Maryland driver’s license
Maryland driver’s license. Courtesy of Lawrence Jackson.

Around my way we really tripped over two things: the beef with them Woodlawn whores in ’85; then four years later, when stick-up boys shot Sonny.

In high school, me, Charm Sawyer, and Piccolo Breaks got up a social club called the Oxfords. More or less just the little guys with round glasses from our block, plus an off-brand or two from the Avenue — North or Wabash — or from the Heights — Liberty or Park.

I pimped in the fine honey from church to the jam. Tanya, Carla, Kim, Lisa, Stacy, all of them dying to get out of the house. I was about 15 when I booked out, and it took every bit of two years to get snug. But it had started in middle school with me and Rodney Glide freaking the white girl in the basement and him working her skirt up.

I wasn’t really built like that. Check it out. Back in the day I loaded dirt and wood chips at a garden supply store on Wabash. One time, a church girl gave me a ride home after work and I told her wait while I caught a quick shower. Since the old-school play was to answer the Jehovah Witness knock at the door in a towel, any girl at your house was supposed to get open-fly treatment. Church girl called her mother telling her why she was hold up. Her old mother, an ex-opera contralto, started fussing. “Kim, use common sense. Even little Lair’s trying to get some!” I took it as a compliment. Her mother didn’t think I was gay the way her unafraid daughter did when I stepped from the shower, still in a towel. That’s when I started liking older women, because they always act like, given the chance, you might knock them down. And I got it backwards, since all what she said really did was start me on eating out.

The Oxford clique came together for an obvious reason. When we still footed it to parties and up Rhythm Skate, we needed a whole crew or a connect to get by in the world of yo boys and slickheads. As time went on, the Oxfords put it together for real. Even though all us from out the row house — a snatch of grass in front and the #51 bus chugging by, floods and bugs in the basement, alleyways of blackness out back — all us little men had turned out the next Timex Social Club.

Woodlawn niggers called us the Pajama Crew for spite, because we draped our fathers’ old trench coats, that winter of ’85. Them County slickheads wore tight their Adidas nylon sweat suits, silk BVDs, and herringbone gold chains, flexing power. But the real Oxford contribution to the B-More scene was the DC Go-Go haircut — the flattop — or sometimes just faded, Jerseyed, Phillied. Bear in mind that your average yo boy from off the corner cut his naps down to the scalp. That’s why we called them unremarkable niggers slickheads.

To me, slickheads lacked imagination, and their haircut was only the beginning of that emptiness. When I was first learning about it, slickhead behavior seemed inhibited, closed down, and reactionary. Like when I was prancing at the Harbor with my merry-go-round honey Sade, me ragging in a cycling cap, moccasins, bleached jeans, and an Ocean Pacific tee of a man surfing on a beach I had never seen, and some slickhead called to her, “A yo, drop that Prep and get with this Slick.” They had no class, and if I hadn’t thought he would have shot me I might have banged him in his mouth. Then again, he wasn’t talking to me, and I was into women’s lib, eating out and everything.

The Oxfords went for exhibition and fullness, the whole way, and took it straight to those break-dancing older slickhead clowns from Woodlawn. Yeah, they was popping and breaking, helicopter and all that, but that shit is for tourists. Our thing was the leg dances, speeded- up jigs. I copped our step from this old head who rocked coach’s shorts and a touring cap, and who gave up the flow downtown every summer. At the Inner Harbor, near the water-taxi line, seven or eight of us would break into the Oxford Bop, a crisscross reel, while we shouted the lyrics to Status IV’s “You Ain’t Really Down.”

“Said you were my lady . . . And your love was true . . . !”

More attention than pulling your thing out.

The Oxfords liked a Roman holiday. Pretty Ricky brother crashed through the top of the telephone booth at the Harbor. Charm jumped from the second-floor balcony onto the reception desk in the Comfort Inn lobby. James Brown leapt through a car windshield, hind parts first. But mainly we threw cranking jams and released our boredom into the laps of the Oxford Pearls. All them was getting down, especially the girls from Catholic school. Even though we modeled ourselves on the old-time Negro fraternities, chanting “O-X!” through dim basement corridors pulsating with Chip E. Inc. stutter-singing “Like This,” the Oxfords could also function like that — like a gang. Coming up in 21215 — Bodymore, Murderland — attending public schools, we only did what we had to do. Anyway, a homeboy of a homeboy kicked some slickhead in the chest over a girl at a high school party at a fraternity house on Liberty Heights, and the war against Woodlawn jumped off.

