Oct/Nov 2006 Nonfiction

My Career As A Breakdancer

by Ali Fahmy

Photo by Jim Gourley

I was sixteen when the Jews moved in across the field. First, I saw the moving vans. Two weeks later, I saw the people. My father told me they were Jews. "Their name is Pollack. That's a Jewish name." He had seen their name on the mailbox.

There were two boys in the Pollack house: David, who was my age, and Harrison, who was a year older. On the bus to high school, David listened to music on headphones and nodded his head to a tinny beat. Harrison read books, like Abe Lincoln's biography. They were from the city, Philadelphia. More precisely, North Philly.

By 1982 the Arab-Israeli wars had subsided and been replaced by tenuous peace on the surface and seething historic rage within. This was true for both sides but especially for the Arabs, for they were the losers. In my quiet hometown by the Delaware River, the peace was irrelevant but the rage, tempered perhaps by distance and suburban comfort, was still there in my Egyptian father. In 1973 he listened to accounts of the wars on shortwave radios. In 1977 he sat in awe on the big chair in front of the television as the CBS Evening News showed Jimmy Carter coaxing Israel and Egypt to shake hands and make promises they likely wouldn't keep. Ever since I could remember, he would whisper "Palestine" when the newsman said "Israel."

But the news would end. Walter Cronkite would give way to Barney Miller reruns. My father and I watched and laughed every night as a Jewish cop and his racially mixed crew of cynics turned a claustrophobic Manhattan set into something exotic. "This is intelligent comedy," my father said on more than one occasion, defining the Jewish tradition of cerebral funny-making whether he knew it or, more likely, pretended not to.

The area that separated our house from the Pollack's was indeed a field. When we first moved to Bucks County, I was 10 and the field, beyond our backyard, was lined with corn stalks. I didn't know then that I was looking at the last harvest. Machines destroyed the corn and made the field flat for house-building. But no houses were built. The field lay vacant. Until I left town for college in the Midwest, I played baseball in the long fat field with a rotating group of transplanted new kids.

The new kids were coming every year because, on the other side of the field, Phase II of the Pheasant Ridge development was taking hold. We, on Southview Lane, were Phase I. The people on Longview Lane, including the Pollacks—the last arrivals on the block because of something to do with a sump pump—were Phase II. The ex-cornfield was supposed to be Phase III, winding cul-de-sacs on opposite ends of the rectangle formed by the first two phases leading to the biggest houses in town. Like I said, Phase III never happened.

It was six months after they moved into the neighborhood when I had my first interaction with a Pollack. Waiting for the bus, David removed his headphones, carefully wrapped the cord around the radio (Or was it a tape player, the recently invented Walkman? I wasn't close enough to know), and placed it in his backpack. He then walked toward me and asked me what kind of music I listened to.

"All kinds."


"What's rap?" Though I knew.

"Aw, you don't know what you're missing."

The bus came and no more words passed between us until a few months later. The school year was near its end and David and I would soon only have one more year left. We were the first two kids waiting for the bus. Harrison wasn't by David's side, as usual. In fact I hadn't seen Harrison at the bus stop for weeks. David handed me his headphones and (yes, it was!) Walkman. He pressed play and I heard "Jam On It" by Newcleus. I liked the song. It would be their only hit. The bus came. I gave him back the Walkman.

That night I could hear the song playing from across the field. Harrison and David were dancing—breakdancing, it had been called in Rolling Stone, which I had subscribed to since I was nine—on a bright orange tarp in their backyard. Pretending to have a purpose in my backyard, I gravitated toward them, inching to the end of our property line, finally taking a seat on our idle riding lawnmower. David saw me and pointed me out to Harrison. Harrison waved me over. I looked back to my house. My father never told me not to talk to Jews, only that some people were Jews. Anyway, he wasn't in sight, so I got off the lawnmower and walked across the field.

Dad bought the riding mower back in 1980, in the spring when, if collective memory is to be believed, the country was lost in its unifying mission, its might diminished by the Iran hostage crisis, the weak economy, and a shrinking violet leader in President Carter. But I remember hope and vastness and a limitless future when the mower rolled off the delivery truck ramp onto our fresh black driveway, the garage door already opened in anticipation. Before we got the riding mower, my father was prouder of the automatic garage door than any other part of the house, than anything else that happened to us since we came to America in 1968. Now, with the mower, there was no need to waste energy pushing a heavy machine to achieve our goals. The family could sit on top of the world and chop the grass with a distant well-earned confidence. "Just remember to bring the cat inside because the visibility's not as good," my father—always the danger scanner—reminded me.

