Award of Merit for Voice: 1010
I grew up in Salt Lake. It doesn’t have the reputation of Queens or Compton, but shit goes down in the same way. It’s funny how most people think everything’s all to the wood. They don’t see things the way we do. They all go about their days and don’t even realize that there’s a war goin’ on right in their backyards. Off to work in the mornin’ and back home at night. Shit, then they act like life is so rough. I know what it’s like to put in work too. Gang-bangin’ is a full time job. You do what you’re told, and you get your stripes. That was my life for ten years.
I want to talk to you about the choices I’ve made and where they have gotten me. I know what you guys are goin’ through, and I know what it’s like in this place. I’ve done my time, Playboys. I got my first charge at the age of ten, and my seventh conviction was a gun crime at the age of twelve. That’s what landed me in this same juvenile detention center on those same benches you guys are sittin’ on right now. Psychologists, priests, social workers, and all sorts of other so called “professionals” would come tell us how we needed to change and how there is a better way. I consider myself much more qualified, but I’m not here to tell you guys how to live or act. I’ll save that bullshit for the birds.
I want to let you guys know that you can make it up out the ‘hood. Your paths aren’t written in stone. I started at the bottom tryin’ to come up, made some choices, and now I have to live with what I’ve done; however, I don’t have to watch my back no more. I don’t have to worry about when, or how, I’m gonna’ get my next meal. Most importantly, I have my freedom. I decided to quit. It wasn’t some outside force pullin’ me. It wasn’t some “professional” that sold me some magical story and convinced me. It was me. Every one has to make that choice on their own, otherwise it won’t last.
I reached into my pockets to make sure I had everything. Money, phone, keys, Chapstick, yup, it was all there. I put my strap in my waist band. I got this sudden rush. Funny what a chunk of steel will do to your ego. My fifteen year old sister had called me, and she asked if I’d come get her. I had to walk down to her best friend’s house, so I could walk her home. It was a bad neighborhood not too far from our house. When I say bad, I mean it was full of straight G’s from the other side. I tied my flag around my left elbow, and I made sure my other flag was hangin’ out of my left pocket. I put my earring in my left ear and tilted my hat slightly to the left. I always made sure the hoodies knew my bang.
I opened my front door and looked around. It was dark. There was no moon out that night, and the breeze gave me chills as it rolled across my neck. I took in a deep breath. It seemed like a calm summer’s night, but something didn’t feel right. All the same, my fam-bam needed me. I put my left foot out, always how we start, and began to stroll. I played the shadows all the way down to the lower eastside. When you’re walkin’ through a concrete jungle, every move is a calculated step. Ya’ll know if you let up, you get wet-up.
I got to the ol’ girl’s house and knocked on the door. My sister came out, and we started walkin’ home. As we were truckin’ up seventh, I heard some bass. I looked over my shoulder and saw the whip a block down.
“Com’on Din, quit fuckin’ around,” I told her.
She replied as she always does, “Whatever.”
The car rolls by all slow like, doin’ about fifteen miles per hour. I recognized that ‘Lac. I recognized them chrome shoes too. “O s’it Cuz. That’s that nigga from the other side Cu’. Here, switch me sides,” I whispered. I pulled out my heat. No need to cock it, we always roll wit’ one in the chamber. Ol’ boy turned right at the next street. I let out a sigh. My pace quickened, and I kept my hand on my heat under the shirt. He saw my flags, I know he did. I kept lookin’ over my shoulder as we continued home.
A few blocks up, I was beginning to think we were gonna make it. Before I even finished that thought, I heard the screech of tires behind me. “Run Din run!” I yelled as I took off like my kicks was on fire. I heard her scream, and I jumped behind a car that was parked in a driveway. As I expected, the shots rang out and echoed loud. I could hear the bullets ricocheting as they hit the car I was behind and the house I was crouched up against. My heart was beating fast. As soon as the shots ceased, I grinned. My turn partna. I jumped up and started slappin’ flames at ‘im.
As he sped off, I stopped shootin’. I laughed out loud and mumbled, “Better luck next time, Cu’.” I turned around and my body stopped. There, in the middle of the lawn, lay my sister. I ran over to her and fell to my knees. She was covered in blood, and she wasn’t moving. I put one hand under her head and kept the other one on my gun. She looked into my eyes with this distant expression on her face. The air didn’t seem so calm anymore.
That night in the hospital I sat with my mom and my brother. I didn’t really have any emotions as I sat there and waited for the doctor to come out. My mind was blank. After the cops finished sweatin’ me, the doctor came out and told us that she was coo’. She got clapped twice, one in the shoulder and one under her right breast. As soon as the doctor left, my brother said, “Time to have lil meetin’ Yungsta.”
My brother and I went out to the parkin’ lot and jacked a car so we could get home. The ride was startin’ to get all cloudy. As we sat there smokin’ that dank in silence, I knew what was about to come.
He finally broke the silence, “Time to get your stripes young Cuz.” He went on to explain my mission. Gettin’ scared wasn’t an option. I let the hatred feed my confidence. I paid close attention as he rattled off on what was gonna go down. I was finally gonna rank. No more soldier status.
