Chapter 11

A notebook was like my cellphone when I was a kid. It was my obsessive compulsive distraction. I was constantly staring down at it.

I hope doctors are wrong when they predict we’ll all have neck problems from staring at our phones, because mine will set in early.

My grandmother told me to keep my head up. Who knew that jewel would prove to be prophetic?

If these stories are my confessions then it’s only right I tell you, writing wasn’t my first love, it was music.

I don’t know if it’s due to our innate ability to comprehend sound before written language, but music was where it all started for me.

Wherever I am, and a song I love comes on, it takes me with it. I’ve become one with anyone who’s ever felt like the beat is making me feel. The lyrics prove I’m not the only one to have gone through what I’ve gone through. Not only that, it makes me proud for having gone through it.

It’s a reminder that with all the bullshit I’ve faced, I’m still here and atrophy hasn’t been able fulfill it’s conspiracy against me. Not yet.

Music was the internet before the internet. It connected you. Especially hip-hop, it let you know what was going on in the world.

Embarrassingly, my first favorite rapper was Vanilla Ice. In my defense, I was 7. When you’re that young and you hear that beat drop and Ice Ice Baby Too Cold Too Cold come on, it’s fire.

My next favorite rappers weren’t much better; Kriss Kross. But being a 9 year old listening to albums made by 10 year olds, it’s special. It inspired me. That’s when I started what’s become a life long passion; writing, rhymes specifically.

I can only remember the last line of the first rhyme I wrote…. boy… I’m as tough – as an android! Bars.

In Chapter 1 I talked about my dad having record producer aspirations in New York. He produced at least one album, I know because the vinyl with him on the cover is still in the basement of my mom’s house.

How he had access to a full studio in Wheeling West Virginia though is a mystery. But that’s where he took me, to Fat Cat Studios, when it was time for the 3rd grade talent show.

So my first rap wasn’t just scribbled down somewhere, it was mixed, mastered, and recorded.

After rapping it in front of my class to roaring applause, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Months later Kriss Kross came to Pittsburgh and my dad bought me tickets that came with one caveat. I had to take his best friend’s son, James. He was older than me but this was his first show. I had already seen Michael Jackson so I was basically a concert connoisseur.

I wore my clothes backwards to the show to emulate the rappers, but James just wore a batman tee-shirt tucked into his tight jeans. I clowned him for it then and let’s be honest. The only reason I’m writing about this now, is to clown him for it again.

And while I’ve been tough on my father for most of the story up to this point, he always encouraged me to pursue artistic endeavors. He was really cool when he wanted to be.

He was also in touch with the streets.

James’ family ran Martins Ferry at the time. These family ties would prove valuable in my adolescence. First I would have to go through a slight war with them, perhaps to gain their respect, but we’ll get to that.

On the last day of school I thought I was going suffer the embarrassment of being held back. I had gotten way too many Fs. No one got Fs in the 4th grade. Except me. I had gotten into fights in the middle of class. I spent more time on punishment than any other kid.

Surely they had to realize holding me back a grade was the only logical thing to do. If not, next came 5th grade, middle school, the same location as the high school! It would be a major transition.

Surely they could see I wasn’t ready. These were respectable, enlightened teachers who were compassionate enough to not just push a kid through so they wouldn’t have to deal with him twice. Right?

Of course not. I’m just fucking with you. They passed me right into the 5th grade. They didn’t give a fuck. They wanted me out of there.

Chapter 12

Instead of warning and preparing me for the coming hopelessness and vapidness of becoming an adult – and the mind numbing, soul crushing drudgery that would come from sitting in a cubicle for 8 hours a day for 40 years – my parents were teaching me that their personal beliefs were facts. Not just facts but gospel, and if you didn’t believe in what every shred of logic would tell you is impossible, you’d spend an eternity burning. It’s seems crazy I know, but unfortunately this is what they were teaching.

In most of the memories I have of my mother from my childhood, she seems sad. As a kid I couldn’t figure out what was wrong – but as an adult I’m starting to understand must’ve been weighing on her. A lot our parents were battling depression, though without today’s scientific understanding, it went undiagnosed.

They didn’t have the wherewithal to see that this was due in large part to the triviality of their menial day jobs. And why would they? They didn’t see any alternative.

They were systematically taught to be grateful to have a job at all. They were told they’re salvation lies within the church. But there were only lies within the church.

The church said there was valor in poverty, while simultaneously mandating everyone tithe 10% of the little money they had. This is the place they took me, wasting the little bit of free time they were afforded.

