In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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There are still candles on the sidewalk where they shot him in the head two months ago — the big frosted-glass kind with Jesus on the side that you can buy at the Mexican grocery for ninety-nine cents. The flowers are fresh. The giant photo of him is still visible as you pass by in the team van, but the laminate is peeling from the top right corner, the weather starting in.
The youth and community center in South Central Los Angeles, where you coach basketball, is a block-long, two-story concrete bunker funded by the Salvation Army. By day, two hundred kids attend day-care and after-school programs. By night, fifty high-schoolers and young adults lift weights, browse the Internet, take music lessons, and hang out in the social core of the whole neighborhood, the gymnasium. The center looks a little different from every other nonresidential building around here. It’s the lack of graffiti that makes it stand out. No tagging on any of the outside walls, only a scrawl or two on the alley side.
They’re at the center all the time. You’ve really got to keep the two of them straight, but it’s difficult. They’ve got the same face, down to the pimples along the jaw line. They’re both taller than you, the older one by at least five inches. The younger’s a bit quieter, but when he does speak, it’s with the same inflection and rhythm. So you take a guess: “Hey, Rye-Rye, what’s up?”
“I know how we all look the same to you, Tim-Tim, but you can call him ‘Rye-Rye,’ me ‘CJ.’ ”
“You’re kidding. Really?”
“We’d appreciate it.”
“He means I’d appreciate it,” says Rye-Rye. “He dreams he was me.”
“With your chicken arms? I’m twice you already. Tell him, Coach. Tell him CJ’s your starting center, long as someone helps you tell us apart.”
No exaggeration: you fear helicopters. On a good day, driving south down the 110 to work, you don’t see any over South Central. On a fair drive into work you don’t see any to your left, the East Side. On a bad day there are three news teams and two police choppers in the air above Fremont High School (the building with metal detectors at the front entrance, steel grates on every window, and a fifteen-foot-high wrought-iron fence surrounding it) because a Mexican kid hit a black kid in the cafeteria, and the black kid’s friends joined in, and then so did the Mexican kid’s friends, and soon pretty much all the kids in the school were involved, and the 77th Station officers had to call the riot squad, with their helmets and shields, and now it’s a lockdown, and there’s no basketball practice at the center today, because no one’s getting out of school until their guardian arrives, and, well, that’s going to take a while, if.
You can’t pay attention to the actors on the screen. You should have been more patient at basketball practice today. You shouldn’t have closed the weight room so dramatically. Was this the first water-bottle fight in the history of the world? What did those kids do after you booted them from the center? Tomorrow you’ll have to start out right, maybe plan a three-point shootout or a barbecue or —
“Hey! Where’d you go?” your girlfriend asks, pulling you back into your apartment, back into Echo Park. “Be here,” she says. “With me.”
The action on the court is lively. Santwaan’s already dunked twice, Jeremy is reigning in the lane, and everyone’s playing defense for once. But the real show’s in the stands, where CJ is sitting this one out: CJ the sun. CJ, shit-talker extraordinaire, delivering a medley of boasts and taunts. Something for everybody:
“Tonio, you little bug-eyed fly child, look at you. Probably seeing two thousand of me — watch out!
“Rigo, Rigo, Rigo. Shit, Rigo, you white, man. Just face it. Tim-Tim more Mexican than you!
“Candy. Nice belt, Candy. And they was saying, Who’s gonna keep K-Mart in business?
“Curtis! Curtis! Look at your grill, homeboy — like you hate toothpaste!
“Miles, oh, my, Miles. Got your shoelaces tied around your ankles? Reebok making skates now?
“Shari, Shari, it’s OK. Don’t nobody but us two know what happened last night. Don’t you worry. . . . I’m just playing! Just playing!
“Tim-Tim. Look at those ears, people. How much your ears weigh, T.? Just think — lose them and you’d be dunking! No, really, my bad, my bad, T. We just playing — but, honestly, what they saying downtown right now? I bet you can hear the ocean.”
