The morning sun has not yet warmed the sidewalk outside the Navy Yard Starbucks, but the ECC members are preparing for a bike ride through the Anacostia watershed. A few reach for cigarettes but are reminded they can’t smoke on the job, even if they’re cold. Gemini just stomps her feet to stay warm and Kevin laughs at his friend’s jokes as the tour guide cautions us to pedal in a single-file line.
Soon enough, we’re cutting wide, swooping paths through southeast D.C. Kevin and his friends pop wheelies. One hangs back, lights a cigarette, and passes it around. Gemini keeps both hands on the handlebars and her eyes on the street.
“I feel like I’m standing still,” she’s told me. “When you stand still so long, you forget which direction you were supposed to be going.” She’s landed a good internship, but the list of goals remains long and how she’ll achieve them unclear. “One day at a time, step by step,” she seems to chant, as the guys around us bring their bikes to a screeching halt. We’ve reached Stop No. 3.
While the guide describes a home’s “river-smart” features, an ECC member photographs everything but the rain barrels and cisterns. He shows me pictures from the group’s recent hike up Old Rag Mountain: Gemini, flashing the now constant smile; three guys, perched on a slab of rock; a shot of the forest far below. “You could see the clouds’ shadows on the trees. I’d never been that high up,” he says. His eyes get that faraway look that comes with recalling a great moment.
The tour guide’s words crash into his memory. Someone’s shredded a tire and our guide doesn’t have any more patches. No more wheelies, and he means it.
Fifteen minutes later and a half mile over the bridge into Anacostia, the guys are popping wheelies, the sun is shining, and cars keep out of our way. Pedaling as fast as they can, these corps members seem transported back to the happier, more innocent age of 8 or, if they were lucky, 13. The bikes have to be returned at the end of the day, but no one looks that far ahead.
A week later, I’m sitting by the river with an ECC member who’s grown up deeper into Anacostia than we ventured on bikes. Eighteen-year-old Pisces (his name changed to protect his identity) and I first talked weeks before when he was working on a blog and dating Little D. Soon after, he got arrested. Now he’s back at the ECC, living in a halfway house and seeing Little D as often as he can.
Dreads hanging in his face, Pisces’ eyes aren’t easy to read, but it’s clear he doesn’t want to talk without her around. Luckily, she’s stopped by the ECC to research some schools. He leaves me to go find her. Minutes later, he returns with a smile on his face, and Little D. “Only if I can keep texting my friends,” she says as he leads her to the bench. He leans into her, takes hold of the arm she drapes over his shoulder, and begins to talk.
“I gave them all my juvenile years,” he says of the time he’s spent in correctional facilities. “From 10 until now. I had a lot of charges.”
“Not dealing charges. You won’t ever catch me dealing.”
I look from his half-hidden face to Little D’s. She’s smiling at something on her cell-phone screen. “Theft charges?” I ask.
“That’s what they call it, but I wouldn’t. I get in an altercation with a person and some of his stuff goes missing. They say I stole it, and I can’t really say I didn’t, ’cause we were fighting.”
“Do you two fight?” I look from him to Little D and back.
“I’m stubborn, but when it comes down to her I’m like a little kid. For real. We were arguing today and I was begging.” He turns to her. “Am I lying?”
“Who’s the better negotiator?” I ask.
“Me,” they answer in unison.
Pisces doesn’t negotiate with many people. From the sound of things, he never had the luxury of time and role models to learn how. Though he has siblings and a grandmother in D.C., his mother’s locked up and he never knew his father.
“I raised myself from when I was 9 and my sister got jumped. I ran smack in there … with a miniature baseball bat. I wasn’t playing, ‘cause they [the two girls beating up his sister] weren’t.” Pisces held them off. All three girls got locked up. Pisces didn’t. “All they [the cops] saw is a young brother with a bat protecting his sister. They didn’t know I hit the girl in the head. But what was hitting her in the legs going to do? It wouldn’t have gotten her off my sister … After that, I got her a gun.”
Pisces’ words don’t elicit any reaction from Little D, who’s still texting friends. He runs my business card up and down her arm. When the card presses hard enough on her skin to make white lines, she swats away his hand.
Pisces has already obtained his GED and has scholarship dollars, but getting to college may be hard. Something has dried up his desire to write, and every block between his bus stop and the halfway house in which he’s living is filled with people stuck in a world he’s got a chance to leave. It’s not just the temptation to fall back into drugs or a fear of breaking out that threatens a young man like Pisces. The debts owed and the wrongs waiting to be avenged can endanger him far more.
