— for Lawan and Lena
The inset quotations are taken from a statement Bernhard Goetz gave to police after turning himself in for the shooting of four teenagers on a New York City subway. One of the teenagers Goetz shot is a distant cousin of the author. The two cousins have never met.
I had a fear based on prior experiences of being maimed.
In 1984, the year vigilante Bernhard Goetz shot four black boys on a New York City subway car, I was nine, and I loved to ride the subway by myself. The dingy trains were spectacular space rockets to me. When I rode them, I wasn’t just going to Queens to visit my grandmother; I was saving the galaxy.
At eight I had hounded my mother every chance I got to let me take the trains by myself. Though she threatened me with ass whippings if I continued trying her patience, I wouldn’t back down. “I ain’t no little kid no more,” I’d say to her as we waited for the number 4 train to arrive at the elevated subway platform near our home in the Bronx. Knowing she would never smack me in public, I’d fire off the names of mothers who allowed their sons to journey the city alone.
“Do I look like everyone else’s damn mother to you?” she’d snap back as the train rumbled into the station. Then she’d snatch me by the wrist and fling me into an open seat on the car. For the rest of the trip to Long Island City, Queens, where my grandmother lived, she kept a hand clamped around the back of my neck. It felt as if she would hold on to me forever.
On what I thought of as special occasions, my mother and I would take the train to Clancy’s Pub on 52nd Street in Manhattan. Once inside the bar, she’d slip into a booth and have dark drinks with unfamiliar, stringy-haired men, leaving me unattended on a bar stool. While my mother giggled and leaned into those men’s bodies, I plotted ways to sneak out and ride all the way back to the Bronx, just to prove to her I was a big boy and could do it on my own. I never got far before she yelled for me to get my behind right back on that stool. I’d slink back and stuff myself with maraschino cherries and green olives to spite her with self-induced stomachaches on the ride home. She’d just shake her head and tell me that I got what I deserved.
Though my tactics failed and I endured beatings, I was determined to wear my mother down. One morning, while I was playing with action figures in my room, making punching and gunshot noises, she walked in, sat down on the bed, and told me to listen up. Pulling me against her, she told me about Etan Patz, a six-year-old boy who’d been abducted from the SoHo section of Manhattan on May 25, 1979. I couldn’t see her face, but I heard her words echo in her chest as she told me how that boy had pleaded with his mother to let him walk alone to the school-bus stop, only two blocks away. “He told her he was a big boy,” my mother said. At first Etan’s mother had refused, but eventually she’d given in. She’d escorted him downstairs and watched him until he reached the corner. That was the last time she ever saw her son alive.
My mother finished the story and squeezed me harder. She knew how I craved her touch, and I believe she clung to me that day because she hoped it might destroy my fascination with riding the trains. And I was mesmerized, and frightened, by the story of how Etan had simply vanished. But the second she loosened her grip enough for me to breathe, I cried, “I ain’t six! I’m eight!”
She was off the bed in a second, and we were adversaries again. “Boy, did you not hear anything I just told you?”
I’d heard everything she’d said, but there was no way I would give in. In my mind, Etan was one boy, and I was another.
My mother and I continued to battle. I resorted to begging, falling at her feet, locking my arms around her leg and refusing to let go, even when she dragged me up and down the hall. For a while it looked as though I’d be her prisoner forever. Then, on my ninth birthday, in June 1984, she came to me and said, “It’s time for you to learn them trains.”
I aimed at the center of the body of each four.
If not for the reruns of Star Trek that I watched on an old black-and-white television with a clothes hanger for an antenna, the trains would’ve been just noisy, cumbersome machines to me. Inspired by the TV show, I flattened the cardboard tubes from two toilet-paper rolls, laid one against the other, and used duct tape to mold them into the shape of a phaser — the futuristic weapon wielded by the show’s heroes. I imagined traveling the universe in a magnificent spaceship, responding at warp speed to distress calls from friendly worlds under attack. When I arrived at the planet, I’d puff up my chest like Captain Kirk and give long monologues about the importance of peace and tolerance. Only after negotiations had failed and the alien enemy had refused to compromise would I let fly the wrath of galactic justice. In my living room, I’d punch and kick and duck and dive and roll, then come up zapping the chair, the lamp, the potted plant. The bad guy always fell, and I was always the hero.
