I'm Down: A Memoir

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Overview

Mishna Wolff grew up in a poor black neighborhood with her single father, a white man who truly believed he was black. “He strutted around with a short perm, a Cosby-esqe sweater, gold chains and a Kangol—telling jokes like Redd Fox, and giving advice like Jesse Jackson. You couldn’t tell my father he was white. Believe me, I tried,” writes Wolff. And so from early childhood on, her father began his crusade to make his white daughter Down.

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I'm Down: A Memoir

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Overview

Mishna Wolff grew up in a poor black neighborhood with her single father, a white man who truly believed he was black. “He strutted around with a short perm, a Cosby-esqe sweater, gold chains and a Kangol—telling jokes like Redd Fox, and giving advice like Jesse Jackson. You couldn’t tell my father he was white. Believe me, I tried,” writes Wolff. And so from early childhood on, her father began his crusade to make his white daughter Down.

Unfortunately, Mishna didn’t quite fit in with the neighborhood kids: she couldn’t dance, she couldn’t sing, she couldn’t double dutch and she was the worst player on her all-black basketball team. She was shy, uncool and painfully white. And yet when she was suddenly sent to a rich white school, she found she was too “black” to fit in with her white classmates.

I’m Down is a hip, hysterical and at the same time beautiful memoir that will have you howling with laughter, recommending it to friends and questioning what it means to be black and white in America.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Humorist and former model Wolff details her childhood growing up in an all-black Seattle neighborhood with a white father who wanted to be black in this amusing memoir. Wolff never quite fit in with the neighborhood kids, despite her father's urgings that she make friends with the "sisters" on the block. Her father was raised in a similar neighborhood and-after a brief stint as a hippie in Vermont-returned to Seattle and settled into life as a self-proclaimed black man. Wolff and her younger, more outgoing sister, Anora, are taught to embrace all things black, just like their father and his string of black girlfriends. Just as Wolff finds her footing in the local elementary school (after having mastered the art of "capping": think "yo mama" jokes), her mother, recently divorced from her father and living as a Buddhist, decides to enroll Wolff in the Individual Progress Program, a school for gifted children. Once again, Wolff finds herself the outcast among the wealthy white kids who own horses and take lavish vacations. While Wolff is adept at balancing humorous memories with more poignant moments of a daughter trying to earn her father's admiration, the result is more a series of vignettes than a cohesive memoir. (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
School Library Journal

Adult/High School

In a memoir that is frequently hilarious, occasionally terrifying, and ultimately bittersweet, Wolff forces readers to consider whether racial identity is the result of nature, derived through nurture, or constructed and reconstructed throughout life. The author was born to white parents and raised into early adolescence mostly by her father, a man who worked harder to remake his own and his children's identities as black than he did at earning a living. From early childhood she tried hard to sort through evidence of her own sense of self and belonging: rougher kids in their working-class black Seattle neighborhood rejected her while adoring her younger (equally white) sister; other black kids accepted her as an equal or pitied her confusion; her father's second wife (black) rejected her cruelly; and her mother was willing to take her in but not to confront her former husband's careless child rearing. When her mother enrolled her in a public school program for intellectually gifted children, Wolff had to accommodate her worldview to take into account her classmates' relative wealth and mindless racism. Father and daughter eventually found a bridge through sports, but this rapprochement was made possible as much by the author's maturing emotional health as by her father's realization that he risked losing her. Wolff writes fluidly and offers moments of great insight through story rather than through explanation, making it easy for readers to engage with the child's questions and growing frustrations. An excellent choice for discussion in ethnic identity curricula, but absorbing reading, too.-Francisca Goldsmith, Halifax Public Libraries, Nova Scotia

