Naima was fifteen when a group of groups from school surrounded her. She was walking home from the bus stop, across the grassy knoll that led to people’s backyards (except for those with fences). Busy reading a book, she didn’t notice the shadows.
Wow, she’s so weird.
I bet she smells.
She totally does.
Naima turned and saw them smirking at her. One of them knocked the book from her hands.
Naima was used to getting teased. As one of the smallest girls in her grade, she learned to remain quiet, and during lunch, sat with few others she could tolerate. There were no lasting bonds between them, just their common fear of everyone else tearing them down.
Her nose is so ugly.
Her lips too.
They all look like freaks.
She’s an animal.
They pushed her to the ground and started to pull her hair and kick her. Naima didn’t cry or scream and tried protecting her glasses from getting smashed. Eventually, she was let go and ran away, leaving her backpack in the weeds. Her mom and dad rushed her to the hospital, as Naima pleaded that neither would complain to the school. Her mom wanted to, but her dad understood, and after getting treated, she spent the weekend in bed, her body aching and replaying the scene in her head. She slept all day, imagining being in the field, but with only trees and grass.
Naima’s eyelids fluttered open, and beads of light hit her face. She winced and the image of Subhash in bed became clearer.
She told him Tulsi was at Devika’s.
Subhash looked at the sheets covering his legs and hips. The swelling on his face had gone down, and he licked the cuts on his lips before telling Naima he wanted to get up. Naima was against it and before leaving for work, made sure she left enough bottles of water and snacks on the tables around him.
. . .
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
They carried signs and marched in front of City Hall. There were two dozen local residents, mostly black and brown women in their mid-thirties and above who participated and made short speeches about the value of affordable housing. Naima interviewed one of its main organizers, a much younger woman named Alicia, who just graduated from Rutgers. Although originally from Edison, she had family in the area and was drawn to social justice work, which she explained to Naima, as they stood to the side while the rally continued, with pedestrians sometimes snapping pictures of them.
“What is it about this issue that inspired you?”
“I love this city. I really do. And I know it has problems, like poverty and crime. But the solution shouldn’t be to ignore everyone who’s lived here for decades and cater to the white yuppies from the Mid-West who don’t really want to make this place their home for the long-term.”
“What would be your response to people who say this is what’s necessary in order to get the city moving in the right direction?”
“I’m not anti-business. I just think we should think about what kind of investments we want. Again, my folks would bring me here on the weekends when I was in school and I got to know the neighborhood and meet other Jamaican-Americans who knew my parents and our family and ran their own stores. What makes me upset is seeing my uncles and aunts forced to move away from the place where they got to build a tight Caribbean community, from where they raised their kids and had memories, while outsiders pour in and replace them like nothing happened.”
“But do you think your own more privileged background obscures your perspective on what’s occurring in Jersey City?”
“I am definitely aware of the life I’ve had. My own parents don’t even think of themselves as black. Even now, they have issues recognizing how all of this is based on the intersection of race and class and even gender. Still, that’s not going to deter me, and as someone who grew up in a middle-class suburban environment, I am always ready to listen to the needs of the people and learn from them.”
“Do you ever feel frustrated?’
“I do. I remind myself when it gets overwhelming that others depend on me and I need to be there for them.”
“So, do you think this is your life’s calling?”
“Yes. 100 percent. I can’t imagine ever losing myself to something else.”
“WHAT DO WE WANT?”
The chanting ensued, and Naima thanked the young organizer and wrote the article at a nearby Pakistani coffeehouse. She thought of going back to City Hall and trying to force an interview with either the mayor or his deputies, but knew better than to screw over connections for future assignments. Instead, she called the mayor’s media team, and they emailed her press releases about the issue. She also contacted the main developer cited at the protest and asked what their responses were to the growing pressure to incorporate cheaper and livable spaces for long-time residents. They too weren’t interested in speaking over the phone and instructed her to pluck quotes from a statement they released on their website a week ago. Naima didn’t bother arguing, especially when her editor was constantly texting her for updates.
Naima fended off the lingering frustration from the past few days. Whenever her emotions began to percolate, she’d keep writing, reading and remember not to expose herself to a world that at times, felt alien. Even at the protest, she had an urge to tell Alicia that the problems of fomenting change for those at the bottom would depend on more than just convincing politicians and corporations to care. The “people” were also part of the systemic greed and racism that was at the foundation of the country. It was usually the middle-class and working-class whites who voted against their economic interests, because they bought into the lie fed to them: that people of color, and black Americans especially, were ruining America and therefore, needed to be controlled. Sometimes, it was politicians who were doing their best to improve people’s lives, like when the President expanded health insurance coverage. Rather than understand what the Affordable Care Act meant, white Americans, activated by their prejudice, voted for right-wing Congressmen and women into power to slow down its implementation. Therefore, the narrative of the “people” as voiceless was simplistic for Naima to believe. Certain types of people clearly were heard above others, while others prevented their anger from ever spilling over.
. . .
