Friday, October 29, 2004


It’s a cold fall evening. I’m about 10. I’m watching TV with my dad in the living room. Mom’s reading magazines in the kitchen.
There’s a knock at the door. Mom answers through the chain-locked door. It’s a guy in his early 30s, white-trash looking with red skin and long-ish hair poking out from under a baseball hat.
I hear him say he’s down on his luck. I get up and listen behind the door. He’s got a bag of supplies, and says he wants to repaint the house number on the front steps. For some cash.
There’s that tension that always accompanies a handout. Dad sits on the couch glaring at mom, mumbling passive disapproval. The guy gives his pitch again. Mom is looking between the guy and dad.
Finally dad turns back to the TV, indifferent, leaving mom with the situation.
She says “OK, hold on,” and shuts the door. She goes to the kitchen and returns with a $10 bill. Dad notices, and scoffs. He turns back to the TV.
Mom opens the front door.
“OK, so you’re gonna to do this now right? You need light?”
“No ma’am.”
“OK then.”
“Thanks, ma’am. Just be a minute.”
“OK then.”
The guy goes to work on the steps. Mom shuts the door. He’s done in a few minutes and leaves.
Dad’s blurry-eyed again, watching the news. The tension subsides.
I wake up the next morning to shouting. Dad’s voice is the loud one.
“Goddamn it, stupid sonofabitch!”
“But Jack…”
“You see this godamned mess?”
“OK, I’ll fix it…”
“I fucking told you, those fucking bums. They suckered you again.”
“I’ll fix it, Jack…”
The front door’s wide open. Mom’s in the kitchen crying. Dad storms out to spend Sunday at his shop, leaving the door open. I walk outside, still in pajamas.
The concrete porch is cold on my socks. I step down the stairs and see what the shouting’s about. I see the guy’s paint job from last night. It’s a disaster. Crooked numbers, running paint. Looks terrible.
I step back in the house, and mom rushes past me. She’s got a paint can and brush. She furious, mumbling to herself. She paints over the guy’s work with white wall paint.
She comes inside, puts away the paint and sits down to read magazines. Dad comes home early afternoon. No one talks. Dad sits down and turns on the TV.
It’s early the next day. A knock at the door. I’m eating Cheerios at the table, getting ready for school. Mom answers in a bathrobe.
It’s the guy.
“What the…?”
“Ma’am I’m sorry… I… the other night… I did some drinking. Did sloppy work all down the block. Here to fix it.”
“Oh. Well, uh…”
“Really sorry ma’am. Just be a minute.”
“Well, OK…”
She shuts the door. She returns to the kitchen, quiet. I hear my spoon clink against the cereal bowl. I can still hear the yelling from yesterday.
I get up and walk to the window and push aside the curtains. I watch the guy.
He’s on one knee, concentrating hard on his paint stencils, paint cans spread next to him. The early morning’s very bright. Guys are coming out of the neighbors’ houses for work. They stare at the him rudely as they climb in and start pick-up trucks and sedans on the street. Not much money in this neighborhood, but not many bums either. Took guts for him to return.
The guy finishes up, wiping his hands on a rag. He moves carefully, packing the cans into a canvas bag and zipping it, slinging it on his back, looking things over. I notice the thin legs, worn jeans, steady eyes. The sloppiness from the other night is gone. He’s a worker. He’s no bum.
He disappears down the street.
Later that day I see the freshly painted house number. It’s a perfect piece of craftsmanship. My relief is cathartic. Mom is vindicated. The tension is gone.
Later, no one talks. Dad sits in front of the TV. Mom reads in the kitchen. I throw the ball out back and think about the day.

Thursday, June 3, 2004


Funny how the only time I write here is when I’ve been drinking.
People’s accents are always thickest when drinking. In the same way, my old neighborhood ways come back every time I hit the bottle.
Drinking was an everyday thing in the old neighborhood. All my memories from then are fuzzy, blurred by the drunkenness. Every time we fought, I was drunk. Every time we stole, we’d drink before and after.
Now, when that drunkenness returns, all the same mental routines kick in—whether I like it or not.
That means when I get drunk, I automatically get shady. I get quiet, and I start watching instead of talking. I fall into a routine where when people say things I don’t like, instead of laughing politely and changing the subject—what regular people are supposed to do, and what I do everyday in my professional life—I fight off the urge to tell them to fuck off, and am usually forced to leave the room. That makes it hard to drink around anyone in my new world.
This has begun to affect me professionally. Lots of deals get done over drinks. For most people, the buzz of a good beer evokes happy memories—days at the frat house, out on the golf course, sunny days on the boat. But for me, it reminds me of the neighborhood, and all the fights and guns and everything else.
The more I drink, the more my slang from the old days returns. It gets harder to hide my old roots. That makes it impossible for me to drink around my boss or colleagues.
I listen to the pansy Ivy League assholes in my new world talk, and it drives me nuts—the passive aggressiveness, the bickering, the conversational one-upmanship. I’ve learned how to deal with it in my day-to-day life. But once I’ve had a few drinks, it’s impossible. All I think is, “if you shit heads were in my old bar talking this pansy shit, you’d be getting the crap clowned out of you.”
I always figured this would go away someday, and maybe it will. But it sucks for now.
Tonight was my girlfriend’s birthday. We had a party, and all her friends from school came. Lots of Ivy Leaguers, lots of political types, lots of very rich kids.
I could tell they were all disappointed when they met the guy who’d finally landed their friend. They were expecting somebody charming, about 5’ 8” with sandy blonde hair, well heeled and a degree from Brown. Instead they got me.
And the more I drank, the less I felt like intelligent banter with them. Pretty soon, I was fighting off the urge to fucking strangle them.
It’s funny how when you meet people, you know so little, and it takes so long to learn all their stories.
Sometimes I wish I could tell all the old stories to these people, and give them my context. Maybe it’d excuse my social gaffes. Maybe it’d explain my reactions to them.
But that’s the conflict of a complex life—learning to deal with the fact that no one can ever truly know you, except the people who’ve been there from day one.
The hard part, of course, is when you leave all those people who understand behind, and start a new life without them or the context they provide.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

