1. Jersey Strong
Jersey. The state and its people bring a lot of things to mind. When you think of Jerseyans, you might think of loud, brash people in leopard-skin clothing with red-painted lips and big hair. If that’s what you picture: you’re absolutely right. No shade to Jersey, but there’s a reason why The Sopranos and Jersey Shore were big-assed hits. We a mess. Whether you’re Black, brown, white, or in between, we’re gonna meet you at our closest Wawa, cop a hoagie, get that extra red sauce on the side at that I-talian place, drive “down the shore” just so we can yell at someone to drive properly, but not before yelling at someone else to not fuck up our sneakers. (Dude, they brand-new.) Jerseyites are a yelly people. Get used to it. We’re also the state with the most diners per capita and we’re the spot where that jackass Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton, kicking off a whole musical and a bunch of other shit.
There are a few states that feel like a nationality. Jersey is one of them. We’re supposed to be the Garden State, but “Fuggedaboutit!” is really the people’s slogan, and never mind my position as to where the Statue of Liberty really resides. (It’s in Jersey, bitches!) I was born in North Jersey, raised in Central Jersey, and spent my last year in South Jersey, right outside of Philly. Shit, I’ve seen it all! I’m like the Jersey Khaleesi, but my Drogo was a guy from Trenton who wore a Naughty by Nature T-shirt with Karl Kani jeans. No matter where I lived in the Dirty Jerz, my neighborhood was always predominantly Italians and Irish. If you were Polish, then you were exotic. I mean, so many letters in your last name—how does it even fit on an ID? There was also a smattering of Chinese, Indian, and Arab families, but they mostly stuck together. Samesies for the Black folks. Then there was my family. The light-skinned Caribbean folks all willy-nilly on the wrong side of the tracks having it out with the Italians and Irish just trying to make shit work. It did not work. We were always the odd men out. We were the light-skinned family no one could quite put a finger on. We were the white sheep, with weird accents, exotic food, and loud music no one’s ever heard of. We were the “Bob Marley Family” because that’s the closest thing anyone could compare us to. Yes, you got that right. My childhood was all “No Woman, No Cry” whether I liked it or not. Here’s a typical rundown of an interaction from my childhood with another Jerseyan:
They: What are you?
They: Are you Black?
Me: Yes, that okay?
They: What do you consider yourself?
They: Who’s white in your family though?
Me: Who sent you, Hitler?
I don’t know why everyone in Jersey becomes a representative for 23andMe when it comes to a light-skinned face that doesn’t speak Spanish. But they sure do. If you’re a light-skinned Black person that’s not Puerto Rican people lose their gahtdamn minds. If someone speaks Spanish to you and you say, “Sorry, I don’t speak Spanish,” they look at you like they just met a short guy whose license says he’s six foot four. I would tell people I was Jamaican and Haitian, and they would looked confused as fuck. There was even that time when somebody said to me, “Well, then, shouldn’t you be darker with a basket of fruit on your head?” And that was my guidance counselor—bitch, please. The parents of my friends would say shit like, “But you don’t look Jamaican or Haitian.” Really? Have you been there? No? Then shut up.
My father was born and raised in Les Cayes, Haiti. His mother raised him with her sisters. She was a twin. She had brown skin, and her sisters had dark skin. My grandma had had a relationship with a man; those are the only details I know. Shit, I don’t even know if my dad has a birth certificate. But my grandma got pregnant, and legend has it (please don’t get me started on deep-rooted Caribbean-family secrets) they couldn’t be together because she had darker skin than him. So she just went off and did her thing and raised my dad. His father went off and married someone with light skin and had a whole other family. The resemblance between the two families is frightening. In the case of the Haitian doctor and the nurse?! Yes, you are the son! Evidence? Just look in the fucken’ mirror! My father never grew up with a dad, yet he was a pretty great dad for me growing up. I mean, yeah, he’s batshit crazy and hot-tempered, but he’s human as fuck.
My grandfather had a lot of children, kind of like a Mormon dude but without the compound. So it’s hard to say how many people I am actually related to. To give you an example of how this plays out, my friends will have strangers slide into their DMs to say “u cute” or “u up?” But for me, strangers slide into my DMs to be like: “I think we’re cousins? No, really, I think we’re related.” Holidays are always so easy! JK. LOLz. They’re not. My mother is from Jamaica and has four brothers between her two parents. Truly, she’s a loyal sister and a selfless wife. She’s also a pretty solid mom, except for her snooping problem. Momsies is like a real-life CSI, wearing blazers, crunching numbers, inspecting the suspicious toothpaste left around the sink, and reading my diary. Yep, I had a diary when I was ten, and she read that shit and then chicken-breast grilled me on it. She was like, “Why didn’t you tell me you have a crush on a guy named Russell?” That’s why, to this day, I can’t remember shit and I never write anything down. (Because what you don’t remember, you don’t really know. Just ask that white girl from Homeland.) If I had to diagnose it, I’d say I have Jamaican-mom PTSD. Whenever I hear my little firecracker of a mom coming around any corner (even now) starting in with that disapproving accent, I duck and cover and then point at my sibling, which is weird because I’m an only child. It just goes to show you, deflect and defend is a great domestic policy in my little world. I stand by it. I truly do.
