Plastic Bag (2017)
I was born in the “broken land”, the marshland,
The ol’ Breuckelen, the oh, Brooklyn.
I was raised on Miami sands, on white sands,
On vice sands, on “wait, you’re from Brooklyn?”-type forgotten sands.
But, can I be a Brooklynite, when Miami had no Brooklyn nights,
When Miami had no Crown Heights,
No Bed-Stuys, no red bricks?
Can I still listen to Jay-Z, B.I.G.,
Mos Def, Ol’ D.B.,
While they’re booming “cotton candy, sweetie go,
Let me see the Tootsie Roll?”
Can I be “sicker than average”,
If mami is making below poverty average?
They’re looking at me like, “poor savage,”
And I am looking at them like, “nice carriage.”
[Cash rules everything around me, around us.
Around you? No, around us.
Cash rules everything around me, C.R.E.A.M.!
But, it was all a dream.]
I was born in the old Brooklyn,
The spread-the-love type of Brooklyn,
The we-go-hard type of Brooklyn.
Oh, we go hard, Brooklyn!
And it was a cold day,
Oh, t’was a cold day.
Oh, t’was a cold day!
Boy, don’t you drop that plastic bag!
Up and over Kingston’s way,
I lugged, and I hauled,
And I lugged, and I hauled. Appalled,
Holding that pity Crown Heights pay.
Oh, t’was a cold day,
When I learned that new Brooklyn way.
I was a freshman in Miami Killian Senior High when my mom announced we were moving to the Big Apple. It was an overwhelming announcement. The thought of leaving all my friends, relationships, daily routines, and schools behind, felt disheartening. I was to begin a new life in a city in which I’ve only been to once; to say goodbye to my grandfather. But, it made sense that we had to leave Miami. Day-after-day, it was becoming harder for us to make ends meet.
Mom worked as a house cleaner for several wealthy clients she had accumulated over the years. She would clean two homes a day, every single day, just to earn enough cash to cover rent, utilities, and expenses. She was self-employed with no benefits, nor did she earn enough to have a portion put aside for savings. We never took any family vacations and there were no such thing as weekly allowances for my siblings and me. Her weekly pay was considered below the federal poverty line for a family of four, so we just got by.
But growing up, even though we “just got by,” we did not feel poor. During Christmas, we received gifts, and during birthdays, we ate delicious dulce de leche Dominican cake like a typical Dominican family. We lived in decent homes, safe neighborhoods, and great school districts. And thanks to government welfare, there was always food on the table.
My siblings and I clearly understood our financial limitations. We never asked mom for more than what we could afford. While we watched kids drive Porsches to school, we took the cheese bus. While they wore new Nikes every month, we wore the same pair of Filas all year round. While they had on their Polos, we stuck with Fruit of the Loom t-shirts. We never envied those who were more privileged than us and we were just grateful to be alive, healthy, and together as a family.
My mother raised us on her own. My father was rarely around while growing up. They separated when I was six years old. He would visit once a year to show face, drop off a pair of new sneakers, and gift my mom a few bucks here and there to help with the compras. Other than that, it was my mother who took the burden of both parental roles.
As years went by, my mother’s house cleaning clientele began to dwindle. They either moved to other cities or they no longer required my mother’s services. It was tough finding new clients when up-and-coming house cleaning businesses were offering lower prices and quicker turnarounds. With her weekly pay decreasing, it was becoming difficult for her to keep up with all the expenses.
After my freshman year of high school, my mom sold our beat up 1991 Hyundai Sonata and purchased one-way flights to LaGuardia Airport. With the rest of the proceeds, she placed a deposit with the moving company that was transporting all our belongings to Queens (five months later, the moving company eventually kept everything after we failed to pay the other half of the deposit at the end of the maximum storage period). With no cash on hand and just our flight tickets, there was no turning back.
We stayed with my uncle’s ex-wife, Yolanda, and her grandson, nephew, and four children in a makeshift three-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment. Moving from Miami to Yolanda’s apartment took some time getting used to. It was cramped, with eleven of us packed in there, sleeping on anything that looked comfortable enough for a human being.
