Rockaway. Rockaway.

The sand blows sideways, silt-like, getting in my ears and lodging into my eyebrows.  Surfers ride wind-battered waves in the cold Atlantic.  Girls lie facedown, over-tanned and insecure, working on their wrinkles.  Kids in crayon colors and gold chains.  Boom boxes and Puerto Ricans.  Rockaway beach on Memorial Day.

I give up on the beach early.  I lie and say I’m going to take pictures along the wooden boardwalk, but I just want to find a windless piece of shade, of which there is none.  I walk past apartment buildings that look like beachside projects.  A boy yells behind me, “Hey, sexy.  Have a nice day.”  I do not turn or acknowledge.  I scurry faster towards the CVS for a familiar name and the promise of air conditioning.  Ridiculous white chick.

I meander the aisles, killing time, assimilating.  Towards the back is a wall of products I have never heard of: Turtle Cream, Mother of Pearl, Placenta and Vitamin E Shampoo.  There are at least three items advertising the benefits of cod liver oil, something I thought people stopped using back in the late nineteenth century.

While scanning the greeting card aisle, I note that African Americans are highly unrepresented.  There are plenty of cartoons featuring white people making jokes about getting older, but none specifically marketed towards other ethnic communities.  I suppose Hallmark assumes that bunnies and talking flowers represent all non-whites.

Forty-five minutes and I have chosen the perfect bag of trail mix.  Whitney is heading back down Avenue 89 with Justin.  We walk below the S Train overpass to his beach shack.  Little girls play barefoot in the street under a fire hydrant waterfall, their shoes lying on the sidewalk.  Music bumps from behind a bright green wall leading to a courtyard of sorts.  The neighborhood has the potential to be Newport Beach, but it isn’t.  Not by a long shot.

The beach shack is lined with stacks of surfboards.  Its tiny bedrooms are filled with bunk beds.  The kitchen is five-square-feet of pink walls and cabinetry.  Astroturf covers the floors.

People filter in.  Beers are cracked open.  A giant slab of pork is thrown on the barbeque.

I’m sitting on a bench when I am offered a sloppy-looking blunt from a twitchy boy in a Grateful Dead shirt and a brown bandana over his forehead.  I decline.  “It’s just hash.  But [taking a hit] … it gets me high.”  He passes it to the older man next to me who’s been giving me the abridged version of his entire life for the last ten minutes.

The boy sits next to Whitney and immediately falls in love.  Go figure.  He’s still twitching and talking about how he’s been up for three days straight, tweaking on twenty hits of LSD.  Currently he is coming down with the assistance of Xanax and Budweiser.

His name is Joe.  Joe Farmer.  Joe Farmer Shwag.  He adds on nicknames as they come to him, never accompanied by an explanation.  He looks like Corey Feldman playing the Karate Kid if the Karate Kid was part of the “Goonies.”  He makes ridiculous expressions with the soft and malleable dough of his face.  One day I suspect he will take on the appearance of Elmer Fudd.

Whitney asks if he knows Justin, the host.  “Justin?” he repeats.  He is confused.  Whitney explains further who Justin is and Joe Farmer Shwag sort of plays along, but ultimately relays to me that he knows no one at this party and has just stumbled upon our group.  “Seemed like you guys were having fun back here,” he explains in between gulps of beer.

When I tire of sunshine and grilled pineapple, I walk towards the subway on my own.  The waiting area is populated with a strange mixture of hipsters talking about their new purses and Latin kids with faux hawks and pierced tongues.  A girl makes out with a boy with boobs, which upon further assessment I establish that it is just a girl wearing a really convincing boy-outfit consisting of a backwards baseball hat, an XXL tee shirt in white, and a pair of gigantic jean shorts.  She and her girlfriend have the same size feet, another subtle indication that the he is a she.

The train ride is loud and cramped and rambunctious.  A Jersey girl with square fake nails types away on the phone resting on her “Las Vegas” knapsack.  Girls the color and shape of uncooked gingerbread walk around the train like they own it; their rolls uncovered by shirts and their muffin-top torsos spilling over their jean shorts.

I sit, alone, watching.  By the time I’ve reached my stop, the train has cleared of all signs of the beach.  There are no girls in bikini tops, no boys yelling across the aisles.  It only takes an hour to get back to my city that feels a life away from Rockaway.


Snake Charmers

The school’s outter walls are a dizzying pattern of smooth, black rocks lodged in cement.  Bikes are parked out front, aligned in teetering rows, some with baskets, some without.  We walk in like we always do: Dallas carrying a box of books, Rubin with his camera case slung over his shoulder, Mikey with the video camera, and myself, with my purse full of notebooks.

Light filters into the main hallway through a few open classroom doors, their rooms empty of children out on recess.  A woman saunters towards us wearing three different shades of green and a long skirt.  She introduces herself, casually taking bites of the apple in her right hand.  Her name is Shannon.  We will be reading to her third grade classroom.

