It was inside Boston Market that my buddy Ortiz explained to me how to get over.
“Get the kids meal with an extra side,” he said. “It’s cheaper that way.”
I laughed — partly because we’d just finished smoking a blunt, and weed always makes me silly, but mainly because between us, we had about $500. I remember because we ended up at Boston Market after we’d missed out on a pack. We got to the spot late, and the plug left. It was light work, enough for us to make a few bucks and have enough left over to smoke. This was right after high school when we hadn’t truly realized the power of our weight, or the danger in our faces, or the violence in our choices.
“Just ’cause you got money,” he told me, “doesn’t mean you have to spend it.”
Ortiz was always doing this, handing me a jewel or a gem. Once when he saw me all cut up over a breakup, he told me to stop calling her and that when she called to answer the phone, act like I didn’t have a care in the world.
“And hang up before her,” he said. “That’s important.”
We would hustle together, if you could call it that. Mostly we sold leftover weed to our friends to have enough to re-up. That is, until I moved. I didn’t hear from Ortiz for years until one day, he called. He said he’d gotten my phone number from a friend of a friend, and he was happy that I was doing well. He laughed at the idea of me holding down a job. And then his voice got serious.
“I hate to ask you this, but I’m doing bad,” he said. “You think you could let me borrow $50?”
Fifty dollars would’ve been nothing to me back in the day, but as a driver for a copy company, I wasn’t making much money. But I could tell from his voice that something wasn’t right.
“Yeah,” I told him, and then gave him my address.
His voice went up a few notes as he said, “Let me see if I can find a ride.”
When he got to my house, I told Ortiz something my dad told me when people used to ask him for money: “Consider this a gift, and if you want to give me a gift of the same amount later, then that’s cool. Otherwise, it’s a gift.”
When I’d ask my dad why he used to give money as gifts, he explained, “I don’t have time to chase people around for money.”
I never heard from Ortiz again.
Years later, I would hear on the news that Ortiz Ola, Weldon Mason and Staci White had been shot dead in an apartment in Capitol Heights, Maryland. Police still don’t know what happened. Their bodies were found after concerned family members went looking for them. I still see Ortiz’s face in the faces of people I walk by. I think about him every time I try to figure out how to make my money stretch.
It’s important to understand that I wasn’t the person I’ve become. I mean, I was until I wasn’t. And then life got hard, and I folded into a person I didn’t know. I began defying my parents, authority, myself and God. I hung out with the wrong people, I was destitute at times, and I talked louder than I needed to because my voice carried a weight that my frame could not. I was a spectacle of Black boldness trying desperately to be seen. Truthfully I was fragile, a broken Kandinsky painting that looked like both chaos and confusion.
People who’ve grown up like I grew up usually don’t see their names on the pages of pristine sites like HuffPost. People like me usually end up strung out, homeless, in jail, or worse. I’m not supposed to be here. I’m amazed at myself. Not that I didn’t put in the work, because I did. But I never thought my life would one day have enough meaning or influence that someone would care. I thought I’d go out like Ortiz. So because I’m here, because I’ve made it, you’ve made it too.
HuffPost Opinion will always be a safe space for voices that often go unheard. It will be the voice of people who’ve often felt marginalized. It will be a sounding board for grievances that need to be addressed and a place where we welcome all of the differences that make us unique. We won’t have the typical white, hetero male-centered editorials that often dominate Opinion spaces. We will share unique voices with creative and fun stories to tell. And we won’t be bound by traditional storytelling. We will be both culturally and politically relevant. We are not bullies, but we will be blunt and to the point. We will be bold. We will be topical. We will be the late 1980s, Mike Tyson before prison and after Cus D’Amato. We will throw punches — always up. We will fight back. We will be brave.
It’s also important to note that I don’t write for myself; I write for all those like me who didn’t make it. I write for the intelligent kids who sat in the back of the auditorium with the wrong kids, hiding their intelligence because smart kids get beat up. I write for Ortiz and all those like him who didn’t get to live long enough to see what we could’ve been. And even though I’m an *adult* adult with two kids, a wife and a mortgage, I still wonder sometimes when I’m standing in Boston Market if I should order a kids meal with an extra side.
I mean, “Just because I have money doesn’t mean I have to spend it.”
But that’s my story. What’s yours?