Flesh and Spirit: The Warrior Path: Confessions of a Young Lord.
I didn't kill him, but I certainly wanted him dead. He shouldn't have touched my family. That was the unspoken deal between our gangs. No matter what the beef, regardless of the hatred between us, families were sacred and not to be approached, harassed or assaulted, physically or verbally. He broke that deal by beating my younger brother into unconsciousness on Saturday. Now I had to fight this asshole the next day, on a Sunday so beautiful Satan himself would've kissed God and signed a peace treaty. He had to die. It was the Warrior Path, the way we did things.
I remember looking up at that pearlized, iridescent sky that April afternoon in 1964; a soft, salmon pink sky with pastel baby blue streaks running through it and small puffs of white clouds hanging like bright, bleached underthings on an invisible, celestial ghetto clothesline.
Looking down into Larry's small, frightened, pukey yellow-brown eyes, I screamed, "What happened to all your heart, motherfucka?" punching him squarely in the face while he was on his back, again and again, until his squirming stopped, until his weak, flailing punches suddenly stopped in midair. Until I saw the death in his eyes. Staring at me.
In the midst of battle, I remember wondering why he wasn't fighting back, viciously. He was known for his brutality.
I figured he knew he deserved this ass whipping. His gang, about twenty of them, must have felt the same way. They quietly watched Larry get his ass kicked. Either they felt he deserved the beating or they didn't jump in to help because ... because they weren't ready to die that day. I had six Canarsie Chaplains backing me up: rough hewn, stone-faced, and a collective attitude that screamed "If anyone jumps in, we will fuck you up." Larry's guys were right there. Ten yards away. None of them moved a muscle to protect his skinny ass.
I kept trash talking and hitting him. "Wasamatter, man? You beat my brother's ass last night, but now you punking out, huh?" I kept punching until I saw, in his face, it was over. He was already dead. The knife had plunged straight through his heart, pierced his lung. I never saw it happen.
Throughout the fight there was a guy next to me, John. I knew the other guys. Had hung out with them, drinking fifths of cheap Twister wine and grinding with sweet-breathed, full-lipped sisters in basement parties with blue lights right above the door. John was never there. That Sunday, for some reason, he volunteered to be part of the gang from the Brookline Projects, recruited by my cousin, Jose, to avenge the beating of my brother the night before. He wasn't a member of the Chaplains.
I vaguely remember the long, arching punches John threw at the guy's chest. Even in the heat of battle, I thought the blows were ineffective and wouldn't hurt. They were graceful punches, almost surgical. I never thought my new "friend" John was stabbing Larry.
I grabbed Larry's shirt, near the open collar, to pull him up and punch him again when I saw John with a knife, standing, almost trancelike, staring strangely at the body. His shoulders were stooped, his back was bent, his legs were trembling. He looked like Dracula with a long, black leather coat draped over his boney shoulders, the belt and buckle coiled on the concrete sidewalk, like a serpent. He looked like an undertaker, like the spirit of death on Halsey and Broadway in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The bloody knife was in his hand. His mouth was open, but no sounds were coming out. I knew, he knew, that he had killed Larry.
Suddenly, I remembered how John had gracefully let me scream and punch until I let up for a second, out of sheer exhaustion. That's when he got a piece of him. And that's when it all came together. The soft arc of John's arm going into Larry's chest and his back, just two times. That's all it took.
I let the body drop. I heard nothing after that. I was in my own head. I remember thinking what a beautiful day it was and how, maybe, it was just a hint of what the summer of' 64 would be like. Balmy wind, pearl-like sky. Damn! What a way to spend a beautiful spring-like afternoon.
The cops came within minutes of my stepping off the body. Of the original seven combatants, five had already fled down Broadway and turned left on Eldert Street. To this day I don't know whether they saw John stab the boy or felt the beating was over and it was time to split before the police arrived.
John was in the aftermath of bloodlust; a state of shock after one has killed or seriously hurt someone. It was as if he was possessed.
