A hoodlum's education

In this excerpt from "Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx," little Cesar splits with his criminal mentor, loses his gun and catches the eye of a girl named Coco.

Published February 11, 2003 10:57PM (EST)

Not everyone survives being rescued. Cesar's nemesis lived in the tenement next door. Rocco was half-Italian and nine years older than Cesar, with thick, dark brown eyebrows that accentuated the funny repertoire of expressions animating his rubbery face. The first time they spoke, Cesar, who was then twelve, was crying on the stoop with his head in his arms. The public display of vulnerability surprised Rocco: Cesar was famous around the neighborhood for taking punches with as much spirit as he dished them out. Rocco had heard the stories -- how Father Tom from the Christian Church had barred him from game night for breaking windows, stealing pool balls, and whacking other kids with the cues. Rocco had once watched Cesar take on a much older boy easily twice his size: Cesar barreled into him with everything he had and didn't stop swinging until the guy left him in a heap. He always had a black eye or swollen lips and was always running, with kids chasing him, Rocco said, bemused. That afternoon, Rocco asked what was wrong; it turned out Cesar had a terrible toothache -- probably from the candy he sometimes ate for breakfast. "I think from there I started liking that crazy little kid," Rocco said. He would know Cesar for many years, but he never saw him cry again.

The friendship took a while to develop. Rocco was training as a boxer, busy with his girlfriend, running around with a crew of guys his age, edging in and out of crime. Cesar was busy sprinting around the warm-up track of a criminal life -- roofing other children's balls, stealing bikes, fighting, fighting, fighting. Sometimes Cesar watched Rocco practice boxing in the back alley or in the basement; occasionally they played handball together on the corner of Anthony, at Cesar's elementary school.

One summer night, Rocco was going to night pool, and Cesar, who'd just graduated from sixth grade, tried to tag along. The older boys were strapped -- carrying guns -- because they were a group of Puerto Ricans and the swimming pool was in Highbridge, a predominantly Dominican neighborhood. Cesar begged to go, but Rocco said he was too young for trouble. But then a few months passed, and Cesar sprang up. "Damn," Rocco said, "you got big, how old are you now?" Cesar lied and told Rocco he was sixteen.

By the spring of 1987, as things fell apart at Lourdes's, the boys were hanging out in earnest. Rocco had time for Cesar, and Cesar gave Rocco a second childhood. When Rocco had been Cesar's age, his father wouldn't even let him outdoors on summer nights; now they dropped eggs on unsuspecting pedestrians and hopped turnstiles and jumped onto moving subway cars and stole Chinese takeout and chased girls. "I was twenty-two, going on twelve," Rocco said. He'd rap on Cesar's bedroom window from the fire escape. When they had money, they'd eat a late breakfast of beef patties in coco bread at Skeebo's, a Jamaican restaurant on Tremont, then head up to Moody's, Rocco's favorite record store. Rocco taught Cesar boxing moves and brought him along to Gleason's, his boxing gym in Brooklyn. Cesar jumped at any chance to prove worthy of Rocco's friendship.

Rocco's role model had been his uncle Vinny. Vinny was a longtime heroin user with throat cancer and a fairly successful illegal career. Unlike Rocco's father, who did nothing but work and come home tired, Vinny exuded seventies cool -- dark shades, long black hair slicked back into a ponytail, jailhouse tales and tattoos. Vinny had had a tracheotomy; his raspy voice reminded Rocco of the Godfather. When Vinny told his nephew, "I'm never gonna die," Rocco believed him: his uncle Vinny had been in and out of prison, shot at, stabbed, even hit by a city bus. Vinny told Rocco that he could succeed at crime as long as he stayed away from drugs and didn't trust anyone.

"Vinny raised me to be streetwise," Rocco said.

Cesar said, "Rocco raised me to be a criminal."

By the time Big Daddy left, Cesar and Rocco had renamed themselves 2DOWN and graduated to more serious crimes. Cesar didn't make it to junior high.

As it turned out, Cesar and Rocco were to be separated by a crime that neither of them had committed. During the long free days and endless nights, 2DOWN joined with other boys in other crews named Showtime and ABC. Both Cesar and Rocco happened to be in Echo Park one fall afternoon when an argument over a basketball erupted into a shooting spree. Usually, the cops weren't so concerned about hoodlums shooting at one another, but this time a bullet had grazed a two-year-old. When the police started rounding up the kids in the neighborhood with reputations, Lourdes scuttled the boys to Spanish Harlem, where Cesar's father kept an apartment. After only one night, however, Rocco suggested they move on: Cesar's father had an outstanding warrant, and Rocco worried that he might try to get rid of it by turning them in.

The following morning, Cesar returned to the Bronx; Rocco went to work out at Gleason's, where his trainer, who'd read about the shooting in the paper, convinced Rocco to go to the police. Rocco was interrogated and released, and when he caught up with Cesar, he convinced him to follow his example. Shortly afterward, however, two Showtime boys were arrested for the shooting, and the word on the street was that Rocco had ratted. Cesar was incredulous. Until that point, his trust in Rocco had been total; now his disappointment was complete.

