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Reynolds, Jason When I Was the Greatest ISBN 13: 9781442459489

When I Was the Greatest - Softcover

 
9781442459489: When I Was the Greatest
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In Bed Stuy, New York, a small misunderstanding can escalate into having a price on your head—even if you’re totally clean. This gritty, triumphant debut that Publishers Weekly calls “a funny and rewarding read” captures the heart and the hardship of life for an urban teen.

A lot of the stuff that gives my neighborhood a bad name, I don’t really mess with. The guns and drugs and all that, not really my thing.

Nah, not his thing. Ali’s got enough going on, between school and boxing and helping out at home. His best friend Noodles, though. Now there’s a dude looking for trouble—and, somehow, it’s always Ali around to pick up the pieces. But, hey, a guy’s gotta look out for his boys, right? Besides, it’s all small potatoes; it’s not like anyone’s getting hurt.

And then there’s Needles. Needles is Noodles’s brother. He’s got a syndrome, and gets these ticks and blurts out the wildest, craziest things. It’s cool, though: everyone on their street knows he doesn’t mean anything by it.

Yeah, it’s cool...until Ali and Noodles and Needles find themselves somewhere they never expected to be...somewhere they never should've been—where the people aren’t so friendly, and even less forgiving.

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About the Author:
Jason Reynolds is a New York Times bestselling author, a Newbery Award Honoree, a Printz Award Honoree, National Book Award Honoree, a Kirkus Award winner, a two-time Walter Dean Myers Award winner, an NAACP Image Award Winner, and the recipient of multiple Coretta Scott King honors. The American Booksellers Association’s 2017 and 2018 spokesperson for Indies First, his many books include When I Was the Greatest, Boy in the Black SuitAll American Boys (cowritten with Brendan Kiely), As Brave as You, For Every One, the Track series (GhostPatinaSunny, and Lu), and Long Way Down, which received both a Newbery Honor and a Printz Honor. He lives in Washington, DC. You can find his ramblings at JasonWritesBooks.com.
Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
When I Was The Greatest 1


“Okay, I got one. Would you rather live every day for the rest of your life with stinky breath, or lick the sidewalk for five minutes?” Noodles asked. He turned and looked at me with a huge grin on his face because he knew this was a tough one.

“It depends. Does gum or mints work?”

“Nope. Just shit breath, forever!” He busted out laughing.

I thought for a second. “Well, if I licked the ground, I mean, that might be the grossest thing I could ever do, but when the five minutes was up, I could just clean my mouth out.” In my head I was going back and forth between the two options. “But if I got bad breath, forever, then I might not ever be able to kiss the ladies. So, I guess I gotta go with licking the ground, man.”

Just saying it made me queasy.

“Freakin’ disgusting,” Needles said, frowning, looking out at the sidewalk. “But I would probably do the same thing.”

A sick black SUV came flying down the block. The stereo was blasting, but the music was all drowned out by the loud rattle of the bass, bumping, shaking the entire back of the truck.

“Aight, aight, I got another one,” Noodles said as the truck passed. He shook his soda can to see if anything was left in it. “Would you rather trade your little sister for a million bucks, or for a big brother, if that big brother was Jay-Z?”

“Easy. Neither,” I said, plain.

“Come on, man, you gotta pick one.”

“Nope. I wouldn’t trade her.”

Another car came cruising down the street. This time, a busted-up gray hooptie with music blasting just as loud as the fresh SUV’s.

“So you tellin’ me, you wouldn’t trade Jazz for a million bucks?”

“Nope.”

“You wouldn’t wanna be Jay-Z’s lil brother?” Noodles looked at me with a side eye like I was lying.

“Of course, but I wouldn’t trade Jazz for it!” I said, now looking at him crazy. “She’s my sister, man, and I don’t know how you and your brother roll, but for me, family is family, no matter what.”

  

Family is family. You can’t pick them, and you sure as hell can’t give them back. I’ve heard it a zillion times because it’s my mom’s favorite thing to say whenever she’s pissed off at me or my little sister, Jazz. It usually comes after she yells at us about something we were supposed to do but didn’t. And with my mom, yelling ain’t just yelling. She gives it everything she’s got, and I swear it feels like her words come down heavy and hard, beating on us just as bad as a leather strap. She’s never spanked us, but she always threatens to, and trust me, that’s just as bad. It happens the same every time. The shout, then the whole thing about family being family, and how you can’t pick them or give them back. Every now and then I wonder if she would give us back, if she could. Maybe trade Jazz and me in for a little dog, or an everlasting gift card for Macy’s, or something. I doubt she’d do it, but I think about that sometimes.

Me and Jazz always joke about how we didn’t get to choose either. Sometimes we say if we had a choice, we would’ve chose Oprah for a mom, but the truth is, we probably still would’ve gone with good ol’ Doris Brooks. I mean, she’s a pretty tough lady and she don’t always get it right, but there’s no doubt that she loves us. And we know we’re lucky, even when we’re getting barked at. Plus, it’s not always about us. I mean, sometimes it is, but other times it’s about other things, like our mom just being stressed out from work. She’s a social worker, and all that really means is that she takes care of mentally sick people. She makes sure they get things they need, kind of like being a step-step-stepmother to them. At least that’s the way she breaks it down to us. I could see how that could be stressful, so Jazz and I do the best we can to not add to it.

