New York Times Book Review
Street Kingdom: Five Years Inside the Franklin Avenue Posseby Douglas Century
The world is the blacktop turf of the once all-powerful Franklin Avenue Posse's "hardrocks," stickup kids, gunrunners, and coke dealers. In this explosive odyssey through Brooklyn's ravaged neighborhoods, Manhattan's underground nightclubs, and the prisons of upstate New York, you'll ride with white journalist Douglas Century and Big K, the Caribbean-American hip-hop artist, street enforcer, and security guard who became Century's eyes and ears. Their relationship would change the way both looked at race, success, and survival in the American inner city. And it will change you.
New York Times Book Review
- Grand Central Publishing
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- 5.31(w) x 8.03(h) x 1.25(d)
Read an Excerpt
The basic creed of the gangster, and for that matter of any other type of criminal, is that whatever a man has is his only so long as he can keep it, and that the one who takes it away from him has not done anything wrong, but has merely demonstrated his smartness.
--Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York
One time for your mind. He stepped on the tiny stage of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe as if entering a prize ring: chin tucked tight against his chest, glowering into the bright red lights, shifting his weight from foot to foot as he waited to attack his rhymes. One-two, one-two. He nodded to the soundman, mumbled another mike check, then introduced himself to the crowd as Big K the American Dread. The heavy thud of the breakbeats kicked in and he threw his whole musculature into the flow of his lyrics. Eyes downcast, microphone pressed close to his lips, he nodded his head and beat his chest from time to time with the flat of his hand.
One moment he was rapping Brooklyn-style, describing himself as The mike John Gotti / Prince of the lyrics / Son to no man; and then there was a breathless surge and he was rhyming in the island boasts of a Jamaican badman, calling himself a don gorgon and the dread mad-hatter; and then a breath later I began to hear snippets of Spanish slang thrown into the mix, like bits of hot pepper added to his already thick verbal stew.
He was staring straight at me as he rhymed. The red spotlight lit up the weltlike scar on his face. The gangster poetry spilled from him so quickly, so furiously, that it was impossible to grasp all the images before they scattered.
I sat transfixed as he bounded across the stage. His ferocious gaze and athletic movements seemed out of place in the smoke-filled East Village coffeehouse, his words booming and echoing off the cavernous ceiling and bare brick walls, over the heads of the smattering of people gathered here for a night billed as RAP MEETS POETRY. I looked over at my girlfriend, Crystal. She was bobbing her head to the beat as the big man rhymed.
Straight and simple
My shit be mental
Comin' for your temple
Soon as they put on instrumental
When he finished his verses he stepped offstage and sat at a round table with several friends. I approached him, told him that I liked his lyrics. He nodded his thanks and introduced me to his wife, Faith, and to his homeboy, the Grand Wizard Shabazz, who he described as "the wickedest DJ in the whole borough of Brooklyn."
I commented on the reggae inflection of his rhymes, and asked him if his background was Jamaican.
"Panamanian," he said, sipping his bottled water.
Crystal smiled beside me in the darkness. She told him that her grandparents had also been immigrants from Panama. "My sister," he said, and he offered her the handshake of a perfect gentleman.
I wrote my number down on the inside flap of a pack of matches--telling him to call me whenever he was going to be doing another hip-hop show--and then asked him to write down his. He leaned in close and spoke directly in my ear: "I ain't got no number right now. I'm homeless."
He said it without embarrassment. He was simply stating a fact: he had no home. He spent his nights riding the Number 2 train end to end, from 241st Street in the Bronx to New Lots Avenue in East New York. He'd lost everything: the drug money, the boxing money, even his jewelry--he didn't have shit now. Faith was staying at her mother's crib up on the Hill in Harlem, but he didn't get along too well with his mother-in-law and he didn't need any more headaches. (He didn't actually use the words mother-in-law; I assumed that's whom he meant when he referred to a woman as the hungry hippo.)
"So you sleep on the trains?"
His laugh was humorless. "Sometimes I don't be sleepin' at all."
He asked me if I was someone in the record business; I looked like someone he had met once before: a producer or an agent or somebody I shook my head and told him I was a journalist. He raised an eyebrow.
"Word? So be a journalist. Ask me a fuckin' question."
He enjoyed playing this game in the darkness, rocking heavily back in his chair while I sat across from him, Bic in hand, pretending to be making notes on the apricot-colored flyer.
The first thing that mystified me was that odd appendage to his name: Why "American Dread"? He didn't look like a dread; his hair was woven in a dozen short, neat braids--not the matted tendrils of a Rastafarian.