The jam was a cranker, Darrin Ebron spinning “Al Naafiysh,” “Set It Off,” and “Din Da Da” over and over; naturally it was honey heaven. I was wedging my knees between so many willing thighs that I never saw Pretty Ricky cousin Jerome and Ron J guff. First thing I knew the music cut off and Pretty Ricky and Mighty Joe Young were shuttling back and forth from the Kappa House to the phone booth in the 7-Eleven parking lot and Charm Sawyer was popping cash shit. I looked out into the mild May night, and it was enough shell-toes and silk BVDs to stop four lanes of traffic. Me and my homeboys were wearing moccasins and corduroy shorts. I had a pound of Dax in my hair, dripping like Shabba-Doo’s, but faded like a prep’s.

I loaded all of my men into the car and left the scrum thinking I was just helping out, like Jesus would do. I had a Monte Carlo, an orange EXP, an IROC-Z, and a Cressida on my ass — a slickhead caravan in hot pursuit. Then I thought I got lucky.

Northwest Baltimore’s finest had been called about the scrap and I braked when the blue lights spun behind me. I pulled over and I told the police everything I knew, which was that some grown men were following me and I was scared. But you know how Five-O handled his bit.

“I want you out my ju-risdiction! Get your ass out of my sight!”

You know how Five-O cuss you when he through with you. Then he drove off.

It was six of us in the AMC Sportabout, a car about as good for driving as open-toed shoes for running ball. Besides the fact that the starter on my people’s car was iffy, the windows didn’t operate, and the door handle on the driver’s side was broke. That night I put that old yellow wagon to the test. I headed down Liberty Heights back to Garrison Boulevard, and I learned what Pretty Ricky had been doing on the telephone. He had reached out to his wild cousins, some hoppers who ain’t mind popping tool. I took Garrison and that baby right turn by the firehouse to Chelsea Terrace, to fetch some gun-slinging boy from out his house. After Five-O shammed on me, I was needing Ricky’s cousin to appear with that .357 Magnum that Hawk carried on Spenser: For Hire. Instead a jive compact cat hopped into the old station wagon with barely a .25 in his dip.

Now, I had seen some young boys around my way with tool. I think one of them even got into Time for showing up strapped at Garrison or Pimlico, the local junior high schools. In fact, it had been the cats from my year at middle school, the twins from Whitelock Street now going up Walbrook with Charm, who had brought tool to #66, setting the trend right at the beginning of the 1980s. They had got put out for a couple of days for that stunt. The next year, at Harlem Park Middle, them boys had burned up a cat for his Sixers jacket. I had seen a couple niggers pulled off of a public bus and beaten before. I held my ground standing next to a boy from Cherry Hill who had got his head opened up with a Gatorade bottle at a track meet, and I had gone with Charm to square off at some boys’ houses who had been running their mouths too much. And of course I had fought with everybody in my crew except Ricky, who was getting too much ass to fight, because if he won he could double destroy your ego. The best one to fight was Sawyer’s brother Chester, who was always threatening you with a nut session or worse. I hoped that the beef would get squashed, but I thought that it would take a big-time older head to do it, and I thought he would have needed a .12 gauge or something with some heat. Because on that night, Woodlawn was coming thick.

We were just idling in the middle of the street, nigger shit, everybody talking at once, planning to fail, when the IROC-Z came up from behind, and the Monte Carlo and the EXP drove up from the other direction. The motherfuckers had some kind of CB or headphone communications. A crabapple-head big boy marched out of the Monte Carlo shouting, got up to my face and started yanking on the door handle. I know it: I had that pleading, begging look on my face. He swung on me anyway and then tried to rip me out from the AMC Sportabout, but the broken door handle saved me. My people, my people. Mighty Joe Young was riding shotgun, and he shouted at me, “Drive!” I hit the gas and thread a needle through the IROC-Z–Cressida–EXP posse, racing my way down Chelsea Terrace. It was ride-or-die down the hill to Gwynns Falls Trail, Walbrook Junction, the briar patch for Charm, Pretty Ricky, and Knuckles.

