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Goodbye, Harlem
I Might Have Been a Hustler If I Wasn't Shown Another Way
Antwaun Garcia
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I met my boy when I was 8. He was shy and something of a follower, but cool. If I cut school, he would cut with me. If I went to the candy store, he’d buy candy if he had money or he would take it.

My boy was growing up a lot like me—on the streets all times of the night, not wanting to go home. Some days his father would hit him, or my boy and his siblings wouldn’t eat, because even when their moms was sober and wanted to cook, she couldn’t afford food. We became Robin Hoods, stealing from the Bravo store to feed the poor.

I wasn’t thrilled about stealing to eat, but it was so easy to do it became a habit. We would walk in the store and act like family, yelling, “Mommy wanted this!” Or, “Moms needed bread for sandwiches in the morning.” He would put a few items under his shirt.

I would walk out first and wait for the “walk” sign. As soon as the light changed, I would open the door and he would run right through and across the street into my building.

We had tons of fun together, playing sports, chilling on the park benches eating stolen food, and laughing it all off. Even though our situation wasn’t good, we found ways to enjoy life.

But when I was 10, I went into foster care and moved to Queens, New York, with my aunt. Moving to Queens was so unexpected I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to him or any of my friends. Later, I wondered about him and all my family. I missed being home and wondered how they were holding up.

When I arrived in Queens, I felt very weird. My aunt lived in a housing development with security and, between each group of four buildings, a huge circle of flowers and sprinklers. I’d never seen flowers like that in my old neighborhood, Harlem. Maybe once in a blue you would see some dude selling roses on a street corner, rolling to your window and saying, “Flowers, flowers for your loved one.” But that was it. In Queens, I felt like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” I just clicked my shoes three times and I was in paradise.

Still, adapting to my new home was really difficult. My aunt had rules like, “Be home at dark.” I thought, “What? Home by dark?” I was used to coming home at midnight. I also had to do chores and homework, be in bed by 9, and attend school daily, which was new for me. I hated it from the jump.

The biggest change was emotional. Even though I was safe, I always had this feeling that someone was going to double-cross me and I stayed cautious, my hands ready to swing. I didn’t know how to react to courtesies, like someone holding doors for me or saying, “Good morning, have a nice day!” I was like, “Uh, duh…OK! Whatever!”

In Harlem, people weren’t nice to me unless they knew me or my relatives. It took me a while to realize that, surprisingly, the nice people in Queens didn’t have a hidden agenda.

I also found myself acting like I was back in the ghetto even though I had everything I needed. I’d steal food from stores when I had food in the house, or sell weed and bootleg CDs to make some money even though I didn’t need to. I couldn’t seem to get hustling out of my system. I still enjoyed the thrill and excitement of possibly getting caught, and I didn’t want to lose my game. I never knew if I’d end up back in Harlem again, taking care of myself.

Living with my aunt, I also felt isolated. I felt I couldn’t trust anyone and had no one to really talk to. My aunt’s family acted stubborn and proud, and made fun of each other for being dumb or making mistakes. I feared they thought they were too good for me. I never felt comfortable enough around them to tell them what I felt, so I kept to myself.

The older I became the colder my heart became. For years, I isolated myself from all of my family. I barely went back to Harlem to see my extended family or my old friends. I missed my mother and father, but I was also angry at them for letting me end up in care and for being out of touch for long periods of time.

Instead, I just kept my head down and tried to take what Queens offered me. In school, I finally learned to read and write. Later I became a writer at Represent, a magazine for teens in foster care. I earned my diploma, started an associate’s degree and began to believe I might make it as a journalist or working in the music industry. Slowly, I began to see myself not as a kid who would need to hustle his way through life, but as someone who could make it.

When I was in high school, I started feeling comfortable taking the train back to Harlem. One afternoon when I was 18, I saw my boy and his fam. As I approached him and his uncle on the steps of his building, they said, “Yo, that’s Twaun. What’s good, son?”

They sounded excited to see me, but the way my boy paved greeting to me was funny. He gave me a fake pound, a quick slap, like, “Don’t touch my hand.” At first I didn’t pay any mind to it. I was happy to see my people.

We started talking about what had been going on in the ‘hood since I left. It was the same sad violin story: a couple of people locked up, some shot, some on crack, and a bunch either in foster care or dead. I kept my head down for a moment thinking about what they went through. It hurt.

We were quiet for a moment looking around the block. I asked my boy, “What you been up to, fam?” He said, “Nothing. Same old @#$%, different day.”

