The first time anyone tried to set me on fire, I thought I was dreaming. I could all but hear Mammy’s voice in the kitchen, little Davante crawling toward the fire beneath the crumbling mantle, reaching out his tiny fingers to feel its warmth, my seven-year-old frame folded up on the sofa like a fat cat. But suddenly, when the heat started to crawl up my jacket, stitching flames into my sleeves and skimming the skin of my wrists, fully awake and aware of the heat on my arm, my eyelids burst open and I shot up from the park bench.
I dove to the ground to put out the flames; shaking, I stayed there. The dirt was bone chilling, even for Atlanta. Somewhere in the distance I could make out the voices of teenage punks running on asphalt, hackling and howling and spitting, their jeers caught up in pockets of wind. I never had to deal with this in Memphis, I thought. They were disappearing into the black and I couldn’t make them out well enough to tell if it had been a gaggle of mangy boys or the Lionhearts, the gang that lorded turf from Eighth and Oak, to Fifth and Peachtree. Assuming the first, but afraid of the second, I pressed my brow harder into the dirt and didn’t move. I woke up the next morning, dirt clinging to my tongue.
Setting fire to the homeless wasn’t sport back in the 90s. I don’t think anyone would have even considered it. Today it’s the new ding-dong-ditch and my pack, my pant leg and my coat sleeve are all lined with small char marks. Street badges, I once heard someone call them, but I just shrug my shoulders, hating myself for not learning my lesson after the first time and feeling weak like a pile of wet sticks.
Mammy used to plan a lot of trips. After Dad left especially, she’d plan up a storm of trips just to give her something to do. The car didn’t run and public transit cost, so whenever we had to walk somewhere far Mammy rounded us up to take one of her trips. It was a delicate way to paint our world just one shade less gray. I remembered holding her hand walking along the side of the road—to the store, to the park, to the schoolyard. Mammy really tried hard for us like that. When the television went from jumpy to grainy static, to nothing at all, Mammy told me I was her new TV show. Standing in the living room in my hand-me-down Batman pajamas, I became her hero. I was the cop, the chef, the Sam the Toucan. My favorite role-playing actually was the commercials. I could topple Mammy with her own laughter. Again, again, Damien. Again, she’d begged the time I’d done the donut commercial. Eyes wide, I licked the glazed sugar slowly, slowly, slowly, slowly—and then womp, shoved that whole thing right into my little mouth, twitching my body with two thumbs up and dancing on the carpet like it was made of hot coals. I remember that time. A more privileged family might store moments like this in plastic bins full of VHS tapes. But what I know of earlier days only replays when I sit still enough in a quiet room and close my eyes. I can’t rewind time, but I can replay this moment over and over and over again. Again, again, Damien. Again. It’s faint, but I can still hear her voice. Thank God, I can still hear her voice.
One day, while I was at school, it would have been second grade with Mrs. Melody, Mammy took little Davante on a trip with her. He was just two years old and she would have been carrying him in her arms. Along the grassy edge of I-75, a driver veered off the exit ramp, grinding into the pavement and nose-diving into a ditch. The driver of the four-door Sedan, the newspaper article read, was killed on impact. Mammy and Davante weren’t that lucky.
When I climbed out of the school bus that day there were two policemen and a lady wearing a nice pink turtleneck standing on the corner at my bus stop. They knew my name and they put me in a car with them.
I never saw Mammy or Davante again.
The foster care system regurgitated me like cow cud. Apparently for me it was eleven strikes and you’re out. I struck out at age 14. Dad leaving I could handle, I did handle it. We didn’t want him in our house anyway, with his screaming and his broken bottles. I was my mom’s hero. My little man, she’d call me, holding my face between her hands. I was going to rescue her one day. I knew it. Now she was dead. And how could I rescue her from that?
I coiled up sour emotions into a tightly wound ball that I stuffed down my throat and choked myself silent with. At some point, it all came up.
I’d gotten away with pulling out foster moms’ hair in thick chunks, I’d half drowned a hamster named Tito, I’d broke windows, but when my last foster mom came home to the butcher knife draw dumped out on the living room floor, me hashing it out into the drywall, and screaming, my caseworker’s face turned red, and with her back facing me one day in her office, she said we were finished here.
