Friday, May 16, 2008

Scary, scary random family

For the last year or so, I've been conducting a survey of literature about, inspired by, or written by residents of the Bronx. While I've occasionally gotten off track, I've worked through a lot of what's out there, from a re-read of Poe's "Annabelle Lee" and "The Bells," both of which were written about a block from my house, to Abraham Rodriguez's oeuvre, which I'm pretty sure will become classic one day. I've wandered through Herman Wouk, Richard Price, Nicholasa Mohr, Janice Eidus, John Patrick Shanley, and dozens more. It's been pretty amazing reading--the Bronx has gone from pastoral backwoods to the heart of upper-class society, to the most disastrous example of inner city hell. What's really gotten to me is that I've been living in the areas that I've read about. It's almost like hanging out on a movie set while watching the film that was made there.

One book that I couldn't quite finish was Random Family. It basically detailed the real-life story of a Puerto Rican woman growing up in the Bronx. Over the course of the book, she falls in love with a drug dealer, gets pregnant, has his kid, deals with him going to jail, gets pregnant from some other guys, has their kids, and generally struggles to do well for herself as her life goes to shit. It's a real downer.

Part of the misery is the fact that some of the people in my neighborhood live this life. My area is heavily populated with Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, both of whom have a strong macho culture. For young men in my area, masculinity is based on the number of sexual conquests, the proof of which is the children that one's conquests produce. In some ways, it's as if the old joke about "fuck trophies" was being played out before my eyes, with unwed mothers having children by multiple fathers, generating tons of ill will and assorted drama.

The other day, I was getting coffee at the neighborhood deli where I get coffee every morning. The place is run by three Yemeni brothers, Mo, Mohammed, and a younger one whose name I don't know. Anyway, Mohammed was on deck this particular day, and he was giving this woman a hard time about her age. Apparently, she wanted to buy a Philly blunt, but he was unconvinced that she was eighteen. She, on the other hand, loudly claimed that she was 28. Unable to resist, I got in on the action and told her that there was no way she was 28. Mohammed smiled and agreed with me, declaring that she was "20 perhaps, but not 28!"

By this time, the lady was smiling; she knew that she was going to get her Philly and the attention was making her day. With a huge grin, she said "I'm 28, I got three babies and two baby daddies. What else you NEED TO KNOW?" We continued to protest that there was no way she was a day over 20 and, as she left, there was a proud little wiggle in her walk.

One thing that really got to me about Random Family was the animalistic nature of some of the family interactions. After Coco, the main character, becomes pregnant from another man, the father of her first child begins a concerted campaign to force her to have an abortion. His reasoning is clear: if she gives birth to another child, his kid will have less food, less love, and fewer resources for survival. Reading about this, it wasn't hard to imagine one of those Mutual of Omaha nature shows in which a lion kills all the male offspring in the pride. What was scary was seeing this biological struggle applied to humans. Somehow, I like to imagine that my species exists somewhere above that plane, but I'm also beginning to realize that, under the correct circumstances, there really isn't that much separating us from other animals.

On a brighter side, my friend Katie turned me on to a little video. While I'm usually not a huge fan of domestic battles and rapping, this movie had me in stitches. Basically, it puts a much funnier face on the whole biological struggle situation. Enjoy!