Immediately after an orgy of anger, vengeance, jealousy, or self-defense, there's a stillness, an unreplicable kind of quiet. The truth of the moment begins to seep in. The person lying in front of you is dead. He will never walk again. The reasons for putting your perceived enemy in that permanent state, once clear and compelling, are now fuzzy, but ... there lies the body.
I have seen too many people--cops, paramedics, neighbors, even family--approach the weapon-wielder too soon. There are times when the shock is so great, it immobilizes the perpetrator, and one can remove the weapon from the person's grip. However, if not handled delicately, sensitively, leaving time and space for the person to walk into the culpability, the weight, the seriousness of the moment, the person trying to retrieve the weapon may very well be the next victim. It's nothing personal. It's just that the Good Samaritan has moved too soon while the weapon-user is still in a state of bloodlust.
Larry's eyes were almost shut, his mouth half closed. It was that semicircle of light that bounced off his iris that shattered any veneer of vengeance or victory I might have harbored; it was the grotesque way his mouth looked, lips locked frozen around a black hole as if he were in freeze-frame, caught in the middle of something he was about to say, or snarl.
Throughout the entire beating he had not uttered a word, only grunts. It was as if his pride, his manhood, his ego would not let him give us the pleasure of hearing the scream of fear or the possibility, the very real possibility, of his losing this one.
Minutes before, in the stank, empty wine bottle smelling, smoke-filled second floor poolroom, he ruled the floor. Wouldn't even turn his fuckin' head to validate my lightweight status on the block or the Canarsie warriors who had just invaded his turf. I anticipated he would try to chump me, ignore me. I knew I was not a tough guy. I loved being loved and, in those days, and sometimes now, I would do anything, be anything, to be loved, to be touched, to be hugged bear-like, in the arms of anyone who saw the possibility in me, an iota of goodness, maybe even a sliver of greatness, because, well, I couldn't. But, to blithely ignore the black, battle-toughened young men I came in with was a big mistake. Their scowls permeated the casual banter and raucous laughter that filtered through to us as we walked quietly up the narrow stairway to the wide, semi-lit poolroom. Cigarette casually tucked behind his ear, he focused on his shot, oblivious to the lack of noise and the changed, suddenly quiet, atmosphere in the joint.
I was trembling. My knees were so weak I thought I would buckle if he turned to me or screamed. Somehow his cohorts knew this was a different ball game, a different confrontation. No one moved forward to challenge us. The people I came in with were about cashing in wolf tickets, calling people's bluff. And their courage was so great, they would walk into your project, your block, in front of your hangout, and wait for you to come down and prove that what you said--the threat you issued publicly--had substance, had merit, and that you could back your shit up ... win, lose or draw. These were Canarsie Chaplains, outcasts as far as the mainstream Chaplain gang was concerned. While other chapters reveled in the glory of their project base--Fort Greene, Marcy Avenue, Albany Avenue, Breevort, etc.--these motherfuckers lived in the asshole of the world. It was still farmland; you could hear the cows, smell the shit. The subway stop was primitive. It had a clanging bell fifteen-foot toll arm that came slowly down when the train pulled into the 105th Street stop and when it rained you had to squish your way through the mud because there were no goddamn sidewalks. It was the Black Gulag. No one ever placed as his or her first choice on the Housing Authority application, "Brookline Projects." In fact, for most, it wasn't their second or third choice. It wasn't close to Black or Puerto Rican communities, was a long, long ride from factory jobs in the garment center, and had an Italian core that was serious about preserving "neighborhood integrity," and proved it by dumping dead bodies in new cars amidst the tall, reeded marshlands of Flatlands Avenue. No, you didn't choose Canarsie. You got exiled there. You fought every day against kids whose fathers were "made men" in organized crime. These Sicilians had guns, cars, beehive hairdo girlfriends, pocket money, and bravado. If you were Black or Puerto Rican you had to develop a serious gang fraternity because the cops were useless; sometimes they worked for the gangsters, most times they identified with them, so there was no reason to co have faith in their authority.