"The `American' is `cause I'm fuckin' American," he said, shrugging with mild impatience, taking another long swig of his bottled water. Then he narrowed his gaze at me, smirking, suddenly shifting again to his island patois: "True mi no Rasta--but a dread mi dread same way. Yunno when a Yardman seh sumting dread? It mean a ting serious an' powerful an' wicked."
"Serious and powerful and wicked," I said.
"Yes, star." He gave a small nod. "A so mi dread."
Crystal was still smiling at me as we drove home: she said she really liked this American Dread and what he was saying in his lyrics. He reminded her of so many of the guys she'd grown up with back in the Bronx. He reminded her of those long summer nights, back when she was still a little Catholic School girl, sneaking out with her buddies to the jams in Echo Park and Bronx River to hear Flash and Bambatta spin. He reminded her of dancing in the Fever and T-Connection as the MCs battled it out on the mike. But those nights were different, of course. They seemed always to end in shootouts.
One-two. His words echoed in my ears for a long time. Lying in bed that night, Crystal and I continued to talk about the big man: the white heat of his gaze as he leapt across the stage, looping cables of the microphone trailing behind him like the coils of a snake's tail ... And you don't stop. I let my mind drift off to sleep that night to the insistent echo of his rhymes.
My mind was drifting a lot that summer. I'd just dropped out of graduate school--the very reason I'd come to New York in the first place--and though I was making a meager living as a journalist, writing freelance stories and reviews, I was actually spending more time running around nightclubs in the East Village and SoHo than I was looking for steady work.
I'd been living in the city for four years now, promised myself that this was going to be the last feckless summer, the last summer of clubs and parties, of sleepwalking and looking for Kerouac's "mongrel America"--vaguely chasing down the dream of being a writer--until I found myself sleepwalking square into that towering Panamanian with the eyes burning like live coals ... and from that day on the labyrinth of New York began to unfold in turns too strange to be imagined.
* * *
It was in a party called Medusa that I first saw the darkness. Crystal had been teasing me as we left our apartment that night, telling me that I'd become a bad influence; for the second time in two weeks I'd managed to drag her away from her textbooks and dissertation research.
Medusa was an underground Tuesday night party that roamed from space to space; lately it had settled in a narrow two-level bar on West Broadway. I knew one of the party's promoters, a lanky Englishman with blond shoulder-length dreadlocks. His real name was Norman but everyone called him Bunny. He was a part-time reggae musician and a full-time poseur. Through the crowded doorway, I caught a glimpse of Bunny grinning cheesily for a Polaroid, leaning back against a pillar with his latest Scandinavian girlfriend.
I did a double take when I saw who was working the door: Big K. He was wearing a Kansas City Royals baseball cap, holding a guest list clipboard, sitting open-legged on a tall stool. Face lighting up, he leapt from his seat when he saw me. I went to shake his hand, but instead he grabbed me by the forearm and enveloped me in a remarkable, smothering hug.
"Yes, don dada! Get in here, muthafucka! Naw, put your fuckin' wallet away--you and your pretty Pana lady ain't payin' a dime."
I asked him how he came to be working the door at Medusa; he told me that he and Bunny had linked up. Bunny was going to be shopping his demo tape to various record labels. He said that, before the summer was out, Bunny had promised he was going to land him a record deal.
This did not bode well. I had known Bunny for several years now, and I knew that his only connection to the record company executives whose names he dropped with annoying regularity was in his capacity as their weekly supplier of weed.
But I didn't dare tell Big K that Bunny was a bullshit artist. I assumed he would learn the truth in his own time. And hopefully I wouldn't be present when he did.
The DJ in Medusa was spinning a mix of old reggae and hip-hop and acid jazz, and Crystal was having a good time dancing. She said she had forgotten how much she loved dancing to reggae music. She said it reminded her of high school. She said all this time in graduate school had made her boring.
We were dancing to Barrington Levy's "Too Experienced" and I had both hands on the small of her back and I thought there was nothing like close-dancing to lovers' rock to make you feel that the summer had finally arrived.
And then, around two, Big K appeared and put his hand on my shoulder.
"Gettin' ready to bounce, baby-paw?"
"No, not yet."
"Good, 'cause I'm gonna fuck your head up right about now. Bunny says he's gonna let me get on the mike and bust some freestyles."
We were dancing in the back corner of the club; I watched Big K and Bunny go over to talk to the DJ. A queue of young guys had formed--some white, some black, all in the requisite baggy jeans and ballcaps and dreadlocks. Like Big K, they were all eager to drop freestyle rhymes on the mike.