the montana story

We’re at a house party in the neighborhood and Capone’s selling bags of llello. He’s high as a kite, talking fast with crusty white shit in the corners of his mouth. He gets a call, and later two kids from the eastside show up. Capone takes me aside, stuffs his .380 in my pants, and we all go in a bedroom.
I sit in the corner and light a smoke. Capone sits at a desk with the two kids on the bed facing him. He’s sorting through baggies and hands one to kid #1. Kid #2 counts out four $20 bills, and Capone stuffs them in his pocket. Kid #1 is holding up the baggie, tipping it back and forth looking at it. He looks at his friend, then at me, then at Capone.
“Isn’t this a little short?” he says.
Capone is taking long drags off a smoke. He sits up, twists it out on a bottle cap, and looks at kid #1.
“You know, why don’t you go fuck yourself, asshole?” he says.
Both kids just stare at that. There is five full seconds of silence. I take a drag, and hear the paper burn.
The guys look at each other, and kid #1 finally stands up to leave. He walks to the door, opens it, then whirls around and baseball-pitches his beer bottle at Capone. It’s so fast, I don’t even see the bottle. I just hear this loud “pop” and glass sprays the wall. From six feet, the guy missed.
Capone is on his feet instantly and has kid #1 by the neck. Kid #2 looks over at me. I stand up and cock the pistol. His eyes go down to my right hand, then to me, then to Capone. He takes off running.
Capone has kid #1 to his knees, both hands on his neck, yelling “stupid fucking piece of shit” through his teeth. His face looks like it’s about to explode.
I walk over and take a big swing with the butt of the pistol. The guy’s head jerks, and the clip busts out, and bullets spill across the carpet. He goes limp and falls.
“What the fuck!” Capone says and bends down, scooping up shells.
I look up, and realize the entire party has gathered in the doorway, watching us with big eyes—me with a pistol in hand, Capone on all fours picking up shells, a half-dozen bags of llello and a roll of cash on the desk, and some random guy knocked-out on the floor.
Everybody starts laughing. No one helps the kid. Just another neighborhood house party.
After a while, Capone and I finish our beers and drag him to the parking strip, drop him, and come back in. The party continues. No one talks about it.
Later I fall asleep on the couch. The kid’s gone in the morning.

* * *

everything is like this

It’s dusk and street lights are coming on and I’m walking up a backstreet near the freeway with Capone and Carleow. We’re about 13.
It’s a steep hill, and halfway up a skinny cat is rolling in the street. Without breaking stride, Carleow picks up the cat, lets it squirm, and without a word whacks full force down on its head with the ballpean hammer he’s been carrying. It makes a loud and hollow “ping” sound.
The cat drops and tumbles. It scrambles away, but its front legs keep giving out. It runs in a couple circles, and eventually out of sight into some bushes in the yard where it came from.
I’m staring at Carleo, wide-eyed. He’s looking back at the bushes. He starts laughing, in a perfectly happy way. Capone starts laughing, too. They look at me. I laugh also.
We start walking. Soon it’s dark. We spend the rest of the night breaking in cars, using the hammer and a the straight-head screwdriver I brought along, to jimmy the locks.
Carleow was shot and killed in 1995.

