Greg Bottoms

Dirty, Racist White Kids: Two Stories


Incident at the Pool, 1977

You saw them ride up on their ram­shackle, tacked-togeth­er, junk-yard bikes, grow­ing in size like spread­ing shad­ows out of the dark woods: Five or six black teenage boys from the Pine Chapel projects. They rode toward you and perched themselves—one shoe on a ped­al, one on the pine-nee­dled ground, han­dle­bars turned par­al­lel to frames—outside the fence of Briar Queen Pool, one of the last remain­ing all-white pools in Hampton. Your moth­er had scraped togeth­er the lit­tle extra mon­ey she had to join this place and bring you here every sun­ny sum­mer day to swim when you were five, six, and sev­en.

In a lawn chair, tow­el around your neck, hair black­ened wet, you held your snack—a Chick-O-Stick? a Charleston Chew?—sat stat­ue-still, as if watch­ing all this on TV, and stared at the tall kid clos­est to the fence.

He wore cut-off jeans and bas­ket­ball shoes. No shirt. Black nip­ples; bony, brown ribcage. Little scars dis­col­ored to white-per­son skin. He and the rest of the boys had panty­hose on their heads, like tobog­gans (this image—so new to you then, so foreign—seems some­how the core of this mem­o­ry). Here were all the stereo­types about poor blacks you’d heard from your rel­a­tives and friends and neigh­bors made vis­i­ble, as if con­jured from the woods behind the rid­ers.

The boys sat on their bikes in the shade, sweat­ing. It was 95 degrees, and they looked long­ing­ly at the arc­tic-ice-blue water of the pool. The one that seemed to be the leader looked at you in your chair on the oth­er side of the fence. He held up one fin­ger from the han­dle­bar, casu­al­ly nod­ded his head.

Hot, he said.

You couldn’t form thoughts or words.

Don’t wor­ry, he said. We’re just rest­ing, lit­tle man. Everything ain’t a prob­lem. Everything in the world ain’t a prob­lem.

They rest­ed like that for a cou­ple of min­utes. Then Johnny Segal jogged over. You thought, for a long time, his name was Johnny Seagull. You want­ed a name like that—Greg Bear or Greg Coyote or Greg Eagle. Johnny was a big teen, ath­let­ic, cap­tain of the swim team. He had hair on his chest, mus­cles. More hair climbed out of the front of his Speedo swim­suit. A sparkling dia­mond ear­ring bull’s-eyed his left ear­lobe. He looked like a pop star from the cov­er of Teen mag­a­zine.

More boys got out of the pool, came over drip­ping.

Suddenly it was eight, ten white teens on one side of the fence; five or six black teens on the oth­er side. And you still sit­ting in a chair, watch­ing.

What are you look­ing at? said Johnny to the kid in the front of the bike pack, the one who talked to you.

The water, man, said the leader, it’s 200 damn degrees.

Nah. Nah, said Johnny. No way. He looked back at the water. Why don’t you get out of here. Ride off wher­ev­er you came from. Nothing for you here, man. Nothing to see.

Crowd of skin­ny white boys behind Johnny, in swim suits, blis­ters of pool water on their skin, went yeah right unh huh.

These your woods? said the leader to Johnny. Are you telling me I don’t have a right to sit on my bike on a sum­mer after­noon in some shade and look where I want to look?

Not here, said Johnny. Go some­where else.

Like I said, said the leader, I don’t think it’s your call. Don’t mind us, man. Everything ain’t a prob­lem. Go back to your swim­ming. We’ll go when we’ve cooled off a bit.

Briar Queen was most­ly moms and kids, a place for work­ing-class whites to feel like they were part of a coun­try club, though it wasn’t upscale at all, only neat and clean and func­tion­al.

There was a long pause, star­ing. Bowed-up, adren­a­lined kids on both sides of the fence.
Then Johnny said, Get out of here, you stu­pid fuck­ing coons.

From one of the boys on the bikes behind the leader flew thrown mud like shrap­nel, freck­ling the white skin of Johnny and the oth­ers.

What hap­pened next? What else do you remem­ber?

Commotion. Movement. Voices. The slap of bare feet on hot con­crete. Johnny Seagull and the oth­ers rac­ing past you, out the main fence exit, toward the woods, to the spot from which the bike rid­ers had already van­ished.