We stopped dancing when we heard the loud commotion. At first I thought it must be laughter, but I soon saw that it wasn't. Body language suggested that the DJ did not want anyone touching his microphone or his equipment. He kept shaking his head and waving his hand dismissively at Bunny. Bunny started to argue with him, and I could lip-read the DJ saying fuck you to Bunny and then suddenly I saw that Big K had stepped into the argument and that Big K was extremely enraged. His voice had risen powerfully over the sound of the music. He was waving his arms and growling the word bumboclaat over and over.
Bumboclaat is an especially ugly West Indian curse word. On my first trip to Kingston in the mid-'80s I had been taught the word by a Jamaican expatriate--my freshman-year roommate at Princeton--who then advised me that to use the word around the wrong people could result in grievous bodily injury. It was a highly charged word, my roommate warned, a fighting word, far more inflammatory than its literal meaning (a menstrual rag) would suggest.
By this time I'd spent enough time in West Indian circles to know that when you start hearing the unmistakable sound of bumboclaat echoing across a crowded dance floor, it's advisable to set down your unfinished drink and make your way toward the nearest exit. But before I could do that I heard the horrifying screech of feedback, then the scrape of a stylus on vinyl--and then the sound system went completely dead.
The party was over. I saw Big K hovering over the DJ's turntables, clutching the DJ's microphone in one hand.
The sudden silence only amplified the sound of him shouting his curses and threats at tremendous volume throughout the club. It was a nearly unintelligible howl--but I could decipher a few snippets: one threat involved doing damage to the DJ's turntable set, and another, doing damage to the DJ himself.
At this point dozens of people began to leave the party very rapidly
For some absurd reason I felt compelled to try to talk to him. Leaving Crystal behind, I moved against the stream of rapidly departing dancers, stepped toward him, touched him on the arm, trying to tell him to calm down--
He whirled around and stared at me: it was like he had never set eyes on me before. His face was hardened in a mask of rage. His mouth was clenched tight, his upper lip bulging like a taut bow. The whites of his eyes seemed to have vanished.
I stood frozen. He reared back.
"Get the fuck away from me!" he said.
I felt Crystal touching my arm. "Let's go," she said.
In the mob milling around at the upstairs exit, I bumped into my friend Jack, a clinical psychologist, born and raised on Colombia's Caribbean coast. He was quite somber and buttoned-up by day, but at night he shed the professional stiffness and became a baggy-jeans-and-Airwalk-wearing tornado on the downtown party scene. (A much-needed release from the hours spent counseling East Harlem psychotics who believed they were Jesus Christ?) Jack shrugged in the red glow of the EXIT sign and, as we stepped out into the night air, murmured an admittedly rudimentary diagnosis: "Well, your man has extremely poor impulse control."
Crystal's appraisal was a little more personal. Walking through SoHo, she said she couldn't stand him: he was just like the guys from the old neighborhood. That temper was just like Tommy's, she said. The guy was a walking time bomb just like Tommy.
We walked down to Crystal's Skyhawk and an enormous river rat crossed our path, looking up at us lazily before ducking under a parked car. Crystal grabbed my arm when she saw the rat and it began to rain lightly on our heads and I squeezed Crystal's hand and wondered why she was so cold when I was so hot. The sounds of Big K shouting bumboclaat and threatening the DJ were echoing in my head and when I went to open the car door I noticed that my fingers were trembling.
Crystal wasn't frightened. She was quiet and looked a little sad.
She touched the rosary beads that hung in a twisted loop from the dashboard ashtray. She always touched the rosary beads before starting up her car. When she finally spoke, as we sat in the idling Skyhawk, waiting for the engine to warm up, she said that it was like going back ten years, ten years she didn't want to go back, back to her days with Tommy, to those crazy Bronx nights of guns and shootouts and running home trembling to cry alone in her bedroom ...
They'd all grown up on the edge of the Belmont section of the Bronx, back in the height of the gang days, when you had the Ching-a-Lings owning this block, and you couldn't walk down that block because the Savage Nomads were known for raping girls down there.
But Tommy never got down with the gangs.
Tommy was always his own show.
He was her childhood sweetheart. They'd grown up in the same coop complex on Crotona Avenue. And the unusual thing about Tommy was that he actually came from a solid family His parents were together; his father worked for the Transit Authority; they kept an extremely strict home. They were Pentecostal and Tommy used to be in church for five hours every Sunday. His older brother had an old-fashioned Singer machine and used to sew everybody clothes. He promised he was going to sew Crystal the most beautiful wedding gown one day.