It was a tough living situation. We had to wake up in the wee hours of the night to use the one bathroom available in the apartment before my cousins woke up. Considering there was so many people to feed, we had to ration our food which lead to me losing so much weight that I had to give away all my clothes and shop for smaller sizes. However, we couldn’t afford much in the beginning, so I just borrowed some of my cousins’ clothes.
Everyone in that home was pitching in with bills. In addition to paying the bills, we had to save for the security deposit on the new apartment. We were saving every single penny we could get a hold of. I convinced my mom to let me work, so that we can move out faster. To help my mother out, I got a job with my cousins, packing grocery bags at a C-Town supermarket in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I was just fifteen years old, and this was the only job I could get at that time. It wasn’t a real job; there were no benefits nor a minimum wage. It was a job where you get to work only on a first-come, first-served basis.
My cousins and I would wake up every weekend at four in the morning, to secure a spot on the grocery bag line. There were only four cashiers at C-Town and only one packer was allowed per cashier. Sometimes cashiers would call out or other people would beat us to the grocery packing line, so my cousins and I would take turns packing bags or making deliveries. We would work for more than twenty hours on the weekends just to save forty bucks in tips. It wasn’t enough to make a vast difference in our savings, but it did help my mother with the smaller expenses.
Working at C-Town created a lot of valuable and memorable experiences. The most valuable experience came when a customer had asked us to deliver several heavy grocery bags to her apartment, which was ten blocks away from the supermarket. Given the customer lived ten blocks away, I knew she was going to be a big tipper. So, I quickly volunteered.
It was a bitterly frigid day. The customer didn’t have a personal cart, thus, I had to carry seven grocery bags on each hand. Each bag contained several heavy items, and a lot of canned cat food. My hands were frozen shut from the arctic winds and from having to grip the grocery bags tight so that they do not slip off. Walking the long Kingston Avenue felt like it was never going to end.
When we got to her building, I was relieved. It felt like hours had passed, and not minutes. As we approached the front of the building, I asked her what floor she lived on, hoping it was on the first floor.
“Honey, I live on the 4th floor,” the woman said. Shit! “It’s a trek, but you seem like a strong boy.”
Oh, it was a trek! My hands were turning blue from the cold and from the bags cutting the circulation in my fingers. My legs were cramping up, my lips were cracking, and I was thirsty, but I couldn’t stop now. I was almost to the top and about to hit the jackpot with a huge tip.
When we finally reached the top, all the aching and numbness was gone. I was too excited about the potentially big tip I was going to get from the customer. The pot of gold at the end of the tunnel was in my sight.
She asked me to place the bags inside her kitchen and I gracefully obliged. At this point, I didn’t mind helping her out further. All I cared about was the money. After placing the last bag down, I waited a few minutes for her to settle down. I waited, waited, and waited, hoping she begins to scavenge through her purse for that tip I’ve been anticipating. She finally walks towards the front door where I am standing. But, her hands were empty.
“Thanks for helping me deliver the bags,” she said. “When you leave the building, make sure the front door is fully closed as to no air seeps through. It’s cold outside and I do not want anything of that coming up my floor.”
I stood there in disbelief. Was I not getting any tips for this delivery? “Excuse me mam, but I just walked ten long blocks, in the super cold, up four floors, carrying fourteen bags of your heavy groceries, and I get no tip!? Not even a quarter!?”
“Sorry, but that’s your fucking job. You shouldn’t have volunteered. I could’ve had one of the other Mexicans do it. Maybe if you would’ve gone to school, you wouldn’t be doing this shit. Leave before I call the police. Thank you.” She slams the door in front of me.
As I walked back to the supermarket, her statement repeatedly echoed in my head. I stopped on Kingston Avenue, closed my eyes, and thought to myself, “thank you, lady! Thank you for triggering that fire in me to want to succeed. Thank you for showing me both sides to this world. Thank you for giving me the ground to stand on. Thank you for giving me the most valuable tip anyone can ever give.”