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High school, freshman year, late 80s
I could hardly believe it, so I went over it again and again in my mind:
Week One: Permission granted to meet some of the fellas.
Week Two: The distinct honor of being seen with the crew in public.
Week Three: My first Crip party!
Week Four: Juan reported that things were looking good. They had been talking about me all month, debating how things would play out. A couple even placed a wager on if I would get in or not. The biggest thing going for me, Juan said, was their curiosity: Could a white girl really get down?
A burning pride swirled through my body. Over the past month I'd gone from a kinda cool, hip-hop loving teenager to a girl on her way to chillin' with the notorious Crips. The mere thought of being affiliated with them put a smile on my face, which Juan would immediately want to slap off; I had to look hard. I considered Juan an expert on coolness: He was the only Latino in the Rollin' 30s; mad chicks dug him; plus he was brilliant. Don't fuck things up became my silent mantra.
After an endless day of lectures the bell rang and the hallways swirled with student chitchat. Juan and I were finally free. The sun shone brilliantly and the reflection bounced off the sidewalk, causing me to squint.
"So what we gettin' into today, Juan?" I asked, hoping he'd say something adventurous. We started walking our usual route up Jackson Street. The urban neighborhood was alive with kids on every corner hanging out, just getting home from school. There was a mix of small Victorian houses, apartments, and the brick projects, or the "pj's" as everyone called them. Three o'clock became the time of the great divide: bused-in whites went home, blacks and Mexicans remained.
We turned the corner and ran into an older black man walking a dog. He was light-skinned, and a jagged scar danced around his chinline, cutting across his handsome face. A blue rag hung from his back pocket.
"What up, cuzz?" he said to Juan. They exchanged some kind of handshake, followed by three pounds and hitting their knuckles together. I watched, and committed it to memory.
"This is my homegirl Amber. Amber, this is T-Dog," Juan said. T-Dog acknowledged me with a slight nod.
"When you coming through, Juan? It's been a minute," T-Dog said.
"Maybe we'll come through this weekend, if that's cool," Juan said. T-Dog eyed my white skin and long sandy-brown hair before he spoke. Until now, his dog paid me no mind, but he turned to me as if on cue, sniffing my legs. I was too scared to push him away I didn't want to offend T-Dog, or get bitten.
"If you sure about that, come on," T-Dog said. "I gotta get back to the rest of my pups. Stay up, cuzz." He gave Juan a pound and nodded at me. "C'mon, sugar," he commanded, pulling the leash. Relief washed over my body.
"That right there is an O.G., but not just any O.G.," Juan told me as we resumed walking. "He's from Chicago and down here he runs the Rollin' 30s Crips."
"O.G.?" I looked at Juan.
"Original gangsta." He nodded with pride.
"He's the leader of the Crips?" I asked, surprised.
"Why you say it like that for?" Juan frowned and quickened his pace. Falling slightly behind, I spotted my favorite tattoo just below his jet-black hair. It was an intricate Japanese dragon that swirled around from the back of his neck to the side. Its mouth shot out bright orange fire, and in the middle of the flames it read "30s 4 vida," 30s for life. He got tatted up in celebration of his initiation. As always, Juan carried his large black backpack for his piece book and art supplies.
"He looks so regular. He doesn't even look mean." Trying to keep up.
"What's wrong with you white girls?" Juan said, shaking his head. "You're so ditzy sometimes. Tell me, what do gang leaders look like?"
Juan gave me the silent treatment; I felt like a fool. When my punishment was up, he put me on to the whole Denver Crip scene: the Rollin' 60s and the younger generation of Crips, the Rollin' 30s. Death and prison had left only a handful of O.G.s on the streets of the city.
Tyrone, aka T-Dog, was running things in Denver. Juan said he was known for his business savvy and skills in negotiating gang territory. T-Dog was cool, a laid-back type. He knew the game well, but didn't have an ego, just a staunch code of ethics. He learned early in life that an inflated ego can get you killed; his older brother's bravado ended with a fatal bullet to the chest. So while others were quick to fight or bark on someone, T-Dog picked his battles wisely. The only thing that got his temper flaring was disrespect. Then his fury would unleash and someone was bound to get hurt.
Juan and I ended up sitting in the park for a while before I headed home. He gave me a pound before we parted.