own worst enemy

It’s late afternoon and Tony and I are in a borrowed pick-up truck an hour east of the city, driving to meet Fingers for the last camping trip of summer. The woods were free and close by, someplace we could shoot and drink 40s.
We hit Snohomish County and turned off the freeway, down an empty arterial, onto a bumpy logging road. It’s rough and dusty and barely as wide as the truck. The forrest is thick with fir trees to the sky on both sides. It’s been a hot August day, and it’s a relief to be in the shade. We’ve been drinking beers since the city, and cans are piling up on the floor and stink from the sun.
The road runs straight down into a deep valley. The woods get thicker and darker as we go, until the only light is a thin strip of sky overhead. We’re probably 20 miles from anything, and it’s dead silent except for the idling engine and our gear being tossed around in back as we hit bumps.
It’s a long drive, and Tony takes it slow, worried about blowing a tire. Fingers is supposed to be 10 miles in.
Halfway there, the road changes and gets very rough, a sea of softball-sized rocks. The truck sounds like hell, rattling and shaking, and we’re both tired and drunk by now. With the sun almost down, Tony says “fuck this, we’ll find that mutherfucker tomorrow,” and he turns back and we look for a place to camp for the night.
We stop at the first opening, a place we’ve camped before. It’s a regular spot where the youngsters from the city come shoot the big guns and drink on weekends, including some rival crews. It’s empty tonight, so we pull in.
The sun’s setting fast. Tony leaves the headlights on and gets out to pitch the tent before dark. I get out, put my shirt and pistol on the hood, and grab the hatchet to cut some kindling.
Tony gets the tent up, and comes over to help me hack through a log about 50 feet from camp. We take turns hitting it, and it’s hard work. The sun is completely down now, and the headlights in the distance are the only light.
The darkness here is the kind that makes you understand how people can be afraid of the dark. Forest so thick it blocks even starlight, and your eyes never adjust. I remember one time a flashlight going out on one of the girls here, and her completely panicing, screaming like hell in the dark.
The wood is green and damp and we spend what seems like hours blowing on coals trying to get the stuff to light. After a long time it finally takes off, and I’m dirty and lightheaded and tired and ready for another beer. Tony cracks a couple from the cooler and I walk over to get lawn chairs from the truck. On the way back I pick up my shirt from the hood. But there’s no pistol in it.
“Where the fuck is my strap?” I say, bending over to look under under the truck.
“Right fucking there,” he says, “in your pants mutherfucker.”
I grab a flashlight and keep looking on the ground. Tony walks over, watches me for a minute, and then starts looking through the truck.
“Sure it’s not on you?”
“Yeah I’m fucking sure, asshole.”
Tony searches the truck, and then goes to check the tent. I’m retracing my steps to the log we cut. Then we’re both back at the truck on our hands and knees, checking and rechecking.
The fire is getting low now, and it’s very, very quiet. Suddenly, way off to the left, we hear a branch crack, and we both sit up and look at each other.
And for this one second, there is this moment of extreme clarity—this realization that it’s pitch black in the middle of a soundproof wilderness and we’re completely unarmed and drunk—and this shot of terror goes blazing through me.
“Somebody’s fucking here. They got the strap. We’re getting fucking jacked.”
And suddenly we’re up and scrambling away from camp into the woods, away from the light of the fire. I can feel my pulse in my neck, my ears are ringing.
Tony keeps wispering “No fucking way, no way,” and we’re crouched down behind a stump watching the forest with huge eyes. Tony’s got out a shitty little folding knife, and we sit there listening for movement, watching for anything.
What the fuck was that noise? Squirrels? Or was it those mutherfuckers we saw here last month with the AK-47, coming back for our stereo? We sit there, heart beating in the perfect darkness, for maybe a half hour, talking out strategy if they rush us, trying to convince ourselves this is real.
“This is fucking crazy shit,” Tony says, “no fucking way. No fucking way.”
“Then where the fuck is my strap?”
“I don’t fucking know,” he says. “Then maybe we gotta go find those mutherfuckers before they find us.”
“They got one strap,” I say, “but they don’t know if we got others. Maybe we gotta get the fuck out, and come back with one.”
I’m starting to feel insane now, like I’ve seen this in some movie before. I’m looking for any piece of evidence to show this is nuts. But there’s nothing. It all makes sense. Even those noises. I’m absolutely sure if we stay, we’re going to get jacked by some rival crew. And probably shot too, given that no one’s around to hear it, and wouldn’t find us for weeks out here.
“OK, muthafucker, let’s bounce,” he says, “right now.”
And we rip the tent out of the ground, throw it in the truck stakes and all, and peel out of the campsite and gun it up the trail. I’m down in my seat waiting for shots to pop off any second.
We get away from the campsite, and the unreality of this whole thing sets in. Tony is chain smoking and keeps mumbling “no fucking way. no fucking way.” I can’t tell if this is a dream anymore, and can’t fucking believe I just lost my strap.
Where the fuck were they? Must’ve seen us drive in and taken it off the hood when we were cutting that log. That’s a pretty balsy move. Can this be for real?
Forty minutes of bumpy road later, we make it to the freeway and pull in a gas station. We’re both completely sober now.
“I gotta do one last check,” I say. Tony gets out and I tear the cab apart in the bright light under the pumps. I push all those beer cans out from under the drivers seat. And there’s my goddamn pistol.
I point it at Tony, and suddenly, everything disappears. All in our heads. Turns out Tony was drunker than I thought, and put it under the seat for safekeeping and forgot, somehow missing it searching in the dark. Let’s just say it was a long drive home, pissed at each other, feeling like paranoid asses.
Thinking about this later, I realized that if we hadn’t had the pistol, we would’ve had a perfectly good trip, like any of a million other camping trips. In some sense having that gun made us less safe, rather than more—which was usually the case whenever we packed heat, it turned out.
But what struck me most was that the whole episode took place in our heads, the product of our own paranoid delusions. And that really makes me wonder how much more of the anger and conflict and injustice in our world was due to the same sort of imagined bullshit.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

