In December, my summer blog entry – “a yellow boy causes a ruckus” – was published in Tablet, formerly known as Asian Journal, a student-run literary magazine published twice a year. The story ignited some controversy on campus, primarily from some black student group leaders who felt the content was racist. I was a bit hurt by such charges, but I won’t defend myself here. I mention my story and the accusations of racism because this whole situation makes me think about Jamil Allen, a black kid who went to high school with me, and how our paths crossed at one point in our lives.
Jamil was two grades below me but just a year younger. He and I had similiar build in terms of height and weight, and we both played the running back position for our high school football team. I was announced the starting running back on my team as a junior when I first got to know him better. Playing the same position, we went through our daily drills together and took the same abuse and mockery from our sadistic position coach. It was a matter of time before we bonded.
Jamil was brash, cocky, and lied so often that it seemed pathological. He was also good-humored and friendly. As I eased into my starting position and experienced some success, he looked up to me more as a mentor, complimenting me on my speed, my thick thighs, and my ability to turn the corner on toss sweeps. By senior year, I gave him rides to and from practice. I would pick him up from Potters, the part of north Edison where a great deal of the African-American population resided. The area is usually derided by non-blacks as the “ghetto” of Edison, but having frequented the area, it was not much different than my own townhouse complex about 5 minutes away.
I learned a few things about Jamil. He lived with his grandmother, and his father had been in prison. He nicknamed himself “Mo” in honor of his father, Maurice. I was never keen on his family background, but I took from his stories that he hadn’t experienced the most stable family situation in his childhood. As we became closer, the taboos on our differences were relaxed. We casually made fun of our cultural backgrounds – I would ask if it was fried chicken yet again for dinner and he would do the “ching chong” mimicry of Asian languages. But then we sometimes found ourselves standing in line at a Chinese restaurant nearby waiting for our order of 12 fried chicken wings to come.
One day after a Saturday morning football practice my senior year, I was hungry and wanted to dine out for lunch. Having played in a rare winning game the previous night, I invited Jamil and offered to buy lunch. I chose the Windsor Diner in Clark, a town close to Edison and down the road from my house. It was a fairly large diner that my family had been to a few times, and I liked its coziness and homestyle food. It had an old school feel to it, with mini jukebox options at each table. Jamil and I sat at a table, and I began to look at the menu before I noticed Jamily looking very antsy.
“What’s the matter?” I asked him.
“Yo Pete, I don’t think they want me in here,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” I wondered. It was just a diner.
I looked around and then looked at Jamil. He was the only black person in the diner. I looked again. I was the only Asian person. In the whole place – mostly filled with white senior citizens and a few families and kids – our table seated the only minorities in the entire restaurant, save the Hispanic busboys.
“Don’t worry man, it’s not like they won’t serve you,” I assured him.
“Still, I don’t think they want me here,” Jamil kept swiveling his head and exhibited a nervousness I hadn’t seen before.
“Hey, calm down and just order. If they give us any problems, we’ll leave,” I told him. I began wonder if there was indeed any validity to his worries, but told myself that it was unlikely in a state like New Jersey.
We both ordered sandwiches – he had a grilled chicken sandwich while I had a turkey club sandwich – and we even ordered milkshakes. Jamil tinkered with the jukebox, but was disappointed that there were no hiphop songs on the list. We talked about football, about girls, and about future aspirations.
“You should take school seriously,” I lectured. It was known that Jamil struggled to pass his classes, and he seemed to care little about his grades.
“Word, don’t worry, I’ll try,” he replied, in his usual optimistic manner. It was hard to believe, and I knew my words would have little effect.
“Well, just try to go to college at least. You can’t play football forever,” I told him. In my prejudiced mind, I wondered if he would even be able to make it to Middlesex Community College.
“Just watch Pete, I’m gonna study real hard and then join you at Columbia,” he said. I had applied early for Columbia a few weeks before and was awaiting the response.
I left the diner feeling pretty good about myself. Having confined myself to a circle of all-Asian friends since middle school, I had rarely spent time with anyone non-Asian. I wondered if the self-congratulatory feeling was what white people often felt after setting up “diversity” programs or supporting affirmative action. But I felt a bit ashamed for thinking along such racial lines. Jamil was good company and a fun guy to chill with – and he looked up to me.
I sometimes wish I had taken a more active interest in Jamil’s studies. I was a straight-A student in all honors classes at my high school while Jamil languished in the Basic Skills Instructions (BSI) classes that prepared its students, for all four years, to pass the state high school exam. I wonder if I could have inspired him to take his work more seriously, or if I would have given up in frustration at his indifference to grades. I ultimately saw his case as hopeless and just wished him the best in sports, where he had great potential.
