber of mine. And when we were all finished, the parents seemed truly impressed. But I was most excited for Dad to see how down I was, and how many sister friends I had made. And when I left the stage he smiled and said good job. Then he walked me over to meet Jamal’s mom, who had huge breasts and very red lips—both of which Dad liked. Jamal’s mom proceeded to tell me how great I was—and she was right.
Dad agreed with her, but then added, "Yeah, but I’ll tell you one thing. You cap on me . . . you better not cap on me, ’cause I’ll go upside your ass." But then he laughed at his own joke, so I knew it was just something he said so that I didn’t get too big for my britches.
"Well, call me sometime," Jamal’s mom said, writing something on a piece of paper and handing it to Dad. Dad wrote something on the other side of the same piece of paper and handed it back to her, "No, you call me."
And as we walked away, my dad said smiling, "She don’t gotta know that the phone’s off." We had missed a phone bill and gotten disconnected, meaning incoming calls only. I smiled back. The night just couldn’t get any cooler.
As we drove home, Anora was bouncing in her seat and Dad was humming the chorus to, "I’m in a Cappin’ Mood." And when we rolled onto our street, I saw the kids on the corner— Jason, Nay-Nay, and Latifa. And something had changed in the way they looked. Like somehow they seemed less intimidating, and much less cool to me. If I were to jump out of the car at that moment, I wouldn’t be scared—I would be doing them a favor. And there was a new freedom in the air. In fact, I knew that I would never be afraid of them again—because I had the power of the cap!
Excerpted from I’m Down by Mishna Wolff.
Copyright © 2009 by Mishna Wolff.
Published by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.