Recently someone very special and I were in Hawaii for the holidays. She grew up there, so we got to stay at her house with her mother and brother. I also got the chance to meet her very large family (might as well call it a clan for how big it is). But more importantly for us, we got to take a general break from work and life for a few days to explore the island of O’ahu. I had been stationed here earlier in my life with the US Army, and I was always too happy to return to this literal paradise on Earth
We had just got done having a beach day in one of the more wealthy neighborhoods on the island called Kāhala. The pathway to the beach passed multiple houses in neighborhood, if you could even call them that. Every house it seemed had a double set of full tennis courts, with sections on sections of open space and buildings that made up what should be called a mansion. I couldn’t fathom how people could ever use or need that much space while other people on the island were packing full families into tiny apartments. We’re talking about a place that was reportedly going through a housing shortage and homelessness epidemic. Shaking my head, I began to talk with her about my disgust with the whole situation in the car. But I realized later what I was doing. I remember saying to myself ion my head that “We’re on vacation, can’t you take a break from thinking about this shit?” I feel like I had fucked up. I told my girlfriend later and she told me not to worry, assuaging my worry for a moment. But what was I doing trippin’ like I was while we were supposed to be there to forget for a bit and relax?
I thought of a conversation my roommate and I once had about passions. He’s in a master’s program for computer science, and he explained that he knew he loved what he did because that’s all he could see everywhere in the world. For any problem the only solution he could see was programming. I was the same way with socialism. I was always one of those friends you had who just couldn’t stop thinking about politics. The only difference is, I’m a communist who can’t stop seeing Karl Marx or Huey Newton everywhere. I really don’t envy that beautiful woman for having to put up with a dude who can’t help himself from reading the same passages from the same books again and again for new clues as soon as we get our seats on the plane. As we flew home I couldn’t stop thinking about that question I asked myself. Am I going crazy, or is there something to talking about the things I see in the world? More importantly, why do I see the things I do? I struggled hard trying to fit so much emotion and thought into a precise answer that would I could be satisfied with. Instead, let me tell try to tell you what I couldn’t put together then. Let me take a minute to tell you why I am who I am, and where this person came from.
We used to fuss when the landlord dissed us.
No heat, wonder why Christmas missed us.
I was an only child, son of a White suburban girl from Modesto and a Chinese immigrant to San Francisco. My mother who was on and off drugs for most of her life had fought custody battles before, but that was years ago now. When she stopped trying my father got unquestioned custody, and that was that. I ended up going to school in Oakland and San Leandro until I got to middle school in the early 2000’s. It was around that time that my father and I had to move back to San Francisco into my grandmother’s small section eight apartment. That’s what happens when you miss rent a few too many times. It was just me, my father and my grandmother after that. We had no one else, and the only “family” I had ever known was the family of the various girlfriends my father brought home, who came and went like so many fleeting memories. My aunt was on drugs like my mother, and my uncle wanted no part of my father.
Up until around my seventh birthday was fine, but I noticed that as I got older my father would find seemingly more and more reasons to yell and hit me whenever he could when life got harder. I remember a couple times coming back from the boxing gym after school (I boxed for about seven years starting at seven years old) he would be so angry with how I performed he’d spend the whole thirty minute ride home berating me. Following one of these trips he suddenly stopped yelling and punched me in my chest, knocking my wind out. It happened a few times. I always felt like I was dying then, not sure when I would start breathing again…if I’d ever start breathing again. I’d look up at him trying to get wind back into me, commanding me to “catch your fucking breath, you’re aight”. I’d never truly know why I was getting this kind of treatment, and whenever I’d see how my friend’s parents would treat them in their homes I would always think how jealous I was. Jealous that they didn’t flinch the second the front door opened.
