The Watermarks We Drown In: Part II

A Scribe Called Quess
Oct 22 · 6 min read
Brooklyn circa 1991

When I’m eleven in the sixth grade I learn the weight of a Tupperware lunch case. Correction: I learn the weight of a Tupperware lunch case at a Brooklyn public school in 1991 where all your friends eat free lunch. A public school where your friend Kareem casually shows you his razor blade under the lunch table. The razor blade his brother Lateef, aka infamous tag artist MACK of the Decepts told him to carry for protection. Maybe my lunch case, too, is a form of protection. An incessant reminder that I am not and never will be one of “those boys.” The ones with the “three stripes in the eyebrows trying to wild out,” the occasional gold tooth, du-rag atop their fades, first to don the new Jordans, Patrick Ewings or Bo Jacksons, Starter Jackets and baby hats, and if they were really on it, a boom box dangling from their clinched fists like little Radio Raheems in the making with embryonic G-Money swagger bopping them through the streets of Brooklyn.

I, on the other hand, carry a red Tupperware lunch case with a translucent top. The plastic handles curl over the clear top forming an affectionate little ribbon. On the cold days, when recess is relegated to watching cartoons in the auditorium, I carry my lunchbox to my seat like a cancerous growth I wish I could shake off. I feel naked and cared for and exposed and ugly. In the land of brick and mortar, concrete and crack rocks, I feel soft as Twinkie filling. A moving target. The only other material item with the power to make me feel that naked and ugly was them dingy ass Converse I was forced to wear the first four months of school. They made my feet feel like they perpetually had roaches crawling all over them. Until my dad finally upgraded me to a pair of Reebok Hexalite Pumps. Then I was back to looking accounted for. Maybe my corny, cared for look too was a forcefield. Against the eyes that would have otherwise typecast me as one of “those boys.” That would have just as soon put me in the lineup with the boys that jumped my brother in the fifth grade instead of identifying me as one of the victims. Either way, the lunch case is an anvil of added insecurity, a red paintbrush stroking a bullseye on my back. A magnet for more eyes like the ones of the boys that jumped my brother.


And then I’m twelve and Day Day calls one night and it’s strange cause the year before when he, Daniella and I walked up Dekalb Ave. and she went left and he went straight and I went right down South Oxford Street, I knew it was a foreshadowing of the months ahead when we’d walk across that sixth grade graduation stage and then out of each other’s lives forever. But now here we were a year later, me in 7th grade at the all boy prep school that JFK Jr. graduated from on the Upper Westside of Manhattan. Day Day at the hood junior high up the street from our elementary school in Brooklyn where my moms used to substitute teach and where some of the Decepts notoriously went. The same place where my brother’s godfather Bradley Umpton once rolled his eyes at as he walked us home from school and observed the usual afternoon… ahem… gathering in front the school and said, “What are those jungle bunnies up to now?” And I was maybe nine or ten then but my dad and Public Enemy and hip-hop and the block had already raised me well enough to know Bradley wasn’t my kinda guy. But never mind that nigga cause I’m twelve now and my homey is on the other end of the line and it’s strange cause it’s not like Day Day to call I mean we ain’t talked but a handful of times since we went to separate schools and it’s stranger cause he’s talking slow, heavy, like he was sad or some shit and son ain’t never sounded sad in all our lives — like in all seven years of me knowing him but then he’s all, “Denny killed somebody,” and the phone goes immediately pregnant with silence.

And I feel this space growing between us. Maybe it’s as wide as the gap between Brooklyn and Manhattan, between Murder Myrtle and the Upper West Side. Or the space between a crack strewn gutter in the projects and the tenth floor science lab of my prep school. Or at least as big as the gap between the Slick Rick raps Day Day introduced me to in the third grade and the Morris Chapman gospel songs I sang in front my mom’s friends. But now I’m listening to the silence a little closer, like really leaning into it like it’s some open pothole in the street I’m sticking my head in and I’m listening and I’m realizing the space has always been there. Right beneath us, between us, the whole time, and maybe I had just glimpsed at it and looked away until I forgot it was there. But then I look back and remember what’s always been right in front me.

It was there every time Day Day’s grandma hushed her yelling at him at the sight of me, and replaced her fussing with a strained, contrived smile accompanied with a nice tone and words she sounded like she wasn’t used to using. It was there on my football teammate Gary’s lips when they turned from pink to black and the lights turned out in his eyes and his smile turned smirk turned eviction notice telling me where I was no longer welcome. It was there in Denny’s eyes too the one time I got close to his infamous ass and he dapped me up and said what up shorty and it was the nearest I’d felt to a celebrity since Spike Lee. Cause there he was, the dude that Day Day and thereby, the streets and everybody else talked about. Denny, the second in command to his big brother Shank, leader of the Decepts, now locked up in Spofford or Riker’s or some shit. And the only nigga bigger than either of them was Murda, the little five foot terror that went from jacking dudes twice his size when he went to the same junior high Day Day was at now to sweeping up barbershops and other safe, legal gigs in his now reformed state.

But there was Denny, still live in action, his eyes wild as two M-80s sparking off as he looked down into mine. And I felt miles away from him and whatever far away world put that look in his eyes and I imagine the only reason he ain’t son me like some “herb” (as we used to call lames back then), was cause he remembered my mom, the teacher he used to debate down to the wire to bring his grade up to an A way before he traded in classrooms for the school of hard knocks. And it only took him a few years to graduate to the most official level of street nigga you could aspire to in the eyes of most kids in the hood in the early 90s who knew that killers was as ill as it gets. Killers wasn’t nothing to fuck with.

And so I asked Day Day you know, like, “who did he kill…? ….what happened?” And he says Desmond, Freddie’s brother. And I’m like man, “not that big African dude that used to talk mad noise when we played him in football?” And he’s like “yeah, big Freddie, his brother, right there on the playground.” And then I remember Freddie’s loud, boisterous frame, hovering over me talking mad noise after one game in third grade when he and his fourth grade posse wanted to put me and my crew in our place. But now all I can imagine is Freddie walking through that same playground, staring at his brother’s bloodstains on the concrete, his head slumped down in defeat, hanging as low as Day Day’s voice sounds right now. And then, as if to throw a life jacket atop the pool of silence between us, Day Day says, “you got any new video games?”


Watermark — a faint design made in some paper during manufacture that is visible when held against the light and typically identifies the maker

The Ellisonian Basement is a collection of writings about blackness & visibility in the post-modern world, OR Duboisian double consciousness under surveillance.

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