[an excerpt from “hella”]
CW: This piece includes racial slurs
I’d heard rumors of incoming freshmen getting hazed at Westmoor—everything from being rolled down hills in trash cans, to getting tied to metal poles so upperclassmen could smash your nuts with tether-balls. My source for this information was my best friend, Edwin Garro. The rumors worried me, but I was more anxious about the complete change in culture I was about to experience. My private school days were over. In a few weeks I’d be a public school student.
“How should I act?”
“Hmph,” Ed exhaled. He pursed his lips, really thinking about how to answer.
The fog was thick. All grey everything. Daly City is seven miles south of San Francisco, and the weather is just as dreary, amplified by the bland monotony characteristic of any suburb. Me and Ed were posted up in his backyard, sitting on the edge of a half-built half-pipe, beneath a raggedy hedge of browning cypress trees. Ed’s dad was a carpenter by trade, and he’d built the ramp so that we could skate at home. But like a lot of the upgrades at the Garro home, the half-pipe had been half-built for so long that the plywood was peeling at the edges and the nails were rusted orange. The fact is, by the time I was about to start high school, me and Ed didn’t even skate that much anymore. The half-built half-pipe was basically a big ass bench.
“How should you act?” For a moment the only sound was the thwump thwump thwump of our Jordans knocking against the ramp, our legs bouncing, restless. It might seem like a weird thing to ask your best friend, but I knew Westmoor was gonna be nothing like Alma Heights, especially when it came to the kids there. For the last eight years, I’d been going to private school with super privileged rich kids. Ed had only ever gone to public school, and he’d grown up with the working class kids from our neighborhood, the same kids that I’d be sharing classrooms with in a few weeks. I needed his advice, especially since he wouldn’t be starting high school with me. Born in the middle of March, Ed was a few months older, but because of where he was placed when his family first moved to the United States, he’d always been an academic year behind. So, as I was about to enter the 9th grade at Westmoor, Ed would still be at Fernando Junior High in 8th grade.
“The main thing is to just be chill. Like, don’t fuck with anyone. And don’t try too hard either. You’re good, like, you got style, and good clothes, and whatever, but just, you know, don’t act like you’re hot shit or something.” Ed knew that making friends wasn’t easy for me. Our own friendship had started off on the wrong foot. I’d been playing with G.I. Joes in my front yard when a couple of kids I’d never seen before came walking down my hill. Slowing down in front of my house, Ed and his brother Jimmy gawked at all of my action figures. I don’t think they’d ever seen so many toys in one place outside of a toy store. I was kneeling on my lawn, with its single palm tree dying in the center of a patch of neglected, yellowed grass. They stayed on the sidewalk, their eyes shifting between my brown & beige two-story home, the brown Jaguar coupe in our driveway, and my army of G.I. Joes. I asked them where they were going.
“Sepway,” Ed said.
I pushed my thick brown glasses up my nose and scratched around my half-inch afro, confused. I didn’t understand what Ed was saying. I’d never heard of anything or any place called Sepway. I was a quiet boy, shy, and Ed’s intensity kinda freaked me out. He clapped his hands, and stomped his feet, repeating, “Sepway, man! Sepway!” For minutes we faced each other, talking, but struggling to understand each other. Ed whacked his brother, urged him to explain.
“We’re going to get food,” Jimmy said.
“Oh,” I finally understood, “You’re going to Safeway.”
And Ed said, “Yeah, man, Sepway!”
I’d never met anyone with fair skin whose accent was so impenetrable. I thought they were Russians, like movie villains. Turns out they had just moved to Daly City from Costa Rica. The brown-haired brothers were about the same height, but different in every other way. Jimmy, nearly two years younger, was a shade darker than Edwin, and a few pounds heavier, with a face that was more rectangular than his brother’s, and eyes that were brown while Ed’s were a honeyed hazel. Jimmy tugged on Ed’s arm.
“Vamanos,” Jimmy said.