My mother had no idea I carried my “phaser” with me on the train to visit my grandmother. Every Friday, just before I left, she’d grip my wrist and move in close to my face, so we were eye to eye. “Keep out of your head, you hear?” she’d say, jabbing me in the chest with her forefinger. “Pay attention to the people around you. And don’t be messing with nobody on them trains.”
Her tone was serious, even harsh at times, and what I mistook then for her mistrust of me I now know was the sometimes necessary sternness of parenting. Regardless, I never wanted to disobey or disappoint her, so I promised to do exactly as she told me. I would be the best starship captain in the Bronx and a more loyal son.
And I was, until I got to the end of the block and turned the corner onto Burnside Avenue, toward the elevated train station. Once I was out of my mother’s sight, the sensation of the phaser tucked in the waistband of my jeans was enough to override any maternal fidelity I had left. By the time the number 4 pulled into the station like a mechanical stallion — screeching and shaking the platform at my feet — I had no mother.
To get to Queens, I’d transfer to the underground D train at 161st Street–Yankee Stadium. The D was my favorite train, because after it made its last local stop at 125th Street–Harlem, it streaked through the tunnel nonstop for sixty-six blocks. I’d press my forehead against the window and get lost in the speed of the express run, hypnotized by the tunnel wall flashing by. I’d transform the tiny, third-rail explosions into force shields deflecting torpedo fire from an enemy vessel hot on our trail. When, after five long minutes, the D fell out of warp at 59th Street–Columbus Circle, I had to resist the temptation to get off and cross over to the opposite platform and fly back through the galaxy to 125th once more.
At the 47th-50th Street–Rockefeller Center station I hopped on the Q, a dull, ordinary train that brought me uneventfully to 21st Street–Queensbridge, near where my grandmother lived. The best I could do at that point was pretend the escalator up to the street was transporting me to the surface of an alien planet. When my feet hit the pavement, I was once again just the son of a worried mother, a boring boy armed with a makeshift toy.
I wanted to murder them, to hurt them, to make them suffer as much as possible.
I can reasonably guess what was on those four black boys’ minds on December 22, 1984, when Bernhard Goetz boarded the downtown 2 at 14th Street and took a seat: We can take this white motherfucker. Two of the teenagers carried screwdrivers in their pockets, which they were planning to use to break into the coin boxes of video-game machines. Goetz carried a loaded .38 pistol in his waistband. I also think I know what was going through his head before he stepped onto that train: Never again will I be taken.
According to an opinion by Chief Judge Sol Wachtler of the New York State Court of Appeals, this is how it went down: One boy stood to Goetz’s left, another to his right. A third hovered near the doors. The fourth boy hung back. The boy on Goetz’s left said, “Give me five dollars.” Goetz pretended not to hear, and the boy asked again. That’s when Goetz stood, pulled out the pistol, and fired four shots. The first teenager was hit in the chest. The second was hit in the back as he tried to escape. The third boy took a bullet that passed through his arm to his left side. The fourth and final boy retreated down the aisle. Goetz shot and missed; the bullet ricocheted off the wall of the conductor’s cabin.
Goetz surveyed the three he’d downed and then fired a second shot at the last boy, who in the meantime had sat down. The bullet entered his lower back and severed his spinal cord.
After someone pulled the emergency cord, Goetz went between two cars, jumped onto the tracks, and fled.
“See,” my mother repeated in the days that followed, shaking her head as though she’d known the shooting was going to happen all along. “This is the shit I’m talking about.”