Kirkus Reviews
A humorist and former model recalls growing up gifted and white in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood. In the early 1970s, Wolff and her parents, all Caucasian, moved back to her father's childhood neighborhood, Rainier Valley in south Seattle. The neighborhood had changed from white to black, and her father decided that the family should be black too. "He strutted around with a short perm, a Cosby-esque sweater, gold chains, and a Kangol," writes the author, "telling jokes like Redd Fox and giving advice like Jesse Jackson." Wolff's mother soon tired of the project and divorced her father. At age seven or eight, Wolff says, she was terrible at acting black, and she became a source of constant irritation and disappointment to her father. She could not dance, sing or even jump rope, and she displayed weakness in a tough neighborhood. Just as she discovered she was good at something black-rapid-fire insults along the lines of "Your mama's so fat . . . " or "You're so ugly . . . "-her mother transferred her to a school for gifted children (all of them white and rich). So started Wolff's perilous journey of self-identity. The blackness of her neighborhood only made her feel out of place at school, and the whiteness of her school only alienated her from her father and the black woman he married, to the point where she moved out to live with her mother. By age 12 she was a mess, suffering from insomnia, migraines and a deep anxiety that she would always be poor and never have "a lucrative anesthesia practice like all my friends." Over time, Wolff found some balance. Even her father, in a lovingly told final episode, gave her what she most wanted-his acceptance. Deftly and hilariouslydelineates the American drama of race and class for one little girl. Agent: Erin Hosier/Dunow, Carlson & Lerner
From the Publisher
“This buoyant memoir is rich in detail but never feels over embellished…I’m Down certainly has serious thoughts on its mind (Wolff actually grew up quite poor and hungry), but the tone manages to be light and triumphant because of the hilarious child-goggles Wolff wears while spinning her tales. Rating: A” —Entertainment Weekly

“An authentically funny, truly transcendent work that makes other, sorry-voiced memoirs by a certain more privileged class of writer pale—pun intended—by comparison…Wolff’s focus, and the sweet soul of this terrific book, was on being accepted by her streetwise, wiseass dad, whom she knew loved her—and whom she loved—unequivocally.—Elle Magazine

“As she tells you at the outset of I’m Down, Mishna Wolff is all white—nothing remarkable, except that her way cool father, “Wolfy,” thinks he’s black (he’s not). What follows is a funny-melancholy coming of age memoir [in which] Mishna searches for identity in her broken home, her snobby, mostly white prep school, and—most restrictive of all—her longing heart.” –O Magazine

"Deftly and hilariously delineates the American drama of race and class for one little girl." —Kirkus Reviews

"Mishna Wolff was a white girl who grew up in a poor black neighborhood. This funny, engaging, and perceptive memoir tells the story of how she managed to negotiate these two very different worlds, and emerge with her sanity—and identity—intact." –Tom Perrotta, author of Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher

“And you thought you had a hard time fitting in when you were growing up? Try on Mishna Wolff's bizarre childhood for size…I’m Down explodes racial and cultural stereotypes with self-deprecating wit, wry humor and keen observation.” –Janelle Brown, author of All We Ever Wanted Was Everything

“In a parallel universe - one, say, where Richard Pryor could be merged with Mark Twain and re- born with two x-chromosomes - the result would probably be Mishna Wolff. And her memoir, I have no doubt, would be as beautiful, funny, touching and irresistible as I'm Down. “ —Jerry Stahl, author of Permanent Midnight and Pain Killers.

“Hilarious and sometimes tragic, Mishna Wolff's book is the expertly woven tale of a girl caught between two lives, two races, and two classes. “ –Christian Lander, author of Stuff White People Like

“A really, really funny book about the slings and arrows of growing up, of being a kid, of figuring out where you belong, of figuring IT out. The royal IT. Mishna's writing is fast, hip, edgy and so funny.” –Michael Showalter, comedian and actor (The State and Wet Hot American Summer)

“Hilarious, bittersweet, and full of soul (in every sense of the word).” –Wendy McClure, author of I’m Not The New Me

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312379094
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 6/8/2010
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 164,830
  • Product dimensions: 5.78 (w) x 8.32 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Mishna Wolff

Mishna Wolff was one of the 2009 Sundance Screenwriting Lab fellows. She is a humorist and former model who grew up in Seattle. She lives and writes in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

I'm Down

A Memoir
By Wolff, Mishna

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2009 Wolff, Mishna
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780312378554

Chapter One

I'm in a cappin' mood
 

I know divorce is supposed to be hard on kids, but when my parents finally did it, it wasn’t really that hard on me. They were so mismatched that the year before they got divorced, I often wondered if Dad met Mom by mistakenly wandering into a poetry reading thinking it was a Parliament concert. Dad was cool. Mom was Mom. They were both attractive, but other than that, they didn’t really make much sense. Their differences became louder every day. So when my mom didn’t come home one night, my first thought was, "I hope Dad’s new apartment has an elevator!" I was only seven, but I already knew how divorce worked. Dad moved out and got a cool apartment with a pool. We lived with Mom, of course—it was the mid-eighties and moms always got the kids. But we’d visit Dad on weekends, swim in his pool, and he’d buy us lots of stuff to make sure we still loved him. He would be there just to make sure that we were growing up to be cool, going to enough parties and dressing right. There would be two birthdays and two Christmases. And maybe Mom would move to a new neighborhood, and I would have new neighbors who liked me. Plus, if I was lucky, one of them might have a telescope.

