by Maggi Laureys /Posted at;newenglishreview.org/ –
Eddie and Dwayne, from the author’s collection Mom once sent my big brother Kenny on a simple errand to get some milk. He came home with the milk and three Hari Krishnas to boot. He had found the trio of bald teenagers dancing around the parking lot, tapping their tambourines and singing, Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna! It was 1975 and the Krishnas, like hippies, were everywhere. Kenny figured they must be hungry.
“I don’t want the poor kids to starve,” Mom had said, “But I don’t know what to feed them. They won’t eat any meat. They won’t even drink milk!” They stayed with us for a week, during which my brother Eddie pointed out that when the lone girl was not looking, the two male Krishna’s had devoured our hamburgers. “Well thank goodness,” Mom said.
We were a family of ten kids and Kenny and Eddie were the eldest and the first ones to go away to college. They both attended George Washington University in DC. We younger kids always looked forward to seeing what Kenny and Eddie would bring back when they hitchhiked home from DC because they did not bring inanimate gifts wrapped with a bow like ordinary people did. Nope, they brought home people. One time they bought back an affable drunk who’d picked them up hitchhiking somewhere in Delaware. The drunk had nowhere special to go so Kenny invited him home to meet us. But the all-time, hands-down, best Coming Home Gift that they’d ever brought to us was Dwayne.
Dwayne was a ten year old black kid whom Kenny and Eddie found in the men’s room of a highway rest-stop when they were hitchhiking home from college for spring break. The other men just milled around the bathroom peeing and washing their hands, taking no more notice of the lone little boy than of any other kid in the bathroom. Kenny, however, knew something was wrong. Kenny said hello to the kid and asked where his parents were. “I ain’t got none,” the kid said. Eddie told us that he and Kenny couldn’t possibly leave a ten-year-old boy open to perverts at a roadside bathroom. Dwayne must have been frightened to be alone in that restroom, because from that second onward Kenny said that Dwayne had gleefully glued himself to their sides. They figured Dwayne, a cute kid, might even help score them more rides so they let him hold their sign “To Netcong, NJ.” Dwayne was thrilled to know he was doing his part to help; it made him feel like one of the guys. They got from him that he was an only child and had always wanted brothers like them, but not much else—not much that was true, anyway.
“He told us he was 16,” Ken said, “And that he was alone because he was a Travelling Man”
“That boy’s no more than 10 years old,” Mommy said.
Dwayne was immediately comfortable with my mother—a short, plump, olive-complected woman who went about in cheap polyester slacks from Kmart, wore her apron from breakfast right up to bedtime, and who always had a couple of rubber bands stacked on her wrist. “Just in case,” she’d say. She had an open-door policy at the house and the subsequent stream of our friends in and out made it all the easier for Dwayne to blend into the crowd. It was an entertainingly chaotic house and, since each one of we ten kids invited own respective clique of friends, it wasn’t uncommon for there to be over twenty people in the house at a time. Mom held command over it all somehow without ever leaving the kitchen, where she cooked, cleaned and did laundry all day. She had started a small charity called FISH (Friends In Service to Humanity) from that same kitchen and succeeded in running the entire charity within. FISH was a network of other housewives from the parish whom Mom coordinated to drive the elderly, the sick, the poor, the addicted and the just plain needy to doctors, hospitals, grocery stores, laundromats, AA meetings and any other critical destination (any of we kids who had a license were enlisted to drive as well). She did this all the while washing dishes, folding clothes, or cutting vegetables with the phone clamped between her chin and shoulder. The charity helped many troubled teens who ended up becoming our foster kids and every one of those foster kids had instantly and happily called my mother Ma. Heck, all our friends called her Ma and, within a day, Dwayne had acclimated to our household culture so verily that he did the same. He seemed to find it rather a game, and addressed her as often as he could simply to relish the chance to say Ma. “Ma, I’m going to bathroom, ok? Ma, we’re gonna go play outside. When’s dinner Ma?”
Dwayne was having a terrific time, especially since the younger half of my family was in his own age range. I was 10 at the time, my brother Christopher was 9, Vincenia 11 and Tommy 12. We were the perfect ages to play with Dwayne. We were also young enough to be gobsmacked impressed that he had run away from home. Tommy was the only one in our family who had ever tried such a thing and, until learning of Dwayne’s escapade, Tommy’s try had always struck we kids as rather daring. Indeed, Tommy would boast about how Mom had once ordered him upstairs to his room, whereupon he got the bright idea to escape by stringing belts together and climbing down from the window. Alas, the belts were not true durable leather but cheap leatherette made of pressed fibers. He had only just crawled out the window and climbed down a foot or two when the belts snapped in two like a strip of crisp bacon. Tommy fell plop down to the ground—and that’s as far as he got from the house.
