Photo by James Emery
“You from Long Island?” Danny, from Brownsville, Brooklyn, grilled. Before I could qualify myself, he turned to face the rest of the kids on our bus, and announced, “The skinny kid is loaded.”
We had just left Chinatown and were cruising north, along the Hudson River, to sleep-away camp in upstate New York. My fellow 10-year-olds caught up with each other and rapped about last year but I was the rookie. They were all from the gritty NYC boroughs where they attended urban schools with cool prison names like P.S. 52 and P.S. 136. I had just come from Rainbow Vagina Academy in the suburbs.
Less than a week before, I sat in class on my last day of fifth grade and applauded myself. I had gone the entire year without blowing my cover address, which I used to protect the secret location of my apartment, in a nearby, shoddier neighborhood. It was a covert operation in order to keep me in the more expensive and esteemed school district. In our upper middle-class Jewish bubble, I felt like the poor kid. When I asked my Phys Ed partner about the logo on his new designer t-shirt, he heckled, “You don’t even know what O.P. stands for?” I gazed into the stitched California waves on his Ocean Pacific polo and imagined sailing far away from my privileged Elementary school.
My mother found a nonprofit subsidized camp for me to attend in the summer. The admission fees ran on a “sliding scale,” so we paid only what we could afford—about 300 bucks for the entire season. I looked forward to reinventing myself as an equal among a clean batch. Yet these inner-city kids had me pegged for a sheltered rich boy before I ever had a shot.
Upon arrival at our destination, a used up army barracks in the mountains, I found my trunk of clothes and followed the group to our moldy bunk house. I picked out a rusty tetanus trap of a bed and passed out for the rest of the afternoon. I thought I was pretty slick in “calling” a top bed, until it rained later that night and brown sludge speckled my face from the cracked roof above.
The next morning I had to go to the bathroom so bad that I fell onto the floor and got a splinter in my butt. A fruit bat stared me down and chased me all the way up a steep slope to our outhouse latrines. Unable to pee, I taunted myself by imagining home friends gloat about their own camp amenities, like hot showers and flush toilets. When I made the mistake of complaining to my counselor Rob, he told the rest of my bunk-mates, “Aw… Ahron wants to go to Camp Rich.” I would have been satisfied with a roll of toilet paper but I could feel their looks. “What a wuss!”
On Long Island I was too ashamed of my apartment, with its ripped pleather couches and termite outbreaks, to invite anyone over for a play date. If I asked my mom, whether a friend’s family was rich, she always said, “They’re comfortable.” I decided that we were uncomfortable. But compared to my new quarters—and the broken metal springs of my bed jabbing me in the back— my mom’s place seemed like a decent resort. I promised myself never to fuss about it again, assuming I could be teleported back there right away.
A few days later, we rounded up for our first Instructional Swim lesson on a crippled dock at the bottom of a hill. I combed the area for a gleaming underground pool—like the ones I was jealous of in my friends’ backyards—but there was none. Our swim instructor led us into a sectioned off area of a polluted lake to demonstrate our skills. I jumped in and heard, “You! Get over there, with the other Advanced Beginners.” I trudged through a foot of slime to join Felix, a soft-boiled egg of a child, who refused to go into the water.
At 9 years of age, Felix moved like a sluggish 60-year-old man who seemed tired from all the years he had put into making sure his children would have a better life. As a rule, his face said, “I’d really prefer to just not do whatever it is you would like me to do.” He grimaced about having to find the strength to complain aloud.
The absence of a Beginner swimmer group let everyone know that the staff added “Advanced” to our label in order to save us some embarrassment. And the fact that we all knew this also let everyone know that we were, indeed, “Advanced Rejects.” My swim coach tried to teach me the back float and carried me like an infant bathed in the kitchen sink, along the blue partition rope that quarantined us from the others. Felix shook his head from the sides. I imagined Jason, from Friday the 13th, struggling to break loose beneath. If the killer surfaced, he would see the Intermediates swim the butterfly like dolphins at Sea World, then spot me, the pathetic target, as I tried to back float away to safety. Maybe Felix was onto something.
My head counselor Rob said, “That’s enough,” and granted us refuge back on dry land. Rob was 17, but he might as well have been a seasoned Vietnam veteran to us campers. He had a tattoo of a mangled fist on his shoulder and wore a fleshy scar across his back. I assumed that he was serving a community service sentence for whatever he had done to the person on the other end of his wound. If any of us young punks started to argue with each other, he’d put us in check, jabbing, “Youse wanna’ fight? Then youse are gonna fight. Right now.”
Back at my playgrounds, in the ‘burbs, there weren’t many fist fights. The violence was mental. After winter break, children compared the number of Vermont ski lift tickets on their state of the art snow jackets and mocked each other for missing out on a new addition to Disney World. Adam, who sat next to me in fifth grade, could tell you how much the best Tennis racket in the world sold for and why the leather stripping on my Air Jordan sneakers outed them as obvious knock-offs—“It’s just all wrong.”
When Rob used his “Youse wanna fight?” technique to push me into a scuffle with Boris, a recent Russian transplant who hailed from a Brooklyn project, I laughed off the tension before we made it to the front of our bunk. Rob consoled me, whispering, “Boris’s father was a boxer in Russia you know, his little sister can probably beat you up.” I prayed he wouldn’t make me fight her in the rematch. I was too feeble to rumble with Boris, yet I was too Philistine to dispute name brand clothes with Adam at school. I was stuck in some kind of defenseless limbo, unarmed in all forms of warfare.
