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When you’re a kid you do what kids do, whatever that is. I’ve never been sure. I suppose because I’ve never known what it felt like to be a kid. I don’t ever remember seeing the world from a kids eyes, the world from where I saw it was always from the outside looking in, a little darker than most. That which I took in through my eyes has been locked inside my soul forever. The blessing is I never forgot, the curse, I never forgot. Everything was zero to sixty in my life, fear was my motivator. It would take me a long, long time to stop, breath and take a drink of the world around me, once I did I couldn’t get enough, but that would be a long time coming. Up until that point, life was always just a blur going by as if she were trying to leave me behind, like a shadow on glass there and gone. Me being me wasn’t about to let that happen, so I took what I could grab and ran, never really knowing what I was running from or where I was running to. So I just kept running, from myself mostly. I knew where I was and why I was there what I didn’t know was how I got here or why I had to be here. The only thing I knew for sure was that most every defining moment in my life had been precipitated by violence.
My first real memory in life is one that is burned into my mind forever. There we were sitting there in a corner my baby brother and I while my parents argued violently. This would not only become the norm it would become the rule. It was a barren worn out soiled wood floor apartment. The kind of tenement apartment that bore signs of old age in which once white painted plaster on the walls cracked and stained yellow by years of neglect. The kind of Westside Chicago apartment that were a dime a dozen. There were pictures of naked women torn from magazines tacked to the wall, cigarette butts falling over the edge of a dirty ashtray. Everything smelled of must and mildew, we were rescued only by the occasional breeze that invaded as the sheer baby blue curtain flowed through the room. I remember I fell in love with the color of baby blue because it had somehow soothed and shielded me from everything vile that surrounded me in this moment. I’m not even certain I knew how to feel anything such as fear or exhilaration at that age. I guess I was in the very primal stages of development and anything I saw, heard or felt would determine a path in my life. In this moment I wanted to feel something, anything than what I recall feeling. I stared wide-eyed as my baby brother sat passively next to me leaning on my shoulder. I was pretty sure he had no idea what was going on, how I did I don’t know for I could not have been more than three, maybe four years old I suppose. For better or worse I’ve always had the ability to know more than I should, even ma said so. I’ve always had an instinct about what was about to happen next. I have survived my life by that instinct. I remember my Aunt Bertha warning ma, that I knew too much, saw too clearly for such a young boy.
As my father leaned into my mother’s face I could see from the corner of my eye my Uncle Bobby, ma’s brother, argued with his girlfriend pointing a finger in her face and screaming at her to shut up and mind her business. Suddenly, out of nowhere, in slow-motion I saw what seemed like a huge fist sail through the stale air and as my youthful eyes followed it through the night breeze I watched as it smashed straight into my mother’s face landing with a grotesque thud as blood began gushing from her mouth and face as she screamed and cried in agony. I closed my eyes tightly hoping that the vision, the violation of what I had just witnessed would somehow not be real once I opened them again. No such luck. The room erupted into chaos, everyone screaming, yelling, crying and blood all over the white-yellow stained wall. Then in what would become a common theme, the old man grabbed his coat as stomped out the door as if he were the one who had been put upon and violated, Uncle Bobby in tow. I remember it all so vividly, I remember it all so angrily. I also remember Uncle Bobby never did anything to help his sister. Had it been any one of my mother’s six other brothers I have no doubt my father would never have left that room alive. From that moment forward I was married to violence. I breathed violently, ate and drank violently, argued violently, slept violently, love violently and lived violently. I abhorred it but I needed it like a junkie needs a fix.
Yet I felt the breeze flow through the window into my face as the baby blue curtain sailed in the night air.
Maybe that’s why it didn’t bother me as they pummeled the kid in the corner of the room with fists and feet because he would not give up his commissary. He had no one and the guard saw nothing, obviously. I didn’t have those problems because I had folks, fellow gang members, he conversely did have problems because he was neutral. There was no one there to stand by him fight next to him or protect him. I would be as guilty as anyone for that kid’s pain and misery, and ultimately his failure to survive. Guilt by association, guilt by avoidance, guilt by lack of empathy. The thing I remember most about that kid is that his eyes were sad and hard but his heart was huge and hopeful. We had talked a few times, shared our hopes, dreams, fears. Still, it didn’t affect me one way or the other, not like it would today in a much different life. I guess it was a switch I had learned to turn off when necessary in order to survive. Predator or prey. Tormentor or tormented. You were one or the other, there was no grey area. It was a shark pool. I had already decided that I may well die there in Cook County Jail or in prison when I did get there. I was a man. What the hell difference did it make, I had long ago made a conscious decision to never-ever become prey. I came in as a man I would leave or not as a man. The things we do in the name of survival, self-preservation are the things that convinced me at an early age man is capable of anything. At seventeen I was a man, or so I thought, I didn’t know dick.
Sudden violence and a childhood fear of the dark were the two things I grew to know so intimately. Odd that a fear such as the dark would inspire me to invite the same into my life and embrace it. I suppose that embrace is what made it easier to exist behind the cinder block grey walls behind which I found myself with those who as much as I hated to admit it were more like me than anyone else I had ever known. I felt comfortable here, capable, alive, safer than I ever recall feeling. I knew my parameters and was told how far I could go. It was likely the only structure I had ever known to that young point in my life. I had some stature, rank. I had a place to be. You were told when to wake up and when to go to bed, ate three squares a day, went to school, and spoke to your counselor or not when you were told to. Visitors had designated times and you didn’t have to see anyone you didn’t want to.
I learned how to hide any sense of feeling or emotion. I mastered the art of self-loathing to benefit my twisted psyche. At seventeen-years-old, I had slid past the point of no return. When you slide past a certain point in life self-loathing becomes easy, no more difficult than breathing really. It becomes second-nature. I was forced into a world where societal rules no longer applied and now I had to learn to survive in this world. I learned how to hide in plain sight.
There’s an old saying; ‘every saint has a past, every sinner a future’. I have to believe that because I have lived it. I don’t seek sainthood only inner-peace. I wish I knew who said it because they obviously knew something most people don’t and never will. You have to live that shit to know what it means.