Tommy hated being in church for so many hours. He used to come and tell Crystal how his mother had been taken by the Holy Spirit and started speaking in tongues. Then when Tommy started getting in a lot of fights in the neighborhood, his mother would tell him that there was a demon inside him. They'd scream at him like he was a demon.
That only made Tommy worse. He put his energy into bodybuilding and boxing for a while, but that didn't last long and soon he was out sticking people up and getting in shootouts. Every Saturday night was another fight with him. If he took Crystal to the movies and someone even glanced at her bare legs, Tommy'd start shouting and fighting.
It was easy for me to look at the superficial facts of Crystal's life today--a doctoral candidate at Columbia University whose favorite diversion from her studies was her Wednesday night ballroom dancing group--and imagine that she'd always been cocooned from the darker side of life in the Bronx. After all, hadn't she told me that she'd often been teased by the other kids in her old neighborhood for speaking so properly, for dressing so prissily, that the tough girls from nearby Garden Street were forever yanking off their earrings and smearing Vaseline on their faces, wanting to fight her for supposedly trying to "act white" all the time?
She realized now that she'd been fooling herself, that she hadn't wanted to accept the telltale signs of Tommy's transformation. Even when she'd witnessed it with her own eyes. Like the night of his senior prom.
Tommy'd asked Crystal to be his date even though she went to Cardinal Spellman and he went to DeWitt Clinton. And then for some reason Tommy's crazy cousin Mike was riding along like a third wheel all through the prom. As wild as Tommy was, his cousin Mike was even wilder. In those days Tommy was still mostly a streetfighter, handling situations with his fists, but Mike was known for carrying a switchblade and stabbing people for the most trivial of reasons.
The prom night began badly, and ended worse. After the dance, they came to Arthur Avenue--Crystal wanted to eat at Mario's, her favorite Italian restaurant--but the manager at Mario's wouldn't seat them, claiming the restaurant was booked for a private function. Mike started cursing and acting wild right in Mario's and Tommy had to forcibly drag his stupid cousin out into the street.
In those days there was still a line spray-painted on the pavement, just off Arthur Avenue, that said NO NIGGERS NO SPICS. And here they were, three teenagers of the wrong complexion, walking on the wrong side of the line. It was a hot night and they were hungry and sweaty in their prom outfits. The night was so hot that some of the Italian kids were playing at the hydrant with one of those Chock Full o' Nuts coffee cans with the bottom cut out. There were lots of old people sitting outside playing cards and dominoes. When they came down the block in their prom outfits, some of the Italian kids started to point and laugh.
"Look at the niggers! Look at the niggers in their monkey suits!"
Then one of them leaned back with the coffee can and directed the wide stream of water at them. They were all soaked. Crystal's black-and-red prom dress was dripping. Tommy's rented tuxedo was dripping. Mike's afro was soaked and flattened on his head. The Italian kids were all laughing at them and pointing.
And then someone screamed.
Crystal turned and saw that Mike had pulled a small pistol out of his powder-blue tuxedo--he was doing this crazy two-step, aiming the gun at the Italian kids.
"Keep laughin'!" he was shouting. "Laugh at this, ya greaseball muthafuckas!"
Leveling his gun at the crowd, he started to squeeze off shots. There was pandemonium on the block: young kids screaming, everybody running, playing cards flying, old people falling out of lawn chairs.
Mike stood there howling with laughter, firing shots over their heads as everybody scattered. And there was Tommy, laughing right alongside his cousin.
She couldn't believe it was really happening. Sure, she was furious at the racist kids who'd sprayed them with the coffee can; but there were old women and old men and little five-year-olds out there too and they were just minding their own business, playing pinochle, playing hearts, trying to get some air on a hot night. And Crystal knew some of the old people's faces. They used to see her coming to take confession at Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Mike stood there firing off his gun and getting such a kick out of making everybody run. And then she felt Tommy push her in the back. "Run!" he said, laughing wildly, and there she was trying to run through Belmont in her ruined prom dress and her pumps, thinking she wasn't even going to make it home--all three of them were going to die in the street that night.
* * *
In the two years Crystal and I'd been living together, the subject of Tommy had precipitated one of our worst fights--the night I found out that he was incarcerated in an upstate prison, still dreaming about Crystal, still staring at her little high school graduation photo taped up on his cell wall. I couldn't accept the fact that she had a violent felon for an ex-boyfriend. I sat staring at her, shaking my head. She lashed out defensively. I was the one with the problem, she said, people like me, people who knew just a little bit about something but thought they knew it all. She said she didn't care how many rap records I bought or how many midnight reggae parties I went to, I was still a white, middle-class Jewish guy from the wilds of Canada, and what the hell could I possibly know about the streets? Who was I--living my sheltered little life--to sit there smugly judging her?
