Killing time

As murder rates climb alongside the mercury, I'm downright nostalgic for the inner-city homicides of my youth.

Published August 25, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

When I was a kid, maybe 15 or so, Beretta .25 semi-automatic jammed into my sock, bopping through the streets of Baltimore, crime -- like life -- seemed so much simpler. In the mid-'80s, Ronald Reagan had divested inner-city youth of the frivolous excesses of Head Start programs, after-school arts funding and bookmobiles, leaving ketchup as a vegetable, an avalanche of crack cocaine, and lax enough gun laws that conspired to create a new lawless frontier, wilder than any western he had starred in, more feral than any chimp he had put to bed. The way some people checked the weather forecast, I used to scour the "police blotter" section of the paper, in order to determine whether arms were necessary on any given day, as essential as a pair of sturdy galoshes. I took morbid solace in the predictable nature of violence, as it was economy-driven: either out-and-out robbery, or drug-related shooting. There was order to the disorder.

Like a lot of summers, this summer's been hot, boring and long for a lot of kids in the inner city who have no place to go and nothing much to do, but this summer was a lot shorter for Vernon "Pee-Wee" Cobb, a 20-year-old Boston kid who was killed at the end of July for reasons unknown: His killer left his money and his bike untouched. Likewise, last week in the Frankford section of Philadelphia, a 16-year-old boy got to keep his cash and his ride -- but not his life -- becoming the city's 243rd homicide. That same day Terrell Martin, an Oakland, Calif., teen, was gunned down simply walking down the street -- that's all cops know about what inspired his murder. Each of these killers got away.

There's a chilling difference between the spate of murders and gunplay that impelled me to carry 20 years ago, and this new crop of violence. A difference impossible to guard against, plan for, or evade. In the '80s, even at the height of the urban violence epidemic, there were rules. There were ways for motherfuckers to get shot; and ways for motherfuckers to not get shot. Reversing a downward trend begun in the early '90s, homicides are on the rise this summer. The reasons for the increases, now as then, are clichid, familiar and similar in many ways: foremost among them poverty, the assertion of physical power in the face of societal impotence, a generation of young black men nursed on the illusion of unattainable bling and weaned on the truth of reprobate schools. But a crucial change points back to our current administration, as Bush diverts funds away from initiatives like social aid and community policing programs to funnel money into homeland security, and as loosening firearms restrictions delivers a surfeit of guns to the streets.

After the FBI released its annual report on crime this summer -- which showed a 5 percent spike in the national murder rate over the past year, with an appalling 80 percent increase in St. Louis alone since 2003 -- the mayors of 35 of the nation's largest cities signed a statement collectively opposing federal bills that would restrict cities' ability to trace guns. Without the funding and support that police and community groups claim are necessary to stop youth violence, some cities are relying on old-fashioned methods of crime prevention. Washington, D.C. instituted a curfew last month that requires anyone 16 and younger to be off the streets between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. The curfew -- which I see as mere administrative gauze on an untreated wound -- is the response to a spate of 14 killings in two weeks in D.C.

On the eve of the curfew, the Washington Post suggested that boredom is one of the main excuses inner-city kids trot out when describing their hooliganism. Not the need to acquire, or revenge, or a gang initiation -- boredom. The boredom rationale has been reported in Nashville, Tenn., where the citywide curfew for kids is midnight, as well as in Philadelphia and Boston. These midsize cities -- and not the "safer" big cities like New York and Los Angeles -- are where youth homicide is most prevalently on the rise, and where cops, reporters and grieving relatives scratch their heads and gnash their teeth over the notion that many of the murders have nothing to do with drugs or theft.

This wave of violence does not fit into my neat paradigm of haves against have-nots -- the culture of smash and grab. Given many of the same factors my generation had endured, why were so many young black males now resorting to violence, seemingly for violence's sake? Is the new consumerism -- in a crucial difference from my generation -- now based less upon shiny objects as on the elusive, shadowy notions of potency and power?

One of the first things I learned from my pop, a veteran of the streets, was that one should never get shot "behind some bullshit." Loosely translated, this meant that looking at a guy's girlfriend the wrong way, or accidentally stepping on somebody's shoes, were unacceptable ways to get shot; getting mugged, or getting revenge, acceptable (unfortunate to be sure) -- even street logical. Drug dealers and brigands carried guns in order to effectuate their business, and usually, the violence was nothing personal. (This is admittedly an East Coast-centric paradigm, as gangs were not endemic to the region at that time.) As a half-assed drug dealer, I often carried a gun, but I carried it the way a loan officer carried a briefcase, as a lethal part of the workday attire, Brooks Brothers writ in black steel. As it turns out, I never so much as took off the safety. A cowardly fop, I was lucky never to have been on either end of gunplay. Had I shot somebody, however, I would have been following rules as stringent as those set down from the Marquis of Queensbury, and had I been shot, it would likely have been my own fault: It would have been for my money, or my clothes.