If I’m ever able to escape these racing rats and afford to have a child, I want them to strive for more than to spend their lives waiting, waiting for retirement, waiting for heaven. I want them to know that heaven can exist right now in this present moment, and they’re the only one who can create or prevent it. The church wants you on your knees begging for forgiveness until you die. I want to stand up and take what’s mine right now.

It seems like I’ve been sitting and waiting my whole life. Waiting for bells to ring in class, waiting for 5 o’clock at work, and waiting for church to end as a kid on Sundays. I hated being there and just like everything else, I wasn’t paying attention. I was too occupied with my own thoughts. I was always chastised for never paying attention. But I ask, am I a bad listener or were they not captivating?

Not only did I have to to church on Sundays but also various weekdays since I was in the youth group and choir.

It wasn’t all bad. The pastor Reverend Stephens was a revered and mysterious man. He would tell the congregation he had literally seen the devil in his kitchen.

He had gotten into trouble with senior ranking members of the church for breaking into their masonic temples, presumably an attempt at exposing their secrets.

He would openly admit to selling and doing drugs in his younger days. I liked him.

The church also gave me reigns to explore my creativity. I directed a play about a conversations between W.E.B Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. I wrote and performed essays on black history, all to tremendous praise from the church’s many members.

The choir had a performing arts component called ‘Vision’. We’d be dressed as mimes in all black with our faces painted white doing choreography that mimicked the words to gospel songs. After we did ‘We Shall Behold Him’ by Vickie Winans, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

The lyrics went over my head at the time but now I admit, powerful stuff. Even if the song is all bout how great it’ll be to die.

That’s the church for you, always looking forward to, yet somehow still afraid of, death.

But as you know, the kids there didn’t really like me. The were older and way more experienced coming from the inner city. I learned more about the streets from them than I did about god from the adults. That might have been a good thing.

‘Vision’ took it’s act on the road. This would’ve been an opportunity for the adults to teach us entrepreneurship and the extreme importance of making money for ourselves, particularly creatively. But that’s not what they did. All it meant for me was spending more time cooped up in vans with my headphones on listening to my music, traveling with bullies.

So while church was an escape from all that I had going on back home, I still needed an escape from what I was going through there. To be honest I think I preferred dealing with the static I had back home, my friend to enemy ratio was more in my favor there.

There was one kid in our group who was really nice, her name was Ellicia. She was never mean to me and always seemed to be smiling. Talking to her was a much needed relief from dealing with the other kids.

I didn’t know her too well so I didn’t cry when she died. She shot herself in the head with a shotgun. She was 13 years old. She was adopted but her birth parents had abused her terribly. I heard they put out lit cigarettes out on her as a baby.

Her foster mother continued to come to church, she always seemed heartbroken yet somehow serene.

Someone who I got along with a lot less was Terrance…

Chapter 13

Terrance was ahead of his time, in a bad way. He was 14 going on 40.

I’m reminded of him whenever I’m thinking of taking a risk. He’s someone who at the time I knew him, had more than I could’ve dreamed of. And now, he’s lost more than I can fathom. Just me being able to tell his story already means that mine can’t end as bad as his. So how dare I be scared, of anything? I imagine what he might say, and how petty he would think these futile chances I consider are, with their menial consequences and exaggerated worst case scenarios. What he wouldn’t give to be here dealing with my so-called problems.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he’s in a better place. But it sure didn’t seem like he wanted to leave, when he was crying from the one eye he still could, the other with a bullet in it.

His mother took him to church, that’s how I knew him. He grew up in the hood but was smart enough to get into private school, all the girls liked him and he was good at sports. It wasn’t enough. He was advanced in school, advanced in sports, and ominously – advanced in the streets.

Being smart and popular attracted the attention of a the new drug dealer in town, Rafael. Cocaine, marijuana and most dangerously PCP, is what 13 year old Terrance was getting involved with. Raf would front him the work on consignment.

Sometimes you hear stories about kids selling drugs, their parents being addicted and stealing them. But not Terrance’s mom, she was addicted to something much worse, money.

Me and Terrance hated each other. He hated me would be more accurate. Though I recoiled at the thought of having to spend time with him, there was another part of me that tried to be like him, the cool older kid. But I still didn’t like him. I can still see his smug face looking down on me, resenting me for being who I was, making fun of my big head. I can still hear his voice, mocking the way I talk and calling me white.

It didn’t help that I was now on a 10 hour van ride to Virginia Beach with him and the entirety of Wayman A.M.E.

After a year full of practices and performances the church decided we needed a vacation. We all piled into rented vans and headed towards Virginia Beach.

