"You don't know who Jon Bon Jovi is!?" This came from Izaak, the 7-year-old kid standing in front of me, wearing a leather jacket with a big "Jon Bon Jovi" spread across the back.
I had, of course, in my ignorance, dared to ask him, "Who is Jon Bon Jovi?"
We are all standing in line, awaiting our release from our second grade classroom, into the open embrace of recess. I look at Izaak who has only half way turned around to give me the same face the Fonz would use to tell someone, "hey, it's cool, I'm cool enough for the two of us."
Izaak is cool enough for the two of us. He is a certifiable badass. This kid knows everything that is cool. He's slick with the ladies. He can always win those toys from the stupid claw machines at the video arcade. Every. Freaking. Time. Sometimes we go to the video arcade at the mall just so he can prove it.
So, I'm standing there, turning red with embarrassment that I don't have a clue who this Bon Jovi guy is and Izaak saves me. He leans in and whispers, "he's a singer, man."
"Oh. Oh, yeah, I knew that." I'm such a smart-ass. Izaak shakes his head, totally not falling for my ruse. "You going to Mike's birthday party tonight?"
"Yes I am." He says and then he throws his hands into the air in a badass biker style "ROCK" just as the bell rings. For a split second it looks like he made the bells ring just by throwing his arms up and giving the signal. I marvel until the vanishing line catches up with my position.
Children pour out into the play yard like a bag full of marbles spilling out onto the floor. Direction is meaningless. Vectors change based only on the terrain. Individuals coalesce into groups, arbitrarily merged based on location, rather than social status. The hordes of children indulge only in fun.
Mike's birthday party that night begins at Angelo's Pizza. There are about eight of us running amuck, pizza in one hand and a fistful of quarters for the video games in the other. Several very large pizza's are quickly devoured. My stack of quarters lasts me about fifteen minutes. Some other kids have more and I watch as they play. Izaak has been playing for over thirty minutes on the quarter he borrowed from Mike. Badass. Within the hour, all the quarters are gone and Izaak has killed the game. This place is spent. But the night is still young. The party continues at Mike's house, where we will all slumber over, living the fort-building, pillow-fighting, video-game addicted paradise.
When we get to Mike's house, I look around at all my cohorts and something isn't right. "Where's Izaak?"
Mike shrugs, "I don't know... I think he had to take off or something."
"Man that sucks." I'm a little hurt. How could he ditch out on the best part. A sleepover! That's just crazy. I'm sad for a brief moment but little boys with their toys and games are easily distracted and fooled. We all forget about Izaak.
The next morning, my mother picks me up and she asks me how it went. "Oh, we made this awesome fort and played video games and ate lots of junk food and it was fun. I wish Izaak was there. Do you know why he didn't come?"
My mother stares out the window of the car as we drive away. She looks unusually distant. "I drove Izaak home last night from the pizza place." Then she looks at me with a pained expression like she is about to cry.
"Why, what happened?" I'm scared for Izaak. Did he get injured or something? Did he have some kind of emergency?
"Mike's mother told me she didn't want him there because Izaak is black." She looks at me. I'm at a total loss for words. "She said, I don't want that negro boy staying at my house with my son. That's what she told me. So I took Izaak and I drove him home and I explained it to his parents.... I'm so sorry." She turns back to the road.
"Mom! Why didn't you tell me? Why did you let me go there? I wouldn't have gone if I knew that." I start to get angry, brooding with my arms folded tight.
"I'm sorry, I should have told you. I regret not telling you."
I can't stay mad at my mother. I stare out the window and I imagine that I am Izaak, sitting here in the passenger seat, being driven home from the party. Did he cry? I wonder, did this happen to him a lot? I had no idea someone would ever do something like that to him. Why? WTF? Why?
Fuck. Now I'm fighting the tears just remembering this shit. And yes, ninjas do cry, but it only happens when a ninja relives some of the tragic memories that eventually combined to create the need to become Ninja. I can still choke a Jabberwock with my pinky.
Izaak just keeps cool. On Monday, in class, he just shruggs like the Fonz when Mike and the others ask him what happened to him. "Hey, I just had to go, you know." Izaak didn't miss a beat. Mike doesn't even know his own mother is a racist bitch.
I look around the classroom. Tiffany has red hair. Brian's hair is black. I have extreme blue eyes, about which the teacher makes frequent creepy comments. I'm the only one in the class with eyes this blue. Tiffany is the only one with red hair. Izaak has really dark skin. It's darker than peter's and in a different way. Everyone's hair is different. Everyone's eyes are different. Our noses are different, our chins, our height, the size of our hands. Everyone has a different skin tone. The only thing we see in each other is difference. And difference is cool.
This classroom is full of hippie children. Most of our parents were hippies. Some still are. We live in a little town full of natural food stores and local bars where everybody knows your name. In this town of monotonous living, conformity is tantamount to wearing a shirt that says 'Dull'. So we all look at each other for the differences that make us cool, all trying not to blend in with anyone else. Until we get around to learning about discrimination in school, none of us has any idea the world is full of such things. Sure, we notice we are all different but by what scale could we even dare to label any of these traits better than others? The only thing that matters is that you know who the fuck Jon Bon Jovi is. That's definitive.
Many years later, I'm about 15 years old now, and I'm at the grocery store getting a bunch of stuff for my mom. When it's my turn in line, I unload a full cart of food onto the conveyor belt and when I look up, I recognize the woman at the register. It's Mike's mom. She's older but she still looks the same. I remember Izaak and as I think about him, recognition dawns in her face too. She knows who I am. She knows I was friends with both her son and with Izaak. I think about screaming at her or just casually asking her what it's like to hate people like Izaak for such stupid reasons. I look behind me and see that the line is long. Everyone is waiting for my heap of goods to be purchased so they can take my place and interact with this woman.
No, not this woman. I look at the ground and lick my lips, clenching my fists, ready to bash her face in while she's calmly beep-beeping my groceries. I look up at her and slowly shake my head. I can't do this. I can't make this transaction.
I leave. I just walk out. The pile of groceries sits on the conveyor belt and yields to no one. She doesn't say anything. I know as I leave the store that she is just staring at my back and she knows exactly why. It's not much resolution but at 15, I am not yet a ninja. I'm still just a little boy who doesn't understand the world. Not even a little.
Damn. That was the saddest stroll down memory lane I've taken in a while. I'm getting all of these memories written so I can remember them when I'm old and so my daughter can have an idea what the world was like when I was a kid. I had forgotten when I started this project that so many of the memories that stuck are pretty shitty. I've got a million more. But that's why I eventually cracked and became Ninja. Time for something to laugh at. This seems relevant: