It was the Summer of 1993 when my father had convinced my mother that I would be better off with him. Weeks later I was in his car with a handful of my belongings, teary-eyed as we drove across the bridge, the Harrisburg skyline disappearing into the distance (my tears are still something my father enjoys joking about to this day). My new life began in an apartment complex in Cockeysville, Maryland on St. Elmo Court. I was nine years old at the time.
After all had been sufficiently unpacked and mostly put away, my father began his quest to transform me into a real boy. In Harrisburg I lived a sheltered life, locked away in rooms, drawing pictures and things. No one forced me to be this way. It’s just what I liked. My imagination and I, having the time of our life. To my father, always the charismatic social figure and product of a childhood spent playing basketball with boys from the block, my way of life was simply not exceptable. So one day he walked me to the front door, nudged me to the walkway, and told me to explore the complex and not return until I’ve made a friend.
A strange boy in a strange land, I wasn’t quite sure what to do as I wandered away, my father smiling, proud of himself, as I did. Constantly alert in this world so different from the urban ghettos I had spent much of my short life in, I roamed the place until I found a playground at the complex’s heart. There were slides and swings, jungle jims, and all that. The paint was chipping off of everything and, as far as I could, tell there was no one in sight. But if there ever was a place for a nine-year old boy to make friends, I figured the playground would be it. Satisfied with my decision I stood there, under the assumption that if I waited long enough something amazing would happen.
The voice seemed to echo from everywhere. I looked around and saw nothing.
Upon second scan, I noticed a set of squirming shapes huddled in what appeared to be a playground structure in the shape of a water tower. It was just as worn and rusted as the rest of the place.
“Come over here!” The voice was raspy, but feminine. My father’s desires engraved in my mind, I did as I was told.
“Come on up!”
I ascended the metal pipe ladder and entered the faux water tower. Inside were three people, two guys and one girl. The girl was older, maybe thirteen or fourteen. The boys were more or less my age.
“I’ve never seen you before,” she said. She had a coffee complexion and wild short brown hair. She wore denim overalls and sat on her knees. The two boys were pale. One wore thick-rimmed glasses and had short brown hair and a long face. The other had messy short hair, dark circles around his eyes, and a round face.
“I’m Maria,” the girl said proudly. “This is Kenny.” She pointed to the boy with the glasses. “And Mark” She gestured to the boy with the circles around his eyes. “Who are you?”
She laughed. “That’s a funny name.”
“Yeah…” I didn’t know what else to say to that.
“Whelp,” she clapped her hands together, “you’re one of us now.”
Just then some other kids meandered onto the playground. They were black and dressed in that over-sized baggy manner I had been used to seeing on the mean streets of Harrisburg.
“Oh shit,” said Mark.
“What the fuck do they think they’re doing here?” grumbled Maria.
Amazingly enough, this did not lead to some sort of turf war. The intruders continued on their way. Crisis averted or so I thought until I noticed the sly grin on Maria’s face and her dark eyes focused on me. See, I really couldn’t care less about those boys. But my eyes opened wide and my mouth hung open the moment I heard mark say the s-word and Maria drop the f-bomb seconds later. I hoped that no one noticed.
Maria laughed. “Trystin afwaid to say bad words?” she asked in her best baby voice. “Fuck!” she shouted, and I cringed. She and the boys laughed. “Shit!” I cringed again. More laughter. I was beginning to see my giant leaps in social progress all flutter away before my eyes.
Then Mark smiled warmly and said, “You try.”
My mom never cursed and since much of my life was split between my Catholic schooling and watching cartoons and the discovery channel, the four-letter words rarely made their way into my radar. I knew they were “bad words”, which was always enough to keep me from exploring them any further. But here, at the crux of a brave new world with all its possibility, I had to decide who I wanted to be. The sheltered little artist from days gone by or…something new. With a deep inhalation and a rapidly beating heart I whispered, “Shit”, and the crowd went wild.
The rest of our time in the tower was spent cursing at each other and talking about the coming school year. Fourth grade for Mark and I. Third for Kenny. Sixth for Maria. Maria asked where I lived and offered to walk me home. We all promised to meet each other the next day. Not only was I able to make friends in record time but, with Maria standing beside me when my dad opened the door, I actually had proof. I can still remember the proud look on my dad’s face.
