Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Deacon's Blues

In addition to being a part of the "Marriage Enrichment Ministry" (MEM) with my wife at church (you've seen a few of the date night posts where all of our married couples went out to dinner, bowling, movies, etc.), I also took part in the "Mighty Men's Ministry" (MMM) for a brief period. Essentially, this group was a think tank where brothers of all ages met to talk about issues that effect men. I know that the women reading this are laughing because you all know that it's close to impossible to get men to discuss anything with passion outside of sex and sports, right? The discussions we had spanned generations and while sex was part of the discussions, it wasn't what you might normally think. We discussed fatherhood, responsibility, community issues, marriage, relationships, and a number of other things.

I'm sorry to say that it has been a while since I've been to one of the meetings but, it was during the time when I was there that I saw the man I am going to write about today. I suppose he is living proof of how God can change lives. I thought of him today because I was driving past a particular trolley route that he and I made "famous" years ago. He had put on weight and had grown a beard but, I recognized him as soon as I saw him. He was a deacon in the church now, married, and had a little boy (about 3 years old) that he was playing with. This guy and I had history...

A long time ago, I went to a junior high school that everybody in the neighborhood nicknamed "The Gladiator School"... William Shoemaker Jr. High. It's a middle school now but, it was notorious because it sat in the middle of three warring gang turfs. You had the Hoopes Street gang on the side nearest to 52nd Street... the Boot Hill Gang (later known as the "Hilltop Hustlers" in the surrounding area) and the Moon Gang, which had been around when my mother was a little girl. This gang was bigger and more organized than the other two gangs combined. Although I was never in any gang, I lived on "real estate" that had just been claimed by the Moon Gang, much to the detriment of the "Hilltop Hustlers". My brother and I had to walk to school through these two foreign turfs and then had to finesse our way back home everyday. If we were lucky, we only got shook down for some cash. Other guys weren't so lucky,they got beat up, got articles of clothing jacked.

Despite the beard, I knew who the deacon was or rather, who he used to be. After one of the MMM sessions was over, I walked over to him and said, "Ronnie, is that you?" He turned, looked at me, squinted his eyes, and it appeared that he didn't know who I was. So, I said to him, "You don't remember me? We used to go to Shoemaker. You used to take my lunch money." Ronnie replied, "Man, I used to take a lot of people's money." He laughed and then, he stretched his hand out to shake mine. I shook his hand and then asked him again... "You still don't remember me, do you? I was one who didn't give you my money." He looked at me again and in his mind, I guess he imagined me thinner and without the moustache. Then, it hit him... "Oh my God! Keith! Keith! Man I heard you were dead!" he said and we embraced. I said... "Nah, that was the other Keith. I'm very much alive." There were at least two other "Keiths" in our neighborhood at any given time.

Ronnie was a fringe member of the "Hilltop Hustlers". Well, actually, he just hung with them. He really wasn't in the gang but, he terrorized those of us (like myself) who didn't have any gang affiliations (as if he did) or no one to have our backs. He would "ask" guys for their lunch money and if they didn't give it up, he made them jump up and down to see if he could hear change jiggling. If he caught you in a lie about having money, there was hell to pay. One day, I made him pay his fare to hell.

It was a Friday. I had saved my lunch money all week and I was going to treat myself to something after school. I didn't feel like giving up my cash on this day so, when school let out, I tried to slip down the avenue as quick as possible but, here came Ronnie and his cousin. I was with another boy named Greg and I told him, "When they get up close, let's run in two different directions because they can't catch us both." Well, that's just what we did... we broke out. Unfortunately for me, both guys ran after me and forgot about Greg.

Boys didn't wear their pants saggin' back then and were in much better shape than they are today. So, when something went down, we were prepared to "get in the wind." Back then, you always saw somebody running... either from the cops or gangs. It was better than watching track and field in the Olympics. You could look out your window on any given day and see somebody running. It's the Philly way!

Anyway, Ronnie picked up a brick and sailed it right past my head. I threw a bottle at him and it just missed him. This nonsense went on for a few minutes and then I just decided to run it out! Mind you, not one cop showed up the entire time our little guerilla warfare was going on! I had a two-parked-cars lead on both of them and I was very agile and adept at weaving in and out of parked cars. These two yokels were no match for my speed and I easily out ran both of them and hopped on the trolley. I looked out the back window and waved at them as the trolley pulled off down the street. But, guess what? These two fools kept coming. I couldn't believe it! My laughter quickly turned to panic when the trolley stopped!!! A delivery truck was blocking the trolley.

