When I was in junior high, there was this kid in my class, Robert Cobbs. Robert was a soft spoken nerdy guy who always dressed like a preppy. In the hood, that alone would make you a target and at that age, the other kids were merciless. To top it off, Robert’s mom would bring him and pick him up from school. So you can imagine the harassment that would ensue. Being in the top class, a lot of us were nerds under the cover, but we knew that our survival depended on fitting in. We had our cliques..young boys pretending to be macho, wannabe jocks. We’d hang out in the park playing basketball for the most part after school.
One day, Robert showed up on the court during a shoot around. It was an unwritten rule that if you stepped on the court, you were allowed to hang. So the ball was passed to Robert. He dropped it. He then awkwardly ran after it looking like an uncoordinated newborn calf. The harassment ensued. It wasn’t mean spirited, but intense. He’d attempt to shoot and miss the entire rim. After a few of those, we’d take the time out to try to teach him how to shoot. He was determined to get it right. We all saw a little bit of ourselves in him, but no one would admit it out loud. Eventually we got a game going and picked Rob on our side. Whenever he’d get the ball we’d cheer him on to hit the shot. When he did it was comical, until he hit the next one, and the next one. The kid gloves came off and the other team would challenge him with some real defense. At the height of the game, his mom showed up, standing off in the corner with a watchful eye. No one had noticed her and as customary during the game, the profanity, and insults, which included the “this is for your mama shots” flew unfiltered. Robert! she said in that voice that you knew meant business, ‘it’s time to go’. Stunned as we became aware of her presence and embarrassed at some of the things that had been said, the game came to an awkward pause. He would plead his case to stay, all sweaty in his now dirty buttoned down shirt, to no avail. Dejectedly he relented to her summoning and bid us farewell, making his rounds through the guys, each one giving him a version of a soul brother handshake. It was for him a single moment of triumph. He’d come to use as the awkward fawn and left as one of the guys.
Fast forward to the late 80’s. I’d moved away from home, gotten a job on Wall St., living with my high school girlfriend in downtown Brooklyn in the stylish yuppie section of Fort Greene. I’d come out of the house, headphones on, oblivious to the world on my way to the store. I stepped out on to the sidewalk and was almost immediately hit by someone on a bike, He jerkily stopped and turned to offer an apology and to my amazement it was Robert. I was totally shocked. He was the absolute last person I’d expected to see and by the look on his face the feeling was mutual. We greeted and talked for a bit. He lived in the neighborhood. Small world we agreed and after a few moments, he started to ride off. He was having a very difficult time trying to get his balance. More than one would expect from a grown man. So I quipped to him, A little rusty? To which he replied, nah..it’s this damn MS. It’s kinda hard for me to keep it steady these days. I’ve had it since I was a child but it’s gotten really bad but I’m dealing with it. I’ll catch you later..and with that he rode off, struggling heavily to keep the bike straight. I was hollow. I did not know how to feel as the realization of what he’d just said to me soaked in. It explained everything..why he was so awkward, why his mom was so protective..it hit me like a wave and I stood there almost in tears, humbled at his bravery and overwhelmed with guilt by the way we treated him as a kid, but comforted in the fact that he considered me as a friend..