Before taking off, Ed grabbed a handful of smooth white stones from my neighbor’s rock garden. As the brothers walked down the hill Ed started slamming the stones into the sidewalk, laughing as they bounced around wildly. When one ricocheted into a car, Jimmy knocked the rocks out of his brother’s hands. I watched as they crossed St. Francis Boulevard and strolled down the ramp into St. Francis Square, toward Safeway.
On their way back, I watched the Garro brothers approach carrying bags of food in their small arms. I’d never seen kids do that before, carry groceries by themselves. All of my trips to the grocery store involved spinning through the comic book rack while I waited for Mom or Grandpa to finish shopping. Passing me, Ed and Jimmy said they’d be back. When they returned it was obvious that my toys were what they were really interested in. I didn’t like the idea of sharing. I wouldn’t let Ed play with my action figures, so he stomped on them. He picked up one after another, and ripped off their heads and limbs. I’d snatch one out of his hands, and he’d throw another one down the street. Again, Jimmy intervened. There was no apology, but being an only child hungry for friendship made me swallow my pride. Six years later, Ed was my closest and most trusted friend.
“Be you,” Ed said. “Like, be cool and fly and shit, but try not to call too much attention to yourself either. You don’t want anyone to be like, Ah, fuck that dude, he’s high-siding.” In the years since our first meeting I’d come out of my shell a little bit. At Alma Heights, my old private school, I might’ve been an outsider but I was still considered cool. I was popular with the girls, and had earned the nickname “Mack” for my exploits. At a private school filled with mostly white conservative Christian kids, making out with a few girls had earned me a reputation that placed me on par with LL Cool J. Westmoor was gonna be different. Ed’s most urgent recommendation was to change my hairstyle. We’d grown up worshipping skaters like Tony Hawk, Steve Caballero, and Lance Mountain. I dreamt of tossing my hair back, casually, with a sharp but subtle lift of my chin. Throughout my childhood my grandmother, who I called Mom, took me to white barbers, and around 5th grade, when we started skating, Mom began helping me bleach my hair blonde. But even after these color treatments I’d still have to soak my hair with Dep gel and douse it with Aquanet in order to make my curls taper across my forehead like a crashing wave. Ed urged me to abandon the phony Tony Hawk hair.
“Dee,” he practically begged me, “you gotta cut that shit, dude.”
Ed offered to introduce me to one of his homies who cut hair, an older boy named Fanté, an amateur DJ who was teaching Ed how to use turntables. From my house to Fanté’s was a three-block walk up Southgate Avenue. As the street lamps buzzed and clicked on high above us, we arrived. With a closed fist, Ed banged on the garage. Before long, the door swooped toward us, opening a few feet as Fanté waved us inside. I’d never entered anyone’s home like that, through the garage, without greeting any parents or adults. I saw a couple other boys my age. Waddell and Wyatt. Both were chestnut-colored and looked bored. Ed gave everyone daps before rushing the turntables, which sat on a foldout table in the center of the shadow-filled garage. Fanté waved me into the next room. He was tall, his skin was dark, and the curls of his flat-top glistened. A single, unshaded, overhead light bulb filled the room with an amber glow. I was surprised at how different Fanté’s room was from mine. There was nothing fun or colorful anywhere. No comic books. No posters on the walls. No toys or Nintendo. There was an unmade bed and a dresser with half-open drawers and clothes scattered all over the place. And there were these other two boys just hanging out, chillin, whispering to each other. Later I would learn that Waddell, Wyatt, and Fanté weren’t siblings. They lived in a group-home. Also known as foster care, a group home was a place that existed only in the dark and topical episodes of my favorite TV shows, like Silver Spoons or The Facts of Life. I was a sheltered twelve year old. If I’d known Ed was taking me to a group home, I might not have gone. I would’ve been scared of running into somebody like the faceless menace known as The Gooch on Diffr’nt Strokes. But it was too late. I was there and I was about to get a haircut.
