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I'm not much of a sleeper. Haven't been since I was a kid and needed to keep one eye open all night to shoo away the rats and mice. Now, after reading into the wee hours, I doze off at five or six. Then I sleep late, so I'm usually not any help getting the kids ready for school.
One morning in 1984, I was awakened shortly after falling asleep by the angry voice of my oldest son, George -- "Little George," we call him -- who was ten. "No," he screamed. "I'm not going to wear those. I don't want to look poor."
This sounded interesting. On my way to investigate, I heard my wife arguing with him. "There's nothing wrong with those pants," Joan said. "They're clean, they're pressed, and you're going to wear them."
Neither Joan nor Little George noticed me standing in the doorway to Little George's room. On the bed was the item in dispute, a pair of faded blue jeans that Joan had chosen to go with the checked shirt he already had on. "What's wrong here?" I asked. But I already knew: Living in a nice house in a good neighborhood (Humble, a suburb of Houston), going to a fine school, my boy had no idea what poor really meant (he'd even pronounced the word "poor" instead of "po'"); I'd never bothered to explain to him where I'd come from.
That night, I took Little George for a ride through Houston's Fifth Ward, an area cursed by poverty and despair. Nothing in his experience jibed with what he saw there. He'd never known these mean streets -- let alone believed they existed a few miles from home. And he'd certainly not suspected that his own father had grown up there. He sat in silence as I pointed out my life's landmarks. For atime, I think, he had to decide whether he even considered himself my kin.
I understood his reaction. At his age, I couldn't imagine life outside my little neighborhood. The places I saw on television and in movies seemed imaginary. Watching how people lived on film was my version of an opium den.
Almost from the time I was born, on January 10, 1949, anger and hunger shaped my youth. There was always more than enough fury in my house and never enough food. My mom, the former Nancy Ree Nelson, had given birth to seven mouths -- mine, the fifth, being the biggest -- more than she could feed well on her income as a cook, even holding two jobs and working seven days a week. She had grown up on a sharecropping farm outside of Marshall, Texas, one of nine sisters and a brother. People would come from miles away to see those girls, rags on their heads, working the plow mules, digging stumps, and picking cotton. Her dad relied on everybody to pull their weight. And when her only brother got in trouble with the law and had to leave town, the sisters pulled his weight, too. Mom could only dream of going to school.
She moved the family to Houston soon after having me, a baby who didn't look much like his four older brothers and sisters: Robert, Willie Mae, Gloria, and Mary Alice. The reason she moved was both to avoid gossip about my father and to improve her economic chances. Houston was to be our shot at big wages and indoor toilets. That the move didn't work out as planned had little to do with Mom's abilities or perseverance. She was a powerful lady, and a leader by example. We didn't know we were poor, because in our house you just didn't hear that sort of talk. I was aware that some people had more to eat and different clothes to wear every day, and I could see that others treated them better. But I never measured what they had against what I didn't. The haves inspired me to believe that we, too, would one day have enough.
The optimism came from my mother. Our dad, J. D. Foreman, was absent much more than he was there. Mom couldn't count on him for anything. Unless she found him early on a Friday night, he drank away most of his railroad worker's salary. We lived mainly on the nickels and dimes she made. When I think of the pain Mom had to overcome in order to put on a happy face, and when I imagine being in her position and having to do the same, I cry in gratitude and admiration. What does it feel like to know that you're doing everything you can, and still your kids are hungry? (Is it possible that only I was feeling hungry all the time?)
Though I loved them all, Aunt Leola was my favorite of Mom's sisters, and I think I was hers. A bit older than my mother and with two girls and no boys, she treated me like her own. That carried over to her daughters, from whom I usually got more affection than from my own sisters. When Leola invited me for dinner, I'd eat all of mine, then start acting sad. "You want some?" my cousin Linda would ask. I'd nod my head and she'd give me the rest of hers. Her sister Alma would say, "Uh-uh, I'm eating my food."
Linda would say, "Well, you know he's going to get that sad face, so give it to him before he starts." And she would.
My sisters weren't as easy. They'd warn, "Don't you start snatching anyone's food now. Mama, he's getting ready to snatch food."
