My eighteenth birthday in 1998 was definitely a milestone, but there wasn’t a major shift in life afterwards. I look back at my eighteen-year old self now and laugh, amused at the fact that I believed I was “grown”. The true burdens and responsibilities of adulthood were still far away for me. I continued to live at home with my Grandma. I yearned for the freedom of living away from family as did my friend Tisha. The only problem was that neither of our gigs provided the hours and hourly wage we needed to get an apartment of our own. So in early July 1998 Tisha and I both hit the pavement in search of full-time employment.
Within two months Tisha and I were working as tellers for Washington Mutual Bank. In 1998 and 1999 WAMU was ascendant, gobbling up smaller banks throughout the West and gaining dominance in the banking industry. The subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 that would bring about WAMU’s demise wasn’t on the horizon yet. Tisha and I were proud to work for them. I still remember the jubilation I felt when I held my first paycheck for eighty hours of work in my hand. It was $763.49 after taxes, and my Grandma suggested I take a copy as a memento before depositing it. I followed her advice but over the years I lost the copy.
Tisha worked at one of WAMU’s flagship branches in downtown Seattle. I worked as a floating teller, filling in at branches throughout the sales region I was assigned to. My position frequently brought me to the company headquarters at Washington Mutual Tower on 3rd Avenue & Union Street in Seattle. I went there to attend meetings for the float pool, as well as corporate training events. In those times 3rd and 2nd Avenue alike would be swarmed from 11:30am-2:00pm, as thousands of WAMU employees filed out of their offices for lunch. On a spring day in 1999 I was one of them, and I ran into Chris, my puppy love from high school. In a brief conversation that took place while he waited for his bus he apologized for his actions. I gracefully accepted it then sauntered along, moving away from him with each step.
1999 would also be the year that the Philly hip-hop collective known as The Roots dropped their fourth LP Things Fall Apart. Back in 1995 Tisha put me introduced me to The Roots. The intricate rhyming of Black Thought and the fact that they were a band put them in a higher class than most popular hip-hop acts of the time. So when Things Fall Apart came out I dutifully headed to Sam Goody to cop it. The Roots more than lived up to expectations, and I nodded along as Black Thought flowed over the bangin’ groove of “The Next Movement”:
Now less than a year from the new millennium we were preparing for that next movement. To borrow from Black Thought: many feared that the ‘whole state of things in the world’ was indeed about to change. The Y2K Bug had the world shook, with many predicting the collapse of our technology driven world on 01/01/2000. My employer upgraded their operating systems, and those of us who worked with the public directly tried to assure jittery customers that their money was not going to disappear with the strike of the clock at midnight.
The young adults and middle-aged customers listened, but the elderly were harder to convince. Old enough to remember the losses of The Great Depression and skeptical of the promises of banks they began to show up to withdraw everything. Branch managers would talk to them one on one but it changed little. On multiple occasions that year I’d retreat to a private room in a branch with an automatic counter. The elderly customer would watch carefully as I counted out the tens of thousands of dollars they didn’t trust the bank with.
A year after turning eighteen, however, the movement I was hoping for the most-my exit from my Grandma’s place-had yet to occur. My friend Tisha lost her job with WAMU within four months of being hired, which derailed our plan to be roommates. I stayed with Grandma, and that meant my life followed a pattern little different from what I’d known as a child. Going to church all the time wasn’t up for discussion. So I attended and obeyed, but it wasn’t the same for me. I could no longer look forward to seeing my friend Eric, as he moved down South to live with his father in 1998.
On a Sunday like any other I sat in the pastors’ study, my clipboard resting gently on my lap. As the church announcing clerk I went to the study as soon as Sunday school ended to confer with my pastor on upcoming events for the week. The pastor, who was also Eric’s grandfather, sat across from me. Over the years I’d built up a good rapport with him. My pastor gave me a level of respect I was often denied due to my age and gender. When I reviewed the announcements I found a way to work inquiries on the well-being of his grandson into the mix. But when I asked about Eric that day my pastor looked up at me with sad eyes.
“Sister, please close the door”.
“Yes pastor”, I replied, rising to comply with his request. When I sat back down he was massaging his right temple and dropped the bombshell that he’d soon share with the congregation.
“Eric is in trouble with the law. He got caught in a stolen car with his friends. There was also a gun in the car. The law offered him a lesser charge if he told them everything, but he refuses to do so. I told him to just take the lesser charge…but he says he can’t snitch. What is this “can’t snitch” business? I don’t understand this”, he said, letting out an exasperated sigh.
