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Christmas In Jacksonville

My parents separated a lot in the late 70's and early eighties. My old man was a Vietnam vet who drank too much, and my mother was a red-haired fireball who forced him to hide it. I was awakened often as a kid, pulled out of bed and hauled to the nearest motel. One of those spats ended with us living in a ghetto in Jacksonville, Florida.

These are some of my very earliest memories:

Sneaking down to the Lil' Champ with my buddy Kiki, cracking open a glass bottle of Sunkist from the cooler, and sharing it as the Jamaican gas station attendant scolded us for having no money. He knew my uncle Eugene, and he'd call him to come get us every time we unknowingly stole an orange pop. I may have just been four years old.

There was a kid called Snake Eyes who would run up on old ladies as they swept their concrete slab porches and steal their brooms. He'd then proceed to beat the women with their own brooms until the neighbors intervened and chased him off. I remember getting cracked upside the head with a glass Brute 44 bottle by ol' Snake Eyes once. It was heavy and green.

For some reason, I got into a fight with Kiki, and in the middle of the chaos, he lost a shoe. I may have only been four years old, but somehow I instinctively knew to chuck that shoe over the fence into the middle-class white neighborhood that sat just behind the projects. The grass on our side was sharp, brown, and stiff. Over that fence were green lawns with sprinkler systems. Kiki didn't dare cross that fence. My uncle Eugene showed up at the end of that scuffle and forced me to walk around the fence to retrieve the sneaker. He gave me a pretty solid lecture about race relations that revealed a side of Eugene that few people probably ever saw. It was a profound lecture about privilege and bullshit power, and I still carry it with me today.

One afternoon my mother asked me to return a bread pan to my mamaw's apartment, which was just across the parking lot and past the playground. Halfway there, I was met by a very large woman with tight cornrows and a meat cleaver. She insisted that I had her pan, and demanded I give it back. Just then another woman (with an even bigger knife) swept in to save the skinny white kid. Two cruisers pulled up and both women were arrested.

That Christmas Eve, there was block-wide insanity. Gun shots rang out every hour or so. People were stealing cars, furniture, and Christmas presents. Dumpsters were burning just outside my window and there were more police cruisers in that complex than I've ever seen since. Everything was blue and red, and I remember thinking how festive it looked against the cardboard and plastic Christmas decorations on each apartment door. We woke up Christmas morning to learn that an old lady two buildings down had been murdered. The perpetrators gauged that woman's eyes out with a damned spoon. My dad probably made the drive from Ohio in record time. He threw us all in a U-Haul and we were back at the trailer in New London by the next day.

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