Between the seven of us, there was never enough for me. A good breakfast was a bowl of cornflakes, some evaporated milk diluted with water, and a little sugar. By the time I went back for a second bowl, only crumbs would remain. I'd dilute the remaining drops of milk, then hopelessly shake the sugar bowl to get out a few more grains.
Every other Sunday Mom made pancakes -- or what passed for pancakes, given that she didn't have baking powder to make them rise -- and bacon. Each of us got one strip. As much as I loved to inhale it, the smell of the bacon made that lonely piece into a tease. After finishing mine, I'd look longingly at Mom's ration. "Sure, baby," she'd say. "Come on over here and get you some."
Though she was expected to cook hundreds of meals a day at the O.S.T. Café, my mom was seldom permitted to eat the food they served there. She often bought inexpensive cans of sardines to take to work for her lunch or dinner. (Naturally, if I was in the kitchen early, staring at them, she would offer them to me.) On Fridays, she'd bring home a single hamburger and break it into eight pieces. Everybody got a taste. I remember thinking, Boy, that's rich man's food, a hamburger. That mustard's tang is still in my mouth.
Most of my friends weren't quite as strapped. Even so, if I dropped by as lunchtime approached, it usually meant being invited to "run along home now" while they ate. Once in a while, they'd just usher me into another room. Smelling their food and hearing the tinkle of forks was torture. On some nights, I stood in the dark on neighbors' porches, looking into their kitchens, amazed that families (most with fewer than seven kids, I guess) had leftovers at each meal, even pieces of meat. I always hoped they would find me and ask me in.
For school lunches, Mom sometimes came up with a paperthin slice of luncheon meat; more often, I got a mayonnaise sandwich. When I had nothing at all, I pretended to carry a big lunch by blowing up a brown paper sack to make it look full. Sometimes I'd rub the bag in grease and crumple it to make it look used. Since I would never ask for any food outside the family, my pride made me pretend that I wasn't hungry. I spent a lot of time fantasizing about those little cartons of milk that cost six cents.
Somehow, though, my mother kept us from starving. She was an artist, turning a few skimpy ingredients into a masterwork. And oh, what magic she could perform on a hambone. The bone came from a hog that my aunts would buy together from a farm outside town and have butchered. The only one of the sisters with more than two mouths to feed, my mother was naturally the poorest. Once or twice she had enough to buy the intestines, which became chitlins. But usually she'd get only the bones. Necessity being my mother's best friend, she didn't waste an inch. Working it and working it, she could extract enough fat to make hot-water corn bread that tasted especially good because it had been fried to taste like pork. She also scraped the bones for tiny flecks of meat she added to beans -- a meal by itself. And when there was nothing left to do to the bone, she'd roast it until the marrow was soft and delicious. To this day, I love houses small enough to smell from every room just what's cooking in the kitchen.
It was Aunt Leola who named me George Edward. And besides a name, she gave me my first dose of confidence. When I was little she'd tell me, "Go up there and screw in that lightbulb for your Aunt Leola. You're so tall. You are such a big little man." I'd get down off that ladder thinking I was a giant. I loved her so much, not least because in her house my anger didn't burn so brightly.
At home, I usually had a bad case of mean temper. My older brother and sisters teased me terribly, calling me "Mo-head." I didn't know what "Mo-head" meant or where that nickname came from (and wouldn't for many years), only that I didn't like it. Even as a tiny boy, I'd warn them to get away and I'd hit back. Sometimes they said, "You're not really our brother." And though I never considered the words anything other than a mean joke, I hated that tease most of all. "I am too your brother," I'd say, trying to beat on them as punishment. "I am your brother."
They thought that was funny, this little kid refusing to be bullied. I'd pop anyone in the eye. To them I was the puppy who by nature is more belligerent than the others in the litter. You pet him in the wrong spot, and he growls. For fun, you might even pick that spot on purpose, just to get a reaction.
Once my brothers and sisters found my hot buttons -- and there were rows of them -- they kept pushing. I fought them and fought them and fought them. No matter how much bigger they were, or how badly they were beating me, I kept fighting. I never quit. Eventually they'd get too tired to keep at it, but I never did. Even before I outgrew them, which I did at an early age, they learned that the fun of teasing me wasn't worth the consequences. Once they'd turned up my fire, nobody could turn it down. So instead of "Mo-head," which earned instant retaliation, they began just calling me "Monk," for monkey. This, I felt, wasn't a slur but a term of endearment. (It stayed with me for years and got passed along to my second son.)
