When I told a friend of mine that I’d written a book called Project Chic to Paulie, he asked, “What makes you a project chic?” I answered quickly, “I’m from the projects. I grew up there.” He shook his head in acknowledgment, but suddenly all the things I used to feel when I was a young girl in boarding school rushed back.
When I left the projects to attend St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, I was ashamed of the fact that I came from the projects. I went through four years of high school never discussing anything that happened over the summers or while I was on break. I knew people thought a certain way about people who lived in the projects, and I did not believe my family fit into those stereotypes at all, but I was still afraid of being labeled.
My brother told me that we were some of the luckiest kids in the projects because we had both of our parents. I never wanted for anything. But we lived in the Van Dyke projects in Brownsville, and it didn’t seem to matter how many nice things I had or cool places I’d been. The truth I could not avoid was that no matter what I was, I would always be a “Project Chic.”
My image of this girl was the image I believed other people had of girls who lived in the projects. She had unprotected sex and would become pregnant at a young age. She drank and maybe used drugs but hoped her parents wouldn’t find out. She cursed and had physical fights with anyone who crossed her or sometimes people she just wanted to hurt. Her parents were on welfare, and there was often no food in the house. Her older siblings had gotten into a life of crime and were possibly in jail. If she had younger siblings, then she hoped they would have a better life, but the odds were that they would not. A “Project Chic” was destined to fail. The chances of her survival and success were so small no one even considered it a possibility—no one except for the admissions department at St. Paul’s School. They believed I was “Paulie” material.
In the way that growing up in the projects makes me a “Project Chic,” going to St. Paul’s makes me a “Paulie.” My image of a “Paulie” was a girl with wealthy parents. The kind of wealth that meant she could go to a foreign country for a two-day weekend. She was probably white, blond, thin, and athletic. But most importantly “Paulies” were destined to succeed. I felt I could never be this girl as I am black, curvy, not particularly interested in sports, and my parents were certainly not wealthy. And all the while I attended St. Paul’s, I did not know that I could succeed—not until graduation day.
After graduation I realized that being a “Paulie” and being a “Project Chic” were about so much more than the stereotypes I’d created in my mind. I based my images on other people’s beliefs and not on my actual experiences. I realized that my experiences may be the exception, but that does not make me any less a “Project Chic” or any less a “Paulie.” I define the terms. The terms do not define me.
Project Chic to Paulie – Available to Purchase On Amazon
We are all fair game;
children in strollers;
police sitting in patrol cars;
elders walking down the block;
women asleep at home.
Who do you see?
Can you see me?
Am I enough for you
to extend a kind word;
a thought filled with respect?
I see you in me.
Your being excites me.
While all I wish
is for you to let me be.
What happens to a dream realized?
Does it fade into the background;
replaced by a longing for more?
Or does it linger in a life filled with joy?
Is it forgotten amidst a quest for survival?
Or held near to our hearts like a first love?
When our dreams become our reality
do we appreciate the life we thought we would never have?
Or do we find fault in how it’s not precisely as we had hoped?
After all, a dream turned into a reality is
a hope turned into a life.
I knew I had you when I began to think on my own
You comforted me when I could not fall asleep
You pushed me up mountains I didn’t feel equipped to climb
But I didn’t know how much I needed you until you were gone.
Those years without you filled my mind with self-doubt
I didn’t know I could bounce back from.
But bounce I did.
And you returned
Like a true love;
I knew you belonged to me.
But we must part again.
This time it is me walking away.
I know I can make it on my own now and be ok
You rest within my soul
Fueling my steps
As my new future awaits.
In The Silence
I remember the music that seeps in through the open window
I remember the voice of the son who dishonors his father
I miss the helicopter searching for the latest criminal
I miss the echo of a gunshot that misses a child
I inhale the smoke of things I never dared to smoke
I await dawn
Without the promise of another silent night.
5pm. Dark clouds held the sun hostage before the downpour, but he sat outside in the red chairs with his back arched as he savored his cigar and took long gulps of Evian. He checked his Cartier watch in-between glances of parents filling their phones with pictures of their children mimicking the fearless girl pose.