You can’t decide: Nikes or New Balances. Back and forth you go, yea and nay, up and down the aisles. The real question is: Who do you want to take shit from — your friends in Echo Park, or the kids in South Central? You feel like you’re in middle school again, when you’d be shopping for school clothes with your mom but hearing your classmates in your head. Would they mock you? Now you hear the gallery in the gym if you face down all the homeboys while rockin’ the NBs. But if you choose Nikes, then, back in your Echo Park circle, you’ll have to hear about the social consequences, Nikes being somewhere above feedlot beef but below offshore drilling on the scorn meter. So finally you just lay it out, ask your shopping companion. And CJ, shaking his head in an expression of pained disbelief, doesn’t hold back: “Man, shouldn’t no Chinese shoe-gluer stop you from looking fly.”
“Man, why don’t you go back to Beverly Hills?”
“Wearing those mirrored shades, look like the po-po.”
“So smart, and here you are working in South Mental.”
“Think you God, saying who can come and go. Shit. Try telling me again one time. Oh, I’d love you try that.”
“We all know you rich — you white.”
“Don’t remember nobody asking you to be here anyway.”
Naturally you did a little before sending in your résumé. From Wikipedia: “South Central Los Angeles remains known for its notorious gangs. The tension between black and Latino gangs has led to increased racially motivated gang violence.”
CJ swears “Crip talk” is for real, but you can’t believe it: “They don’t really talk like that.”
“You’ll see in a minute, Tim-Tim. Cror is for; croo is to. You work at the ‘Cralvation Crarmy.’ ”
“They have to do it for a whole year?”
“A whole year.”
“Cruck, man. Cruck.”
“This already hurts my brain.”
Your journey is only four blocks, but everything changes after two: No more red graffiti. Almost entirely blue tagging once you reach Glade Street.
“ ’Sup, homeboy?” CJ says to the teen who answers the door.
“CJ! Crup, crup, cramigo? Crelcome croo cry crasa!”
“Nah, man, we can’t stay. Is Randy round?”
“Just Tim-Tim, my basketball coach. He runs the center over on 76th and Central. What about Randy?”
“Crat crigga? Cree creft crith crat critch.”
“Who, Shari? Shari ain’t no bitch.”
“Cratever crou cray.”
On the walk back you notice the kids playing in the front yards are all wearing white, black, or gray — no colors in these neighborhoods.
“Oh, come on, T. It’s like, whaddya call that frat thing . . . rushing, right?”
“I wasn’t a frat boy, CJ.”
“No? But my cousin Amber told me that’s how you white boys get laid!”
Across the street and half a block down from the center, right next to the car dealership with the Ford Explorer forty feet up in the air, its rims spinning in the wind, there’s a little store with no name on the door or windows, just a yellow sandwich board out front with black hand-painted lettering: “GIFTS 4 Inmates. Bus Saturdays.”
CJ looked you straight in the eye as you spoke, didn’t worm-hunt the linoleum like Rondale and Eddie did. He nodded as you explained how the center is a special place, worthy of respect. He kept nodding as you talked about home and public space, about wearing different coats, playing the game to get your goal. He smiled as you described how the last thing you ever feel like doing is suspending folks, how this is supposed to be their center, not yours. He elbowed both his sidekicks, one to each side, when you said you hoped they were listening, because that’s the only way they’d be coming back here: by listening, displaying remorse, thinking of a way to make it up to you. He maintained rapt attention the whole way through, looking grave when you got more serious, smiling (but just slightly) when you tried to lighten your tone a touch. He shook your hand when you said you hoped they’d be back, that they only needed a little time off, some vay-cay from the center to learn to respect it and all. Then, right before he turned and left, he said with a wry smile: “Just one question, Tim-Tim: how you know the smell of weed so well, anyways?”