But things didn’t quite work out thatway. Dad really wanted us with him. And Mom apparently had some "work" to do on herself—which meant she needed to cut her hair and cry a lot. She started dating a Jewish guy in Mensa, who also drove a bus and had "depression." And, since she worked full-time, and Dad had always taken care of us during the day, they decided Mom should be the weekend dad with the apartment.

The process happened so quickly that I didn’t even get a vote on where I was gonna live. There was supposed to be a judge, like in the movies, who would take me and my sister into his chambers. Then he would clear all of the adults out of the room so no one’s feelings would get hurt, offer us a Werther’s Original, lean back in his chair, and say, "Okay, now level with me. . . . Who do you like better?" At which point I would say, "Mom." Not because I liked her better, but because I knew I was cool enough for Mom. And I felt that not being quite good enough for Dad might cause problems down the road— like I’d cramp his style and maybe he’d decide to leave me at a party. Of course, I assumed everyone wanted my little sister Anora—she was adorable. But when I asked Mom and Dad about the judge and the missing courtroom battle I was told that that sort of thing was for rich people and that normal people didn’t ask their kids what they wanted.

The terms of the divorce finalized, Dad announced he was giving me an allowance. I had to take care of my sister, meaning quieting her when she got hysterical and keeping her from wandering off in public places. And for that I got a dollar a week, which was totally a fortune because I measured it in Now and Laters. Then my dad promptly got a summer job doing construction to "show that bitch," which left my sister and me without daily supervision. "Not to worry," Dad said. "You guys are going to Government Subsidized Charity Club." Which sounded really awesome—like the Mickey Mouse Club or the Nancy Drew Fan Club.

Okay, the place wasn’t actually called "Government Subsidized Charity Club," but for now let’s call it that, or GSCC for short. Our first day at GSCC, we all climbed into Dad’s truck and drove down M. L. King, arriving at the side entrance of a building that was clearly used for something else. We walked up a rickety stairway to a side door and entered a dingy vestibule, where a counselor sat at a table picking lead paint off it. She had a clipboard and two jump ropes—which, combined with the two kick balls—brought the total number of toys in the facility up to four. In addition to the lack of toys, the entire place smelled like pee and cigarettes. I would not have been surprised to find out it was used as a low-bottom halfway house the rest of the year, and that every summer they kicked out people named Gimpy Carl and Staph-man McGee to make room for day camp. I peered from the entryway into a main playroom full of kids, and surprise! My sister and I were the only white kids there. I was also, from what I could see, the skinniest kid—in boxing, that’s what they refer to as "shit odds." It was then I decided that either Dad was cheap or we were just stopping by on the way to the real day camp.

"Well," Dad said, signing a clipboard and cementing that we were, in fact, in the right place. "Looks like you guys are good to go." I guess by "good to go," he meant that we weren’t standing on broken glass. But I smiled weakly, and I think he sensed my apprehension, because he got down on one knee, straightened my overalls, looked me right in the eye, and said, "Just, don’t take any shit," before walking out the door.

We were then led into the playroom, and other than the counselor who had checked us in, there was not an adult in sight. I quickly got out of the way as two bigger kids threw the red rubber balls at a younger kid’s head—some sort of two-on-one dodgeball. In the far corner there was a group of girls who were probably around nine, but looked like they were about sixteen. They laughed as they looked at a boy four feet away who was sitting on the ground crying. I decided to avoid eye contact and found a pole near the far side of the room to lean against. That’s when I realized—everyone was staring at me.

I heard a wail from across the room that was directed at me, but loud enough to grab everyone’s attention: "W’sup, marshmallow turd!"

I turned and saw it was coming from Caprice, a girl whose mother had braided half her head and then, I guess, moved on to something else.

"Nothing," I said, and went to grab my little sister’s hand and lead her out of harm’s way—thinking of my allowance. That’s when I realized Anora was gone. Probably looking for something dirty or poisonous to put in her mouth. I was all alone and being surrounded. The boys with the kick balls, the girls from the corner—everyone closed in on me as Caprice walked over and got in my face.

"Nothing? Is that what you said, Wonder Bread?" Caprice put a hand on her hip. "You look like your mama’s on welfare!" I desperately wanted to point out that that was like the pot calling the kettle white, but my lips had sealed themselves together with some sort of pussy glue.