Fanté dragged a fold-out metal chair to the center of the room and told me to sit. He pulled an extension cord across the floor, plugged one end into the wall, and connected the other end to a set of clippers. When Fanté turned the machine on, the blades came alive with an electric buzz: ch-chnnggggg. I flinched. I’d never seen clippers before. When it came to haircuts, I was used to scissors. I was surprised to see this tool that looked more like the eclectic shaver my uncle used on his beard.
Fanté chuckled, “Damn, blood, you scary, huh?” Then he combed my hair using an afro-pick—another first for me. Fanté yanked the long plastic teeth carelessly through my hair. If he noticed my wincing, he didn’t care. “Damn, nigga,” Fanté said, “your hair soft as fuck.”
“He tender-headed?” Wyatt and Waddell laughed. “Let me see.” Waddell slid his fingers through my hair. He was tall and skinny with a broad mouth, big straight teeth, and dimpled cheeks. “Ewwww,” Waddell said, “that’s weird.”
Then Wyatt took a turn rubbing my hair between his fingers. “Why your hair like that?” I shrugged. Wyatt was shorter than everyone else, pudgy, and his nose and upper lip seemed drawn to each other. His face was stuck with an expression like he was smelling something awful. Holding my hair in his hands, he looked disgusted.
All of this groping made me uncomfortable, self-conscious.
“So, what you want,” Fanté asked. I panicked silently. Instructions for my hair had always been delivered by Mom. I admitted that I didn’t know what I wanted. “Yo, Edwin,” Fanté called out, “what we doing with this nigga’s head?”
Ed paused the record and after a beat shouted, “Just give him a fade or some shit.”
“That cool with you?” Fanté asked. I didn’t know what a fade was.
“Like Kid ’n’ Play,” I said. Fanté and Waddell and Wyatt howled with laughter.
“Ed, blood,” Fanté said,“where you find this nigga at?” As soon as the plastic clipper guard touched my skin my body tensed. Fanté palmed my head, holding me still, and ordering me to relax, “Chill, blood.” He began to move the clippers around my head, carefully at first. Fluffy puffs of bleached blonde hair started to tumble across my face. Fanté grunted, hesitating. Then a huge chunk of hair drifted past my eyes. I knew something was wrong.
“Oh, shit,” Fanté said. He was behind me. I couldn’t see his face. But I could hear him struggling to hold in laughter, that universal sound of sputtering through pursed lips. Another chunk of hair brushed my forehead and got stuck on the rim of my glasses. Wyatt and Waddell chuckled, nudging one another as their eyebrows bounced. “We finna take this down a little bit,” Fanté said. He pressed the clippers straight onto my neck and drove them up. The machine sent vibrations through my skull. I closed my eyes. Huge swaths of my hair were being mowed down. With a firm hand, Fanté maneuvered my head in ways a white stylist never had. The noise of the clippers was muted as Fanté pushed through the thick parts of my hair. A quiet violence rattled my brain. Sweat gathered along my spine.
“No,” I whispered.
“Hold on, little nigga,” Fanté said. “Stop fidgeting so damn much.”
Finally, Fanté moved with confidence. I squirmed anyway. Wyatt and Waddell laughed and clapped and stomped the floor as they fell into each other, cackling. I heard the analogue pop of headphones being unplugged. The music dragged to an analogue halt. Ed appeared in the doorway, and when he saw me his eyes lit up, the corners of his mouth slipping into a grin. And then, like the other boys, he laughed too.
“Stop,” I murmured. Fanté held me down, continuing to push the clippers across my head. Another clump of blonde hair rolled down my face. I reached for my glasses, cleaning the lenses with my shirt. Tiny pieces of shaved hair were mixed in fresh tears.
Fanté stepped in front of me. “Nigga, you crying?”
“I have to go.”
“Hold up.” Fanté shook his head. “You not done yet.” He continued buzzing.
My shame began to suffocate me.
Finally, Ed stepped in. “Fanté, dude, just stop.”
“It ain’t finished though.”
“Look at him, blood,” Ed said, an open palm raised toward me.
All four of them set their eyes on me. I looked away, scanning the large clumps of hair resting on my thighs and knees and on the brown carpet beneath our feet.