Knowing the child model was a young Hispanic girl he thought back on his own childhood growing up in Mexico. He arrived in America right at the start of middle school and quickly advanced to the top of his class. Stuyvesant for high school, Stanford for college, and Harvard for his MBA, placed him exactly where he always dreamed of being – the floor of the NY Stock Exchange.
Once he finished his cigar he took out the turkey sandwich and bag of chips he bought from the deli he ordered from every day. It was the lunch he never got to eat. He’d only taken two bites of his sandwich and eaten only a few potato chips when, he was hit by an aroma that he knew could only belong to a homeless person.
“Do you have a dollar you can spare?” It was a white man not much older than him.
“I don’t have any cash.” It was a lie. He always carried a few bucks because cash often came in handy, but he refused to give money to any of the homeless people Downtown. If he could make something of himself, he felt they should be able to as well. There were so many more opportunities to be successful in America than in Mexico. There were no reasons people in America should be homeless and begging for money unless they were drug addicts or alcoholics and he refused to support anyone’s habit.
“Could I have the rest of your potato chips? I haven’t eaten all day.” The homeless man locked eyes with the stockbroker in search of some semblance of pity.
“Neither have I.” The stockbroker did not avert his gaze. He could see the white man’s skin begin to turn a bright red as his eyes widened. He heard the sound of phlegm rising to the surface and in an instant he felt splatters of saliva on his face as the man spit on his sandwich.
“Spic!” The man turned and walked away slowly daring the stockbroker to come after him.
The stockbroker took the napkins out of his bag and wiped the splatter from his face. He wrapped up his soiled sandwich and chips and threw them in the bag as he watched the homeless man approach a young black woman and ask her for a dollar. Perhaps she saw what had happened to him. He couldn’t be sure, but she pulled out her wallet and gave him a dollar. The homeless man kept walking as if he never did what he did, and it wouldn’t matter if he did it again.
The stockbroker threw his tainted food in the trash and began his fifteen-minute walk home. As he walked he caught glimpses of his reflection in the Hermes window. His reflection began to speak to him.
Reflection – Is it worth it?
Stockbroker – What?
Reflection – The price.
Stockbroker – Of what?
Reflection – The price of life here?
Stockbroker – This is home.
Reflection – Even today?
Stockbroker – Nevertheless.
The next morning when his alarm went off at 5am he decided to hit snooze and skip his morning run. With an extra hour of sleep, he began his walk to work. He decided to walk along the pier and take in the breeze coming in from the river. Work was uneventful. The markets were flat. As soon as he stepped outside he noticed the man who had spit on him sitting on a concrete bench not too far away from the fearless girl. He stopped and stared at him from a distance but he could tell the man did not recognize him. He thought maybe he had been too harsh by not giving when he had enough to spare. He contemplated going over to him and giving him some money or buying him something to eat. Looking at the man in a new day’s light he could see the man in spite of whatever was afflicting him. They were not so different – approximately the same age, same height, same build. Only money and success separated them. He walked a few steps in the man’s direction and stopped as the homeless man got up and walked away without stopping anyone to ask for a handout. He watched him fade away into the tourists and walked to Hale & Harty to pick up a salad for dinner.
When Ernie accepted the assignment to work with Moses, the first Afro-American patrolman, he did not concern himself with what other White officers thought of him. He knew there were officers who had refused but he felt, as one of the older officers, that he could lead by example. Ernie imagined if Moses did well there would be other Afro-American patrolmen and he honestly felt that integration was the best thing for the entire police force.
But Ernie knew Moses long before they became partners. Ernie used to see Moses at the station each morning before he went out. When his veteran partner announced his retirement and Moses was promoted he honestly looked forward to getting to know someone of the opposite race. He’d spoken to Afro-Americans before but with Moses as his partner he would have to place his life and his trust in Moses’s hand.
Ernie felt a bit at ease because he believed that Moses could handle any physical altercation he could handle. From a physical perspective Moses and Ernie were equals. Both were over six feet tall, two hundred pounds with thinning hair and a prominent nose.
