Photo by Paul Price
“The illest niggas in New York City live in Brooklyn,” my homeboy home LaRoc used to say, and in the summer of ’86, when we both dwelled in the hell that was the Brooklyn Arms Hotel, nothing could’ve been more true. More than two decades later, the building itself, which was directly across the street from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, has been demolished and turned into a parking lot. Going to see it the night before, a part of me wishes I could’ve pissed into the rubble, or at least watched the workers trucking away those broken bricks that contained so many ghosts from that bleak time.
Often I dream about that gloomy sixteen-story building. That towering welfare hotel, where my family was dumped when we had nothing, still looms in my imagination, an eternal monument to those desolate days. Waking suddenly, sweating profusely and breathing hard, I’d gulp some water and spend the rest of the night staring at the ceiling, remembering the time.
For years we’d lived in Queensbridge Projects. QB or Da Bridge, we called it. At fifteen, I was the oldest of three kids with my kid brother Eugene, two years younger than me, and six-year-old baby sister. On top of the TV, inside a cheap gold frame, was a picture of mom. Taken when she was in high school, her skin was the color of chestnuts and kinky Chaka Khan hair flowed down her back. That was in 1971; nine months later I was born.
I had a cool childhood, but sometime in early 1985 mom duke started messing with some dude named Rico, smoking that stuff when she should’ve been working, and within months, things started to fall apart. Bills went unpaid, food was lacking and it wasn’t long before the city padlocked the door.
You know you done fucked-up when you get evicted from the pj’s. The Housing Authority gave us an hour to take what we wanted. As we packed, nosy neighbors peeked into the apartment. Whenever anybody asked what happened, I’d stare them coldly in the eyes and reply, “Crack happened.”
We shamefully threw pieces of our lives into black bags. My own bags were stuffed with clothes, Batman comics and a shoebox full of rhyme books I’d been scribbling in since I was ten. Before our fall, I had Run-DMC and Just-Ice posters on the wall. Calling myself K.C. Boogie, I taped Mr. Magic and Red Alert every week and rapped hard in the bathroom mirror.
Shuffling through the doorway of the Brooklyn Arms, we walked across the dirty marble floor towards the rickety elevators dragging the trash bags. Overhead, a chandelier hung from the ceiling looking like a giant teardrop. The stench of garbage simmered from the overflowing trash bins, wafting through the hallway. I held my breath to keep from vomiting.
If the outside temperature was eighty degrees, inside the building it was a hundred and fifty. Two noisy stand-up fans, their blades covered with dust, circulated the foul air throughout the small reception area and offices. In the corner was a battered payphone. There were three old elevators, but only one was working, moving slowly upwards towards our room on the tenth floor.
In the long, dark corridor, the oily brown walls looked as though they were smeared with shit. From behind the doors I heard the wails of crying babies, grunting sex sounds, television theme songs, couples arguing in Spanish and playful children laughing. A few doors cracked open as the silent greeting committee glared. Black faces, white faces, yellow faces, a melting pot of sullen, sad-eyed faces warning us with their eyes. “Get out while you can.”
Looking as though she was sleepwalking, my mother finally opened the door. After we were settled, my brother and baby sister sat on the bed holding hands. There were only three beds in the room, which meant my sister and mom would sleep together. In the corner was a rusty radiator and in the middle of the floor, there were dried bloodstains.
Our first night at Brooklyn Arms, a giant rat ran beneath the door. On the second day, some Fila sweatsuit-wearing clowns jumped me in the lobby while a few feet away a tubby kid with a JVC boombox blared L.L. Cool J’s “Radio.” Minutes later the fat kid screamed, “Enough already! You motherfuckers trying to kill him.” As though the voice of God screamed through the chaos, the boys stopped beating me.
Without waiting for me to thank him, Boombox Boy broke out. Boombox Boy—that would make a dope hood superhero, I thought. Later, when my savior turned out to be LaRoc, I told him my idea for Boom Box Boy, and he laughed so hard grape soda squirted through his nose. “You bugged out, man” he said, wiping his face.
After only a week, my mother had become popular with the trife life crack head crew. Nappy-haired dudes were knocking on the door at all hours of the night. Dealers was askin’ her to test their product. Unlike other fiends who flocked inside “the Broken Arms,” mom had managed to retain some of her fineness and all of her teeth, which I suppose made her a hot commodity.
While she slipped out in the hallway, creeping in the shadows, I was left with the kids. Finally, a few hours later, she would come back looking bugged-eyed and crazy as she threw herself across the bed. “I can’t take this shit anymore,” I screamed. She stared at me, but no words came out of her mouth. “I’m surprised B.C.W. ain’t already taken the kids, but I swear this shit has got to end.”