After an assignment interviewing owners of a Italian/Thai fusion restaurant, which was opened in the neighborhood closest to the Holland Tunnel where most of the newer residents lived, the ones who wore sunglasses on cloudy days as well as khakis and sandals, Naima stopped at a C-Town in Journal Square. She was on her way to the office, but feeling thirsty, hungry and her contacts were irritating her eyes. The C-Town was next to a row of apartment buildings and convenience stores, and the aisles were filled with Caribbean and Indian spices. Naima grabbed a Snapple from the freezer and was ready to pop it open on the spot. However, she stepped aside, allowing a family and their shopping cart to get through, and caught a glimpse of a face in the corner of her eye. She quickly hid behind a column of Reese’s Puffs cereal and Ramen noodles.
After more people filed past her, she peeked around the corner. Rhona was sweeping the floor, the water creating a shallow pond in the middle of the store. Naima kept watching Rhona, her face creased, and with bags under her eyes.
“Hey…” Naima said.
Rhona, expressionless, glanced at her before continuing to mop the tiles.
“I didn’t know you started working here…”
“I was picked up part-time.”
Naima hesitated, and wondered what else to say.
“How is Cheddi doing? Is he excited about college?”
“He’s not going.”
Naima stopped, and remained standing where she was. Rhona squeezed out the gray water from the mop into the bucket and moved onto the next stop.
Naima asked if they could talk.
“I don’t have any more updates about the building,” Rhona muttered.
But Naima explained she just wanted to grab coffee.
Rhona arched an eyebrow, the water dripping onto the floor, and shopping carts squeaking.
. . .
They went to the waterfront and gazed at the Manhattan skyline across the bay. It was them and those on their lunch breaks, their stiff white collars pressing against their skin.
“Rutgers even gave him a scholarship. He said it wasn’t enough.”
“What did you tell him to do?”
“I said we are in this together. But he started listening to his uncles…”
“Those are your older brothers, right?”
“Two are. One is slightly younger. They all think Cheddi needs to spend more time with the family business.”
“And you don’t want that.”
“I don’t know anymore. They keep saying I needed a partner to guide him.”
“So is Cheddi with them?”
“Yes. He works at their store and lives in the apartment above. I’ve called him. He doesn’t say much, and I can hear them always in the background.”
“I never wanted to end up like this…”
“What do you mean?” Naima asked, holding her cup over the railing, as the waves crashed into the rocks below.
“I wanted to be a graphic designer,” Rhona said. “Before I met my ex, and lost my head, I wanted to do more than what anyone in my family had ever done.”
“They have night school classes if you ever feel like going back.”
“I know. I just don’t have the energy. Or the money. I think the moment has passed me by.”
Rhona finished her coffee and smacked her lips. She asked Naima if working as a journalist was always her dream.
“I actually did read the article you wrote about us,” Rhona said, “I also checked out other stuff you published online and a lot of it is great but to be honest, some seems boring. Didn’t you write an article about a person turning 100?”
Naima chuckled. “Yep,” she said. “That was the fifth one this past month.”
“I didn’t even know we had so many old folks running around.”
“Me neither. But my editor keeps finding them.”
“Do you enjoy working on stories like that?”
“I don’t hate them. I just feel…”
“Yes. And sometimes, isolated.”
“So, is journalism your passion?”
“It has its moments. And I always liked to write.”
“Were your folks writers?”
“No. But they’d take me to the library and I would stay for hours.”
“I never liked reading. The stuff we had at school never connected with me.”
“Well, what kind of genres have you tried? Action? Romance?”
“Nah. I enjoy some sci-fi and sometimes, satire.”
“That’s awesome! Have you heard of Octavia Butler or William Gibson?”
“Butler sounds familiar. Did she write the Bluest Eye?”
“That’s Toni Morrison. She’s also great. Butler wrote stories that dealt with dystopian futures, time travel, and monsters, but connected them to issues of race, gender and identity. I love Parable of the Sower. That’s her best one and I would read that at least once a year when I was younger, especially during high-school.”
“You don’t anymore?”
“I got busy.”
“What do you do for fun then?”
“I can’t remember,” Naima said and laughed, “I guess I watch movies sometimes.”
“Yes! Do you have Netflix?”
“No. We had Hulu once but cancelled.”
“I use my friend’s account,” Rhona said, “I just finished watching Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle for the billionth time!”
“That’s on Netflix? Do you like comedies?”
“This one was on TV. And no, usually I prefer stuff like the Fast and Furious. Have you seen those? They’re so fun!”
“I saw the first one. It’s not something I’m used to.”
“It’s better than what most people think. Is it Citizen Kane? Probably not. But its actual stunts, no CGI, and the stories are pretty sane and deal with themes of family and friendship. It’s not doing anything entirely new but what does? Cheddi loves anything with Vin Diesel which I can’t understand…”
Rhona’s speech slowed and she faced the skyline, the silhouette of skyscrapers bleeding through the fog.
Naima did the same, although a few moments later, she too could sense the world filling up her chest.
“What do you think of Michael Bay?” she quickly said.
“He’s a piece of shit,” Rhona replied, and chuckled.