This is historical fiction. I wasn’t there for all of it. I definitely was not there for the bar scene. There’s something very Tarantino about it. It’s fascinating and repulsive. But it is real. Once. There were simpler days. This is not for young ones and probably not suitable for work. I may put a password on it. I may not. It’s a little long. 3,550 words. That’s a long blog entry.
I knew a kid named Jack once. A friend of a friend. We’d play ball at the courts (soccer) and the kids, younger crowd, would come through. Some of them could tear it up out there. Most were better than I’d ever be. Some were there by association. Jack was one of those. One day after everyone had left it was just me and Jack on the court. Now keep in mind this is a blue collar white neighborhood and I’m a clean cut, glasses wearing college age black guy. Out of place in so many ways, right.
Jack says, “Are you gay?”
I mean, whoa.
“You are, aren’t you?”
“No I am not. Why do you think I’m gay?”
“I don’t know. The way you talk and dress, kind of preppy. You’ve got that bandana in your back pocket.”
“I wear it or use it to wipe seat.”
“Whatever. I heard that if a guy wears a bandana in his right pocket he’s sending a signal.”
“It’s a bandana.”
Jack is alright. I think he had kind of a troubled home life. So many of those kids did. It was sad. So many of them were smart, funny, charismatic, talented but didn’t stand a chance. I could probably say the same for a lot of them now, twenty years later. Then again, a good number of them are probably more fulfilled than I am right now.
I took my friend Bobby to the mall one Friday night and Jack came with us. We walked around for a bit. They looked at shoes and clothes. Afterwards I went into a bookstore. They thought that was weird. Bobby starts rough housing a little bit and Jack is looking on. We drove down Eastern Ave. to Fells Pt. I don’t think we ever got out of the car. We just drove around and after a while it was time to call it a night. About 10pm. I ended up dropping Bobby off first, which was a little awkward because I didn’t know Jack that well.
He told me, “Turn left here.”
“I thought you lived the other way.”
“I do. I just want to drive around for a bit.”
Then he asks me again if I’m gay.
“No, Jack. I told you already.”
“I know, but are you?”
“No! Why are you…”
“Because of the way you are with Bobby.”
“I’m not any way with Bobby.”
“In the bookstore. And you touched his leg earlier.”
“What? I did? Well, it wasn’t like a … you know. Not a gay thing. It’s not like that. Look. You keep me asking that. It’s almost like you want me to be gay.”
Jack said, “I do.”
Holy s—. The radio was on. The black station at a time when black pop music and white pop music were just on the cusp of not being segregated. There was a DJ on. One of those young-ish, hyper DJs that flirts with the teenage girls when they call in. The inappropriate sexual innuendo types.
Jack said, “I f—ed him.”
“I sucked his —- and I f—ed him.”
“Whoa whoa whoa. Wait a minute. How old are you?”
“How old is he?”
“I don’t know. Twenty something? Twenty six? He’s not the oldest I’ve been with. Here. Turn here.”
“You see that house?”
“John lives there.”
“He was arrested for having sex with me.”
“How old is he?”
That was Jack. Now, you know me. I’m cool. Mellow. Easy going. I hung out with Jack a few times after that, mostly with Bobby around. But Jack would come to the house and we’d play video games. Until the night he came over with a backpack full of condoms, propositioned me and said he’d rape me. That kind of tore it. Aside from that he was getting pretty wild. Drinking, drugs. That’s bad news. Not coincidentally, a few days later my little sister asked me if I hung out with Jack.
I told her, “No. Not anymore. He’s kind of out there. Wild.”
She said, “Good.”
When Bobby’s mother showed up at my door with a policeman looking for Bobby — he had run away from home — it was Jack that showed them where I live.
Fast forward about twenty years. Turns out that since the old days, Jack had done some male stripper dancing at gay clubs, exchanged “favors” for a little cash, had a drug problem and went to jail.
And I wondered, “Did he ever know innocence? Ever?”
