Tuesday, April 27, 2004

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.

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