I ran to the door and just as Ronnie's cousin came up the trolley steps, I kicked him right in his stomach and darted off the trolley. So, I was out in the street... running again. We continued to play our game of bottles and bricks... kids were ducking for cover and we continued running and throwing whatever we could pick up and hurl at each other. Not one adult intervened either. These people were so used to seeing worse things on that avenue that this little brouhaha was nothing to them. Social novocaine at its beginnings, I guess.

After I got down the street, I realized that Ronnie was still coming. He was mad (as well as out of breath and out of bricks.) I reached into a nearby trash can and pulled out an empty bottle of Old English and cracked it against the wall. Then, I turned around, so they could see the jagged edge of the bottle, and headed toward Ronnie and his cousin. I really didn't want to give up my cash that day and Ronnie and his cousin got the message real quick. They turned and ran. I stood there, sweaty, heart racing, and scared myself. I don't know what I would have done if I had caught them because I was really bluffing with the bottle... but, neither one of them wanted to find out if I was or wasn't for real. Sometimes a good bluff works. This was one of those times.

Neither Ronnie nor his cousin ever bothered me again and after I left that school, I only saw them occasionally on the street as adults. Ronnie's cousin got shot to death in 1986 trying to hold up a liquor store. I never knew what happened to Ronnie until I saw him at church. It was hard to believe that this gentle man, who was playing with his son, was once the neighborhood terror. God really does change lives. I told Ronnie that I had gone to college, joined the military, was married myself with a family, and had just recently moved my membership to this church. He told me that he had been in prison a little while and after he got out, he turned his life around... he got married and found God.

It was funny... I walked away thinking of how we almost killed each other that day, just because we lived in different neighborhoods and adhered to some silly code of the streets. We could have been friends all this time but, such was the insanity of growing up male of any race in Philadelphia at the time. It's even worse now... people who might have been friends really do kill each other nowadays so, I guess we were lucky, depending on how you look at it. As I was driving along that trolley route, I had to laugh... thinking of that early spring day when two young men turned that route into a war zone.


Solomon said...

I was thinking it before you said it at the end of the story. These days the kids just pull out a gun and give the other one a couple hot ones, a love letter.

I know it was tough growing up during my time, but I can't even imagine what ot would be like getting by as a kid today.

Political Sean said...

You have adequately and accurately described what it was like being a
Black male in Philadelphia in any time period.

James Perkins said...

We are about the same age..Only I grew up in North Philly...I definitely remember how it was..You
captured it perfectly Keith.

Simon Bastion said...

Kingston,Jamaica was equally wild with it's many gangs when I was a
child..I perfectly understand.

Grover Tha Playboy said...

Me, I was more a lover than a fighter myself..but I know it was rough back in the day.

Jazzy said...

Streets are worse now than they were then...You're right about that. Kids pull out guns now and shoot..You don't get a chance to run or live.

Swaggie said...

Been through it bruh...and you're right, it is worse today than then.
Too much gunplay.

Tate2 said...

Great Post....Cats are too quick to go for a gun now of days..but I feel you..we kill each other over so much bullshit..It's crazy!

Angie B. said...

I feared for my younger brother the entire time he went to Gratz, because of just such incidents..
People trying to steal his cell phone and his IPOD.

Toni said...

Philly has always been a tough town. A scary town too at times.Good Post Keith.

Sunflower said...

I'm glad to see that both you and your former adversary survived your childhood and are leading fruitful lives..

Vanessa said...

My cousin lost his life a few years back when he was in middle school. He was killed over some sneakers and a cell phone. This story brought those memories back to me. We've got to do better as a

Halo said...

I'm a girl and I got stuck up on the El several years ago. It has been crazy out there in the streets.

Lisa said...

This was at times funny, yet poignant post Keith..It is nice that you and the Deacon can look back on this and laugh..There are many others who can't laugh about these experiences.

Captain Jack said...

Such Violence! It makes me glad that I didn't grow up in inner city Philadelphia. I have been a victim of homo-phobic violence in
parts of Philadelphia and New York.
Violence for whatever reason is senseless.

Anonymous said...

These events are the results of loose morals, the breakdown of the family structure and liberal Democratic leadership. Had John McCain been President back then..None of this would have happened.

Political Sean said...

@anonymous- hey man, get a life okay...and stop coming to blogs stalking and leaving stupid comments.

James Perkins said...

@anonymous- Yeah, John Mccain and Rush Limbaugh save the world right? You idiot.

Rich Fitzgerald said...

Anonymous is obviously Caucasian, because they just live in a different world. -- Moving right along -- Good post. Love the story feel of it.

Luckily, I didn't have to endure that type of childhood, but I can still relate to it on some level because it existed in other areas of my city (Jacksonville, FL).

Kofi Bofah said...

Social Novocaine.

Yes, people reach for guns, these days.


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