Baltimore is a primal place. I felt it my first night on the fire escape outside my bedroom window where I climbed to the rail gazed wide-eyed into the moonlight shadows of my apartment building. A connected row of red brick units’ three stories high and a block wide. Each of the units had two apartments per floor. We lived on the third. When I climbed out my window, I was looking to see what freedom looked like. The suburban town where the home my father provided felt oppressive in ways my juvenile mind couldn’t express constructively. So I got kicked out. First my father’s house by his wife, and then my friend’s home by his mom who had taken me in for the year. I pulled a poorly rolled joint from my back pocket preparing to light and fantasize about what lay ahead of me out here. A place I could be almost anything since no one knew me. As I fumbled for my lighter, I saw a cat cautiously back pedaling into the light of a streetlamp. Rats crept out of the darkness into the light.
What kind of messed up world is this, rats stalking cats?
I slipped back into my room and closed my window. When I saw the cat’s carcass behind the dumpster the next morning, I couldn’t help but feel it was an omen of sorts. A warning for me.
You not in Columbia anymore!
Pop bought into the co-op in Sandtown when I was sixteen, almost two years after the Orioles last won the World Series. I moved from a town where I had friends who argued over batting orders and pitching lineups to a Jungle where I was pitched blow, coke, and weed in colorful names: I got dem Bat-man’s; I got dem Killer Bee’s; Red Top’s; Blue Top’s; Got that scramble. I went from looking for someone to buy us beer or pouching opened garages for booze on Friday nights to feel up drunk chicks white
I was seven when popped moved me from the concrete projects of Philadelphia for the green suburbs of Columbia. My brown skin turned green, a florescent green as I floundered in the unfamiliar surroundings. However, my loud color had me fitting right in amongst the pink and brown mixed-up kids. Losing myself just like them, before I had a chance to know who I was. Do many of us know who we are or what we want to become? I’m not sure when I figured it out, but it was in the Jungle I learned I was a chameleon. To survive in any inner city of America you must become an animal. I suppose it just happens. Yet, somewhere buried deep within me is I’m sure is a defiant spirit searching for a way out of this jungle in order for me to thrive. That’s why I make it out the Jungle as often as I can for the Zoo. The Zoo as I see it is my conduit out. I never had a wicked jump shot or could keep a credible flow, as the late Hip-Hop Griot Biggie Small’s suggested. My survival skills of cunning and quick thinking without a ruthless rip throat mentality didn’t match other predators of the Jungle. Survival was well enough for me until it wasn’t.
I think it was surviving a broken heart that finally got me on my belly, slivering out the Jungle determined not to be anyone’s meal. The Westside Jungle is home to every creature of the Ark. Every wing beast and creepy crawling thing that ever walked the earth has resided here at one time. The Ark is my primary transportation from the Jungle to the Zoo. It gets me wherever I need to go. With a bit of entertainment usually, if the theatrics of the other riders doesn’t annoy me. I was distracted the other night. That’s a prime way to be the source of another’s sustenance. Sleep at your own risk. Even blinking too often can be lethal.
Mentally, I’m tough enough to handle almost anything. I’m still here approaching fifty years on this earth. More than two-thirds have been right here in this Jungle. The last three years on Harlem Ave. I had moved here with my father when the hustle of this place was foreign to me. Something about the danger that could be felt through all my senses was pleasing to me. It still is. I just no longer romanticize it. It’s hard for something once looked upon majestically to regain that original perceived form after you’ve seen through the cloaking.
That’s the best way for me to describe when I realized the nostalgia for returning home had worn off. Pop was gone. Most of my friends had left the Jungle on their own or had been round up by the warthogs and turned into zebras. We put up balloons and teddy bears on light poles and street signs to immortalize the dead around here. I stopped counting at six in a five-block radius the day I moved back, with my own brood. Both the Super Markets in walking distance were gone with almost every neighborhood owned and operated business looked long since deserted or sold to immigrants. When there was maybe one or two vacant houses on any given block, you’ll be lucky to find a block now with more three families on one side of the street, especially the side streets. It’s a lot harder for the despair to be disguised.
