Every summer the sound of the crackling locusts mimicked the swelling pressure of daily life. Rapid fire rhythm thumped along behind drive-bys, street fights, and abuse that surged every year from May through October. The house on the corner seemed to get shot up every few weeks, rumors of Dejuan getting jumped came and went every month, and it seemed like everyday we heard that Ms. Smith beat up her boyfriend when he cheated on her. All of that pulsated with the hum of the bug.
Their beady eyes looked down the block where there were drugs and gangs on all sides. Their chirping wings seemed to echo what was going on in private lives, frantically rubbing together in the hearts and minds of people who were so downtrodden and dismissed by society that they had given up on finding peace in their own lives. Somewhere in the midst of this chaos were kids, who like the premature locust in its creepy shell, presented themselves as little toughies, or toughies in training.
I was an outsider who did not know how to shed his skin. I did not know the locust’s true name was “cicada”. I did not know myself.
Born to a rural family in Canada, I didn’t feel at home in the racially mixed neighborhood of those teenage years. Struggling with being an outsider, I joined whatever I could get my head wrapped around, churches and clubs, youth programs and volunteering. I didn’t understand the gangs or parties of my peers, so I didn’t join them. I spent as much time outside my neighborhood as possible, mostly by my own design, taking jobs at summer camps and in nonprofits working across the city. When I worked with poor people I felt comfortable, because I felt I belonged in that clique. When I worked with white kids I felt only a little ease, mostly because they looked familiar to me. I did not know I was missing the locust’s rhythmic drumming of pain.
Mulberries falling from their trees stained a lot of the streets and memories of my teenage years. Fat and plump in August, they were the sweetest, yummiest tastes of the innocence I instinctively wanted as a kid. Walking through the hood with my any of my troope of buddies, we would swarm under those swollen trees on hot summer afternoons, getting fat and happy from their sweet purple berries. The juice would stain my fingertips for days. It was the year when I was 17 that they took on a different meaning. That summer I was meandering through the neighborhood blocks with my friend Joe when we came across his younger brother Terry. From a few hundred feet away, we broke into a run when we saw him laying in one of those purple-stained blotches under a mulberry tree. The blood from his wounds puddled into my sweet, sweet memories.
Standing underneath that mulberry tree, I looked up, and today, almost 20 years later, I still have a snapshot in my mind of those damned locusts. They went on crackling their buzzing mantra after shedding their old skins, indifferent to the young victim laying below them. Indifferent to the world while fresh purple and red dyes mixed on Terry’s shirt, and I never wanted to see that bug again.
Soon after, I learned how to shed my skin, too, and that’s when I moved forever into safer places. I haven’t seen a mulberry tree since I was 20 years old. I have come to know myself as many things: hood survivor, writer, and as a dad. Today my beautiful daughter picks fat, juicy blackberries safely from placid places, her fingers staining with a deeper shade of purple than I knew as a teen. And now I only hear the locusts when I leave my Pacific Northwest home.