I came back to New Jersey for a weekend in the fall of 2001, a few months into my freshman year at Columbia. I decided to drive out to Perth Amboy to watch J.P. Stevens (my high school) play them in football. There was a great buzz about the J.P. team that year – they had not lost a game and were blowing out opponents by at least 30 points per game. Jamil was a superstar. He was already on pace to break the school record in rushing, and he his moves dazzled everyone. He had been getting phone calls from D-I schools, and he was still only a junior. I watched as our team crushed Amboy by more than 20 points. A tinge of nostalgia overcame me as I remembered the previous year when we beat Amboy 7-0 on my lone 56-yard touchdown in the second half. But it was Jamil’s team now, and they were well on their way to the state championships.
J.P. Stevens defeated Old Bridge to win the Section IV NJ Championship title. It was more of a passing game, but Jamil still posted up some decent numbers. I was happy that our team had finally won, although I wondered why our record sucked so much the year before. I tried to tell myself that I ran behind a much smaller line and that the quarterback had matured. But I also had to admit that Jamil was by far a superior running back than I had been. I walked away from the stadium wondering if I would always be awashed with a desire to play again whenever I watched a high school game.
A year later, I stopped by the Thanksgiving game between J.P. Stevens and Edison High, our in-town rival from the less-privileged, “crappy side of town.” I saw Jamil in the stands watching the game.
“I heard you quit. Why?” I asked.
“The coaches wouldn’t give me the ball enough,” he told me.
“So you threw away your season because of that?”
“I can’t play for them, Pete,” he said.
I had heard the story before. The team had a loss early in the season and Jamil blamed the coaches for not giving him the ball enough that game. Then, he began to miss practices and was even benched for parts of the game as a result. His relationship with the all-Italian coaching staff soon soured and they spread the ball around even more. By the latter part of the season, he could not take the damage to his pride and quit.
“Don’t worry, the coach at Maryland wants me,” he assured me. I found it hard to believe him.
Two years later, as a senior at Columbia, I am looking forward to the next phase of my life – the working world. I have a thesis to work on, some club activities, and a part-time job to go to the next morning. Neeraj, an Indian friend from high school, instant messages me.
Neeraj: thought this might interest you. [link]
I click on the link. It is an article in the Home News Tribune’s online site. It reads something like “Fugitives at Large After Attempted Armed Robbery.” I read on, and it’s about Jamil. He’s mentioned as having once been a “standout high school football star,” but now, he is a fugitive of the law. Apparently, he stole someone’s gun and used it against that person to try to steal something before he ran away. I can only read on in disbelief.
A few months later, I am at Liquor Locker buying some wine and beer for Christmas. I see Aaron Coward, same year as Jamil, who was one of my fullbacks as a sophomore. He is bigger than ever and looks as if he can strap on a helmet and just play. I ask him about Jamil.
“Yeah, he’s still out there somewhere. I doubt they’ll catch him,” Aaron tells me. Aaron tells me that he’s trying to take classes at Middlesex and then become a policeman. I poke a few police-black people jokes for old time’s sake, and he laughs saying I haven’t changed a bit.
I probably won’t see Jamil ever again, much like I probably won’t see many other people whom I’ve met during my lifetime ever again. Even without death, we lose people all the time. As much as we can try to control who we keep and who we lose, I often find it a bittersweet experience to look back and think of the time spent with people who are no longer a part of my present-day life.
I remember the one time that Jamil came over to my house. I warned him that my grandma may not be as comfortable with a black dude in the house, but told him not to worry about it. As soon as I came through the door, I teased my grandma about a “heuk-in” being in the house. She stared at Jamil in curiosity but just mumbled her best “hello” when he greeted her. I showed Jamil around the house, and we hung out in my room for a bit. I jokingly told him not to “steal anything” from my room while I got us drinks. I let him listen to some of my Korean music, and it was fun watching him take an instant liking to Drunken Tiger, a Korean rap duo with pretty comprehendable English-spoken lyrics. We then rapped along with 2pac’s “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” and “Hit’em Up” before talking about the next game and tossing the football for a bit.
As much as it was a novelty hanging out with him after rarely having been in contact with black people before, it was our ability to enjoy similar things – hiphop, football, a good laugh – that made us get along and have a good time. Perhaps I was trying too hard to have a black friend, and maybe I entertained ideas that I would show off later to my Asian friends that I was “down” with blacks. Racial consciousness becomes a constant part of the thinking process once it’s turned on, but I genuinely do like to believe that not all was race-driven between me and Jamil. We were running backs, teammates, and two dudes who loved Chinese fried chicken. I wonder what Jamil would say about my subway story.