Telling a crackhead it’s got to end is like telling a pigeon not to shit on the window ledge, but I had to say something. Instead of arguing back, mom simply sat up on the bed, stared at me with glassy eyes and started crying. I grabbed my notebook from the bed, ran out the door and fled down the stairs.
The cinderblock walls were painted an ugly gray and covered with graffiti; hundreds of names and crude drawings were scrawled in black markers while the stink of piss hung in the air like an invisible cloud. In my pocket was a crisp twenty-dollar bill my grandma gave me a week before for my birthday. I promised that I’d keep it a secret from my mother.
Reaching the ground floor, I crashed through the door and slammed right into the fat kid carrying his radio. Boombox Boy, with his oversized sound machine blasting Cut Master D.C.’s “Brooklyn in the House.” Still, holding the radio in his right hand, he picked up my dropped notebook and handed it to me.
“Slow down, duke,” he said. I looked him up and down, taking in his color coordinated blue outfit and spotless white Nikes. His hair was cut short, faded on the sides, and looked as though it was trimmed a few hours before. He wore a pair of Cazal shades and a gold nameplate that read LaRoc.
“Where the fuck you going so fast?” The boy looked at me and started laughing. Putting the radio on the floor, he extended his right hand. “I’m Stacy Grant, but people call me LaRoc. Don’t know what mom’s was thinking about, givin’ me a bitch name like Stacy.”
“Like Scott LaRock?” I asked.
“Except without the K,” he replied, poking at his chain. “No K.”
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “I’m Kyle, man. Kyle Cooper.”
“Yo, dude, you gonna have to speak up. Ain’t no mushmouthin’ round here.” He had a hard Brooklyn accent that was warm and welcoming. Unlike the other boisterous boys he didn’t seem angry with the world. “Just chill, man.” Nodding his head towards my notebook, he asked, “You in summer school or something?”
“Naw, man, I write rhymes and things.” He nodded his approval.
“What you call yourself?”
“K.C. Boogie?” He laughed. “What happened, you got rid of the Sunshine Band? Naw, that name is corny. From now on, you Kool Kyle—Kool with a K.” He looked me up and down, shook his head approvingly. “Yeah, Kool Kyle, that’s the joint. Remember this day, because you have just been reborn.”
“You helped me out the other day, thanks, man. Them dudes was tryin’ to fuck me up.”
“They wasn’t trying, they was fucking you up.” At first his snap made me pause, but before I knew it we both laughed. For the first time in months, I was laughing.
“Why them guys so scared of you?”
“They ain’t scared of me; they scared of my brother Benz. I’m a fighter, but my brother is crazy. He one of them don’t give a fuck dudes. He runs most of the crack and coke in this spot. Me, I ain’t living like that. Naw, I’m into music, man. DJ LaRoc.”
“Now, that’s what’s up,” I exclaimed. “That’s my thing all day every day.”
“I spin a little, make tapes and shit. Trying to get into making beats, that kind of thing. Got some turntables up in my room I be practicin’ with. I ain’t no Grandmaster Flash or nothing, but I’m getting there.”
“How you got turntables and these fiends ain’t stole ’em yet?
“Shit, I done told you, my brother is the man ‘round here. They be better off stealing from Jesus; at least he forgives.” He laughed loudly. “You smoke, man. Wanna go puff?” For a second I stood there, silent, not sure how to answer. It wasn’t always wise to get too friendly too quick. Of course I wanted to puff, but I didn’t want dude acting like I owed him nothing.
As though reading my mind, LaRoc said, “Don’t worry, man, ain’t nothing going to happen to you. I got your back.”
Many of the people who lived in the Brooklyn Arms never seemed to leave the surrounding area. Talkative mothers stood with strollers outside the hotel puffing on Newports, the butts collecting at their feet like mutant flowers as they chatted for hours.
Standing in front of the streetlamp on Ashland Place was a cold faced dude wearing a dookie gold chain, sharply creased black jeans, black Puma sneakers with thick red laces and a black baseball cap turned backwards. Dude stared at me without blinking until, finally noticing LaRoc, he smiled slightly.
“What up little brother,” the guy said. Standing in front of him, I noticed the Mercedes Benz logo on his cap. “Who you runnin’ with here? He look like somebody I know.”
“He’s a new jack. Calls himself Kool Kyle; he’s a rapper.” LaRoc said things with such authority you believed him, no matter how silly it sounded. “This is my brother I was telling you about.”
Benz nodded his chin towards me. “What up,” he sneered. “Where you little bastards headed?”
“Got a phat sack of good-good from the weed spot earlier. Goin’ get some Phillies, head over to the park and spark this shit.”
“You know, that’s where we be buryin’ bodies,” Benz said. “Ya’ll be cool over there. Any of them Fort Greene project fools step to you, you tell’em Benz your brother and I’m down with Supreme. They gonna recognize.”