Knowing the Junction better than our foes, we got back to our block unscathed. I let out Ricky and his cousins, and then we cooled out in an alley. First the slickheads got Ricky’s address from some girl and tried to raid his people’s house, but they were in the middle of the block and Woodlawn couldn’t get to a window or through the front door. I thought I had made a safe passage until the next morning my father woke me up and asked did anything happen. I told him no, and he walked me outside to the ride. Late that night, them damn County yos had chucked a wedge of concrete through the windshield of the wagon.

A couple of days later a homeboy who worked at the McDonald’s on Liberty Heights, just over the line in the County, got banked. Charm and Knuckles stopped going up the ’Brook because Simon, the concrete thrower, had promised them a bullet. A week after that Pretty Ricky fought the cruelest of the host, Carlos Gallilee and Dante Rogers, in the middle of Reisterstown Road. For a cat known throughout the city as a gigolo, a guy with slanted eyes and a Puerto Rican look, Rick had a whole lot of heart. He knocked the knees out of his jeans beating those dogs off and he stayed with his cousins in Philadelphia for a couple of weeks after that.

The war went on at high schools, parties, football games, festivals, and public events. About two weeks after the chase, in the parking lot of the all-girls public senior high school where Muhammad, Dern, and I chilled out every day after track practice, this boy Meechee was sitting in the back of a green Thunderbird steady loading a .38 while his homeboys, a lanky bastard about six foot nine and some other culprit, leaned on us. They cornered Muhammad on the hood of his Sentra.

“Where Ricky at? Where your boy at?”

I was wanting to run away with my whole body, but my feet got so heavy in the quicksand of his pistol that I could only look longingly in the direction of the administration building. My heart was pumping Cherry Coke the whole way but I was proud of Muhammad for how he kept the fear out of his voice. The next day Muhammad and Dern got their family arms and we went all tooled up to high school. They took it as far as slinging iron in their sport coats. The day after that, we cut school altogether for marksmanship class in Leakin Park, an abandoned grassland just west of the Junction that had become a desolate zone. The Pearls were jive giddy. I just blasted into the creek, but I had to stop Sawyer, who never had a whole lot of sense, from shooting the pistol right behind my ear. To my mind, nothing is as loud as the roar of that .38.

The war changed the landmarks of our scene. Up to that time I had been keen to play in the County, and I could have cared less about my grimy, down-on-its-heels hometown. Now that we had to go everywhere in groups for safety, Reisterstown Road Plaza Mall and Security Mall in the County, the places where we used to flock to scoop out the honey, were less inviting. Our neighborhood mall, Mondawmin, became safe — if we toned our flamboyance down a little — and we started falling through Mondawmin, the Harbor, even Old Town Mall on the East Side. We kept linking up with city cats we’d gone to school with or had been in summer programs with, guys I had known from church at Lafayette Square, or the Druid Hill Avenue YMCA, where my father had been the director. Plus the girls I knew from those parts of town were slinging enough iron to take care of a boy. We went to our cousins and neighbors from around our way to get our back, to hustlers I had worked with at minimum-wage jobs all over the city, who came from tiny-ass streets crammed with thousands of brick row houses. The kind of music a cat listened to, or how he cut his fade, became unimportant compared to if he was from the city, how good he was with his hands, and, especially, if he had heart. That was how Sonny got down with the clique, because even though he was a young boy, he had all of the above.

Heads from around my way cut their teeth on the Woodlawn beef. The hoppers, the young boys we never had room for in the car, they headed straight up to Bell and Garrison to build themselves up. The hustle on Garrison, or, even more big-time, Park Heights and Woodland, was strictly Fila and Russell. Man, them cats bumped. From then to now it must be something like three thousand cats shot on Garrison between the Junction and Pimlico — that’s one boulevard in one section of one chocolate American city. Plus, ain’t nobody ever see a bustling swaggering yipping corner like Park Heights and Woodland in its prime. Serving ’em well, boy and girl, serving ’em well. Knuckles and Mighty Joe Young knew how to get by around there. I never caught on and only went up to The Lot, the neighborhood McDonald’s on Reisterstown Road, a couple of times. I wouldn’t throw quarters away on Pac-Man or Space Invaders. I was spending my money on rugged-sole Timberlands and 12-inch records so I could become a club dancer. Same as slick, the corner was insular and monotonous, unless you had a taste for street fighting and raw booty. Anyway, the hoppers wound up getting tight with cats who the corner was all they had. Like Ringfrail’s brother Clyde, who wore brass jewelry, or Taiwan, an adolescent beggar who graduated to being a teenage beggar. Or Little Toby, who had started smoking too early and would always be short and skinny. I think (and was glad) Wookie was already gone by then. I know, and was sad, that Monty was. Every time I go home and walk to the Korean store to get some Utz or Tastykake, I run into them all.