A few weeks lat­er you were skate­board­ing in your dri­ve­way with your neigh­bor Pete, who was old­er than you, maybe ten or eleven. You were prac­tic­ing 360-degree spins. You need­ed to know how to do a 360 in your neigh­bor­hood in 1976, 77.

It was the end of sum­mer, all the grass scorched brown, the dusks red­der now, days short­en­ing. Men wash­ing cars. Sprinklers. Led Zeppelin out of some kid’s dark bed­room win­dow.

Pete told you to be care­ful if you ever went to the pool. He said that gangs of black kids on bikes wear­ing panty­hose masks were rid­ing along the fences now and throw­ing rocks at swim­mers, at moth­ers and lit­tle babies. He said they car­ried knives and shout­ed curse words even at the preacher’s wife.

You stopped spin­ning your board around, put one foot down. You looked at him, squint­ing. You had been swim­ming at the pool every nice day all sum­mer. Nothing had hap­pened since the day Johnny called the black kids rest­ing in the shade coons. Just qui­et sum­mer. People swim­ming in the mind-blank­ing Virginia heat. Wind in the trees. Chlorine burn in your nose and eyes. Lap of water against con­crete sides. Kids yelp­ing as they came off the div­ing boards. You’d almost for­got­ten about the inci­dent.

But over time, into the fall, into the win­ter, some­thing about Pete’s lie bur­rowed down into you, changed you. Language, sto­ries, the mind—they can morph like the col­ors of day­light until they set­tle around accept­able mean­ing. And when you’re young, a blank slate, you espe­cial­ly need sto­ries, need the sto­ries of your com­mu­ni­ty to anchor you, tell you who you are.

You had felt most­ly a vague shame about the day Johnny Seagull called the black kids that name before you heard Pete’s sto­ry. You remem­bered how the boy on his bike had raised a fin­ger to say hel­lo. You remem­bered him talk­ing you, talk­ing to you like any­body else would (like a white per­son, you might have thought back then). And you thought the boy on the bike was right, about the shady woods being a free place for any­one, from any­where, to rest. Months lat­er, though, you had become part of some­thing big­ger; you felt like a cop or a sol­dier of your block fight­ing the good fight. By then you were telling Pete and any kid who would lis­ten about the day you were just mind­ing your own damn busi­ness and hav­ing a snack dur­ing pool break when some crazy blacks from the projects almost killed you with thrown rocks.

History Kids Play Pinball

He lum­bered around the neigh­bor­hood, slow and soft, a 250-pound inno­cent search­ing yard to yard for a friend. His name was Calvin. He was black, almost always out play­ing with young white boys, yet you don’t remem­ber any white kid, ever, except this once, men­tion­ing his race, or call­ing him the N-word (which you heard almost dai­ly, as epi­thet, as threat, as insult, as joke). And no one had any prob­lem with the fact that he was ten years old­er than the kids with whom he played.

(Is your mem­o­ry this wrong, or were the late 70s in sub­ur­ban Virginia so dif­fer­ent in their aware­ness and vig­i­lance around sit­u­a­tions we’d imme­di­ate­ly view as poten­tial­ly preda­to­ry now? No, you think it was that par­ents were not so involved in the dai­ly activ­i­ties of their chil­dren, that alarmist media hadn’t infil­trat­ed every curve of the human brain, that you roamed side­walks and fields and back­yards and parks like a cau­tious ani­mal sniff­ing new ter­ri­to­ry. Neighborhoods were every­thing, enclaves of kid inter­est, bore­dom, and ideas. Adults were busy. You were free.)

Hey, ya’ll, Calvin would say. Hey, ya’ll. Then he’d walk over to wher­ev­er you and your friends were play­ing. He was usu­al­ly wear­ing the same gray sweat­pants and black and gray hor­i­zon­tal­ly striped shirt. He had lit­tle bits of leaves in his hair—from where was a mys­tery. Around his mouth was always a ghost of morn­ing tooth­paste. Some kids called him a total fuck­ing retard behind his back, but when he showed up he was wel­comed. He’d be It the whole game of tag in the woods, no com­plaints. He was the best block­er in foot­ball, crash­ing through bony, white ten-year-olds as if they were so much brit­tle brush, fling­ing kids to the ground where they left mat­ted grass, dents in the soft earth, before they jumped up for the next snap.