Dad had the first ride. The Pollacks hadn't moved in yet, but I imagine he imagined our other neighbors envying him, a master of his settled land, a surveyor from the mounted steed. Everyone else still push-mowed that year. But in '81, perhaps emboldened by Reagan's election and the Inauguration Day freeing of the hostages that signaled a new day in America, it seemed like everyone else in the neighborhood bought their own riding mower. The Pollacks already had theirs when they arrived. Mr. Pollack, whom we would otherwise hardly ever see, rode a newer model than ours. But, from our window across the field, it looked slow.

I walked to the Pollack's yard and watched them breakdance for a while. I didn't dare try to dance and they never asked me to. It was a sad summer for me because my cousin in Egypt fell off a cliff and died, coming ashore on the Mediterranean like a relic. When I was sad, I retreated to my room. I spent a lot of time in my room. I stared at my rock and roll posters and empty goldfish bowl. I dared the window shade to go up, and then down, on my mental command. I would be disappointed when the shade didn't move but when you're already depressed, disappointment is oxygen. I'd sit up in bed, cursing the kid books on my shelf taking up space—Hardy Boys mysteries I had no use for anymore, having outsmarted the genre. I cursed my old private black-and-white television for stealing more space and not being interesting enough. I cursed the rockers on my posters—Englishmen with beards—for not realizing what was missing. But for about 30 minutes that summer, I got my first up-close exposure to breakdancing and I liked it.

A few weeks after I walked to the Pollacks' yard, I turned on my little bedside clock radio. In the middle of a rainy afternoon, the deejay at Trenton's WPST took a leap and played "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang. Hearing this strange little song got me to ride my bike to the record store in Doylestown—Key Records, between the Acme grocery store and the shut-down Hess's department store with last year's clothes still visible through the glass. At Key Records, hippies sold bongs under glass and tried to convince the kids that things were so much better 10 years ago. The kids didn't argue with them because the kids didn't care. I didn't buy the "Rapper's Delight" single for the dancing. I was more into the lyrics. You couldn't really move to that song. The Pollacks danced to it though. They figured it out.

By the next summer, I became a full-fledged breakdancer. This may surprise the people who know me now, but it's true. I wore orange and silver parachute pants with zippers on the knees. I bought 12-inch singles by one-hit wonders. I set up a boombox in my own backyard and tried my hardest to perfect my moves. It was an odd transitory year for me (before transitory became the norm). The breakdancing was both an athletic and symbolic gesture. For years I would think back on that time fondly, with a narrow grin. I wasn't a particularly good breakdancer, at least not in comparison to David or Harrison the previous summer, or to my then-girlfriend Maria's brother Karl. King Karl, he called himself. He had the moves down. I could never be King.

Meanwhile, Harrison had gone away to college and David had disappeared to prep school. I still suspect his parents may have seen the breakdancing as a bad stage, as representative of the Philadelphia they abandoned when they came to the suburbs. I never saw either of the Pollack brothers again, but I learned a lot from them, the most important thing being: It's more about the breaking than the dancing.

Their parents still lived in the house across the field. My father was friendly with Mr. Pollack. I once saw them in the middle of the dividing field talking, Dad holding a rake, Mr. Pollack holding a shovel. It was more likely that they were talking about Phase III of Pheasant Ridge than arguing over the Gaza Strip. I never heard Dad talk about the Pollacks being Jewish again, although maybe he did and I didn't notice. Like many teenagers, I was escaping into my own life and avoiding any meaningful interaction with my family. I was breaking out of the house, into the city (Philadelphia) or at least into the nearer suburbs of the city. Into my rather squirrelly relationship with Maria, a seemingly epochal period that lasted three months, from May to July. But this isn't her story (which can be summed up in the following: Hello. Goodbye. Hello again. Goodbye forever.)

One day during my three months with Maria, I took a train to New York City, the birthplace of breakdancing and rap. My friend Jim went along. No, my memory plays tricks on me. Three sentences later I realize it was a bus. That's wrong too. Jim drove me to New York in his Ford Escort. White and clean, the opposite of tricked-out. Jim was insistent on never owning a foreign car. Yes, it was Jim who got me to Manhattan. The train and the bus, those were other times. Jim was my best friend then, appearing in my life somewhat randomly toward the end of my time in high school—a little later than I needed him but still appreciated.

During the two-hour drive across the Delaware River and up the Garden State Parkway, Jim and I disagreed about what we would do in the city. I wanted to buy hard-to-find rap singles and watch the kids pop and lock in Washington Square Park. Jim wanted to do touristy things—eat "authentic" pizza, visit the Empire State Building, take a tour of the NBC studios, and try to get David Letterman tickets. He believed that if he could get into the Letterman studio audience, he could find the answer to the one question that haunted him, the question whose lack of a definitive answer would foretell the wayward course of his college years, the question that tormented him, bled him dry: Is Letterman a Jew?