What I didn't learn until much later was that my siblings blamed me for the trouble between my parents that drove my father out of the house. After I was born and they'd moved to Houston, Dad began his worst drinking, and my parents escalated their ferocious fights. Now they're back together; now they're broken up again.
Whatever problems my folks had together, it didn't affect my father's faith in me. He believed from the time I was an infant that I was going to be a champion. He loved me. He'd never seen my kind of fire in any kid. Like the others, he pushed my buttons just to get a rise. Sure enough, I'd go off, popping him in the eye. "Heavyweight champion of the world," he'd shout, raising my arm after I'd tired to beat up someone four times my size. "Stronger than Jack Johnson. Hits like Jack Dempsey." I didn't recognize those names, didn't even understand what heavyweight champion of the world was. But I enjoyed his pleasure in my antics.
My mother wanted me to stay away from athletics. Recognizing that I was more hot-headed than her other children, she worried that a terrible fate awaited me, especially if I played some competitive game and lost my temper. In those days in Fifth Ward, most boys who had fire and no fear and no fear died. The "Bloody Fifth," we called it. Every weekend someone got killed in a knife fight. And if your enemies didn't get you, the police would. They didn't bother the good, law-abiding people, but would make examples of the bad element, most of whom hung out at the ice house, where the ice trucks brought their ice to load into iceboxes. The aim of the police was to tame you, to break your spirit: to turn a wild stallion into a stable horse. I remember one courageous boy, filled with too much liquor and the boxing skills he'd learned in prison, standing up to the police. After he opened his mouth a little too loud, they got him down and delivered so many savage kicks that doctors had to reconstruct his torso without some of the tendons and ribs. Another boy was beat so badly that he never talked again before dying in his twenties. Sooner or later, all the tough guys got beaten by the police.
Mom knew that I would never cry mercy to the police or anyone, that they -- or someone else -- would have to kill me to stop me or shut me up. That's why she beat on me, often and hard -- crucial beatings, strategic and tactical, administered completely out of love and concern. She was not trying to instill the fear of God, but the fear of her. She wanted me more afraid of what she would do to me if I disobeyed her than of any trouble I might get into in the streets. "I'm going to kill you," her voice would boom.
One day, while she was at work, I snuck off to a local swimming pool that she'd warned me time and again to stay away from. It was a place where the lifeguards didn't have to pass a swimming test; they may not even have been able to swim. Kids drowned there. But I wanted to swim and figured I'd get away with it because I'd get home and dried off long before she came back from her job. I didn't count on someone spying me at the pool and tattling, nor on the distinctive smell of chlorine soaked into my skin. I'll never forget the fury in her eyes: I was in for a whipping. She took a belt and began lashing my chest and head. I backed away from her, trying to protect myself from the blows. It was no use to call for my brothers and sisters, so I screamed bloody murder to the neighbors: "Help. She's killing me." When no one came, I grabbed the belt away from her. Now what was she going to do? Cursing my disobedience, she climbed on me like a wrestler and pounded me with her fists.
Mom's technique worked. Being more afraid of her than of drowning, I never went to that pool again. Nothing else would have kept me away.
I was thirteen when she struck me for the last time. I'd come home one Saturday just as my sister finished washing the last of the dinner dishes, and having missed the meal, I was hungry. I checked the refrigerator and saw a rare sight: food. I grabbed the leftovers and started to make a big sandwich. My sister pointed out that the kitchen had closed, and she didn't want any more mess to clean up.
"Get out of here," she said.
"Get out of here yourself," I yelled.
"You get out of here," she insisted.
When I wouldn't, she began yelling for Mom, who came in carrying a full head of steam.
"I'm not bothering here," I explained. "I'm just making something to eat."
"You better get out of here," Mom said.
"I told you, I'm hungry and I want something to eat. I'm not bothering here."
"I mean it, young man, you get out of here right now. And don't you talk back to me. You hear?"
That's when she picked up her sturdy shoe.