What’s crazy is that we don’t ever really see our mother that much anyway, mainly because she also has another gig at a department store in the city. So she works with the mentally ill from nine to five, and then sells clothes to folks who she swears are just plain crazy, from six to nine thirty, and all day on Saturday. Sunday she takes off. She says it’s God’s day, even though she spends most of it sleeping, not praying. But I’m sure God can understand that she’s had a long week. I sure do.

Mom says the only reason she has to work so hard in the first place is because our rent keeps going up. We live in Bed-Stuy, and she’s always complaining about the reason they keep raising the rent so much around this part of Brooklyn, is because white people are moving in. I don’t really get that. I mean, if I’m in a restaurant, and I order some food, and a white person walks in, all of a sudden I have to pay more for my meal? Makes no sense, but that’s what she says. I don’t really see the big deal, but that might be because no white people live on my block yet. And I can’t see none moving around here no time soon either. Shoot, black people don’t even like to move on this block. People say it’s bad, and sometimes it is, but I like to focus on the positives. We got bodegas on both ends, which is cool, and a whole bunch of what my mom calls “interesting” folks who live in the middle. To me, that just equals a good time, most of the time.

A lot of the stuff that gives my neighborhood a bad name, I don’t really mess with. The guns and drugs and all that, not really my thing. When you one of Doris’s kids, you learn early in life that school is all you need to worry about. And when it’s summertime, all you need to be concerned with then is making sure your butt got some kind of job, and staying out of trouble so that you can go back to school in September. Of course, Jazz isn’t old enough to work yet, but even she makes a few bucks every now and then, doing her little homegirls’ hair. The point is, Doris don’t play with her kids fooling around in all that street mess. Lucky for her, I don’t really have the heart to be gangster anyway. I ain’t no punk or nothing, but growing up here, I’ve seen too many dudes go down early over stupid crap like street cred, trying to prove who’s the hardest. I’m not trying to die no time soon, and I damn sure ain’t trying to go to jail. I’ve heard stories, and it definitely don’t sound like the place for me. So I always just keep cool and lay low on my block, where at least I know all the characters and how to deal with all their “interesting” nonsense.

Like my next-door neighbors, Needles and Noodles. They’re brothers, and when you talk about having a bunch of drama, these dudes might be the masters. They’re both my friends, but Noodles, the younger brother, is my ace. He’s only younger than Needles by a year, so it’s more like they’re twins, but the kind that look different. Not identical, the other kind. And really, when I think about it, Noodles actually is more like the big brother in their house, but only because Needles’s situation, which I’ll get to, makes it hard for him to do certain things sometimes.

I met them almost five years ago, when I was eleven, after the Brysons left the neighborhood. The Brysons were an old couple who lived next door, who everyone loved. Mr. Bryson had lived in that house since he was a kid, and when he met Mrs. Bryson on a Greyhound bus coming from the March on Washington, a story he used to tell me all the time, they got married and she moved in that house with him. They lived there until they were old, and out of the blue one day they were gone. Not dead. Just gone. They moved to Florida. When they got there, they sent me a postcard from their new home. On the front was a picture of Martin Luther King Jr., and on the back it said, in Mrs. Bryson’s handwriting:

Dear Allen,

We had a dream too . . . that one day we wouldn’t

have to take the “A” train ever again. Our dream

has come true.

With love,

The Brysons

I never heard from the Brysons again, and after they left, their brownstone got grimy. I don’t know who took it over, but whoever it was, they didn’t care too much about nothing when it came to who they let live there. All kinds of wild stuff started happening up in there, from crackheads to hookers. I guess the easiest way to put it is, it became a slum building—a death trap—which was crazy because it was such a nice place when the Brysons had it. Then one day Needles and Noodles showed up. Well, really just Noodles. It was a Sunday morning, and I was running to the bodega to get some bread, and when I came out the house, Noodles was sitting on my stoop. I had never seen him before, and like normal in New York, I ignored him and went on about my business. But when I got back from the store, he was still sitting there.

We made eye contact and sort of did the whole head-nod thing. Then he spoke.

“Yo,” he said. His voice was kind of raspy. I noticed he was holding a crumpled ripped-out page of a comic book, and a little pocket-size notebook that he was scribbling in.

“Yo,” I said. “You new?”

The guy looked exhausted, even though it was the middle of the day. The sun was baking, and sweat was pouring down his forehead.

I glanced down at the comic. Couldn’t recognize which one it was, which didn’t surprise me. They were never really my thing.

“Yeah,” he said, tough. He quickly folded the colorful paper up and slid it between the pages of the tiny notebook. Then he smushed it all down into his pocket.

“What floor?” I asked. I was a little confused because I didn’t think anybody had moved out.