My stepfather offered a different opinion: “White man been trying to kill us for four hundred years.”
My nine-year-old mind was filled with questions. Why did white men want us dead, but not white women? And why us? What had we done to them? And why four hundred years? Had we been friends four hundred and one years ago? One Sunday night my stepfather and I were watching a Giants-Redskins game, and during a commercial I asked him how what one man had done was the fault of all white people. “As a whole, they can’t be trusted,” he told me. His tone was matter-of-fact, and his voice seemed to come from somewhere else. What I really wanted was for him to tell me why men shoot boys, and why boys rob men on trains, and what it is about skin color that makes people so angry.
The first time I saw Goetz on the news, after he’d turned himself in on December 31, 1984, I was baffled. By then he’d been dubbed the “subway vigilante” and was being championed because he’d taken the law into his own hands and fought back against his attackers. But more than anything else, I was confused because he looked nothing like the tan, square-jawed action heroes I’d seen on TV. He had a pointed chin and crooked nose. His receding hairline made his forehead look huge, and the lenses of his glasses were the size of playing cards. He looked more like Murdock, the nerdy, mentally unbalanced character on the television show The A-Team. “Subway vigilante”? I was furious: I didn’t care that he was white, just that his goofy-looking ass had become the hero of my trains! I cared even less, or didn’t know how to care, that the boys who’d been injured were black, and so was I. I only wanted the trains all to myself again.
The citywide furor that followed the shootings soon faded. The volatility was still lurking, but after a few weeks my mother let me travel the city alone again by train, and that’s all that mattered.
I had lunch one afternoon in Greenwich Village with my uncle, and afterward we walked to the train station, where he waited with me until the Bronx-bound C train arrived. Before I boarded, he took me by the chin and turned my face to his. “Be careful,” he said.
I’d heard that phrase so many times — from parents, relatives, and teachers — that it had lost all importance. The words made no more impression on me than “Boy, you better clean that plate” or “Wash behind your ears.” Nothing could compete with how invincible I felt on the trains.
When I got on the C that day, I expected it to shoot through the tunnel uptown, just like the D did when I rode it downtown. I scrambled into a window seat so I could lose myself in the magic of the tunnel wall. Which aliens would need to be rescued today? Which would need to get their asses blasted? As the train slowly climbed to warp speed, all else vanished.
After half a minute, though, the C slowed and came to a stop at 14th Street, the same train stop I’d heard mentioned on the news and in adults’ conversations only months before. I fully expected to see Bernhard Goetz stroll onto the car and take a seat next to me. I was grateful when only unfamiliar people boarded and sat scattered throughout the car.
At no point did the C hurtle anywhere; it crawled from 14th to 23rd to 34th, traveling in tiny, agonizing increments, scooping up more and more bodies at every stop. That’s what they were to me from 42nd to 50th to 59th to 72nd: faceless bodies interrupting my voyage. Then we hit 81st Street, and I realized the train was standing-room-only, packed with what seemed like all the white people in the galaxy. The bodies now had faces, bright as bulbs. I couldn’t distinguish which of those white faces belonged to a potential killer and which didn’t. They weren’t clearly marked as evil, like the faces of the bad guys in my fantasies. They were just as plain as Goetz’s.
Stay out of your head.
I remember wanting my mother. I remember wishing I had the power to disappear through the wall of the train. I recall fragmented details: A red shoe with an ice-pick heel. High-water slacks revealing white socks. Crackling cellophane. A brown department-store bag nestled between a pair of bare pink knees. At one point, I found myself staring at a man across from me. He stared back, and this made me wonder: had he already made up his mind to hurt me, because he believed I’d already made up my mind to hurt him?
Pay attention to the people around you.
