You remember when those rappers robbed a bank and killed a cop, that summer the girls from Wing turned green? I didn’t think it was connected then—the robbery, the gold, and the hordes of teens who were rotting from the inside. But I know better now.
Back in the day, we thought anyone signed to a record label was rich. We eyed the expensive Fila sneakers and trunk jewelry and thought of new money. We peeped the shiny album covers in Funk-O-Mart, heard Jazzy Jill’s song “Money, Mics & Madness” blaring from passing cars, and thought of mansions, exotic places far from the tilting rowhouses of our town. It never occurred to us that most local rappers were broke. That the gold chains and leather jackets they flaunted in overly saturated music videos were most likely the only payment they received.
We dreamed of being hood rich. Of owning something tangible that elevated us above vanilla tubes of government cheese, cheap wicker furniture, and trash bags stuffed with hand-me-downs. We found that glistening deception in gold earrings.
Before the rampage of ruptured girls, when frenzied teens streamed into the night like venomous lightning bugs, we discovered how easy it was to own a piece of paradise. We put our aspirations on layaway. For two-hundred dollars, paid in four easy installments, you could own a pair of bamboo earrings or over-sized hoops bearing your name. Never mind that we were poor. Our delusions were sparkly.
We wanted to feel powerful, like the B-girls in Philly. Like Jazzy Jill, our hometown hero, who was our first longing. There weren’t many female rappers in 1986 and Jill knew how to rock a mic better than most dudes. A few years older than us, she was an unsmiling girl with a mushroom hairstyle whose clothes smelled like sulfur from the quarries of our mill town. The bluster in her lyrics didn’t match the yearning in her eyes. Jill caught the attention of City Dreams, a North Philly label that specialized in diss tracks. Once they signed her, she traded in her mushroom hairdo for a fresh asymmetrical cut and her smelly outfits for trendy kicks and glitzy jewelry. When we saw her onstage at the Carver community center, gold hoop earrings snapping in defiance as she two-stepped beneath hot strobe lights, we knew what we wanted to be. Superstars.
Cicely was the first girl from our town to put gold earrings on layaway. Dark-skinned with deep dimples and manufactured curls, she was the closest Wing had to a trendsetter. That April, she walked a mile to Hanz Jewelers on the east end, across the railroad tracks that divided the poor section from the just-over-broke side, where freight trains hauled anthracite and limestone from nearby quarries. Once in the store, Cicely slapped five sweaty ten-dollar bills on the counter. She was dating a drug dealer named Hassan, so it was easier for her to rustle up her payments.
Hanz imported gold from Canal Street in New York. Or so we thought. Four display cases housed glittering bamboo earrings. Heavy earrings shaped like pyramids. Thick hoops with intricate braided designs. Metallic manna from heaven for the hungry girl. For an extra forty bucks, Hanz would solder a strip across the middle bearing your name. Lisa. Desiree. Ailene. Such a small price to pay to own yourself.
When Cicely strolled up to the gate of the Carver in June wearing those name earrings, and hip-hop thumped from the open doors of the community center, seeming to envelop her in its muskiness and power, we went wild. If our classmate could afford lavish earrings, we could too. We were fifteen back then, so most of us were unemployed. But our never-ending pursuit of flyness made us crafty. We hoarded our allowance, carried dime bags for the dudes on our block, lied about our age to get call center jobs.
We didn’t want to be princesses. We wanted to be hard. We were smart enough to know no white knight would ever swim the moat or scale the tower for us, no fairy godmother would ever wave a wand and transform us into our highest, daintiest selves. We were the dragon chained up in the dungeon snorting fire.
During the summer of 1986, Wing crackled with gold hysteria. We congregated on benches at the basketball court, heads swinging in exaggerated movements to feel the heft and glide of metal against skin as we watched the game. We gathered outside the pizza shop, checking reflections in plate glass windows. We became daring. We took the train down to 69th Street in Philly, where prettier, bolder versions of ourselves window-shopped at Gimbels, gold earrings jangling. We flirted with strangers. Cussed out rude saleswomen at the beauty supply store. Watched grown men playing the shell game on cardboard boxes, trying to hustle us out of our hard-fought treasure. But we were too clever to fall for their con.
Flashy gold earrings made us worldly. We should have known that twinkling bridge to grandeur was not only rickety and deceptive, but dangerous. Cicely got sick first. Her earlobes grew ashy, then split. Her mom assumed this reaction was because her delicate lobes had not previously borne the weight of so heavy an adornment. Other girls took ill too. Desiree was alarmed to see a sickly green cast spreading over her brown skin. When I saw her pedaling furiously past the Masonic lodge in her velour short set, she reminded me of a giant beetle who had been relieved of her wings.
Many of my classmates developed oozing sores on their scalps. Some girls’ hair even fell out. Those unlucky souls wandered the streets wearing shower caps, looking like feeble astronauts navigating a hostile planet. One day in the bathtub, I was startled to see a grassy tinge creeping up my legs, a condition I hid from my mom. In spite of those bizarre ailments, we refused to stop wearing gold earrings. We had paid too much and gone too far in the pursuit of flyness to return to a common life.
Gold jewelry emboldened us but its caustic dust made us feverish. Reckless. Green and noxious like the breath of dart frogs.
We destroyed things.
We trampled gardens. Geraniums, zinnias, and marigolds were not safe from our cracked and leaking fingers. We smashed the basement windows of the Lutheran church on Cherry Street. Ripped the tire swing loose from its mooring in the playground. Since we could not assuage the fever in our brain, those petty assaults soothed us.
The town seemed oblivious to the horde of green girls terrorizing its streets. Our neighbors dismissed our behavior as acting “fast.” No one asked if we were hurt or needed protection. They assumed we were too ornery and strong. Police cruisers were a common sight in our neighborhood, rolling slowly down our block to keep us in check.
The gold sickness raged for months. The smell of rotting flesh battled with the sulfur smells from the quarry, bringing memories on the wind of our hometown hero. Jazzy Jill had not escaped the crush of teen caprice. Her one hit song tumbled from the charts. People moved on to a new female rapper, Sweet Tee. I don’t know if it was delirium or a fear of being common, but Jill did the unthinkable.
I was sitting in bed, putting lotion on my legs, which were a harsher shade of green by then, when I heard the breaking news on Power 99. Jill and two rappers from her label had bumrushed a bank in Philly. The silent alarm was tripped. An officer responded, gun drawn. Jill fired a semiautomatic, piercing the cop’s heart. He died on the way to the hospital.
I turned off the radio. Stunned by Jill’s descent into mayhem. How had she gone from rocking stages to pulling botched heists? Was it just about money? The need to feel opulent? I wasn’t famous, but gold earrings transformed my plain life into splendor. I knew how it felt to be powerful. Seen.
I snatched off my gold hoops, my constant, hollow companions. Who knew if they were even real or some virulent alloy? Coming out, the earring posts were sticky and smelled like rotten eggs. A thin band across the middle announced my name: Deandra.
I never wore the earrings again. I tried to warn my girls about the toxic gold but they frowned at my unadorned lobes. At school, Cicely and Desiree brushed past me in the halls, corroded shells of their former selves.
By the time the green hue faded from my legs, it was May of 1987 and we were leaving Wing, moving to Pottstown. As I packed, I heard the girls on my block racing off into the night. Inflamed. Viridescent. Fluttering like June bugs with no purpose or light of their own. After Jazzy Jill’s downfall, I hoped they’d awaken from their gilded dreams.
I’m still hoping.
Spread the word!