In the park, me and LaRoc sat on the gray stairs, out the view of po-po, and exchanged stories. As we shared a forty-ounce of Olde English and puffed two blunts, LaRoc told me his mom had moved to an apartment in the Bronx, but he chose to stay on his own at the hotel. “Benz gives the owners loot to do his dirt and they don’t say jack. As long as they get theirs, they happy.”
By the time we left the park a couple of hours later, me and LaRoc agreed to collaborate on some music. After sharing my rhyme book with him and spittin’ a Buddha blunt influenced freestyle, he was the first person I trusted who gave me props.
Coming from Wycoff Projects, he thought of himself as the King of Brooklyn. For the rest of the day we roamed the streets, hanging out at Wendy’s in Albee Square Mall and, afterwards, walking over to Beat Street Records where the DJ was spinning Joeski Love’s “Pee-Wee’s Dance.”
“You like this song?” I asked LaRoc.
“It’s alright. The track is dope, but the lyrics are trash.”
“It’s a fun song?”
“Fuck fun, I like my rap to be hard, to have vision. You know, “The Message,” “Beat Bop,” “South Bronx,” that kind of stuff. The real, the grit, not just some shit about a dance.”
Joeski faded as “Eric B. Is President” was mixed in. LaRoc began bopping his neck to the funk. “Now, this is what I’m talking about. This is the kind of stuff that inspires me to go in the lab and make some dopeness.”
Within days we set off on a journey into sound. LaRoc’s room at the Brooklyn Arms was on the top floor. Old soul album covers covered the walls and his prized Technics 1200s were set up in the corner. In addition to refining his own dirty sound, sampling the drums from the Super Fly soundtrack and combining it with a James Brown jungle boogie bassline, he helped me craft my first serious song “Broken Arms,” a track about the bleakness of our humble abode.
With my brother taking care of our sister while moms continued beaming up, me and LaRoc spent hours practicing. “Just speak the truth,” LaRoc encouraged. “As long as you speakin’ the truth, can’t nobody tell you nothing.”
One humid August afternoon I went to his room and found it in complete disarray. In the corner, the turntables were in pieces and broken records littered the floor. He sat on the bed, too angry to cry, too stunned to be sad.
“What the hell happened?” LaRoc looked at me and shook his head. “My brother Benz owe these fools some money, but ain’t nobody seen him in over a week. These niggas gettin’ agitated and they want their money. They can’t find him, so they taking it out on me. Nigga not only skipped town with Supreme’s green, but also his bitch.”
A few hours passed, and there was still no sign of big brother. LaRoc jumped each time the elevator creaked open, each time he heard footsteps in the hall. “I gotta get out of dodge,” he said as he quickly packed a bag. Within minutes we hit the street, hurrying towards the Atlantic Avenue subway station.
Suddenly, everything became a dreamscape as a red ride screeched around the corner. Two dapper dudes leapt from the car, slammed their doors and ran towards us carrying nines. The shelter residents began to scatter, pushing baby carriages into the building and screaming for their badass children to get out the street. As they got closer, the thugs leveled their guns towards LaRoc, and one of them yelled in a Spanish accent, “Blame your brother Benz for this.”
Seconds later, they opened fire. The shooting seemed to go on forever as flames erupted from the barrels. Screaming loudly, bullets ripped through LaRoc’s flesh as his body shook wildly, but still he refused to fall. As I ran in the opposite direction, droplets of blood splattered on my forehead like a sloppy kiss.
When LaRoc finally collapsed, the men dashed back to their ride as I ran over to comfort my friend. Weeping softly, LaRoc took his final breaths as sirens screamed in the distance.
For days, my hands felt sticky with his blood. For days, splashes of LaRoc’s blood remained splattered on the street, serving as a constant reminder that, as my grandmother used to say, tomorrow ain’t never promised.” For days, I sat in LaRoc’s old room, salvaging his sounds and packing away his cassettes. For days, I sulked and cried as I answered questions from the police, caseworkers and news reporters.
After a week, I finally made up my mind, kissed my brother and sister goodbye and fled into the darkness of New York City carrying nothing except a plastic bodega bag containing my rhyme book, a bunch of my homeboy’s beat tapes and the belief, as instilled by LaRoc, that one day I was going to make it. Forget about simply livin’ large, my goal was to be a lyrical giant spitting the truth.
Bio: Michael A. Gonzales is a native New Yorker who has written about rap music since the 1980s. In 1991 his co-authored book Bring the Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture was published. His work has appeared in The Source, Vibe, Rappages, XXL, New York and Wax Poetics His fiction has appeared in several print and online publications including The Root.com, Bronx Biannual, Dark Mask edited by Gary Phillips and Black Pulp. His newest story “Graffiti City” will be published in SOLEDAD #2.