Tommy was one guy, she said, just one guy from the neighborhood; there was Spike and Finesse and Van and all the other guys who'd been busted for drugs, for stickups, for carrying guns. And what about all the girls she'd known since childhood, what about Shanice and Lashonda and Naomi, all the sweet little Bronx schoolgirls who'd turned into gun-toting gang girls or hookers or crackheads?
What about the crack fiends who roamed the halls of her parents' old building now that the neighborhood was going downhill, knocking on Crystal's mom's door at all hours, and she naively letting them in and feeding them because to her they aren't faceless fiends, they aren't the hollow-cheeked ghouls you see on the news, they're just the kids down the hall she's watched grow up her whole life, the same kids who used to be dressed up in bow ties for church Sunday morning, the same kids who used to play skelly and hot-peas-and-butter in front of the building, who used to offer to help Crystal's mother carry in her grocery bags.
What, Crystal wanted to know, her gaze fixing tightly on mine, what did I want her to do? Stop caring about all the guys she'd played tag with, the guys who'd taught her to lace up her sneakers, who'd chased her screaming down the block back in the days when she was barely big enough to pedal her trike?
That was Crystal's way: forever giving Tommy the benefit of the doubt, holding out hope that he was going to change. She'd encouraged Tommy to go to pharmacy school--he was always very good at chemistry--but she soon saw that he didn't have the patience, or the desire, to study. Her brother found Tommy a job down at the mailroom of his Wall Street office; but Tommy just stopped showing up for work. The years passed and she moved on with her life--getting out of the Bronx, going away to an upstate campus, Pace University in Pleasantville. Tommy traveled upstate as well, on the first of several penitentiary bids.
Finally, she had to accept the truth: that he didn't really want to work at anything, that he really didn't want to change. He'd always choose the easy route, wanting to be the big shot, the big drug dealer in the neighborhood. Here she was, working two part-time jobs, doing home-care work, wiping old people's butts for four dollars an hour, and going to school--and Tommy wasn't even trying. He kept going in and out of jail, kept calling her collect, making excuses for himself, and then finally she realized that jail was the perfect place for him--it was the one place that seemed to give his life any structure.
She'd tried to tell him goodbye a few times. But Tommy was living in a state of suspended animation; he kept calling for her at her parents' apartment, thinking nothing had changed since they were in high school.
She'd penned him a short goodbye note several years ago, during one of his previous stretches in prison. She wrote him to say that, since she wasn't with him anymore, he should stop wasting so much energy thinking about her.
When he got out of prison, he shot straight up to Pleasantville to find her. Coming home from the library one night, she saw him waiting for her in the shadows of the dorm. She was out of breath. He'd been secretly following her all night; he said he'd watched her talking to another guy. He said, "I still love you. I still wanna marry you." Finally, she told him to his face: "Tommy, look, we can be friends--but I can't be with you anymore."
She would never forget the way his face darkened then; he looked so evil standing there in the shadows of her dorm, neck clenched tight, flexing that bodybuilder's physique. You'd never believe he could've been that little bow-tie-wearing churchboy on Crotona Avenue. He hissed at her: "Look, you're still mine. You'll always be mine. If I can't have you, no one will."
And after that night in Medusa, after seeing Big K grabbing for the microphone, howling those badman curses, Crystal could never look at him the same way again. From that night on, she could see K only as another Tommy.
In the coming years she would continue to caution me, whisper about getting too close to the flame. Never chiding--she always spoke about it in a tone of weary fatalism. Every time you think you can predict his actions, he'll throw you for a sudden loop. Every time you think you've glimpsed the real person behind that tough-guy facade, he'll force you to face the fact that you don't know a damn thing about him.
* * *
Call it voyeurism--compulsion, lunacy--but something was driving me forward, forcing me to see it with my own eyes. One sunny Saturday in July, K called me from a pay phone, wondering if I was doing something important right then--besides jerking off to Soul Train, of course. Did I want to go get some money with him? I thought I must have misheard--what was he suggesting? Robbery? Some kind of illicit hustle? I began to whisper conspiratorially into the receiver, but he cut me short, cackling crazily in my ear: "You a funny muthafucka, you know that? You straight-up stoopid!"
It turned out I had him all wrong: gettin' money was simply slang for lifting weights.
