It was the first time I had made the association of red, blood and fear.
Until my parents offered me a stick of "Big Red," I thought only girls chewed gum. Even at the age of three, the moving of the mouth, the clacking of the tongue, and the blowing of the occasional bubble seemed rather feminine to me. Besides, I had only seen my mother, and Erica, the daughter of my dad's best friend, chew it. But since my parents were suggesting I try it, I decided it was not a threat to my masculinity.
Once the cinnamon taste exploded into my mouth though, I grew terribly afraid. I didn't know what to do next! For how long did I keep chewing? What happened if I were to swallow it? Would I choke? Would this be how I would die? The thoughts of no more blueberry Rice Krispies, watching The Jeffersons and The Magic Garden, going to Shorehaven with my grandparents, awaiting my dad to light the fire place, petting Patches, my beloved dog, and most importantly, experiencing bedtime routine of hearing my mom say, "See you around 8 o'clock tomorrow, flashed through my head more quickly than I was chewing. All of this would be gone once Big Red was lodged in my throat. How I soon wished that only girls chewed gum.
I chewed and chewed, when I suddenly became calmed by the realization that I could spit it out and that Patches would probably lick it. I spat into an adjacent napkin.
"I don't like it," I anxiously told my parents.
"Why not?" my father asked with a quizzical facial expression.
"It tastes a little funny..." not wanting to say I was scared of dying.
"It always tastes like that," interrupted my mother as Patches sniffed the still wet wad.
Still feeling somewhat uneasy, I sat near our coffee brown couch, gradually comforted by the latest episode of "The Jeffersons"
The Bronx was a confusing place was to grow up. At least for me, and at least in my neighborhood. If you were flying in the plane and happened to look down directly at my block you would have seen a strange combination of large, post World War II suburbanesque homes, smaller attached houses, and only slightly larger apartment buildings that had not been refurbished since the Eisenhower administration. There were no door men and no elevators. If you were playing the Sesame Street game “which one of these things doesn’t belong,” you wouldn’t know which to choose first.
My family and I happened to reside in the one apartment building on the block that was still known as “decent," (at least on the facade) perhaps even by suburban standards. It was old – maybe even older than Lina, the 78-year-old block’s historian, who once told me that it was already built when the Housing Projects across the street were still farmland. The front door was kind of ugly though and composed mostly of fake wood that was just beginning to peel. My parents' bedroom widows were placed not too far away from the door, and were only above sea level. The bricks looked good for their age, and the cement between them was remarkably still clean.
For some reason the hallway of my building always seemed dark, even on days like the summer solstice. I never understood why. Maybe it was the dark marble floors, or the maroon banister that looked like someone had bled all over it. Perhaps it was the gray steps. The walls of the hallway were the color of puke, which was somewhat comforting as I vomited in the living room on the first night we moved in. It made me feel that I belonged there, that it was home.
I remember that entire night quite well. My parents and I went to the local White Castle - an eatery my friends and I would later call “poor town” because of the homeless people who inhabited the grungy tables as temporary denizens. Even my friends and I were were left speechless, however, when one of the poor towners ordered liquid cheese as a meal for 39 cents. That first night, however, I ate a fish sandwich. I don’t think I had ever consumed seafood prior to this, and my stomach did not like this stranger who was about to enter it. Hence the puke.
As we descended the small number of steps to the door of our new abode, I was somewhat scared by the blood-red color of the front door. It was the first time I had made the association of red, blood and fear. Even the gum wasn't that potent. I wasn't even as scared when Erica had locked us inside my bedroom by sticking a red Crayola inside the keyhole.
In my new apartment, the door matched the banister, and that terrified my three-and-one-half year-old mind even more for some reason. All this red stuff made me think of the Shining, a movie I had seen already. Thank God there weren’t any elevators, but like the Overlook Hotel, my new home looked so barren. My father had been only been able to move in the absolute essentials, which to my dismay did not include my bed. After my mother wiped up the White Castle fish sandwich debris and the remnants of the Cheerios I had at my maternal grandparent’s apartment just before moving in, she created a makeshift bed on the rug for me. It consisted of my Peanuts bedsheets, blanket and pillow. I always found Snoopy and the Gang quite soothing. It always seemed like nothing bad ever happened to them. Even when Snoppy encountered peril with the Red Baron, I knew he would win. I was quite disappointed that our television hadn't yet arrived either because the sitcoms I watched on it were another source of great comfort. I used to fall soundly asleep while listening to the banter exchanged between Weezie and George Jefferson, not fully understanding what they were saying. But the laugh track – that was enough to put my mind at ease, and make me believe there was a carefree world out there that I would someday inhabit. I really liked the Jeffersons’ apartment – it reminded me of my grandparents’ Co-Op city apartment, except more modern and slightly cleaner. I knew that George had hit it big in the dry cleaning business after moving away from Archie Bunker, so I figured they were quite wealthy. I also knew they were good at taking care of their granddaughter who was about my age at the time. While falling asleep, I fantasized that I might live with the Jeffersons, maybe being this poor white kid they adopt in season number 11, a sort of reverse of the African-American adoption trend popularized by Diffrn't Stokes and Webster, two of my other favorite programs.
I don’t remember how I fell asleep that first night, but I will never forget the nightmare I had. I was trapped in this huge crater, which was located in a gravity-less outer space. Standing in my blue cotton pajamas, I began to fall uncontrollably, and the crater became further and further away from my line of sight. I tried to scream, but I could not. Even if I could, it was futile as there was no sign of life aside from the occasional rocks. Every time I had the sensation of hitting one of these rocky surfaces, it was pulled under from me by some force and I began falling even faster. Thankfully I awoke before hitting the bottom. I looked down at my pillow and Snoopy’s face was now filled with cold sweat and warm drool. I got up and noticed that my parent’s bedroom door was ajar. I contemplated jumping into their bed but then realized that they did not have a television either. I tried to think of the Jeffersons theme song and some witty things Florence might have said in the last episode, and then fell asleep only to have the nightmare a few more times before the morning arrived. But unlike before, these images were no longer as comforting.