I felt she was being unreasonable -- taking my sister's side in an argument that didn't need to be an argument. I was a hungry kid. What more mattered? You bet I was going to leave, and not just the kitchen. As I stormed past her, she took a swing at me with the shoe, landing a blow on my back. Just as it hit, I bumped against her by accident. By that age, I already towered over my mother, and the impact sent her reeling against the counter. I walked out of the house and went to Aunt Leola's, intending never to come back. Mom and Leola discussed the situation, and after a couple of cooling-off days, I went home. To my way of thinking, this had been blown out of proportion; I didn't need to apologize.
Mom played it right. She warned me, "If you live in this house, you have to obey." She meant that she couldn't control me any longer, but still demanded respect. Unsaid was something we both already knew, that she wouldn't fight me anymore; she was done using force.
By then, she didn't have to. Whether I knew it or not, I'd gotten her point.
School and George Foreman mixed as well as fire and ice, no matter which one I attended, and there were many as we moved around the area. Failing every subject and every grade, I must have impressed the teachers as being a boy going nowhere fast -- except to jail or an early grave. My one good memory of a teacher came, oddly enough, as a result of punishment for misbehaving: I stayed late after class to clean the blackboard. "Georgie, Porgie, puddin' 'n' pie, kissed the girls and made them cry," the teacher chanted. It had such a nice ring to it, I actually thanked her; years passed until I recognized the words as a nursery rhyme.
In Fifth Ward schools, teachers couldn't afford to throw good time after bad students. The easiest and quickest way to judge a child's potential was through his appearance. Based, I assume, on experience, they'd predetermined that the clothes we wore -- new or old, clean or dirty -- reflected our potential for success, and they rationed their efforts accordingly. Clean clothes and creased pants were more important than brains. And by that yardstick, I was fated to fulfill their expectations.
Most families had more money than the Foremans. To us, the "good" jobs were longshoreman and nurse, and "well-to-do" students were those who lived in homes where both parents worked. Kids from these homes could occasionally afford new clothes. We were clothed from sacks of used garments donated by the people at Mom's restaurant. My brothers and sisters and I would pull pants, shirts, whatever out of the sack, searching for anything that fit. Finding something we actually liked was not a realistic priority. I used to hope against hope that I'd happen on a pair of sneakers, but I never did. We mended holes in our shoes with cardboard and hid the holes in our socks by pulling the ankles down low. Once when the restaurant owner's wife cleaned out her closet and found a bunch of dresses from the Roaring Twenties, my sisters went off to school in purple and green, looking like flappers.
I began fourth grade intending to fool and impress my new teacher. After washing and bleaching the two pairs of beat-up white pants I'd just gotten from the restaurant sack, I smoothed the legs into razor-sharp creases, then placed them on the gas water heater to dry. Though stiff at first, they didn't need ironing. (We did own an iron, but it was the kind you heated in a fire. It came in handy because we often didn't have electricity.)
For a while, the teacher probably took me for a longshoreman's son, maybe even a doctor's. She treated me relatively well, which is to say that she included me with her eyes during lessons and called on me when I raised my hand. Soon, though, she caught on to my charade. Noticing my same clothes every day, and that these clothes got progressively less splendid, she pegged me as a ne'er-do-well. It must not have occurred to her that any kid going to all that trouble must care a great deal about learning -- or at least about making a decent impression.
With other teachers I tried different schemes; some even worked temporarily. I would befriend a boy in whom, I could see, they had hope: someone who dressed well; someone with two working parents. I'd offer him protection and friendship in exchange for being seen with me, figuring some of his charm might rub off and that teachers would reconsider their appraisal of me based on the company I kept.
My disappointments made me stop trying in class. Except for the disruptions I regularly caused, I might've been considered dead at my desk.
So, I became a champion at playing hooky. Pretending to go off to school like everyone else, I devised a complete route that led me back home after Mom left for work. I crawled through the window and slept most of the morning. In the afternoon, I reversed tracks to make it look like I was walking out of school with the rest of my classmates. But one day, while sneaking in through the window, I got busted by my cousin Rita; she was staying with us while she looked for a job. Seeing her surprised me -- she wasn't supposed to be there, either. I tried to act as if I'd forgotten something.