That year—what year?—’79? ’80?—anyway, that year, some year—you all went to 7-Eleven to play the new pin­ball game. Little kid hero­in: Every quar­ter you could scrounge went into that machine.

But there was a sys­tem, a pro­to­col, a cul­ture around the game. You had to know it. You put a quar­ter on the game, lean­ing on a lit­tle ledge in the cor­ner above the bumper but­tons. That meant you had next game. Quarter next to yours, on the left, had game after that, etc. Got next, you’d say, and every­one knew what that meant. Next. Next. Got next.

One day, not pay­ing atten­tion, one of your friends, a kid named Steve, put a quar­ter into the machine and start­ed play­ing, even though there was a quar­ter on the ledge already, hold­ing next game. Kid named Mikey comes over, says, What the fuck, man? What the fuck­ing fuck? He’s big. He’s tough. Older broth­ers. Drunk, abu­sive dad. He’s like the neigh­bor­hood ass kick­er. He yanks Steve’s shirt, throws him on the ground, and fin­ish­es his game. Then he tells you and Steve and a cou­ple oth­er kids that you can’t play any­more pin­ball today. He’ll be keep­ing any quar­ters you left on the machine. Thanks.

Next time Calvin comes around, Steve says, Hey, Calvin, man, you won’t believe this, but, man, Mikey was at the 7-Eleven call­ing you a, you know, the N-word. Said it like five times. Calvin’s a blank. Calvin’s a you-know-what. Said it over and over.

Now you and your friends and Calvin don’t know that black­ness, as you are now dis­cussing it, is an American thing, an ide­o­log­i­cal, socio-polit­i­cal con­struct, a set of assump­tions and val­ue judg­ments based on eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al his­to­ry and dom­i­nant white pow­er struc­tures stretch­ing back hun­dreds of years and kept in place with vio­lence and death and treaties and laws. Hell no you don’t know that. Don’t know much, really—you’re like, what, nine and three-quar­ters and a week?; you just exist. Spend more time pon­der­ing the vary­ing con­sis­ten­cies of your boogers than you do think­ing about why Calvin’s skin seems to mean one thing and yours anoth­er. And Calvin isn’t going to tell you that black­ness as a social sig­ni­fi­er wouldn’t exist in a place like Africa or cer­tain parts of the Caribbean, that speak­ing of “minori­ties” or “under­rep­re­sent­ed groups” would make no sense what­so­ev­er in the absence of American white hege­mo­ny. What he does know, even though he has a low IQ and some birth defects, is that the N-word is like a rope, a pack of dogs, a water can­non. He doesn’t need to know his­to­ry to feel its weight. No one does. One day when he was a lit­tle kid, his biggest prob­lem was that his sis­ter ate all the good cere­al; next day, bam, some crazy infor­ma­tion got all up inside his head and he was black. He plays foot­ball and tag with a bunch of much younger white boys because he believes they are his friends and would nev­er think a word like that about him.

For weeks after Steve lied to Calvin you and your friends owned the pin­ball machine because word got around that Calvin was look­ing for Mikey and his friends, that he’d be wait­ing out­side the 7-Eleven every day until they were man enough to show up and call him the N-word to his face.

Every so often Steve would walk out­side and talk to Calvin. Seen ’em, Calvin? Any sign yet, Calvin? Gotta show up some­time, Calvin.

Then Steve would come back in to play pin­ball with you and your friends.

You remem­ber this because one day Steve, who was get­ting ready to turn eleven, walked back into the store, point­ed at Calvin wait­ing out­side in the blis­ter­ing heat, and said, Hey, guys, hey, guys, maybe this is what it felt like to have a slave.

~

Greg Bottoms is the author of a mem­oir, Angelhead (2000), an Esquire Magazine “Book of the Year,” two books of essays about American out­sider artists, The Colorful Apocalypse (2007) and Spiritual American Trash (2013), and four col­lec­tions of prose, Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks (2001), Fight Scenes (2008), Swallowing the Past (2011), and Pitiful Criminals (2014). His work has appeared in Agni, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, North American Review, Oxford American, Seattle Review, Shenandoah, Witness, and numer­ous oth­er lit­er­ary jour­nals and mag­a­zines. He is cur­rent­ly the essays edi­tor of Texas Review and teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at the University of Vermont, where he is a Professor of English.