The young boys of course had to take it serious. I only had a year left of high school, but they were going to be in this thing for a long time. Pretty Ricky’s younger brother Maceo started going to war on his own, against anybody at all. At the corner store on Wabash and Sequoia he stabbed Richard Franklin, who then followed Maceo back to his house and sent him three-quarters of the way to their family’s funeral home with the same knife. Some vet’s old bayonet. Kind of intimate, being punctured with the same steel that still has your victim’s blood on it. When Five-O locked up Chucky Blue that same night, Chucky, on something like love boat, almost turned the paddy wagon over. That was pure dee Chuck Blue, living out the Myth. I’d never seen a motor vehicle rock from side to side on two wheels like that before.

It was curious. I found out a lot more about my neighborhood, and was surprised to know that I had a place in it. Slickheads from around the way, cats known for hanging on the corner, mad ill dynamite-style cats like Darius, who rode his Honda Elite scooter in Fila slippers — they respected preps from the city, as long as us cats carried that thing original, which was to say never perpetrated no fraud. It meant taking pride in where you’re from. And we did. The Oxfords off Wabash were gaudy preps: pink shirts, green pants, bright-colored track shoes, and Gumby haircuts. Plus, there was no bourgeoisie contingent at the schools we mainly attended. Loyola, Walbrook, City College, Carver, Cardinal Gibbons, and Forest Park. To go to school there, you couldn’t stand out more than to be an African American prep from the city. I might have eaten humble pie on a bus ride or two, but plenty of times I strutted the city like the word “Hero” was stitched on my chest. And the best-known cat in the clique for that air of confidence was Sonny.

But then our style became a casualty in the war that went off and on for years. On account of the Woodlawn beef, everybody began to ease on down the road to slick, Russell sweats and Filas, bald head and sullen, gold in your mouth, pass the reefer. All of a sudden, it seemed like slick had something serene you needed to get through life, a good way to not mind being an outlaw. I didn’t like it on a number of levels. And I was always the historian — the identity “yo” was too much connected to the “yo-ski” thing from the 1970s, when the kids ran “What’s up yo-ski?” into the fucking ground. And as I got more black and proud, the “ski” part of it sounded too close to the Polack-Johnny level, the citywide hot dog stand. Corny for us to follow the hick klan from Dundalk and Highlandtown.

I never even knew all of exactly how we survived. I had a play cousin from Edmondson Village, slick as a wax floor and known throughout the city as The Ninja. He had jumped with the airborne in Grenada. One story went that he jogged up at a park on Woodlawn with an Uzi and told them to lay off. Another tale had it that the big-time boys from up the top of our street, who owned Yummy’s at North and Gold, took an arsenal up to the courts at Bedford, where everybody from the County ran ball, and said they was holding so-and-so personally responsible for whatever went down. I admit, a couple of years later, one night we did have Carlos Gallilee all by himself up at Club 4604 on Liberty Heights. Darius, who had the distinction of having popped tool at the LL Cool J concert, wild Chuck Blue, and the ill James brothers were there, really wanting to hurt somebody. I just talked to Carlos, not feeling it was sporting to bring all of that wrath down on him on a night he was acting humble. But then again, he was an actor and today he’s set himself up in Hollywood.

Funny how the slickheads didn’t fare well in the end. Rocky, the mastermind — who had said up the Kappa House, not to me, just in my general direction, “You and your homeboys is just fucked!”—shot in the head. Muscleman Dante, whose girl I stole, ended up strung-out after sitting down for ten at Jessup. Simon, the lunatic concrete-block man, gunned down at a police roadblock. I think pistol-loading Meechee fell into the dirt too — and, if he did, then that’s too much like right.

Then again, now that I think of it, these were mainly city guys, who had hung strong with Woodlawn, 18 and 19 and, like me, trying anything to get out to the suburbs. Slickheads and their expensive tennis did win the style war; but, really, it was just that the city guys lost.

That summer, about ten weeks after the beef got underway, I learned that the police was the slave patrol and the Confederate Army extended. I had been surprised when they refused to protect me from the Woodlawn slickheads, but I hadn’t known that my category was on their assassination list.