When it finally happened though I was only fourteen and a half, in my second semester of high school. It was the February of 2005, and my father came busting through the door. First thing I heard was the jingle of his belt. I knew why though. I knew it was because my report card had just came in the mail, and I knew there was more than one below C grade on it. He asked me what it was he had in his hand, and proceeded to swing the belt at me. After the fourth or fifth swing my grandmother stood up her tiny eighty-six year old frame and jumped in front of me. “No more! Please! Don’t hit him!” she begged in Chinese, and he shoved her out of the way. He had always thrown these fits where he would yell and tell me “how he prayed for a reason to kick my ass out of the house”. This was just another one of those moments I thought to myself. But I soon saw this time was real. He said he was “tired of this shit”, and after again shoving my grandmother aside again he grabbed me by the hair. My life changed as soon dragged me through the kitchen and opened the front door. He threw me out, and I fell on to my knees on the cold concrete. When I meekly tried to walk back he grabbed a broom out of the closet and swung the handle at me.
“It happened”, I thought to myself as I darted away. He had always threatened me, telling me how it was a privilege for me to live in his house. I tried walking back one more time, but a few more swings of the broom and I knew I only had one option. I remember stepping out onto the sidewalk and asking myself what I should do, like another part of me was going to come up with an answer. I wandered down a couple blocks and hopped into a dumpster I found behind a building. I made sure to observe the street for a few minutes to make sure no one would walk by and see me in my sad state. I pulled out some vile smelling carpet and some pieces of cardboard in a desperate bid for warmth and something to protect my feet. I blanketed myself in the carpet and put the cardboard inside of my socks to shield the bottoms of my feet from the cold sidewalk. “But where do I go now?” I sat down on the sidewalk for a few minutes wrapped in that carpet. Maybe I was hoping for someone to come by and save me. Maybe I was hoping my father was out looking for me. But, for the first time in my life, I felt free of the terror I had known for the first fourteen years of my life. I made the decision I wasn’t going to give that up.
I had decided the best option for myself was to make my way to the house of my girlfriend at the time. I picked up a metal stick about my height and used it to help me as a walking staff as my made my way downtown. I got to the station about half an hour later, freezing my ass off in the dark night. Thankfully it hadn’t rained for a couple days at least. I hopped the entry gate after watching the attendant fall asleep, and waited for a train in a secluded part of the platform. An older gentleman who had passed by me sitting in seclusion a few times finally asked me if I needed some help, and I shied away muttering “no thank you”. Nah, I don’t think I need any help. The train arrived about ten minutes later. I walked on and basked in the warmth of the street car’s heaters. I was getting some stares from people most likely wondering why the skinny kid on the end was wearing a tank-top and shorts with just dirty ass socks in the dead of winter. I’m sure they also wondered why I smelled like shit. There were plenty of homeless in San Francisco, and I was no different now. But I was just glad to be warm. I had never been so happy to have a place to sit and warm air flowing over me.
“I hopped the entry gate, and waited…”
I got to my stop and hopped down the steps into the frosty night. I walked a couple blocks shivering, and got to her house. I stopped in front, and contemplated a problem I had never dealt with before. Usually when I would meet her at her place, no one was home. Her dad worked, her mother did too. But here I was on a school night with her parents most likely sitting inside going about their business. I couldn’t just ring the doorbell. I decided to throw rocks at her sister’s window, and sure enough I got her attention. After her sister looked out of her window and saw me, she fetched my girlfriend. I had to whisper to explain how and why I had arrived, and why I looked the way I did. She brought me inside, loaded my socks and wife beater into a trash bag like it was biological waste and proceeded to hug me like I had never been hugged before. After she let me shower and got me some food, I had to tell her the story. She listened with tears in her eyes. She knew my father, and knew the kind of things he would do. That night we slept together was the best rest I had, as good as my first night’s rest fresh from Iraq seven years later. I didn’t have to see my father the next day. I felt free for the first time in my life.
