Wednesday, August 30, 2004
It's like starting from scratch today: All the girls I know are gone. No more Belinda, or white girl Crystal, or black-eyed Alexis -- Belinda moved to Passages last week, and Crystal moved to Youth House, and Alexis moved to a shelter for pregnant girls, having discovered that she is two months pregnant by her abusive boyfriend, who she hears has been threatening her family in New Jersey. She is planning to have the baby -- not sure what the plan is after that. Good luck, Alexis and Alexis Jr.
No Samita this week. No Aphrodite. No idea where they've gone.
I get to the cafeteria a little early, so I wait on line behind the rest of the girls, smiling generally at everyone, but not too obtrusively. The girl in front of me is maybe four foot eleven, weighing maybe 90 pounds, with bamboo earrings like mine, but six sizes larger. She turns around and says, "Oooh, lookit how cute your earrings is! They like baby earrings! If I have a baby girl, I'ma get her those exact pair. They so little!"
I see Ashley the counselor, and she waves hi. "How's it going?" she asks, super-friendly.
I'm just grateful to see someone I recognize. I hate these weeks when I don't know anyone, especially after such a convival summer, where I looked forward to spending time with the same girls week after week. "Good, thanks, how about you?"
"Good," she says. "Busy."
"Lots of turnover," I note.
"End of the summer," she agrees. "Always a big influx around now."
Yeah, it's the big back-to-school sale on beds at the shelter. Upstairs in the lounge, I unpack my beads as conspicuously as I can, and I manage to attract a few takers. One is a roughneck who grabs for the red beads impatiently, and takes them to the next table for her sole use. When someone else wants the red, I tell myself, then I'll say something.
Another girl is, ironically, a sorority girl from a really good historically black college. She does a few cheers for us, and tells us how awesome sorority life is, and how misunderstood. She should be going back to school, she says, but her mother died suddenly of a heart attack last month, and now she's kind of at a loss for family and support.
"That's so awful, I'm so sorry. Your mom must have worked hard and been really proud of you."
Sorority Girl nods. "She was a realtor, she was a single mom, she raised me to be really strong and independent." She's eighteen years old and has no father or grandparents or aunts. She doesn't know when she'll be going back to school.
She also doesn't know when to shut up; the roughneck and some of the other girls who have started to gather around the table are getting sick of her nattering and cheering, and they're getting a little snide with her, insinuating that she thinks she's better than other people.
"Well, I'm not better," she deigns, "but I am better off, in that I've had more opportunities than other people, and I'm grateful for that."
Oh, no. This is not bound to go well. Roughneck has had some opportunities that Sorority Girl hasn't, she points out. Roughneck has had the opportunity to hold ten thousand dollars in cash in her hand, has Sorority Girl ever had that kind of cash? Roughneck has the opportunity to walk down the roughest streets of East New York and not get shot, does Sorority Girl have that opportunity?
"Right now she got the opportunity to smack you in the neck," someone mutters, to laughs.
Sorority Girl decides to go do her laundry.
And I decide to press the issue of the red beads tonight. I've watched enough girls make gang jewelry, and I know I should be putting my foot down about it. I don't want any blood on my hands -- or any crip on my hands either, for that matter.
"So, does anybody get shot because they're wearing these beads?" I ask Roughneck.
"Psssh," she says. "No."
"Really? I mean, if someone is wearing them, and they're walking in the wrong neighborhood, and they get seen with the beads, that doesn't mean they'd get shot?"
"Naw. It ain't like that." She keeps her eyes on her necklace, but she's opened her posture to me. "I mean, if you in the wrong neighborhood, they don't need the beads to know who you are, knowm sayin'?" Well, no, I don't exactly, but I'll try to catch up. Carry on. "I mean, the only time you could get hurt for these beads is, like, if you were trying to say you was part of a crew, and you wasn't. You know? Like you put on some read beads, and you claiming to be down with 55th, or whatever, and then someone from the 55 says, 'You ain't down with us,' then you could get hurt. But..." She chuckles. "Nobody's that stupid."
"So you're telling me that I am not allowing anyone to expose themselves to risk by making this jewelry."
That's what I want her to tell me, anyway. I don't know if it's true. Maybe my beads are getting girls knifed all up and down the number 6 line. Maybe I should stop buying red and blue, but we need them for the ever-popular rainbow beads. Maybe there is nothing that the beads can do to either protect or endanger the girls, no matter how much I want or don't want them to.
"Naw, Miss. People gonna gangbang either way."
"Besides," she says, smiling slyly. "I ain't making these for gang colors, red's just my favorite color."
"Uh huh, I repeat, matching her smile. "I am stupid enough to believe that."
By the time I'm leaving, I have a rapport going with a few of the girls, and Roughneck even meets my eyes as I'm leaving. "All right, Miss, you take care."
"You take care, too," I tell her. And thanks for schooling me.