I struggled to reconcile my pastors’ shocking revelation with my image of the boy I’d known and loved since I was ten years old. How could Eric-the one who’d given me my first kiss blocks away from the storefront church I joined when I moved to Seattle; the boy who sat next to me in the choir stand in his sharp navy suit;the boy always ready to throw dem bows on my behalf;how could that boy be facing time? Eric wasn’t a thug, a baller or a banger! To me he was a good boy and my friend. Other “good boys” from my insular, warm church community caught cases before him The young boys in suits and ties who made passes at me at fifteen became young men awaiting sentencing at the ages of nineteen and twenty-one. But I never imagined that Eric would meet the same fate.
That month Eric was sentenced to six years in the pen. His grandfather informed our congregation of the news and asked everyone to keep Eric in their prayers. After service he called me back into his study.
“Sis, would you mind writing down your address? Eric asked for it so that he can write you. He is really going to need the encouragement, and I’d really appreciate it if you sent him letters.”
“Of course”, I replied, taking the 3 X 5 card that he held out to me. I wrote down my address neatly, handed the card back to him and left the office.
Weeks later Eric’s first letter arrived. My Grandma passed it to me with no comment. I opened it, eager to read it and see that he was safe as could be considering the circumstances. Eric didn’t inherit his grandfather’s imposing height, measuring only 5’4. The stories I heard about prison life made me worry how a short young man with luminous hickory-colored eyes, dazzling white teeth and sensual full lips would fare in such a brutal place. If Eric was ever hurt or attacked during his bid he kept it from me.
In his letters he briefly discussed his incarceration but mostly wrote about the past. In a letter that summer he told me the story of an angry little boy, and I knew he was referring to himself. Though he had a large family that loved him, there were times he threw tantrums at home, full of hatred and anger. His grandfather was in his life. His grandma and a host of other relatives were too. But his mama was gone chasing a high in the streets, and his father had never been there to begin with. The resentment he felt for them both caused him to cry and rage, his small frame shaking from the intensity of his emotions. But his grandma was there. And she never reached for a belt or a switch when he raged, as others would do by reflex when dealing with misbehaving children. Instead she would come over and embrace him firmly. In her warm and unyielding grip he would calm down.
“Baby”, she’d say in her Louisiana drawl, “you need to breathe”, wiping the tears from his eyes while trying to contain her own. Once his breathing returned to normal she would lead him outside to her garden to work with her.
Sometimes we would talk and she listened as I vented about my parents, Eric wrote. Even on the days we were silent just having her there to love me helped. I loved being in the garden with her…and she loved me so much! But tell me D:how could someone who wasn’t blood could love me like but my MOM AND DAD DIDN’T CARE?
I left the kitchen table and went to my room after reading that portion. I quickly shut the door behind me, not wanting my Grandma to hear my sobs. The First Lady was indeed Eric’s step grandmother, I always knew that. But his revelation of what the absence of his parents did to him mentally was what made me cry, for it was a feeling I knew all too well. The shared experience of parental abandonment hung between us for years. We were both aware of that thing we had in common, but never faced it directly. As Eric’s letter played itself over in my head I continued to cry, feeling deeply regretful, thinking of the arguments we had when he left Seattle. I sat on the floor in my room, asking questions of both myself and God. Why didn’t he just talk to me about this before? Why did You have to take his Grandma away from us? Why didn’t Eric just listen when we all tried to talk him out of moving down there? And why couldn’t I tell him the truth of why I didn’t want him to leave…
But none of it mattered. No amount of playing “Could’ve/Would’ve/Should’ve” in my head was going to change the reality.
At times my aunt would watch me as I sat at the kitchen table drafting replies to the letters, taking my time to make sure my chicken scratch was legible to Eric. She’d suck her teeth in scorn.
“I hope you don’t get wrapped up with that boy again”, she said, so disgusted that she wouldn’t even say his name. I put the pen down and looked at her. Eric was no stranger to my aunt. He was the ring bearer at her wedding years ago. He was her husband’s cousin, and spent many a day hanging out with us in her home. But now that he was a serial number in the criminal justice system he was nothing but a thug to her. I replied to her carefully.
“Aunty, I am not going to get wrapped up with him. I have no intention of resuming a relationship with Eric, now or when he gets out. But he’s my friend, and a lot of people have judged him and turned their back on him as if they never knew him at all. I won’t do that.” My aunt snorted her disapproval. She went back to watching TV and I went back to writing my letter.
My correspondence with Eric continued throughout the year. I worked hard, studied hard and had fun with my crew, but frequently wished my childhood friend was there to savor the times with me. As the millennium wound down I worked to shake the sadness and anguish that Eric’s incarceration planted in me and looked to the future.