Then a nine-year-old boy with an earring chimed in, "She’s so white, we got to wear shades inside." And the group of kids that had been gathering started laughing like it was the funniest thing anyone had ever said. That’s when I found my sister. She was next to another girl her age, laughing herself to death. It was around this time I began to seriously question my father’s wisdom in sending us to this particular child-care facility.

At around noon, lunch arrived, which brought the promise of some order to the day. I took my government- issued sack lunch out of the cardboard box and took stock. The brown bag contained: a bologna-and-American-cheese sandwich that was smushed into a weird shape in transport, a fruit that was mutantly small—but big enough to smush a bologna-and-American-cheese sandwich—a bag of chips, and a milk—condiments on the side. It didn’t seem so bad, but I didn’t realize at the time that I would be eating it almost every summer for the rest of my life.

My sister sat with a girl her age, and as much as I wanted the company, I wasn’t up for begging my little sister to let me hang with her. So I sat down in a corner behind a pole and began to eat my sandwich. I had just started on my sandwich when I got hit with what can only be described as an "arcing rope" of mayonnaise. I looked up and the boy with the earring was doubled over—pointing to my goo-covered face and shirt. And as I wiped mayonnaise off my cheek with a napkin, the boy with the earring threw the empty packet at me and said, "There you go, mayonnaise!" Then he proceeded to bend over and take my chips—the only part of the lunch that didn’t taste like refrigerator.

Over the course of our first day at GSCC, my sister made two friends, and I managed to crawl into my skin, the way one does when experiencing third-degree burns. And when my father came to pick us up, I could no longer use words. I grunted hello to him, and got in his pickup. It didn’t help that he was an hour and a half late, which meant that we were stuck waiting with the impatient counselor—and Darnell, the kid who smelled like pee.

On the ride home, my sister and I shared the passenger-side safety belt, which meant that I couldn’t ignore her as she excitedly recapped the day’s events to our dad.

"I have two new friends, Dad!" Anora said proudly. "Gitana and Rene. Rene and I made Chinese jacks and Gitana wants to do my hair."

"That’s great, baby," Dad said. "What about you, Mishna? You meet some folks?" But before I could say, "No, Dad. People hate me. Why would you send me to that evil lair of cruelty and injustice?" my sister was chiming in.

"Mishna met some people." Then she laughed. "She got roasted." Dad looked at me disappointed, and he could see it in my face—I did get roasted.

"Mishna," Dad said. "You can’t let people disrespect you. Get in people’s face. Be like, ‘Don’t mess with me!’ Remember, you’re my daughter. Throw an elbow if you have to."

"Okay, Dad," I said. But what I was thinking was, I know what he’s telling me to do, but how come it’s so hard for me to do it?

I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t the most articulate kid. In fact, if I needed to express myself, I had learned that my best bet was to break something and hurt myself to get my point across. Hurting myself was like my sign language. For example: Breaking glass and getting cut meant, "I strongly disagree." And hitting the wall until I broke a knuckle meant, "You have a point, but you aren’t seeing the whole picture." And curling up into a ball in the fetal position and crying meant, "This isn’t over."

But none of these devices seemed to work at GSCC. When I hit the wall with my fist because someone said my mother was so bucktoothed that she could eat corn on the cob through a fence—everyone just laughed at me more. Plus, the counselors got pissed at me for making them find the first-aid kit. So, I was defenseless and mute the rest of the week at Government Subsidized Charity Club.

And that week was hell. My whiteness was the butt of every joke. And with every public humiliation I became more sensitive, not less. So, as a last resort, I tried to avoid everyone. If someone looked at me, I moved out of their field of vision as quickly as possible. If someone looked like they were about to talk to me, I walked away. And at every opportunity, I found nooks to crawl into and places to hide. After a day or so of avoiding all human contact, I started to think of myself as stealth-ness itself, like a phantom lurking through the shadows—or better yet, like a ninja.

I had just settled into a broom closet with, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret when one of the counselors flung the closet door open and stood angrily above me, tapping her foot.

"What’s wrong? What are you doing reading in here all by yourself ?" "I’m really comfortable in here, if you just want to close the door."

But instead she said, "No! What you need to do, is you need to go join the rest of the kids!" I popped my head out of the closet and looked across the room. Rodney, an obese child, was setting his friend’s jeans on fire. While Jamal, the boy with the earring, pointed out that a younger boy had a crooked dick.

