I remember him on the first day in sixth grade, standing alone in the corner of the classroom as we picked out our desks. He was the new kid and the only black face in a sea of white. More than that, he was an outsider, literally. He lived in pre-gentrified Harlem, whereas most of us lived on the tony West Side of Manhattan or the even tonier East Side. He had to have been petrified.
A few days later, and he had yet to connect with anyone. Our teacher asked me to talk to him, draw him out. At the time, I was wondering who would draw me out. But I dutifully got up from my desk, went over to where he was sitting, and said, “Hi.” He replied, “Hi.” And that was it for day one. The next day, “What’s up?” “Not much.” We added a word or two each day until full sentences were formed, and then a paragraph. Soon I was talking to him more than I was talking to anyone else.
We were 11 years old and did what all red-blooded American boys did at the time—we played hoops and watched Bugs Bunny. He’d come over to my home, where we’d turn somersaults on my parents’ king-size bed, and he’d lie on the floor and let my dog play with his Afro.
At times, the real world would intrude. The occasional shop owner made comments about his being in their store, and one time, kids from another school chased us—well, him. We laughed as we left them in our dust.
We were locker mates. In our school, you couldn’t get closer than that. Our friendship survived summer breaks, new friendships, petty arguments, even a full-blown fistfight over who knows what. (Actually, I know exactly what it was about! But I’m trying to convince myself that I’ve outgrown my pettiness.)
We didn’t share secrets or dreams, because what secrets or dreams did we have? We had each other, and that was it. But we shared everything else, even a girlfriend (no, that’s not what the fight was about). She and I had dated, but we broke up after I took her to the rerelease of the Marx Brothers movie Horse Feathers. She saw it as a venue to make out, and I saw it as a venue to watch the film. Miffed, she suggested I date Harpo. My comment, “At least he wouldn’t talk through the movie,” sealed our fate.
There was a mutual attraction between them, so I made sure they met. My best bud with my best ex-girl? Fine by me. I remember seeing him at school one Monday when we were in ninth grade. He was seething. They’d been at a movie theater making out during The Talking of Pelham One Two Three (she would never again make the mistake of taking a guy to a comedy). People stared, and some made comments. “Could it be because you two were making out during a great crime drama?” I asked. He conceded it was possible, which tells you what a nice guy he was.
Later that year, we were leaving school. With nothing better to do, we resorted to ragging on each other. It’s a particularly vicious sport that guys enjoy and women don’t get. In this world, the more vile, the better, because what else could prove how tight you were? “I just called you something that would have made Adolf Hitler’s mustache fall out, and we’re still pals? Cool!” It was a game for friends. If we didn’t care for each other, would we ever refer to each other as @#$% or %^&*? Why waste a well-turned @#$%^&*!!! on someone you couldn’t care less about? And, of course, it was a game for gamblers. How far can you go before it’s too far?
I weathered a withering storm of epithets, mama jokes, greasy-hair gags, and references to my penchant for hanging on to the basketball. When it was my turn, I whipped off a clever deconstruction of his game or lack thereof and a crushing swipe at his choice of clothing. He was laughing as hard as I was. But I wasn’t finished. As we say in basketball, I had the the hot hand, and I was taking the last shot, capping off our merriment with the most lethal weapon in my arsenal.
Oddly enough, I remember so much about that day except in what context the word was spoken. But I do know that I didn’t simply say the N-word; I used it. As in “He used a dagger” or “He used a gun.” Or, in this case, “He used an atomic bomb.” The word didn’t slip out. It was deployed. My purposes were not to mortally wound him—he was my best friend. On the contrary, it was tactical: How far could I go? How strong was our friendship? I’d heard kids in Harlem using it on each other; couldn’t I?
Why I thought I needed to test the bounds I have no idea, but the look of anguish on his face told me that not much survives an atomic blast, including a friendship.
I prayed he would fire back with something stronger so we would laugh. What I wouldn’t have given to laugh at anything at that moment. But as I watched him melt, what I really wanted to do was run away. He beat me to it. He sprinted across the street and jumped on the uptown bus back home.
He wasn’t my only friend to get angry with me. And he certainly wasn’t the only one to question my judgment. But he was the only one to feel betrayed.
It was few days before we spoke, and when we did, that day was never brought up. Superficially, all was as it had been, but we both knew it wasn’t. We drifted apart during our sophomore and junior years. At our senior graduation party, we made a point of toasting to each other and insisting we’d be friends forever. But I never saw him after high school. It may not have had anything to do with what I said, or it may have had everything. By that point, we weren’t close enough for me to ask.
Thirty-some odd years later, and I’m sitting in my living room reading my local suburban New York newspaper about a near race riot during a high school basketball game. The words exchanged brought back a flood of memories, though theirs were spoken in anger, and mine, perversely, in affection.
Ignorance and teenagers often walk hand in hand. All I wonder is if these kids will ever feel as bad as I did for giving voice to a word so charged, we don’t dare speak it aloud or write it out. It’s a curse word, but the real curse is on the person who utters it.