Sam & Sonny
Sam was different. Sam was competitive, bratty, always had to win. He was the cool kid talking smack and keeping everyone else in line. He liked to fight. He also liked to write, though. He was a smart kid, spat game and was down with the brothas on the street, but could talk to a teacher or policeman as politely as a boy scout. Sonny, Sammy’s little brother was different. He was quiet and pensive. He never said a whole lot but he was true blue. He took up for me, of all things. Cute kid, but really shy.
I remember driving him home once and stopped at a 7-11 so he could buy a soda. I was in the car waiting and saw through the window a big smile on his face when the teenage girls working there flirted with him. I had never seen him open like that. He came out and got back in the car, quiet. He liked to draw. He’d draw something and give it to me. I’d draw a superhero or something and give it to him. Twenty years later I still have the sketch book he gave me. On the bookshelf in the bedroom.
Sonny would follow in his big brothers footsteps.
Here are a few Sam stories.
Sam had a black friend, Jay. One day on the way home from school Sam got in a fight. Not unusual. But he got into a fight with a black kid. Sam started to get the upper hand and a bunch of other black kids weren’t having that. They all jumped Sam, including Jay. Sam had slept over at Jay’s the night before, but Jay was right there wailing on him. Jay had said, “I couldn’t let a brother go out like that.”
The night Sam and Sonny ran away from home I saw them in Old Town. It wasn’t until a few nights later that I knew they had run away. It was because they got into a fight, a physical fight, with their mother’s boyfriend. He had hit Sonny. Sweet, considerate Sonny. I was pissed. I asked them why they didn’t tell me the other night that they had run away. They said because they thought I would tell their mother where they were.
I asked Sam if he needed anything. Just a little money, really. Not that I had money in those days but I gave them a few dollars.
A few nights later I heard that Sonny was looking for me. I saw my buddy, Jesse, asked if he had seen Sam and Sonny. Jesse told me they were supposed to be around Old Town soon.
He said, “Check this out.” And his friend standing next to him pulls up his sweatshirt to show me the grip of the pistol in his belt.
What do you say to that? I said, “Huh. Cool.”
Eventually, when I was coming out of High’s in Old Town I saw Sonny. He was hungry so I took him back to my parents and got him some food. I told them what had happened and they said, “Don’t get yourself into trouble. You can’t harbor a runaway. They’ll put you away for that.”
I asked Sonny what had happened and then I asked him if he wanted help. If he wanted to call Child Services. So at least if his mother’s boyfriend, Tony, hit him again he’d be in deep s—. He said yes. So I called the city but they made me call the county who made me call the city again. Eventually I got someone on the phone and explained the situation. They asked to talk to Sonny and he told them what had happened.
To be honest I don’t remember what happened after that. I just remember taking him home and I have a vague recollection of some social services people being there but I think I may have dreamed that. I remember after Sonny got off the phone he started crying.
Oh! Wait. I remember. After that we called his mother.
And she was crying and said, “Why did you do that? You think I’m a bad mother.”
I remember when he got off the phone he was crying. He said, “What if she doesn’t want me back? What if she won’t take me?’
It broke my f—king heart. I tell you. Broke my heart. I was terrified that I had done the wrong thing. This kid was golden. This is the kid who saw me at the courts by myself kicking a soccer ball around one day, walked over from where he was going and said, “You look lonely.”
I said, “There’s a difference between being lonely and being alone.”
But he was right and we both knew it. I had to tell him that it was okay for him to go home. That he didn’t have to stay just so that I wouldn’t be alone. Such a good person. An artist’s soul, as I call it. He was twelve at the time, I think. All I could do was take him back to his mother. She hugged and kissed him when she saw him. Her boyfriend, Tony, was in the doorway. He looked at me. I looked back and it was one of the few times in my life that I felt real, unadulterated hate.
By the time I moved away to California, they had all started dealing drugs and cutting into their profits, using up their own product. Smoking or shooting up for what they called “heroin dick”. A while after I moved Sam came out to San Jose for about a month. Not a kid anymore by then, of course. Another one from that pack, Joey, came out, too. I didn’t know until later that Sam was getting away from a drug dealer he owed money to. Joey was trying to kick a heroin habit. I met Joey years earlier when I broke up a fight on my way home from college for the weekend. He didn’t stay long, though. He was on parole. Not exactly supposed to leave the state when you’re on parole.