"Come on," she said. "You know you weren't going to school."
"Yes I was," I insisted. "Really, I forgot something."
"It doesn't matter. Nobody in this family is ever going to be anything anyway," she said, naming each of my family members. "You might as well forget it."
"That's a lie," I said. "I'm going to be something."
"Monk," she said sadly, "You may as well go back to bed."
I couldn't believe her words. I was determined to succeed, somehow, at something. It hurt that she would write me off so early. Not that I had done anything to show her otherwise. But until then, I honestly had no sense at all that someone might consider me a failure. Why -- for not going to school? Everyone else was doing that too. That's why I jumped on Rita when she invited me to give up. I didn't know that not going to school might mess up my life. No one had ever talked to me about the future, and how school might fit into it. And besides, at that age, the future didn't exist anyway.
By sixth grade, I was noticeably bigger than the other kids. That made sense, since I was older than most, having repeated more than one year. My teacher struggled to educate me, but I didn't learn. The only reason they promoted a few of us was our age.
"Some of you are not going to make it," my teacher said before graduation from grade school. "Look at you. You've spent all these years just getting to this point. You're bound to spend the rest of your time in junior high." I felt crushed. At thirteen, with a working vocabulary of about a hundred words, I abandoned any remaining hopes I may have harbored about learning. It would take years to shed that discouragement.
I didn't care about my lessons. But that fall I discovered sports. Junior high was about nothing but football.
Knowing my mother would never agree to let me play, I forged her name on the consent form. By the time she found out, it was too late to stop me. Besides, she took some satisfaction from knowing that football kept me from dropping out.
Coach Bryant called me "Hardnose," because nobody was tougher or more determined. We called him "Bear," in honor of the famous coach at the University of Alabama, Paul "Bear" Bryant. A mean, gruff, and unforgiving man, our Bear had an almost sadistic penchant for using a paddle whenever he felt displeased with a performance. But he taught me pride. And playing to please him did wonders for my self respect. A big, strong defensive lineman, I could sack a quarterback and tackle runners better than anyone. I loved the competition, the success, the winning, the team spirit, and Coach's high standards. He sometimes positioned the linemen across a chalk stripe on the field, then sent the fastest halfback to try to run through us. If he made it, the whole line got whacked with the paddle.
We all feared him, though I was especially afraid because of an absolute edict he had against smoking. He'd lecture us over and over about how smoking reduced your wind and undermined your skills. When he caught someone smoking, a heavy hand administered the law of the paddle, and by the time he got through, the cigarette wasn't the only thing smoking.
Sad to say, I had already developed a serious nicotine habit. It started with stealing smokes from my parents -- coughing and laughing, getting dizzy on purpose -- and continued as a growing addiction. Mom knew I smoked, and my friends smoked with me. The only person I hid my cigarettes from was Coach Bryant. And when he caught me one day in the ninth grade, everything changed.
It happened like this: After practice, we always went to a soda fountain in the back of a drugstore on Lyons Avenue, Fifth Ward's main drag. If we had enough money, we'd get a soda. If not, we'd buy or bum cigarettes. As I walked out of the drugstore one day, a smoke in my mouth, there was the last person I expected to see -- Coach, sitting behind the wheel of his car. Since this was at least two hours after practice, he should have been home already.
"Hey, George," he yelled through his open window. "I see that cigarette."
I froze. Yes, I was afraid of being paddled. But I was more ashamed that this man whom I admired and who, I thought, respected me, should catch me doing something he abhorred, condemned, and forbade. To escape that shame, I never went back to football practice. And without football I stayed out of school completely; it had nothing to offer me.
My mom began getting calls from the principal's office, telling her that I'd been playing hooky every day. She pleaded with me, but nothing she said could make me go. Finally, the authorities told her that I was old enough to quit school legally. And if I didn't actually drop out, they explained, they would pursue me as a truant. It was an easy call, and Mom couldn't resist anymore. I ended my formal education without earning even a junior high school diploma.
We moved a lot when I was a kid. Mom brought home about twenty-six bucks a week, and we often had to balance rent and groceries; sometimes rent had to give. We'd pack up quickly and go from one place to the next. Though we never escaped Fifth Ward, I was always meeting new kids in different schools and neighborhoods.