When they walked through East New York together people could tell they were partners from a far distance. That’s why Ernie didn’t understand why so many of the Afro-Americans who lived in East New York questioned Moses’s authority. He thought the people in the community would have been happy to have someone who looked like them in authority but the attitude he received while walking with Moses was much worse than the attitude he ever received when he was with his former White partner.
He picked up on the attitude after his first day walking the beat with Moses. A couple of weeks had passed and he hadn’t said anything to Moses. But as the mid-day August heat built up around Ernie and Moses making their uniforms feel a bit heavier shortly after searching two young Afro-American boys, one of whom had called Moses an Uncle Tom, Ernie knew they had to learn to communicate better.
They sat in the squad car eating their lunches – lunchmeat and biscuits for Moses and ham and cheese on wheat for Ernie. Typically they sat in a comfortable silence but that day the tension filled the car like the heat coming in from the windows.
“What do you think they did with the wallet?” Moses turned his head to face Ernie and Ernie turned his head to the passenger side so that he could look Moses in the eye.
“I’m not quite sure.” Moses turned away from Ernie’s gaze and looked in front of him. “Maybe I didn’t see things right. It might not have been a wallet.” Ernie turned away and did not look at Moses, as he did not want to make Moses fell uncomfortable.
“It’s ok. I just want us to understand. If you tell me you saw something I’ll believe ya and if you tell me ya might have made a mistake I’ll believe that too. But let’s work on that – telling each other what we’re thinking. I think that’ll make this easier. Don’t you?” Ernie wanted to reach a point when he didn’t have to wonder what Moses was thinking. That was the point he was at with his old partner. It would take time and trial and error but they had to think like a unit or one of them would definitely get hurt.
“I’d like that.” Moses still didn’t look Ernie in the eye. He didn’t want Ernie to see the desperation in his face. He needed this partnership to work out because he did not want to go back to working behind a desk.
“Why don’t you and Nessa come over to the house for dinner? You’ve been in Manhattan right.” This surprised Moses. It was then that he knew Ernie wanted things to work out as well.
“Yes, I’ve been in Manhattan.” He knew he’d never been in the part of Manhattan where Ernie lived but he knew of it. The North was an acceptable place for Afro-Americans but it still wasn’t safe for Afro-Americans in some all White neighborhoods. All he could think about was how not to embarrass himself but he knew Nessa would be perfect.
“Candy will cook dinner.” Candace, Ernie’s wife, wanted to meet Moses. She said she’d feel less stressed if she looked Moses in the eye and knew that he would protect Ernie at all costs.
“When?” Moses knew he would be there no matter what day he was told.
“Next Friday. Can you make it?” Candy would be happy he actually invited them because at first he said he didn’t think it was a good idea.
“We’ll be there.” Moses knew Nessa would be nervous but excited to go into the city.
Both Ernie and Moses knew the dinner would make or break their relationship but it was necessary.
They finished their food in silence, got out of the car, and began to walk their beat again. In the week they would work together before their dinner Moses would be more hesitant about the things he mentioned to Ernie and Ernie would try to come up with small talk to keep them going while hoping their wives could fill in the silence during the dinner.
It was 7:45pm and Candy only had 15 minutes before Nessa and Moses arrived. She knew they wouldn’t dare be a minute late and thought maybe they might be about five minutes early. She had brushed her red hair into long silky perfection. It draped down her back and laid on her dark blue dress every strand moving in unison with the turns of her head. Ernie was tying his black tie with his black suit while brushing what remained of his hair.
Then at 7:49 the doorbell rang and Candy went to answer it herself. She had sent all of the servants home. Being that all of her servants were Afro-American she didn’t want Nessa or Moses to feel uncomfortable.
She told the children – Tim, 15, Edward, 12 and Mary, 16 – to sleep over at a friends’ house and come home on Saturday. She didn’t want any distractions while she assessed Nessa and Moses.
She decided to entertain them in her living room and not the sitting room. Her living room was her oasis filled with her prized figurines, vases, and plants. The carpet and furniture were all white but it was time for the rooms yearly cleaning, which she would do a few days after Nessa and Moses’s visit.
Candy was happy to see that Nessa dressed in all white. She had the most beautiful white hat and Candy wondered how much Moses had spent on it and if they could really afford such a luxury. Moses had on a simple brown suit. Candy noticed his shoes were shiny as if just shined but there were still noticeable scuffs. Once they were fully inside Ernie was beside her ushering them into the living room.
