For the Rest of Your Life

RIP Nana Bea

My one year old runs her fingers over the tattoo on my arm.

I remember when the tattoo artist said, “It’s still professional. A long sleeve dress shirt will cover it.” I wasn’t concerned with that back then. That was a tattoo I got at a shop on Merrick Blvd in Jamaica Queens. It was shortly after my 23rd birthday. I was excited about it because I finally knew what I wanted to honor my grandmother with.

My Nana Bea was a wedding and party coordinator. She spent a lot of time in her balloon shop. My aunt Darlene was the assistant manager. We worked closely in that business, many days a week, side by side. My grandfather would often have my cousins Jason and Tyson do push ups in the back. He would “toughen them up.” All the while Nana would groom us young women for running a business. I had so many “cousins” as young black children often do. Family wasn’t designated by blood. There were friends of family, neighbors, and extended family who all worked alongside us. We turned bare rooms into magical wonder lands. We made dreams come true. We built memories.

You see, my grandmother wanted to be successful.  She wanted to be a staple in her community.  She wanted a legacy.  She loved her children and took great pride in the accomplishments of her grandchildren.  I used to listen to her brag to her clients and suppliers about articles and poems I wrote. She kept our pictures near her cash register. This was best way for us to spend time with her. We worked to learn and earn money but we also worked to be close to her.

We ate vanilla ice cream, Pepsi or ginger ale and plain potato chips on breaks. These were big treats to me because my parents kept healthier options in the house. Those were some of her favorite things. Sharing them with her added to its sustenance. They were items she could eat quickly, on the go, so she could get back to work.

As Easter approaches I remember Easter baskets with big mylar balloons with my name on them. Inside was always chocolate, bubble bath, lollipops, and a stuffed animal. She never missed an Easter or birthday. We always knew what the business meant to her but we knew even if she showed up at 9pm, she’d be there.

She’d come over in her white minivan with my grandfather at the wheel with goodies. She was warm. She was always smiling. As an adult sometimes things get fuzzy. My Nana Bea passed when I was 19 years old. She died right before Thanksgiving. I wish I’d asked her in all the time I had with her, what it was like to be a woman of color with her own business. I wish I asked her what sacrifices she had to make. I wish I knew what she’d do differently. I would love to see how’d she react to social media and how quickly information and advertisements travel now. I remember dressing the store front windows for the next holiday. It was an honor. If she picked you to help dress the store window or put up a new display it meant she trusted you artistically to make her look good. Recently someone asked me, “Who encouraged you growing up?” It was always my grandmothers. My paternal grandmother wanted us to be reaffirmed in our beauty and she called me Princess my whole time with her. My maternal grandmother wanted me to feel intellectually confident. She helped with school assignments, establishing routines, and life skills.

Those of us who have tattoos are often reminded we are wearing veritable choices. We will have these pieces of art inscribed on our bodies for all time. I love my balloons.  Everytime I see it I see the smiling face of Beatrice. I feel myself standing in that building with confetti and broken clips (that held the latex balloons in clusters) on the floor. I remember the taste of Tiger Pops. I hear the older girls telling stories about the young men they were dating.  I hear music. I hear arguing. I feel her curly hair. I smell her lotion. I remember rummaging for the sharpest scissor to curl the ribbon with. We would decorate baby shower chairs with toole and silk flowers. I can hear her yelp when she’d burn her finger on a glue gun and then keep going until the job is done. I see my faded balloon tattoo and I see love in all of its wholeness. Imperfect. Mine.

By:Shaun Liriano

You’ve Got “It.” I promise.

“There is little place in the political scheme of things for an independent, creative personality, for a fighter. Anyone who takes that role must pay a price.”- Shirley Chisholm
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When I was 6, my mother took me to a little *dojo on Farmers Boulevard with no awning.  Prior to it being a dojo, it was a hair salon. As soon as I walked through the door I felt at home.  It’s amazing, the things from your childhood you can remember. My Sensei was a lean man but not “skinny.”  I remember him peering over me.  He leaned down in front of me.  He opened his palm and there was a quarter in his hand. He said, “If you can get this quarter out of my hand, you can keep it.”  I said, “That’s it?” He smiled and opened his palm. I tried 3 times to get the quarter and I couldn’t. I was embarrassed and I tugged at my mother’s hand to give her the hint that this wasn’t the right place for me. Back to dancing school it would be. Sensei rubbed his hand over his bald head and smiled that big white smile again. He said, “Shaun, is it?”  I said, “Yes sir.”  He said, “Try it again.  If you get it, you do not have to start in my beginner’s class. You can start in Intermediate and catch up with the big kids.”  I lit up! Determined now, with the stakes a little higher, I tried again. On the first shot I grabbed that quarter.  Now I had the big smile.  He said, “See you in class.”

