Thursday, December 4, 2014

My Life in the Bronx by Martin Dones

The Bronx of the 1970s and '80s is not the Bronx of today, but the issues affecting urban youth—poverty, drug abuse, violence, and police aggression—haven't magically gone away. Recent racial tensions between police and minority communities in the aftermath of Eric Garner and Michael Brown have brought widespread media attention to the problematic ways some law enforcement behave in urban neighborhoods across the country.

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Photographer Stephen Shames' new book Bronx Boys includes an arresting essay by Martin Dones, a Puerto Rican kid who insured Shames gained the trust he needed to photograph life in the Bronx. Dones painfully articulates the truth of trying to survive and have a life in a rough area rife with gang violence. His story is a powerful account of the brutal cycle the young and marginalized find themselves trapped in: no money, little access to quality education, and no trust in the police. We have excerpted part of his essay below. There is much more to his story, and an additional essay by José "Poncho" Muñoz in the book.

We're so proud that Bronx Boys was named one of the 27 photobooks that defined 2014 by Time Magazine: TIME Picks the Best Photobooks of 2014 

My Memories
By Martin Dones

I don’t know if you remember this cop from the Bronx named Officer Jet. President Clinton gave him an award. Well, it was in the news and everything. A journalist ran around with him. The New York Times Magazine wrote an article about our block and they gave them all nicknames, like Beefcake, Beefhead. He told how bad they were. He said that they made $100,000 a week. They made enough money, but not that much. He told the story the way he thinks the story went. It’s just what he assumes.

This is the real story on how everything happened. How they cut the crack. How the drugs came out of LO’s mother’s house. About their machine guns—their AK47s and M16s. How they had their hands on some real high-power ammunition. How they had enough for a war if anybody came down for it.

This is my story. I’ve been on the street, got tangled in drugs, been in the gangs. I lived through violence—murder, stabbings, fights. The streets helped me learn all the mistakes that I had to learn. I’m sorry that I had to learn them that way, but I had to.

I was a dead man who got lucky.

It’s hard to get out of the ghetto. The ghetto could be fine. You could be raised there and go to college. It’s just the violence—the way things evolved from fistfights to gunfights. Eventually it soaks into you. You learn what you live.

My childhood contributed—the drugs that my mother did. To this day she does drugs. I don’t have a mother. I just have a “mother” who gave birth to me. I have a father, but I’ve only known him since I was twenty-three. As a kid I was mad at my mom. I was mad at the things around me. I’d go out in the street, knowing that I can’t hit my mother, and want to punch somebody in the face—just to get the anger off of me. It’s like you’re locked in a room and you have to do something.

Then again, I had people who were showing me go to school. Telling me, “Do what you have to do. Forget about the streets.”

I’ve known Steve since I was ten years old, and I’m forty-five now. He played a major part in keeping me alive. So did my godparents, Rocky and Connie of the Boys Club, teaching me woodworking and magic, taking me into their home, sometimes giving me the only meal I had that day.

So I had two directions. I had to choose which way I wanted to go. Whether I wanted to go to jail and die or live my life and be happy with my family.

I chose to go with my family and just be a normal person.

Connie once told me, “That’s what life is all about. We’re doing nothing else in life but collecting memories, because after all is said and done, when we’re gone, what do you remember?”

These are my memories.

My First Memory

My first memory is still as clear as a picture: my cousin being murdered. I didn’t actually see him being murdered, but I heard the thud of his body hitting the pavement. That death sound is the first thing I remember. Thud. I jump awake, startled, and everybody is screaming. My mother lies disheveled next to me on the bed, fainted. Everybody is on top of her: “Give her air.” I hop out of bed and run toward the window. That’s where all the action is.

My four-year-old eyes see the playground of the school I will soon attend, every day walking past my memories. A white blanket lies on the black asphalt. A cop lifts the blanket off a body and my cousin’s face, black and blue and all swelled up. He is naked. My mother screams, “Get away from the window.” That is all, but it is enough to fill my head. I still dream about it.

It comes like a flash, without warning while I’m watching TV or walking. Flash. I see his bruised, swollen face, his naked body as the cop pulls off the blanket. It will be with me till the day I die. It is my first memory, one of my highlights growing up.

Years later I learn he was murdered because his brother robbed this gang’s little nightclub. Since they couldn’t get the brother, they got him.

They invite him up to the roof to smoke a joint. He climbs the stairs with the group, joking, jostling with them, and anticipating a good time, getting high with the guys. He feels the cold, refreshing, not quite winter wind as the door opens.

Pulls the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head. He notices the moon, a few stars, the city’s glow, and the dark, mysterious shapes of buildings, some with little yellow lights and others completely dark, as he steps onto the roof.

They surround him. The big one with a scar on his cheek thumps him in the nose. He feels a sharp pain, hears the crunch. Someone wraps an arm around his throat and squeezes off his air supply. More punches. He falls in a fetal position. He is kicked with hard black boots, hit with a baseball bat. He loses consciousness. His clothes are torn off. Dozens of hands hold him down. He wakes up screaming as a box cutter slices his legs from the upper thigh straight down. Like you might slice a chicken before a barbeque. Two shots in the head conclude this episode.

He’s tossed off the roof. His body has to clear a fence. They swing him so his body arcs up and out, like a diver, before gravity carries it down to the schoolyard.