"Please can I stay here?" I asked.

The counselor said without hesitation, "I can’t watch you in no closet!"

But I just sat there unable to move, hoping she would change her mind and let me stay. I put on my most imploring face, but she just started looking at her nails. I tried opening my book again, and she cleared her throat and rolled her eyes. And while she looked at me impatiently, I slinked out of the closet and joined the rest of the kids.

Jamal welcomed me with a "skitch" to the back of the head. That’s basically like hitting someone in the back of the head, but you graze it. So to the untrained adult eye, it looks playful.

Then Caprice belted out, "Her ass is so flat, it looks like two saltine crackers that done lost they box!" Kids cackled and pointed and grabbed their chins and said, "Cap" and "Roast."

"What are they doing?" I asked Darnell, because his pee smell made him accessible to me.

"Well," Darnell said. "You just got capped on. That roast is ’cause you’re roasted."

"Capped on?" I asked. But I was too low on the totem pole for even the pee-kid to talk to me for very long.

He just said, "Yeah," as he walked away.

And so, I found out that day that what was happening to me was called, "getting capped on." And it wasn’t about the intelligence of the insult. Caprice and Jamal were not particularly clever, but they had confidence and could work a crowd like Marc Antony. The one who needed to borrow some ears.

I became immediately fascinated with Caprice and Jamal’s fearlessness. When I looked at capping as a skill, it was completely foreign and exciting to me. In fact, half the time, the caps didn’t even make sense. Caprice came up to me on the side porch that day and said, "You look like a broke-down Teddy Ruxpin." And even though I didn’t get it, people laughed. I wanted that kind of confidence. And later that day when Jamal said I was "a powdered dooky doughnut," a voice rang out clear as a bell in my head: Hey, I’m funnier than this guy!

I had no idea where the voice had come from, since I had never even told a joke. But the voice was uncanny, and for whatever reason, I believed it.

So for that next week at GSCC, I got taken down over and over again by their caps. But at night, I practiced capping like an upstart fighter training for a championship. I had seen that movie Rocky and I fancied myself kind of like Rocky, if he could talk. I practiced in the mirror, trying to place my hand on my hip just so, while rolling my neck for emphasis. I tried snapping in a Z. I tried closing my eyes and waving my hand in the air. And I tried every possible ending for a sentence that starts out: "Your mama."

The next Monday morning, as my sister joined her friends Gitana and Rene jumping rope. I walked into the playroom with my usual apprehension and took a seat on the floor with my copy of Highlights, Jamal, the earring-wearing terror, saw me from across the room and headed toward me with a self-satisfied look on his face. Caprice and posse followed closely behind him, as Jamal swaggered up to me and said with a smirk, "Morning, Mush-na."

The other kids laughed and said, "Ooooh," which hardly seemed called for. But it baited Caprice to one-up him.

"Look at her," Caprice said. "She’s such a cracker, if she has a bowl of soup she dunks herself."

The crowd ate it up, and in an attempt to soak up some of Caprice’s laughs, Jamal repeated her punch line as though he had come up with it. "She dunks herself!" The desired result was achieved—the attention returned to Jamal.

What happened next was one of the most magical moments of my entire life. I remember turning to Jamal and the words coming out of my mouth as if in slow motion: "Am I being talked to by a burnt chocolate chip cookie?" I had the neck roll and everything.

The cap came out of my mouth before I thought it through and was an amalgamation of things I had heard around, so it surprised me when a girl named Myvette shouted, "It’s true! He dark!" And I realized I had just told a "He’s-so-black joke."

The crowd was surprised and started roaring, and so I decided to push my luck. I took a second to regroup before striking again—this time at Caprice. I put my hand on my hip and said, "Your mama’s so lazy, Jesus will come back before she finishes your hair!"

The laughs of the excited kids washed over me like manna. They grabbed their chins and cried "Cap!" and "Roast!" They pointed at Jamal and Caprice. Then something happened that I hadn’t expected—something wonderful. Rodney slapped me five! Even with a messed-up knuckle it felt good.

That summer I learned Uno, and Chinese jump rope, and Chinese checkers, and Chinese jacks and double Dutch. I learned hand-slapping chants that had the N-word in them—I had no idea what I was saying. Like "Downtown Baby," which was totally inappropriate for me to be chanting, but none of us knew that. I went through the various hand slaps and acted out gestures with Caprice and Gitana chanting along with them:

Downtown baby—down by the roller coaster (roller coaster

with your hand) Sweet sweet baby—I’ll never let you go (hugging yourself ) Just because I kiss you—don’t mean I love you so I like coffee— I like tea I like the colored boy—and he likes me I say, Hey, white boy!—if you ain’t shy Call me a n***** and I’ll beat your behind!

