I don’t know how my family became homeless in Tulsa. Within a few months of relocating to Oklahoma, the opportunity of a new beginning had faded, and the reality of daily bludgeoning set in. We stayed in a one room apartment with a handful of furniture scattered throughout. My uncle Clarence’s former bachelor pad, his tiny apartment in a massive apartment complex, was home for my migrant family. I remember laying on the carpet, listening to Star Treks theme music on TV, as I fell asleep the first few nights. In the beginning it felt like a vacation. A long and unwanted vacation.
Reality kicked in when I started at my new school. Boevers Elementary was a million worlds removed from the types of schools I went to in Chicago. For the first time in my life, I was a minority. When I lived in Rogers Park, the black population at my grammar school was smaller than the others. Still, that first day at Boevers was the first time that I became conscious of race and class as a possible obstacle in my own life. I used to be one of the fastest kids alive. I rarely lost a footrace. I recently beat Marcus Pickney in a 40 yard dash, so I was the fastest kid in the third grade back at Oglesby. I stayed in my own bubble for the first few hours at school, but at lunch when some kid asked me if I wanted to race, I couldn’t resist the chance to test my stuff with a new heat of runners. I dusted the competition. Everybody the school had to offer, I beat, even daring to skip class to race the 5th and 6th graders that went to lunch later. I was the fastest kid in the school. But that didn’t matter at Boevers. Money mattered. I was better off being the new kid. And that only lasts so long.
Surely it was the juxtaposition of the two worlds. My life lacked substenance. Everything seemed temporal. My spirit was like sand in an hour glass, pouring back and forth into an empty vessel. I would have been fine if the world around me was going through the same thing. My misery needed company. I wore the same lime green shorts and payless brand boots to school every other day for the first year. By the cold mornings of late fall, my decision to buy a trendy outfit for school bit me in the ass. I missed a few field trips because I didn’t have the money to go. After a while, I stopped asking my mom for money, already knowing the answer.
I was invited to this kid Adam Wilbanks birthday party sometime that first year. Somehow I managed to pull $5 for a birthday gift, so I went to Walgreens and diligently shuffled through the trinkets looking for an offering upon my arrival. I went with a birthday card and a pack of basketball cards, since Adam was a big fan of the game. I couldn’t wait to play a game when I arrived. My mom didn’t have a car so I walked a mile to his house. The house was full of kids, some I knew, others I didn’t. There was a table in the open garage stacked with gifts. The big boxes wrapped in pink and green polka dots put my unwrapped birthday and basketball card duo to shame. When I put the card on top of the other gifts, it slid into the stack. The package was so small that it fit in between the other gifts. To say I felt inadequate would be an understatement. I knew that Adam’s family wasn’t rich. They went to the same public school as I. After borrowing a baseball glove to join the game and playing street hockey in my gym shoes, it was pretty obvious I was not as able as the other kids in the group. For the longest time, I thought this was partly due to my race. I was the only black kid at the party after all. My feelings of self worth and pity had to be created from my poverty, I reasoned. I was the fastest kid. I was the smartest kid. If it were based on merit, I’d be the richest kid. When I searched for an explanation for the disparity, race was the only answer that allowed me to sleep.
Then that changed. For a science project, I was paired with another black kid, Juan Theard. Juan was only half black, in the sense that he pretty much thought of himself as a white kid thinks of himself and he probably didn’t write research papers on Malcolm X and MLK in the 3rd grade. We decided to grow a flower for the class, but I quickly learned neither of us had the green thumb, so we ended up with mud. The first day of our project, Juan tagged along after school as I headed around the corner to the apartment complex my family stayed in. When we arrive, he made a big deal about living in an apartment. Something about his aunt living in an apartment. I took offense but didn’t say anything because I was more astonished that he didn’t live in an apartment too.
I don’t remember what grade we received on the project, but it was pretty horrible. Its what the teacher deserves. Pairing us together because we were two of the few black kids. Our assignment lacked cooperative planning. After a few weeks of work, we delivered a flower pot full of mud. Not a stem or seedling peeked through the surface of the dirt. I just didn’t like Juan too much after he insulted my apartment or at least, I took offense to his comments about it. He was less concerned with working our project and more concerned with hanging with the kids from school, so I stopped asking about the project after day 3.
I didn’t get upset about the grade. I was so far ahead in that class, I could have received a F and still finished with the highest score when the approaching summer arrived. I was a little bothered about the apartment comment for some time after, but by the time I got scored for it, I could care less. I already hated Juan and by then he couldn’t say much to change that. He was my first nemesis. I was most affected by idea that no matter how hard I tried, I was going to be limited by money. Most people make it through their teens and some even get into adulthood before they have a dream shattering, life altering moments like I did those last few weeks of the sixth grade.
I couldn’t shake the idea. It burned in me. I didn’t want to be the fastest or the smartest anymore. That wouldn’t matter after all. I was poor. As fate would have it, days after the science project ended, my family would be evicted from our tiny existence in our tiny apartment. For the second time in my life, my family lived on the mercy of the hearts of others. We starved. It was a nightmare. We slept on those rubber mats kids play on in day cares, with no sheets or protection from the fungus and fumes of previous users, only to wake in the dusk of the morning, so my mom could shuffle us to school in the suburbs. One morning, I dressed in a bathroom standing on five toes at a time, because the should be contents of four toilets covered the entire clay floor. On another I hid behind the toilet as I dressed because it blocked my midsection from a perverted hobo that sounded like he was touching himself after seeing a glance at my backside. Kids don’t belong in the salvation army.
I’ve never been unhappier in life. I’ve been through some stuff before, but the year was the worst ever. If I ever considered death it was then. I didn’t have a pubic hair and already I was suffering from bouts of teen angst. Luckily, for everyone involved, my family found a friend and helping hand before I went AWOL or Capone on somebody. Her name was Ms. Alexander. She and her husband ran a non profit extension of a local church. But really they saved my family.
I don’t know too many non profit agencies like theirs. The Salvation Army packed people on the floor like sardines. The United Way wouldn’t help us. I lived in their living room while my mother and brothers stayed in their mother’s apartment a few doors down. I wasn’t always the best kid under the care of Mr and Ms. James Alexander and Company, but I did feel apart of something familiar. The Alexanders were an older couple, probably together fifty years by then. Their daughter’s kids were my age and even though we didn’t see each other often, it felt almost like family to have someone your age at the dinner table, or riding knee to knee in the backseat of the car.
I am much more thankful for the peace and solitude afforded to me by living alone with the Alexanders. I don’t know if my mom called it in a favor or its just how things work out, but it helped me to grow up a little. That’s not saying much. The one eighty in my life was nothing short of a miracle. Ms. Alexander saved my life. The kindness of the Alexander’s heart opened my heart to the love of God for the first time in my life. They came in the name of Christ. I wanted to know more about Christ. I spent nights alone, on the pull out sofa bed, eating peanut brittle, watching Beavis and Butthead, and reading the Bible until I fell asleep with the pages folded under my body and the television blaring the hideous sound effects of MTV toons. It wasn’t your typical Sunday school, but the more I read the lesser I felt that the world owed me.