The cops never caught them. The 135th Street Boys of the South Bronx did it, but we never found out for sure which ones.

People said, “It was maybe him, maybe not, maybe this one, maybe not.” The crazy thing is they all died eventually, one by one. One had his penis cut off. The next was thrown under a car. Another was shot.

Right after my cousin was thrown from the roof, other cousins torch my building. We escape as the third floor explodes and falls on the lower floors. The building whimpers and then collapses. I stand in the cold and watch all of our stuff fly away.

I’m sad. I got a new monorail track that morning for Christmas.

My mother’s boyfriend is an alcoholic. They drink, party, talk, and sing Spanish songs. Pretty much, they just drink and argue. And me, at age four, I just want to escape from the noise.

I open the front door and walk out. Nobody even knows I’m gone. That’s how drunk they are. I walk up, past the fourth, the fifth floor, up to the roof. Well, not the roof, because the door is locked. I go to the last step. Crunch into a little ball. Lay down and try to sleep.

Another time, my mother pours lighter fluid on her boyfriend, then torches the bed. My brothers and I try to put it out. He barely escapes with his life.

One day my mom finds hickies on my sister’s neck and chest. So my mother beats her up and then calls her father. He arrives from Spanish Harlem, takes an extension cord, and wraps it up around his hand. I hear my sister screaming as her father gives her marks all over her body. He’s not my father. I have a different father from my four brothers and sisters. One time I called him by his real name. He grabbed me by my arm: “You don’t ever call me that. You call me daddy.” But I never called him daddy.

I knew he wasn’t my father. Shortly after that, he was shot six times in the hallway by his sister.

. . .

Like Gods

I love looking out my third-floor window after school. The afternoon sun slices Decatur Avenue into long patches of light and dark. Mothers leave the corner bodega balancing babies on one hip and their purchases on the other. Young men lean on parked cars, sip beer out of paper bags, and casually hiss at passing schoolgirls. I see all that, plus shootouts and fights.

Mostly, I observe lines of forty people, older people, waiting against the wall like kids. When the guy comes with the drugs, they swarm him like he is this god. The dealer curses the older people: “Get the fuck in line. Hurry up, hurry up! Give and go, give and go.” The line evaporates in ten to fifteen seconds.

One time the cops did such a huge drug bust, they came in an ice-cream truck. The truck screeches around the corner with cops hanging on the back. I can’t believe this is happening right in front of me. This is coming out of a TV program. There are vans and paddy wagons. They just had the entire street blocked. Every single person who is on the street from 193rd to 194th gets arrested.

Another time. This guy from the neighborhood beats the shit out of an undercover cop. I mean literally kicks him in the face. The cop is out cold. The guy takes his badge, gun, and runs off. Detectives are all over, knocking on doors, asking questions. I told them, “I didn’t see anything.” You always tell the cops that. Then you don’t get killed. Your family doesn’t get threatened. It was all there. It happened right across from my bedroom window.

. . .

It’s Just the Way the Cops Act in the Ghetto

Eight or ten of us are hanging out on the corner just talking, bullshitting. My brother is in the middle of the street looking at his friend’s radio. A cop driving through the intersection tells them to get the fuck out of the street. My brother tells him, “Ah, fuck you. You can’t tell me to get out of the street like that.”

So the cop says, “What did you say?”

The cop pulls over real quick. Gets out. My brother doesn’t want to get beat up so he runs inside his ground-floor apartment. This cop chases after him. He actually starts kicking the door to his apartment. I mean kicking, trying to kick it open. I go over. “Officer, you can’t be doing that.”

The cop says, “Who the fuck are you?”

I reply, “Who the fuck are you?”

He came out with a racist remark: “You spick bastard.”

I replied, “Fuck you. You guinea bastard.” He chocks me. Handcuffs me in front of everybody. Throws me in the car. Smacks me two or three more times on our way to the precinct. They give me a ticket for obstructing traffic on a sidewalk.

It’s stupid. It’s just the way the cops act in the ghetto.

It’s Always a Struggle for Money

It’s always a struggle for money in the ghetto. Not education. Nobody thinks about getting an education. They think they are smart enough to make money on the street. That’s what I felt. That’s what the younger generation thinks. They see the kids older than them making money selling drugs. They see the nice cars, the beepers, the money, all the toys that they want when they get older. They think, “I can hang out on the corner and get these things. Why go to school? Why go to work for somebody when I can work for myself?”

They think they won’t get murdered. They won’t get killed. The new generation always believes they are smarter. “He got murdered because he was greedy.” Or, “He got murdered because he had a big mouth.” “He got murdered, not me.” But when you got all that money, you think you control everybody. But you don’t. There is always somebody who wants to rob you. There is always somebody that is going to hurt you. The ghetto is like scavengers. Everybody wants what you got. They all try to take a bite at you. If you can keep them down, okay, but if you can’t . . . That’s where the cycle keeps going and going. And it never ends. It never ends.

Martin Dones at a recent gallery opening of Shames' work

Listen to Stephen Shames on our podcast:

To hear more stories from the Bronx, listen to José "Poncho" Muñoz and Stephen Shames talk to Leonard Lopate.

See the surviving 'Bronx Boys' and their friends as adults on the book's Facebook page.

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