Sam and Joey took GED classes, I heard. They stayed up doing drugs and drinking the night before the exam and missed it. Then Sam got busted for something stupid and did his first stint in jail.
Bobby had called my parents. But they wouldn’t give him my new number. Why, I don’t know. Or maybe I do. It’s neither here nor there. I never heard from him again. Not since.
Did I mention that Sam liked to fight? He was a fighter. He told me one day, a few years older, that he and some of his boys had gone out the night before and beat up some homeless people. He said, “Man, that old man can take a punch, though. I’ve got to give him that.”
They went out one night, dropped acid — LSD, and went to another neighborhood for a fight. Said he got hit in the knee with a baseball bat and didn’t even feel it.
As calm as if he were telling me about a TV show he told me that Old Doc, the semi-homeless guy who had AIDs, raped Brad.
“No way. Get out of here.”
“I’m serious. I ran in and pulled Brad out of there.”
I didn’t know Brad but knew of him. I didn’t believe Sam for a second, though. I mean, come on. That’s ridiculous. When I moved back to Baltimore more than a decade later, I learned that Brad committed suicide. So maybe it was true.
I could go on. There are more people and more stories. But let’s fast forward to now, twenty years after the hey day.
I’m sitting in a bar with Sam, Sonny, and Jack. Don’t ask me why. I don’t drink. I don’t like bars. In Asia Minor, they use elephants for labor. Like living bulldozers. When the elephants are young and small they are tied to a tree with a length of rope. The rope keeps them in line. They can’t break it and they learn. When they are full grown — as tall as a house and thirteen thousand pounds (six tons) — a length of rope tied to a tree will hold them. Not because it can but because they believe it can.
Sitting at a table in a darkened bar with this crew, I feel like the only thing keeping them in line is a frail length of mental rope. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I feel like a lion tamer with no whip, no chair and relying on my dullened wits.
They’re all ex-cons. They’re all unpredictable. Sonny, covered with tats, is trying to do right. He’s trying to get his life together, stay clean. Sam. He hasn’t changed much. He likes the good life. He’s got a girlfriend, a kid and another on the way. He does what he has to do to make ends meet. He was passing time that night waiting for his girl, a dancer, to get off from work. Jack has his own thing going on. I don’t even want to know.
But they respect me. Still. The kid in them still looks up to me. And I still see the good in them. It’s there.
I’m quiet. I don’t know what to say. This isn’t my world and I’m itching to get back to some place safe and suburban. Jack sees someone he recognizes.
I should mention that it wasn’t more than a week before that night that Sonny told me that he may have some heat on his head. There may be some people out to kill him. Old beef. Sam says it’s in the past and everything’s good.
Sam said, “They’re like me, man. The only things I can’t stand are rats and faggies.”
Jack’s sitting right there but doesn’t seem to mind. Jack came on to Sonny once. Sonny put a knife to Jack’s throat. Said if he ever tried that again he’d kill him. Jack never tried it again. So Jack sees this guy and calls him over.
“Hey, bruh. What’s good?”
“Nuttin’, man. Just looking for some ladies.”
“Yeh, I hear you.”
The new guy they called Dude pulled up a chair. The waitress came by and took his order. He said that he’d be right back and headed to the can.
Jack leans over to Sam and says, “Hey, Sam. Hook me up, man.”
Sam laughs. Sonny looks at me for a second and then goes back to nursing his soda. Trying to keep it clean.
“Alright. Alright. I’m gonna hook you up.”
Sam’s just having fun. Flexing his muscle. And I have to warn you. This is dark. People are entertained by dark s— these days, though. Get a little rush out of it. A little vicarious danger.
Dude comes back to the table, sits, the waitress puts his beer down. He stares at her ass the whole way back to the bar. Everybody at the table looks but he stares.
“Goddamn! I want to get up in that. What’s her name?”
“Dawg, you’re not man enough for that.”
Fighting words. Right off the bat. First sentence.
Sam says again, “You’re not man enough for that. I hit that s—, shorty. You won’t.”
Dude made a sound, a dismissive hiss. Sonny gives me a look. You know, like, “Chill. It’s all good.”