Ain’t it funny that no one knows his real name? Just “CJ.” But the truth is right there in the computer at the front desk, in the KidTrax attendance program, in the membership folder: Cornelius Moreland Junior. This is your eureka moment for the week — wait, the month, maybe the year. At last you’ve got something you can use against him when he starts in on you; you can fire back. Cornelius Junior? Yes! Nobody knows yet, but they will. Let CJ trot out his jokes about your ears tonight, ’cause you’re loaded and ready.
© Mark Townsend
“Well, look at you now, Tim-Tim: shiny black FBI shoes, button-down Bachrach, matching silk tie — ladies and gentlemen, the new king of the Salvation Army South Central Youth and Commune Center is styling! Shit, you trying to make me look bad? It’s not working, but nice try. Out with the old, in with the new, eh, T-dawg? No more Skechers for you! No more value menu, that’s for sure. Ah, Tim-Tim will have the super size, please. Just look at my boy — blinding! They sure they got the right guy? Did they really mean to make the basketball coach the director around here? My, oh, my. Standards be slipping; things going to hell all over. And you know what I’ve been saying: I blame it on the youth. No, no, but seriously, Tim-Tim, you gonna remember us little folk now you way back there in that big office? Old CJ still needs you, you know. Don’t be forgetting about me and Rye-Rye, now. Don’t be forgetting how you was that first day down here when we found you in that old gym back of Fremont, ya hear? You looked at the two of us like we just escaped the pen in Chino. Please don’t be forgetting about that. OK, white man?”
The white-haired colonel and his silvery-blond wife, the new team running divisional headquarters downtown, arrive the morning that Marina and Miguel’s mom gets beaten up outside the front gate, her left eye swollen shut and patches of hair missing. But they’ve worked in places like this before; their questions are so much better than ones from other suits; you can see the impact of this tour in their eyes. And you know not to get your hopes up, that these visits are about goodwill and optimism. Of course they’re going to be touched and impressed — you engineered this, after all.
Despite all the history of neglect, the broken promises and bureaucratic incompetence, you’re actually able to keep your eyes closed during the prayer circle, your mind focused on the blessing, not on the swirl of center activities around you — the little kiddies zipping out of the lobby, the teens sailing in — but on the kind, hopeful, soothing words that flow from somewhere above the soft, warm pink hands that have actual authority, influence. So you hold on tight and keep your eyes closed and listen to their prayers and know they mean well, and you want to believe that they will do what they say they will do, and it feels good, holding these hands and closing your eyes and simply listening — for once not having to do anything else, for just this one moment — and trying to believe in the speaker’s words and hoping, not completely, not foolishly, but in the simplest way, that maybe these people will act on what they’re saying; that maybe together you can make a difference in this neighborhood; that maybe, just maybe, there’s a bunny’s chance in a lion’s den that this simple, wonderful feeling alone will actually matter. That someone is listening.
“He locked away, Tim-Tim. Feds, they say. I don’t even really know him. He wrote us a letter, and we seen him like twice. Rye-Rye’s never met him. Everybody says just look at us, and you know we brothers, but he won’t claim Rye-Rye. I mean, we brothers, just look. One thing for sure though: he is a big Blood, like way up, from way back. I guess they take care of our moms because of that.”
A bar in Echo Park. Tight, tapered black jeans and ironic T-shirts everywhere you look. You realize how long you’ve been working south of the 10, how your clothes are now sagging: jeans, shirts, baggy, baggy, baggy. You need a beer and some friendly ears. It’s time to make a decision, see if you can stick it out at this job or move on.
Sometimes your friends don’t immediately see you. Sometimes you’re pinned behind them in a sea of unwashed hair and vintage blouses, and it’s all you can do to strain and hear their drunken talk:
“Tim’s probably late because he’s carrying the center here again.”
“Hey, our boy’s an angel.”
“Oh, I love him, but it’s Friday night.”
“I know, I know — it would be nice of him to keep it light for once.”
You’ll have to think on this some more, alone. You’re pretty sure you can’t deal with it and may leave town entirely, move up north and take classes or something.
“Don’t you ever think of leaving us.”
“You home down here, pale rider. Believe it!”
