It was a cold, rainy night when I stood at the ATM last week. All of a sudden it hit me–the smell of urine. I haven’t had to endure the sharp stench of urine for a very long time.
The name ghetto princess whispered through my subconscious like an echo from ages past. Meant as a compliment, I could never imagine anything but a girl in a tight ponytail, hoop earrings and jeans so tight that nothing was left to the imagination.
This was one of the most unpleasant memories of my childhood. I grew up in the Queensbridge Housing Projects of Long Island City, New York, colloquially termed “QB.” QB was synonymous with “Nas.” We always lived on the 5th or 6th stories, so we usually took the elevator to our apartment. It was usually almost always full of urine. As in, you had to tip-toe around the edges of the elevator to push your button , or else you risked tracking the urine into your apartment.
The joys of living in New York City.
I wish I could say that putrid elevators were the worst part of growing up in the projects. Hearing gunshots whizzing past my bedroom window at night was a common occurrence. Walking past the yellow police tape in the morning wasn’t surprising either. The worst was seeing the memorials of large votive candles, teddy bears and balloons amidst the yellow tape. Each time I passed by them was a reminder of the life lost, and their mourning loved ones left behind.
Sitting on the benches outside the apartment building also afforded me front-row seats to watching dozens of prostitutes walking into the building. When I finally had enough of the urine-filled elevator, I’d take the stairs, only to see the vestiges of illegal substances on the steps. If I was lucky I wouldn’t find someone smoking pot in the stairwells.
I also can’t forget that one time when my father was held at gunpoint at the end of a long night of taxiing. He handed over the $200 he had on him (over a day’s earnings), and with the asphalt on one side of his face and their gun on the other side, they warned him “Carry more on you next time.”
Despite all of this…I came out of that. The girl who refused to speak in slang and preferred to speak English and Spanish properly, as written. The girl who loved performing in musicals. The girl who loved singing Italian opera. The girl who never touched drugs or alcohol in high school. The girl who dreamed of being an independent woman working in Manhattan with a pencil skirt, suit jacket and briefcase.
I…came out of that.
There’s often a stigma admitting you come from Queensbridge. At first, people give you a nervous, incredulous once-over. I don’t know whether it’s to see if I’m concealing a weapon, or if they’re checking to see if I’m dressed in ghetto fashion. Sorry to disappoint you with my beloved cardigan and pearl earrings. And I understand the reaction. You’re not expected to make it out of the projects. At least not as a respectable, eloquent and cultured person who knows a few SAT words.
However, I would never trade my childhood for one in the ‘burbs. Living every day with a low-level fight or flight fear of being jumped made me stronger. Venturing home on the subway from J-meetings in Brooklyn (Jornadistas come together every week at church youth meetings) and keeping your cool as you walked past drug dealers blockading the entrance to your block…that builds strength and character. It also helps if you’ve had experience cursing out nasty men who’ve cat-called you since you were 13.
I know it sounds strange, but it’s shaped me into the strong woman that I am today. It’s given me ambition to better myself in everything that comes my way.
In college, after leaving New York and living in Maryland for a few years, I worked at a now-nonexistent credit card company taking inbound customer service calls. One customer called in from Astoria. She was a teacher. For whatever reason, I told her, “Hey, I’m one of those kids from QB. Just wanted to let you know that we actually make it out of there, and we actually go on to college to have bright futures.”
I know, she cheerfully replied. You do!
In that moment, for whatever reason, I felt validation. Validation that not everyone expected us to be lifelong failures? The realization that someone had faith in the “dregs of society” that lived in Queensbridge? Or rather, perhaps, validation that I made it. I made it out of Queensbridge and into college. Not just community college (which, for the record, is an excellent route to a degree), but a full-fledged university and had a bright and promising future ahead for myself, and for my future kids.
I know why youths from the ‘hood wear…hoods. It’s comfort. In a world where a split-second of eye-contact is enough of a threat to warrant a scuffle, a hoodie brings comfort. The comfort of not having to make eye-contact with trouble-makers. The comfort of making it home safely. It’s often misconstrued in the media, but, I understand.
Maybe that hooded kid is on his way to a full-dress rehearsal for Grease at school. Sure, his gait has swag and his hood might make the novice unsettled, but he made for an excellent and convincing Kenickie. He also made sure I walked to his right on the sidewalk. To this day, I’m not sure why he did, but I think there was something unbecoming inferred of me if I walked to his left.
I hope my kids won’t have to tip-toe around urine to get inside their home. Or see a never-ending parade of hookers being buzzed into their apartment building. Or smell strange smoke coming from the stairwells. But if they do, be kind to them.
Because, remember, not all kids from the projects…are hoodlums.
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