Life became monotonous after that. I discovered I got my way more if I just shut up and smiled and said thank you at least once a week. I’d always planned on being adopted anyways, none of that foster care junk. But when I turned eighteen alone in a government-funded cot, I stopped planning much of anything. I didn’t plan on sleeping on the streets. I just had to get out. One day I felt the urgency creep into my anklebones. My toes tingling, screaming to run, to go anywhere, even though I had nowhere, I had no one to go to. The night I left the agency I put everything I owned into a backpack and didn’t look over my shoulder once as I walked away. I roamed around downtown Bluff City like I had somewhere to be. As if I were really going to some destination. Maybe it was a hotel, or a bus station, or a home. I imagined the crowd around me speculating about who I was, the black man in the black coat with the red socks. Maybe someone thought I was someone, someone like them. I turned corners until 2:30 in the morning until I finally dropped behind some apartment buildings and fell asleep under my coat, my head inches from the cement resting on top of my pack, resting on top of everything I owned. I never planned on being homeless, but I guess in that moment, I realized that that’s exactly what I was going to be.
I also never planned on leaving Memphis, but one day I found myself hitchhiking my way down I-78 in a pickup truck full of horse manure heading to Hot ‘Lanta. I’d started up a conversation about the merit of Marlboros with a grisly baId man in a Sheetz parking lot. We were in a lively debate when out of nowhere he asked if I had anywhere to be and did I want to be in Atlanta. I figured, why the hell not. Memphis was depressing me with its memories. I had no where to be, I had nothing to pack—I climbed into the passenger seat and we took off. No, I didn’t plan on going to Atlanta. I didn’t plan on becoming the mayor of Brighton Bridge either. To hell I sure didn’t, that’s for sure. That one just sort of happened.
Brighton Bridge, for it’s haughty name, was a shit hole, but I saw instantly in it something more. I used to actually tell people that the moment I saw it, I heard the bridge call out my name in a faint whisper. That’s more or less the truth. Wandering beneath was like falling into the rabbit hole: dark, spiraling, yet twistedly and decidedly smooth and lovely. The weather was not promising the night I landed in Atlanta and I thought it looked like a decent place to take cover, so I wandered further and further beneath the bridge. It was dark like a wet bat cavern, and I suddenly became aware that I was stepping on things that shouldn’t be there, wrappers and packaging, bags and—a pizza box? I slid my pack off my shoulder, caught it in between my fingers and let it hit the ground. Something to my right moved, and as my eyes adjusted to the dampness and to the dark, I saw five pairs of eyes looking back at me. I didn’t know it then, but I had wandered into an underground city of colorful castaways, as they preferred to be called: the Brighton Brigade.
In the morning light, I could tell that they did quiet well for themselves. I was shocked actually, and far more impressed than I let show in my eyes. The bridge turned a corner and went at least three tenths of a mile back. It was enough space to build a community in, tin cans and cardboard and the occasional plywood or sheet metal. I found out the total population was at carefully monitored standstill of 24; my fingers were crossed they’d let me make it 25. The community was fascinatingly complete: individual homes forged by camping tents and blue tarps; one family crafted a fence out of hay bales, and I still swear I saw a blue mailbox there that first day. I wandered what return address they would put on their envelopes. Brighton Bridge, third tarp down, the blue one with the duct tape patches. It was a permanent secret community. A gentle array of people with nowhere to go who had all, almost magically, known to go here.
That first day was the day I met Ricardo. A thin forty-something with black wisps for hair smashed under a ball cap. His back was constantly hunched and I wondered if his face ever became sore from smiling. Not everyone was in such high spirits in Brighton, but Ricky, he had a light in him. His two yellowed front teeth protruded from behind his chapped lips. Damien, I said, giving him my hand. He tried repeating my name back to me, but he just kept smiling dumbly and saying something that sounded like Demon. Some might call his ability at English “cocktail party” level, just enough to skirt around having meaningless conversations. I knew that Ricardo had never been to a cocktail party, and probably never would. You can call me Monty, I finally said. I put my pack down next to Ricky’s tarp and when it rained that night, he carved out a space and motioned for me to crawl underneath.
For the first time in a long time I had something to care about. I poured my energy into Brighton, into its people, into its pores. I didn’t have tools, but I turned myself into a repairman. I didn’t know how to cook, but I learned how to turn a fire pit and a can of beans into stew. I learned everyone’s names and implemented a neighborhood watch system that was adequately sophisticated. When general elections were held that Christmas season, it was a blowout. I beat the incumbent, Two-toothed-Sam, with 95 percent of the vote. Two-tooth, a sixty-year old wisecrack dependent on his cane, accepted that his glory days were behind him and mine were maybe, just ahead.