Eavesdropping, I heard him telling my mom that I have “it.” He said martial art is a matter of will more than skill.   He gave my mom a *gi in my size and he told her that I would get a little “banged up” but he saw a fighter in my eyes.  I loved that stinky, smelly, sweaty dojo.  Sensei eventually had to switch to another location in Valley Stream.  It was definitely an upgrade.  Later, my 10 month old sister died and I took a break.  I couldn’t focus anymore.  It seemed as though the fighter in my eyes died with her.  When I was 9, my uncle opened his own self defense studio.  I followed my uncle and joined the “Common Sense School of Self Defense.”  My friends from the block went there.  It was mixed martial arts.  We called it the “gumbo” of martial arts because we learned everything.  I hated meditation.  It was too quiet.  There were too many thoughts in my head for me to be alone with them.  I would wait patiently for the end of class when we would bring out the mats and *spar.  I suited up, put my mouth piece in and I would fight like my life depended on it.  My uncle would match you up by skill not gender or even weight class.  I would often be paired up with my next door neighbor, Kiyanna.  She was a good match.  There was never a winner.  We knew one another well and we knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  We played tennis and rode bikes and went skating together too. We were friends.  I preferred to be paired with the guys because I loved to win.  I had a point to prove. You could be easy on me if you wanted to because I’m a girl but after you got popped in the face a couple of times with my roundhouse kick, you’d start fighting.  They started to treat me like an equal.  They would begin to ask to fight me.  I had the will to win and I often did.

One day when I was 13, I got too cocky and my uncle was doing some padded drills with me.  He punched me right in the face because I kept dropping my hands.  I felt my nose sting and my eyes begin to water.  The glove split my lip. I was pissed.  More than pissed, I was embarrassed.  I quit (for about two weeks but it felt longer to me.) Once again, my will was diminished.
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I’m 30 now.  I always revisited Martial Arts.  Progressive Martial Arts in Fresh Meadows in high school and then I went to Extreme in Valley Stream a few years back but I don’t train anymore.  I started working out again a few months ago. I joined a popular gym that has childcare. I always get into this groove and then I get bored and irritated running stationary, biking stationary, and lifting stationary.  I get tired of not going anywhere.  Today when I went to the gym, I brought my gloves.  I pounded that bag and I let out all the shit that piles up inside of me.  I sweat out the venom that you bite others with unintentionally when you have no outlet.  I felt good and I physically reminded myself that I am a fighter and I have been since I grabbed that quarter when I was 6. Life is about will.  Something (or in some cases someone) has to motivate you to be better than average.  You have to WANT to fight or you will just crumble and lay on the mat being pummeled.  Get up and learn something new, focus on what makes you happy, or you will always be stationary and docile.  Fight!

“When someone breaks your skin, you break their bones.”

-Uncle Ric

 

By: Shaun Nickens

 

*A Dojo is a place for training and learning.  It is a Japanese term.  You may also hear it referred to as a Temple.

*Gi= Karate uniform

*Spar=fight in short sessions

What’s Your Karaoke Song?

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You enter the small room. There’s a phone on the wall to call the bar and grill if you need some more “liquid courage. ” The room is dimly lit. There is a large screen,  seating and binders on the table with thousands of song choices.  What song are you looking for?

My two go to choices are always:

Hotel California by The Eagles
” Mirrors on the ceiling,
The pink champagne on ice
And she said “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device”
And in the master’s chambers,
They gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives,
But they just can’t kill the beast”

And 911 by Wyclef Jean feat Mary J

[Mary J. Blige]
“So cold
Sometimes I feel like I’m a prisoner
I think I’m trapped here for a while
(but I’m always right here with you girl)
And every breath I fight to take
Is as hard as these four walls I wanna break
I told the cops you wasn’t here tonight
Messin’ around with me is gonna get you life
Oh yeah, yeah
But everytime I look into your eyes
Then it’s worth the sacrifice”

I sing those songs at the top of my lungs including all the riffs and ad libs! I sing them and I’m reminded of my first Karaoke machine (a gift from Santa.) I would record songs straight from the radio on blank tapes. If you weren’t careful you would record the commercials by accident.  So I would stand attentively next to the karaoke machine and hit stop just before the disk jockey would announce the song that just played.

My dad used to blast Hotel California from the basement.  I couldn’t appreciate the lyrics when I was younger.   As an adult I recognize how truly creative they really are. They tell a great story. You envision a place so beautiful becoming a prison,  a place you can’t escape from.  The contrast is the fact that in between the lyrical stanzas are beautiful instrumental solos playing so freely.   You can hear the liberation.  I envied the talent and had to just be complacent in my air playing on my electric hairbrush.

Someone wise once defined love this way: “Love is insanity.” Music often encapsulates that sentiment.  So many songs.  So much expression.  So many emotions. So many other undefined anomalies. So many antithetical ideas placed carefully on the music staff.  What’s your song? What plays on the “old school at noon” that makes you throw your hand in the air? What are you vigorously looking for in those binders?  Share with me in the comments.

~SMN