“We don’t like being bullshitted. You’re good like that. You say it straight.”
“Fuck, before you came, wasn’t nobody getting leagues going. Wasn’t nowhere to play organized.”
“Hell, no; hell, no — not a chance you’re leaving!”
And when you and CJ stopped by to get the extra basketball uniform, because Rye-Rye was sick but the Sanchez twins could each play a half, CJ introduced you as his coach and picked up his littlest brother, who was fingering a bowl of cereal-stained milk, and then said, “Mama, look. He just eating sugar again.” She replied, “Just leave him alone. Didn’t nobody pick on you. He’s just a little man. Let him some peace. Damn.”
You’ve never been very good at the discipline side, but you do your best. You understand how every youth worker needs to run his or her own justice system. In each room you are 911-switchboard operator, first responder, detective, district attorney, judge, and probation officer. Do all these well, and your citizens might respect, obey, and trust your authority. Fail — underinvestigate, assume, punish too severely, forget to follow up with the parents — and you’ll have a little South Central up in here. The trick is to do each job evenly, skipping no steps, always being wary of rushed judgments. If, for instance, you do have to arrest, judge, and punish some teenagers for playing craps in the kids’ restroom during a basketball tournament, try to make it reasonable. Make the punishment fit the crime — a “logical consequence,” they called it in that seminar you went to in San Diego. Maybe make them clean the stalls. Maybe have them volunteer a couple of Saturdays. Definitely don’t let the long day and the losses on the court and the lack of sleep again last night and the seeming lack of appreciation for your efforts lately cause you to forget almost five years of history with certain individuals and erupt and say something like: “GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE! GET OUT! FUCK! ALL OF YOU! CJ, RONDALE, SERGIO, EDDIE — GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY CENTER! NOW! I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHEN! MAYBE NEVER! YOU’RE IN NO POSITION TO ASK QUESTIONS! GET! OUT!”
However you expected to react, that’s not how it is.
They got CJ.
Hang up the phone.
You can’t breathe, yes, but it’s not because you feel punched in the gut. It’s the cold. The cold that sank in so fast and deep, your insides are freezing. All ice. And the radio in your brain is playing Rigo’s words from just a week ago: “CJ goes anywhere. It’s like he got a pass. He’ll hit the barbecue in the projects, hit another on Grape, stop and shoot dice with Swans on his way home. CJ’s dad is like royalty, and CJ the prince, man. CJ one guy they just let be.”
CJ one guy they just let be.
And, of course, the kernel of pain deep in your core — the last two words you remember saying to him: “Get out.”
What’s the record for saying fuck in a week? How about for ignored voice mails in a week? For ignoring direct questions from the woman you live with? How about beers opened but abandoned? Hamburgers fried but not eaten? What’s the record for pulling over during a single drive to work and trying to cry in your car but instead just pounding your steering wheel again and again on the side of the freeway?
They did it. Them.
Swans, Bloods, Crips.
Someone did it. A cold, hardened veteran in the wrong mood, probably twenty years old.
Or a new recruit, a rookie needing to prove himself, probably seventeen; sixteen; fifteen, we could be talking.
“What’s up, blood? Why you stepping?”
“Nobody doing shit, kid. Just minding my OB and walking home.”
“ ‘Kid,’ motherfucker? Man, shoot his ass so he dies.”
This is a neighborhood full of young men. This is a neighborhood full of unmen. Babies with guns, loaded ones, and everybody’s a cowboy or an Indian. These are short-term survival strategies. This is extreme nearsightedness. Some days you’re in the van on Central going north to the food bank, and you consider continuing onto the 10, driving straight out into the desert and just going. Some days you want to accelerate down the sidewalks and through the stoops on Glade Street and 74th and Jefferson and MLK, stack up piles of unmen on your front bumper until it meets a concrete wall. Some days you contemplate these options much more carefully than you do traffic lights and the estimated stopping distance for a twelve-passenger van loaded with expiring canned hams.