So, back to Jersey. The first house my parents ever owned was a cute, starter-kit home in a blue-collar neighborhood with a sunken living room, sunroom, and one bathroom. If you know me, then you know my dream home is going to have at least five bedrooms and twenty-seven bathrooms. Having so many toilets that no one in the house knows what kind of day you’ve had? Now, that’s a true sign of success. We also had a big backyard and Jah bless my parents, they didn’t know they had purchased a house in a flood zone. Ain’t that cute? My earliest and first childhood memories will forever be around what I call “THE FLOODS.” I remember my neighbor was in her driveway in a canoe rowing down the street like it was another normal day in Jersey. But, hey, that shit looked fun. So I joined in. What other light-skinned girl can say she learned how to swim in her driveway? I don’t know another one. Do you? Well, then we’re probably related. Give her my number.
Our neighbors had a daughter named Jen who is one of my oldest friends; we still keep in touch to this day. Our moms were knocked up at the same time together. Jen was born exactly thirty days before me. So we were destined to be friends. Plus, our moms were probably throwing off some mad pheromones at each other from across the driveways separating our houses. I can only imagine the vortex of juju that created. Seriously, though, ain’t that the real reason people love their neighbors? They go through some real, intense life shit together, like another human being kicking out of your undercarriage to carve out her place in the world. Jen had two older brothers, and I was an only child, and we hung tough. Truth be told, we shared everything like sisters. My dad would take me around the block on the back of his bike. Then he’d come back, take me off, put Jen on the bike, and take her around too. We tried out together for the school play in our Catholic grammar school, and neither of us made the cut. But the nuns felt bad so they put us in some Old Testament production about the beginning of creation. I had to wear a black leotard, and Jen had to wear a white one. I was supposed to play the “darkness,” and she was supposed to play the “light.” It took me years to realize that shit was racist as fuck. When we weren’t at school, we watched movies together like Ya-Ya Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Beaches. Jen was a type of friend on Dawson’s Creek but in real life. Ya know the type. The kind of friend that helps you tuck old clothes into your bed so it looks like you’re still sleeping there, and meanwhile you sneak out. Maybe you head down to the river to throw rocks in it while you walk around and talk about what you’re gonna be when you grow up, maybe stumble across a dead body. Jen was that bish. My OG. My Fisher-Price ride-or-die.
Now, even close friendships have their reasons for shifting into something else. People grow up; they grow apart. It’s normal and even healthy. With Jen, that started with her Madonna collection. She was so obsessed with Madonna. (Not the Catholic one, the one now in her sixties who still rides horses, talks in a British accent, had sex with her trainer, and, oh yeah, sings?) Now look, I had a Michael Jackson obsession too. (And of course that shit has been #canceled. Permanently. Due to the fact that he did those terrible things—yes, he did. Open your eyes, people.) But at the time, my MJ mania felt like just the right amount of childhood, celebrity fangirl-ness without being in the cray-cray zone. Jen’s obsession, though, was next level. You could never say anything sideways about Madonna. She’d get so mad and take it all personal. When she did that, I was always like, “Bish, you think Madonna cares about you?” And I mean, I knew this at, like, five years old.
I knew this adult years later who had a Tweety Bird collection. There were literally Tweety Birds all over her damn apartment. She had Tweety Bird posters, a wallet, Tweety Bird earrings, socks, car trinkets, mugs, et mas. It was wild. And that’s the thing: When someone obsesses like that into adulthood, you’re thinking, Where’s the Tweety Bird kill room? I know she got bodies somewhere around here stuffed into Tweety Bird slankets and surrounded by all this Tweety Bird propaganda. All I could think was, Oh, I knew this was the wrong place to get a flat tire! I’ve seen Misery! I need my kneecaps, huney! With Jen, it was like that. She had that Madonna obsession into her damn forties. I know I’m supposed to be coming from a place of love on this one, but I cannot. Your development has been arrested. In fact, it has been handcuffed and thrown into a pop culture remix of Intervention! If you’re going to complain that no one takes you seriously, you gotta dress for the job that you want, and that might mean leaving your hundred rubber bracelets and lace dress at home! I don’t know why this affects me so much. Making one person your end-all-be-all nationality feels cultish. Jen is so much more than knowing every lyric to every Madonna song ever made, but this is who she is, and I have to love her no matter what. She’s a real one, sister, and daughter, no matter the fuck what. Madonna, if you’re reading this, can you do us all a damn favor and shout out this lovely human being I’ve known for all time so I don’t have to talk about it anymore?
Black to Jersey… my parents and I moved from house to house and eventually ended up in a suburb of Parsippany. The next house I remember was bigger and not that far from the first, but in a better neighborhood because my dad got a promotion. It had a circular driveway, and there were zero kids around to play with. So I learned to play duets on the piano by myself, and I developed a really good imagination because that’s what you do when you’re an only child and your dad moves you to a neighborhood of old-assed white ladies. But at least these Golden Girls got Entenmann’s, so I grabbed a piece of crumb cake to eat on the lanai and made the best of it.