Two hours later I met him under the Empire State Building and we walked to the gym I belonged to on the East Side. I quickly realized that it was going to be a strange Saturday. I emptied my pockets and put the contents on the top shelf of my gym locker: key ring, sixty-three cents in loose change, a half pack of lint-covered Life Savers.
K carried no keys and no paper money. He took off his two-finger diamond-encrusted ring that said FAITH.
And then, from his waistband, I watched as he drew out a gun, an enormous pearl-handled, chrome-plated .45, which he proceeded to slide under my folded-up jeans in the gym locker. He did it so smoothly and unselfconsciously, no one else in the bustling locker room even noticed.
I stared at him for an instant; then I stared at the pearl handle of the gun. At that point in my life, I had never held a real pistol, and I'd certainly never expected to see one tucked under my faded Levi's in the locker room of this overpriced East Side health club.
The changing room was crowded with nude sweaty white men, toweling off and pulling down their underpants, naked accountants and stockbrokers, scurrying in all directions, trying not to step in the nasty puddles that were always forming on the green-tiled floor. I looked at K again but didn't speak. I realized that to say the words that were in my mind--Why did you put a loaded .45 in my locker?--might trigger a potentially hazardous commotion in the health club, some frightful stampede of naked sweaty stockbrokers slipping and falling and racing for the locker room exit.
So I said nothing. I closed up the locker and clicked my combination lock shut.
"Let's go get that money," K said, and then he slapped me hard on the chest.
He Worked out with a large white towel dangling from his back pocket: it was a fashion I'd often seen West Indian tough guys affect. The right leg of his navy blue pants was hiked up to his knee and he wore a faded stretched tank top that said BALLY'S LAS VEGAS, exposing his long hard biceps and his cantaloupe-sized shoulders.
As we began to lift I noticed the dark shiny penny of a scar just above his right shoulder blade. He caught me staring at it. A love bite from that bitch named nine-milli, he explained, puffing, completing a repetition of preacher curls. When he set down the weights, he turned and lifted one side of his tank top to show me several more hideous circular and mushroom-shaped scars on his back and side and belly.
"How many times have you--"
He shrugged matter-of-factly. He said he had picked up lead four times. Seven gunshot wounds to his body, that is. Four separate occasions.
He suddenly lowered himself to the floor, saying he wanted to show me an exercise he called the C-74 push-up--C-74 being the adolescent jail facility on Rikers Island--that combined a regular push-up with a calisthenic jumping jack. A deceptively simple combination. I copied him, tried to keep pace. Soon I was doubled over on the dirty rubber floor, panting and trying not to throw up.
In between sets, K kept limber by shadowboxing, bobbing and weaving, rifling five or six left-hand jabs at himself in the mirror, ducking down savagely and exploding with a short left hook. His reflexes were astonishing; as big as he was, he moved with the speed and grace of a welterweight. And as he shadowboxed, everyone in the gym stopped to stare.
K, for his part, did not appreciate all the masculine attention.
"No offense," he said, panting for breath, still snapping crisp jabs, "but what's with all the Sodomite business up in this piece?"
"On the strength," he said. "You ain't notice? This place is crawlin' with fish."
I was sure that the pretty-boy bodybuilders--with their gelled hair and their Lycra workout shorts, posing and studying the horseshoe indentations of their triceps in the full-length mirrors--were no less thrilled by the presence of K, what with those gang-style braids and the way he kept calling me a punk bitch as he urged me to complete whatever repetition I was struggling to get off my chest. None of the conventional c'mon, buddy, that's all you! exhortations you generally get from a spotting partner in a gym. K kept hurling abuse at me as if we were a couple of drug dealers on the street. "Gimme my muthafuckin' money, bitch! Word, that's my money!"
He disappeared suddenly, saying that he had to find a pay phone to call Faith. I was gulping down water at the fountain when he came bounding back into the gym.
"We gotta break the fuck out!" he said. "We gotta be at the Circle Line in less than a hour! You know where the fuck that is?"
"West 42nd Street. West Side Highway. W-w-why? What's on the Circle Line?"
"Crazy Sam and them niggas from Video Music Box called lookin' for me. They havin' a cruise tonight and we supposed to be on it."
In the locker room, getting dressed after our showers, I asked him how he'd come to know Crazy Sam and the guys from Video Music Box--toweling my hair dry, all the while trying, without much success, to keep my eyes from drifting back to the dark healed-up bullet holes in his body.
He explained that the Video Music Box crew had been shooting a segment in Central Park the previous weekend. The segment featured the three young ladies called Imago or Indigo--he couldn't remember the precise name of the group. They were three young high-school-aged honeys, doing some dance steps for the cameras--and then, all of a sudden, a group of rowdy uptown guys started disrespecting the girls, coming too close, grabbing at them, and finally Crazy Sam had to tell them to cut that bullshit out.