But I closed my eyes, because I was too damn scared to keep them open. In order not to make a sudden move that might confirm that I was who they expected me to be, I rooted my feet to the floor and shoved my hands into my pockets. That’s when I felt it: The plastic slickness of duct tape. The phaser. My weapon against the Federation’s enemies. My head throbbed with fear. I wanted to pull the phaser out and show everyone that it was just make-believe and that I was a regular boy, but there was no way to tell how they would react. Instead I sat still and kept a tight grip on the toy gun.
And don’t be messing with nobody on them trains.
When I got off at Yankee Stadium, I found the nearest bench and sat down as the other passengers climbed the stairs. Once I could be sure I was alone on the platform, I took the phaser from my pocket and held it in my hand like a weapon one last time. It felt heavy. I moved my forefinger along the peeling-tape trigger and made a blast noise, but it had ceased to sound real to my ear. At the foot of the staircase, I dropped the thing into a trash bin before taking the stairs.
I was halfway up when a train hurtled into the station along the middle, express track. I went back down and watched. The sight of it was still magic, but I was now aware that it was my mind which had made it so.
And as the D blasted out of the station — its slithering, magnificent bulk shrinking into the distance — I knew these sullied silver bullets would never be the same for me again.
If I was a little more under self-control, I would’ve put the barrel against his forehead and fired.
My mother could not know what future violence would come for her son, only that, sooner or later, it would come.
She could not know that in December 1986, Michael Griffith would be severely beaten by a mob of white teenagers in Howard Beach, Queens, then chased onto the Shore Parkway and killed by an oncoming car. She could not know that in November 1987, fifteen-year-old Tawana Brawley would allege that white police officers had raped her, written racial slurs on her body, and then smeared her with feces. Later, when it would be revealed that the girl had lied, my mother would know even less what to say about the brutality we suffer due to race. Nor would she be able to explain why a gang of black and Hispanic boys would confess to raping and nearly beating to death Trisha Meili, a white woman who was out jogging in Central Park on an April night in 1989.
And what explanation would she be able to offer in August of that same year, when sixteen-year-old Yusuf Hawkins was shot to death by a member of an angry mob who believed he was involved with a white girl in the predominantly Italian neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn?
What could she say about a future she knew was coming, but did not know when, or how, or what it would mean for her son?
I was fourteen the summer Hawkins was killed and Reverend Al Sharpton led a march through the streets of Bensonhurst in protest. I remember on the news the blotchy red faces of neighborhood residents who chanted, “Useless, useless” (a play on “Yusuf”), as the marchers made their way down the avenue. I considered my middle name, Yuseff, as well as the infatuation I had with Alyssa Milano, the Italian American actress who starred in the sitcom Who’s the Boss? The similarities were too close. I developed a serious fear of Brooklyn, believing that if I ever went there, I’d surely get my black ass killed.
It was shortly after that, while I was staying with my grandmother for the summer, that I became part of a bicycle crew in Queens. We were like a troop of brothers. About nine of us would gather on the basketball court before noon, the August morning air still cool on our bare legs and arms. By one o’clock the heat would be torching us as we looted tennis balls from public courts or lifted packaged cakes off the back of unattended delivery trucks. Mainly we cruised Steinway Avenue, rolling by on our bikes like a hungry pride of young lions. When we decided the day should be an epic one, we’d cross the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan and ride several blocks to Central Park. We kept a lookout for loose change or dollar bills, and when we came up with nothing, we would watch for a sweet-looking girl whose behind we could rhapsodize about for the rest of the evening.
The camaraderie we shared was seductive, and for the first time in my life I understood what it meant to love someone other than a relative or the silent, pretty girl at the back of the class. These were my first true niggas, and my relationship to them was the initial demarcation of my blackness. I would’ve killed anyone who tried to take it away.