“Would you like some tea or coffee? I know that usually comes after dinner but I figured we could have some now.” Candy said this to ease the tension she felt in the air. Moses and Nessa sat on the couch next to one another with barely an inch between them. Candy saw Moses touch Nessa’s knee as if to settle her breathing.
“I’ll have some tea.” Nessa said in the most high-pitched voice Candy had ever heard from an Afro-American woman.
“I’ll have some coffee.” Moses chimed in it seemed only to be polite.
“Candy, you can bring me some coffee too?” Ernie sat in the loveseat and watched Candy disappear into the kitchen.
“Nessa, it’s good to meet you. I wish I could say I’ve heard a lot about you but Moses and I haven’t been talking about much besides work and sports.”
“Oh, well, I haven’t heard much about you either because Moses hardly ever talks about work. He’s not a big talker. More the silent type.”
“Oh, so it’s not just me?”
At that point Candy came in carrying a tray with four cups. She handed the tea to Nessa and the coffee to Moses, sat on the loveseat with two cups of coffee and handed one to Ernie.
“It’s not just you what, dear?”
“It’s not just me that Moses doesn’t speak to. He’s not much of a talker.”
“I talk when I need to, speak when spoken to or of.” He turned his face towards Nessa but she looked away from him at Candy.
“I’m so glad you let us come to your home.” Nessa knew they would not have been invited if Candy did not want to see them.
“Well, I’m so glad you could come. Did you find the place ok?”
“Yea, well, Moses can figure out how to get anywhere in New York. That’s part of the reason he’s such a good cop.”
“Well, good. I know he must be very good to have ended up with my Ernie as a partner. When Ernie told me Moses would be his new partner I knew Moses had to be one of the best officers in the precinct.”
“I won’t argue with you Mrs. Avery. I’m certain you speak the truth.”
Candy was delighted Moses accepted the compliment and agreed with her. She thought he’d make a fine partner for her husband – agreeable. People hiding ambition reject compliments.
Candy turned to Ernie and smiled. “Well, how about we go into the dining room and I’ll bring the food out. You can bring your tea and coffee in there.”
Moses and Nessa took their cups into the dining room. It was a long square table but there were two place settings on one side and two place settings on the direct opposite side. Moses thought it strange that Candy and Ernie decided not to sit at the ends of the table. Even Nessa thought it weird that they would sit facing one another like equals. Candy brought out whole baked chicken legs, asparagus, and mashed potatoes.
“You can serve yourselves.” Candy took her spot next to Ernie right across from Nessa.
Moses placed a chicken leg on Nessa’s plate before placing one on his and Ernie did as he saw Moses do and placed a chicken leg on Candy’s plate. Nessa put some mashed potatoes on her plate. She was not sure what the long green stem looking thing was but she knew she had to try it. She took three stems and placed it on her plate. She thought three was enough to seem polite. Moses did the exact same things she did and then she realized that Ernie and Candy had done the exact same things as her as well.
“So, Moses, now that you’ve been a patrolman for a bit how do you like it? What is your most favorite thing about it?” Candy wanted to get right into it. She invited them to assess Moses intentions and she needed a bit more information to feel completely satisfied.
“Well, honestly Mrs. Avery, the best part about it is having a partner. Ernie and I don’t talk much but I think we suit one another pretty well.”
“I think we’ll do just fine Moses.” Candy knew that that was the last question she could ask Moses about work. Ernie had decided he liked Moses as a partner and she was beginning to warm up to him as well. She even had to admit that Nessa impressed her. Candy thought Nessa looked like a well-kept woman and she could tell Nessa had never held a job.
The conversation turned to what Ernie and Moses often talked about – sports and weather. Candy decided not to have a side chat with Nessa. There was nothing they needed to discuss. She thought about whether she would ever have them over to the house again and she couldn’t see why that would ever be necessary. She was certain Moses was happy to have made it as far as he had and there was no desire to move any higher. Candy said goodnight to Moses and Nessa and as they left she saw them growing old together as she would grow old with Ernie.