I also learned that if I wanted friends, picking up bugs was a no-no. And I got better at capping every day. I was pretty good for a white girl. But there were other cappers who were better than me, for sure. At night I would lie in the top bunk of my room and fantasize.

Maybe if I come back every summer and really practice capping . . . maybe one day, I could be the best. Then it hit me, Maybe I could even find a way to cap for a living? That seemed too good to be true, so I second-guessed my own fantasy. Nah . . . I’ll just stick with being an anesthesiologist, I thought as I lay in bed sniffing my Mr. Sketch markers. Or a Solid Gold Dancer. Yeah, like the pretty white one with the crimped hair. I threw my head against my pillow as I contemplated my preferred order of things I wanted to be when I grew up:

Solid Gold Dancer

Capper

Anesthesiologist

Governor (presidents have a tendency to get shot)

Assassin (someone needs to do all that shooting)

About halfway through the summer we started to have visits with our mother. I saw this down time as an opportunity to take my capping to the next level. Mom had moved into the top floor of the house of a solar architect and his family, and she was a Buddhist now—it was "part of her process."

So when we got to her house and checked out our room, I told her, "You ain’t no Buddhist, you’re a booty-ist."

"What did you say?" she asked.

To which I replied, "You’re so dumb, you thought Buddhism was about booty." It wasn’t one of my finer moments, but Anora laughed.

"What’s going on?" she asked Anora.

My sister smiled and rolled around on her bed and said, "Mishna capped on you."

That was when Mom bent over, looked me right in the eye, and said in a very sincere voice, "I really don’t like being capped on. It hurts my feelings." Hippies have a way of sucking the fun out of everything.

I couldn’t really cap on my father, either. He was happy that I was getting along at GSCC, but my few attempts at capping on my father (the six-foot-four, two-hundred-pound ex- linebacker) were experiments in fear.

One day after day camp, I had swaggered up to him on the sofa where he was outfitting the broken TV knob with an adjustable wrench, and said, "You’re so ugly, the itsy bitsy spider saw you at the other end of the water spout and decided to take his chances with the rain." That was when he pinched me in a place between my neck and shoulder, like a Vulcan, until I went limp.

But I assumed that the reason he Vulcan-neck-pinched me was because the cap wasn’t very good. So next day, I decided to make fun of his head shape, with a surefire winner I had stolen from Rodney. Dad, however, didn’t laugh or high-five me. In fact, he didn’t react at all. He just quietly grabbed some nuts from the nut bowl and began cracking them with his bare hands. He did this in silence for a while, looking me right in the eye before saying, "I’m not about to take it from my daughter in my own home. . . . I take it from the Man every day."

"Okay," I said.

Then his voice got really low and he grabbed my chin in order to look at me in the eye and said, "This shit stops here."

Which I assumed meant, "Go pick on your sister."

My sister endured all kinds of verbal abuse from me during this time. It didn’t even bother me that "your mama" jokes directed at my little sister were "my mama" jokes. And I used her as a sounding board for all my new caps. I found I could measure the effectiveness of the put-down by how berserk she went. She would sit watching TV, and I would walk into the living room and make some declaration about how smelly she was or how much the ugly stick liked her. If she glared at me and went back to the TV, it meant the cap needed tweaking. If I got her to yell at me or throw something, I was definitely on to something. And if she whirled her arms, in a move that could best be described as "the windmill" and clubbed me about the head in a flurry of blind rage—I had a winner. I didn’t hit back, though. Hitting her back meant facing Dad and the five fingers of death. So I happily took the licks as payment due for her allowing me to use her as a focus group.

Every day at GSCC Club I learned something new. Like Caprice taught me that throwing psych! on the end of a flattering comment was an awesome way to make a fool out of someone.

You could walk up to any unsuspecting person and say, "Nice shirt . . . PSYCH!" It was cheap, but it was almost more effective than a straight cap, because you couldn’t brace yourself for it. The only way to brace yourself for a psych! was to already think you were a piece of shit—which, if you did, you were capping at a Jedi level. Faggot was also en mode, thanks in part to Eddie Murphy. None of us knew what a faggot was, but it rolled off the tongue like butter, and I used it as a comma.