One evening about ten of us were hanging out in the courtyard of my grandmother’s building in the Queensbridge Housing Project. We had our bikes flipped over on their handlebars and were fixing flats, oiling chains, and trading parts. I haggled over an inner tube with a quiet, well-built kid named Ray. Our bartering turned sour, and we graduated to ranking on each other’s moms. I was only an average ranker, and when the crowd that had gathered began laughing harder at Ray’s jokes than at mine, I grew hot with anger. Ray let off several quick “yo’ mama” jokes, and all I could come back with was that I was smart and he was dumb, that I was brown-skinned and he was dark-skinned — powerful insults for any black person in the boroughs. Ray just threw his head back and laughed as if none of it fazed him. “But, nigga,” he said, “you talk white.” The crowd exploded, laughing so hard they looked as if they were dancing. I fumed. Even worse than being dumb and dark was sounding like a white person.
“So you want to fight?” I heard myself say.
“Come on, then,” Ray replied, so fast it was too late to pretend I hadn’t challenged him.
We drifted onto the basketball court, the crowd following behind us. I held my fists just above my waist, like a martial artist I’d seen on television. Ray held his near his chin, like a boxer. I swung more like I was handling an axe than punching someone. Ray dodged every karate chop I threw and snapped my head back with three quick jabs, the last of which pitched me on my ass. The crowd went, “Ohhh!” Girls giggled. I staggered to my feet only to be dropped again with a flurry of blows to the cheek and temple. The next time I got up and tried to go at Ray, an adult held me back, saying, “It’s over, little man. Give it up.” I was deranged with anger, not only because I’d gotten beaten up, but because by beating me, Ray had revealed just how far behind I was as a boy — and as a black boy. Because there was no way I was going to lay a single knuckle on Ray’s face, I roared the filthiest things I could think of about his mother and shouted that I wanted to kill his entire family.
After that night, my days of riding with the bike crew were over. For the next week I didn’t set foot outside my grandmother’s apartment, and when I did, it was to flee back to my own neighborhood in the Bronx. On the train ride home I felt I knew how my former friends back in Queens saw me: as a weak little bitch who talked like the people who’d killed Yusuf Hawkins.
Ray was on my mind for a long time after that. I couldn’t let it go. I spent hours in front of the mirror mimicking his punches and preparing to use my fists more effectively the next time a conflict came to blows. I was never going to lose another fight. Maybe I couldn’t be black in Queens, but I could still be black in the Bronx.
It didn’t matter where in the city I was, though. I was plagued by memories of the beating I’d taken. Near the end of the summer, I snapped. One day the mentally ill aunt of a neighbor showed up at our apartment, saying she was an old friend of my mother’s. My mother wasn’t home, and I knew nothing about the woman’s illness, so I let her in. When she said my youngest sister was her daughter and that she’d come to reclaim her, I realized I’d made a terrible mistake. “Get the fuck out,” I told the woman, trying to sound ferocious, though my voice shook. “Now!” I added more forcibly, shielding my sister behind my leg. The woman was out the door in an instant, and I stood there, livid and confused and aware that my hands were growing hot.
Not thinking — or perhaps thinking too much — I grabbed the keys, locked my crying sister inside the apartment, and took to the street. The woman had reached the end of the block and was just turning onto Burnside Avenue. I sprinted after her and around the corner, catching sight of her as she was passing a Vietnamese fruit stand. When I was close enough to touch her, I said, “Hey, bitch.” She turned, and, holding my fists like a boxer, I unleashed on her face.
After that I got used to the muffled clapping noise hitting someone made, and the feeling of my knuckles against a person’s jaw. Not tough enough to be a true thug, I picked fights with boys I knew I could beat. I hit one kid because he called me a “wack-ass quarterback” after he dropped a touchdown pass I’d thrown during a game of two-hand touch. I hit another kid in the gut because I saw him wearing a hat I believed belonged to my younger brother. And during a remedial trigonometry class at my high school one Saturday, I went after the math teacher — a fat, balding, bitter white man — because he told me to get the hell out of his class if I was going to run my mouth instead of work on the equation he’d scribbled on the board.