I also remember Maria coming inside and borrowing some of my dad’s CDs.
T’was a strange time indeed. My new life in Maryland had begun and I, wide-eyed, hopefully, and a bit terrified, was ready for whatever this new world had in store for me…..or so I th0ught.
I had been transformed. My days locked in a room toiling over sheet after sheet of drawing paper had been replaced, or greatly reduced, by the my new friends, a gang of six or so boys from the apartment complex. Maria, it turns out, was not a usual member of this group. She would appear from time to time with words of wisdom and disappear into a mystical world of slightly older kids we could only dream of. The fact that it had been she that first encountered me and not one of the other boys was a stroke of luck, as I’m sure I would have stood very little chance were their true leader around.His name was Curt. A pale, tall, thin, rough-looking kid with a mop of unkempt strawberry blonde hair. I remember he always seemed to have a scar on his face from some fight that he’d fought in another place none of us had been there to witness.
Upon first meeting Curt I laid the four-letter words on thick. “Hey, Curt. Fuck yeah, I’m ready for school to start and shit. Yeah, PA was a bitch. It was shit. Fuck. This place is fucking the shit, though.” Fortunately he found my awkward stammering amusing and, coupled with the blessing from absent Maria and the support of Mark (his best friend), that was enough.
It was soon after that I learned what was at the core of being a part of Curt’s crew: causing trouble. Whether it involved steeling flowers from a low balcony, kicking decorative stones from their set positions on well-kept paths, or a solid run of ding-dong-ditch, we were an established menace to the people of the complex. It was terrifying and energizing and the most excitement I had ever felt.
On the not-that-rare occasion when some one would see us in the midst of our dirty deeds and shout “Hey! What are you boys doing?!” we’d disappear into the woods surrounding the complex, to our secret spot, laughing and cursing all the while. The secret spot was little more than an opening in the woods, all dirt and mud and leaves, where there existed a large rock under which were salamanders and a stash of old soggy Playboys. According to legend, this was the very spot Curt’s older brother would retreat to with his friends before they grew up and moved on to malls and gas station parking lots. We would sit around, lighting twigs on fire and using them like cigarettes and giggling at the pages and pages of “boobs”.
Meanwhile, life at home with dad was great. Our little bachelor pad with its black furniture and minimal decor. Dinner by delivery or out of cans (creamed corn was my new favorite thing). Omelettes on the weekends. A bedtime story (usually another chapter of a Terry Brooks fantasy novel) almost every night. Days with the gang. Nights with my dad. All was well and my first year at a brand new school was beginning.
While all the boys from the complex attended Padonia Elementary, not a single one of them was in my class. The idea of their being multiple classrooms for the same grade boggled my mind, having come from such a tiny Catholic elementary school. The lack of uniforms and any modicum of religious decor, sensibility, or judgement was even more jarring. This was the wild jungle to my ghetto Catholic garden and I felt turbo-charged with freedom.
I sat between a tiny blue-eyed girl named Rachel, whom I had a short-lived crush on despite the fact that she was obsessed with horses (I had had an unfortunate run-in with a horse in Georgia a few years prior that I would not get over for nearly another two decades), and this frumpy kid who always had snot coming out of his nose. There was also a redhead named Chuckie who will be important later. All in all, it was social slim pickins and I spent every day longing for the afternoon when I could regroup with my real friends.
In the Autumn months I had climbed the ranks in my gang. While Curt would always be at the top, and Mark at his right, I had established myself as number three. Successfully shedding the skin of an awkward newbie, I had adapted myself to meet their deviant confidence and retooled my creativity to be just as effective at troublemaking as it was illustration. Calculated distractions, fake-outs, elaborate heists all became part of the package with me as the appointed Head of Strategic Tomfoolery. Everyone had their part to play as Curt and I made sure all acts of thievery, mischief, and destruction went off without a hitch.