Me and a couple boys my age were rooming with Terrance and a few other boys his age. My mom was skeptical of the arrangement. She’d heard whispers of what Terrance and them were about. But she didn’t object. My mom had an interesting parenting approach I hope to emulate one day. She was protective but not smothering. She didn’t want me to run the streets but she didn’t want me to run from them either. She knew she couldn’t hide the cold world from me forever. She wanted me to learn about everything in life, the good and the bad. She must’ve thought this would be a learning experience for me, with her being a few doors down, just in case.

Terrance might’ve been 14 going on 40 but I was 10 going on 11. The older boys smoking weed and sneaking choir girls in and fucking them I while I fake slept, was perhaps a pivotal catalyst for when I went astray. I thought there behavior was normal and what would be expected of me when I was older.

The term ‘toxic masculinity’ seems to be making it’s way into the public zeitgeist. Usually when a ‘movement’ makes it’s way into the mainstream, I don’t trust it. But this one I feel is important. We as men, particularly black men, valuing ourselves based off of our sexual exploits – debases our self worth and commodifies not only the sacred act of sex itself, but does the same to our partners. This is where intimacy issues stem from.

While this may be common knowledge now, at the time, the ideology was fuck bitches, get money. And that’s exactly how Terrance was living his life when we got back from the beach, right up until he had the last fight with his family he ever would.

Armed with a .380 tucked in his Karl Kani jeans and high off ‘wet’, a cigarette dipped in embalming fluid, essentially PCP – Terrance came home to find his mother had spent the money he’d stashed. He confronted her and she became irate and defensive. Conveniently picking then as the time to accuse him of selling drugs. Their fight made it to where his aunts and uncles were talking on the on the porch. Everyone tried to calm Terrance down as he walked out into the yard, screaming and crying. He knew he’d have to face Rafael without the money he owed him, but the PCP had him going in an even darker direction. The confrontation itself and the embarrassment of being accused in front of his entire family, who only knew him as the star athlete in prep school, was too much to take. His head started to swirl. The lifelong neglect from his mother, his father who was never there, the 40 years of experiences packed into 14 – the energy in the air was electric and dark like the storm clouds above them. It was all catching up to him. He didn’t have the resources to process it all and the drugs didn’t help.

Through researching this story I’ve learned that in the 1990s, especially in the Pennsylvania/West Virginia area, there was an outbreak of kids high on PCP hurting themselves. The drug was originally introduced as an anesthetic, it creates a feeling of invincibility with it’s user. Terrance thought he couldn’t be touched. Completely out of his mind he took his gun and pointed it at his family. They started screaming. Startled by their scream and shock, he redirected the gun at his face. He looked his mother in the eyes and pulled the trigger. His life didn’t flash before his eyes then because he didn’t die that day. He died days later in the intensive care, fully conscience but with half of his face blown off.

There was a huge write up about him in the paper. They even put a picture of his self inflicted wound in the article. The thinking was that it would scare and prevent other kids from doing the same.

Up until writing this I always thought he was high on acid not PCP. You would’ve thought that would’ve prevented me from trying acid when I was that age, but it didn’t.

They say that when his mom when his made the decision to take him off of life support, he could somehow hear her even though he was in an induced coma. His remaining eye streamed tears until the machine turned off and his heart stopped.

The next morning was my first day of Middle school. I woke up nervous thinking how scary 5th grade would be. Classes were broken into periods for the first time, 7 a day for 9 week grading cycles. Same campus as the high school! I swore I was grown. I set my alarm and woke up on my own without any help from my mom. I kept that streak going for one whole day, I think. These were my concerns at the time.

I noticed my mom on the phone in her room for what started to seem like too long. I tried to overhear what she was saying…

When she finally got off she had a sad look in her eye, but I already knew she had gotten the call from the church about Terrance. I was able to put pieces together from the little bit I heard.

These are my confessions so the truth is when I heard it I was secretly happy. I felt a strange sense of validation. An enemy had died, he’d killed himself. I had outlasted him in this life. I’d won. There was a valuable lesson I learned here. Even when someone is seemingly more successful than you, how long will it last? How long will they last? If you can focus on and sustain yourself, often times your enemies will fold from the pressure they’ve put on themselves from their perceived success.

I’ve never told anyone this, until now. I was secretly happy, yes – but I did feel really bad about feeling like that.

Terrance’s mom, the lady who loved money, won a suit against the state for a million dollars after her son died. Prior to his suicide, Terrance was in rehab for drug abuse. He was let out and according to the family’s attorney, it was too early. Her newfound wealth would be short lived however, she blew through it just a few years and today struggles to keep her lights on. Terrance’s sister has kids with Rafael.