“Second.” He tugged at the already stretched-out collar of his T-shirt.

I laughed but was still confused. I guess I just figured he was joking.

“Come on, man, I live on the second floor, so I know you don’t live there.”

“Yeah, I live on the second too,” he said with a straight face. “Over there.” He nodded his head to the house next door. The death trap.

I was stunned, but I knew better than to make it weird.

“So what you doing over here?” I asked, putting the grocery bag down on the steps.

“Sitting,” he muttered, staring at the next step down. “Would you sit on that stoop if you was me?”

Hell no, I thought. Noodles explained that he couldn’t stay all cooped up in that place, so he came outside to get some fresh air. But then he realized he also didn’t want nobody to think he lived there, so his plan was to sit on my stoop until it got dark, and then slip back into his own building. I wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t want to start nothing because he seemed tough, and I didn’t know him yet. He looked mad, and I couldn’t help but think that wherever he came from was much better than this place. Had to be.

“I’m Ali,” I said to him, holding my hand out for dap.

He looked at it as if he was trying to figure out if he wanted to give me five or not. Then he reached out and grabbed it, our palms making that popping sound.

“Word. Roland.”

“It’s cool if you chill out here,” I said, like I owned the building or something. As if I could stop him from sitting on the concrete stairs.

The two of us sat on the stoop for a while. I wanted to ask him what comic he was reading, but judging by how fast he folded it up, that didn’t seem like a good idea. I don’t think we talked about anything in particular. I just remember acting like a tour guide, pointing out who was who and what was what on the block. I figured it was the least I could do, since he was new around here. The hard part was trying not to point to his house and say, “And that’s where all the junkies stay.”

The sun had gone almost all the way down, and the streetlights were flickering, when my mother poked her head out the window to call me up for dinner.

“Who’s that, Ali?” she asked, sort of harsh.

“This is Roland. Just moved in . . . next door,” I said, looking up at her, trying to drop a hint without being too obvious. Roland turned around and leaned his head back so he could see her too.

“Hi, son,” my mother said, the tone of her voice softening. I could tell that she was as surprised as I was to know that he was living in the slum building.

“Hello,” he said sadly.

Doris looked at him for a moment, sizing him up. Then she shot her eyes back toward me.

“Ali, can you bring my bread inside!”—I totally forgot!—“And come on and eat before this food gets cold,” she said in her usual gruff tone, but then turned toward Noodles, and said all nice and kind, “and you’re welcome to come eat too, sweetheart.”

  

As we ate, my mother asked him where he was from, but he avoided answering. Then Jazz, who at the time was only six, picked up where Doris left off and started interrogating him, asking him all kinds of crazy stuff.

“Your mom don’t cook?” she asked. My mother shot her a look, and before Noodles even had a chance to answer, Jazz changed the question.

“I mean, I mean,” she stumbled while looking at Doris out the corner of her eye, “you like SpongeBob?”

“Yeah.” The first time he smiled all day.

“Dora?” Jazz questioned.

“Yep.”

“The Young and the Restless?”

“Of course,” Noodles said, unfazed. Then he broke out laughing. He was obviously joking, but Jazz decided right then and there that she liked him.

After dinner he helped me wash dishes and thanked my mother for letting him come up and eat. Before he left, he pulled out his tiny notebook and scribbled a sketch of SpongeBob, that kinda looked like him, and kinda not, but it was still pretty good just from memory. Jazz had already left the table and was washing up for bed, so he told me to give it to her. And once it got dark enough outside, and quiet enough on the block, he made a dash into his apartment.

Though we weren’t really friends yet, he was the first person I ever had come over to hang out. I don’t really have any homeboys in the neighborhood, just because a lot of teenagers around here are messed up these days. Either they’re selling or using, and the ones that aren’t are pretending to, or have overprotective mothers like Doris who don’t want their kids hanging with nobody around here either. I have a few dudes I chill with at school, but I never really get to see them too much during the summer, just because most of them live in Harlem and I almost never go there. And they definitely don’t come to Brooklyn. So I had no choice but to keep the friends to a minimum—until Noodles.

The next morning I looked out the window, and sure enough, Noodles was sitting out there on my stoop. I remember watching him pop his head up from a different torn comic-book page, and his notepad, to watch the kids play in the hydrant. I got dressed fast and ran out to see what was up.

I guess he didn’t hear me open the door, because he flinched, big-time, when I said, “Yo, man.”

“Yo, you scared me. Don’t be creeping up on folks like that. Get you messed up, man.” He didn’t laugh, but I did. But once I realized he didn’t, I stopped. Then he laughed.

“What’s that?” I looked at the comic and the small piece of line paper covered in blue ink.

“Oh. Incredible Hulk,” he murmured while folding it up in the mini pad.

I could tell he was a little embarrassed about the comic thing—maybe he thought I would think he was some kind of geek or something. I didn’t really see what the big deal was. If you into comics, you into comics. And even though I wasn’t, I knew who Incredible Hulk was. Who didn’t?

“Aw, m...

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