I grew up in the top-floor apartment in a building off Myrtle Avenue. I can tell you I only appreciated this location exactly once a year: July Fourth, when I had front row seats to Macy’s fireworks display. Otherwise I didn’t think about it. I didn’t have any of the adult heaviness I now carry in my shoulders and lower back, the kind that a pleasant view helps alleviate. When I was 12 and out of school, I wanted to be down below in the courtyard, with the kids from my block.
Summertime unfortunately didn’t much ease my grandma’s strict rules. If she didn’t personally know your family you were probably just another fast ass girl or drug dealer; she was an all or nothing kind of woman, and that extended to the types of friends I was allowed to make. If I wasn’t at day camp or if sleep away camp wasn’t in that year’s budget, I found myself alone at home, creating my own worlds from books, journals, comics, and model plastic.
I was getting curious about (real) music around this time, seventh or eighth grade, and I owed much of that of my cousin Tate, five years my senior. Just as troubled kids were sent down south for the summer, the reverse was also common, and his mom had booted him from Newport News directly after school let out that year. He was everything I wasn’t: good-looking, charming, popular. (Perhaps too popular, as I later learned he was sent north to “save him” from a baby he’d fathered at age 15.) He arrived on our doorstep to spend a week with his paternal grandmother, all lanky and southern twang. He never left.
Tate was old enough to be independent, and he was the only young person I’d seen stand up to my grandma. It seemed far too dangerous a risk for me to take. She kept too many thick leather belts for my taste; I never liked my odds. Tate didn’t care and besides, being male in my grandma’s old-school, extremely gendered household was a sweet deal. He was adorable, with a wide, Kool-Aid smile that disarmed most women and men.
Sometimes I knew he was hanging around when he could be out with friends, to keep me company. This was years before the incarcerations, the rehabs, the missing keepsakes. Back in the day I was so happy for his largess; it was hard for me to articulate what loneliness was. I was housed, I was fed, I was an A student; my brain told me this should be enough to ensure happiness.
He’d tell me what it was like to be drunk, and count out how much he needed for loosies each day. He’d glance at my signed laminated photos of River Phoenix and U2, his silence its own measure of judgment. He’d make fun of my bookishness and sing “Stick it in easy/Came out greasy” in a low pitch that our grandma couldn’t hear, driving us to near madness at dinner. Tate introduced me formally to hip hop. He would sing “Seventh Heaven,” snap his fingers, and I’d immediately understand how he successfully juggled so many girls.
He always had a big boom box, whatever was stylish and expensive, and I’d play apprentice, handing him blank cassettes or pushing hard on the play button to catch “La Di Da Di” or “Da Ha” at precisely the right moment. I’d yell “Da-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” through the robot filter of our square window fan, giving us both the giggles in the evenings.
Later, when he stopped coming home at night, I’d sit by the dining room window, the one with the panoramic city view, and make my own tapes. WBLS was at one end of the dial. I memorized when shows would play commercial-free music, and tried to catch my faves, including Prince.