“I’m fine. How about you, Rye-Rye?”
“Whew. Rough, T. It be all right during the day, though.”
“I know it. I know that.”
“You wanna go shoot some hoops?”
“Not really. . . . Actually I don’t know what I want to do.”
“Let’s go play some twenty-one, T. I’ll teach you a thing or two about ball handling. Promise. You might as well learn something today. No charge for the first lesson, just for you, T.”
You’re raking through the utility drawer in the kitchen. You brought it up, but that doesn’t mean you want to talk about it.
“Don’t say that, honey,” she says.
“What?” But you aren’t really listening. You’re still looking for batteries.
“I mean it, Tim. You can’t hold on to this blame.”
Now you’re paying attention. But now it isn’t you: it’s someone who hears those words and mashes his hands together, trying to control them, but he can’t, so he spins recklessly to the left and grabs the driver from the golf bag by the door and swings it back at the conversation with such violence that he doesn’t even hear her scream until after the club head has disappeared into the drywall. Then the scream catches up to you, as he starts turning back into you, and it sticks, rings, rocks between your ears for the next fifty minutes as you explode out of the house and drive reckless laps around Dodger Stadium.
The porch light is on when you return, the rest of the apartment dark. She’s probably left. She probably should leave. No, wait. There’s a light on in the bedroom upstairs. You don’t know what this means. You almost don’t expect your key to work as you enter. Inside, the first thing you notice is how clean everything looks. The second is that there’s no longer a golf club sticking out from a hole in the wall. In fact, there isn’t even a hole visible. There’s a picture of Phil Mickelson Scotch-taped over it. There’s a pair of scissors on the dining-room table, and your Sports Illustrated is on a chair. And there’s a woman upstairs in bed, reading while she waits.
The boys are quiet on the hike to the huge canyon filled with giant boulders. You’re dying to know their thoughts. Have they ever seen such raw beauty, six city rats who’ve never traveled past the Valley, Long Beach, or the 710? But there is zero talking the whole way, and it’s torture.
Finally Rye-Rye starts giggling.
“What do you think, Rye-Rye?”
He laughs some more, then says: “I just realized what CJ would say if he were here.”
This gets Antonio going.
“Oh, Christ,” you say. “Let’s have it.”
“Hey, Tim-Tim,” Rye-Rye says, pointing to a line of hikers on the canyon floor a mile below, “how about you angle them ears and tell us what they talking about down there?”
Did your supervisor really only hand you that whistle and the ball bag and the blue T-shirt with the red shield and say, Please be back by 5:30 and don’t forget the sign-in sheets, because clearly 97 percent of the kids in this gym have less respect for you than they do for the custodian who’s being heckled in the far corner, and just about 100 percent of these kids look like the picture you had in your head from TV and movies of what South Central gangbangers look like, especially the two approaching with the sly grins, like they know one heckuva lot more than you do (which, of course, couldn’t be more true), wearing white T-shirts down below their knees. (Do they really make them that big? Heck, these guys are like six-one and six-four.) And what do you call those nylon head wraps NFL players wear all the time? “Wave hats,” that’s it. You don’t yet know if taking this job was the best or the stupidest decision you’ve ever made, and these two beanpoles, they must be brothers, because they have the same face, same acne. They get right up close, and the taller one extends a palm, leaves it out there for you to slap, and says, smiling: “Yo, wassup, white man? You lost?”
“CJ the Prince” is one of the finest reflections I have ever read on the rewarding and heart-wrenching experience of working with disadvantaged young people. Daniel Larson shows the loving and inspiring essence of these young men even in the face of horrible oppression. Combine this with Arnie Cooper’s interview with Michelle Alexander [“Throwing Away the Key,” February 2011] on the injustice visited on young men of color by our country’s penal system, and you have a portrait of our society’s oppressive structure.
Daniel Larson’s “CJ the Prince” [April 2011] is one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve ever read in The Sun. Thanks for publishing this intensely human, bafflingly tragic, and wonderfully written story.