When the end of day camp came, I found myself a little sad. I was really gonna miss everyone, especially Caprice, who had made me a very pretty Chinese jack as part of an alliance against Jamal. I thought it would be nice if just once all her hair was done, but I didn’t have the skills to finish it, so I drew her a picture of Jamal with breasts.

The counselors announced that, for the last day of camp, we were required to do a performance for all of the parents. They suggested a song and dance number about our experience at Government Subsidized Charity Club. Which was strange, because all we did all summer was sit in a dank room and make fun of each other while they sat in an offi ce and handed out the occasional kick ball. So, the number we wrote was called "I’m in a Cappin’ Mood." We sat in a circle with a small Casio keyboard that someone had brought in, and wrote caps for ourselves to the prerecorded beats. Jamal and Caprice wrote for the younger kids like Anora, Gitana, and Rene, who couldn’t write their own caps.

The night of the show we stood in a line on a makeshift stage, swaying back and forth as we sang the chorus;

I’m in a cappin’ mood (clap, clap)

I’m in a cappin’ mood (clap)

Then one by one we stepped downstage to deliver our own personal cap.

Jamal, who was standing next to me, was first. The room was filled with the twenty or so parents who had bothered to show up on the last day of camp. They watched patiently, knowing that it was penance for the months of almost free child care. Jamal fearlessly stepped forward and stayed on beat as he committed to the delivery of his cap.

Keep your shoes on

If you don’t mind,

’Cause your feet smell like

A cow’s behind.

Then the whole group did the chorus.

I’m in a cappin’ mood (clap, clap)

I’m in a cappin’ mood (clap)

My turn. I felt my stomach turn into knots as I stepped in front of the row of kids trying to keep the beat with my rhythmless body, while I delivered my cap.

You’re so poor.

It’s really sad.

I was at the junkyard.

And I bought your dad.

I got a laugh and it felt like coming home.

Through the rest of the performance I joined in on the chorus and watched the rest of the caps, thinking that they didn’t quite measure up to the caliber of mine. And when we were all finished, the parents seemed truly impressed. But I was most excited for Dad to see how down I was, and how many sister friends I had made. And when I left the stage he smiled and said good job. Then he walked me over to meet Jamal’s mom, who had huge breasts and very red lips—both of which Dad liked. Jamal’s mom proceeded to tell me how great I was—and she was right.

Dad agreed with her, but then added, "Yeah, but I’ll tell you one thing. You cap on me . . . you better not cap on me, ’cause I’ll go upside your ass." But then he laughed at his own joke, so I knew it was just something he said so that I didn’t get too big for my britches.

"Well, call me sometime," Jamal’s mom said, writing something on a piece of paper and handing it to Dad. Dad wrote something on the other side of the same piece of paper and handed it back to her, "No, you call me."

And as we walked away, my dad said smiling, "She don’t gotta know that the phone’s off." We had missed a phone bill and gotten disconnected, meaning incoming calls only. I smiled back. The night just couldn’t get any cooler.

As we drove home, Anora was bouncing in her seat and Dad was humming the chorus to, "I’m in a Cappin’ Mood." And when we rolled onto our street, I saw the kids on the corner— Jason, Nay-Nay, and Latifa. And something had changed in the way they looked. Like somehow they seemed less intimidating, and much less cool to me. If I were to jump out of the car at that moment, I wouldn’t be scared—I would be doing them a favor. And there was a new freedom in the air. In fact, I knew that I would never be afraid of them again—because I had the power of the cap!

Excerpted from I’m Down by Mishna Wolff.
Copyright © 2009 by Mishna Wolff.
Published by St. Martin’s Press.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.



Continues...


Excerpted from I'm Down by Wolff, Mishna Copyright © 2009 by Wolff, Mishna. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 82 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 82 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 29, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    An amazing book

    I loved this book, and I just wanted to stop by and recommend it to anyone else looking for something extra special to read. Mishna Wolff is just as funny as David Sedaris at his best, and at the heart of her memoir is a truly touching family story that brought tears to my eyes in places. Anyone who's ever felt like a misfit or an outsider, or who grew up wishing they were cooler or richer or more popular, will surely find a kindred spirit in Mishna Wolff. This is one of my new favorite books, and I'm so glad it's out there.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 15, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    A great read and insight that's not so much about race as it is culture