The children are seated at their desks when we arrive.  Our presence creates a polite stir; heads crane in our direction, little girls stare at me intently, wondering if I’m what they’re going to look like when they grow up.  Shannon asks the class to please say hello.  They oblige with a symphony of immature vocal chords.  Each of us are introduced to the class by name.  Dallas.  Micky.  Rubin.  Jenny.  A motley crew.  Dallas Clayton and his strange, little entourage.

Shannon dismisses her class for recess.  Two children introduce themselves to me by first and last name as they shimmy out the door.  They are eager and smiling.

The classroom is not unlike my own growing up.  It seems most public schools look the same: boxy, mid-century utilitarianism awash in the same shade of beige and an accent color, usually a sour teal.  The inside of the room is yellow.  Old fashioned chalkboards feature multiplication problems and a drawing of the United States in purple and pink.  Diffused Portland light pours through a wall of windows facing a play area, passing through buttercup yellow curtains and onto the small desks.

Ten minutes pass.  Kids come back inside, hyper and chatty.  Shannon’s voice comes over the commotion, calm and smooth, “Boys and girls, please sit straight and tall.”  Almost immediately, the children come to attention, lifting their heads towards the ceiling and placing their arms on their desks.  This woman is a snake charmer.

Dallas asks for two helpers to pass out the books.  Arms shoot up and choices are made.  The room is momentarily filled with the disappointed thuds of unchosen hands.  I remember that feeling – wanting to participate so badly, wishing that I would be called upon.  I can’t even remember why it was so important.  It just was.

When Dallas finishes reading the book, he starts talking about dreams and aspirations.  He speaks of how in our sleeping dreams we imagine fantastical, crazy, amazing things.  But when we wake up, we often settle for dreams that are less exiting, less ambitious.  The point of the book is to remind us that we don’t have to settle or dream small; we can dream as big in our waking life as we do in our sleep.

Dallas opens it up to the classroom and the classroom shares their dreams.

A blonde boy with hair down to his chin raises his hand.  “I want to make a band … I play guitar.”  Dallas asks plainly, “Are you good?” and the boy says he is.  Immediately, Dallas asks Micky to go grab his guitar so he can treat us to a song later.

We move from hand to hand, dream to dream.

“I want to invent a robotic arm to climb on walls.”

“I want to be an actor and I want to own a lot of cats.”

“My name is Julius and I want to be an architect.  My former neighbor had a lot of Legos and we used to build things together.  I like diagrams.”

“I want to eat sushi every day.”

“I want to be an author and have a doggy day care and have a ton of families.”

“Stuff, stuff, and more stuff.”

A girl with long brown hair and broad shoulders corrects Dallas when he mispronounces the name written on her desk.  She talks rapid-fire about how she wants to do something with zombie cats and create a shot that can bring bugs back to life.

“I would like to be an artist,” says a petite girl towards the front of the class.  Her peers apparently think this is a good idea; enthusiastic guffaw-noises and thumbs up hand gestures indicate their faith in her ability to draw.

The class begins to unwind a bit and Shannon calls out in a language I have never heard before.  The class quits their chattering and sings back a response.  And there is calm.  Just like that.  “Whoa,” Dallas says, “What was that?”  It’s their secret language.  The kids respond to it well because it’s like being part of a club.  The call and response is so beautiful that even the children forget that they’re being asked to quiet down.  It turns an order into something entirely different, as though not demanding obedience, but requesting their participation in a particular mood.  Their teacher is magical.  She gets it, whatever “it” is.

Dallas calls up the blonde boy who dreams of starting a band.  The boy sits on top of a stool and Micky hands him his guitar.  “I’ll do ‘Seven Nation Army’ with lyrics,” he squeaks out, small and diminutive.

The first chords come, his little fingers moving along the strings.  I’m gonna fight em all.  A seven nation army couldn’t hold me back. Kids tap their toes to the beat.  And I’m bleeding and I’m bleeding and I’m bleeding right before the Lord. A boy bangs his head overzealously, barely able to contain himself within the confines of his desk chair.  The kid is good, amazingly good, and so very brave.  When he finishes, the class erupts in a supportive uproar.  It is apparent that there is not an ounce of jealousy amongst this group, only overwhelming and unerring enthusiasm.

Shannon mentions that the kids have prepared a few songs for us of their own.  Our group moves to the front of the classroom to watch the children bang on their handmade drums with wooden sticks padded at the tip with orange cloth.  Again, the language is one I am unfamiliar with, but it sounds soft and sweet and beautiful and I nearly cry in front of thirty little faces.  I want to tell this classroom that I hope they know how special they are, how unique and gifted and blessed.  Instead, I listen to the banging of the drums and words I don’t know and debate moving my future children to Portland just to sit in this classroom with this teacher named Shannon one day, because, honestly, it would be worth it.