My heart may have beat a little faster slivering down Edmonson in the mid 80s when I first moved here. The open-air drug market was intimidating for a county snake like me. Blending in from county to country with was so easy, I don’t remember learning how. Life in the county was pretentious, but laid back. I always knew I didn’t belong there. I couldn’t get used to looking like I belong but never quite feeling that way. I didn’t know most of what I was going through back then was just the growing pains of adolescence. It wouldn’t have mattered where I was growing up. We all felt out of place in the in between years. The country was definitely the most comforting. My grandma was there, with all the love and family that pruned and signified to me that I could indeed survive anywhere.
At least I would, after I got over myself. Fascinated with my features, I loved the curve of my head when I’d rock back swaying to the hypnotic melody of a charmer. I couldn’t see it myself, but I knew my shit didn’t stink. Good cultivation will have you like that. Proud. Unfortunately, without purpose pride is too close to pompous. That’s how I end up back where I started from. Young enough to remember being strong and vibrant. Hopeful enough to weather the storms of the tumultuous climate in the Jungle. It’s hot here. Always. Even when the wind is blowing hard enough to bite frost into you.
I’m more comfortable now. My skin camouflages well to my surrounding environment, whether in the Zoo or in the Jungle. If my insides could match the out, maybe just maybe if could garner enough momentum burst free from the vines that tangle many here in the Jungle. But I’m me. Mentally resilient but emotionally vulnerable. For me that equals distraction, a precursor for imminent trouble. A lot of things can kill you end the Jungle.
As I slipped off the steps of, the Ark, my transformation was near complete. I never change is the lie I tell myself. I just show different aspects of myself at different times. It isn’t much different from when I shed my skin as I grew into my adult body. I don’t how I picked up this skill. I just know I always felt I didn’t fit into this world the way God made me.
In my new face, I paused at the corner of Edmonson and Monroe. The Street lights were out as far as I could see towards Lafayette Street. You had to be careful crossing on this corner. The gazelle’s of the herd tear down this one way stretch in a hurry to floss without a care of who is crossing. I look back at the kangaroo with her Jill and Joey beside her, with another in her pouch. I asked her was she crossing here too. I had something on my mind, but the danger of the cross roads put me back on point. She was going the other way, so I kept on towards my block. I wasn’t necessarily stalling, but I was not in a rush to get home. That was for sure. Something’s going down. This was not the night for it. I was going to have to confront Cuz over his baby momma coming for me on Facebook. She actually became the first person I ever blocked. I’ve got some pretty thick skin, but she got under it good this time.
She was a cockatoo or some other tropical bird. She’s always chirping about something. I try my best not to get mixed up in other’s messy relationships because who wants that shit. I get my own messy relationships to deal with. But that’s usually how I get hooked like a lion by a monkey, misdirection. I was so focused on what I wanted to do, check my messages from my family out in the country. Hurricane Florence had turned Interstate 40 into a river. I saw it on CBS news that morning. I hadn’t heard from my sisters, brother or anyone for that matter. So, when I read the instigating lies from Cuz’s cockatoo, I nearly exposed myself to be a Jungle snake. Things spun out of control so fast as we exchanged verbal lefts and rights. An angry female of any species is a formidable foe. She kicked mw below the waste ending our communication forcing this confrontation. Cuz been running his mouth, and he needs to ne checked.
I’m pissed, but level headed as I approach Appleton Street, a block away from my nesting spot I see A Camel selling loosies, I cop two. I quickly light the Newport and avoid the Hyena I buy my weed from. He doesn’t see me which is good. I’m broke and he ain’t giving me nothing on the arm so fuck we got to talk about. I turn left on Harlem and slap a weasel some dap. I see two panthers watching a duck who thinks it’s a goose roll a blunt. I Jungle great them all and sliver on down my block.
Cuz’s work van is parked in front the spot. He’s texting or social media surfing with his back to me. I stop at the stoop with a sloth, a silver back, and hedgehog to shot the shit. We all broke and want to smoke. “Hold me down Snake,” said the Hedgehog. I nod and take my last hails before I hand off the cancer.
“Cuz, you son is hurt. I think he needs to go to the hospital,” my Python cousin calls to me never lifting his head from his cell phone. I look to the heavens wondering whether there will be buzzards circling overhead. I feel like prey. When shit gets rolling on you in the Jungle, it can dump a lot quick. It seems to know when you’re under attack by an unseen entity. When you are most vulnerable. To a buzzard shit smells like death. Like I said, I ain’t trying to sustain no one with my essence.
This a battle for another day. I table the talk. I can smell a storm coming sometimes. This one stinks. I’ll take care of my own this night. No one will do it for me. It’s all on me.