NYU Black Renaissance Noire Spring 2015 - Page 10

8 I was trembling. My knees were so weak I thought I would buckle if he turned to me or screamed. Somehow his cohorts knew this was a different ball game, a different confrontation. No one moved forward to challenge us. The people I came in with were about cashing in wolf tickets, calling people’s bluff. And their courage was so great, they would walk into your project, your block, in front of your hangout, and wait for you to come down and prove that what you said — the threat you issued publicly — had substance, had merit, and that you could back your shit up…win, lose or draw. These were Canarsie Chaplains, outcasts as far as the mainstream Chaplain gang was concerned. While other chapters reveled in the glory of their project base — Fort Greene, Marcy Avenue, Albany Avenue, Breevort, etc. — these motherfuckers lived in the asshole of the world. It was still farmland; you could hear the cows, smell the shit. The subway stop was primitive. It had a clanging bell fifteen-foot toll arm that came slowly down when the train pulled into the 105th Street stop and when it rained you had to squish your way through the mud because there were no goddamn sidewalks. It was the Black Gulag. No one ever placed as his or her first choice on the Housing Authority application, “Brookline Projects.” In fact, for most, it wasn’t their second or third choice. It wasn’t close to Black or Puerto Rican communities, was a long, long ride from factory jobs in the garment center, and had an Italian core that was serious about preserving “neighborhood integrity,” and proved it by dumping dead bodies in new cars amidst the tall, reeded marshlands of Flatlands Avenue. No, you didn’t choose Canarsie. You got exiled there. You fought every day against kids whose fathers were “made men” in organized crime. These Sicilians had guns, cars, beehive hairdo girlfriends, pocket money, and bravado. If you were Black or Puerto Rican you had to develop a serious gang fraternity because the cops were useless: sometimes they worked for the gangsters, most times they identified with them, so there was no reason to have faith in their authority. BRN-SPRING-2015.indb 8 What Larry couldn’t have known was that their outcast status had forced the Canarsie Chaplain division to get past the ethnic, nationalistic, skin color question. The bonds for this gang were born of a desperate need for protection, and it didn’t matter where you were born or what language you spoke in the house, Gullah or Spanish. What mattered was your heart, your loyalty, your skill in fist fighting. This was a generation of black kids, baby-sat by Puerto Rican mothers, who only spoke Spanish, cooked with Crisco lard, homemade sofrito and tocino, until their parents came home from work. I’ve met many of these kids, now adults, over the years and they speak and understand Spanish, dance their ass off to a Cuban mambo and love Puerto Rican women. The same is true of those of us raised with black families. My second mother was Kathryn Keeles, a beautiful Geechee from Charleston who praised the Lord and cooked like the devil. All over Brooklyn and Manhattan these bonds were developing and they evolved into true, everlasting love. This was more than “necessary united-front coalition-building” political bullshit. This was family. So when my cousin, Jose, president of the Little People Chaplains, told the guys in Canarsie that my brother Paul had been pummeled into semi consciousness, there was no debate. They knew my family. And even if they didn’t, their loyalty to my cousin superseded all doubts. How was Larry to know all this shit? He was dead before he got killed. He thought these guys were a hastily put-together crew. That’s why he acted like this was a corner neighborhood squabble. He couldn’t pick up on the fact that these Chaplains exuded an attitude of “I don’t give a shit. I’ve been to hell, live there now, so unless you’re God, your ass is mine.” Larry kept playing pool, never taking his eyes off the cue ball, never validating the presence of the Chaplains even as they took strategic positions around the room so no one could leave. An eerie silence descended on the place where there was loud back-slapping, five-slapping noise before we entered the space. The men I was with were not the kids Larry was used to bullying. These were warriors: kangaroo shoes, pressed chino pants, Blye knit sweaters, leather coats (long or short, hard or soft) bought with their own money, toothpicks in their mouths, Fred Braun belts, no smiles, no unnecessary conversation, ashiness on their knuckles, Dixie Peach perfect, stocking cap wavy, shiny hair covered by stingy brimmed hats that they blocked neatly, perfectly, and Jade East cologne on their cheeks offering the only pleasant smelling oasis in this shit -hole. The ritual was that you only took your hat off to hurt somebody and then you had to make sure your hair was tight and it wouldn’t get mussed in a fight. The fight should end in three minutes. Any longer than that, you’re wasting time or getting your ass kicked, badly. Didn’t Larry know? These were not your normal run of the mill, dilettante “colored guys.” They were young, but they were black men, forged and tempered in battle. 3/29/15 11:41 AM