I started telling him that I’d just achieved my high school diploma and planned to go to college, and that I wrote for Represent, trying to make big moves.

Judging by his facial expression, he wasn’t too thrilled to hear I was becoming successful. I noticed his posture changed and his tone got more serious. He eyed my fresh gear, my lion piece chain, the three rings on my fingers, and the earrings that were shining more than 42nd Street at night. I guess he assumed I was caked up.

image by Rosheed Wellington

Then he tried to clown me in front of his brother and uncle, saying, “Oh word, so you doing your thang.” He laughed like my goals in life were something humorous to him, like I was some stuck up punk from the suburbs who wasn’t ’hood enough to be back home.

He took another pull of his cancer stick and told his uncle, “Yo, this ain’t the same little kid I know. This n-gga changed.”

Then he got in my face and said, “You pussy! You ain’t the same cold-hearted young n-gga who used to be real and hold @#$% down.”

At first I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. His eyes were squinty and his cheek muscles were tight. I was caught off guard. I never thought my boy would attack my character or throw hands with me. I thought he would be happy to see me doing my thang.

I wanted to fix his lip. I was thinking, “We’ll see how much I changed when I punch you in your mouth.” I am a quick tempered dude but I fell back and kept my cool. Instead of applying physical force, I played the mental game.

I replied, “So what makes me different? Because now I have a little money in my pockets? Or because you still that same cat hustling for years with no bread, struggling to make ends meet and still eating off your mom’s welfare check?”

He got upset, and I could tell his family didn’t like my comment either. His younger brother started to ball his fist as if to swing at me. But I continued, “Is it because you’re still that same punk who needed me to fight your battles, take groceries from the store because your moms couldn’t afford them?”

His uncle started cursing at me at the top of his lungs. “What! Who the @#$% are you to disrespect our family!” He wouldn’t stop, saying every curse word in the book.

As soon as I began taking my coat off, preparing for someone to pop off, their moms came out. I felt bad for making that comment about her because she looked very ill and was coughing. She yelled, “Antwaun!” and gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Boy, I haven’t seen you since you was that little angry, always fighting, peasy-headed kid, and now look at ya, you full grown and handsome.”

I smirked while saying, “Thank you.” She began telling me how hard it’s been, especially since she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. I could see the coldness in her brown eyes and hear the pain in her voice.

I felt for her. She was always cool with me. When her kids ate, I ate too. When I wanted to get away from my house, she always said I could come through. She was funny and smart, just not smart about getting caught in the crack game.

Then the uncle came into our convo and told her that I wasn’t allowed around here no more. I gave him a cold look as my teeth scraped each other like nails scraping the blackboard. I said, “Say no more!” I gave their mother a kiss on the cheek and said it was nice to see her after so many years. She replied, “The same with you, Antwaun. I am so proud of you!”

As I walked away, I felt upset that I had lost my boy who I had been cool with for years. Thinking it over, I realized that he wasn’t jealous of me because of what I was wearing, but because of the goals and dreams I believed were possible.

He had stayed behind in Harlem, and his Harlem had been what it was for me: Crack, poverty, drugs, 5-0 and violence. Could I expect any more from him than to live up to his environment? Could I expect him to be happy for my good fortune when he wished to have the opportunities I was given? Don’t get it twisted, I was not being cocky, but realizing I’ve been fortunate.

In Queens I’d gotten the chance to start a whole new life, including going to school and living in a positive environment where I felt the freedom to become more than a punk. He was stuck living a lifestyle that he didn’t choose.

In the last few years, I’ve thought a lot about that last convo with my boy. As I get closer to aging out, it seems like I might end up moving back to Harlem. That feels weird, like I could wind up right back where I started, even though I’ve worked hard to be moving on up, as they said on the Jeffersons.

I wonder, “When I age out, will I become the educated and professional person I hope to be, or will I just go backwards?” I fear that, no matter how much success I may obtain, I could always fail at any moment.

What my boy couldn’t see is that I still battle my own inner demons. I still carry around a ’hood mentality that makes me doubt I’ll reach my dreams. Despite the hopeful picture I painted for my boy, it’s hard for me to believe that long-term goals, like finishing college, will be things I’ll live to achieve.

I often ask the people close to me, “Can I make it?” With reassurance from other people, I’ve started believing in myself, but it hasn’t been easy. I’m not like many of the people I know from Queens or in college, who seem so confident of their futures.

But at least I know that hustling can never be a route to a good life. That right there should keep me on the straight path, safe from ever becoming the worst parts of the Harlem I grew up in.

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