Of Mice and Boys

Jose Vilson Jose

NY Rat by Banksy

NY Rat by Banksy

Tonight, Tara Betts had her first official Arc and Hue party at the Bowery Poetry Cafe. This free event showcased a few prominent and up-and-coming women poets, all of whom had their different styles and embraced their womanhood in their own ways. The queen of the hour also graced us with a little less than a dozen poems from her awesome book (and one I recommend every and anyone to get, and not just because I designer her website). In her writing, she extracts meaning off every word she speaks, and that may be a big key as to why people favor her work over, say, others who prefer a pretty metaphor every 5-6 lines for point garnering or money making. She’s an artist.

One poem she did that struck me is “For Those Who Need a True Story.” On the surface, one may assume she’s just telling a story about a kid who, at his mother’s behest, kills as many rats as possible so the landlord would decrease their rent. In my experience, such a tale hits at my very core. While I live a little better now, when I lived on Clinton St. (the one no one wanted to live in), rats were as natural as breathing, and roaches cleaned up crumbs like poor folks did, so killing roaches almost became a reminder of the natural food chain.

When I was maybe 4-5 years old, I walked into the bathroom, and saw a rat in my bathtub. I had no experience with killing rats ever, even though I’ve smelled the hint of rat blood and certainly had the pleasure of having rats in my walls and close to my bed. I tried to wash it into the drain so it’d run down the drain like the roaches would, but it stood its ground. This little rat stood there, no bigger than an inch, alive and shivering from its own nervousness and cold, eyes glowing and arms closed to its sides. I stared at it, talking to it for no less than 3 minutes.

I thought I’d befriend it, but the wiser part of me retracted my finger before the rat bit it. Thus, we just stayed there, wondering whether we’d break out of each others’ nature to defend or offend each others’ species. I called my Mom because I didn’t know what to do with my silent friend. She walked me out of the bathroom, and within a few minutes, the rat was “gone.” I’m not sure what actually happened to the rat, but I know I never saw it again. Even to this day, I’m too nervous to ask my mom.

The idea that boys living in these impoverished neighborhoods actually have so much in common with a rat hasn’t escaped me. Actually, it’s one of the many reasons I write the way I do. Because educators need to tell true stories, too.

Jose, who has something to say …