What Larry couldn't have known was that their outcast status had forced the Canarsie Chaplain division to get past the ethnic, nationalistic, skin color question. The bonds for this gang were born of a desperate need for protection, and it didn't matter where you were born or what language you spoke in the house, Gullah or Spanish. What mattered was your heart, your loyalty, your skill in fist fighting. This was a generation of black kids, baby-sat by Puerto Rican mothers, who only spoke Spanish, cooked with Crisco lard, homemade sofrito and tocino, until their parents came home from work. I've met many of these kids, now adults, over the years and they speak and understand Spanish, dance their ass off to a Cuban mambo and love Puerto Rican women. The same is true of those of us raised with black families. My second mother was Kathryn Keeles, a beautiful Geechee from Charleston who praised the Lord and cooked like the devil. All over Brooklyn and Manhattan these bonds were developing and they evolved into true, everlasting love. This was more than "necessary united-front coalition-building" political bullshit. This was family. So when my cousin, Jose, president of the Little People Chaplains, told the guys in Canarsie that my brother Paul had been pummeled into semi consciousness, there was no debate. They knew my family. And even if they didn't, their loyalty to my cousin superseded all doubts.
How was Larry to know all this shit? He was dead before he got killed. He thought these guys were a hastily put-together crew. That's why he acted like this was a corner neighborhood squabble. He couldn't pick up on the fact that these Chaplains exuded an attitude of "I don't give a shit. I've been to hell, live there now, so unless you're God, your ass is mine." Larry kept playing pool, never taking his eyes off the cue ball, never validating the presence of the Chaplains even as they took strategic positions around the room so no one could leave. An eerie silence descended on the place where there was loud back-slapping, five-slapping noise before we entered the space. The men I was with were not the kids Larry was used to bullying. These were warriors: kangaroo shoes, pressed chino pants, Blye knit sweaters, leather coats (long or short, hard or soft) bought with their own money, toothpicks in their mouths, Fred Braun belts, no smiles, no unnecessary conversation, ashiness on their knuckles, Dixie Peach perfect, stocking cap wavy, shiny hair covered by stingy brimmed hats that they blocked neatly, perfectly, and Jade East cologne on their cheeks offering the only pleasant smelling oasis in this shit-hole. The ritual was that you only took your hat off to hurt somebody and then you had to make sure your hair was tight and it wouldn't get mussed in a fight. The fight should end in three minutes. Any longer than that, you're wasting time or getting your ass kicked, badly. Didn't Larry know? These were not your normal run of the mill, dilettante "colored guys." They were young, but they were black men, forged and tempered in battle.
Slowly, I walked over to Larry's pool table. He didn't move, didn't speak, and continued to cue up his next shot. I made the mistake of approaching him from his right side where he could've easily swung the thin part of the pool cue into my face; eyes, ears, nose, or throat, all potential targets. I sensed I had blown the approach so I closed the gap between us. On the streets, this kind of proximity meant war. For real.
"Why'd you ... uhmm ... why'd you beat up my brother?" I said squeakily. His crowd in the poolroom laughed at my cracking voice. My guys glowered at me, their eyes burning into mine. But they didn't intervene. I had to do this on my own--that was the code. They'd back me up, but I had to challenge and follow through.
Moose, obsidian black, heavyweight, master street fighter, who had been looking at the floor all the time, but was really watching the hip movements of everybody in the joint, raised his head in genuine amazement. In seconds, the rage that clouded his face scared me. He wanted to do Larry right there. He looked at Larry a long time, then looked at me, his jaws tightening. He cradled his left fist with his huge right hand in front of his genitals. That was the signal. It was time to get this over with. I was still shaking. I was still scared. But I had to do something to save face, to let my group and Larry know I was going all the way.
