I’m a block away from hell, not enough shots away from stray shells
An ounce away from a triple beam, still using a hand-held weight scale
You’re laughing? You know the place well.
— Jay Z, “Where I’m From.” In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. 1997.
Footage is grainy, nocturnal hues: the black-white-green tones of a nighttime urban warfare scene. The camera’s POV is high angle, shaky; it dips and rises over a windowsill— it peeks—at men outside of a housing project, strolling with guns, blasting into the sky. A man’s voice speaks:
“December 31st, 1997. New Year’s, Cabrini Green. At Chicago’s most notorious public housing project, this is how gangbangers ring in the New Year.”
It is the narrator’s grave voice we’ve all heard. Stentorian. The rumbling basso which speculates upon newfound signs of the apocalypse; Communists lurking; the kind of voice that issues thou shalt nots and warns of kids gone mad after smoking the reefer cigarettes, speaks of the details of terrorist plots and prophesies impending global devastation.
The camera zooms wildly in and out, zeroing in on pavement, a garbage dumpster, a streetlamp-lit graffiti mural, before wheeling into focus on the people firing the gats. Some of them backpedal as they fire, some of them advance. Some of them are kids, holding big-boy guns in failed state poses. For now, they are just firing into the sky.
But you could be next, the grave voice implies, because:
“The projects are being torn down. Which means that many of the residents of the deadly Chicago housing projects… are moving out to the suburbs.”
KICK YOUR HAT STRAIGHT
Que says with a gangster lean—one hand on the steering wheel of a 1984 Chevy Celebrity, tattoo of a pitchfork peeking out from beneath his sleeve, diamond stud earring glistening in the mid-winter sun. We’re stopped at a red light on the West Side of Chicago, 1997, on our way to the Rockwell Gardens housing projects to pick up a bag of weed. He looks over to me, and past me, too, over to the car full of grim-faced black dudes in the Malibu next to us, hubcap spinners doing their thing: chrome pinwheel action. Cold eyes drill us.
Que means for me to straighten my hat from its ever-so-slight rightward orientation to decrease the chances of an altercation with the dudes in the Malibu. A starboard tilt signifies allegiance to the Folks, a family of gangs beneath the six-point star, which includes the Gangster Disciples (which Que is) the Black Disciples, the Cobras, the Latin Disciples, and, if you really wanted to find out where the West Coast stood on the matter, the Crips. The West Side neighborhoods we’re passing through are mostly aligned with the People Nation, the five, an opposing umbrella of gangs comprised of the Vice Lords, Black P Stones, Latin Kings, and at one time, the El Rukns, before they were absorbed by said Black P Stones. Eventually, due to the global obsession with the Blood/Crip dyad owing to the Menace II Society and Boyz ‘n the Hood Hollywood treatment, it was determined in gangland that, theoretically, a Black P Stone hanging out on a corner on 63rd and Cottage Grove in Chicago could claim loose brotherhood with a Blood pulling a drive-by on Grape Street in L.A., though if they ever actually met, they’d likely sort of just look at each other distrustfully, or possibly raise their chins a little and say “sup.”
In writing this, it was necessary for me to research this treed taxonomy of gangland relations in the interest of fact-checking only; to make sure I could still accurately summon the details of this gang genealogy from a time long-ago, when I knew it by heart—when we all knew it, we students of ghettology, we Chicago thugs and wannabes alike—though perhaps shakily and with pauses: Chicago gangland’s version of the recitation of state capitals.
In high school, I finally came upon a small crowd of black people, comprised of a hierarchy topped by the most feared: recent transplants from the housing projects of Chicago, which were being stalked by roving wrecking balls. You could either hang with the “preppy crowd,” which was defined by what it was not: kids who bucked authority and didn’t give a shit. The “cool kids,” mostly destined for failure—my people. We were a group of kids who aligned ourselves with the then fairly new gangster rap style. The suburban blacks and Hispanics had very little in common with our city cousins—the city kids talked knowingly of the worst divisions of Cook County Jail, which block was controlled by which gang in the Wild Wild hundreds on the South Side, and recounted shootings they’d witnessed. The suburban kids had only a few tales of legendary fistfights to offer.
