It was a cold, rainy night when I stood at the ATM last week. All of a sudden it hit me–the smell of urine. I haven’t had to endure the sharp stench of urine for a very long time.
The name ghetto princess whispered through my subconscious like an echo from ages past. Meant as a compliment, I could never imagine anything but a girl in a tight ponytail, hoop earrings and jeans so tight that nothing was left to the imagination.
This was one of the most unpleasant memories of my childhood. I grew up in the Queensbridge Housing Projects of Long Island City, New York, colloquially termed “QB.” QB was synonymous with “Nas.” We always lived on the 5th or 6th stories, so we usually took the elevator to our apartment. It was usually almost always full of urine. As in, you had to tip-toe around the edges of the elevator to push your button , or else you risked tracking the urine into your apartment.
The joys of living in New York City.
I wish I could say that putrid elevators were the worst part of growing up in the projects. Hearing gunshots whizzing past my bedroom window at night was a common occurrence. Walking past the yellow police tape in the morning wasn’t surprising either. The worst was seeing the memorials of large votive candles, teddy bears and balloons amidst the yellow tape. Each time I passed by them was a reminder of the life lost, and their mourning loved ones left behind.
Sitting on the benches outside the apartment building also afforded me front-row seats to watching dozens of prostitutes walking into the building. When I finally had enough of the urine-filled elevator, I’d take the stairs, only to see the vestiges of illegal substances on the steps. If I was lucky I wouldn’t find someone smoking pot in the stairwells.
I also can’t forget that one time when my father was held at gunpoint at the end of a long night of taxiing. He handed over the $200 he had on him (over a day’s earnings), and with the asphalt on one side of his face and their gun on the other side, they warned him “Carry more on you next time.”
Despite all of this…I came out of that. The girl who refused to speak in slang and preferred to speak English and Spanish properly, as written. The girl who loved performing in musicals. The girl who loved singing Italian opera. The girl who never touched drugs or alcohol in high school. The girl who dreamed of being an independent woman working in Manhattan with a pencil skirt, suit jacket and briefcase.
I…came out of that.
There’s often a stigma admitting you come from Queensbridge. At first, people give you a nervous, incredulous once-over. I don’t know whether it’s to see if I’m concealing a weapon, or if they’re checking to see if I’m dressed in ghetto fashion. Sorry to disappoint you with my beloved cardigan and pearl earrings. And I understand the reaction. You’re not expected to make it out of the projects. At least not as a respectable, eloquent and cultured person who knows a few SAT words.
However, I would never trade my childhood for one in the ‘burbs. Living every day with a low-level fight or flight fear of being jumped made me stronger. Venturing home on the subway from J-meetings in Brooklyn (Jornadistas come together every week at church youth meetings) and keeping your cool as you walked past drug dealers blockading the entrance to your block…that builds strength and character. It also helps if you’ve had experience cursing out nasty men who’ve cat-called you since you were 13.
I know it sounds strange, but it’s shaped me into the strong woman that I am today. It’s given me ambition to better myself in everything that comes my way.
In college, after leaving New York and living in Maryland for a few years, I worked at a now-nonexistent credit card company taking inbound customer service calls. One customer called in from Astoria. She was a teacher. For whatever reason, I told her, “Hey, I’m one of those kids from QB. Just wanted to let you know that we actually make it out of there, and we actually go on to college to have bright futures.”
I know, she cheerfully replied. You do!
In that moment, for whatever reason, I felt validation. Validation that not everyone expected us to be lifelong failures? The realization that someone had faith in the “dregs of society” that lived in Queensbridge? Or rather, perhaps, validation that I made it. I made it out of Queensbridge and into college. Not just community college (which, for the record, is an excellent route to a degree), but a full-fledged university and had a bright and promising future ahead for myself, and for my future kids.
I know why youths from the ‘hood wear…hoods. It’s comfort. In a world where a split-second of eye-contact is enough of a threat to warrant a scuffle, a hoodie brings comfort. The comfort of not having to make eye-contact with trouble-makers. The comfort of making it home safely. It’s often misconstrued in the media, but, I understand.
Maybe that hooded kid is on his way to a full-dress rehearsal for Grease at school. Sure, his gait has swag and his hood might make the novice unsettled, but he made for an excellent and convincing Kenickie. He also made sure I walked to his right on the sidewalk. To this day, I’m not sure why he did, but I think there was something unbecoming inferred of me if I walked to his left.
I hope my kids won’t have to tip-toe around urine to get inside their home. Or see a never-ending parade of hookers being buzzed into their apartment building. Or smell strange smoke coming from the stairwells. But if they do, be kind to them.
Because, remember, not all kids from the projects…are hoodlums.
Linking up with #blogeverydayinseptember
This is absolutely amazing. I loved this post so much – probably my favourite of yours..
A few nights ago my boyfriend was watching a sports documentary on Netflix. I have no idea the name of it, but it was basically about a high school football team. Everyone on this team lived in such unfortunate circumstances. Although the documentary was about sports, what touched me was the interviews with teachers and guidance counselors, all saying that they hope these boys would be able to get some sort of scholarship or financial aid to college as otherwise they will just be repeating the lives of the parents, and who knows where they will end up.
Being able to overcome your circumstances is not for the weak, it needs drive and determination. And once that happens, anything is possible.
Thank you, Jules! I actually had this in my drafts since February. Some posts take longer to “bake” than others.
