Today at the barbershop, this quinquagenarian hotep nigga said “I don’t care what nobody say. I ain’t eatin’ no pussy, that shit nasty.”
It was mid conversation that I hadn’t been paying attention to until then, so when I turned my head, squinting to see if he was for real, Johnny was like “Ignore that nigga, he a lil’ ass boy,” and just kept cutting my hair.
Hotep went on with the hotep shit in the hotep corner.
I went back to trying to think about place and writing, a prompt that began with Kiese asking about it in a roundtable at VONA. It was something that I, without interrogating it, had always kind of tried to escape, but not really.
I’d gone to the same barbershop since the first time I ever got my hair cut, even when they moved to three different locations, all underneath the EL along Frankford Ave. The first one was next to Birds, Birds, Birds pet shop where I almost loved every animal in the kingdom, imagining myself as a young, Black David Attenborough or Steve Irwin; it was also across the street from the little magic shop where I got vampire fangs for Halloween and those little plastic frogs that you leave in water overnight so they turn into these big gelatinous toads. It was next to the karate studio where I tried and failed at the week-long free trial and across from the best penny candy store Frankford ever had. Just two blocks away from the VHS rental place that I probably still owe money to.
Deni Park hill’s near vertical drop was behind it, where I used to rollerblade until getting jumped at said park where my friend Jonathan got his basketball taken. But two blocks further was the K-Mart where Jonathan and I got caught trying to steal Gundam Wing model kits (Death Scythe and Wing Zero from Endless Waltz, specifically).
The next barbershop location was next to the pawn shop where my Ganny sold the video games and Christmas presents. Between there and the third location is the alleyway where I first saw her with a John, the same alleyway the kids used for catch a girl freak a girl when the sun was up. Foulkrod street is on that next corner where the #5 bus stops, where I got off early in ninth grade because Ganny was on the bus high and I acted like I didn’t know her in front of my fake friends. Further down Foulkrod street, across from the fire station was where I met my first unrequited love, this tall, thick ass girl named Bianca who looked like she was 25 when we were twelve. I always made excuses to go around there to her corner store to get two dollar cheesesteaks even though they weren’t as good as the ones closer to Glenloch street, across from Red Brick projects and Harding Middle School, where I earned my first shred of respect because I was the first middle schooler who could dunk. Then I cut my hand on the net-less bucket rims across the street and it was the first time I ever got stitches, but we stopped going to that park after someone busted Jonathan in the head with a rock and ran away.
Until of course, I stopped there ten years later for a pickup game and one of my little brother’s friends lifted his shirt to show the gun on his waist and said “Yo old head, you want me to handle that nigga?” because some dude scored on me while we were playing man-to-man defense and started talking shit, as we all do anyway. Closer to Glenloch but still on Torresdale was the first place I was ever threatened with a gun, getting off the #56 bus some dude pulled his on me because he didn’t like the way I was looking at him, when really I was looking behind that nigga at the line for Rita’s Water Ice. I was just out of point blank range and I ran into the street towards home, then the bus pulled off, blocking his sight to me and mine to him, but when it passed I was long gone, and even though I only lived two blogs away I zigzagged through streets I shouldn’t have even been on in case he followed. When I got home my grandfather told me to stop being a pussy. Not too long after that my little brother was getting bullied by some kid on Granite street and when I went to rectify it their older brother flashed his waistband to end the conversation.
As I rode my bike to Amalgam thinking about place I passed through Kensington, where I discovered that White people do drugs too, and years later got my first tattoo. I rode over the bridge that crosses Frankford Creek where I used to hunt for Red Eared Sliders and frogs, never knowing they were invasive species. I kept going around there after I thought I outgrew the creek critters because I thought I was in love with this girl Maria, and the KFC by there had the freshest chicken.
And recently I’ve been stuck trying to finish my memoir. There are plenty of pages, but it’s out of focus; half of them are all over the place. But maybe place is the subject, or should be. It’s funny because when Aisha was my advisor she kept bringing up the weird references to specific places that would come up even in speculative fiction, though I rarely, if ever, noticed it. My sense of place has always felt trapped like in Holmesburg prison where my mother’s water broke, dwarfed by writing that explored real places, that other people knew and talked about. I think of Roberto Bolano’s Mexico City, Kiese Laymon and Jesmyn Ward’s Mississippi–hell the South for a lot of Black writers–I think of Zadie Smith’s London, of Samuel Delaney’s Times Square, Jaquira Diaz’s Puerto Rico and Miami, Junot Diaz’s D.R. and New Jersey, Aravind Adiga’s India, and so on and so forth.
Even though the first piece of memoir to get published came from an assignment where I had to write about place, I never repeated the exercise. I’m not sure if it felt formulaic or why, maybe fear or laziness or denial. But as I prepare to leave Philly again physically, it’s hard not to accept how much this place has meant to me. I’m reminded of what it’s worth, good and bad, and I sit here to do nothing but try.