When she got back from school the next day she stole some of her dad’s clothes for me, and after a long conversation finally convinced me to go to the local police station. I walked in wearing blue flips flops, a white t-shirt and a windbreaker she had pilfered from her dad’s closet. When the police told me they were taking me to another station for evaluation, she also produced for me a pink box of cookies and brownies she had baked for me. I had forgotten, it was Valentine’s Day. Did it matter anymore? I arrived at the Mission Police Station later that evening after being questioned, and the policeman there took pictures of the welts and bruises my father had caused. After recording every piece of information they needed, they dropped me off at a house for transitioning homeless youth. I walked in clutching my plastic bag, which held the pink box my girlfriend had given me. I spent most of the night perusing the shelves for books, but only found old Goosebumps titles. I remembered seeing Say Cheese and Die! I being in the state I was, not even wearing any proper shoes shied away from the older crowd of kids spending a night or two there.
Lights out was at 9:00 p.m. I climbed into the bunk, and heard the crinkling of the plastic sheets as I tried to get comfortable while being as silent as possible. There I was, clutching my pink box like it was the only solace I had left in the world, the only sign of familiarity in this strange new world I had entered. I looked up at the ceiling, and soon heard snoring. Sirens sounded into the night, and a strange smell filled my nostrils. The same smell of a place that you aren’t familiar with, the accompanying feeling that you can’t get complacent or lower your guard. That night I looked up into the ceiling and asked a question I had been asking since I could remember. It was the same question I would ask whenever my father would scream profanities at me and tell me he had wished I was never born. Now it seemed though that it was out of the pan and straight into the fire.
“It felt good to fit in somewhere.”
I eventually landed in a group home. One house, eight kids, two to a room. One twin bed, a small bed stand, half a closet. This is the life I lived through my teenage years. Laughing over nasty ass fried food most nights, threatening each other over some small affront other nights. It wasn’t so bad of a life. But it took a while to get to that level of comfort. It took getting used to why people gave a shit about red and blue, about Sorenos or Nortenos. One of the most memorable nights I can recall was one in which I was in my room, and somebody had thrown a basketball at my window. I started hearing “come out here white boy”. I had trained as a boxer for the first thirteen years of my life, and I wasn’t worried over one person in a tight hallway. But six motherfuckers? I have more sense than that. I heard the voice of Edwin, one of the more senior residents at the time call out to them to chill out (to my great relief). Then he walked downstairs to my room. He told me straight up that if I wasn’t more personable with everyone, I was going to get my ass whooped. Needless to say, I took his advice. It took a while, but after that I started spending some more time upstairs and got to know everyone a bit better. The threats of a jumping eventually subsided. I started listening to more Mac Dre, and less metal. Now whenever I caught heat and got capped on, I gave it back twofold and we all laughed together afterwards. Eventually I even adopted what we called the “uniform”. Over sized blue or black jeans we sagged, long white tees that came down almost to our knees, and black hoodies. It felt good to fit in somewhere.
I don’t think I realized it back then, but I had a real family. One person I came to care for was Larry, a tall loudmouth who was a real softy at heart. He was a notorious mouth breather due to how his braces interfered with his mouth, something he never heard the end of from the rest of us. But for all the shit we talked, he gave it back as good as he got. He was been taken from his mother for one reason or another. There were rumors among the residents that he had been sexually abused by someone in his family, and although he would never admit this out loud he never had a problem letting us know he’s seen some shit. Many nights we would hear him accost the staff for his meds, straight wilding out sometimes when he didn’t get them precisely on time. And sometimes, he cried. If we heard a door slamming somewhere, it was probably Larry. But its not like I liked every person in there.
There were the the ones like Jaesean. He was a feisty motherfucker, and coincidentally my first roommate. He was always ready to throw down with someone for making fun of his wiggly eyes, and we almost came to blows more than once. Plenty of people came through that house like him, the overly sensitive types who want to fight for everything. There was also the more entertaining ones, like Reggie. He was a short dude who wasn’t shy about telling anyone who would listen how much he liked to boost cars. One night he informed us he had found a master key for some older model of Hondas, and invited us to go out with him to take a joyride. We snuck out with him, but after about half an hour some of us including me went back into the house due to watching his “masterkey” fail more than a few times. Reggie and a few others came back much later, and we didn’t assume much of it besides that he had failed like we thought. But about a week later some police came to the house looking for who else but Reggie, although in the long run they couldn’t prove he was responsible for the stolen civic. Clever motherfucker.