These incidents took place in front of people I knew, and I was grateful for the audience. Though I’m not proud of who I was during those fights, there was no way I could have withstood another loss. If I had allowed myself to get duped by some crazy woman, wouldn’t that have made me even more of an outcast than her? If I had let some white person disrespect me in front of a group of my peers, wouldn’t that have made me even more of an Oreo cookie — black on the outside, white on the inside — than they already believed I was? I wanted to work my way back into the hearts of my people. All so many of us want is to blend in effortlessly, to attain that raunchy, odorous, and sometimes fabulous love I’d had with my bike crew. I found myself ready to take a person’s head off in order to honor the group’s code: Be like us, or else. Had I the power to tear open time and space and let that bike crew from Queens see me battling with a crazy woman, a hat thief, and a math teacher, I would’ve cried, “See! See how black I am! Look at me! Love me again!”
Had I a gun, I would’ve smoked all my enemy’s asses.
Subsection 1 of New York State’s self-defense law 35.15 states that a person may use deadly physical force upon another person if he reasonably believes such force is necessary to defend himself. What this emphasis on “reasonable belief” boils down to is: Would you have acted the same way under the same circumstances? A jury of Goetz’s peers knew precisely how they would’ve behaved if they’d been carrying a gun and four black teenage boys had demanded five dollars from them on a subway car. And in June of 1987, Bernhard Goetz was acquitted of attempted murder.
For all that has been said about black boys from the hood, and all that continues to be said, our culture refuses to speak passionately about what it means to be a white person cast out from the hearts of his people. Had Goetz been robbed on the train that day, his whole self might have collapsed, just as mine felt like it had in Queensbridge when the crowd had roared with laughter after Ray called me white and then put me on my ass. Perhaps those black boys who asked Goetz for money represented every white face in his life that had long ago maimed his heart. Maybe when he got up and started firing, he was getting even with everyone who’d called him a “faggot,” a “geek,” a “pussy”; with every girl who’d grimaced after she’d caught him staring at her breasts. Maybe being able to stand over those boys’ bleeding bodies allowed Goetz to think, At least I ain’t black. Maybe he even hoped it would make his people love him again.
To praise or condemn Goetz’s actions on the train that December day is to ignore how violence far too easily becomes the only way the desperate and wounded know how to react. And what all this demonstrates is that bloodshed ruins black people and white people alike, and isn’t that what makes us the same?
But at some point I got off that train.
Growing up where I did, I’ve often wondered why I never killed a person, or at least committed a violent crime. Maybe I was afraid of the reciprocal harm that could have been done to me, or that the damage I caused would have landed me in prison and not at my computer writing, or in the street playing football, or in bed making love to a woman. I never consciously chose not to be violent. Rather I developed a strategy of fighting when necessary, and with appropriate force, and never in the name of racial redemption, and being willing to accept the consequences of my actions if this strategy failed. Who knows? One more knuckle sandwich here or there, and I might have been carrying a pistol in the waist of my jeans the way I once had a phaser.
Sometimes I imagine I’m on the train with Goetz and those four boys — Troy, Barry, James, and Darrell — that December afternoon in 1984. In my fantasy, Goetz and I are one. We are Captain Kirk, and we have the weapon: the .38 is in our waistband, a phaser resting comfortably against the hip or deep in a coat pocket. The scent of the gun metal and the feel of the wooden handle are rapturous. I imagine Goetz on the car that afternoon (sometimes he is a boy, sometimes he is a man) running, diving, ducking for cover, then coming up with pistol drawn and shouting, Bang, bang! in a boy voice as he guns down dark bodies. And later in my fantasy, when he is definitely a man and those boys lie bleeding at his feet, he looks up and out the train window at the wall whipping past at dazzling speed. He presses his face against the glass and marvels at the third-rail explosions, just another one among us who has ignored his mother’s warnings to stay out of his head, pay attention to the people around him, and don’t be messing with nobody on them—
If I had more bullets I would have shot them again and again and again.