driver's ed

Cars and youth go hand-in-hand on the West coast. Unfortunatly in my old neighborhood they were usually stolen.
My first time driving I was 13. Capone would steal his mom’s Civic hatchback when she worked weeknights. He’d pick me up and we’d roll the ghetto neighborhoods in the central district and high point smoking Newports and playing “Geto Boyz” tapes at top volume. We drove like crap and could barely see over the steering wheel. That was driver’s ed.
As soon as we could drive, we learned about stealing. We started breaking in cars for stereos, CDs and whatever else we could find. Only certain kinds of cars. Old Toyotas and Hondas with the door locks you could pop with a screwdriver. Anything in alleys where we could bust a window without being seen.
You can shatter a car window silently—hammer off the white ceramic on spark plugs into pebbles, and throw ‘em hard against the window, crumbling the safety glass in a “whoosh” sound—and we used that often.
It wasn’t long before we learned to bust car ignitions. There are lots of tricks for this. Easiest were 1970s and early-80s GM sedans and early 1990s Hondas and Toyotas. Oldsmobile Cutlasses—the classic ghetto ride—were probably the easiest of all. With only a screwdriver, you can bust off the steering-column casing on the right of the steering column, snap the linkage between the keyhole and the starter, and just pull. Thing starts right up, no steering lock, nothing.
People used to jack a car just for the ride. You can pick out the stolen car in traffic—jumping hills, peeling out, racing. I remember one Thanksgiving looking out my front window and seeing a Civic with its engine revving. Suddenly the clutch drops, and they lay rubber for 10 straight seconds, loud as hell. I’m laughing two minutes later when the phone rings—it’s Big Man, maybe 14 at the time, and he says, “thought I’d give you a Thanksgiving present.”
Thanks, bro. He ended up wrecking the car later that day.
I bought my first car when I was 17. I paid $50 to a Seattle longshoreman. It was a white 2-door Cutlass Supreme with a ton of rust, a crooked back end, and almost no brakes. The thing had been stolen, so it started without a key. The alignment was hard to the left from when whoever stole it wrecked it, and it sat on four mismatched bald tires.
I went to work fixing it. The guys and I looked for a model like it I could jack for parts. I remember parking at Safeway and chain smoking, watching cars for a match. Each time a Cutlass pulled out, I tailed them home, looking for the right one. After a week of this, I found a match in the beach area a few miles from home.
We went back that weekend. Big Man was by far the youngest of us, still doing dirt as a youngster at the time. He was also a juvinile, which means no jail time if things went wrong, so he did the actual risky work of pulling the car.
Sometime after midnight I drop him off with a screw driver and spark plug ceramic. He gets the car started in maybe three minutes—which seems like years when you’re parked across the street watching for police. He drives back to my folks’ place. We pull it up into the garage and go to work. Me, Capone, Tony, Fingers, and Big Man stayed up until daybreak tearing out the seats, stereo and anything else that’d come undone. We swapped the wheels with mine, and after a long night dumped it on a forest-edged road on the edge of the neighborhood, still running with headlights in the early morning fog. Big Man drove to the dump spot, Tony riding shotgun with a towel wiping off the prints, and me following in my newly refurbished Cutlass for the ride back.
Never figured out why my folks never asked where I got the new wheels. Guess they never paid much attention. Whatever the case, the same scene repeated each time any of us got new cars. Until I left the old neighborhood, I don’t think I knew a single person with a 100-percent legal automobile.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

the rose

My brother and sisters and I went to the same neighborhood gradeschool. I was the youngest by several years. It was private, and we were charity kids with “tuition exemptions” thanks to my dad being a vet.
After a rampage of fistfights and arrests in seventh grade I was expelled. First in the family, big controversy. I knew they were embarrassed, but later I did the same thing at three public schools, finally dropping out in highschool, and never gave the incident much thought.
Years later us kids were sorting through Mom’s things when she died. The big discovery was this pile of cheap spiral notepads. She always had them lying around, and we figured they were full of recipies. Turns out they were journals, spanning nearly three decades off and on.
Mostly mundane stuff. But toward the bottom of the pile I run into this entry, dated 1991, the year after my expulsion:
”. . . at mass, [Father M] did the year end ceremony for the moms with a last child finishing 8th grade, and they got their red rose. I was very angry about it and crying and . . . I had been waiting for my rose after 4 kids going through. [K] and me left early . . . I’m very upset about [D], and wish I had been home more to stop it . . .”
Since leaving the neighborhood, redemption has become the central theme of my life. But I’m learning some wrongs can never be redeemed.
I never knew about the rose. I remember thinking her only life achievement was raising us kids in the city. That rose was the one mark of social recognition for it, and she never got it.
It’s one of life’s great tragedies that the brands of your own stupidity end up on the backs of the people who love you most. That’s the real cost of becoming self-aware after a life in that neighborhood.