One constant was visiting Aunt Leola. I loved that she let me watch television all night, something I couldn't do at home because we couldn't afford a TV. Roy Rogers was my favorite, and my role model. I tried to imitate his facial expressions, posture, and swagger. Watching him, I felt transported out of my life. It was only when he and his cowboy pals sat down to a big campfire meal that I got jolted back to reality, realizing that I wouldn't feel full after their pork and beans.
I also liked The Donna Reed Show and Leave It to Beaver, and all of the other sitcoms about families. I remember wondering what it would be like to have my own bed, like Beaver and Wally; or to be able to shut off the reading lamp next to the bed. That was the image -- reaching up from bed to turn off the light -- that stuck in my brain; it seemed the height of luxury. Meanwhile, we were lucky to have a bare, hanging lightbulb in our room -- that is, if the house had electricity.
All of the houses we lived in shared the same characteristics. They were small. They were dark. They were rat-infested. The house I liked more than the others was in a neighborhood in which most of the kids lived with two working parents. To me, they were affluent.
One night, three older boys from that neighborhood and I took off to the park after dinner. We played ball for a while, then headed for home, passing houses and other buildings on the way. As I watched, they each picked up a handful of rocks and began throwing them at windows. It soon became a contest to see who could break the most glass. I joined in. It was the first time I'd ever done anything that might be called juvenile delinquency. My love for Mom, my respect for her, my fear of her, had always held me in check. Now, new friends took over her role as an influence on me.
My life of crime escalated quickly. Two buddies and I were out one night when we saw a guy walking alone in the dark across the park. "Let's get him," someone said. It was more a dare than a command. We argued about it, but then summoned the nerve to use our numbers against him. Two of us held him down without hurting him, the other got his wallet. Then we ran, joining up later to split the loot.
This was easy money, and I kept earning it this way for a couple of years. I used the cash to pay for cigarettes, food, carfare to visit my girlfriend across town, clothes to wear when I saw her, and cheap wine, which I had begun putting away in impressive amounts. You need a good drink to mug a guy right, I guess to quell your conscience. It was a cycle; I stole money to buy drink, and I got drunk to steal more money.
Now, this may be hard to believe, but I can truthfully claim that I didn't understand how serious a crime it was to take someone's money; it seemed the same as picking apples off a tree that didn't belong to you. It wasn't arrogance, but ignorance, kind of like my son's thinking faded blue jeans meant poverty. For me in those days, the law was the law of the jungle, where the end justified the means. Survival.
What might have straightened me out was church. Realizing that her power to influence my actions had all but vanished, Mom urged me constantly to read the Bible and go to services, which, working seven days and nights a week, she was too busy to attend herself. My older siblings were already believers; at home, I often found them on their knees praying, and I teased them. When they dragged me to churches where people showed the spirit alive in them by playing tambourines and dancing, I'd mock them by doing some jitterbug dance out front.
I'd go through the motions to please my mother, but religion seemed like hokum. Only weak people took religion seriously. Miserable people. Broken people. Hopeless people. Each time one of those fiery boys in my neighborhood had the fire kicked out of him -- broken, like a wild stallion -- he turned to religion. You could predict the next kid to find God by checking to see who got a steel plate in his head. Men who couldn't hit back anymore, women beaten by life -- they bought religion. Nobody I looked up to.
So I didn't learn the lessons that Scripture might have taught me about good and evil. I used my size (by age sixteen I would be six foot one and weigh one hundred eighty-five pounds), my fists, and my strength to take what I needed, and even considered myself a good kid, not a villain. I remember one night out with my friend Nicholas, needing some money to see my girlfriend. We spotted a lone figure in the darkness and, as usual, tackled him to the ground. I held him down as Nicholas searched his pockets. Nothing. His waistband. Nothing again. Then Nicholas took off his right shoe, convinced that the turnip hid blood. Still nothing. When Nicholas took off the left shoe, the guy kicked him. That infuriated Nicholas. He took out of his pocket something I'd never seen him use, an icepick, ready to stab our mark. He would have, too, if I hadn't gotten in his way and helped the guy fight him off. In my mind, that made me a good kid, which is how my self-image remained until not long after.