The overall lame-ness of school life took a positive turn when one Brandon Cassel joined our class in October. He was mixed like me, with a strong chin, well-kept curly black hair, leather jacket, and a more solid muscular build than one would expect a ten-year old to be capable of. We became fast friends, plucking a couple others as lackeys and playing the “too cool for school” card, fearless kings of our domain.
My father had started dating one of his coworkers around this time. She would come over with her fancy clothes and giant smile, flaunting her refined grasp of etiquette and forcing me to play along.
“And this is a salad fork, Trystin. It goes here…”
In her I saw the downfall of all my father and I had built and so I dived even further into the abyss.
One day Brandon and I discovered the true meaning of the word “bastard”. And, finding much humor and brotherhood in the fact that we were both born out of wedlock, the two of us thought it would be interesting if we’d find out who else shared that same trait. All day, during classes and lunch and recess, we asked, “Are you a bastard?”, sure to make whomever we asked feel sufficiently stupid if they didn’t know what it meant. Brandon would then put the fear of God into them if they made the least bit of fun at our being bastards.
Near the end of the day our teacher sat us in the corner and questioned us about our little game. It turned out some snitch couldn’t keep his mouth shut, a British boy named Billy who, at absolutely any other time in my life, would have been one of my best friends. Instead we spent the next few months ostracizing him and making fun of his “stupid” accent.
While Billy was one of our favorite targets, none was more enticing than that odd redhead Chuckie. Chuckie (who looked eerily like the doll AND the Rugrat) was a stuttering goof who never had the right answer and spent a decent portion of the day mumbling to himself and scratching harsh doodles into his notebooks with violently chewed pens. Brandon’s jibes were relentless. He went out of his way to make Chuckie feel miserable, and I, though never as vile, was right by his side. And then Chuckie snapped.
It was recess in the earliest days of Spring. Chuckie was sitting at a picnic table, coloring in a coloring book when Brandon approached him, laughing at his being alone and without friends. Chuckie let out an otherworldly scream and jumped to his feet. And then, I kid you not, with monstrous strength he tore a piece of wood from the table bench, all splintered, and swung it at Brandon’s head, making hard contact. Chuckie was taken home that day and never returned to Padonia Elementary again. I looked at Brandon’s bloodied face and saw the fear in his eyes and could not help but feel for myself.
It was April when I found the bird, chirping in the tall grass just beyond the sliding back door of my apartment. All gray and fluffy, I figured it had fallen from the tree above. Looking up for a nest or its mother and finding neither, an old piece of me woke up and I decided I would take care of it.
I brought the bird into my house and sat it on a few open sheets of newspaper. Certain it was secure I then rushed into the woods and found a couple worms squirming under a fallen branch. Back in my house I squashed the worms in a bowl with the handle-end of a spatula and then sucked the resulting mush into a small turkey baster. Completing my performance as impromptu mother bird, a gently placed the baster in the baby bird’s beak and squeezed the contents down its throat.
Realizing that my father would be home soon (possibly with that woman in tow) I decided to create an outdoor living space for my feathered friend. Grabbing a number of the larger of my encyclopedias (“A” and “S” and “T” and the like) I went to the flat concrete slab that acted as a back porch and built from them a walled and roofed fortress, two books thick on all sides. Taking a towel from the bathroom closet, I lined the fortress floor and placed my bird within. There it would be safely through the night.
The following morning I woke up, showered, dressed, had cereal with my father, all the while excited for him to go off to work so I could check on my secret friend. Off he went and, to my relief, the bird was still alive and kicking. I fed it and thought about what I should do with it next.
It was a beautiful Spring day. The sky was the clear and the sun especially beaming for it to be so early. Beside the building that housed my apartment grew a small tree, no more than six or seven feet high. Comprehending the affinity for trees that most birds have, I removed my own from its dark fortress and placed it in a low branch of the tree, making certain it was strong enough to hold on and achieved maximum amount of sunlight. Satisfied, I left the bird and made my way for the bus stop.
I recall school that day being one of the longest in my life. Math, science, bullying, or even Brandon himself could not compare to the joyful anticipation I had to be reunited with my animal pal.