    "You thought you could bring your broke-a#% turtle down here to play Barbies?"...I just stood on the corner holding Tommy the Turtle as five black girls holding plastic white women laughed at my stupidity"
    That line sealed it for me. All you have to do is read the sample chapter from Wolff's book and I'm sure that you are going to enjoy your stay in her world.
    What impressed me the most is that Wolff shows the influence that culture and relationships can have on young mind, while at the same time showing the difficulties that are encountered by the impoverished. It's strongest draw is that the characters (Yvonne, in particular) are fleshed out and you can often see the reason in their madness.
    The most telling aspect of this story though is the dialect. Too often you see "Black" slang interpreted as poorly spelled word and crazy contractions, that often times leaves readers (even black ones) confused. But Wolff captures the essence of the language and tones by using **real** words in the manner that speech is actually carried on. This was one of the best examples I have seen of Black speech on paper and it shows that the author was really down.
    This is a great read simply put.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 10, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Laugh out loud funny!

    This book is hilarious! Ms. Wolff's use of imagery is superb. She had me laughing out loud at her depictions of life as a white girl in a black neighborhood. Since she and I grew up in the same type of neighborhood, I could really relate to her circumstances. The only difference is I am black. I'm a daddy's girl, too. Any daddy's girl knows that your existence (especially when you're young) is all about pleasing him. Her quest for his undying love and devotion is really the heart of this story.
    Have your family and co-workers read it also so you can compare stories.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 4, 2013

    This memoir was a quick and easy read. It was charming and funny

    This memoir was a quick and easy read. It was charming and funny but, I felt like there needs to be more to the story. I was left wondering "well... what happened?" I'm hoping for a follow-up memoir because this one doesn't feel complete.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2013

    GREAT story

    I loved this book, laugh out loud funny in MANY places. Hilarious, and touching too in a way that had me wincing from the mental imagery her words evoked.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2013

    Rgjeg

    Vsbfntrjwwrkr

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2012

    Some Funny Situations

    If you want something that will give you a few laughs, doesn't require much attention and at the end seems rather pointless, this is for you.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2012

    Good read

    Written so it's a quick read. Entertaining and interesting. Stays in the span of her childhood to middle school. There definitely needs to be another memoir to continue the story. It doesn't feel complete. Still a good read despite this.

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  • Posted July 24, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Pretty good

    Was pretty good

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  • Posted April 1, 2012

    Couldn't put it down

    Mishna Wolff's story is funny, sweet, painful, and so well done. I too had a white father who thought he was black...and Latino, and Asian--anything but white. And so this story, which may sound far-fetched to some, rang oh so true to me.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2012

    Word

    So funny. Not exeedingly profound, but fun.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2011

    great book

    I really liked reading this book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 8, 2011

    Loved+it%21

    This+book+was+a+delight+to+read.++One+of+those+that+you+wish+was+longer.++I%27m+hoping+there+is+more+to+this+story.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 15, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Great Book

    I really loved this book. I couldnt put it down...if i could change one thing it would be the ending. It stopped a little too abrupt for me.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2010

    Brilliant!!

    She tackles race, family dysfunction, and every other childhood difficulty you CAN'T imagine with roll around on the ground holding your stomach humor. In the end its so lovely and tender.
    Needed a good laugh and read if for the second time!!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted December 19, 2009

    A Very Amusing Book

    I enjoyed reading this book from the opening pages. It is insightful, funny and a very enjoyable book to read. This would be an excellent gift idea.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 19, 2009

    Hilariously spunky look at Mishna Wolff's life!

    Interesting dramadey (drama-comedy) of a young white woman's evolution in a world of infused "haves" & "haves not", coupled with one's struggle to try to belong and relate to someone, black or white, or something. Her journey through adolescent into young adult-hood provides a glimpse into a white person's world that did not involve being a part of the "polished" population. Mishna's story was very funny, touching, and informative; visual effects were priceless.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2009

    Good Read

    I only got to read the chapter that is provided on here and I am hooked when I get the chance I am definitely buying this book. The excerpt that I read is so much more colorful than most books that take you reading at least 6 chapters for it to get good. Mishna Wolff is a gem.

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  • Posted August 8, 2009

    Right on!

    Loved it! And loved the way she told her story! Although so totally unique, I felt I could totally relate to so many of her 'struggles'. I particularly loved the chapter titled "The Family Racist"... and I've definitely been in her shoes. Everyone who says "I'm not racist" should read this book! - GO GIRL

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  • Posted June 9, 2009

    DANG! I LOVED IT!

    I totally enjoyed this book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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