In 1962 there was a sixteen-year-old kid who had to survive in the streets of this city, terrified.
He was a confused kid in a lot ways. He read Hemingway, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Spinoza, Bertrand Russell and Marx. He was a non-violent warrior in the civil rights movement who experienced the terror of violence by white mobs and cops. He was also a street corner boy. A jitterbug with his 20-inch pant cuffs with pleats, banlon shirts and porkpie hats. Drinking wine, shooting nine ball, looking for parties, talking shit and sometimes getting into trouble. All over the place he was, in the midst of violence but not violent, going for bad because you had to and standing up even when you knew you would be hurt. You had no choice on the corner.
This kid hung out on the Heights, the next neighborhood over was the Junction. Now the boys on the corner from the Heights and the Junction knew each other, didn’t war, walked through each other’s zones, intermingled and went to the same parties often but had different corners they owned and different pool halls and basketball courts they played on.
One day he went into Arundal’s Ice Cream parlor on the Boulevard, that long stretch of street that connected the two corners. Arundals was in Heights territory. They always had better spots on the Heights. Big Hand Bey and Blue Eyed Plu and the some of the boys from the Junction were hanging out there. As was custom, this kid walked up to Bey, a titular top dog from the Junction, and held out his hand palm down to slap five with Bey. Bey didn’t offer his hand, just a glare with a broke down mug that signified something was up and it wasn’t good. The other boys with him just postured and stared.
So, this kid knew something bad was going on and that these guys meant him some harm for some reason. He remembered just months before when Big Hand Bey beat down Blue Eyed Plu into submission on the corner. It was a bad beating but Plu now ran with Bey. At this point discretion was the better part of valor and that ice cream soda could wait a while.
Later that day he went over to the elementary school yard where the boys from the Heights hung to talk, play basketball, shoot craps and do whatever. When he got there Ronald said he should split because Bey and them had been up here earlier looking for him with a .45. All the brothers in the yard turned their backs on him, because he was a marked man and no one would stand with him.
It was a terrifying moment. He was alone. He turned to his walking partners Scott and Methu. They called Phillip Methu because he looked so much older than everyone else. Methu was short for Methuselah. Even though he was 16 he could pass for 21 and often bought the wine and malt liquor everyone loved. Methu was scared of no one.
At any rate, he turned to Methu and Scott and to his best friend Little Billy for help. He knew Scott and Methu would stand, or he hoped they would. Little Billy had taught him how to dance, fight with a knife, talk to girls and survive the streets. There was a deep bond between the two. All three said they would stand with him, as would Taz and Jerry. Taz was Ronald’s brother. Where Ronald was mean and a terror, Taz was sensitive, smart but a brave stand up guy and Jerry was cool. Always dressed cool, knew how win the ladies over and was a damn good boxer and a bit country to boot. Against Bey and them that wasn’t many guys but you knew they had your back.
They said we need a war council, so they all met at his house. To his surprise two of the older heads on the corner who were also two of the baddest boys around, period, Benny Lee and Meathead, showed up at the council that was held in the basement of his house.
Most of them thought that the only way to avoid a throw down with a much bigger force was to have him fight Big Hand Bey straight up, one on one. That was a terrifying thought. Bey was big, strong and bad. He had seem him fight before and knew that he could not win and would be badly beaten in a face off with Bey. He knew he may have no other choice.
If it came down to it on the corner or at a party everyone would throw down with him, come whatever. He knew they would stand with him, have his back, but his loyalty to them did not want to put them through it. The meaning of real and true friendship was defined as never before. That definition would define his life from that moment on.
He couldn’t understand why all this was happening? What was it? What had he done to incur the wrath of Bey and those boys!?
A few weeks earlier everyone had thrown in some money to buy some wine and malt liquor up at the bowing alley. This boy, Binky, took the money to buy everything. When he returned empty handed he gave some of the money back to everyone but him. So he said to Binky, where is my dollar? Binky said he wasn’t going to give him his dollar. Fuck you, Binky said. So, he said, Boy you are going to give me my money back. As Binky took off his coat he knocked him out with a flurry of punches. Then took a dollar from Binky’s pocket and walked away. He thought he was cool but Binky was one of Bey’s boys.
Then there was that night a month or so before when there was a party over on Bentalou. One of those blue lights in the basement parties. He was slow dancing with this girl who this other boy wanted but he kept on with her. He pulled her not the other dude. They went off together but the other boy threatened to fuck him up. He payed that no mind, the girl was just too fine, phat and willing to be with him to worry about that threat. Didn’t know the boy but he might have been one of Bey’s boys, he thought.
Or, was it because he was white? The only white boy on the corner, there weren’t too many like him. An easy mark for many … boys who did not like him, the cops or other white folks who saw him as a traitor and a freak.