doing drugs

One way or another, drugs were behind every story in the old neighborhood.
Everyone was connected somehow—family, friends, neighbors—in the same way everybody knows a real estate agent in the upper-class suburbs.
Growing up, all our neighborhood heroes sold dope. Dealers are respected for two basic reasons: dealing in cash makes them appear richer than they really are, and always packing heat makes them physically untouchable.
The threat of robbery makes it hard for dealers to store much wealth, so they wear it, drive it, and stuff rolls of it in their pocket which makes them look like “ballers”. And always packing heat for protection means dealers never get their asses kicked, at least in public. That combination of the illusion of wealth and untouchableness was something we looked up to.
Most dealers make money, but nothing like Hollywood images of Hummers, mansions and white silk suits. Like any industry, most dealers are small-time with close circle of regular customers. They may drive trucks full of speakers and wear new gear, but they still lived in the ‘hood. And by upper middle-class standards they’re flat broke, with all their money tied up in dead assets.
Dealers can only flaunt so much wealth before they attract attention. Fear of a bust keeps smart dealers low profile. Without some way to launder cash—which is beyond most dealers—they have to get rid of cash as fast as it comes in. Lots of nights at the club, $500 bar tabs, vacations, tons of household electronics, anything not observable to police. Easy come, easy go is the only way anyone can deal dope for long.
Fingers and Capone were the dealers in my crowd. Mostly pot to the locals and coke to the rich kids on the Eastside.
At one point, Fingers and I lived together in a project in southwest for a year. I only recently realized that it was what people call a “drug house.”
Fingers had customers stopping by at all hours. They were always friends, but there was strict protocol. Good dealers have surprisingly good business discipline. Everybody calls first, no exceptions. No talking drugs on the phone. Park in the lot across the street, not out front. No bringing non-friends along.
Fingers was shipping pounds of pot out of the place, and there was constant paranoia, and guns everywhere. A loaded pistol in the sofa cushions, a shotgun in my room, an AR-15 in Fingers’ room, and my .9mm in one of our waistbands. Peanut the pitbull stayed home when we went out—the perfect home security system. The blinds always stayed shut, and no one, ever, goes in Fingers’ room.
What people call “street sense” is really the philosophy of crime in general. It’s very simple, but true. Fingers summed it once like this: “The world is simple, simple causes and simple consequences.”
It took a long time for that to soak in. But he’s right. When a place gets robbed, it’s the employee with the most knowledge of the place who did it. When somebody gets shot, it’s a payback not an accident. When you get a bad vibe, something always goes down.
Good criminals treat instincts like perfect certainties. Thinking too much just tends to paralyze, and makes people scared or hesitant.
Today, my memories of all this are blurry. Unfortunately, some artifacts survive.
I was clearing out an apartment back home before the move, flipping through old papers. I ran into a funeral invitation, and sat there trying to remember the story.
C was a supplier-level dealer, ten years older than us, one of Fingers’ best friends, someone we all looked up to. A couple years ago he disappeared, and turned up weeks later buried in a wood box outside the city. His own cousin shot him in the head over a few thousand dollars of debt. The story made all the papers at the time.
On the invitation there’s this picture of C, skinny, standing in a life vest on the deck of this boat, shirt off with a can of beer. Maybe 30 years old. There he is smiling out on Puget Sound the summer before, and now he’s buried with no head because the wrong guy got behind on payments.
I’m looking at the background of the picture, and see that fingers is on that boat too, and I think “he’s still selling dope.” And I start to wonder when I’m going to get another one of these funeral invitations for him.

