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Guestwords: Like a Snake Bite

Wed, 06/29/2022 - 11:51

Remember Son of Sam? David Berkowitz?

I do. He was killing all over New York City the summer of 1977. A dog told him to do it. I remember the coverage, panic, and fear so well that I can still see those sickening Daily News headlines. There was no 24/7 news. Trauma came via the printed press or broadcasts.

The trauma and fear were like snake bites, and the poison of trauma doesn’t go away, it finds an emotional reservoir to hide in until another trauma wakes it and bids it to come play. My first bite was in the Summer of Sam.

Berkowitz terrorized the city with his gun and hate mail, while the country and I counted the deaths and wounded at 7 a.m., 6 p.m., and 11 p.m. He went after couples in those traditional lovers’ lanes tucked away in the city’s white communities. He was killing Janes and Joes, white kids my age and older who were hiding away to hold hands, make out, smoke a cigarette, maybe a joint.

I recall that summer many white girls cutting and dyeing their hair because, according to “Eyewitness News,” Berkowitz went after longhaired brunettes. Until he killed blondes. These girls, my white peers, were exposed to the poison of trauma, a fear they probably had never experienced until then.

As for me and my Black friends, we had a collective trauma, a poison that had been festering in our veins for generations. None of my Black friends would have considered parking in a rest area off the Belt Parkway. We were more concerned with the surrounding residents, not Berkowitz. Besides, who had a car? Not for that nonsense. We needed shelter, not a back seat that had the potential to be the prequel of “driving while Black.”

And I always planned before I headed out. I did it every day from childhood through adulthood, especially where I grew up, in Howard Beach, Queens. Home of real Archie Bunkers, a neighborhood living in the 1950s since 1960. From being out on Halloween to going to a movie to grocery shopping, I always had my antennae up.

In 1977 my generation learned hate needed no reason to aim and shoot. And a different hair color would not have saved me one bit.

When the police caught up with Berkowitz because of a traffic stop and opened the trunk of his car, they found an arsenal of weapons. Do you know where he was heading? Not Disney World. To the Hamptons. He said so. Yes, he was heading to the bastion of champagne dreams and caviar lives. He was heading to the Hamptons to shoot up the rich and famous. When I heard of the arrest and his intentions, my adolescent brain thought, “I could have been next.”

Was he coming to get me? Please, definitely not because I was rich and famous, but he was coming to my sanctuary, too, the Black Hamptons. Out in Sag Harbor, neither I nor any of my friends thought we could be victims while going to the beach or club. Not in the Hamptons. As for me and ones like me who escaped Metropolis, a (friggin’) traffic ticket saved our lives. There but for the Grace of God?

What if this Son of Sam knew the hangouts in East Hampton? Was he going straight to a disco? There was a disco right off Route 27 in Southampton back in the day. Yet it seemed that summer that no one skipped a beat, especially the privileged who joined me in thinking 100-plus miles was enough distance between the city’s woes and our repenting joys.

Of course he was caught before he got out to the Hamptons. They wouldn’t let him get out here.

Then along came Ted Bundy. Though he preferred blondes, I still didn’t go clubbing much that summer. I didn’t walk alone on the beach, especially at night. And if I put down or lost track of a glass at a club, I didn’t pick it back up.

So began the Age of the Serial Killers.

After 1977, my summers were never the same. I graduated the next summer — Berkowitz was sentenced that year. I wanted to work that summer in the city. My parents wanted me in Sag Harbor. Even though I was “legal,” I rarely drank in mixed company or went clubbing. You never knew. Summers in the Black Hamptons, few of my peers still thought we couldn’t be a victim at a club or while spooning on Sagg Main or Left Sagg beaches. Our watering holes.

There were friends who just waved it off, saying, “So-and-so wasn’t coming after Blacks.” But on the East End, most of the social venues were integrated (because we were doing the integrating). Not to mention, bullets don’t discriminate and guns follow the commands of those who pull the trigger.

I also knew that if anything happened to me, I wouldn’t make The Daily News. There wouldn’t be a “film at 11.”

KTBC in Austin, Tex., gave us the first televised mass murder in 1966. It was the University of Texas clock tower sniper, Charles Whitman. Look him up. See the similarities to the current madness.

So, what do Charles Whitman, Son of Sam, Ted Bundy beget? Uvalde, Parkland, Charleston, Sandy Hook, Columbine, and so many more. In Buffalo, Black elders, grandmothers, even a father buying his 3-year-old a birthday cake at a supermarket. Ambushed. Murdered. Pittsburgh, a Jewish congregation celebrating on Shabbat. Murdered. Atlanta, a white man went hunting to kill Asian women in a spa. Eight women eliminated. Murdered. Texas, in a predominantly Latino elementary school, 8 to 10-year-olds, celebrating graduation, two days before their summer vacation. Assassinated.

And many more not televised, posted, or printed.

It doesn’t matter that 1977 is 45 years ago. I am now 62. Yet the trauma of that Summer of Sam is seared in my brain like a branding iron. Hate is not a mental illness, it’s a poison. A poison when mixed with history, memory, and current events runs through your veins like a viper’s venom. Violence is the viper that spreads the hate. With each bite, your life is never the same. For some the venom rushes through their bodies, killing reason, creating the delusion of privilege, power, and control. For so many, it is permanently debilitating no matter whether predator or protector, once or twice bitten. For many others, it is deadly.

America has long been bitten; the poison has been circulating and metastasizing through millions of her citizens for generations. I know. I have the wounds. And I have been lucky. I survived. You want to see my scars?

Lora Rene Tucker is the poetry editor of African Voices magazine and the leader of antiracism and cultural empowerment workshops. The author of “Writes of Passage,” she lives in Sag Harbor.

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