My father replaced the yellow wagon with a Japanese compact car, used, but with a tape deck and a sunroof, a real surprise. Somehow I had the car in the early afternoon, and me, Charm, and Mighty Joe Young were skylarking around the neighborhood, telling lies about the fine honey, bumping “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight.” I noticed two white guys and a brother in a Chevrolet Cavalier near the library on Garrison, but I wasn’t on the corner so it only seemed odd, not a personal threat. We stared them down and, three deep, drove off to the Plaza, doubling back and through, around Garrison Boulevard and Wabash Avenue.

At Reisterstown Road and Fords Lane I reached the traffic light. All of the sudden it seemed like a car was smashing into the side of me. A Highlandtown cracker pushed a heavy revolver through the sunroof and up to my head, his other hand reaching for the steering wheel. I could count the bullets in the chambers, and see the tiny indentations in the cones of the soft lead. I wet my lap. For real. I was preparing to die. The angry man was shouting, “Move over!” and “Git out the car! Git the fuck out the car!” Then, with some time, I thought to myself that he must be a damn bold car thief. It was broad daylight. And even though we had just bought the sporty little Toyota, I couldn’t see why he’d be so amped up for a $7,890 car. In a minor key, I thought that a cool hustler would probably find some way to drive off.

I tried to throw the car in park and slide away from the gun at the same time, but I couldn’t get past Charm Sawyer’s legs in the passenger seat. Charm had been yoked halfway out of the window by the black gloved hand of . . . Five-O? I heard commotion in the back, and next thing I knew Mighty Joe Young had his teeth on the asphalt. Then I noticed a silvery patch swinging from the chest of the man from Highlandtown with the dirty beard, and he demanded my license and registration.

After about fifteen minutes the dirty white man came back to the car.

“You ran a red light back there but my buddy doesn’t have enough time to write you a ticket. Beat it.”

I looked around fumbling with my mouth open and managed to get the Toyota away from the intersection. We got to the next block and pulled over, me and Charm shaking and crying from relief and shame and Mighty Joe Young mouthing Who-Struck-John. Never will get that dirty white man and that giant .38 from my mind.

When I told my father about it, I could see in his face and his demeanor that there was no authority to appeal to. When I was just a kid, I had been robbed by some bullies and had reluctantly confessed that humiliation to my dad. In his house shoes he stalked out into the middle of the avenue, attempting to find the boys who had wronged his child. But this new violation was just a new burden to shoulder. I knew enough to sense him crying on the inside. We were father and son inside of our house, but outside we were black males in America, with the same honor and respect as No. 1 crabs in season.

I guess Prep or Slick wasn’t all that.

The Pell Grants and the Maryland scholarships got cut off around this time, and all of a sudden nobody was going to college out of state. The money went out as fast as the dope came in. That ride to Edwin Waters or Cheney or Widener, that had been wish fulfillment in the past. By the second half of the ’80s, if you went to school, it was either down the street to the community college or up to Morgan, the old state college for Negroes where my parents and Charm’s parents had been sent, at the end of the #33 bus line. Most of my homeboys, their parents would let them try it out for a semester. Our people believed in control. In our neighborhood fathers would brag to each other, “I’m never letting that nigger drive my car,” meaning their own sons. Young boys like Dan Redd and Darryl and Mark were smart, but they couldn’t get to school out of state and get that big jump on life from out the neighborhood. I got into college three hundred miles away — and those last weeks when the beef was running fast and furious, I tried not to be so simple-minded as to jeopardize a chance.

About two weeks before I was supposed to go off to Connecticut, a year now after the chase, the fellas wanted me to drive the brigade down to the Inner Harbor to square off against Woodlawn one last time. Remembering how my father’s car had got kissed by the concrete block, I chilled. I heard that when it went down, it wasn’t like a Murphy Homes versus Lexington Terrace scrap. Woodlawn had sent mainly the little boys. The police got into the fight before anybody got stomped, or thrown into the water. Still, everybody began their adult criminal record that night in ’86, and later it helped me that I wasn’t there. But I saved the car one night and burned it up the next. When I got back after my freshman year in college, still dropping off into sleep after six weeks on line for Kappa, I passed out at the wheel and hit a neighbor head-on. I never drove again until I was on my own.

