"I like that shade of orange on you, it goes well with your skin tone and your hair" she said that morning, and as I looked down at the shrimp-colored blazer, I smiled because, well because the color did look good on me. Today was a sunny day, and now it felt that way.
Was it squash? Maybe some sort of casserole? It was pumpkin, spiced pumpkin, the kind that you find in a pie and it was gloppy and goopy and it smelled bad right there on my shoulder. I hadn’t seen it coming, why would I? It was never intended for me, still, it hit me before it even got close to HIS target, the sniveling weak kid that he constantly picked on. Funny, pumpkin is orange colored isn’t it? Why was the only color I saw then, red?
"Do you have anything sharp in your pockets?" he asked and as I looked down through my tears, I could see that the orange blazer had no pockets. On the ride there, I wondered if I had made a mistake in not telling them about the machete in my truck, the one I carry to cut down vegetation on my dog-tracking efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans. I decided against it but with every effort to keep my voice from shaking, I heard the words "Can you check my bag? I sometimes carry a pocket-knife for protection and I don’t want to be in any more trouble once we get there" It was so dark outside the windows, was the tint that dark? I wondered if the world could see me in the back of that car?
I don’t even remember his name, only that he was the wormy kid, the one that Tommy Lathn mercilessly tortured and tormented. He was starting to cry, quietly, like he always did, he knew he was going to bleed today and he was trying to shrug it off, but, like he always did, he couldn’t, and so he cried, and he waited.....
I heard the commotion but my mind didn’t register what it was because I was watching the drunk out of the corner of my eye as I waited to be "intaked" that night, intaked into the jail, the prison, the penal system, Orleans Parish Prison, OPP. Your body reacts sometimes before your mind has time to tell it not to and so I turned but only for an instant because an instant was all I needed to see what I knew I wasn’t supposed to be seeing and so I turned back, yeah, that quick, but not quick enough.
He was half-way to rounding the corner of the cafeteria table, he was going to get him no matter what and if the pumpkin pie didn’t get there, than there were other ways to make that little kid cry today, only he never saw me in the way of his mission
He was about seven or eight feet tall and he was berating the man in front of him, the one shaking out his socks and shoes, for what I don’t know, nor did I care. The words he uttered weren’t enough I suppose, they didn’t quite evoke the humiliation factor that he was going for and so in the instant I saw it, all within the instant, he reached over and in one sleek movement, snapped him up by his waistband and hurled him to the brick floor below. And so I turned quickly away, but not quickly enough.
He didn’t even notice me, why would he? He was intent on making that kid cry more and cry harder and so he shrugged me off as I got closer, like an insect, just like an afterthought, but he should have thought about it first
It was an instant and it was a lifetime. As my legs buckled out from under me, presumably the result of the other prisoner’s flailing legs or arms, it seemed as if my knees hit the bricks at the same time my face hit the pavement but I don’t think that is possible, but, the thud of my heart in my chest and then the same thud in my mouth wasn’t possible either. With my hands still cuffed behind my back, I closed my eyes on the way down this surreal fall. Had I tried to get up? I don’t think I could have, I had nothing to brace myself with but I must have made the effort because the boot snapped my head back down as I watched the man with the socks and shoes through my tears and mouthed to him "shut up, just shut up" He would have to stop kicking him then wouldn’t he? He couldn’t step on his back anymore, "Get up you piece of shit" if he just shut up, right? "Just shut up, just shut up" I could hear it myself now so I know it was more than my words mouthed in silence and I couldn’t see him anymore because the salt of the tears forced me to squint so all I could see was the orange OPP jumpsuit so close, nearly touching my orange blazer, but I could feel his breath on my face, inches from mine as he incredibly defied the person who continued to kicked him in the groin "Get the fuck up you shitty mother-fucking piece of shit" And all the man with the shoes and socks would say, would keep saying was "You like that, do you?" and he was kicked and stomped I could barely make out the words but he refused to give up, he refused to shut up as I pleaded with him, silently, quietly and then only in my head to just shut up, but he wouldn’t he wouldn’t give up.....yes, the tall officer liked it, he liked it a hell of a lot, and so the kicks continued until a pinch snapped my eyes open and then instantly I was up in the air, moving, cartwheeling. Someone had grabbed me under the arm and in a whirl I was planted back on earth, pavement, bricks, the filthy prison floor. My eyes faced forward without fail but I heard it as he kicked him down the corridor and I still hear it, in my sleep..... when I sleep.