Two-tooth took my hand into his and jerked me down to him until I was close enough to smell his breath. You gon’ take care of these people? He whispered into my ear. I am, I said, pausing to draw back and look him in the eyes when I spoke. He held my hand there between his for several moments, his eyes narrow. Then, as quickly as he’d pulled me down, he let out a sharp laugh and squeezed my hand. Ya got alotta work comin’ boy, he said slapping me on the back. Before he walked away, he flashed me his two-toothed smile and I swear to this day, he winked.
I hinged my whole campaign on the possibility of our future as Bridge Brigadiers. I saw a chance to unite, to seek out other Bridge Brigades and stand up for ourselves as a collective unit, a family with a name. On turned over crates I preached about the chance to not be the “homeless problem,” but to be known as people—moms, and daughters and widowers, and lost immigrants—who happened to not have a home. That’s simply what we were: people lacking homes. And not having a home, that I could deal with, that I could manage, it was a problem I could label and fight to write up possible solutions for. But what I couldn’t stomach were the looks in people’s eyes when they passed me on the pavement.
The fact that no one looked at me, that no one saw me, didn’t dampen my spirits. I saw the defiance of the casual businessman with his briefcase, his calculated coldness and hesitancy to look me in the eye, was a challenge that I enjoyed overcoming. To connect with him, to shake his hand, to make him see my flesh and look into my irises was a daily goal for me. Any connection made, any conversation started was marked in a small mental checklist of wins. But to others, being ignored by the masses was like having a rubber stamp smashed on their forehead day after day until the ink burned like a hot iron brand that read not human; not worth it; not there; waste of space.
Ricky struggled the most bringing home food. People on the street gave him more attention, because of his curved spine and his authentic smile, but it rarely went past freak show speculation. By the time anyone got close enough to touch him, they set their gaze sternly ahead, held their breath and scampered past. His Salvadorian accent with thick and crawled into your ear slowly, making it difficult to understand anything he said. I often shared my scraps with him and he shared his wisdom about Brighton, acquired after nine long years of residence beneath the bridge. By the time he warned me not to get involved with Marella, it was too late.
I met Marella, oddly enough, outside the Atlanta aquarium. She was pretending to be protesting the abuse of Beluga whales but was really slipping her name and number into the back pockets of any male who hold his gaze with her long enough to be suggestive. She was slender with a tiny waist and hair cropped at her neck like a fairy. I didn’t know she was a hooker, and I didn’t know she was Stag’s old girl. And what I didn’t know, did hurt me.
I had brought her back to Brighton three times before Stag found out. He was the elected Sheriff of Brighton, elected for his brute strength and intimidating brow bone, his skin so many shades darker than mine he could slip into alleys at night and disintegrate. The fourth time I came home with Marella on my arm, Stag was six bottles deep. He smashed my face into a wall and threw me out into the road. I was lucky to see Marella’s thin figure slip away and get out of his sight, and I was lucky Stag didn’t pull his gun. I left right then. Ricardo wasn’t under his tarp to see the mess that night, which I was glad for. But still, I hate that we didn’t get to say goodbye.
It’s been nine weeks now and for all it’s worth, Brighton’s behind me. It was a nice run, señor Monty, I imagine Ricky saying through the gap in his teeth. I can’t go back. I can’t risk it. Stag’s too irrational and a shoot out would only rally the Atlanta PD, drawing unwanted attention to our life beneath the bridge. I say our life intentionally, with fondness, because a part of me still lingers there. Sometimes I imagine what it’d be like to go back. Reclaiming Pride Rock like Simba of the valley. It’s a dream that pries my heavy eyelids open in the mornings. If Davante were still here he’d be 16 years old. Sometimes I imagine teaching him things he’d need to learn from me: how to pump gas, how to get what you need and how to understand sloppy Spanglish. Behind closed eyes, I see Davante in diapers, babbling and crawling toward me on the carpet. Time froze him there, but I imagine him at 16 strong and steady with warm eyes. Picturing him alive gets me up some mornings. Some mornings it presses me further down.
Maybe I will go back to Brighton someday. Maybe I won’t. For now, I’ll sleep on park benches and dream. For now, I’ll wake up on the ground, small burn marks on my coat sleeve, dirt clinging to my tongue.
The Center for Writing Excellence is pleased to announce our fourth Annual Summer Writing Institute!