retribution as ghetto insurance

Retribution was a basic fact of life in my old neighborhood. No matter how tough, anybody can be caught off guard and had the best of. The question is, Will he come back later and settle the score? That promise of retribution seperates tough guys from untouchable guys, and that makes all the difference.
The social function of retribution is to build a reputation over time that says “sure, you can get me now. But if so, six of my boys are going to put you in a trunk next week.” What that does is increase the cost of attacking someone, making them less likely to get attacked. However, it’s also costly to build that reputation. It requires actually carrying out retribution—which is dangerous and time consuming—and making a credible commitment to doing it every time in the future. Becoming untouchable is a social investment like any other.
In reality, few guys actually carry out paybacks. The reason is simple. Once emotions have cooled and time passes, few people stay angry enough to put their lives on hold and launch a revenge assault. Having that internal fire, that anger that never seems to fade, is what set the gangsters apart from the rest of the neighborhood. It takes a special brand of crazyness to be willing to track someone down at their work a month after being robbed and club them down with a stick, or worse.
At first, my circle tried to build a reputation for paybacks since none of us were big guys. We needed that threat to survive. But as we got older, the reputation became essential. Once the guys got into drugs and other enterprises, people suddenly had financial incentives to rob them. The threat of payback was like a security fence. To be safe, people had to believe that heads would roll if Capone ever got robbed. But to get to that point, we had to put in a helluva lot of work. It takes a lot of head busting to get people telling stories that will scare off potential enemies.
We were about 17 and had broken into a guy’s house. He fingered us to police later. After a six-month trial we were acquitted, but were still pissed about the bust.
Capone and Fingers run into the guy a few months later on the street. They slapped him around pretty good. Thinking that he had learned his lesson, they figured that was the end of it.
They were wrong. Later on five of us are watching TV at Tony’s place. Suddenly the front door burst open and six guys—including the one they’d slapped around earlier—came rushing in. All with clubs, one with a pistol. Scared the crap out me.
They probably could’ve killed us all. But for some reason once they got inside they make some vague threats and then got out without beating anyone. I couldn’t believe no one got hurt, damnest thing I’d seen.
They missed their chance. The instant they were out the door, A.B. was on the telephone, mad as all hell. He had ties to a local Samoan gang named Madpack, and was calling for backup. He got it.
At the time, Madpack was like the Navy Seals of this city’s gangs, all 200 pounds and crazy as a loon. I drove a Chevy van at the time, and we drove to the projects to pick them up.
Six Samoans sqeezed in. We drove to the house where the guys were at, and I park about a half block away and hit the lights. The side door of the van flies open and eight guys go running up to the front door. They kick it in with a huge crash and all hell breaks loose.
I’m behind the wheel of the van, and I see a guy tumble out the front door. Another guy’s getting beat with a stick in his own living room, and other guys are running for cover. The beating is over in a couple minutes.
They all pile back in the van, breathing hard and laughing like hell. Once they finished kicking the guys they managed to grab a roll of cash and a loaded shotgun from a bedroom. Only Madpack could pull off a beating in someone’s own house, then top it off by stealing their guns and money.
Afterward I drive backstreets across town, brakes smoking and engine tugging from the weight, and dropped them off. And that was that.
Of course, paybacks didn’t always go our way.
About a week after Tony and I beat down a local coke-head, I’m at a gas station. It’s about 11pm Friday. I go in, pay, walk out the door and POW. I never saw it coming. It’s the coke-head, and he got me right in the nose with a club.
Hit me so hard I saw light and was bleeding down my shirt. Busted my nose clean. I wrestled him back for a minute, but once you’ve got blood coming down your chin it’s pretty much over. I remember the look on the people’s faces at the gas pumps, standing there watching.
I remember driving home thinking of places in rural Snohomish county to bury this guy. I really thought he was going to die.
Eventually the nose healed, the guy dropped out of sight, and the episode fizzled out.
Years later some friends and I were taking off for a camping trip and stopped to fill up for the drive. And there at the gas station was this guy.
He’s skinny as hell and missing teeth and asking for change outside the door. Couldn’t believe it was him, begging in his old neighborhood. He was only a couple years older than us, and looked like death.
At that moment, I remember feeling total forgiveness.
Yeah, I got a crook in my nose. But this guy? He’s a walking corpse, living like the scum of the earth. I’d say the life he created for himself is worse than any payback we could’ve dished out.

