—He said the right thing, at the right time, to the right person
NO ONE EVER wants to wake up like this, I thought to myself. Pots and pans were banging together in the kitchen. I could hear the commotion even though I had stuffed my ears with the last few pieces of toilet paper in the house.
My mother, Tabia Salimu, was dancing in the kitchen, banging the pots like drums. She was not cooking. There had been no food for weeks. She was trying to wake her two sons who, if she let them, would sleep through their whole summer vacation.
We’d sleep for as long as we could if it meant we could escape our hunger, our tears, or our mother’s next episode. That’s what my little brother Kumasi and I called our mom’s bipolar and psychotic breaks from reality: episodes.
It was late August in 2006, and I had very little motivation to get up. Kumasi rolled out of bed first, but I was the older brother, so I leapt from bed and burst into the bathroom before him.
“Know why I get to pee first?” I asked Kumasi.
“I don’t care, just hurry up,” he retorted.
“It’s because I’m the leader,” I said triumphantly.
Kumasi was eleven years old. Two years his senior, I was the man of the house. I told the boy to wash his face and brush his teeth—to follow my example. I would never mislead him. We got dressed in the same clothes we had worn the day before, and marched toward the kitchen to greet our mother.
When we entered the kitchen, we found that our mother had been banging on the pots with a pair of big wooden spoons as she danced to her own tune. Kumasi and I yelled, “Good morning!” to take our mom’s attention off her stellar performance. She stopped banging the pots, snapped back into reality, and greeted us back, “Good morning, my loves.” I had already decided that today my mother’s mental health was not going to make me sad. Today was going to be a happy day, though I still had to poke the bear.
“Mom, since we are not American Indians, and that performance of yours wasn’t a rain dance, I was just wondering: Was this some new ritual you discovered to put food on the table?”
She laughed at my joke, which was a relief, because she didn’t always find me funny. People in our type of situation had to find a way to laugh at themselves from time to time. Mom replied defiantly, “No, I am not an American Indian. I am a North American-born African of Cuban descent. And if you so please, you may call this performance the Food Dance.”
She smiled warmly at me and Kumasi as she glided down the kitchen floor and kissed us both on the mouth. In small doses, she could be a very sweet woman and one of my favorite people in the world. “Can this pregnant lady get fed anytime soon today?” she asked the two of us as she pointed to her small tummy.
“Mom, are you really pregnant again?” Kumasi asked with despair in his voice.
“Boy, be quiet … I ask the questions around here,” I jokingly told my little brother. “Mom, when were you going to tell us the news, so that we could start prioritizing you eating first?”
“I just found out today,” she exclaimed as she pushed past us to grab car keys from the table. “It’s almost noon. Are you two ready to go to the park?”
We had slept in that morning and almost missed the highlight of the whole summer. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was coming to the hood to screen his new movie, Gridiron Gang.
My mom drove us all to the park in the purple Toyota hatchback. The car had been donated to us by Alexandria House, an amazing women’s charity in Los Angeles. We had just gotten this car, and it was the only thing we owned that could fool outsiders into thinking our family lived an average life. Feeding our bellies was always a priority over feeding the gas tank, so we rarely drove anywhere. We mostly took public transportation with bus tokens provided by the city. Today was different, though. We had been looking forward to this special day for weeks.
When we arrived at the park, we immediately began to scan the crowd to find The Rock. My mom was the first to give up; she glided over to the swing sets where she began to wind up her swing like a kid and spin in circles. Kumasi and I did more searching, but finally discovered The Rock was not here yet.
I spotted a lady in a suit talking on the phone, looking frustrated and very busy. A few of the younger boys walked up to her and asked if The Rock was really coming. She smiled and said, “Certainly, he is, young man. He would never disappoint his fans.” I wanted to believe her, but I had my doubts; on the drive over, I told Kumasi that the chance of The Rock showing up to this event was slim to none.
The Rock’s new movie, Gridiron Gang, was about helping inner city boys like us, but I felt showing up in person was not worth it to him. He wants to make money, sell tickets, and play the “I care” card as long as it is lucrative for him. But me, I lived in a dog-eat-dog world where I had no time for someone who wasn’t real, who wasn’t walking the walk.
“OK, Kumasi, let me break this shit down for a niglet (I had a bunch of nicknames for Kumasi, but niglet was always my favorite). That big-ass nigga The Rock ain’t comin’ today, tomorrow, or no damn time in the future. He ain’t tryna see our black asses, and tha’s just real-talk. Black people dodge bullets, we don’t run toward ‘em. So ain’t no way this nigga ‘bout ta show up in the hood. I cain’t see him coming to Athens Park to show us this new movie for free, anyhow. The shit ain’t even in theaters yet, niglet! This whole thing fake as hell!”