They were dog years between the end of high school and the end of college. Time folded every summer: scrapping in ’86, macking in ’87, bent in ’88, and banging a gun in ’89. I wouldn’t want to live through ’89 again, bringing all of that time together. We weren’t Oxfords so much anymore — just homeboys now — and only rocking the prep style as a kind of occasional comment on the absurdity of our condition. The world had turned Slick with a capital “S.” To me the hi-top fade had its funeral rites when the cornball Toms at Duke started wearing it. I even stopped collecting house music and let the Blastmaster speak for me with that record “Ghetto Music.”

We knew what time it was, but used the powerful narcotics to keep ourselves from the numbers. Heroin was flowing like water that summer, and Saddlehead and Jidda, Paris and Los, all of them good ole North and Poplar Grove boys could get it. Poplar Grove. Longwood. Bloomingdale. The Junction. Then we started falling further down. In the wee hours we used to slumber outside some spot at Lombard and Arlington, not far from ole H. L. Mencken’s, blunted, waiting for Troy and Stanley to finish sniffing that dope. The world of joogy. Around my way they call it “boy” or “joogy.” “Girl” is “Shirl” caine — after Shirley Avenue where you go get nice. If you live in a town with a lot of joogy, everything else, like girl, seems real regular, jive legal. Joogy got me down from the psychedelics that they pumped up at college. Put it like this: in a world of disarray, joogy helps you to carry that thing.

That summer, back from college, every time I left out the house I saw somebody with tool, and one time I’m making eye contact with this lean slickhead, shooting a .45 into the air to keep street fighters tearing up a park festival from scratching his Benz. When I caught his eye I thought he was going to finish me. No question, joogy helps keep that begging, crying look off of your face. It got to the point where the police would be detaining me for walking down the street, and I’m getting ill to handle the stress, which everybody say is imaginary. That summer of ’89 people was cross and fussing and we used to wear our Africa medallions at these pro-black rallies organized by Public Enemy. The next summer, all the music was about killing each other over colored rags.

The summer Sonny got shot my right hand Charm Sawyer had to hit a boy who was holding a pistol on him, and even though I was making speed toward a degree, I doubted it was fast enough. Hanging out with Sawyer was scrapping every night, which wasn’t really my style, especially after he busted my head on Muhammad’s basement floor. Plus it’s tough on your gear, my main way to get notice from the ladies. “A yo, Lair, hold my glasses,” he’d say as he sized up someone for a scrap. “Imma piece that nigger.” I would take them. Then he’d smirk and start throwing the dogs. He started out with skinny light-skin boys, but he was working his way up to short, wiry, dark-skin men. When we went out, he would always say that he would either get some pussy, beat a nigger, or get blind ill by the time the sun came up. I didn’t understand his rage at the ceiling of possibility until a little later.

Charm got took over by the Myth, which had a couple of ingredients. The Myth meant crazy outrageous athleticism in every activity. It helped the style of it if the head of your thing went past your navel, but it all came together in an attitude of defiant obdurateness that we called Hard. I would try to cool him out, because I was being taught something different at school, but every time I wasn’t around, he would trip the fuck out. At a party he shucked off all his gear and swung around ill until he got what he was looking for. One night Charm fouled a catatonic girl’s mouth to stop niggers from running a train on her, but she still had to leave the city. He was getting known and some people were afraid of him. He had mastered the art of drilling any girl, no matter her look, no matter her size, at any time. Like, Pretty Ricky had written a book on the art of seduction. He had this snake-like way of peering into the eyes of the slinkiest, the trickiest, the flyest — the LaShawns, Letitias, Sheilas, and Keishas — the girls who had had so much exposure to slick that I didn’t even know what to say to them. I only tried to win by light touch. But Charm didn’t work in a whole lot of small talk or eye contact or hand-holding. He went on the Mandingo principle. He knocked down big China up against the freezer in my basement and she clawed grooves into his back. It took years for me to know what he did to make her cry out and lose control like that. She was so wide open every time we went with armloads of Guess apparel to the department store counter where she worked, it was like cashing a check.

