Image: "Alternate Olympics 2012 Logo"
Police arrested my best friend Nubie for sneaking out after curfew in April of 10th grade. His parents grounded him for the entire summer. I was insensible to social cues, and if not for The Nubian Prince, I was effectively friendless. Ipso facto, I was grounded, too, and decided, heedless of his mother’s disapproving looks, that he and I should serve our sentences jointly. Besides, I felt like I owed him the solid of keeping him company.
Each morning, I would ride over to Nubie’s to play table tennis until his mom got home from work. He could hear my Huffy Pro Thunder wheezing as I pedaled up his driveway sometime around nine in the morning; the garage door was yawning before I rang the bell. Neither of us was a very good player at the start of summer, but The Nubian improved quickly. I played tennis since I was seven, and tried in vain to scale the mechanics of my court game to fit the table. On the court I behaved temperamentally like John McEnroe, but table tennis gave my antics no quarter.
I suspect table tennis is what set me on the unlikely trajectory beyond the gravity of my parents’ influence, and toward poetry. It’s more conventional to blame hip-hop, I know, but I am so easily distracted that music ruins my concentration. If I overhear so much as a grainy samba beat sifting through the receiver when my wife is on hold with the bank, my mind goes dark and I begin snatching at notes in the air like they’re rungs on a dream ladder carrying me to Elysium. I’ve never been diagnosed, but the rambunctious gene is dominant in my family. Holiday dinners my aunt laces the collard greens with Ritalin, otherwise family gatherings start to look like the Chuck E. Cheese’s in Brooklyn after two families show up with conflicting reservations. How else in the midst of that chaos would I have acquired focus enough to pick a handful of words, without purpose, off the communal tongue?
One summer after I moved to New York I was a teacher’s aid for middle school students in the South Bronx who had been labeled as having emotional and behavioral “challenges.” At one point, one of the students marched around the room on desktops shouting profanities with the pomp of a French naval officer. No one seemed to notice. It made me so anxious I got the hiccups.
When I read the poems they’d all turned in I noticed that many of them had similar handwriting. Tiny lettering crowded against the lines as if the letters were whispering to each other. I was told this was an effect of the kids’ medication. It occurred to me that the density of their script might not signal dim...read more