Probably it was all of that but being white didn’t help … did not help at all …
One night he was going to visit his girl friend. The same girl he met at the party. Beatrice, really beautiful girl who was down from Harlem for the summer to visit her aunt. It was late. He was walking down a street with few lights but a peaceful, warm, quiet night. Earlier, he was going to go to a dance at the hall in his neighborhood but Scott and Methu said the Junction boys were there and it be best if he did not go. So, he split to see Bea.
As he walked a couple of blocks past the club on a residential street, a car slowed down. He could feel it sliding slowly over his left shoulder. He was aware of it, very conscious of everything around him, then a shot rang out, then another. The boys in that car were shooting at him.
He took the hat from this head and ran hard. Through the bushes, leaping a fence, another shot rang out, he leapt another fence was then faced by a Doberman, but he kept running, the Doberman hard at his heals, but he leapt another fence over into an alley as another shot rang out. He hid, then ran, then crept, knowing they were driving around looking for him. He saw them, but hid in the shadows behind a garage in a dark alleyway.
Then he made a dash for it down the alleys, around the corner and down another alley. He got to Bea’s crib, banged on the door, she answered, he pushed her inside, panting and out of breath, disheveled, socks falling down around his shoes, pants torn, drenched in sweat and fear. He spent the night there in her basement curled up beside her.
Little Billy had given him a switchblade. He wanted a gun. He carried the switchblade everywhere. At night he would walk with it open, up his sleeve. The handle of the knife rested in his palm, the blade resting on the underside of his forearm as he bopped with that pimp walk that was how you did back in the day. He was keenly aware of every shadow, every movement and would walk out into the street when he got to alleyways. He would turn to look down the alley, always terrified, always nervous and jumpy, leaping with fear at the slightest abnormality or sound.
One night he was coming home from a party. Scott and Methu peeled off to head in the opposite direction to their homes, Taz and Jerry walked a way but then they too left, walking west to get to their houses. He was once again alone for the next seven blocks to his house, switchblade open against the sweat of his forearm, head pounding with fear that made the eyes and throat dry and tight.
As he passed an alleyway he sensed some movement. A figure darted out, grabbed his left arm, spun him around. Then another figure punched him hard in the right side of his head, sent him twirling, almost losing his feet from under him. They were on him. The switchblade slid down his palm twisting the blade end out, He lashed out stabbing and slashing blindly as fists swung around him. He felt the knife hit something hard then soft, it was sickening sensation. He kept slashing and stabbing, one boy fell to the ground, and a knife skidded from his grasp down the alley. The other boy staggered back down the alley. He heard screaming and moaning as he glanced at the scene before turning on his heel to run. Run, he ran hard, scared, not stopping for blocks until he got to his house. The knife still in his hands as opened the front door. He ran to the phone, dialed the Operator, said two boys were stabbed in an ally, then hung up the phone quickly. He stumbled into his room, falling into his bed. His hands were covered with blood, his shirtsleeves were red with blood, blood all over his clothes.
What the fuck had he done. What was he going to do? Had he just killed someone? What was he going to do?
I stayed awake all night thinking about those boys. Did I kill somebody?! What was going to happen next. I knew they would find me, my hat was in the alley, they would snitch, one of them would die. I would go to jail forever, no one could save me, just like no one, not my parents, not the cops and not my brothers on the street could save me from the Junction.
COMMENTARY ON THE KILLING AT LEMMEL
I could not get this story of my past out of my head after reading about that 14-year-old child who was stabbed and killed at Lemmel Middle School on Friday. My first reaction was wondering what happened. What fear drove them to carry weapons? What madness lived under the reason for the killing?
At first people were saying it was gang-related. Now, one of the stories surrounding this young man’s death is that he was a bully and the kid who killed him was one of his victims. The child who did the stabbing turned himself into the police.
Many people do not understand the fear that so many of our children in the inner cities of America live with every day of their lives. I would venture to say that the vast majority of young people who carry weapons, be they knives or guns or clubs, do so out of fear and self-protection. You have to live with a mask of neutrality and fearlessness on your face at all times. That joy of youth that so many children in our nation enjoy cannot be allowed to blossom for most inner city kids. When gentleness can be a weakness, the hard cover you are forced to wear keeps the joy at bay.
So, if it is true that the poor boy who died was a bully, and this kid who stabbed him then turned himself in was in a corner with no where to go but slashing his way to escape, then what should our response be as a society who judges actions of others like this?
What do we do with this boy who took a life perhaps defending his own in a world where no one can protect you but yourself? What are we as a society and our government willing to do to invest in these children to be able to learn, live and find joy in their schools? Will we send an army of counselors and therapists into that school to help the children and their teaches cope with what just happened? Will we teach alternatives to violence? Will we invest in recreation centers staffed with counselors to reach out to street kids? Will we invest in the green economy to put their parents to work so we can build stable families?
Can we show we care? Can we build a society that cares enough to put people to work, to eliminate poverty and invest in our children the way we do highways, McMansions and prisons?
We can if we have the will. We can’t lose another child to the streets.