I’m really interested in hearing about this Netflix documentary. I think my husband and I watched a similar one about basketball. It’s very fascinating. And yes, having been a public school teacher in Baltimore (arguably rougher than New York City), all teachers hope the kids eventually get out of the city and see life ‘outside the fisbowl.’ Oftentimes, they cannot conceive of a life different than the one they see every day.
I think what helped me was the set of parents I had. That, and my always feeling out of place. I knew that place wasn’t for me. I never fit in.
To quote the Shawshank Redemption, “Some birds are not meant to be caged.”
The documentary is called “Undefeated”.
Having strong solid parents has to be paramount. Having someone other than yourself believe in you speak volumes!
That quote basically summarizes everything! Almost like the beatles “Take these broken wings and learn to fly”, one does not have to become a product of their environment.
linda miranda says
I grew up on Vernon Blvd. in the Queens bridge Housing project, in 1961, don’t recall smelling urine in the elevator, or recall any shootings. Things seem like time stood still. We all got along, my Puerto Rican, Italian and African American friends. I am happy, that my mom decided to move us to California. I remember the Italian festival, at the church, going to catechism. walking to Catholic school in the second grade, and smelling baked goods in the air. Summers, playing outdoors, in my bathing suite, why the heavy rain would pour and stop. The Large yellow caterpillars, that filled the trees.
Wow! This is one of my favorite blog posts I’ve ever read to date. Thank you for sharing your life with your readers! This is such an encouraging piece and a great reminder to everyone to not make assumptions about others.
Alisha @ The Alisha Nicole says
I sincerely love EVERYTHING about this blog post! Where Im from everyone expects us to barely graduate from high school (if at all) and be working on having several children with no father by the age of 22. One of my greatest accomplishments ever was to be able to graduate from college and come back and let those who didn’t think I would make know what I had done. Seriously, best post ever!
Isn’t it weird how memories work? I imagine you probably haven’t heard the term ghetto princess in years but just one smell association can bring back so many thoughts and memories.
This is really great, thanks for sharing your story. You should be really proud of yourself, especially in the sense that I’m sure you serve as an inspiration to many. Great post!
Such an inspirational post! Thank you for sharing your story- this is the best post that I’ve read in a long time.
Hi there I loved reading your post. In 1987 I was a rookie NYPD cop in the Queensbridge Houses. I loved hanging out with the little kids and their parents in the courtyards but the drug dealing, violent element made life difficult for everyone. I got into a very difficult situation during a Head Start graduation and a drug deal gone bad. So happy you are happy and healthy. Everything’s possible. :)
Wonderful post dear! Thank you for opening your heart and sharing your story with us! This is one of the best posts I’ve read in a long time. xxoo
Having worked in public schools in Harlem, I empathize with the kids. For some of them, it’s like nobody believes they can so they don’t believe they can either. Sometimes it just takes one person believing in you and inspire you to believe it too. I try to be that one.
This is such an amazing post thank you so much for sharing!! I had no idea you had an upbringing like that!!! But yes, you make the path of your own life and it doesn’t matter where you come from. Wow! Really!! What an amazing story!!
Vicki G. says
Wow Lisette! I really love this post!! I had no clue this was how you lived. Thank you for sharing!
Brita Long says
This is absolutely beautiful. It’s rare to read such honesty and vulnerability from bloggers. Thank you for painting such a vivid picture of what you endured and how it made you who you are today.
via Blog Every Day link-up
The Southern Thing says
Lisette, this is by far one of my most favorite blog posts I’ve read. I don’t think you could’ve described this in words any better. It’s also a great reminder that everyone has a story and you just never know. I appreciate you sharing your story rather than trying to hide your past, like many would do.
Thanks! I don’t see the need to hide my past. Sometimes my husband argues that I’m too much of an open book, but I say “so what?” to that. If we don’t share personal parts of our lives with others, how are we supposed to grow as individuals and learn how life is for others?
Krystal @ Krystal's Korner says
Thank you so much for sharing this. This has to be one of my favorite blog post I’ve read in a while.
Beautifully written! I often get reminded (with my job) that everyone has a story that no one knows…so I am always reminding others not to judge. Thank you for sharing your story, this was a fabulous story to read. You are such a talented woman, I think no matter where you grew up you would have been successful!
Isn’t it amazing how we all have these pasts that, unless the person shares it, you often have no idea what their life has been like? It truly brings out the compassion in you.
Thanks for reading this post, and thanks for your compliments :)
Manda | musicalpoem says
Lisette, I absolutely LOVED this post. This was written phenomenally; you’re a great storyteller. Thank you for sharing your story <3
Thank you, Manda. I was in a soul-baring mood that day :)
Wow, what a great read. Thank you for sharing this part of your life!
Mary Evelyn says
This blew me away. Just beautifully written stuff and I’m glad you shared. It’s a perspective outside my own and something that’s helpful as a teacher as well. Thanks.
Damn girl. Your writing just sucked me in.
Diane | An Extraordinary Day says
I love reading your story Lisette! You are a wonderful storyteller. But, even more…you are a can-do-girl and you are a wonderful role model.
The reason your friend had you walk on the right. A gentleman always walks on the left of a lady. You see he protects her from the street. Usually. He was in his own way…taking care of you.
Blessings my friend!
Brendali Caban says
I just saw this post. I could not agree more. It definitely does make you stronger. I am proud that I turned out just fine.
Although I still wear really tight jeans and hoop earrings. ;)
You cannot really escape the way you were brought. Sure you felt different from you neighboors, but your parents and you are a product of that envirment. Even if you dont feel you reflect where you were raised, you do, you just dont see it but other people will.
This is amazing and I had no idea! You go girl!