Everyone’s “hood” is different. In certain contexts (like the one I’m using now), it’s a label we place on neighborhoods which are impoverished to a degree and/or contain some element of danger. Whether or not you came from one can be a matter of opinion and the last thing I care to address are questions about how “hood” my hood actually was (yes: adjective and noun), so let’s just say that my neighborhood, in Wilmington, DE, had some degree of the characteristics we associate with hoodness – not the worst place but also not the best. Fair? If you’ve read my blog before, you may know that I sometimes like to make light of serious topics and what follows will certainly have some of that element. Please also be aware that it is laced with the utmost appreciation for how difficult the reality can be and empathy for those who are going through it, have persevered despite it, or have lost someone to that reality.
That said, it’s not all bad. I identify as someone who, statistically, shouldn’t be in the economic or corporate position that I find myself in, and I’m far from rich or powerful – I just know that, statistically, I had a better chance of remaining closer to the poverty line. But, in some ways, it’s because of those struggles that I succeed, not despite them. While you can easily see the imperfections of that environment, it’s like looking at a painting from two inches away – take a few steps back and get the hell out of that gallery before you get shot (or however that saying goes). But indulge me for a moment while I reflect fondly on some of those dichotomous realities, with an aficionado’s perspective and son’s pride.
Mom – I’m not sure how you afforded that Nintendo and I’m not sure that I want to know; but you did. And I’m not sure how the lights go out and somehow the cable is still on but I think that happened too. We’ve all heard the statistics on single parent families and for a long time we were just that; it’s a way too common theme. Too many moms have to be super moms, but I’m thankful that you were mine, because seeing you scratch and struggle made me a fighter too. But, looking back on it now, I think we both know that you cut some corners, right? Can I be honest? Imma be honest. We both know that those so-called “cookies” were Ritz Crackers. Sure… sure, I now regard Ritz Crackers as a rare delicacy but ‘cookies’ they most certainly are not. And that meatloaf… well that was just hamburger meat and ketchup, right? Not a solitary breadcrumb or herb in that motherfucker, homie. I didn’t realize I liked meatloaf until I became an adult and discovered that it wasn’t supposed to just be a charred lump of ground beef. And, lastly, where’s my scrapple money? Oh, oh really… RAPA stands for Ralph and Paul Adams?… and someone in our family created RAPA Scrapple? Well, then I’m an heir to that scrapple fortune and want my cut. Where issat?
Transgressions aside, you know I wouldn’t have made it out there without you watching out for me. I’m too delicate for that kind of environment. Thank you so much for being my personal “super-mom”… and my brother’s too, I suppose.
My feelings about food stamps have made a complete 180. Looking back at myself as a kid, using food stamps out of necessity, as a means to provide my family with the food we needed, where our household income fell short – there’s not an ounce of shame in it. I’m glad the government had a program to help us make ends meet. However, if you haven’t experienced being a child in Save-A-Lot on Lancaster Avenue and having to whip out a booklet of funny-money to pay for your bread, milk and Toasty-O’s, then I don’t know how to explain terror to you. Does anyone else remember surveilling the entire store to make sure none of your friends were in it? Choosing the right checkout line to get through as quickly as possible without being seen? Folding up the money and handing it to the cashier like she’s going to give you back drugs in return? Oh yes, the fear was real. Why?… because evidence that your family was on food stamps was the holy grail of leverage in a word-fight back then. If you were going back and forth with another kid, ‘rankin’, ‘snappin’, ‘bustin’ or ‘playing dozens’ on each other (whatever your term for competitive insults happened to be) and your adversary broke out “that’s why.. that’s why… that’s why, I saw you and your mom at the store using food stamps the other day!” The game was what we liked to call: the fuck, over. “Oh snap!” the spectators would call out, and you could attempt to deny it but you knew you’d lost the day. Retreat and live to fight another.
