I grew up in the Frog Hollow district of Hartford, CT. Imagine what life must have been like for a white kid growing up in Connecticut, years before the era of forced diversity and white privilege. What do you see? A little boy carrying an invisible backpack full of get out of jail free cards? Green grass and wealthy insurance moguls drunk by lunchtime, surrounded by the spoils of great fortune acquired at the expense of others?
When I was a kid Hartford was a battleground for gangs like The Savage Nomads and The Ghetto Brothers. Since the 70s Hartford, especially Frog Hollow, has consistently ranked among the ten worst U.S. cities in poverty, unemployment, and violent crime. Of course, I didn’t know that back then. I was just scared all the time. Before my eleventh birthday I had been jumped by gang members seven times. I was hit with brass knuckles long before I read Lord Of The Flies.
I was a latchkey kid. I liked going to school because there were adults there, protectors. But everyday after lunch the nerves would kick in. Only three hours until school ends. What if my timing is off and I run into one of the gangs again? I was always one of the last kids to leave school at the end of the day. I’d pretend that I forgot something in my locker. I’d wait in the bathroom until the janitor came by to lock up the doors and told me to leave. I had a thousand ways to delay my walk home from school.
In the fourth grade I traded a binder full of Garbage Pail Kids for a butterfly knife. I started carrying that knife with me on my walks home. I got cuts all over my fingers because I could never figure out how to properly open and close it.
I remember kicking bullet casings down the sidewalk. I can still see the graffiti on the walls of the projects. Some of those symbols stuck with me. I used to draw them in the margins of my school notebooks even though I didn’t understand what they meant.
Twice my bedroom window was shot out while I was in bed sleeping. When I was ten I got jumped by a big group of guys, ten, maybe twelve of them. I got hit in the teeth with a baseball bat. I remember feeling my teeth slide down my throat.
Not long after that, it was my father’s turn. He’d just dropped me off at a friend’s house and was on his way home. It was a sunny day. He stopped to have a cigarette on a park bench. He was jumped from behind, beaten with bats and left on the side of the road. He wasn’t robbed. They didn’t take his wedding ring or wallet – they just beat him and left him on the side of the road. He had reconstructive surgery on his face, and started wearing a beard to hide the scars.
Shortly after he had recovered we were sitting on the front stoop. He sat with his elbows on his knees, looking at the street. “You want to get out of here,” he asked.
A few months later, on Christmas Day, we moved to a suburb of Chicago.
Our new neighborhood was like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. I had never seen anything like it. The storefronts all had awnings. The windows were clean and didn’t have bars on them. The sidewalk garbage cans were never full. There were no sirens, no distant popping at night. It took me a long time to get used to the quiet.
Our new town was small, about 40,000 but it felt so much bigger than Hartford. There was space between the houses, a nature preserve, a downtown area called The Square. New neighborhoods were called subdivisions instead of projects.
I remember my first walk through The Square. It was snowing and so quiet. No sirens, no horns or yelling – just the sound of snow crunching under my feet. I remember seeing a group of older kids walking in toward me. I clumsily opened my knife with my hand still in my coat pocket. I looked around for a door to run through, a window to jump through – any way for me to get away if they attacked me.
But they simply nodded at me and kept on down the street. I stopped and watched as they disappeared around a corner. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t attacked me. I turned back around and bumped into a woman with white hair as she was leaving one of the shops. “Oops! Hello there,” she said. I just stared at her for a second, mumbled something and walked away. I was stunned. I sat down on a bench outside of a restaurant where, years later, I would take my first girlfriend for dinner. I sat there on that bench and cried for a good long while. It was the first time that I really wasn’t scared.
Some will say that I was the beneficiary of some white skin privilege but the truth is we escaped Frog Hollow because my parents maxed out twenty credit cards and spent the next eight years doing everything they could to keep us in a home we could not afford. The day I left home they filed for bankruptcy and moved into a one bedroom apartment later that year.
You might think I won, but I assure you I did not. The story doesn’t end there, on that sidewalk bench. I was skinny, wore glasses, and kept to myself. I didn’t trust anyone I was nervous, jumpy, awkward, and in junior high. The streets were clean. There were cars and basketball hoops in every driveway. And I was still looking over my shoulder on the way home from school, just as afraid of running into Joe Lee as I was of the Savage Nomads.
You feel bad for me? Don’t. You wouldn’t if Matt Patton was writing his story. See, I beat him senseless one day at recess just because I could. He was the one kid I could take on comfortably, and I thrashed him. I had hoped that people would see that and then leave me alone. That’s what I told myself, but the truth is that I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it because I wasn’t the one the ground anymore. While I was straddling him, driving my fists into his cheeks I felt power. It was righteous. My family and I had been hurt and I punished young Matt for it. I’m sure he had never even heard of Frog Hollow, but I didn’t care.
Four years later, during our senior year of high school Matt put a shotgun to his head.
So no, I most definitely did not win. I survived a ghetto but created one for someone else, and he died in it.
Years later, after I had moved to the city, I was running a shop on Belmont Avenue. One afternoon while working my way through a line at the register I looked up to see Joe Lee standing there in front me.
In a second it all came back to me – those miserable evenings spent hiding under the kitchen table until my folks came home from work, the trips to the nurse’s office I made, faking illness so I could be sent home, Matt Patton. All of it. I reached out and shook his hand. I told him it was good to see him, and it was. He told me that he was in school for criminal law. For a long time he had represented to me everything that was wrong in the world, just as I’m sure I did for Matt Patton. The story could well have ended there, and I’m grateful that it didn’t. To become a deeper man is the privilege of those who have suffered. We’ve all suffered. We will continue to. It’s a fool errand to critique the depth of another’s experience. It was George Herbert who said that living well is the best revenge. I can tell you from experience that he was right on.