Eons later the clock struck three and the bell rang. Within minutes I was on the school bus home. A half-hour later I climbed off and ran at full speed to check on the bird.
Purest confusion was my initial emotion upon rounding my building to find six or so boys surrounding the small tree. I recognized most of them. Curt, Kenny, and those strange ghetto boys who had somehow formed an alliance with us in the past year. My quick trot reduced to a curious crawl, I quietly slipped through their circle to see what all the commotion was.
There was a bird, on the branch right where I left it. But instead of being alive and alert, it was hanging upside down, burnt to a crisp. At the base of the tree was a small can of gasoline. Curt stepped forward, beside me now, and lit a lighter under a Wal-Mart bag, causing beads of smoldering blue to drop onto the black charred bird, trickling like tears much to the enjoyment of all there to see it.
“Wh-what’s this…?” I muttered, voice smaller than it had ever been in thier presence.
“Hey, Trystin,” Curt said with all the power, confidence, and pride I had admired in him. “We found this bird in this tree and we set it on fire! Isn’t it cool? Come on!” He tried to hand me the lighter and the Wal-Mart bag. “Try it!” Snickers popped and fizzled all around, peppered with KFC jokes.
I was frozen. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t comprehend. I looked at these boys, these people I had allied myself with, who I had transformed myself for, and all I could see was something evil. All I could see were my enemies. So, eyes wide, I said “I have to go home” and faded away into my room where I cried long and hard, making certain that any trace of the bird and my emotion had been purged completely by the time my father got home.
During that last month of fourth grade I felt like an entirely different person in an entirely different world. The Tuesday following the incident with the bird caused me to meet Brandon’s bullying with utter distaste. In his belittling of others I could only see the same darkness that permeated those responsible for the previous afternoon’s atrocity. I remember clearly him picking on Billy and his accent and me just watching blankly, waiting for it to end. And when it did and Brandon marched off after his new prey, I knelt down beside Billy and said, “Hey Billy. I’m sorry. Do you want to have lunch and play at recess with me today?” At first he thought it was a trick, but we did have lunch together and we did play at recess and in those last weeks unleashed the potential for friendship that the both of us had felt all along. As for Brandon, rendered mostly powerless without my constant back-up, he turned down the “tough guy” and became a pretty nice kid himself.
The apartment complex was a different story. Curt had a stronghold and if there were any pure souls around they were keeping away from him gang, smartly enough. I lived the following weeks as I had back in Pennsylvania, locked in my room, drawing up a happier world of my own imagination. When Mark or Kenny or Maria would inevitably come by, asking for me, my dad would call my name and I would tell them that I was busy…or, if only just to ensure I didn’t end up on their bad side, I would hang out with them up until the point where they would get into trouble.
The school year came to a close and change was afoot. My father had gotten engaged to the woman who would visit us on occasion and they married and remain so today (by the way, she is the super coolest). I received word from my father that I would be returning to Harrisburg and living with my mother by the start of the fifth grade. My grades had dropped substantially from the straight A’s I had enjoyed and would enjoy again.
It was an interesting year, fourth grade. One that to this day stands out amongst the nine that preceded it and the nineteen that follow. Though I did not fully grasp it at the time, its importance in my growth as a human being, one that still rings true today, was overwhelming. I realized my power. Though it emerged in the tangible forms of violence and vandalization, I was a respected leader of a group. I could sway others with my words, bring forth emotions in them with my actions. I realized the importance of stepping away from your norm in order to learn more about yourself. While my moving in with my father for that year was not my choice, I to this day make great effort to experience life outside of my comfort zone in order to grow. Lastly, going down that dark path and emerging, thanks to the baby bird, in opposition to it, made me aware of my own morality; my own goodness that was less gleaned from the words of my parents or commandments from God, but what I felt to be right in my own heart. I often feel that something greater than myself sacrificed that little bird so that I could, no matter how bad things got later on, hold on to the knowledge of and confidence in what I feel to be good.
Oh, and Curt ended up in a juvenile detention center for beating up some kid really bad that Summer, 94′. Fourteen years later I would get my first full-time job in New York City as a Youth Support Counselor for troubled kids at a similar place.