Nicholas, my friend Charles, and I mugged a guy who had the nerve to be appalled at what we'd done. "Come back here," he kept screaming as we walked away calmly, counting the money. He called the police -- a pretty unusual response in a neighborhood that considered most muggings part of the cost of living -- which brought out a dragnet. Cop cars, sirens blaring, were everywhere. When we saw the police chasing us -- us? -- we began running, at different speeds and in different directions. I ended up hiding in the short crawl space beneath a house.
As I lay there waiting and wondering why the police were interested in us, I began thinking about the big white German shepherds that sometimes rode in the patrol cars. I knew that the policemen themselves couldn't find me, but thought that the dogs might be able to sniff me out. That's when I noticed a large puddle beneath a sewer pipe at the back of the house and remembered a television show about an escaped convict running from bloodhounds. To throw them off the scent, he sloshed through a stream. Deciding to do the same, I used the water and dirt to make mud, which I then covered myself in, head to toe; every part of me dripped with it. No way could those dogs sniff me through that stuff. Wearing my new camouflage uniform, I'd wait it out until it was safe to go home.
All of a sudden it hit me. I realized that I was like that criminal on television. He ran from dogs; I'd run from dogs. He hid his scent in water; I'd rolled in slop. Both of us were bad guys. Feeling sick and ashamed, I heard the echo of my cousin Rita's words: "You may as well go back to bed, Monk. Nobody in this family's going to be anything."
"Oh my God," I said out loud. "I'm a criminal." A fifteen-year-old criminal.
I kept hiding for another hour or so, until full darkness. Then I crawled out from under the house. Some kids coming back from a party were laughing and joking. "Hey, y'all seen the cops?" I asked, the mud dripping off me.
They looked at me like I was the creature from the black lagoon, and said the cops hadn't been around for a while.
At home, I ignored questions about where I'd gotten so filthy. I couldn't say that I'd been on the journey of a lifetime.
Later, when everyone was asleep, I cried. My life as a professional criminal ended that night. Though I still wanted to be a thug and a tough guy, I would never steal again.
From the time I was six, possibly even before, I wanted to fight. Anyone.
Other kids would dare me, "Betcha can't beat him."
"Betcha I can," I'd reply.
I'd provoke two or three guys; I didn't care. I just wanted to mix it up. I never lost.
By junior high the violence had become second nature. Everyone knew my reputation, and they knew it was a reputation I cultivated.
Walking home from school one day, a boy I barely knew approached me. "Hey, Monk," he said, pointing to a fellow about our age, a good-looking boy and a sharp dresser. "I want you to punch that guy."
"Okay," I said.
I walked up to the kid and, without warning, busted his face, putting him on the ground as quickly as if he'd been shot. I did it because I'd been asked, no other reason. (Later, I found out that the first guy's girlfriend had taken a shine to this boy, and he wanted his rival undone.)
Other people started using me as an enforcer. Unlike some toughs, though, I never took money for it. Nor did I ever use a knife. I figured knives were for cowards. You could be cut or stabbed and not even realize it till you saw the blood. Using my fist, I got the satisfaction of seeing my man fall. I considered it a win when he stayed down, not when his clothes turned red from an open wound.
When I got to be someone with a bit of standing among other Fifth Ward thugs, I met Hilton Murdoch, who came from a well-to-do family of two working parents; he was a bona fide killer. Not much good with his fists, he'd act as though he wanted to fight, then pull out a carpet layer's knife and slash his opponent to shreds. He also had an especially ugly henchman we called Ickyboo, who hid in the shadows carrying either a wooden plank or a heavy stick that he'd wield on command. My introduction to them came after a particularly vicious attack of theirs. A kid named Thomas, a nice-looking, hard-working boy, crossed their path walking home from school one day. Surly and already annoyed by anyone who looked like he was going to accomplish something in life, Murdoch challenged him to fight. Thomas knew that if he backed down, Murdoch would own him, so he fought; in fact, he won Round 1. With Murdoch on the ground, apparently beaten, Round 2 began when a plank of wood smashed Thomas's skull from behind, knocking him out and doing severe brain damage. As Ickyboo stood watching, Murdoch carved up Thomas unmercifully with his knife. When Thomas was finally discharged from the hospital, he needed someone to dress and feed him, and could only stare ahead.
