- Runs on Coca-Cola
- Knows how to use a condom
- Does dishes
I met Daniel (pictured) and Marcus when I moved into their East Village neighborhood— the “Loisaida”—six years ago, and Marcus stole my BMX bike. I retrieved about 90 percent of the bicycle (minus rear-wheel pegs and pedals), and subsequently struck up a wary, “Hey, what’s up?” type of friendship with the brothers over their ensuing teenage years. They are beautiful boys—overtly dangerous and intimidating to be sure— but both have these even-more-lethal clear eyes and sweet smiles that have captivated me over the last half decade. Marcus, now sixteen, is in jail for crimes that far surpass bicycle pinching, and Daniel, newly eighteen, is trying to finish high school, help pay for his two-year-old son’s Pampers, and not get stabbed.
When Daniel came over to my apartment on a recent Friday night, I asked what Marcus had been nabbed for, and while Daniel had no problems sharing even the most intimate details of his own life (including but not limited to practicing how to use a condom in school using a banana), he was somewhat evasive about his brother’s sins. Something about being involved, but then not being involved in the robbing and beating of a man. There had been drug-dealing, possession, weapons charges, trespassing, and other priors which ultimately conspired to land Marcus in jail for a good amount of time. He had also been a member of the Crips.
“Marcus has a mouth,” Daniel admits of his brother, as he meticulously straightens the magazines on my kitchen table. He is aligning the corners and edges with each other and the cracks in the table, creating the perfect stack. “It’s hard to talk to him about life, though, because he doesn’t listen to nobody. Over the years, we saw him change. I mean, everyone changes, but he got bad—smoking, stealing, breaking chairs over guys’ heads at parties.”
His stature was the first thing I noticed about Marcus. Daniel is lithe and fluid, of normal height, but his brother is extremely short for his age, with this rigid, little-man posture and gait, an almost tangible aura of anger preceding him. When he first stole my bike around age twelve, I thought Marcus couldn’t have been any older than eight or nine. Daniel says that Marcus’s attitude and size mark his brother in jail. Indeed: shortly after being sentenced and incarcerated, he showed up on Daniel’s doorstep, covered in blood.
“One night he was sleeping, and he knew these guys were going to stab him, so he stayed up and waited to stab them first. Then he escaped down the fire escape and rode the subway home.” Marcus was returned to his juvenile detention center in the Bronx when cops found him hiding at an aunt’s apartment a few days later.
Daniel’s and Marcus’s mother doesn’t sleep until she knows her kids are home safe at night. She’s an alcoholic; vodka is her drink of choice. Their dad was in jail for dealing for many years. He’s newly free, and wants back into Daniel’s life, but Daniel’s not so sure. Daniel’s mom and dad were born in Puerto Rico, but they met in New York and stayed together for twenty-two years until his dad went to prison. Now she’s with another man, also an alcoholic who keeps losing jobs, but who helps his mom with money and the apartment Daniel shares with them.
Daniel’s mom is also severely asthmatic and diabetic. “I hate to talk about it much, but it feels good,” he admits. “The last time she went to the doctor, he told her it’s too late to quit drinking. You know how blood flows through our veins? Well, with my mom, it’s just liquor, so if she stops drinking, she’ll actually die.”
So what’s it like to be eighteen with a mother who’s obliterating herself with vodka, a baby brother in jail, and a two-year-old son, the mother of whom doesn’t think you’re “man enough” to help raise?
“It’s all about sex and money,” Daniel says, smiling. “When I meet a woman, my mind goes right into her pants. No disrespect, but when it comes to pussy, I’m like, I lose control. I’ll put pussy in front of everything— my son, work, school, my life.” Daniel polishes off his second Coke in an hour. He carefully restraightens the stack of magazines and adds, “I don’t want to be like this. It’s just how I am.”
But when I ask about Lilly, the mother of Daniel’s son, knees start bouncing, he claws at his neck, ears, and upper lip, and fingernail fragments (not mine) flutter to the floor. “I don’t admit this to anyone, but I still have feelings in my heart for her,” he begins. “Sometimes I go in my bed and cry about her, what we could have had. I look at myself in the mirror and ask, ‘What did you do?’”
Daniel and Lilly decided to have a baby when they were about fifteen. “I thought it would bring us closer together, but things started tumbling down after he was born—well, really before.”
Daniel and Lilly recently broke up for reasons difficult to decipher but easy to understand, and she’s now seeing another guy. Daniel gets to see their son almost every day, but he says Lilly acts “stank” with him, even though he tries to be nice. This other guy? “One time when I walked in on them, I was going to stab him, but I didn’t because of my son. I told him, ‘If you come between me and my son, I’ll kill you.’ But now he just buys stuff for him, which is okay.”
Daniel has been arrested twice. Once he was riding in a stolen car, and another time he helped his friend beat up two gay guys on Halloween. His friend from across the street is a “homophobe,” according to Daniel, who had initially tried to defuse the fight, but was forced to join his buddy when the brawl ignited. “I’m not gay. But guys that love guys, women that love women—they’re one of the best people. I have so much fun with my gay friends—you can talk about anything with them.”
As for school, Daniel is barely a junior and knows in theory why he needs a diploma, but “to be honest, why would I care about these math problems?” He has a point. When he sells drugs, which he does periodically so he can give money to Lilly for their kid, he can go out and make two hundred bucks on a good night.
All things being equal, Daniel’s dream—not unlike mine and so many others’—was to become a marine biologist. Though scared of water, Daniel is enraptured while delivering a generally factually incorrect lecture about the properties of sharkskin. “I look at my future sometimes, and wonder what my life is gonna turn out to. Like, I ask myself, ‘Is it going to last?’ I don’t feel like I have any control over it, I just have to wait for my life to happen. My dreams won’t come true at all.”
Sometimes Daniel will stay inside all day when he gets a “bad feeling.” This happens a lot. He reluctantly admits to being afraid.“Sometimes I think,‘Am I going to live to tomorrow?’ and I tell myself not to take life for granted. A lot of knuckleheads, you can’t say hi and spit on the ground in front of them, ’cause they’ll kill you. I’ve seen… Well, let’s just say even two-year-olds on the street can die.”
Which brings us back to his son, who sleeps across Daniel’s chest when Lilly lets the boy stay overnight. “When I see him, he’s all like,‘Da Da Da Da,’ and even if I’m upset at his mother, or life or whatever, it really makes my day when I see that—he makes me think about so much. My life doesn’t belong to me no more, it belongs to him. I’m going to make sure he becomes a man.”
As 10:30—the clubbing hour—rolls around, Daniel is soaping his glass in my sink and delineating the list of “hot girls” on our block. He volunteers that he feels comfortable in my apartment, and believes he’d make his own just like mine if he had one. As for our neighborhood at large, where I might look and see the singemarks of gentrification, Daniel sees increased safety and welcomes the change. A big dirt lot still separates our two buildings and always has, but Daniel and I seem to agree on most things (gay marriage, Iraq, Britney Spears—for starters). And I don’t want him to leave.
NOTE: All names in this story have been changed.