Eight-year-old Andy was already a legend on Dodworth Street by the time a social worker slipped a note underneath the family's apartment door, charging his mother, Tata, with educational neglect. Andy was the street kid with tousled hair who could jump over five people with his bike, turn an abandoned building into a shelter for a dozen wild dogs, and stand toe-to-toe with any of the savvy young drug hustlers that hung around the doorway of the corner store with his mother. Tales of Tata's numerous escapades—her knack for eluding the narcotics squad, her ability to fake an asthma attack convincing enough to get her released from a pair of handcuffs, her refusal to live by any authority, even when it came in the form of a gun-toting supplier whose crack she had smoked instead of sold—provided Andy with a street pedigree that established him on the block before he was old enough to walk.
When they were small, Andy and his three older brothers splashed away their summer days in a blow up pool underneath the J train, on Broadway. Tata kept one eye on her waterlogged boys and another on her clientele as she and some of the other parents in the neighborhood doled out glassine envelopes:
Tata was a first-generation Nuyorican tomboy whose parents had retained many of their traditional Latin values, even after moving to New York. When Tata's mother chided her for not being as ladylike as her sisters, Tata dropped out of school and took a job as a home health attendant. After a few months on the job, she met Andres, a streetwise Cubano nearly twice her age. Andres had already had several common-law wives and six children, but he was entranced Tata's athletic body and unruly spirit, and the two of them set up house together. Over the next 15 years, Tata bore him seven children.
Like many of the other men in the neighborhood, Andres supported his family by working odd jobs for local merchants, in exchange for a daily wage. By the time the decade-long economic depression forced small business owners in Bushwick to cut back on their hired help, it was easy for Andres to adapt to a piecework job like selling heroin. Soon Tata and Andres were working side by side in the only mom and pop enterprise that was turning a profit along East Broadway in Brooklyn. Several families would pool their resources in order to get a larger quantity of product at a better price. When evening came and school was out, the families would take a portion of the day's profits and send the older kids to shop for hot dogs and BBQ fare; then the adults would take turns serving customers and cooking dinner.
For Tata, the booming black market economy was the next best thing to working from home, until she became too curious about why people would go to such lengths to sample her wares. She started out slow, just snorting part of a dime bag, but before long she was hooked, and eventually she landed in a corrections facility upstate for possession. By the time she returned home, three years later, Tata felt she had lost her place in the household. Her children—even her baby girl—had been growing up without her, and Andres had become both mother and father to them. Tata always at home in the street, however, where crack had become the favored drug during her absence.
The difference between a heroin and a crack addiction was like the difference between going down on a sinking ship or a suicide bomber. When Tata was smoking crack she felt immortal, and while she was killing herself trying to maintain that feeling everyone was caught in the fallout. Not even her sons were immune to Tata's constant marauding for money. Tata's oldest boy had started dealing to help his father make ends meet while Tata was in prison. Tata would convince Andy to find his brother's hidden stash; then she would sell it and kick back a little money to Andy so that he could feed his dogs. Tata would find Pepe, her second oldest, an odd job and then convince him to hand over his pay. Andres was in charge of their sons at home, but when they were in the street, Tata ruled.
Andy, who had stopped going to school when Tata was in prison, was often by his mother's side on the block. He also had a way with animals and kept a rotating pack of strays in a changing venue of vacant spots on Dodworth Street. Andy loved his dogs, and he made them fight. He knew that in a neighborhood where dogfights are common, teaching a dog to fight for itself was the best way to insure its survival. Andy was proud when one of his dogs won, and he'd lovingly bandage the animal's wounds in gratitude for the respect that the dog's efforts had earned for him. Tata saw her son in a similar light; he was her legacy, and he never disappointed her.
After Tata was charged with educational neglect, Andres had to take out a PINS (Person in Need of Supervision) warrant against Andy, stating that Andres had tried and failed to make the boy return to school. The legal consequences of Tata's failure to enter a drug program after the neglect charge, combined with Andy's warrant, put both mother and son on the run from the law. Tata still urged Andy to locate the caches that the dealers would hide on the street. Now, instead of buying dog food, Andy used his share of the ill-gotten gains for marijuana.
© Copyright 1989 - Brenda Kenneally. All rights reserved.