K shrugged, carefully adjusting the drape of his baggy khaki pants. "So then this one nigga starts talkin' shit to Sam like he's some real badman and, boom, I just stepped to him and knocked him the fuck out. Pa-pow! Cracked that punk bitch in the cranium, put him to bed. Ever since then them Video Music Box niggas have been on the dick."
He smiled at himself in the mirror; I noticed that his teeth looked extremely white and well cared for. I watched as he took his Colt .45 from my locker and then furtively tucked it back in the waist of his pants.
From his gym bag he took two different deodorants, first a Ban roll-on, then a Right Guard aerosol spray. He had borrowed them from one of his babies' mothers, he said. I watched as he patted his chest and underarms with baby powder. For a guy who didn't have a regular place to sleep, I thought, he was pretty meticulous about the way he smelled.
We took a cab over to the West Side to meet the guys from Video Music Box. Video Music Box was the pioneering rap program in New York City, playing hip-hop videos years before the programmers at MTV had ever heard of Run-DMC or LL Cool J. It broadcast every weekday afternoon on UHF channel 31, and had an avid following in the hundreds of thousands, mostly in the poorer sections of the city where many buildings still weren't wired for cable.
Crazy Sam was one of the show's most popular and colorful personalities, with his wild matted-up head of hair and his gap-toothed smile; he was forever growling and jumping around as he hosted the weekly episode known as "Nervous Thursdays."
Within the hour we were standing beside Crazy Sam on board the Circle Line boat, slowly rocking back and forth in the Hudson River. K had hoped that there would be an open mike on the cruise, that he'd have a chance to drop some lyrics in the party; but he soon learned, much to his disappointment, that he was only there to provide muscle, to bodyguard some skantily clad dancing girls. According to the flyer I caught fluttering in the wind, the night was billed as a DOO DOO BROWN CRUISE FEATURING DA BRONX'S LEGENDARY LOVEBUG STARSKI ON DA WHEELS OF STEEL. Doo Doo Brown was the latest and lewdest hip-hop dance style out of Miami; I'd seen it a few times in videos: the women dancers bent-over and gyrating their backsides in a pantomine of doggy-style sex.
We had a private corner of the ship--Crazy Sam, K, the other security men, along with a group of six professional dancing girls wearing skintight catsuits and Lycra miniskirts. Crazy Sam was explaining to K and the other security men what their mission for the night would be: at the appointed hour, the dancers would strip down to their thong bikinis and begin to shake; the security men would have to form a human ring around them, to protect their bodies from the groping hands of male partyers.
By the time we pulled out of the West Side piers, the ship's main deck was packed; there was barely a place to stand comfortably on the makeshift open-air dance floor. Throughout the cruise, Crazy Sam and the Video Music Box camera crew would set up their bright lights and microphones in various parts of the deck, and there was good-natured shrieking and jostling as people tried to get on camera and make their dedications heard over the sound of the music.
"Shoutout to all my peeps in Edenwald, Gun Hill Road, Baychester Ave--the whole of the Boogie Down!"
"One love to my man J.B. on Rikers--hold it down, God!"
"Yo, Marcy Projects in full effect! Brooklynnn! Represent, represent!"
Everyone shifted suddenly to the leeward side of the ship. At first I was afraid that someone had gone overboard, but then I realized they were just trying to get a good look at the Statue of Liberty as we passed. I stayed on the other side of the boat, leaning against the railing, mesmerized by one of the Doo Doo Brown dancers. She wore a shimmering white bodysuit with wide black stripes curving demonically over the sweep of her hips and thighs. She was doing the Jamaican dance known as The Butterfly and as she danced her black-and-white-striped body began to look like an optical illusion.
A little later in the cruise, when Lady Liberty was no longer in view, I found myself talking to the optical illusion. Her name was Robin. She smiled at me a lot with her large white teeth. Her lips were full and painted a glossy red. Her false fingernails were about four inches long and also painted a glossy red.
She asked me if I was a hip-hop junkie. I told her I'd never thought of myself as a hip-hop junkie. She said I would have to be a hip-hop junkie to be on a cruise like this. She asked me if I'd noticed that the only other white people on board were the ship's crew, and they'd now disappeared to some cabin with the door safely bolted shut.
