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.