The Basement Years
The care and feeding of wayward teenage boys.
Our oldest son started skipping school his first year in high school: he pointed out that he went, he just didn’t stay. He snuck out of the house at night and began to dabble in drugs. He once got arrested for stealing a paintbrush from an art store that had begun to crack down on juvenile thiefts. Just as he turned 16, he and his friends were drawn into a circle of men in their early 20s, all recently released from jail and now settled back in the neighborhood with their families. Some were in the Latin Kings, a gang that our son thought was cool but, as the only White kid among his friends, had no chance of joining. Instead, they let him hang out with them.
One night I looked out the front window and saw him sitting among them on the steps of the small apartment building across the street. I called my husband over and said something like, “That’s a prime drive-by shooting target right there.” The next day I called a realtor and, within weeks, found a solid little house in the safer neighborhood 20 blocks away. It was in some disrepair and had only two floors—as opposed to the beloved renovated house with three floors that we would be fleeing. Both my sons were furious and accused me of being on crack.
There’s no room to hang out with their friends, they cried. We said there’s the basement.
When my brother hit 15, my dad installed a ping-pong table in the basement. His work as a director of a settlement house in our working class neighborhood made him very familiar with a teenager’s natural proclivity to engage in outlandish messes because his only activity amounted to standing on corners. My dad’s thinking was two-fold: he could keep an eye on my brother and, given something to do, would be less likely to stand around on corners waiting for trouble to find him. As far as the family knows for sure, the ploy seemed to have worked on him and his friends, although he sometimes admits he was better at not getting caught than I was.
However, there is one difference between my brother and my sons. They were a little more rambunctious and came inside with a taste for Brooklyn street life. Our barely liveable basement soon turned into a hot bedlum of unbridled hormones and stupidy. It took a little while for my husband and I to get up to speed but it was in place by the time they rolled a keg in for a beer pong tournament. Scuffles over video games or rounds of Risk accelerated our skills. My husband strictly substituted for absent fathers. I was co-oped into being the on-site therapist, available for the broken hearted, school disgraces, and family delinquents. One boy who was essentially homeless slept on the old sagging couch. A few who weren’t homeless but not quite under supervision, in disfavor with their families, or merely didn’t want to go home bedded down on the floor. (It’s remarkable how boys can sleep anywhere and on anything, including on top of dirty laundry on a basement’s cold concrete floor.) The boys were nightmares, amusing, worrisome, challenging, infuriating, and, on occasion, winsome joys. They quickly became a part of the family.
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This does not mean that there weren’t incidents where the basement failed to prevent the boys from engaging in what the universe calls YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS STUFF UP activites. A good representation of this is what is known as The Thanksgiving Day Massacre. There they all were in the basement, let out early from school for the holiday, with time on their hands and someone with the money and skills to sweet talk the bodega guy into selling him a couple of 40s. This explained the eventual swashbuckling fight in front of our house with realistic replicas of The Lord of the Ring swords. A neighbor rightly called the local precinct. The boys were pulled from the basement and thrown into the police wagon then into jail cells. There they sat until my husband and I and the other parents came home from work and learned where they were. We all debated whether to leave them there overnight, especially since they were singing various old chain gang and prison-themed songs that did not communicate contrition. We did finally bail our individual sons out. For us grounding our sons for months and the real threat of their grandfather lecturing them through the next day’s Thanksgiving meal seemed like punishment enough. The police never gave the swords back and we continue to tell the story to everyone because it’s fun to see people’s reactions and even our sons have acknowledged that you really can’t make this stuff up.
On the nights they left the basement I would say to them as they headed out the door, “live to tell the tale.” They thought that was funny even though they knew I wasn’t kidding.
One of the most important tools in managing boys in the basement is to understand that they are often tame when their stomachs are full and happy. If you are in the middle of a similar situations, always have as much food as you can manage in the house. One trick is to use potatoes and noodles to stretch out dishes on the occasions when you find yourself with more mouths to feed beyond the family. Taco shells are great because boys think nothing of indiscriminately stuffing them with whatever they find. Leftovers and the availablity of cakes, pies, and ice cream help, too. Sometimes all I found in sufficient bulk was pancake mix and boxes of macaroni and cheese. Nutitional needs are lofty goals to pursue but hunger, which breeds discontent in growing boys, is sometimes a more pressing concern.
Another tip: when they thunder up the basement steps to grab food, make them use paper plates and disposable utensiles. I resisted this idea for awhile because they’re expensive and enviromentally bad. But then I began to find my ceremic plates and metal utensiles either crusty under furniture cushions or in the trash.
My sons and their friends are now men. They are stock brokers, steel workers, and NYC police officers. One is in charge of developing new drugs for a big pharmaceutical company; another works with developmentally disabled children. My oldest son is a social worker helping Vets; my youngest is a fine writer and communications specialist.
The curious thing about all the boys is that when they come over they want to see the basement. They’ve even taken propective wives down to see it which I would think would be a deal breaker but it hasn’t been. My youngest son has explained that the basement was the place where they were safe and secure and could always count on being fed something good.
Chicken Burritos for the Masses
This was the most requested basement dish. The thing about burritos--and any dish you make in bulk for kids--is there's always the possibility of sneaking in healthy stuff like more vegetables and greens. The following measurements are more or less for about 8 kids. Feel free to use a supermarket roasted chicken. If you do, the burritos will be done faster which, depending on what's happening in the basement, may be a good thing.
1 24-ounce can of diced tomatoes, drained 3 pounds skinless and boned chicken thights 1 tablespoom Tajin seasoning 1 tablespoon garlic powder 2 packets of 8 or 10 flour tortilla 2 large green pepper, diced 2 large onion, diced 1 12 ounce can of crisp summer corn, drained Cilantro Shredded mixture of Monterey Jack and cheddar cheese, about 3 cups Salsa of your choice or homemade from your favorite recipe Mexican cream
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Slightly coat a large baking dish with oil. Spread 1/2 the diced tomatoes evenly on the bottom of the baking dish.
Slice the chicken and toss into a large bowl with tajin and garlic powder. Mix well. Line up several tortillas on the counter and divide the chicken pieces equally and arranging the meat down the middle of the tortillas. Scatter across the meat green peppers, onion, and corn. Finally, sprinkle cilantro and cheese over everything.
Roll each tortilla up tightly and nestle them close together in the baking dish. Cover them with the rest of the cheese, remaining diced tomatoes, and salsa.
Cover with a piece of aluminum foil and bake for about 35 minutes. Check to see if the chicken is fully cooked by carefully pulling one burrito slightly open. If the meat is still pink, bake an additional 10 to 15 minutes.
Let stand about 5 minutes.
Serve with more salsa, Mexican cream, rice and beans.
Serves at least 8 boys.