The only real thing that tied us all together was music and drugs. We all listened to rap and smoked weed. Every day after school we’d smoke a joint or a blunt on our walk home, a group of brown kids cutting across suburban lawns—huddling behind dumpsters out back of grocery stores—peering at each other through clouds of weed smoke—filing zombie-like alongside train tracks to our final destinations.
Weed was just the first drug we encountered. It is often said that marijuana is a gateway drug, but the implication that marijuana will propel a smoker into banging rocks and shooting H is absurd—weed is a gateway drug for those who are of the nature to be interested in not only the gate, but what lies on the path beyond it, as well.
There were two main types of weed in our Chicago suburb, with little in between: 1. Brick weed, schwag, shit weed—brown and brittle with nearly no scent, a low THC content and a lot of shake with too many seeds at the bottom of the bag, and 2. Dank, or “hydro,” as many of us called it. Whether or not the “hydro” had actually been grown hydroponically mattered to no one save for a few weed connoisseurs. The “dro” came from Dre, owing to the influence of The Chronic and similar West Coast purveyors of rap terminology which spoke to our generation of all that was the bomb ass shit.
Dro was the weed that made its way up out of the basements of people with Metal Halide and High Pressure Sodium light set-ups, green-thumbed with love, bags of sticky fluorescent skunk-beauty that crystallized the sides of the sandwich bag or film canister it was served in; rendered you nearly-incapacitated; shit passed the pasta test, stuck to the wall, you understand. It was people with lots of time, some money, and an obsessive-though-narrow interest in botany who infused dro into the Chicagoland weed network, leading to a kind of cannabis-based racial discrimination: it was generally held that the weed with the highest THC content came from white people, the lower THC content from the minorities (African Americans and Hispanics), which was generally true, like it or not. The weed connoisseur types within the Not Give a Fuck Faction of my high school generally formed their opinions regarding a particular individual’s level of marijuana-consumption cultivation based on whether they smoked blunts and joints, or one hitters and bongs, as it is widely known that rolling two grams of premium grade marijuana into the emptied-out skin of a cigar, burning half of it away amid catatonic pauses as it is passed around a circle, and ending up with a mostly-useless sticky roach in-hand is a serious fucking waste of bud. The city kids, having caught word of the derision with which their blunt-smoking was held, doubled down on their anti-bong and bowl stance, instead embracing the perceived “waste of weed” designation of their methodology as a natural continuation of the boastful excesses of Hip Hop culture, e.g., “I cop a bag of 20 a gram shit/ Roll a blunt, don’t give a damn: I waste it/ Now that’s what’s up/ Got so many hundreds I don’t give no fuck.”
We did our best to only smoke the bomb ass shit, dear reader. We really did. But it did not take long for the first of many dro draughts to set in, launching us upon our first voyages into the same neighborhoods we’d heard so much about on wax.
We did drugs, drank, and fought, we ghetto aspirants in the suburbs of Chicago; seized upon every opportunity to brush against the gang life afforded us by the project transplants we met at school. Sometimes, the gang life reached out to us. The gangs were always looking for ways to expand their sphere of influence, so recruitment among the suburban kids was common. The Latin Kings were the most successful at this, mainly for the reason that it is easier to assimilate a group of predominantly white kids into a Hispanic gang (whose skin pigmentation and eye color varies widely across the spectrum on a regular basis) than for those same white kids to show up in the middle of a black set claiming to be just one of the gang, blue eyes, blonde hair and all. So although I was tolerated by, and hung out with, the small black circle of genuine gangbangers around my suburb—GDs, Black Stones, and a couple of Vice Lords—it was the King Brotherhood with which I was most familiar, growing up. The fact that I look Puerto Rican made me the constant target of recruitment/harassment on Friday and Saturday nights. I always claimed to be neutral— a “neutron”—which was the coolest possible way of saying “I am not in a gang,” along with the aforementioned technique of kicking one’s hat straight, though at one point I almost agreed to be beat-in as a member of an Elgin-based Latin King set while standing outside of a dollar store in Hanover Park, a giant and absurd mistake just barely skirted.