“He broke his arm,” we bragged to Dwayne. “We thought he was still upstairs but then we heard somebody crying outsideHelp! Help! and Mommy was like, What is that sound?”
Dwayne failed to be impressed. After all, he had made it on his own well beyond his town’s border and all the way to an interstate highway rest-stop before our brothers found him. Thereon, he got to hitchhike with two college boys all the way through Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey. Moreover, he called my big brothers his “good pals.” My big brothers even let Dwayne into the inner sanctum of their bedroom, where none of we littler ones were ever allowed. It was incredible to us that Dwayne got to hang with The Big Boys! Our three eldest brothers, Eddie, Kenny and Stevie, were known, literally, asThe Big Boys in my family while we littler ones were called The Little Kids. Of the three Big Boys, Kenny was the paternal fun one who organized activities for us, such as hiking and roller skating. Eddie, however, was reserved and impatient with people, especially with annoying little kids.
Eddie also had bipolar and a kickass drinking problem of which we’d seen incipient signs since his teens and which had become full blown by the year we’d met Dwayne. He was twenty-one at that point and in his third year of college, which should be the time of one’s life. Yet our brother had no social life and instead holed up in his room in the Washington apartment downing three bottles of wine a night and painting (he was a fine arts major). The ever-affable Kenny kept things running and found Eddie a job as bicycle messenger and motivated him to stick to his classes. Eddie’s antisocial habits at college were nothing new; he’s been inclined toward the morose all his life and even in high school the only friends he had were guys that Kenny had introduced to our home. We used to call Kenny the sociable, caring brother Theo to Eddie’s solitary, alcoholic Van Gogh.
Eddie had had one friend, and only one in his entire life, who did not come via Kenny, and it was similarly odd kid named Roger Gerstenschlager with whom he hung out in the eighth grade. The friendship was not about enjoying each other’s company so much as a shared obsession with model airplanes. Eddie had always been a person of manic obsession and went from building intricate model airplanes in elementary school, to an obsession with wrestling in high school, to running in college (such was his obsession with running that he would run until he split his shins). Through it all, he was most loyal to his obsession with art. He was a cute guy and with his physical activity he had a terrific physique as well. Girls hovered near him but he, a loner, was oblivious to the attention. Given all of Eddie’s singular obsessions and anti-social inclinations, we Little Kids were awed to see him suddenly so taken with funny, feisty little Dwayne. “Oh sure,” Dwayne told me and the other Little Kids, “Me and Eddie’s good friends. Whaddya think?”
Indeed, all of the Laureys kids became fast friends with Dwayne. He was with us for the entire two week spring break, most of which I recall in only a general sense. There is one interaction, however, that I remember specifically and in detail. Scientists say that people remember something when they analyze it or surround it with other layers of meaning directly as it’s happening, because then the thought process becomes something laden that will sink more deeply into the brain, as if a needle sinking deeper into vinyl to make permanent grooves in a record (once you make the grooves, they are permanently there and you can always replay your memory). Well, I sure as hell analyzed this one interaction with Dwayne because it was my first personal engagement with the concept of race. In 1975, there were no black people in little, working class, Italian/Irish Netcong. I had only met one other black person in my life, and that was a boy in the second grade with me at St. Michael’s School. He came from a town five miles away that was also predominantly white, and he transferred out after only one year. I knew nothing about him. Dwayne was the first black person I ever really knew, with whom I talked and played and engaged up close. I had so many questions—questions which I knew in a vague way were verboten for white people to ask, but which I had risked anyway because Dwayne was so friendly. It was a warm spring evening a little before dinnertime and Dwayne and I, along with my siblings Tommy, Vincenia and Christopher, were all in the basement where we kept our games and toys. We may have been playing Monopoly, I’m not certain. However, I am absolutely certain of the precise words I had used to ask what to me right then was a perfectly logical question.
“Do black people get tan?”…
Continued via… Source: One Black Runaway and Two White Hippies go Hitchhiking > Maggi Laureys