Sam asks Dude, “Your cousin was up State Pen wasn’t he? I served time with him.”
“Yeh, man. For holding and beatin’ on some fool. I was with him but you know. He ain’t no snitch.”
If there’s a scale of discomfort, I’m off it. But I’ve got some social intuition. I know better than to speak, than to move, than to break the tension. The tension, apparently, is the entertainment. It’s the metaphorical ammunition in the rhetorical gun on the table.
Jack asks Dude, “You ever been in?”
“S–, yeh, man,” Dude says. “Two years.”
“You get your little squirrel poked?” Sam says.
I look around. Not even the waitress will come over now. I have got to get out of here.
Dude doesn’t say anything.
“Aaaaah,” Jack says.
“I knew it. This bitch got punked.”
“Naw, man. Not even.”
“Come on, nigga. Don’t even try.”
Dude says, “Naw, man. I punked some bitch when I was locked up, though.”
My first words, practically, of the night were, “You raped somebody?”
Dude looked at me like I was an idiot. Or like I was somebody’s slow, wimpy kid brother. You know that look. It says, You’re so dumb I would kick the s— out of you if you weren’t one of Sam’s boys.
Dude said, “Yeh, man. You know how it is when you’re locked up. I took care of business. I punked so I wouldn’t be punked.”
Sam asked him, “Where were you locked up?”
The other three ex-cons at the table broke out in laughter, mocking and macho derision. Juvy is light weight for this crew. These guys have done multiple stints in jail and/or prison. Been in group houses and foster homes and institutions where the attendants or guards will offer to pay for sexual favors in exchange for money or freedoms or alcohol or drugs. I thought this was going to be my chance to go to the restroom or something. But this was just the warmup.
Sam said, “You see my boy over here?” He was gesturing toward Jack.
“He likes you.”
“You know you want some.”
“Naw, man. I’m not into that.”
Sam says to Dude, “Kiss him.”
Sam slammed his beer glass on the table so hard that it cracked from base to rim. Beer sloshed on to the table. The sharp ring of the impact stopped much of the conversation in the bar. Only for a few seconds, though. Most people in that place know to mind their own business.
“I said kiss him,” Sam said with menace and growl in his voice.
Dude looked at Jack. Jack leaned in. It was already over, pretty much. Sam put his hand inside his jacket. I don’t know if he had a gun on him. I don’t think he did but he used to carry when he was seriously in the game. I’m probably the only one who noticed a pained expression of defeat and humiliation on Dude’s face just before Jack leaned in and kissed him hard full on the mouth.
“Yeh, I knew it,” Sam said.
Sonny didn’t say anything. He just shook his head a little as if to say, “Check and mate. You got played, homey.”
Jack got up and said to Dude, “Come over here for a minute. Let’s talk.”
Sonny said, “I’m going to go outside for a smoke.”
“Yeh, I think I need some fresh air,” I said and followed Sonny.
Sam just sat back in his chair, sipped his beer. He wiped some beer foam off of his jacket and jersey and turned his attention to the game on the flat screens.
Outside, Sonny said, “You alright, man?”
I don’t curse outright too often but right then I said, “What the f— was that, Sonny?”
Sonny just shook his head. “Raw, huh.”
“I’ve got to get out of here, man.”
“Go ahead. We’ll find a ride.”
Sonny said, “You saw that s— in there, didn’t you? If Sam can make that happen he sure can get us a ride.”
“Can’t argue with that,” I said. “That’s some dark Sith jedi mess right there.”
As I was walking to my car, I took the keys out of my pocket and paused. I turned to Sonny and said, “You should come with me. I mean, you’re trying to stay clean and all. You know. This…” I gestured toward the bar.
“Naw, I’m good. Give me a call later.”
I tried listening to music on the way home. I cranked it but I didn’t hear it. I was mourning, I think. Mourning days lost. Back when a car ride around the neighborhood could turn around Sonny’s day. Back when I could break up a fight or call a truce and save a friend a black eye or busted lip. I wondered then like I wonder now. If I hadn’t left when I did, would things have been any different? Could I have held the center just long enough?