Researching this story was next to impossible. No one where I’m from even remembers it. Perhaps that’s why I’m writing, to be remembered, because this cautionary tale serves as not only a warning against drug use and the fast life – but also impermanence.

Chapter 14

The difficulty in researching these stories is that not only have some of the characters died, but now, some are dead to me.

They’ve turned their backs and are unavailable for comment. They wouldn’t reply my texts, that’s if they hadn’t already been deleted from my phone. It’s a shame really because this would’ve been a good excuse to talk to Alexis. But oh well.

There was an opposite version of me in St. Clairsville and by the 6th grade I had found her and naturally fallen irreparably in love.

I was a boy. She was a girl. I was black, she was white. I spent my school days in a sea of white people, most of her friends were black. I was was young for my grade, she was old for her’s. I was in the 6th grade, she was in the 5th, yet she was older than me. No girls liked me, all the boys loved her. We couldn’t have grown up more different.

I remember the first time I saw her. There was a dairy queen up the street from my house, she was coming in as I was walking out. I froze. I still compare all gazes I get from women to this feeling. I dropped my dilly bar as I tried to raise the kick stand on my bike. I don’t even know if she noticed me. If she did, I don’t remember her being impressed.

That school year I was able to socially position myself close enough to her friends on our recesses. Eventually I had gotten to know her. I’d do my best to always make her laugh. The sound of her voice was my first addiction.

Have you ever liked someone so much that you’d see them when they’re not there? I’d see her face in the clouds. I could see her eyes in headlights of cars, on bumpers I could see her smile.

I’d been afraid to tell a girl how I felt before, but I was so inspired now that it was worth the risk. I had to act, so I enlisted a team. Sam and Justin, two of my neighbors and best friends were in her grade.

I knew they wouldn’t help me without there being any benefit for them, so I structured a plan that was mutually beneficial for everyone.

I asked them who their crushes were, then gave an MLK style speech telling them our days of not having girlfriends would soon come to an end. They were immediately on board. The next day we would ask each of our crushes out for one another.

Sam liked a girl named Tara, Justin asked, she said no. We were discouraged but couldn’t turn back. On my paper route lived Amy, Justin’s crush. I asked her out for Justin but she wasn’t feeling him. I later found out she instead had a crush on her paperboy, me! This would sow seeds of resentment in Justin that I would one day have to confront.

Alexis was the last girl to be asked. It was our last hope to succeed as a collective. Sam and Justin were supposed to see her at a birthday party that I couldn’t go to because I was grounded. They would ask her out for me there.

The next day at school, before I would see Sam or Justin, I kept thinking, what if she said yes? What if I already have a girlfriend? The elusive dream could already have come true. Something strange happened though. I became afraid, regretful even. What had I gotten myself into? Could I handle to responsibly that would come from dating the prettiest girl in school? Could I handle the jealousy from every other boy who had the same dream of dating her?

I had never had a girlfriend before, I had no idea what would even be the first thing I should say to her. No dream had ever come true. What do you do when you wake up for the first time?

Finally it was recess, the moment of truth. I wanted to get to the playground before anyone else. My thinking was that if I could see everyone before they saw me, I at least wouldn’t be caught off guard with any impending news.

I tried to sneak out just a few moments before the bell rang but a teacher caught me and my punishment was standing in the penalty box. This meant instead of recess, I had to stand facing the building while everyone walked though the double doors right beside me.

How embarrassing. This would be Alexis’ first look at her new boyfriend, in trouble like always, in front of the whole school.

Of all the problems I would have to face, this would not be one of them. Alexis said no.

Sam and Justin made their way through the double doors and gave me the bad news. I would’ve almost felt relieved until they told me the even worse news. Alexis already had a boyfriend. He was black, so there was somehow hope in that. But he was also an extremely tough 7th grader who had already heard about me asking out his girlfriend. “Craig is going to kill you” they said simultaneously, like the black boy version of The Shinning twins. They then laughingly headed out to play.

Just then I saw Alexis and Craig walking hand in hand, the last two to come out of the double doors. Ashely shot me a quick pitiful glance while Craig’s glance was one of anger and inevitability.

After school that day I tried to wait in the coat room in the hope of hiding from Craig. The teachers knew what I was doing. They didn’t care and sent me out to the slaughter.

After Craig beat me up, he talked to me almost politically saying, “the only reason I did this was because I had to. I can’t have dudes asking out my girlfriend. It’s okay if you like her but you just can’t talk to her anymore.”

He gave me a deal of sorts. He knew I was smart and funny and saw value in having me on his team. He knew I had beef with the C brothers. It would’ve been suicide beefing with the toughest white kids and the toughest black kids. He knew that aligning myself with his crew would be my only refuge.