In reality, most of those kids likely were or had been on some form of government assistance at the time but the poison is in the proof, or even just in the speculation. It’s those times of limited means that allow me to appreciate everything I have now.
When I’m a grandfather, sitting in my favorite chair, my grandkids at my feet, staring starry-eyed with wonder at me, this is the story I will tell. For you don’t know strength or fortitude until you’ve carried a garbage bag filled with wet clothes for a half-mile. Oh yes, that might as well have been included in one of the many great training montages in Rocky IV when he’s preparing in the wintry mountains to fight Drago. Yea, that’s right, we had enough money to wash the clothes but sometimes not enough for the dry cycle. Air is free; bring those clothes on home and let nature take its course. These were my lessons of physical fitness and ingenuity. Do I lean forward and let my back share some of the weight? Do use my off arm to reach behind my back and support some of the bag weight from the bottom? Do I lean sideways and rest the bag on my hip while I’m walking so I’m walking like some kind of sassy-man-prostitute? Yes. Yes, I do.
Gino’s and Jade
Like beacons of illumination in the murky darkness or the distant visage of water in a scorching desert, were these eateries. Gino’s Pizza and Jade Palace restaurants fed my people well and fed them affordably. In one of the ballsiest price cuts in culinary history, Gino’s sold a personal cheese pizza and can soda for $3. Excuse me. Why is your face still on your face? Surely you should be scraping your face from upon the floor after having been melted off at the sheer mention of such a hot bargain. Do you know how liberating it is to be able to afford your own meal at the age of 11 from the money you’ve earned selling nickel candy for a dime? Do you know how many personal pizzas I’ve eaten? All of them. All of my friends have eaten all of the pizzas and somehow Gino’s always had more – $3 a pop and a pop. This is why I know the value of a dollar.
And as for you Jade Palace, you magical Chinese wonderland of flavors and textures. I do not know what your Chinese food tastes like and why would I? You sell paper bags of humongous supposed “chicken” wings, smothered in ketchup and hot sauce. I am not sure where you find those chickens and I do not give a solitary shit, just dunk them in sizzling peanut oil, throw them in a bag and squirt condiments upon them. $5 bucks? Gladly, my man. Can you do the same with some crab sticks? No, I do not care what part of the crab a stick comes from or that this is not really the consistency of crab meat or that realistically you can’t buy crab meat for this little bit of money or that I’ve never seen a delivery of fresh crabs in the hood ever or that I’ve seen that giant, frozen plastic bag of Krab-with-a-“K” hundreds of times and ignored it the same amount of times. Just put it in a paper bag and take my goddamn money. Thank you for teaching me to appreciate the finer things in life.
Oh lord, I love you, my sweet, benevolent, Ms. Chin – proprietor of the corner store on 2nd and Franklin St. You made it possible for me to trust. Where else can a young boy walk into a store, fill his arms with essentials, place them upon the counter and simply say “credit.” No, Ms. Chin, you’re not fooling me with that evil eye. Your reflexes betray you as I see your arm reaching for that composition book where my (and others’) ledger is kept. You have to maintain that façade or be taken advantage of but you know we’re struggling out here. You know that times are hard and you love and trust your community despite being burned in the past. I know that despite the many times you’ve told me “No more credit,” the next time I ask, you’ll say ok.
I moved away from that neighborhood before I had the maturity of character to express or the depth of perspective to appreciate how much that meant to my family but I certainly do now. Thank you so much Ms. Chin. I think I remember hearing that you’d passed away but, truthfully, don’t want to recall for sure. You live on in lives you’ve touched along the way.
It’s cathartic for me to make light of my childhood and truthfully it was much more good than bad. It was filled with love and camaraderie. We all go through struggles and I’m thankful both that mine were relatively minor and that they’ve helped build me into a person I and my family can be proud of. To those still going through their trials, large or small, I hope you too can find your own retrospective levity and be better for it. No shame in the struggle.