Kill Whitey Day

by

04/27/2008

The Bronx, 10461

Neighborhood: Bronx, East Bronx

I was standing in the basement of Macy’s Parkchester in The Bronx, in a line of what seemed like a thousand teenagers, smoking both cigarettes and weed, chanting and cheering and waiting for Ticketmaster to open. Adult shoppers were non-existent and salespeople had abandoned their posts either in foreknowledge or in fear, except the lone Ticketmaster employee at the window way beyond where I could see. All around me were kids I knew, but I acknowledged no one. I was on a mission. It was a little past ten o’clock on a weekday morning. You might be thinking we all should have been in school. Yes, we should have and maybe some of us would have, except for one thing. Led Zeppelin was coming to Madison Square Garden and tickets were about to go on sale. In those primitive analog days before cable TV, cell phones and the internet, you listened to your favorite FM radio station day and night, non-stop, waiting for the DJ to announce the day and time concert tickets would go on sale. And you lined up at the nearest Ticketmaster and you waited. If it was a weekday, fuck school. Who in their right mind would go to school when for seven dollars and fifty cents, you could see “Kashmir.”

I didn’t get a ticket that morning. Not because they had sold out, but because I didn’t have enough money. Even the blue nosebleed seats were now $5.50—a whole dollar more than the year before—and I wasn’t the only one who was disappointed. Some of the kids were so disappointed they started tearing up the selling floor, tagging and throwing mannequins around and cursing. I was having none of that. I had spent a half-hour in Central Booking for graffiti writing and vandalism once and wasn’t eager to repeat the experience. So at 10:30am, I left Macy’s with my five crumpled one-dollar bills and walked back to school, figuring the day wasn’t a total loss, as I had only missed three periods. I got to school a little past 11:00 and right away saw something was up. For one thing there was a phalanx of cop cars around Westchester Square train station. For another, I heard the yelling all the way down the hill. And then I remembered. Today was Kill Whitey Day.

I know that in some alternate universe one’s high school days are a halcyon, carefree time, with fond, gauzy memories of homecoming days, pep rallies and proms. But at my high school, Herbert H. Lehman High, (fondly referred to as Lehman State Prison) the pivotal events we had to look forward to each spring were “Kill Whitey Day” and “Kill Black & Puerto Rican Day.”

It’s said that gangs are cyclical in NYC. There were gangs in the 1950s. There are gangs now. And in the mid/late 1970s, teenage New York was a city divided and ruled from Parkchester out to Morris Park and up to Throgs Neck by the white gangs The Bronx Aliens and Bronx Ministers. Their black and Latino counterparts The Savage Skulls, Savage Nomads, Mongol Brothers and the biker gang The Ching-A-Lings claimed everywhere south of Soundview Avenue and west, past Yankee Stadium and Fordham Road all the way to the Harlem River. Every spring, every high school would have their week or so when they would be at war. And as in any war, any unfortunate civilians who found themselves behind the front lines would just have to get by as best they could.

The messed-up thing about it was, you knew exactly when it was going to go down. The information crossed gang, race, and ethnic lines and flashed through your entire school faster than group text messaging locks down a campus today. You knew when your Kill Day was going to be. And not going to school that day was not an option. Because everyone would know you had punked out and your own neighborhood would make you a pariah for being a faggot, a pussy, for not having enough heart to risk getting a major beat down with everyone else.

Lehman High School, being in a mostly Italian neighborhood, was Bronx Ministers territory. But by some fate of late-60s decentralization, half the student population were various ethnicities of white, the other, black and/or latino. So Lehman was a school doubly “blessed” as it observed both Kill Days. Kill Black & Puerto Rican Day had been the week before and luckily I had escaped unscathed. Not so the year before, when two Italian boys stabbed me in the shoulder with a stiletto. Not because they specifically hated me, but because a couple of Savage Skulls had whipped them with a car antenna. And since they weren’t motivated (brave/stupid) enough to go down to the Bronx River projects to extract revenge, the next best thing was to attack me. They both actually apologized to me later and hoped I understood it wasn’t personal. I still have the scar.

Since not going into school was not an option, I went around the back way, where I knew (and security amazingly didn’t) a door was always propped open. Fourth period was about to begin and something told me not to try to sneak a cigarette before entering the relative safety of Health class. But I was nervous, so I took a chance. I peeked into the Girls bathroom and seeing no one, ducked into the last stall and immediately assumed the smoker’s position. Crouched on the toilet seat so someone bending down to check the stalls wouldn’t see any feet; constantly waving my right arm back and forth so the curling smoke wouldn’t give me away either. A few minutes later, the Newport Light just wasn’t doing it for me, but I decided to have one more drag. Famous last words.

I was about to flush the cigarette when the door opened and four black girls came in. I knew they were black because of their names. Keishas and Tawandas were in-utero or just being born. Girls my age were the last of a generation who were still named after jewels and desirable attributes: Crystal, Ruby, Precious and Unity. Delicate flowers who stashed razor blades in their afros and carried rolls of pennies balled up in their bandannas. I knew who they were because of their reputation. They were finely tuned, Black Pride lionesses who hunted their prey with particular savagery: What they caught, they would not release. And I knew that if they caught me, I was a goner. Because none of them would stop to ask a light-skinned freckle-faced redhead where her family was born before they beat the hell out of her.

“Dag, Ruby, you see that blond bitch face when we knocked her toof out?”

“Yeah, but my hand cut up, shoo. Precious, watch the door. Oh shit, you smell something? Who in here?”

