February 16, 2008
It’s MLK day so it always reminds me of the first time I heard that word. You know the word. THAT word. I was six years old and my neighbor Lonnie had crossed the street which was strictly forbidden by his parents.
This is in Norwalk, which is the appendix of Los Angeles. Scientists are pretty sure Norwalk once had a purpose but now it’s just a vestigial appendage in the final throws of existence before natural selection takes it off the map completely.
I don’t know why Lonnie did this, he was my best friend due to proximity, he was my neighbor. The perpetual trickle of yellow-green snot running from his nostril tells me he either had a deviated septum or allergies or both. But the snot ran thick so that he was always good for a few snot bubbles that could actually hold form for a few seconds.
Lonnie had crossed the street and pulled his pants down in victory and was yelling, “N*GGER! N*GGER! N*GGER!” repeatedly. It didn’t make any sense. But I new the use of that word had some serious concequences when Lonnie’s mother, Judy ran across the street, beat his ass, pulled up his pants and dragged him back home.
I didn’t understand the big deal, it was just a word. Judy was a “Polock” so maybe there was a cultural sensitivy to racism I wasn’t aware of in our neighborhood. That same house that Lonnie stood in front of across the street became pretty infamous to Lonnie, my brother and I over another incident.
The teen who lived at that house built a cardboard tunnel in his garage. He was half Puerto Rican…maybe Lonnie thought he was half black. Anyways, Lonnie and my brother and I would take turns with the half Puerto Rican teen crawling through the dark tunnel. It was scary enough but when we got half way through the teen told us to pull down our pants and show him our butts.
In my own mind this made perfect sense, when you’re in a dark cardboard tunnel you pull down your pants. I was fumbling with the snap on my jeans when my big brother whispered in my ear, “Doug, we have to leave. Now.” My brother and I spent most of our lives hating each other’s guts but that move he made back then probably changed the course of my life in a pretty important way. My brother and I crawled out of the cardboard tube and ran out of the garage. I turned to look back and didn’t see or hear Lonnie.
I always look back on that day and wonder if Lonnie got Mystic Rivered. I didn’t know how to process the information back then. The word “n*gger” had about the same meaning as some teen trying to keep me in his cardboard garage maze.
Since that day I’ve tried to break the tie between the word “n*gger” and what Lonnie went through. I can’t. That’s some deep wiring we’re jacking with and cabling that’s been set for 35 years isn’t so quickly re-routed. You tell a black joke and I’m thinking of Lonnie in the garage. In that garage, I was a spectator. No, wait. A coward.
But I swear, I have my own reasons for wanting that word stricken from the English language. It has nothing to do with MLK, but it sure is a word that stirs the dark waters.