School was like prison. Besides from the fact we were forced by law to be there everyday, and they would send police after us if we tried to escape (like they did for the 93’ walkouts), you had to affiliate yourself with a gang to survive. Craig offered me protection, all I had to do was leave Alexis alone. But to me this meant he saw me as a threat. He was trying to extort me!

If I was smart I maybe would’ve taken his deal, but I was in love. I wasn’t ready to give up on her. So I didn’t. Alexis’s love would continue to evade me however but not forever. Only for the next 20 years or so, but that’s another story…

Chapter 15

My old friend Mitch K. had come back from reform school and because of the stigma attached, he was always harassed by teachers. I overheard them in the hall congratulating themselves on being apart of the reason he was given repeated in-school suspensions.

If school was jail, in-school suspensions were solitary confinement. I had been tossed in there too many days to count. There were two desks in the back of the library, each closed off in a wooden box, no one could see in or out. The prisoner was forced to sit there alone all day. When teachers would bring their classes to the library, they could see the prisoner’s legs below the desk/box/cell. The prisoner could hear everything going on but wasn’t allowed to interact. Usually students would snicker and throw spit balls into the box/cage as if it were a basketball hoop.

One day, in between classes, I walked through an eerily empty hallway and headed to my locker. I was frantically scribbling together a forgotten homework assignment that was due. I witnessed Mitch being verbally accosted by the visibly enraged Principal who assumed no one was around.

I jumped in and said, “Hey Mr. Oglebay, why don’t you chill out? You’re a grown ass man, how is it even possible a twelve year old is making you that mad?”.

My plan had worked, he left Mitch alone. The only problem was he was heading towards me, at full speed. I wasn’t afraid. I stood tall ready to embrace my fate. Mr. Oglebay made a fist. A punch to the face from him might’ve killed me, he was a huge white man, at about 6’3 220 lbs. He grabbed me up by my shirt and slam-punched me into the locker. I stared at him dead in the eyes the whole time. I was furious. I was in pain. Just then the bell rung and all of the students flooded into the halls. The principal walked off and Mitch came to see if I was okay.

I created a petition that my classmates were afraid to sign and gave speeches that went over their head. I was trying to explain to them that we deserved a faculty that wouldn’t threaten it’s students with physical abuse. They didn’t understand what I was doing, they still don’t. That’s the beauty of pain, it forces you to evolve. When things seem to be going okay, you can become soft, ultimately vulnerable. The captain who’s steered the ship through the storm is going to be more skilled than the captain who only known smooth sailing.

Eventually the whole school knew what happened and by then my parents had found out. Files were charged against the principal so now I had another court date looming. If this wasn’t enough, the school had filed a counter suit against me – claiming behavioral issues. Their futile attempts to control me were utterly hopeless. I just wouldn’t shut the fuck up. I had too much to say. The world around me was going to either love it or hate it, but they’re were definitely going to hear it. I can only recall one piece of advice my father would always give. All he told me was this, “Arthur, you’re mouth is going to destroy you.” . What also didn’t help is that I was always getting into fights. The brawls with Craig over Alexis, the continual altercations with the C brothers, the school saw me as the common denominator.

So let’s recap. That’s 2 assault cases where I’m the victim yet both adults would be found not guilty. Another where I was the defendant but the judge threw the case out because of the absurdity of prosecuting a 12 year old over shenanigans. After court my dad jokingly told me that my next court case would be for murder. Deep down I believed him.

I had made enemies with every bully on every spectrum of the social ladder, and where had my father gone? He left to go to Harlem, where he became addicted to cocaine, or so he said.

The male figure I had to look up and relate to was Tupac. Every time I turned on MTV I would see him in and out of court, just like me. And like I was assaulted by teachers, he was assaulted by cops. I would tweak the lyrics to his songs in my mind. Where Tupac would say ‘crooked cop killing gloc.’ I would hear ‘crooked teacher killing feature’. When Tupac would say ‘running from authorities til they capture me, I would hear ‘running from Will Ogelbay til he captures me. I wasn’t allowed to listen to him even though years earlier my dad took me, Brian, and even my then baby brother to see Juice. It was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. I didn’t even know who Tupac was then.

Every once in a while I would get a call from my Dad. He’d tell me he was bringing me gifts, like Mortal Kombat for SEGA, but never would. On the rare occasion he would show up at home, he would bring me cassette tapes that my mom wouldn’t let me listen to. Albums like Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle. I’d hide them from my mom and she of course would find and take them. Having my father there full time would have been helpful, considering I had beef with so many students, teachers, and principal.

But we were about to find out what had been taking up his time.