I got a strong dose of the Myth too, the dreamworld life of supernigger. One night of the dream me and Charm drank a couple of quarts of Mad Dog and picked up some wild ill broads from the Brook down at the Harbor. I only had one condom, used it on the girl I knew was out there, and ran raw in Sheba, thinking the odds were better because it was her time of the month. I thought another threshold of existence was at hand. Even the girls laughed about it, lil Lair happy cause he trimmed twice. The ill vibe kept clicking, though. At a party in the Junction Charm hit this boy in the face and broke his nose, and the jam was at the house of the broke-nose boy cousin. We had to fight Charm to get him out of there. Then, sitting five deep in a two-door Sentra trying to cool out, two hoppers came up on us. One skinny boy was on the street side, and a bald-headed light-skin boy with a shimmer in his mouth stood in the back. Skinny boy tapped the window with something metal. I heard a crack and the glass breaking, and we were all shouting to Pretty Ricky, “Drive!” “I’m hit!” I was pushing Charm and Knuckles so hard to peel away from that hot one searching for my ass. Decades of nightmares about that gunman.

About a week later, Sawyer and Sonny were throwing a cranker on Maryland Avenue, the little club district anchored by old-school Odell’s (You’ll know if you belong, the T-shirt used to say), house music Cignel’s, and citywide Godfrey’s Famous Ballroom. All the young hustlers and fly girls hung out in that zone. I was a little late getting to the jam.

I’d get the feeling of supreme confidence and contentment, just walking up the street and wading into a real players’ crowd. Hundreds deep with hustlers and fly girls — herb bumping — passing quarts of Mad Dog and Red Bull malt liquor. Knowing my hair was faded right and I was getting dap from the players and intimate touches from Sheila, Kim, Lisa, and Tanya. “The Sound” by Reese and Santonio filling the air with our versions of the djembe, dundun, kenkeni, and sangban. Taking everybody way back. It’s better than caine. Demerara. Ouagadougou.

Mighty Joe Young and me was nice, dipping up Murlin Avenue, near the bridge, gandering over to the zone from the Armory subway stop. All of a sudden, Ed from Bloomingdale drove by us and shouted, “Sonny got shot!” Old school, we ran the mile or two down the street. Ten minutes later we’re outside the operating room at University Shock Trauma, screaming on the state trooper and the young Asian lady doctor who said, “Your friend didn’t make it.” She spat out that shit to me like I put the gun on Sonny.

I felt like the hospital was run by people with the slickhead mentality, that mentality that claims a nigger ain’t shit. Me, I always wanted to redeem a nigger. The state trooper, a brother who understood, saved that bitch’s Chinese ass. I wanted to do something. Sonny’s parents came in a few minutes later. Crushed. Crying scene. Me and Mighty Joe Young walked down to the central police station where they were taking Sawyer’s statement. We were amped up, spreading the word at hangouts like Crazy John’s and El Dorado’s, where we ran into some of our people.

Sawyer had been standing next to Sonny when they got stuck up. Sawyer’s antsy brother Chester had a few dollars on him and gated up the alley, so Sawyer and Sonny, on the other side of the car, booked for it too. Rodney, Birdman, Dern, and Rock could only stand with their hands in the air while the runners gave it up. Sonny and a guy sitting on some steps got shot by a .22 rifle.

A lot of people blamed Sawyer for Sonny’s murder, but I told him I was happy he had made it. He was my boy. We had been lightweight wilding up until then. No QP, no Z, no eight ball, no stick-up, no home invasion, no pop-tool, no cold-blooded train. Sawyer, James Brown, and Rock had taken a white boy for bad once. And Sawyer had been seen running down the street with a television, which had kind of got the police looking. Omar had taken a girl’s telephone and her father’s horse pistol. Sawyer and I had run a couple of gees on some wild young girls, and one time a grown woman did start fussing, but it was his cousin. I remember, because I left my high school graduation watch at her house. I thought if you were going to do the do, you had to take off everything. One night a little boy who had connections had tried to kill James Brown with a bat down at Cignel’s, and we beefed over our heads, but James Brown let the thing go. I don’t know how many times I got in a car with folk I ain’t really know, on their way from or to do I don’t know what. It was all right there. Rock, Darius, Worly, Chucky, Taft, Fats, Paris, Wood, Flip, Yippy, Champ, Ringfrail, Hondo, Reds. A whole lot of people got caught up in the mix.

What really hurt everybody was that Sonny had a whole lot of heart. He was a stand-up cat who had the will to make a difference. Shirt-off-his-back type of cat. Break a bottle over a big nigger’s head for you cat. If the police looked for the killers, three men and a woman, they never found anybody. I had been in the Five-O palace on Baltimore Street and seen them lounging like they were on the whites-only floors. I had seen an office with a Confederate flag in it and some other of that old-timey, Frederick County shit. They always acted like Sonny’s murder was “drug-related,” like half of three hundred other murders that year. It hurts to think about his unsolved killing, twenty years later.