"So," he started, "are you gonna come with me to "
"Of course," I said. "I'm there."
My family had dinner together every night; one-sided conversations, my mom asking about school or telling us family news. Occasionally, it was stuff that I really wanted to hear, but most of the time it was just random, useless information. "Well, your aunt Annie is just so upset about the continuous noise from the neighbors that she told Shirley from church she may have to move out of that house." Did Mom really think we cared?
We were sitting in our sunlit kitchen waiting to eat one of my mom's specialties, hamburger pie with green beans on the side. I watched as she cooked. She was as beautiful now as she was in our family albums, looking fly with her 60s-style platinum beehive hair and supershort miniskirts. As a little girl I thought she looked like a movie star. Now brown hair replaced the platinum.
I took off my mom's ID tag from her blouse. She worked in the cookware department at Sears.
"Amber, grab me some water while you're up." My older brother TJ's eyes were red and puffy, somewhat hidden under the long brown hair hanging in his face. He probably had cotton mouth, I thought. I shot him a quick look with attitude.
"Please?" TJ asked. He gave me a half smile.
I decided to be nice. How could my mom not know he was high all the time? Maybe she just didn't want to know. She was already struggling to pay the mortgage and raise us by herself. My father walked out years ago. We saw him when it was convenient for him, but he never seemed to have any money to spare. Mom was on her own in that department.
"Okay, sit down. It's time for dinner," my mom said, and we prayed.
My stomach was tingling, hot and uneasy.
"Amber, why aren't you eating?" Mom asked with a pleasant smile. "I made your favorite."
My mind flashed to the new crew I was hanging out with, which I knew Mom wouldn't approve of. Here I was so safe. Everything in this house was so...regular.
"I'm just not hungry, Mom."
I watched my mom and brother as the conversation buzzed in my ears. I knew I loved them, and believed they loved me too. But would they still love me if they knew who I really was? If everything went according to my plan and I rocked a blue rag?
I wished I could talk to my best friend Carmen about this, but would she understand?
Nobody knows who I really am, I thought. Sometimes not even me.
Two weeks later, I was finally going to T-Dog's crib. I went through five different outfits and several lies to make it out of the house.
"Amber." My mom grabbed me before I could hit the door. "Please use your head tonight." She hugged me tight and reminded me to be home by midnight. It seemed like she could tell when I was lying to her.
"Relax, Amber." Juan gave me last-minute instructions as we headed to Five Points, the black section in Denver. "Be cool. And try not to talk too much." Twenty minutes later we were at our stop. Juan led the way up to the middle of the block. We approached the side of a small white house in serious need of a paint job. The yard was mostly dirt, with patches of grass struggling to grow. I was both nervous and excited, but no matter what, I knew that Juan wouldn't let anything happen to me.
Juan led me downstairs and I clung to his arm as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. The room was packed, the stereo was pumpin' LL Cool J's tape, "Rock the Bells." Usually that song got me hyped, but as Juan and I sat on the small itchy couch I obsessed over my skirt. Everyone was in jeans or dickies and I felt overdressed.
I wondered who all the people were and, as if he knew what I was thinking, Juan whispered in my ear, "Just chill, let them get used to you. They all down with the Rollin' 30s." I nodded.
I drank a forty by myself and stuck to Juan's side. T-Dog came and kicked it with us for a while, I guess he was feeling me out, making sure I was straight. When we left hours later I relaxed; I could finally let my guard down.
But as the weeks went on, the more I kicked it with the Crips, the more I was able to slowly allow part of myself to come out. My first couple of encounters with them were crazy. We'd all get drunk and high and they'd make me do the Crip walk, or flash Crip signs I had just learned.
"Yo, Amber, you just threw up a Westside sign, that ain't our hood you lost or somethin'?"
Most of them were having a blast making fun of me. But I couldn't escape the look on a couple of Crips' faces who didn't find anything funny.
"You sure she ain't no cop?" Ray-Ray asked Juan once.
"Nigga, please. I don't chill with no narcs. Get outta here with that shit!" Juan snapped.
"I don't trust that bitch, cuzz," he continued. "Does she really think she can get down wit' us?"
A lot of pressure fell on Juan, whose assurances allowed me to stay. But by no means was my trial period up.
Copyright © 2007 by Jennifer Calderon