Quickly stepping forward, I pushed my hand down hard into the middle of the pool cue and said softly, "There's gonna be no game today, Larry. We gonna talk." Larry, angry, confused, spat the word "Motherfucka" out and tried to pull the pool cue up. It didn't move. Somehow, my right forearm, sinewy but strong, didn't give out. Letting go of the cue, he backed up a bit and started to come toward me. I expected him to swing and I just waited deadlocked in time and space, looking straight at him. Out of nowhere it seemed the manager of the joint--a short, semi-balding, middle-aged brown-skinned man with moles all over his face--jumped in between us, grabbed the cue I had my hand on and yelled, "Y'all take this shit downstairs. I don't want no shit up in heah. Y'all deal with it downstairs, ya hear?" Larry and I stared at each other for a few seconds. He was trying to figure out where the fuck I got the sudden burst of courage. I was simply holding on to my mission of asking him why he beat my brother, possibly fighting him, hopefully eking out a draw and never having him mess with me or my family again.
Then, it seemed that the entire pool hall clambered down the stairs, by the sound of the rumbling feet on that sunny spring day, sober and serious. The crowd surrounded us on the corner--my guys in the inner circle, his people on the outer. It wasn't lost on me that none of his folks tried to muscle in for a better look or listen. There was a gut-churning silence. And then I spoke, a little firmer, a little louder, but still trembling. I was really scared of this guy and hoping, beyond hope, that a miracle would occur to end this confrontation; maybe he could say he was sorry or something to that effect. I could call him a bunch of motherfuckas, threaten him with murder if he touched my family again, and leave. He would save his life, I would save face, and our mediocre lives would continue unabated. It wasn't to be.
"Why'd you beat him up Larry? He's just a kid. He didn't do anything to you. He doesn't even know you," I said calmly. Larry's face exploded in anger and he started to point his finger in my face as he screamed, "Fuck you, nigga. I fucked him up because I fucked him up. That's all there is to it. He shouldn't have been there. I don't have to tell you shit."
Larry was in a bind. The beating was senseless. I had been told that by Shorty who was with my brother when he was beaten (and didn't raise a hand to protect him). After I smacked Shorty and bounced him off the wall a few times, he blurted out that Larry and some of his boys had wandered downstairs from the house party the night before and decided to bully three Puerto Rican men coming home late from work. The teens were drunk. The older men were sober and they fought well, fending off the gang attack and beating the kids with their fists, fair and square. Shorty told me the 'Ricans simply walked away, no cops were called, no weapons drawn. But the humiliation lingered and the young toughs burst into the house party looking for Puerto Ricans, knowing that the only one there was, was my fourteen-year-old brother Pablo, who then paid the price for their loss of pride.
You see, by beating my brother, Larry had violated unspoken, unwritten street code. The street code was simple. You don't beat up an innocent person because you lost a fight that you started with strangers. And, as I was taught to believe, gang members would even protect the family of opposing gang members, if outsiders were involved. My brother should have been safe with Larry that night--Puerto Rican or not.
Larry and I had a low flame, simmering conflict since I moved into Bushwick. He didn't like me because, though I lived within his gang borders, I didn't join his crew. Most of his guys were thuggish bullies, directionless, and were always fighting. The group I joined had dreams, sang doo-wop well, went to school and dressed nicely. In those days, they called guys like us "cool breezes"--guys who would fight hard if forced to, but would rather look good, go to school, and talk to the ladies. Everybody also knew I had always stood on the black side of the "hood," even when the Puerto Rican gangs tried to recruit me. It was common knowledge that where you lived is where your loyalty lay. And I always lived on the black side of every neighborhood and every gang knew it and accepted it. If the beatings came, they resulted from being on the losing side, but not because I was Puerto Rican. Larry knew he couldn't explain his racism without losing the support of his own guys. Whatever anger Larry had toward me should have been directed to me--personally--not my brother. Paul should never have been touched.
The same principle applied to women. No matter what beef you had with someone, what fight you had or were going to have, women were never to know--especially women of the opposing group. Mothers, brothers, sisters, and girlfriends were sacred. If you saw your enemy's mother on the streets struggling with groceries, your job was to carry them upstairs for her and never, I mean never, accept money. If you were high or drunk and that same woman passed by, you sobered up immediately, or acted sober, and made sure you said, "yes ma'am," and "No, ma'am" to all her enquiries, regardless of your reeking breath or unsteady gait. Some folks today think that those codes applied to people you were connected to in friendship, but that wasn't the whole of the matter. It applied to all elders and family members of opposing gangs as well. It was street chivalry, the warrior code. That's just the way it was, and by beating my brother, Larry had violated that code.