I had neglected to do the one thing that could have saved me, which was to douse the cigarette and keep still. There wasn’t a thing I could do except wait as the four of them opened the stalls one by one until they found me. It was pointless to fight back. One, definitely. Two, maybe. But there were four of them. And it would have been suicide to try to tell them they were making a mistake. The year before, an olive-skinned Irish girl named Ellen something-or-other had tried to say she was half Puerto Rican and she ended up being held down and raped with an umbrella. That was not going to happen to me.

They pulled me off the toilet and threw me on the floor. I rolled up in a ball and tried to protect my face as they punched, kicked and penny-rolled me. How long? Too long. And then, the door opened.

“Yo, Nan-cee, we got another white girl, you want some?”

I looked up through one swollen, tear-and-Afrosheen clouded eye and saw Nancy Ortiz walk in. Nancy, who really was half Puerto Rican/half Irish, was one of those anomalies in our little world, a blessed creature who moved seamlessly between the races, befriending everyone, beat up by none. She came over to look at me.

“Dag, man, that girl ain’t white, she’s Puerto Rican.”

“What?”

“She’s Puerto Rican. That’s Shell, I know her from Homeroom. She’s from St. Peter’s, but she’s Puerto Rican. She just looks white.”

The punches stopped. A razor blade whizzed by my left cheek and clattered onto the tiles.

The one called Unity said, “She’s Puerto Rican?” and prodded me with her Pro Ked.

“I axed you, you Puerto Rican?” I spit out a trail of blood and snot and croaked out the only thing I could think of. “Si.”

“See, I told you. Stoopid!” And Nancy, having secured her place in heaven, left the bathroom.

Four pairs of eyes saw me as a person for the first time. “Oh man! We sorry.” “Oh man, we sorry.” “Shoo! Why didn’t she say something?” “Why didn’t you say nothing?” “Come on, help that girl up.” That was Unity, their leader talking. And Crystal, Ruby and Precious picked me up off the floor, patted my hair and tried to rearrange my clothes. “Get some water, clean her up,” Unity commanded. The girls ran to the sink, wet their bandannas and daubed at my face. I took Ruby’s pink bandanna and walked to the mirror to clean myself. She didn’t protest.

“This ain’t right,” Unity said. “We sorry Shell. We didn’t know. Why didn’t you say nothing? You’re not gonna tell, right? We gonna make it up to you. C’mon. Give her your weed.” And Crystal, Precious and Ruby all looked down at their sneakers. “I said, give her your weed,” yelled Unity. “Give it up!”

And one by one, the girls reached into their afros and their tube socks and pulled out crooked joints rolled in banana, chocolate and strawberry EZ Wider. Mutely, with averted eyes, they handed them to me. “We sorry,” Crystal mumbled. “Yeah, man, we sorry,” Ruby said. But not Precious. She had been standing on the other side of the bathroom and was now trying to sidle her way towards the door. But she couldn’t get away from Unity’s watchful eye. Unity’s fist shot out: Biff! And punched the side of Precious’s head so hard her afro pick flew into the sink, clattering in front of me. “I said, give her your weed, bitch!” Precious’s hand trembled as she dug around her bra and finally handed me a crumpled, sweat-stained, half-full nickel bag.

“Look, we sorry, It was a mistake, right?” Unity said. “You’re not gonna tell right? I mean, like we did you a solid and all. Come on, let’s go kick some real white ass.” And just like that, they left. I stood there for a moment and totally accepted what had happened as just the way things were. I still couldn’t quite believe my luck in escaping with just a cut lip and black eye. And then I looked at what was balled up in my clenched fist—and I did believe it. I walked right out of school and over to Zappa’s Corner where I sold all the pot, then ran back to Macy’s, getting there just before Ticketmaster closed at 4:00pm.

The day wasn’t a total waste after all. I was going to see “Kashmir.”

 

Michele Carlo has lived in four of the five boroughs of NYC and can remember when a slice of pizza cost fifty cents. She has been published in the short story anthology Chicken Soup For The Latino Soul, is Editorial Director for the online underground entertainment newsletter Toxic Pop and is the curator/producer of It Came From New York, a storytelling show featuring and celebrating native New Yorkers. She is currently at work on a memoir of growing up in the NYC of the 70s-80s, entitled Red Sheep: The Search For My Inner Latina.

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§ 5 Responses to “Kill Whitey Day”

  • Mike kothe says:

    Hi, I like your essay alot,it’s very heartfelt and to the point.Great writing!.

  • Anne says:

    After reading this I thought I was reliving my year at Lehman! Accurate story of our high school years! When I tell my kids of Kill Whitey Day! They think I made it up LOL!

  • Jacob says:

    Loved reading this. Remember kids scheming to buy Led Zepplin tickets for concerts at the Garden. I had a friend who’d pay us to wait in line and buy tickets, which he’d then scalp. Never actually went to any of the concerts myself.
    Anyway lots of great details in this story, and a killer ending. I’m reckoning this was 1977(?), but I could be wrong.

  • Hey Michele, this story is right on-point. Perfect details and dialogue. Well done. Please send me info about your “It Came From NY” series — I would love to participate. Best, Martin Kleinman (i’m on FB).

  • John A Pilgrim says:

    Wow, that’s a crazy story, I can’t imagine going to a school with animals like that. No wonder New York is like this now, I’m a white boy from Beverly Hills who has never been in a fight or really seen one until I came here to NY. I feel really bad for you. That’s no way to live as a kid. Does this still happen today?

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