“If you say so, Ed,” Fanté shrugged, “but look at that shit, it ain’t done.” Fanté brushed some loose hair off of my shoulders and chest. “All right then, little blood, go ‘head.”
I hopped out of the chair and broke for the garage like a wild animal. But I didn’t know how to open the door. Wyatt and Waddell clutched their stomachs, hysterical with laughter. Fanté joined them. Even Ed couldn’t help himself.
“I gotta go home,” I moaned, shuffling around with my arms outstretched. Ed kicked the base of the garage door with his foot. As the barrier swung open I ran down the driveway, down the block, around the corner. I sprinted wildly through the fog, lurching, gasping for air. I ran up my staircase, two steps at a time. I pushed open the front door, and walked back to Mom’s room. Seeing me sobbing, seeing my hair, she stood, and shrieked, “Beb! What happened to you?”
“Edwin took me to his friend’s to get a haircut.”
“Edwin!” Mom hissed his name. My grandmother loved Edwin, but he also drove her nuts. Ed was notorious in our house for destroying things—not intentionally, but reliably. “Where did he take you?”
Through heaving sobs I said I didn’t know.
“Who did this?”
“Some black kids.”
“What?” She was horrified. “What ‘black’ kids?”
I shrugged my shoulders. I felt guilty for snitching on Ed. Now, seeing my grandmother’s reaction, I felt worse for saying the kids who did this to me were black.
Mom took my head into her hands, studied the haircut. “Black kids did this to you?”
I nodded. She wrapped me in her arms.
Why did I say, “black kids”? I mean, it was only one kid, Fanté, who’d actually done anything to me, but because I was embarrassed I felt like they were all guilty. But why did I say they were black? I guess calling them black was the easiest way to describe them. I didn’t have many black friends, none that I hung out with on a regular basis, and short of saying that one was skinny, or that one was pudgy, or that one was older, to say they were black was the simplest way to describe them. I didn’t know that black was anything other than a color, just another way to describe someone in the same way you might say a kid was tall or skinny or had big ears.
I could feel Mom’s anger through her embrace. “I wish Lester were here,” she said, “he’d go over there and beat the hell out of those niggers.”
This comment didn’t surprise me so much as stun me. To hear my grandmother use the word nigger as a substitute for black made me freeze. I was numb, doubly shocked by the experience of the haircut and then the unexpected slur from my grandmother. Like Mom, I wished that my uncle still lived with us—Lester had been the closest thing to a father that I’d had as a boy—but “those niggers”? I’d never heard my grandmother use this word before. And the idea that my uncle might actually run out and hurt someone, willingly, because they were black—which is how I’d understood my grandmother’s words at the time—was scary. Is that how she thought of me too? I didn’t know my father, had never met him, but I knew that he was black, which meant I was black. As my grandmother held me on her lap I fixated on this idea, that by calling these boys she didn’t know and had never seen niggers, she was also calling me a nigger. I was a long way off from being able to distinguish between Fanté casually saying nigga every other word and hearing my grandmother say nigger with such charged loathing. I was speechless. Mom caressed my partially shaved head, and through her fingers I could feel the judgement, the dislike, the disgust—but were those feelings for me, or for the boys who’d done this to me, or both?
Before the school year began, Mom took me to a white hair stylist. The familiar snipping sound of scissors chirped around my head. The barber repaired the damage, giving me a simple close-cropped haircut that couldn’t have been more boring. I studied myself in the mirror. Beige skin, brown hair, ambiguous features. I was in between. Not black or white. Just different. Alone. At Westmoor that solitude would be dangerous. I knew I was going to be around a lot more kids like Fanté and Waddell and Wyatt. And I had no idea how I was gonna act.
A 2020 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow, Damien Belliveau is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, and a veteran of the United States Army. He has spent the past fifteen years telling stories in the world of reality television as an editor and director. The founder of the PartBlack Project, a Q&A photography series documenting ethnically mixed people like himself, Damien is currently revising his first book, hella.