My inner circle started to get impatient. Their way of fighting was quick, fast, efficient, very little talk. I was taking too much time. Moose stared me straight in the eye and then issued the challenge, dryly. "What you gonna do with this dude, man?" I was shocked into reality by those few words. This was neither a movie nor a game. Somebody had to go down, something had to happen. I looked away from Larry and said, "I'm gonna ask you again, why'd you beat my brother?" Larry saw the redundancy of the question as a sign of fear and weakness. It was. He spat out his answer. "I told you I fucked him up 'cause I felt like fucking him up and if you keep this shit up, I'll fuck you up, fuck your mother up, your sister ..." I saw his lips moving, but I couldn't hear anything else. A bomb went off in my head and the punch started from my right toe, went through my knee, ripped through my hip, flashed through my chest, flooded my shoulder, strengthened my forearm and granitized my right fist. It stopped Larry's bravado and shattered the afternoon standoff.
He fell down in stages, stumbling the way metal cans do when the air is sucked out of them. I kept on punching and screaming and kicking. He fell and stayed on the sidewalk, his legs spread awkwardly on the concrete. Clumsily he raised himself up on one elbow, shaking the fogginess out of his brain. Clarity must have seeped through the cobwebs quickly; within seconds he jumped to his feet and began to run. He never looked at me or my guys or his gang. I'll never forget the fear in his eyes. He had not only been knocked down in a fair fight, he had been knocked from power, and there was no refuge. He had no plans for loss. He had no plan for failure. No back-up. And his minions were not jumping to his aid. So he ran. And we ran after him. I can't remember who grabbed him first, but I do remember screaming, "No! He's mine." My breath control was well-known. I could stay under the pool for almost two minutes and I could chase anyone, staying a yard behind them, for a long, long time. Larry was not going to escape.
Bloodlust had overtaken me, and all I felt was the result of the hunt. I was no longer prey. I was predator. He tripped and fell. I pounced on him, hitting him square, taking aim. He couldn't protect himself anymore and while he tried in the first few seconds to block the blows, he gave up and I saw his head recoil with each punch. And then my guys caught up, and I almost felt sorry for Larry, sprawled backwards on the pebbled concrete. This beating was going to be quick, painful, and methodical. "This is to remind you of who not to fuck with next time," Mousie spat out as he punched Larry in the jaw, hard and fast. "And this, motherfucka, is for acting like you had heart ..." shouted Moose, the sweat trickling down his skin from under his Fedora, "and the bitching up. Take this, you punk ass!" And Moose's size 12 alligator shoe heel collided against Larry's light brown almost reddish head. All of us stood back. We all knew how much Moose hated Larry. It was visceral. So we let Moose beat him up for a while.
It lasted no longer than fifteen minutes, us shouting, punching and kicking the gangly kid, humiliating him by throwing garbage cans on top of him, all in front of his so-called "gang" of friends, not one of whom stepped up to help him or even beg us to stop. We might have listened to that. And then the hurricane of hate stopped, just like that. Five of my guys instinctively stopped hitting Larry, stopped shouting, and ran down Broadway, quietly. And Larry was still alive. The Canarsie Chaplains were professionals, cool, methodically dangerous. The only ones left around the victim were John and I, the unprofessionals.
The knife came out, John struck Larry twice, I heard the death rattle, saw his eyes go blank, saw life leave Larry as I punched him for the last time and realized I never wanted it to end this way. I never even saw the knife go in.
Immediately, I knew the cards I was being dealt. Nothing was going to be the same. Ever. It was going to be dark for a long time, dark, different, deranged, a bad dream. And as I rose from the body, to gently take the knife from John's bloody hand and hide it under a corroded metal garbage can, I knew I had taken that huge step into acknowledgment of consequences. And that meant punishment, ready or not.
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|Publication:||Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire|
|Article Type:||Nonfiction work|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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