When I was sixteen, because of my relatively good behavior I was moved to a more independent facility the South Bay. Here I didn’t have to be home until 10:00 p.m, and I didn’t have to check out every time I left the house. That’s where I met Marcus. Marcus was from one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city, and he was the first person who got me to smoke weed. Marcus, myself and another dude named CP headed up to the roof together, where Marcus lit the most poorly rolled blunt I had ever seen. Shit looked like someone had beat it up and took its lunch money. But it did the job. It passed to me after a bit and I smoked it. I took one hit and coughed like I had never coughed before. “That’s right nigga, that’s good shit huh? Cough it out, that’s good, that’s good”. We went back in the house and CP whipped up some pancakes. How he did it though I had no idea. As soon as I sat on the couch I was anchored there with a weight I had never known, and I couldn’t stop laughing at every sound that reached my ears. We finished out the night by watching some “Flavor of Love”, and right there became a regular picture of how our nights would go sometimes.
But I also learned a lot of my street smarts from Marcus, and how life was up in his neck of the woods. He told me about jail, set tripping, described how in his neighborhood some folks would hide AK’s and Tec-9’s in bushes for the occasion somebody came around frontin’. But there were questions I asked he couldn’t answer too. I asked him why he would anyone would choose this life. I couldn’t understand why someone would partake in a lifestyle where you could be robbed of breath just for being on the wrong street. But this was his life, and it took me a long time to understand his motivations. My talks with Marcus became one of the defining moments in my life. Before getting to the system, I had no idea what it was like constantly looking over your shoulder like he had. I came to realize it was possible to live a life of constant fear not unlike the fear I had, except it was creeping killers with guns and knives instead of an violent father. Knowing that there are people living this life of fear as I write is something I would never forget after meeting Marcus.
But this time spent in the group home wasn’t all peachy despite my some of my fonder memories. I remember being threatened with getting shot for one reason or another, and spending the next couple weeks walking to the bus stop with an alert vigilance for the next couple of weeks following. The kid who threatened me had ran away soon after the incident, and who could tell if he was serious or not. There was also theft, and if you didn’t end up watching your valuables they were liable to up and disappear. I was the victim of robbery more than once in my life, certainly owing to the area we lived in. However, most of my more troubled memories came as a result of my own perception of things. I was still attending my old high school, and most of the familiar problems of fitting plagued me to no end. This school was Lowell High, where there were a lot of high achieving kids who came from backgrounds more privileged than mine. I still remember being embarrassed after someone asked me if I knew I had a hole in my shoes. I remember being embarrassed at how I must have smelled, due to me only owning two shirts and two pairs of pants, which I rotated every day.
I could never feel like an equal around my peers. I would try to understand some of the conversations I overhead from classmates, of parents taking so and so shopping just because it was a weekend. How this or that person got a BMW for their sixteenth birthday. How that person’s parents was spending thousands of dollars on SAT preparation. Birthdays, holidays, they weren’t even of notice to me anymore, though. While I lived at the home days like Christmas and New Years were spent exactly where the other 365 days were spent. There were countless nights where I cursed a God I had quickly realized had abandoned me and all of my housemates in the home. All we had ever wanted was a childhood, one where I would come home from school to parents happy to see us. For someone to tell me us that they loved us no matter what. That we were worth it, and they were glad to have us around. Instead we got dealt the rawest of deals, and instead of starting on level ground in life seemed to have to traverse a ten foot wall just to get to the starting line. I spent so many nights asking the familiar questions. Was I a bad person, did I deserve this life? Did any of us living there? But I was to find out my struggles were just beginning.