We went home and loaded up. I grabbed two heatas, the forty cal and the pistol grip shotty. I changed my gear to all black. I ain’t gonna lie, this is when I started to get scared. This is when I really started to second guess what I was about to do. It’s one thing to buck at someone. It’s a whole ‘nother thing to run up into someone’s crib and execute the muthafucka. That’s when I did what any thirteen-year-old would do. I reached out for some advice, some comfort.
My brother was the only one there, so naturally, “Laze, man, you sure about this? I mean, she lived. What’s the worry?” I asked without lookin’ at him.
“Putchyo fuckin’ chin up and get your mind right, young Cuz.” He hissed. “This nigga’s tryin’ to play the fam like a bitch.”
“It ain’t that, I’m just sayin’.”
“Sayin’ what?” He replied.
I thought for a second, and then kept my mouth shut. He’s right, right? I love my sister, and somebody thought they were just gonna take that from me. Never that. I’m gonna run up into that ol’ boy’s house, put my heat to his left temple, and push his mind right.
How that night ended doesn’t matter. What matters is where I am now. We all know that pressure can be a bitch, and we all know how it feels to go against our heart. I chose a path when I was younger. How much I had to do with the actual choice is still unclear to me. There was cognitive dissonance, and there was also a lot of pressure. My brother’s a straight ‘hood nigga. He’s seven years and one day older than me. My brother first went to prison when he was seventeen. I wanted to be just like him. He had the respect of every gangsta in the Lake. He was a leader. There wasn’t a dude in the entire ‘hood that could fuck wit’ Laze. The writer Nathan McCall and I shared a similar decision: “I decided that this was the kind of respect I wanted to command” (239). I thought if I followed exactly in his footsteps, it would all come together for me too. He got out about a week before this took place. When I was seventeen, I got my third gun charge, and the state tried me as an adult. Finally, I got to be just like my brother.
I went to the county jail and realized how fuckin’ lame it was. There were people older than my dad doin’ time for all sorts of dumb shit. By the grace of whoever, I didn’t go Federal and only did about eleven months. That was the last charge I ever got. I was sick of havin’ to watch my back. I was sick of O.G.s tellin’ me what to do. I was sick of worryin’ about how I was gonna eat. I was sick of it all, really. I decided I needed to educate myself and be done with all the shit that really didn’t hold much ground in the real world. I don’t know one O.G. over thirty and still slangin’. How was I gonna put my G status on a resume? Tell ‘em I’m good with numbers because I used to sell crack? Yeah, right. I knew that in order for me to turn it ‘round, I would have to leave the Lake.
I knew I couldn’t just run. Huh uh. Penalty for that violation is death, and the ‘hood’ll find ya. Go up to the General and tell ‘im I want out? Fuck, what choice did I have? I had earned my stripes. I put in a gang o’ work for the set. He wouldn’t think I was turnin’ snitch, would he? It was time to grow up. Like journalist Steven Stark says, “While an adolescent often looks at a change in direction and sees deceit, an adult realizes that life is usually more complex than that” (200). Turns out, I fit the latter description.
I’m now twenty-one with over seventy charges. I’ve been incarcerated for about five years in different group homes, institutions, and lock-ups. Eleven years after my first charge, I’m still on probation with the law on my back. I took it upon myself to make the change. I made it out of the ‘hood, and now I’m on a whole new rite of passage. I currently attend Southern Utah University. Coming down to college wasn’t easy. I didn’t know anyone, I was overwhelmed by the thought of failure, and I felt like I was some sort of outsider that didn’t deserve the opportunity. Gail Sheehy spoke to me when she wrote:
With each passage from one stage of human growth to the next we, too, must shed a protective structure. We are left exposed and vulnerable-but also yeasty and embryonic again, capable of stretching in ways we hadn’t known before. These sheddings may take several years or more. Coming out of each passage, though, we enter a longer and more stable period in which we can expect relative tranquility and a sense of equilibrium regained. (206)
I took a heavy load in school this semester, seventeen credit hours, and I have straight A’s. I have a wonderful girlfriend, a car, my own place, and a bullet bike (bought with clean money). My mother’s so proud she cries when she talks about it. The police don’t bother me any more. Life’s good.
As for my brother, he’s still in prison. He has done about 10 years total, 12 by the time he gets out in 2006. He doesn’t have a girlfriend, no car, he lives in a cell, and the only bike he rides is an exercise bike in the yard (bought by the state). I came to the realization that “dreams are not enough” (Tweedie 282). You decide.
Rae, Judie, and Catherine Fraga, eds. Rites of Passage: A Thematic Reader. Boston: Thomson Learning, 2002.
McCall, Nathan. “Makes Me Wanna Holler.” Ed. Judie Rae and Catherine Fraga. Rites of Passage: A Thematic Reader. Boston: Thomson Learning, 2002. 235-42.
Sheehy, Gail. “Predictable Crises of Adulthood.” Ed. Judie Rae and Catherine Fraga.
Rites of Passage: A Thematic Reader. Boston: Thomson Learning, 2002. 206-18.
Stark, Steven. “Where the Boys Are.” Ed. Judie Rae and Catherine Fraga. Rites of Passage: A Thematic Reader. Boston: Thomson Learning, 2002. 198-202.
Tweedie, Jill. “The Experience.” Ed. Judie Rae and Catherine Fraga. Rites of Passage: A Thematic Reader. Boston: Thomson Learning, 2002. 274-82.