My little speech had gotten louder, drawing a crowd of boys to form around us.
“I just wanna see the movie,” Kumasi said. “If he actually shows up, then that’s just a bonus for me.”
That dog-eat-dog mentality had been hammered into me a long time ago. So long ago that it felt like a different lifetime. Back when we were much younger, living homeless in downtown Los Angeles with my mom, we did anything to survive. That was back in the year 2000, when the core gang of five was together (my mom and her five kids at the time). I was seven years old. My four siblings and I would bounce around from shelter to shelter on Skid Row, doing a million things that kids aged five to twelve should not do. Skid Row is the homeless capital of the world, a shithole of a place, or “community,” located in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. The amount of lawlessness, drug infestation, and hopelessness in this area is legendary. Gangs, drugs, violence, those were just normal parts of my life, though I had somehow escaped the worst of it.
My mother had escaped Skid Row after years of repeated bouts with homelessness and moved us into an apartment in the hood; it was a small but significant upgrade. That change of environment allowed me to quit doing drugs, stop fighting in the streets, and find better male role models to look up to. Hanging around to meet The Rock was one of those opportunities.
Most of the times I was doing drugs it was with my mom, so her making a change meant we all had to make changes. There were certainly no guarantees as to where my life was headed, but seeing my childhood hero sure couldn’t hurt. That’s a big reason why we were at that park that day. We needed more motivation—a reason to keep going.
But I worried that my little brother would get his hopes up too much, and the disappointment of not getting to meet The Rock could crush him. While he pretended he did not really care one way or the other, I could see right through him. Kumasi had been looking forward to this for weeks, and it was one of the only things he could be happy about. Life was hard, and my family was struggling. Our father was sort of in the picture, but the five kids he had given my mother were not doing as well as the other ten whose moms were a little more stable. My father, Abidala Salimu, was more of a lifeline than a provider. He would show up if we really needed him, but for the most part, my mother and her five children struggled together.
Around 2004, my mother became increasingly mentally unstable; taking care of us and herself at the same time was becoming impossible. My other siblings had started to flee my mother’s household to move in with friends. Over a period of less than a year, three of them had moved out, even though all of them were still minors. It was the summer of 2005 when my older siblings fully understood the situation: my mom was not working, she was unable to feed us, and bills were piling up on the table. But being the two youngest children, my little brother and I just stayed put and suffered alongside her.
We weren’t just at this park to meet The Rock. School was out for the summer, and until I started the eighth grade in a few weeks, I had no free school lunch to look forward to. We heard there would be food served, and it would surely be the only meal my family ate that day.
The Rock’s nickname was The People’s Champion. All of his wrestling moves were named in that spirit. He would drop his elbow on you and end your whole career—that was the people’s elbow. The Rock would lift one eyebrow and look daringly at someone—the people’s eyebrow. He had a bunch of catchphrases. The rest of the kids in the park were running around doing wrestling moves and pretending to be the people’s champion.
His most famous catchphrase involved asking the crowd if they could smell what The Rock was cooking. People loved repeating it. Every few seconds someone was yelling at the top of their lungs, asking if everyone in the park could smell what The Rock was cooking. Of course I could smell it. I was eating my third plate of food. But then I heard my little brother’s voice. The boy almost made me drop my chicken.
“IF YOU SMELLALALALAL!
WHAT THE ROCK!
Kumasi yelled it so loudly that everyone’s head turned. Best of all, The Rock was standing a few feet away in the parking lot. The World Wrestling Entertainment superstar approached the crowd with energy and intensity. He electrified the whole crowd with a smile and the people’s eyebrow. The smallest kids ran up to climb all over him. His muscles seemed bigger in person, especially as he began to curl several boys with one arm. The whole gathering must have consisted of less than a hundred people, so we were all super close to him when we took our seats to hear him speak.
The Rock’s speech was about what we meant to him. He told the crowd that communities like ours are near and dear to his heart, and that he made this movie to inspire more young men and women to make the right choices. I believed him. When he ended his speech and started to screen Gridiron Gang for us, I knew in my heart that this day would be one of the most influential days of my life.
The movie showed a group of boys united on the football field with the same goal—to win. I could be something like them and join a different type of gang—a gridiron gang. The encouraging speeches that The Rock gave in the movie were powerful, but his words to us in the park that day were even more so.
I will always remember when he looked me right in the eye and said, “Drugs, gangs, and this cycle of violence is not your only option. And I believe in you, and in your success.”
I really needed to hear The Rock say that, because I was starting to get tired of watching my mom and little brother suffer. And I needed to know that I could help change that.