Often, the intercom at my high school crackled with the morning announcement that someone had been shot, often dead, the day or weekend before. Girls huddled close and brushed away tears; boys kept their heads down, promises of revenge bubbling from their lips. There was rarely surprise. The culture had been perverted by the disappearance of the black middle class, coupled with the flood of images from music -- nascent rap culture's gold chains, designer jeans and pristine sneakers -- and sports, where 21-year-old black men were beginning to pull down seven-figure salaries, giving hope to the kids who looked and sounded just like them that they were just one beat-box or one dunk away from salvation. Many of these kids decided they'd skip the salvation -- which was about as likely as the teleological kind, in any event -- and just get the dookie ropes and the sneakers. Almost every kid I ever knew or heard of getting shot when I was coming up had been targeted for his property. Here is a (by no means comprehensive) list of gear that could very likely, in the inner city of America, circa 1981-88, give you lead poisoning:

  • Shoes: Nike leather basketball high-tops (went from risky to deadly in 1984 with the introduction of the Air Jordan, which was even banned in many schools, dances, recreation centers), Adidas shell-toes, British Knights, Puma Clydes.
  • Jackets: Lakers or Georgetown Hoya (we used to joke that these should come with targets embroidered over the heart), and showy leather/lamb coats, sold at ghetto boutiques, known as the noun version of their hide, as in, "They shot that nigger for his lamb."
  • Jewelry: Gaudy gold chains and eyeglasses. Yes, eyeglasses -- a brand of eyewear called "Gazelles" (think early Hammer), which were coveted by thieves.

    Any and all of these things were most excellent ways of becoming the target of violence in the inner city. The tragic part was, it was predicated on the teenager's monomaniacal need to fit in -- these symbols were the arbiters of status. Without them you were a misfit, with them you were prey. Tough spot to be in, but it was logical, and could be prepared for. Mornings, on the way to school, many of my friends would ride next to me on the bus, shod in a pair of beat-up Converse, draped in a nondescript goose-down jacket. As soon as they passed through the school doors, the All-Stars were jammed into lockers, traded for a pair of Pony leather high-tops, the parka switched with a Hoya jacket. I wore my three-quarter lamb with the fur collar and my Adidas all over the city, terrified yet defiant. I knew the rules and played by them; I had 25-caliber balls and 3 inches of cock.

    In my day, beat-downs were handed out with shakedowns, black blood was spilled in service to green ducats. Random violence -- born of ennui -- was unproductive, as a tangent to the hustle: predators killed for food, not to kill time. Jesus, even the Central Park jogger emerged from her coma minus a Walkman.

    In the ghetto, the ability to physically impose (or defend) yourself upon (or from) your rivals, is an important arbiter of not just status, but survival. It's sort of like the old adage of what one's behavior should be on the first day of prison: make a mark, or be somebody's bitch. Adolescence in the ghetto was, and I imagine still is, like one long first day of prison. Raised by a single black father, I was the exception in my neighborhood -- I never felt the need to create my idea of male power from a vacuum, or from the disenfranchised dealers, hustlers and teenage fathers who peppered my block, appearing from darkened doorways in clusters of twos and threes and fours, asking, "How much you got?"

    My worldly, intellectual father had also run with the hoods in his day, and thus spared me any romantic notions of what a life on the corner entailed. He would whisper to me, as we neared a forlorn, twitchy group of men or boys roaming the streets, "Look at these jive knuckleheads," only to give them all some skin, greeting them -- "Hey, lil' Will, keep on keepin' on" -- as though they were long-lost relatives. (Which I suppose they were.) Not many of the kids I grew up with had fathers (present ones, at any rate), and I watched them as they cobbled together a caricature of whatever the notion of masculinity meant to them. Respect alone was rarely enough. Respect don't gleam, respect don't sparkle.

    - - - - - - - - - - - -

    I remember coming home one afternoon with the clarinet my father paid $50 for and asking, "What am I supposed to do with this?" In a day, my school had gone from having an after-school music program, to not. That freed up two hours of my unsupervised evening for various other neighborhood pursuits. That glut of free time was likely echoed throughout the city and country, as far more basic programs were eliminated. We had our free time, and our drugs and our guns, and we were victims or victimized.

    Luckily, none of the things we thought we needed back then, legal or otherwise, cost much more than a hundred bucks. But the ghetto gold of El Dorado has gone from plated junk jewelry and sweatshop sneakers to Rolexes and Bentleys. With those same amounts of unsupervised free time, and guns, kids can't go out and jack a Rolex or a Bentley, because none of their friends, nor anyone they know or live among, can afford one. The symbols of inner-city status are now unattainable to all but millionaires, ghetto or not. These kids now feast on a diet of fallow leisure time and easy access, via unbridled and accessible media, to a mouthwatering culture of bling they will never know aside from the rims on their Hyundais. Thugs have parlayed rhymed triplets about their exploits on America's mean streets into startling riches, only to find themselves, despite their accretion of wealth, at the ass end of a gavel, or wearing Kevlar to bed. It's both about the money, and it's not. Respect, from the perspective of a poor black teenager, is something that is taken, not given or earned. A few months ago Eminem's buddy Proof, like Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, died with a full wallet. Perhaps the final stop of a bored, consumerist culture is the ability to take someone's life, rather than his property, simply because you can.

    My culture was filled with either fedora-capped tough guys or sequined party people, who were busy "waving their hands in the air like they just don't care." They did not represent lifestyles unattainable to their fan base. The new youth heroes are unquestionably hard, even haughtily criminal rap stars, who would not be admired (or wealthy) without having proved their steely apathy toward life, their own or others. They have become millionaires by proving that they are killers (or would be, given the slightest provocation); or survivors, their bullet-ridden torsos evidence that their greatest commodity, a pulse, could not be taken.

    I'd hate to be a kid today, on those same streets. None of those safeguards I grew up with are in place. I'd still be confronted by kids who saw me as prey, but they'd be after something I couldn't shove into a locker, or leave at home. Kids have gone from snatching gold to snatching souls. Were I a kid in my old neighborhood today, I wonder if I'd be able to keep that safety off.

  • By David Matthews

    David Matthews is the author of "Ace of Spades," a memoir, forthcoming in February 2007.

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