I gave a tentative nod. Then Robin asked me if I'd seen her dancing in that Wreckxs-n-Effect video. Of course, I said. (As if even an ass connoisseur could distinguish one close-up shot of bouncing buttocks from the next.) A lot of people recognized her from the Wreckxs-n-Effect video, she said. But she was now more of a choreographer. In September she was going to go back to school to study dance and choreography full-time.
Robin was bored. She said she was only doing this cruise for the money. She clapped one time and began to rap along to the Nice & Smooth song blaring from the overhead speakers:
I left my Philly at home
Do you have another?
We were somewhere in the middle of the Hudson River when K landed the punch. It happened so quickly that at first I thought I hadn't seen what I'd seen. Like catching a glimpse of the stuttered movements of a dancer through the flashes of a strobe light.
The ruckus began with some big-time drug dealers from Harlem. K had pointed them out to me earlier in the cruise. K knew them--and they knew K--from his own days in the drug game. But since K was no longer wearing the type of heavy gold jewelry or designer clothes they sported, the uptown dealers weren't showing him much respect. Actually, they weren't showing anyone much respect. They staggered drunkenly around the boat, swigging from their bottles of champagne, loudly slapping the asses of women they didn't know.
I could overhear snippets of the argument as it began. Apparently the posse of uptown dealers felt Lovebug Starski wasn't showing their crew adequate respect. Why weren't they receiving more shoutouts from his microphone?
They made a mad rush for the DJ's table, trying to wrest the mike from Starski, but K and Crazy Sam and the rest of the security team cut them off and got into a jawing match with them. The argument grew louder and louder. I was standing about five feet away when one of the uptown badboys, a pissy-drunk hustler called Trigga Trig, reached into his waistband to pull out his pistol.
But before Trigga Trig could even raise the gun, K sprang forward and landed a lightning left hook, followed, instantly, by a right cross that left Trigga Trig sprawled and dazed at the boat's railing.
By the time Trigga Trig got to his feet, Crazy Sam had drawn his own Glock 9-mm with its thirty-two-round banana clip from his baggy pants (pants so wondrously baggy, I later reflected, it would not have been all that surprising to see him standing on the bow of the boat brandishing a bazooka). Sam didn't need to level his Glock at anyone; he simply held it in his hands as a peacemaker. And it kept the peace until the boat was safely docked back at the West Side pier.
Once we got to the parking lot, the beef with Trigga Trig erupted again. Someone was toting a sawed-off shotgun. K had his .45 ready in his right hand. They began to follow Trigga Trig to the dark end of the Circle Line parking lot. K told me to wait for him in the van but, with more Heineken than good sense in my system, I couldn't wait: I got out and followed him into the dark end of the parking lot. As I approached I could hear Trigga Trig spitting out his drunk bravado: "Shoot me, muhfucka! G'head an' shoot me if you gon' shoot me!"
K was furious when he saw me standing in the darkness behind him. "Muthafucka, I told you wait in the fuckin' van! Shit gettin' ready to pop off!"
* * *
I sat in the dark of the van with the dancing girls. No one was speaking. One of the dancers was snapping her gum in a way that reminded me, vaguely and for some unknown reason, of my mother. I looked at the dancer named Robin. She was no longer an optical illusion. She was half asleep with her head on another girl's shoulder. All the girls looked bored and tired and ready to go home. It was quiet enough that I could hear the ticking of my glow-in-the-dark Swatch. There was no sound of gunfire.
After a few minutes, K and Crazy Sam and the rest of the security guys returned. Laughing at some private joke, they piled into the van and we squealed out of the parking lot. K shoved himself heavily down next to me. I whispered in his ear: "What happened?"
"We squashed that shit," he said loudly.
"Why even distress the nigga? Trig was too fuckin' drunk for his own good."
With the loud crackle of gravel under rubber, the driver swung a hard uptown turn onto the West Side Highway. Everyone was laughing again, the dancing girls, the security guys; Crazy Sam was telling some funny story I could only half hear over the blaring stereo.
I caught a glimpse of my ghostly reflection in the van's side window: I expected to see something different, someone different--shouldn't a person be instantaneously changed by such proximity to casual gunplay? But nothing looked or felt any different; the green-glowing second hand of my watch was still clicking off notches at its usual pace; K was still smiling beatifically beside me in the shifting shadows.
I heard a sound I hadn't expected to hear: my own laughter. Yes, that was me laughing along with Crazy Sam's story ... and now it was so easy to forget that there'd nearly been a wild shootout on the cruise, that these large men around me had nearly turned the West Side piers into the O.K. Corral. We were just an ordinary vanful of people pressed together tightly in the darkness, laughing at some half-assed joke, rumbling home from a party on a steamy summer night.
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