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.