Murdoch liked me, and the higher I rose in the ranks of the Fifth Ward thugs, the more he wanted to be around me. I considered him a friend, though one I kept at a distance. I did not feel about him the way I felt about my buddy Charles Miller, whom I loved. Charles and I were blood brothers. If he had a shirt, I had a shirt. If I had shoes, he had shoes. Murdoch could see how much Charles meant to me. When I was around, he treated Charles with respect. Otherwise, he would have preferred to see him dead. The sentiment was mutual.
One day Murdoch walked up to Charles at the park. "Hey, man," he said. "Let's box."
Murdoch would never have done that had I been around. Charles knew enough to look around for Ickyboo. Seeing that they were apparently alone, he accepted the challenge. Charles was tough -- tougher, he thought, than Murdoch.
In a fair fight, I'd have bet Charles. But Murdoch took out some brass knuckles and swung at Charles's head, opening a cut above his eyes that gushed blood. Charles cried out. A passerby saw the blood and yelled that he was going to get the police. Charles scrambled. He found me and, crying, told me what happened.
I had to avenge Charles. Walking up and down Lyons Avenue, I asked everywhere after Murdoch until long past dark. He was hiding, nowhere to be found.
That night I went to a party. After drinking my fair share, I stood alone outside, getting some air. In a shadow was a face that looked like an executioner's mask. I knew it was Ickyboo and that he was holding a piece of wood. That meant Murdoch was close. Very close, in fact. He stepped out of another shadow, his knife blade, visible in the street light, thrust inches from my belly.
"Hey, man, you looking for me?" he asked, "I heard you were looking for me."
I didn't answer.
"You looking for me?" he repeated.
I agonized over which way to go. Saying yes, I'd likely be battered and bleeding to death in a matter of moments. Saying no, I'd have to live with the terrible shame of knowing I backed down, of knowing that he got the better of me. And I wasn't sure which was worse.
"No," I finally said.
"Good," he muttered, pulling the knife back. "I'll see ya." He and Ickyboo walked away.
I suffered instantly. For the first time in my life, I knew cowardice -- and now I preferred death. How could I live this down? I wasn't supposed to be afraid of two hundred people, let alone two. Just like that, my identity had disappeared.
I even knew why I'd done it: my mother. All those years of her beating on me, molding me, trying to straighten me out. She used to tell me, "It's better to say, 'There he goes' than 'There he lays.'" That night, I had heard her voice as my conscience. But it had cost me my manhood. I felt castrated.
Taking a deep breath, I went back inside and told my friends most of the story -- leaving out the part where I backed down. Several of us went looking for Murdoch and Ickyboo. Two blocks away, we found and surrounded them. There'd be no escape now.
"Fight me fair and square," I demanded. "Put your knife down and use your fists."
"I'm not going to fight that big man," Murdoch said. "No way. I can't whip him."
Even then, after he had refused the challenge in front of half a dozen witnesses, I thought I could see him sniggling at me: He knew that he'd already won.
To my friends I was a hero. And though Murdoch never told anyone else about what had happened at the party, I couldn't escape my self-hatred. To compensate, I turned vicious and savage, picking fights in school, on the street, at pickup basketball games -- anyone, anytime, anywhere; sometimes two or three a day. I wanted to overcome any man in my path. When I walked, I saw people afraid of me. That, I believed, was as it should be.
One day I went to the drugstore on Lyons Avenue and heard someone say, "Cool down, everyone, Big George is here."
Then someone else: "Hey, Big Monk."
And Murdoch: "There he is. You don't want any trouble with that man." His voice conveyed respect, not sarcasm.
This was my coronation. They'd named me King of the Jungle.
A decade later, as heavyweight champ, I went back to the old neighborhood and saw Murdoch again. He was sitting on a bench in front of a gas station. Next to him was Thomas, the boy he'd turned into a vegetable, whose father owned the station. Both stared straight ahead, one brain-damaged, one a dope fiend. It was hard to tell which was which. Next time I heard about Murdoch, he'd died of an overdose.
Copyright © 1995, 2000 by George Foreman