Non-Fiction Author Highlight: “Birthday Lessons” by J. Taylor

Source: Wiki Commons

Growing up in Brazil, J. Taylor lived through unique experiences. He pretended to be a drug dealer, hung out with militia men, and was nearly shot, all on his ninth birthday.

“Birthday Lessons”

Growing up in the city of Santos, Sao Paulo Brazil was not easy. Every day forced decisions that determined the course of your life, from buying fish to feed your family, helping the local militia, going to school, or even playing soccer on the dirt fields. All actions had immediate consequences, and I learned this the hard way.

On October 6th 2008, I turned nine. It occurred to me that it should’ve been the best day of my life. However, the day became a total bust, starting when I skipped school.  Before all that, I woke up and carried out my daily chores: feeding the dogs and sweeping near the front door (which didn’t make sense to me because the floor was made of dirt). Then I kissed my mom goodbye as she said “Tenha um bom dia filho eu te amo”, which translates to Have a good day son, I love you. Wow, on my birthday, all she could muster was, “Have a good day”? No… Happy birthday Jed I love you, I’m happy you lived in this messed up country long enough to turn nine? Later I would understand that surviving in Santos wasn’t a feat of greatness, just a normality.

I left the house disappointed, but I wouldn’t be for long. All of a sudden, I crossed paths with Joao, a known hood. If you don’t know what a hood is, it’s a drug-slinging teen who makes lots of money, complete with his own turf. Joao nodded at me and said “Oi Jed, feliz aniversário” which if you couldn’t tell means, “Hi Jed, happy birthday!” Funny how Joao the hood knew it was my birthday and my own mother didn’t. Right then I decided instead of going to school, I would hang around Joao and learn the ins and outs of being a hood. Everyone has to learn a skill at some point, right?)

Source: Wiki Commons

Thus, I followed Joao around town, (kind of like bring-your-friend-to-illegal-work day). At first, my lesson consisted of the occasional dime bags exchanges in doorways, sliding coke in-between handshakes, and of course, delivering said coke in coffee bean bags. Why coffee beans, you ask? Well, the beans helped mask the scent of the drugs from police dogs. This proved especially helpful when an officer had pulled us aside with his dog, all while I struggled against a panic attack. The officer approached because he was curious as to why I wasn’t in school. I quickly made up the story that because it was my birthday, my mother decided it was time I learn the family trade of selling coffee beans…. that may or may not have featured cocaine.

Amazingly, he believed me, and my birthday adventures continued. We later ran into some militia hanging around the favelas. They were part of the Treceiro Commando Puro (aka Pure Commandos), which was strange because they were normally located in Rio De Janeiro. Joao sold to them, and the soldiers concocted something called Café Café (or Brown Brown), a mixture of cocaine, gun powder, and other indiscernible materials. I was starting to think that being a hood was rewarding! No school, I get to enjoy myself, all while making enough money to take care of my family. Those silly hopes soon faded as bullets fired in the distance, eeking closer and closer.

Source: Wiki Commons

During the shooting, Joao and I fled.  We ran as fast as we could back to our favela. As soon as I got to my street I ran up to my dirt-laden front-door and went straight to my room. I didn’t come out until the next day when I got up and went to school. At lunch, I learned that the militia men had fought with the police. Five people died in the gunfight. The crazy part was, just five minutes before, I was watching them make Café Café, and then the shooting happened. In the scuffle, I could have been arrested, or worse. I realized that even with my mother’s forgetfulness, I still loved her and my family. Being a hood was rewarding, but at a price. I wasn’t willing to give my life in service of coffee beans and cocaine.

My ninth birthday was a roller-coaster ride, and I’m glad for the lesson.

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