After his break with Rocco, Cesar continued to hang out with Showtime and ABC. He was loyal, and now he carried a snub-nose .38. Guys invited him along when they needed backup for their beefs -- or someone crazy enough to stay up front. But then, one night in Manhattan, a fight broke out in a Times Square arcade while Cesar was playing pinball; he tried to run, but the police caught up with him and confiscated his gun. Once he was no longer armed, the older boys weren't so interested. Cesar was learning -- by painful trial and error -- that lots of boys talked a good game about the thug life, but when it came to taking action, they came up short.

That winter was bleak; after the family's dizzying encounter with Boy George, the cupboards were soon bare again. Jessica clung fiercely to her fantasy of being rescued. Cesar recalled how she paged Boy George constantly: "My sister burned that beeper up." In the spring of 1988, George finally called her back and gave her a job. He needed more millworkers to process his new shipments of heroin. Cesar helped Elaine bag groceries at C-Town, and she gave him food money, but she had other problems: Angel had been arrested on a drug charge and was stuck in a Massachusetts jail. After Elaine bailed him out, Angel went to work at George's mill. Even Milagros worked the table. Cesar asked George to hire him, but George refused; Cesar was too young.

Street life warmed up with the weather and, more than ever, Cesar wanted to get away from his block. Trouble never finished. He wanted to avoid the messes he'd started, the awkwardness with Rocco, the familiar boredoms, and the burden of having to fight anyone who bad-mouthed his family. Sometimes he rode his bike to visit Hype, a boy he'd met months earlier at a party. Hype ran with The Andrews Posse -- TAP -- whose turf was at the other end of Tremont, but he also did his own thing. Hype's independent streak appealed to Cesar, and the feeling seemed mutual. Cesar was also on the lookout for new girls.

Girls tended to stay close to home, as if they were literally tethered to their blocks. Some hung around in front of their mothers' buildings. Others weren't allowed outdoors at all. Girls were anchored by younger siblings or their own kids or the unspoken laws of being girls. "Girls don't go as far," said Tito, one of Cesar's Tremont friends. "Boys want to see the sights. We like pioneers." Beautiful sights were girls on their way to buy groceries for their mothers, or girls wheeling laundry to the Laundromat, or girls taking little kids to the park. Boys roamed. Girls stayed inside and cooked and baby-sat. Girls had responsibilities. Boys had bikes.

One afternoon that fall, Cesar wheeled his bicycle into the hall and carried it down the four flights to the street. He pedaled by the triangular white building on the Grand Concourse that reminded him of a slice of cake, glided down the slope on the other side of Tremont, and headed west.

Strangers stood out in Coco's neighborhood: religious missionaries, immigrants hawking clothes, the occasional reporter scribbling about recent disasters and the stymieing toll of chronic injustice and bad luck. Music was always playing somewhere -- salsa, merengue -- and there were always customers looking for drugs. The dealers stood on the corners; some wore nameplates around their necks, like gold-dipped nametags for upscale mug shots; others wore coveted charms of guns and dollar signs, and medallions -- as big as oversize cookies -- of patron saints. The boys tended to hang around the dealers, while the older men sat on milk crates in front of their stoops repeating tired stories, their watered-down hopes dribbling out as the sun warmed their beer. Cesar called attention to himself just by appearing. He sported a red leather jacket with a collar trimmed in what looked like real rabbit fur. Coco was an ebullient girl with a taste for excitement. She noticed him immediately.

Like Cesar, Coco was looking for distraction -- anything but the same people doing the same old things. She wasn't a church girl and she wasn't much of a schoolgirl, either, but she wasn't raised by the street. She was a friendly around-the-way girl who fancied herself tougher than she could ever be. She liked action, although she preferred to watch from the periphery. Boys called her Shorty because she was short, and Lollipop because she tucked lollipops in the topknot of her ponytail; her teacher called her Motor Mouth because she talked a lot. Coco's friendly face held the look of anticipation even in repose.

That afternoon, she and her best friend, Dorcas, were looking out of Dorcas's mother's third-floor bedroom window, as they often did after school -- knees balanced on Dorcas's mother's sinking bed, elbows planted on the ledge. The window overlooked University Avenue, a main artery that ran through Morris Heights, where Coco lived. The bedroom window gave the girls a good view of the bodega on 176th near Andrews Avenue, "right where they sell drugs at," Coco said. Sometimes Coco propped herself up and out of the window altogether, her square upper body pushing out from the brick wall as if she were a wooden figurehead jutting from the bow of a ship. But her brown eyes weren't squinting to see the horizon. Coco lived in the present; she was looking down, over the street. The bodega's appeal for the girls was the boys their own age fooling around out front: boys talking to other boys, boys eating Cheez Doodles, boys idly bouncing basketballs, boys in cleats, boys with their boom boxes, on the way to Roberto Clemente Park for handball or to the Aqueduct to finish twelve-hour shifts dealing drugs.

In other windows were grown women -- mothers in their twenties and grandmothers in their thirties, older women weathered by years of poverty's slamming seas. These women rested their fattening elbows on flattened pillows, cushioning the edge of the window frames. The much older women -- the great-grandmothers in their fifties -- had lost interest in the drama: they kept the curtains closed. Coco, however, courted consequence; she was still a girl, and she still assumed a connection between what she was doing and what she wanted and what might result. And what she wanted right then was the fine light-skinned boy in the red leather coat on the street below, straddling his bicycle seat.

From RANDOM FAMILY by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. Copyright 2003 by Adrian Nicole Leblanc. Reprinted by permission Scribner, an impring ot of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York.

By Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

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