My dad told me his favorite memory of this particular house was listening to me struggle outside as I tried to teach myself how to ride my bike. (Um, here’s an idea… help me, then?) By the time he made it out into the yard to see what I was doing, I had already figured it all out and was pedaling down the block. He is still dead proud of that. I don’t remember this shit at all. Instead, I imagine we had some kind of This Is Us moment where my dad is chasing me down a tree-lined block with one hand on the back of my bike trying to help me find my balance. I eventually get it and ride away, as my dad yells, “You got this, Michelle! Go! That’s it!” That is not how the man does shit at all.
There was this one time when I was about fifteen and my father said to me, “Stop eating pasta in front of your boyfriend, and you should lose twenty pounds because then you’d be so beautiful.”
I stopped right there. I told him off. I said, “I am beautiful no matter what, twenty pounds or not. And if someone is going to love me, they are going to love me for me.”
His look changed immediately and he said, “That’s my girl!”
Uh-huh, yeah, wasn’t there a better way to get that outta me? But that’s my dad. He always had a warped way of showing me I could be strong. When I was seven, he had me follow him around the yard to bag up all the leaves he was cutting off the tree. For each bag I collected, he gave me a dollar, but I was seven and that shit was hard. So I said to him, “Hold up, you’re violating child labor laws, and slow down.” My dad laughed so hard, he still talks about it.
Then there was the time I did some kind of nonsense I can’t remember in the car when I was real young and my dad lost his temper and yelled, “Stupid little bitch!” He felt really bad about it when he calmed down. I know because he gave me this cuckoo clock afterwards. Now to this day, I hate muthafuckin’ cuckoo clocks. As an adult, I had this therapist with a wall full of cuckoo clocks. I kid you not. Our time would be up, and the wall full of cuckoos would “cuckoo-cuckoo” with the little birds popping out of the clocks. I almost burned that place down. It was like in Sleeping with the Enemy when Julia Roberts’s character comes home and sees the damn cans have been, like, OCD rearranged by her psycho ex-husband. But I was the psycho ex, and the cans were the cuckoo clocks, and I was going to ring all their little birdie necks at once while screaming “Red rum!” So run, bitch, run. You see what therapy does? It makes you learn things about yourself. Yep, my dad had a next-level temper. No doubt about it. But he never laid a hand on us. It was mostly just loud and at times a little cuckoo. (See what I did there?)
He also thought really highly of himself, my dad, which I’ve grown to appreciate. I mean, to give you a visual, this man would walk around in a red polo shirt with some curly chest hair popping out of his gold chains like taco meat, some tight-assed white shorts like a pro tennis instructor, a Jheri curl when he didn’t have a full-on Afro, and some black sunglasses. Always black sunglasses. I honestly don’t think I ever saw my dad’s eyes until I was a teenager. I would beg him to take these sunglasses off, at least for school trips, but he never did. I guess it upped my cache, though, because for years the other kids thought he was my security. And when it rained? My dad gave zero fucks. He’d be looking all dapper in a three-piece suit and then he’d straight up put a shower cap on his Afro. I’ve seen this man put a plastic ShopRite bag around his S-curl. It was always the perfect combo of classy and gully. He also speaks eight languages, can cook better than my mom, and can dance like he’s one of those instructors doing a foxtrot into a merengue with a dip on Dancing with the Stars. In his spare time, he made furniture on the side for the house. I don’t know if he is cheap or a Renaissance man, but this is what Haitian dads are like: educated, proud, debonair, next level. He also named me after himself. That’s right. I’m a Jr. I don’t know if that’s because he loves me or he’s bad at remembering names, but I like to think the former. Merci beaucoup, Michel Buteau, je t’aime.
There was this one other time I’ll tell you about regarding my dad. I was six years old and playing kickball with the other kids on the playground at my Catholic school. A quick word on Cathy (short for “Catholic”) school. Everyone thinks they’re sending their kids there to get a better education with some kind of moral direction. But the truth is, Cathy school can be just like public school or worse, and this particular day the playground felt like Orange Is the New Black, season one. It was a tense game of kickball, like really tense. These other six-year-olds were Lord of the Flies aggressive. I had been having a good game and was feeling ready to help bring home the sippy cup. I stepped up to kick the ball when this bully named Scott called me a nigger. He didn’t say it like we were homies, he said that shit like Michael Richards having a bad set at the Laugh Factory. I was so young and so polite that I said, “Thank you!” and ran around the bases. But, full disclosure, I didn’t even know what a nigger was. I had to ask this other little girl that I shared snacks with named Debbie. (I know, I shared my Little Debbie snacks with a little Debbie, bienvenue à Neuva Jersey.) Lil’ Deb told me that it was a “bad Black person.”
When I got home, I told my dad, and he said, “Congratulations, you’re Black. Where’s your lunch box? I’m not buying another lunch box.” Then he helped me with my math homework and that was that. Zero fucks given. Message received.