Part 13: You’re Now About To Witness The Strength Of Street Knowledge

Even when it’s hit single brief and 45rpm fast, teenage summer is still too fucking slow. Slow enough to build something in you— not a rage, but a serious bumming out, with flashes of anger (usually around 2pm) at your parents for living and breeding in the suburbs where nothing ever happens. You could have gotten a summer job, but your last was for a man who kept telling you how much he hated modern gospel music and all its heathen instruments (Lucifer was in charge of the choir, you know) while stroking your shoulders as you typed, and telling you when to use a capital T. You’re smack in the middle of the I’m so smart so why is the world so stupid years and goddamn it, if utter cycnism isn’t proof that at 17 you’re already passed it all, grown up as much as you’re going to grow, and lost all faith in this stupid fucking piece of shit world that thank God the politburo will blow up by 1999, because no, the Russians do not love their children too. Bowie said we had five years. Maybe you could jerk off. Or rewind that side of the cassette with Guns N’ Roses, except you wince every time they say nigger and faggot.
 
The TV in your head tells you that every 17 year old who is sneaking a cigarette from their father at this very moment is thinking this very thing. Summer. Sit, watch TV, push the volume up on your older brother’s walkman, and wait for your life to change, or at least the newest Madonna video on WTBS. You wish your little brother would piss you off and make you angry. He never does it when you need to fucking explode. You are so over it. Your home in the middle of a neighborhood of one driveway two cars, one driveway two cars, one driveway two cars all the way down to the school you used to go to. No friends. Taking two buses to get to the next X-men comic. Issue 200 with Magneto on the cover. Waiting for the Batman movie to open. Playing Club Nouveau over and over because you want something real and Jamaican radio has stopped rocking to play that fucking Silent Morning wop/cabbage patch fuckery all summer. Back at school that was your rep. The one that cussed too much. Mouth too filthy to be a real nerd.
 
So anyway, Summer. You’ve heard this song before. One week of euphoria that school’s out followed by ten weeks of dealing with everything else being out too. You’re the rare boy who looks forward to holidays being over. You always did—all your friends, all your songs, all your comic trades came from school. All your hell as well but that’s usually a different story. By August, you’re missing the same school that backed you into days where you wished just once you could find your policemother’s gun. On TV in America, a postman whipped out a machine gun in the office he was fired from and laid the entire floor to waste. You think about grade eleven and realize that yeah, death is terrible, such a shocking waste, condolences to all and sundry but, sweet Jesus you have been that mad. So much so that when one of your intimate bullies dies, his side of the car wrapped like a fresh coil around a jeep driven by a drunk, you didn’t feel happy exactly, but there was a bounce in your step once you knew he was not coming up behind you. And when you saw his friends/your enemies cry, you dip your head and fake remorse like a come-on, all the while wondering if that’s how you got pretty girls to allow your head in their laps.
 
So anyway, summer. In your bedroom. Reading Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and drawing comics with poses that came out of Hustler and Penthouse. How do these heroes fight with genitals anyway? Summer, which in Jamaica is no different from spring, autumn, or winter. You wish there were seasons. Michael Jackson’s Thriller was so long ago, and the word is Prince is a satanic faggot, so trench coats are no longer the thing. The preacher would say you need a purpose. Your mother would say you need to not be so idle. You know that you just need that one thing to stop yourself from acting crazy.
 
So you jump on your bicycle and ride miles further than you’ve ever gone, ignoring how unease with the unknown always yanked you back into place. That’s almost it, except the further you go, the more like country the scenery gets. You go through your brother’s cassettes and put on Beastie Boys because that’s almost it. Your brother, who stopped listening to rap as soon as B-boys stopped being cool. You want to push and be pushed, rock and be rocked. You feel something needing to come out but only if you knew what it was. And LL Cool J just hopped up saying he’s bad, but you head’s racing faster than he’s rapping and they call me ‘Jaws,’ my hat is like a shark’s fin, is… just… too… damn… slow. Fuck big beat, rap is crap.
 
Locked in your bedroom in the summer of ’88, you enter college not knowing some earthquakes happened while you were asleep. You stopped fucking with rap around the time same old LL got lost in a big ol butt. But in New York they killed a black boy named Yusuf Hawkins, and LL got booed from the stage. He was old and so was your older brother. Still in a Kangol, pretending that Run DMC’s Tougher Than Leather didn’t suck, still waiting for breakdancing to come back. You are on the hunt in your new friends’ record collections, for something that races faster than you can think, darker than you can fear and bursting with something that every teenager knows but none can describe. Your new friend, whom you met before at a party where everybody was drinking, dancing or fucking but you, shoves a cassette in the car deck. In seven seconds your head explodes.
 
You’re Now About To Witness The Strength Of Street Knowledge. A warning and a promise. Drums detonate and somebody shouts get up!—but how the fuck does one get up with drums, beating down Bonham style on your fucking chest? Straight outa Compton, crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube, from a gang called Niggaz with attitude. Your head does a jack move on your own body. Your palm bangs a beat on the dashboard. You too boy if you fuck with me. The police are gonna have to come and get me Off yo ass, that’s how I’m going out. You don’t even notice that it’s not your hands banging the dashboard it’s your head. How did they know that all you wanted was to say Motherfucker Motherfucker Motherfucker Motherfucker Motherfucker all day long? You think you’ve had enough but then somebody shouts Fuck the police and a muscle jumps, not the heart something else, something that never jumped before. Who gave them permission to say that? Is this how it sounds going too far?
 
You take the cassette home, the home of your police mother, and slip it into your walkman. Boom-bap bursts between both eardrums. You’re in the living room with the cop mom watching news, and Fuck the Police comes on again. Okay it didn’t come on, you rewinded it for the fourth time. You whisper “fuck” but shout “the police,” not because you want a rise out of her, but because it’s now a nasty in-joke with your own head. Have you never heard fuck before? Motherfucker? This is the it, the grand response to everything. Fuck the summer, fuck the loneliness, fuck the parent, fuck the world, fuck the school, fuck like a beast? No. Heavy Metal was never this heavy. The court finds you guilty of being a redneck whitebread chickenshit motherfucker. The Amen break, the unholy beat teaches you how to walk. Gangsta Gangsta teaches you how to sit, hanging off in a gangster lean. Easy E didn’t dodge the police so you no longer dodge stupid motherfuckers. And everybody is a motherfucker. Everything is a motherfucker. Your father is a motherfucker. This stupid college is a motherfucker. And in your head at least you’ve gone gangsta and blown away every asshole you’ve ever known, quiet as it’s kept. You’ve got a voice in your mouth now, son. Express yourself.

 

 


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Marlon James

About the Author

Marlon James was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1970. He is the winner of the 2015 Man Booker award for his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. His first novel, John Crow's Devil (Akashic Books, 2005) was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and was a New York Times Editors' Choice. The novel was published in the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy in 2008. His second novel, The Book of Night Women (Riverhead 2009), won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, The NAACP Image Award, and The Minnesota Book Award, and was New York Magazine's third best book of the year. Marlon was Go On Girl! Book Club's 2012 Author of the year.
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Marlon James