THE DREAD BROTHER KING
I never met a Latin King I liked. This confession may get me beat, shot and or killed one day, but I guess I don’t much care.
I remember one time, not long after my first venture into the projects with Que, I was rolling around the Humboldt Park area with Joe—an 18-year-old Irish/Polish dude with gang ties who’d recently moved to the suburbs from Rogers Park—and his girlfriend, who was only there because it was her car and because she was the only one among us with a valid driver’s license. We were trying to score an ounce of weed (on my behalf) by going around to various houses which Joe assured me ran weed operations (every stop had ended with Joe coming back out to the car explaining that they were dry) when a car full of Latin Kings floated up behind us in the backstreets of a residential area. Their leader—a big tatted motherfucker hanging out the passenger window, long hair flowing roguishly behind him—motioned angrily with a baseball bat for us to pull to the side of the road.
The Kings’ reputation in gangland was one of unnecessarily violent kicked-hornet’s-nest type tendencies. Where the post-crack wave GDs and Stones worked with the Italian mafia as their model—profit at the core of every move they made, minimization of violence in the interest of profit and maintaining some semblance of the status quo—the Kings seemed trapped in some kind of 1950s gang universe, like on some West Side Story shit: they were the Sharks and the rest of the world the Jets, only instead of switchblades, chains and running pirouettes, it was shotguns, AK-47s and drive-bys—very hotheaded, unpredictable, and not to be reasoned with, the Kings—and so everything got very chaotic, fast, what with this car full of gangbangers tailing us hard, and Joe’s girlfriend starting in with the whole shrill sort of Agitated Female Driver routine like—
“Are they still following us? They’re still following us. Oh my God are they still following us? They’re still following us. What do I do? Oh my God they’re still following us, Joe. WhatdoIdowhatdoIdoohmyGodwhatdowedo why are they following us?”
—while Joe and I tried to play it cool, as though it didn’t matter that there was a carload of infamously violent and idiotic gangbangers on our ass led by a fucking pirate hanging out a window waving a baseball bat, but really, our adrenal glands were pumping hard so that everything took on that hyper-real quality of reality doubled over on itself; vision and hearing elevated to High Definition status where you can almost see the blood rushing spectrally across your field of vision, part and parcel to a primal instinct genetically encoded as a means by which to outrun saber-toothed tigers, but right now there is no actual tiger, just the thought that I may very well soon die at the hands of old Dread Brother King of the High Seven Seas back there. Then, as if Black Beard were pulling the strings on the whole affair puppeteer-style with a direct telepathic line into the girl’s navigational decisions, we somehow—equipped with a vehicle on open roads as we were, and in no way obligated to follow the gangbangers’ orders—ended up trapped in a cul-de-sac where all means of escape were promptly cut off by the Kings. The gangster/ buccaneer approached the driver’s side, three other jeans-sagging King cronies hovering menacingly behind him, at which point Joe’s hysterical girlfriend tearfully directed the conversation across the seat to Joe, who leaned over in full compliance with the dude’s demands, which ultimatum entailed the flashing of the Latin King gang sign—“throwing up the crown,” and all that—in proper form, to prove to the Dread Brother King that we came as friend and not foe to the People of the LK Nation, which gang sign, luckily, Joe was familiar with and was able to display to the full satisfaction of our inquisitor, at which point the Dread Brother King (scar on one side of his face, obligatory tattoo tear drops signifying somewhat of a murderous past on the other) granted us free passage to continue as we were, saying, sort of dumbly—“Cool. Cool. We cool now. Long as you motherfuckers just know, we Kings in this bitch.”
