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Kevin Powell

Jersey City

inspired by Richard Wright

by Kevin Powell

It was at 116 Bergen Avenue, in a cluttered first-floor apartment at the back of the building, that Jersey City, where I was born and where I would spend the first eighteen years of my life, began to disrobe itself, fascinating me, annoying me, and tempting me simultaneously. Each event, each moment, outside and indoors, I held onto tightly, afraid that if I let go, then that event, that moment, would be gone forever:

Like the winded rapture of playing on the black and gray gravel of Audubon Park: climbing the monkey bars, coasting hands-free down the sliding board, or kicking my feet toward the clouds as my mother pushed me on the swings.

Like the instant worldliness rooted in the regular Saturday afternoon rides with my mother on the crowded orange and white Bergen Avenue bus.

Like the longing for adventure induced by the teenage boys who scrambled after a bus, only to grab hold of the back window during a stop, then ride for blocks until the police chased them off-and away.

Like the bewilderment I felt when rain smeared the bright red bricks of 116 Bergen Avenue into a dull, purplish hue.

Like that fleeting taste of nature manifested when my cousin Anthony and I yanked the tiny green leaves from a bush and aimed them at each other's mouths.

Like the experience of death without dying whenever a mutt or an alley cat was struck by a passing car or bus, then lurched and moaned pitifully on the sidewalk before confronting the ground.

Like the peculiar sensation of watching a drunk or junkie tilt toward the earth, only to right himself, piss on himself, curse himself or the nearest neighbor, then march, dignified, down the block.

Like the hostile paranoia I felt whenever my mother and I trekked Jackson Avenue, past the empty, boarded up buildings, past the garbage-strewn lots, past the stink, unshaven men with their pocket-size bottles of liquor.

Like the naive assumption that Jersey City was splitting in half whenever I saw a new crack in the concrete leading to my building.

Like the sugary nostaglia that kissed my eyes whenever I spotted yet another pair of grimy sneakers dangling from the electric wires overhead.

Like the raw titillation discharged when ice cream truck music caromed off my ears onto the ears of Anthony and so on, until all of us ghetto children were spellbound and sprinting, triumphantly, toward the truck.

Like the unsolicited pity of observing pigeons as they battled over a strap of bread.

Like the cryptic sense of great expectations when I angled my head skyward and snared snowflakes on the rim of my bottom lip.

Like the apocalyptic sound of thunder and the mercurial sight of lightning which propelled my mother and Aunt Cathy to snatch off the lights, to unplug all the electrical items, and to forbid Anthony and I from speaking or moving, until that sound and that sight had expended themselves and retired to the heavens.

Like the surge of power I savored when I trapped a cockroach with a plastic top and mocked its maneuvers to free itself.

Like the hot panic which forced its muscular hands around my throat whenever I heard the bustling feet of rats in the walls.

Like the musty air of predictability associated with the white rice my mother served with every dinner.

Like the ungovernable hunger I had whenever my mother baked a thickly crusted sweet potato pie and set it in the refrigerator to cool.

Like the magical appearance of dust rays as the sun's tongue lapped the windows of our apartment.

Like the budding selfishness of my cousin Anthony and I any time we hid our toys from each other.

Like the sudden and inexplicable happiness that rocked me in its strong arms on the occasion of Mister Rogers inviting me into his neighborhood.

Like the rage that engulfed me whenever our black-and-white television set succumbed to age and a fat, moving black line fixed itself on the screen.

Like the explosion of possibilities that accompanied those quiet moments when my mother asked me to recite the alphabet, to say a new word, to repeat my full name and street address, or to count higher than I had previously.

Like the private satisfaction generated by an imagination that saw faces and bodies in the patterns of the cheap, brown-and-beige kitchen chairs.

And like the sheer delight and obscure passing of tradition when my mother taught me to do "the jerk," "the mashed potato," or "the twist," or when she belted the lyrics to a Smoky Robinson or Marvin Gaye song....

1995


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