cruel and usual punishment

It’s 4am and the lights are off in my folks’ house and somebody is shaking me awake. I’m still pretty drunk from earlier, half dreaming. It’s Capone. He’s breathing in my face, saying “get the fuck up.” He says it in this panicked whisper, the one that always meant something bad.
He says there was a fight after I left the house party, got jumped by some guys. Says it’s time for payback. He’s very drunk, and I can see him sweating in the dim light, all shiny with huge eyes, that vein sticking out of his forehead. This was getting to be routine at this point, so I knew the drill. I throw on sneakers and a beanie to cover my eyes. I ask how many. He says doesn’t know, maybe four or five. I grab an iron firepoker on the way out.
Tony and Fingers are waiting in the car. Capone drives us down through the neighborhood toward the house. The stereo, usually at full volume, is off, and everyone’s quiet with eyes out the windows. That tension sort of makes your ears ring, so quiet you hear the tires screech on the corners a little and pennies sliding in the dashboard and the drunk breathing in the back seat.
We drive past the party and it’s broken up, everybody gone. Capone is going nuts, punching the steering wheel yelling “you mutherfucking piece of fucking shit.” He keeps driving and takes a couple turns, and suddenly we’re up on the main strip through town. We usually avoided that strip, because of the heavy police patrols and streetlights. But everybody knew what was going on. There was a chance one of the guys would be walking home, and if so he’d be on the safest street in town, which at that hour was this one.
Turns out we were right. But it was only one guy. Capone saw him first, walking on the left side of the street up ahead with his back to us. He yelled for everyone to get down and don’t look. We drove past, and they guy kept walking straight. Had no idea it was us. We drove two more blocks and Copone took a left onto a backstreet and parked and we all got out. I pull down my beanie, and we walked over to wait for him behind a little Mexican restaurant on the corner.
Here we go. He walks past, sees us, and is instantly off like a shot running straight down the strip. We chase him. Capone and I were the fast ones, and he’s in the lead with me about six feet behind. I’ve still got the firepoker. Capone is swearing like a goddamn sailor at the guy, running with arms flailing. I’m slapping my feet down as fast as I can trying to breathe, and I’m thinking about police and witnesses more than this guy right now.
He was fast, and we tailed him at full sprint for two and a half blocks, which felt like it took hours to cover. He finally cuts left and runs to the front door of a big white house, up some stairs onto a latticed porch, hoping to wake somebody up. This was his unlucky day. The house was converted into a law office. Nobody home to wake up.
Copone got to him first. The guy was about a foot taller than him, and took his punch and they grappled on the porch. I show up second. And so here I am, holding this goddamn firepoker. And in this moment of drunken rage, I hit him with it. Hard on the upper back. Again and again. Capone gets out of the way. The guy tries to grab the poker, and he’s a lot stronger than me, and I start kicking his legs. Tony and Fingers show up, and one of them punches him. I get the poker back and take one last swing.
I hit him square in the head, almost on accident, and he sort of crumples against the wall and lets out this sound, and pieces of the lattice fall down on him, and after a few more kicks it’s over.
Capone bends over and starts throwing up on all fours. I’m spinning around, freaked out looking for police and gasping for air. We lift Capone and run for the car, never looking back. The whole thing lasted 5 minutes.
I dumped the poker—now L-shaped, unbelievably—in a dumpster and was in bed before sun-up.
The guy was hurt bad. Eye surgery, lacerations, collarbone, a stay in the hospital. He never went to the police. Capone stayed nervous for years afterward, always thinking the guy would show up at the next party with a shotgun.
But it never came. The guy got locked up a few months later for outstanding warrants, and they kept him in almost two years on related charges. Everything blew over.
Years later, I found out there were no other guys that night.
Capone never got jumped at any party. The truth is the guy just pissed him off in conversation, for a reason no one remembered, just like a million other times Capone got pissed off and fucked somebody up.
I remember thinking, “We almost killed a guy and nobody even remembers why the next day?” That’s the kind of shit that keeps you up at night, the fear he must’ve felt seeing us come at him, knowing what comes next.
I still about that shit sometimes, even now. And that makes me think in the long run there really are no unpunished crimes.

when size doesn't matter

“Size ain’t shit” was a cliche in my old neighborhood. The idea was that physical size doesn’t determine toughness. Ability to shut off fear does. And often the best ones at this were the smallest guys.
This is counterintuitive, and the opposite of tough-guy movies where Vin Diesel meatheads beat up a full bar of guys, one idiot at a time. In my old neighborhood, many times small guys were the ones to watch out for. They’re the guys that are forced to scrap, and after a while they get good at it.
When most people talk about someone being “able to fight,” they usually mean technique like boxing or kung-fu. But in actuat fights that stuff is mostly beside the point.
Fighting is maybe 10% technique and 10% strategy—things like getting in the first punch or bringing a club—but the other 80% is heart. What matters most is having nothing to lose—not caring about the black eye tomorrow or the blood on a new shirt or a trip to the dentist’s chair. That’s what we used to call “craziness.”
Ernest Hemingway got at something like this when he said he never trusted marksmen on a big-game hunt. He understood shooting a target is fundamentally different from putting a slug in a charging rhino. Sure, target shooters are technically refined. But they never learn to manage the fear.
It’s the same with someone doing “kick boxing” three nights a week at a health club and thinking that’s self-defense. Kicking a bag and punching a personal trainer are fundamentally different from getting in a tangle with a guy who wants to fuck your head up so bad you’ll be afraid to tell the story later.
Hemingway wrote: “cowardice . . . is almost always simply a lack of ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination.” Fighting is traumatic, and good fighting requires the ability to suspend the functioning of one’s imagination about it. Guys that get scared are the ones who think too much, worried about getting hurt, police, or getting shot later.
The best scappers are existentialists to the core, living for right now, or are the boneheads who are unable to grasp abstract future consequences. Whatever the case, all that matters in a solid fight performance is doing damage to the guy in front of you.
Often little guys get crazy as a survival technique.
They grow up getting beat and having to fight every time they go out. They aren’t the pretty boys, worried about their faces getting twisted. You can pick them out anywhere. Skinny veiny arms, crooked nose and scars, loud drinkers, maybe a tooth missing and big knuckles. Those are the guys who know how to pick up a stick and not give a shit about it later.
Often the biggest guys I knew were useless in fights. Why? They’re never challenged. They never learn anything but intimidation. It’s funny to watch them get confronted and have their bluff called. They try to settle things down to avoid going to blows, and do a little pushing and shoving. But you can see the hesitation in the eyes.
You never see a scrapper try to calm things down. They know they can’t do it. As the perennial underdog, they either fight or get beat. Contrast that with the pushing and trash talking you see with big dopey frat boys when the bars let out Saturday night. Real scrappers won’t push. They get in the first blow, get it over with, and get the hell out before the police show up.
Growing up, most of my crew were small guys, including me. That made for a lot of bad nights.
Sometimes I still get asked about scars. I’ll be at the beach with a girl, someone who sees me in a tie everyday in my new life, someone who could never imagine my old life and fucked up stories.
When they ask, I don’t talk about fights. I say I worked construction in high school. I tell them I got banged up on the job. And not knowing anything about fighting or construction, it fools them every time.