Jim, a devout Catholic, weighed the likelihood of Dave (he called him Dave) being Jewish as we crossed the George Washington Bridge: "Let's see. Dave is from Indiana—not a big Jewish population there. But Dave is in the entertainment industry. And he loves New York. He doesn't talk about his personal life, doesn't make a big deal about Christmas, banters effortlessly with Paul Schaefer. And the hair! I think it's about fifty-fifty. I just don't know!" Jim and my Dad got along well. They liked to talk politics.

We couldn't get Letterman tickets. Sold out. But we did take a tour of the NBC building. This included an up-close tour of Letterman's studio. When the tour guide asked us at the end if anyone had questions, I cringed in fear of Jim asking the question. He didn't. I still have my souvenir David Letterman baseball shirt, its elegant scripted text telegraphing Dave's intention to become an institution (which he has, the network switch and creeping bitterness notwithstanding). And I did make it to Tower Records on 4th Street, where I bought the aforementioned 12-inch singles. We never did make it to the park to watch the breakdancers. Today, Jim sells real estate in Florida. He drives a Toyota and votes Republican. He sympathizes with the Palestinians but sees a need for a Jewish state. He still doesn't know about Letterman.

That trip up to New York on a Thursday (I never forget days of the week for some reason) resonates. I would do symbolic things like that—a trip away from home, into the world, without really knowing the weighty importance of it all. It would become a pattern. Throughout my 20s and 30s, my grand expressions often took the form of a drive into the city, often alone, in search of adventure or simply a change of environment. Often, depending on what I found in my search, I'd prefer the drive home. Again, it was more about the breaking than the dancing.

By the end of that same summer, I was living in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, the Eastern time zone relegated to memory for pretty much forever. In my new hometown, my breakdancing clothes didn't blend in well. Minnesota wasn't ready for breakdancing yet. I don't remember ever wearing them again. I recently asked my Minnesota friends from back then—John and John— "Did you ever see me in the orange and silver zippered pants?" Yes, they both said but I don't know if they were remembering th pants or the legend.

A year later, I was at a mall in the suburbs of Minneapolis. I was there to buy a Bangles album, the one before the one with "Walk Like An Egyptian." Outside, in front of the food court entrance, a group of teenagers had laid out cardboard and a boombox. The palest blondest kid was dancing to "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash (these kids had done their research.) He was no King Karl. But he was better than my best memory of me. I wanted to pat them on the back, tell them to keep it up, educate them about the newer stuff coming out of the Bronx and Philadelphia. But I didn't.

So, to sum up my career as a breakdancer: three months (not counting the lessons from the Pollacks), one summer, one pair of orange and silver parachute pants, a half-dozen records, a mesh shirt, a sleeveless shirt, a second pair of orange pants, a mesh sleeveless shirt, a trip to New York with Jim, a pair of sneakers with fat black laces, another pair with fat orange laces, a trip to New York alone, a lesson from the King, a demonstration for Maria, and one last pair of pants—blood-red, pure passion.

I got married in 2001, 11 days after September 11th. The wedding was beautiful but cursed. Many of my Egyptian relatives and friends, most of them from the east coast, couldn't make it because they feared the racial profiling that they would endure in their travels to Minnesota, or because they had a reasonable fear of being in an airplane. My best man, an Irish-Italian man living in New Jersey at the time, cancelled his flight at the last minute because his daughter's friend's father died in the World Trade Center. The weather forecast promised rain on our lovely outdoor wedding (funded by game show winnings), complete with giant puppets, stilt walkers, and a marching band. The rain came and never stopped.

Despite the many absent guests, Jim had made it all the way from Florida. And he remembered to toast my father who had died six years earlier. I had forgotten to, as had my mother and sister. Sitting at the head table in a gigantic pavilion along the Mississippi River, I listened as Jim nobly stated my Dad's attributes—his sense of humor, his work ethic, his love of family. Jim didn't mention Dad's keen awareness of his surroundings. At the end of the toast, I felt 300 eyes looking at me. They wanted to see me cry or smile. Perhaps I did. But what I remember most happened a few minutes later when the DJ played the Beastie Boys' "Brass Monkey" and over 100 of us danced joyfully as the hard Minneapolis rain hit the metal roof, a memory that would not be clouded by the divorce five years later or the DJ's fateful decision to follow the Beasties with the Eagles' "Heartache Tonight" and not "Baby Got Back" like we asked him to.


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