Two Part Post (Link to Part 2 at the bottom)
“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done. Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hit, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you are because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that and that ain’t you. You’re better than that.” – Rocky from Rocky Balboa
This monologue resonated so strongly with me because it truly captures my perspective on life.
This past Thanksgiving weekend, I was fortunate to meet an insightful cousin of a really good family/friend from college. She works as a senior staff member within the NYPD covering the borough of The Bronx in New York City. Upon hearing that I was born and raised in the South Bronx, she mentioned very tactfully yet piercingly, “I’m very glad you made it out, I’m surprised anyone makes it out of here. It’s so hard and truly survival of the fittest out here”. As a head of the borough’s precincts, she knows the underbellies of these communities very intimately, and the hardships that these communities’ residents endure, so I truly appreciated her sentiments.
This weekend wasn’t the first time I heard this idea of “making it out”. One of the first jarring instances of these experiences came during my first semester at college, when a hall mate curiously asked me if I had ever been shot or sold drugs! Bewildered, I answered appropriately, but the enthrallment that a black/brown male made it into an Ivy like University directly from the doldrums of the poorest congressional district in the United States was perplexing to many of my uninformed peers. Compound this fact that my best friend and first year roommate was also from the same high school and areas as I and voila ~ Ripley’s Believe it or Not! College Edition. (Invited but still not really accepted). These events were particularly jarring, not because of underlying racial perceptions or prejudices, that’s something I’ve dealt and will most likely continue to deal with my entire life particularly due to my personality and skin tone, “too white to be black, too black to be white” (whatever the fuck any of that meant, — welcome to the island of misfit toys). No, this event was jarring because it indirectly revealed the preconceived notions of what many thought a person from my environment would be. What stung was knowing me and people like me were in fact a large minority and the perceived notions were unfortunately quite rational to the reality.
Throughout my high school and college years, I was fortuitously exposed to life outside of the confines of New York. Coincidentally, with the increased opportunities and exposure came increased perspectives on life and upbringings, all which fueled an already brewing bitterness and explosive rage from multiple areas of my life.
Primary familial sentiments notwithstanding – I was angry for a long time. Born into a war-zone of drugs, violence, and perpetual illicit activity. Negativity, despair, struggle and death were palatable. Sirens and gunshots were as commonplace as hearing the ice cream truck in the summer or roaring train on the “El’ 24 hours a day. Hypodermic needles, drunks, junkies and vermin littered neighborhoods and apartments while the scent of garbage and seeped through every crevice possible. Food was always second rate and limited at best. Cots and couches were our Temper Pedic, as space was always at a premium, with many families like my own sharing one bedroom confines. Without exposure, this was the only life I knew. But with these exposures of alternatives, we developed laser focus tunnel vision drive highlighted by a “fuck this, there’s got to be a better way” and “we’ll do whatever it takes for life to be better for our future [& children]” mindset. There was no time to play victim or point the finger, that wasn’t going to change anything, evident from the perpetual cycle that was increasingly apparent. There were minimum examples of “how to do it” or what “success” looked like, so we had to forge our own paths, unaware of how or what to do just not what we saw.
My outlet was school. I was blessed to have adult figures that promoted the importance and value of education as strong means to potential successes in the future, but it was all speculation, none of them had done it yet, I’d have to be the first. My grandparents gave everything they had to find programs funding and sponsors to send me and my sisters to local private catholic schools just to shelter us from the tyrannies that engulfed us elsewhere, if only for a few hours a day. They quite literally saved my life, as these investments undoubtedly shifted my entire life trajectory.
These institutions had their own challenges but were safe havens, especially with the perils that constantly lurked outside their walls. Often teased, bullied, and jumped walking from school for wearing dress clothes, a tie, glasses, being skinny and a “nerd”… yet didn’t have time to worry about how unfair life was, or how we were feeling in those moments — we had to defend ourselves, fight back. We had to survive.
Athletics and gym life became the sides to supplement the books that were the main course for my escape out of my increasingly troubling and frustrating hell. We kept grinding, heads down, working, by any means necessary. No one was going to give us anything, to the contrary, the cards were heavily stacked against us — We had to survive.
Everyone’s story varies to degrees, some better, and some worse. Some urban, some rural. Some foreign, some domestic etc. I connect deeply with these people as we share a commonality rooted in any person I know growing up in difficult environments, survival.
Survival in the very literal sense of the word. Do whatever it takes to survive and keep moving forward. We had to survive.
So that’s what we did. We grew up faster than many, we became tougher than most, we never took no for an answer, we always found a way, we did as my reps, studied and worked with minimal sleep for however long it took, got the shit kicked out of us literally and figuratively and just kept moving forward. I lost similarly aged friends/family through accidents, sickness, murder and overdose alike. Some on the same “right” paths as I, just trying to survive.
At this point, we’re all pretty mangled with the wounds to show. But most, if not all of those scars, both the invisible and visible ones, helped us survive and that we did…