more guns, more crime

The proliferation of guns in the old neighborhood had a big impact on the social dynamic.
Suddenly everybody had access to a trump card, and that raised the stakes dramatically. People started thinking twice about fights, always worried that a black eye might touch off a shootout.
Whenever conflicts started brewing the first question was “is he strapped?” And if he was, “where is it?”, because a pistol in the trunk isn’t any good if you’re getting beat in the street.
If I had to guess, I’d say the proliferation of guns in the city in the late-1980s and 1990s correlates nicely with the rise of crack-dealing as a career option in the downtown area.
Crack is cheap and simple and easy to get rid of, and it democratized drug dealing like never before. With the rise of independent crack pushers came a need for protection on the street. That led to booming demand for stolen guns, and a supply naturally sprang up to fill it. Once dealers—and their homeboys, and their homeboys’ homeboys—started packing heat, the arms race was on.
If you want to be a tough guy, and all the other tough guys have pistols, you better do the same. And so one of the spillover effects of a democratized drug trade was a game of firearms one-upmanship, made possible by a vibrant market for stolen guns that served the security needs of street-level dealers.
I was 14 the first time I shot a gun. It was a snubnose .38 revolver. Capone had stolen it from his grandpa, and we’d bust it on the freeway just south of the city.
I bought my own first pistol when I was 17. Big Man had stolen a beat up .9mm from a friend’s house, and I gave him $175 for it. It was one of the pre-ban models that held 17 shots.
Over the next 6 months we probably shot off 1,000 rounds, carrying it from morning to night in the front of my pants.
Once you carry a pistol for a while, you realize that the safety it provides is partly an illusion. I remember coming home at night, putting the pistol in a drawer and thinking “this thing is going to kill me someday,” and being completely serious about that. In a lot of ways I felt less safe packing heat, and knew if I lost control of it it’d be bad news. But at the time it felt necessary if we wanted to never lose, and set ourselves apart from the rest of the schmucks who got their asses kicked in the neighborhood.
Unfortunately, a pistol in my belt always made it more likely that conflicts would escalate.
Somebody would be disrespectful, and after a while you’d get lazy and just reach under your shirt and say “you fuck, i’m going put a slug in your fucking head,” and that pretty much ended things. No more fighting.
The price, of course, is constant paranoia—both of going to jail and pulling a strap on the wrong kid and getting in a shootout.
The first time I got caught by the police with a pistol I was 18.
Somebody tipped off the local cops that we were driving around flashing a pistol. We got pulled over for no real reason, and the cops ordered four of us out of the car, hands up. This was on a main avenue in our neighborhood, during rush hour traffic. With all of us spread out on the ground, they tore the car apart, throwing everything out into the street, until they found the two pistols under my dashboard. One of the cops says “bingo”, then unloads them, carries them over to his car, and puts them in his trunk.
Then he uncuffs us, got in his cruiser and left.
We were dumbfounded. What was going on is that he knew it was an illegal search and would have no case against us in court. We would’ve walked away clean. By taking them away, he achieved his goal of disarming us and didn’t have to waste a night on paperwork.
I ran into that same cop almost 10 years later. It was a weird circumstance: I saw a drunk-driving hit and run outside my place, and had chased down the guy and called police on my cell phone. He was the officer that responded, now a captain, still working the same westside beat.
I looked at him for a minute, and said “so, still working this area, huh?” And he turns like a shot and gives me this serious look, and says “D”?
I tell him about college and writing and how things are different and how I’m moving out of the neighborhood. I told him that putting the smack-down on us back in the day might’ve saved my life.
He sat quiet, listening. Then, with a completely sober face he says “so what’s Capone up to these days?”, as if he hadn’t heard anything I’d just said.
I think for a minute, and tell him Capone and I don’t talk much anymore. He looks me up and down and says “Tell that sunofabitch I’m still watching him.”
He gets in his cruiser and leaves. I go home, thinking how some things never change.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

first post

Welcome to gangstories. The site was originally launched in the summer of 2003 as a fiction blog. After it got some attention (see here), and after several hundred emails—both positive and negative—I decided to remove the site and rethink the project.
After some consideration, Gangstories was relaunched in April 2004. Only this time, without the fictional disclaimer.
For better or worse, these are the stories that made me—along with a growing class of urban kids who grew up like me. Over time, I’ve discovered the vast majority of Americans have never experienced anything like the crime, violence and poverty that characterized my childhood and fundamentally shaped my worldview.
In telling these stories, I hope to improve the way people think about class, social mobility, and what constitutes a good life in America by putting a face on the actual people we call “the poor”.
Bad people can change. Poor kids can get out of the ghetto. There’s more to being poor than gangsta rap and 40s.
The purpose of gangstories is to show that.
Thanks for stopping in.