—ending the entire improbable episode, though it would have made much more sense from his point of view, I later reflected, for him to have forced us to empty our pockets while he was at it.
But I was grateful to Joe for his familiarity with the golden gang sign right at that moment for at least one month after the incident, up until Joe stole a hundred dollars from me during a second attempt to score that same ounce, running the old “I got the ounce, but then had to dump it because I got pulled over by a cop” bit, which was obviously bullshit, and if you’re reading this, fuck you, Joe.
THE DUDE IN THE DO-RAG
Stood in the entranceway of a West Side corner store where Que had stopped to buy a Swisher Sweet for the blunt we’d be smoking on the way back from the projects. Que told me he’d be right back, hopped out of the car and headed for the entrance. The Dude in the Do-Rag (tall, early 30s) eyed him hard the whole way. I looked around at the wintry West Side environs in which we were parked—groups of young men in pullover Starter coats sagging their jeans in defiance of Newton, wearing brand new Jordans with the tongues flared out. The sound of bass ebbed and flowed as hoopties rolled by, outfitted with enormous rims (there is something especially significant about shoes in the ghetto—people are shot and killed over shoes, the tires and rims which the ghettoese buy to separate their hoopties from the pack are colloquially called “shoes,” the quickest way to tell what kind of person you’re dealing with in the ghetto is to look at their shoes—no laces, fresh out of county— nice sneakers, a relatively functional individual, for better or worse— torn-up shoes: homeless, possibly a junky).
As Que disappeared into the corner store, Dude in the Do-Rag turned around and blocked the entrance, arms spanning the doorframe. This was the point of my inaugural Voyage to the Projects where fear first kicked in. Dude in the Do-Rag was wearing red, straight Chicago Bulls gear, likely a Black P. Stone in a Stone neighborhood, with Que, a GD—my ride and only hope for survival in this city—trapped inside. If something went down I’d be left alone on the West Side of Chicago, a suburban kid with twenty bucks in his pocket and a car with no keys. As tough as Que was, Dude in the Do-Rag looked tougher, older, bigger, and I sat watching, half-fascinated, half-terrified, to see how Que would handle this.
Que shoved his way past the dude, muttering, “excuse me,” if I lip-read correctly, even as he dug his shoulder hard into dude’s chest. I expected a fight to ensue, but the Dude in the Do-Rag only stepped outside the corner store to watch Que as he walked back to our car, and then, losing interest, turned back around to resume his doorway post, fully satisfied with all that had transpired, in some mysterious sense.
“Can’t let motherfuckers think you scared,” Que said as we pulled out of the parking lot, both as an explanation of how he’d just handled the shit, and, I quietly realized, as an admonishment.
I didn’t belong in the ghetto, hanging with the ghetto crowd; this truth would be borne out by time. I was far too anxious, neurotic, cowardly, I guess, to run with the kids from the hood, a fact which, looking back, I’m sure they all instantly knew. I hoped for a while that being the son of a black bluesman would score me some kind of points with the ghetto kids, but it turned out to hold very little currency, with the exception of a couple “that’s coo”s whenever I drew someone’s attention to the fact that the rapper Nas’ father had been a bluesman—
Pops was smooth, from his top to his shoes
Sang the blues, guitar strings he played, smokin’ his Kools
Duke Ellington hat, picture this yo, seventies cat.
—that Buddy Guy’s daughter was the Chicago rapper Shawnna, who would one day be featured on Ludacris’ “What’s Your Fantasy”—
But I gotta, kn-kn-kn-know what-what’s your fan-ta-ta-sy
—that a couple of Outkast samples had been taken from blues songs, and, some years later, that the entire intro to The Wire involved the blues.
Though, if you really thought about it, maybe all of the The Wire involved the blues.