He never saw it coming, why would he? I was quicker than he was or than he expected me to be and as my hand clasped around his throat and the back of his head hit the cafeteria wall, his eyes told the story of a deer caught in the headlights, and for a moment, it was silent except for the wormy kid’s crying. But then it was all a roar as the sound of bone crunching on bone as my clenched up fist skidded off the end of his nose, and as my heart made the leap from my chest to my mouth, "son-of-a-bitch" could be heard streaming from somewhere in my gut, "you rotten son-of-a-bitch, you are never going to lay another finger on him, you got that you piece of shit" and the blood was hot and it was bright and it was about as pretty as the buds on my mother’s prized rosebushes. I was in a world of hurt and I knew it as the cafeteria monitor’s talons wrapped around my shirt collar and I swallowed the tears that were about to burst from my brain any moment "Do not cry, do not cry, do not cry" if Tommy Lathan sees me crying he beat me, and that’s not happening for all the trouble I’ve gotten myself into now. And so, it was silent, but only for a moment and then the roar was back, slow at first, quick and then quicker and as I was dragged off to face the principal, my fourth-grade teacher and eventually my parents, all I could hear was the roar, all I could smell was the roar, all I could taste was the roar and it was deafening and it was silent and it was maddening and it was validating and it was my roar "Lise, Lise, Lise, Lise, Lise, Lise, Lise....." and the forks, the knives, the spoons, every tool they had at their disposal, all banging on those lunch tables in unison, and it was unreal that it was mine, my chant, my name, my victory and I knew there was going to be hell to pay but for this one moment in time, I could have cared less because as those tears finally fell and those war chants grew dimmer and dimmer, I knew, noone was going to pick on the wormy kid again.
They say that there are only a few defining moments in a person’s life, the few instances that without a thought, without a hesitation, without a plan, a process, a blueprint, wrong or right, a person’s life is changed, the person for that matter is changed. Recently, I have thought about one of my moments, one of my defining and life-changing moments, I think about it when sleep won’t come. Tommy Lathan was the fourth-grade bully of Wolcott Street School, a lifetime ago, but some people stay with you and Tommy has ultimately been one of those people. He wreaked havoc wherever and whenever he wanted and for the most part, I escaped his tirades. Until I had seen enough, heard enough, been there for enough and I didn’t like pumpkin pie, not on my shoulder anyway. The funny thing is, I don’t remember the punishment, the world of hurt, I only remember the details of Tommy’s life that I soon learned and the details weren’t pretty. Tommy was your typical neglected and abused child and because of his crummy life, he was making everyone else’s life crummy. Maybe he forgot his pain by inflicting his own pain but at any rate my task was clear, I was to make friends with the fourth-grade bully and post-haste and so I did and Tommy and I came to an understanding, for awhile anyway. I don’t remember the specific details I only remember that eventually, Tommy went back to his bullying ways, that’s what bullys do, only he never missed a target again, or at least he never missed a target near me again. But truthfully, it wasn’t Tommy that stuck with me that day, it was the roar, and not the roar of the blood and the bone and the profanities I heard come up from my gut, it was instead the roar of right, the roar of agreement, the roar of get him, for doing the right thing and no matter how much trouble I got into, I knew that defending a wormy weakly kid against the fourth-grade bully had to be the right thing even if the pumpkin pie started it.
So now, thirty years later, I am the wormy weakly kid and my bully? the system. The ineffective NOPD, the New Orleans Police Department who in their noble efforts to fight a post-Katrina crime wave in this city have put nobility aside and instead work on their stats. Every article I have read, I have scoured, following my September 20, 2007 arrest for failure to provide proof of insurance, failure to provide proof of registration and failure to provide a driver’s license, how could I? when I wasn’t allowed to remove my hands from the steering wheel, all those articles showcasing what it’s like to be "locked-up" in New Orleans seems to point to a police force who are working toward numbers and sacrificing good arrests along the way. So looking back I no longer feel that wave of shock, shock that emanates from a handcuffed citizen who only moments before was looking for a lost dog, a dog that she had breathed, slept and dreamed for three full weeks since first losing him, emanates as she tells the officers over and over that noone else is hiding in her vehicle, emanate as she begs the officer to just look at her "Lost Dog" poster, emanates as she sobs in the back of the squad car, cuffed from behind because they had no cage, emanates as she tells herself to suck it up because where she is going is a place that will not tolerate wormy weakly kids, a jail, Orleans Parish Prison, OPP, or one of the worst jails in this country and emanate as she mutters "I just want my dog back" the whole ride there.....that shock no longer emanate from me and instead there is an icy coldness. And that coldness brings with it the full acceptance of my responsibility to carry everything I was asked for that night, everything that was in fact in my vehicle, only not in my dash box, the broken dash box, I reject the notion that a police "force" has blanket authority to make arrests to get those stats up and to make those arrests however they sit fit.
So while I have spent the past few weeks sleepless and worn out, and yes, afraid, no longer afraid of the criminals who do in fact continue to plague this already downtrodden city, but newly afraid of "the man" the men in blue, the ones who I thought were duty-bound to protect and serve...me, I have also spent time revisiting that cafeteria of my childhood and I can still hear those chants, "Lise, Lise, Lise, Lise, Lise...." and I know that the only difference that time has made is that it won’t be a fist that I wield this time, instead I am armed only with the knowledge that as an American citizen in addition to positive rights, I also have negative rights as well, I have the right to be left alone, the right to remain un-oppressed. So, I await my November court date with very little sleep, with the deep down knowledge that this is not over, and still with the unshakeable belief that someone just has to stand up for the wormy, weakly kid....in all of us.