After Sonny’s funeral, we started linking with cats who had hurt people, hoping to luck up onto that stick-up boy with the letter G on his hat who had gunned him down. The night after they shot Sonny we ganged into a dark room lit by the dutchy going around. A powerfully muscled old head addressed the mourning circle. “I gits a nut every time I pull the trigger.” None of us ever forgot his sincerity. He said it to us like he was confessing something deep and personal, something that came out of the soul. I believed him.

Since Sonny had finished a year at Morehouse, the less stand-up guys figured that life wasn’t worth struggling for. They started to get ill after the funeral like it was a paying job. I knew I didn’t have as much heart as Sonny, so I did my share in the dim rooms. The morning after the funeral me and Clifton tried to run a gee on a young girl with a glass eye, not knowing she was five seconds from tricking on the corner — and Clifton months away hisself from the cemetery. Sometimes you would even pity a cat and bip half that bag of dope so that they wouldn’t get hooked. One reason I stopped getting high was that Rock, my man from the bus stop days, pulled me up strong about looking weak, chasing. Sometimes you need to see yourself through the eyes of someone who has looked up to you. Then he got caught with a package and sat down at the department of corrections at Jessup, so I really tried to pull my pants up. After about eighteen months, overdoses began and cats started heading out of state to get away. Then there were the guys among us who thought that joogy wouldn’t get to them, since they weren’t shooting it up. But next thing, they started flashing pistols to the countergirl at Roy Rogers. That gets you a seven-year bit at Hagerstown, or you could get lucky and go to Jessup where people at least can visit you.

A couple of the cats really tried to make a fortune. If Sawyer was my right hand, then Muhammad was my heart. When I decided to make a break for school in 1990, after my father went back to Guinea, Muhammad told me soberly, “Lair. Imma make a million dollars this year.” The hustler thing was in the air. All of the rap music was trying to help you know the I Ching of Rayful and Alpo and our hometown man Peanut King. We all knew by heart the DC anthem “Stone Cold Hustler” and G Rap’s “Road to the Riches.” But I was so deep into reading about the COINTELPRO thing and what they did to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that none of the stories about stacking chips could reach me. Besides the fact that all the New York cats at school would be flipping out over the Bodymore stories I was telling, or the time my homeboys fell through for a visit, joogy-deep. Anyway, Muhammad acted hurt when I looked away from him.

For about two years, we didn’t have that much rap for each other, a homeboy blood problem. Meanwhile, Muhammad tried to get water from the rock with Rodney Glide. They stretched out until they tripped. Eventually, the state of Pennsylvania took the wind out of Glide’s sails for eight years, twenty-nine miles west of Philly at Graterford. I remember reading the newspapers about the old crew when I was in graduate school in California, a million miles away.

Sawyer turned the Myth in a new direction. He laid up with a Jamaican sister, got back in school, and earned a degree. He won an internship with a congressman from the streets who knew where he was coming from. He started working with the hoppers at George B. Murphy Homes high-rises, before it got blown up to make way for condos and the university hospital, where they work on getting the bug out. Just going down to Murphy Homes was a trip to us back in the day, where life and death, crime and punishment was wide open, like at my cousin’s house on Myrtle Avenue, where Carmello’s from. “Fat Boy’s out! Fat Boy’s out! Girl on green. Girl on green,” is how the touts would run it down.

Sonny dying like he did definitely motivated me to finish graduate school and teach at the university level. But going to college for eleven years was, no doubt, the most sterile experience I had known. It was feeling all balled up like an English walnut. An experience that seemed designed to make me question who I was, if I was a man or not, if I was doing something worthwhile or not. On top of it all, it trained you to appreciate everything about old master and them, right down to studying their trifling distinctions, which is why I guess not that many brothers, when they know this thing about the war, bother with school.

After some years in the trenches, Sawyer got hooked up by George Soros. Now he has a company trying to help “at risk” young people. I guess he helped himself. Sawyer stood for one thing, and I got down with him on it. “Just put it out there. No matter who it hurts, whether it’s a lie or not, right or wrong, good or bad. Never stop putting it out there.”

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