Growing Up Different in New York

Whole Earth, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Growing Up Different in New York


Honky

Dalton Conley 2000; 207 pp. $12 Vintage Books

Honky is the funny, poignant journey of a white, Jewish boy growing up in a poor black and hispanic housing project on Manhatten's Lower East Side during the 70s and early 80s. If you think you won't be able to relate, think again. As Conley attempts to understand the complexities of his experience, his book is more compelling than one more coming-of-age memoir, and far more personal than a sociological reflection on race, class, and culture. I loved Conley's voice. The story could have easily veered off into nostalgic ooze or taken a more pretentious sociological analysis. Conley stays somewhere in the middle and tells it like he sees it.

Burglaries, shootings, drugs, pollution, and poverty are the backdrop for his comedic, unsentimental, recountings of vacations to the country that might as well have been to another planet; the gunshot that almost killed his best friend; being held at knifepoint after a baseball game; and living in an eccentric family whose unconditional love threads its way through each page.

--EP

"The they who made up these policies were, on the surface, quite different in character from the they who stole car radios or cut off the peckers of my classmates at the Mini School. The Board of Education, the state welfare agency, and all the other theys who set the rules for our lives seemed obsessed with laws and regulations. They wrote them, implemented them, followed them, and in some cases were actually composed of them and nothing more. Beneath the surface, however, these state behemoths were no different in nature from the spirits who stole; they were just as arbitrary, random, and mysterious.... It seemed possible to get whatever you wanted as long as you knew the magic words and when to say them. It was through such a spell that I was propelled off the life trajectory shared by the other neighborhood kids and catapulted into New York City's middle and upper classes. My life chances had just taken a turn for the better, but my sense of the order of things--that is the pecking order of race and class--was about to be stood on its head.

"I felt Sean press the blade harder against my neck, seemingly needing to push things one step further to get a rise out of the group. "Check it out y'all," he said as he stood more erect lifting me with him, onto my tiptoes. He swung me from left to right and back again, making me dance like a marionette. …

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