Just before dawn broke on our first Saturday, Freddy, who slept underneath me in a bottom bed, shook me up and yelled, “Yo, Get up man. Donut time!” A musty recreational hall hosted 7AM, Saturday morning Shabbat prayers, with a bonus. Anyone willing to get their asses up and off to services earned themselves a free Dunkin’ donut, two or three if they were one of the first few to arrive—Freddy bolted.
Apparently, back in the day, the camp was formally a Jewish institution, but there had been a drastic shift in demographics since its founding. Besides a few Soviet refuges that had recently made their way to the shores of Brooklyn, like Boris, most of the kids weren’t Jewish.
I hadn’t been to Hebrew school, the after-school program, in two years because my parents owed thousands in late dues. To the rest of the student body I was an irreverent dropout. But here, since I was one of the only kids to have ever been to a synagogue, I felt like a learned rabbinical scholar. Without any explanation for the rituals, my Black and Puerto Rican friends had no idea why chanting phlegmy sounds bought them free junk food—but no one asked questions. It was a simple quid pro quo: say the lines and get the goods. The holy prayer words evolved into a camp slang. If someone kicked a home run during kickball, Martel—a Baptist from The Bronx— yelled, “Shema Yisrael…Bitches!”
During the next few weeks I tiptoed behind my comrades and sponged up some street wisdom. I learned the lyrics to Kool Moe Dee’s Bad Mutha, how to pop lock like a b-boy—sort of, and chimed in on late night Yo Mamma battles— “Yo mamma’s like a bowling ball. She gets picked up, felt up, thrown in the alley. And then she comes back for more!” Just as I started to feel like I was on my way to becoming a made man, Parents Day arrived.
As families began to show up, my father, a mechanic from Israel, cruised into the middle of the parking field in his customer’s shiny white Rolls Royce, blasting Lionel Richie’s Dancing on the Ceiling. I sprinted over to him, terrified, and whispered, “Whose car is this?!”
He smiled, certain he had just done me a huge favor. His eyes said, “You’re welcome.”
By dinner time, all the parents had left and a lucky few scarfed down treats brought for them from the real world, like Fruity Pebbles and blue Gatorade. I pleaded my case, “It’s not my Rolls Royce. My dad is just the shady repairman!” But no one believed me. I peered into their heads and saw myself escorted past millionaire estates in the Rolls—or maybe it was our Bentley, that we reserved for weekend cruises—until an English chauffeur opened the door with a glass of cold lemonade in hand.
As we changed into our bathing suits for our nightly “twilight” swim session, Danny called our attention away from Parents Day and over to a more important discovery. He pointed under Felix’s mushy belly and yelled, “What is going on down there Felix? It goes in!” Felix then replied with what was, perhaps, the weakest comeback in history: “It comes out sometimes!”
As August trickled by, I played aloof but plotted an escape in my mind. I would trek to the highway, and then hitchhike downstate to the first supermarket I could find. There, I would bask in the icy Air Conditioning and live off the truckload of dried breakfast cereal on Aisle 7.
As my clandestine prison break drew near one shweaty night, our counselors ran into our bunk and woke us up. They yelled, “Surprise trip. We’re all going to see Coming to America with Eddie Murphy!” Everyone gasped. We were Korean War soldiers and Marilyn Monroe was on her way to greet us. On the way into town the driver told us to take deep breaths so we wouldn’t hyperventilate and end up in the Emergency Room—and miss the movie.
During the film, my eyes watered in gratitude for our salvation and Eddie Murphy. When the credits rolled I snuck into another showing. I left to use the marble restrooms and flushed a high pressure toilet. Then I flushed it again just to hear that swoosh of civilization one more time. The doors flew open and Rob dragged me back to our bus, now full of angry youths and staff waiting for someone to find me. A 9 year-old girl yelled, “Dock him from Canteen!” and Rob smiled. “Two weeks.” I dropped my head in defeat.
Canteen, the candy store, was our opium den. During our regular meals in the open-air cafeteria, we ate cold oatmeal, stale tuna sandwiches and watered-down, purple Bug juice. But in Canteen, the camp granted us each a credit of $2.65, as our dealer behind a counter—the same guy who played “Rabbi” at Shabbat services, only now in a dirty painter’s smock—served up packets of Fun Dip, tangy Nerds, and Type-2 Diabetes.
As dawn broke, a few days into my sugar withdrawal, I woke up shivering and wet. Then I breathed in a most humbling fragrance, of a blanket—my blanket—soaked in pee. I sprung up like a ninja who had overslept and ran the soiled evidence across our campgrounds into a dumpster. I considered finding a match, and maybe some gasoline, but I had to get back. When I arrived in the bunk, out of breath, everyone had just begun to wake but they were too groggy to notice me.
I deflated on my bed, dog-tired, and staggered from the mental smackdown I had dodged. My scare swept every other concern off the filthy shelf in my head. And I couldn’t care less about passing for a fresh city kid or a country club suburbanite but I continued to hang with both of them from a fitted spot somewhere in between.
Camp ended a few days later. I went home, flushed my toilet and braced myself for the next battle—junior high.
Ahron Yeshaiek lives in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in the anthology One for the Road, New York Press, and The New York Times. His screenplay, Miles in Time, is an official selection at the Kids First Film festival. He is currently writing a comedy set during the dot-com bubble.