“I don’t got no problem jumping over the edge [if someone messes with him]. I ain’t going to let nobody make me no bitch.” Minutes later, he adds, “And I ain’t going to quit the ECC for nobody.”
Kevin bursts onto the deck, smiling and as seemingly open as Pisces is guarded. This, I think, is the difference between 24 hours of lockup and eight years in and out of facilities. Still, everyone’s got some guard up. Kevin waits for Pisces and Little D to leave, as they quickly do, before talking.
“I’m just taking things one day at a time, working on my GED. But this probation’s getting tired. I’ve been on for, like, three months. I’ve got at least seven more.” In these months of probation, Kevin has to undergo weekly drug testing. Staying off drugs is often harder than staying out of violent acts. I ask what’s making his probation hard. He just shrugs, tells me again how tired it’s getting, and changes the subject to Pakistan.
On the same day Kevin and I went wheelie-popping with the others, the Islamabad Marriott, where I had stayed two weeks before, was bombed. Kevin was beside me when a friend texted the news. He swore I was blessed and told his friend about the craziness of blowing up a hotel. Now he wants more details of the country to which research for a novel had led me.
“So, basically, you were over there risking your life? You weren’t afraid?” he asks.
On the other side of this river lie neighborhoods where I’d probably have more to worry about than I did in Karachi, and where Pisces’ sister and many more have gotten jumped. Between us and the Navy Yard metro stop lies the neighborhood in which Bill was gunned down in broad daylight almost 12 months ago. Now it’s my turn to shrug. “The things that would scare me here were the things I was looking out for there. But those were never the scary moments.” Even after the hotel bombing, I try to explain, I’m not sure when, or if, I’d ever needed to be scared.
“I’ve heard there’s 10- and 11-year-old boys over there who know how to shoot AK-47s,” he says.
“There’re boys in neighborhoods here who can figure out the same, aren’t there?”
“Mm-hmm. People have been through too much. I can’t say it’s just that—everyone’s been through too much—but there are certain things people just can’t talk about. Some people are naturally evil. Some people aren’t.”
We’re no longer talking about Pakistan. We’ve jumped over 5,000 miles back to southeast D.C. and the people he sees every day. “You think they can be turned?”
“By them changing their lives, yeah.” He looks over the water, about to say more about this question of natural evil, and a passing crew team catches his eye. The captain urges them along with a bullhorn and strong words, but it does no good. This team can’t synchronize their strokes any better than I can hold Kevin to this topic.
“We did that one day,” he tells me. “I was so tired that I thought my canoe would fall over. It’s hard, but once you get the hang of it you can do it fast.” He yawns, as if the memory of fatigue has tired him all over again, and changes the subject.
Later, Little D, Gemini, and I are back outside the Navy Yard Starbucks. Away from Gemini’s ECC work and Little D’s ECC boyfriend, they can focus on the big questions, like whose coffee-cake slice is larger and who has the most sugar on top. Little D reads the horoscopes aloud while Gemini studies the people hurrying by.
“You see how all these people are walking from work in their little suits and ties?” Gemini asks. “I know they’re tired, but they’re happy. They’re thinking, like, ‘Damn, I’m tired, but I just got paid good money and now I can go home and relax my feet, smoke some weed’ … They’re all talking on their iPhones and … What the hell is our excuse, D?”
Little D has no answer.
“Exactly,” Gemini says.
“Getting ahead’s about staying in school, saving, and taking good steps.” I hate the cheerleader tone in my voice. “Know what I mean?”
“Easier said than done,” Little D replies. She hates my tone, too.
“I need to begin taking some steps,” Gemini says.
“I need a cigarette,” says Little D, and cracks up at her own joke.
Suddenly, they realize their bus has arrived and they bolt to reach it before the door closes. The wait between buses can be long in the Navy Yard. Gemini’s children are waiting for dinner.
Little D and Gemini search for the perfect seat in a half-empty bus. With a rumbling of its engine, the bus pulls away from the curb and picks up speed. Even as it lurches forward, they keep their balance. They’re still standing, Frappuccinos, purses, and bags filling their arms. They will not be rushed in selecting the perfect place to sit. Nor will they be thrown off balance by anything as small as a bus.