I asked Lafeyette what he wanted to be. “If I grow up, I’d like to be a bus driver,” he told me. If, not when. At the age of ten, Lafeyette wasn’t sure he’d make it to adulthood.
They have joined gangs, sold drugs, and, in some cases, inflicted pain on others. But they have also played baseball and gone on dates and shot marbles and kept diaries. For, despite all they have seen and done, they are—and we must constantly remind ourselves of this—still children.
LaJoe had watched and held on as the neighborhood slowly decayed, as had many urban communities like Horner over the past two decades. First, the middle-class whites fled to the suburbs. Then the middle-class blacks left for safer neighborhoods. Then businesses moved, some to the suburbs, others to the South.
But though the isolation and the physical ruin of the area’s stores and homes had discouraged LaJoe, it was her family that had most let her down. Not that she could separate the two. Sometimes she blamed her children’s problems on the neighborhood; at other times, she attributed the neighborhood’s decline to the change in people, to the influx of drugs and violence.
Cleaning house was the only way she could clear her mind, to avoid thinking about what might happen or what might have been. It was cathartic in demanding focus and concentration. She scrubbed and washed and rearranged furniture, particularly when things got tense—with family problems, shootings, and deaths. The kids knew to stay out of her way, except for Lafeyette, who, like his mother, also found cleaning a useful distraction.
Lafeyette, Pharoah, and the other children knew to keep their distance from Jimmie Lee. But they also knew that he and no one else—not the mayor, the police, or the housing authority—ruled Henry Horner. The boys never had reason to speak to Lee or to meet him, but his very presence and activities ruled their lives.
Even at Horner, the viciousness of this slaying unnerved people. By summer’s end, as the Vice Lords established their dominance, the war had touched the lives of almost everyone living in Henry Horner. Lafeyette and Pharoah, as well as the adults, began talking of the “death train” that drove smack through their community.
Lafeyette confided to LaJoe, who tried vainly to get him to verbalize his grief, that talking wasn’t going to help him, that everything that “goes wrong keeps going on and everything that’s right doesn’t stay right.”
“The kids want this orderliness,” Ms. Barone reasoned. “They appreciate it. They like it. It gives them a sense of being in an environment that is safe and comfortable.”
Often, when Rickey became embroiled in a fight, he began to relive Bird Leg’s last minutes, and as he did so, his anger turned to rage. In class, he once choked another child so long and hard that, in the words of Pharoah, “he put him to sleep.” These flashbacks, which were nor unlike those of a traumatized war veteran, haunted Rickey for well over a year after Bird Leg’s death.
He secretly wished his mother would push him more, make him go to sleep early, make him do his homework. LaJoe conceded that she could be too soft on her children, though she wanted nothing more than to see Lafeyette and Pharoah graduate from high school.
Because he had lately responded to nearly every instance of violence and family trouble with the same refrain—“I’m too little to understand”—she feared that the problems, when he was at last ready to confront them, would be too deeply buried for him to resolve. Now, though, she was convinced that Pharoah’s attitude gave him some peace of mind and the strength to push on, so she avoided burdening him with stories of hardship.
“The things I should of been talking to Paul about I was talking to Lafie,” LaJoe said. “I put him in a bad place. But I didn’t have anyone to talk to. Lafie,” she said, regretfully, “became a twelve-year-old man that day.”
“Pharoah is Pharoah. He’s going to be something. […] When he was a baby, I held him up and asked him if he’d be the one. I’ve always wanted to see one of my kids graduate from high school. I asked him if he’d be the one to get me a diploma.”
“To treat this as a cause célèbre, to give this man some long, long term in prison, is not going to change the narcotics problem. I wish I knew the answer—maybe some form of legalization, something to take the profit out of it. I don’t know. But I know it doesn’t stop it by giving people long terms in prison.”
Pharoah became more alert and prudent. He had never stolen anything. Nor had he ever gotten into any trouble other than talking in class. He wanted it to stay that way. The best way was to hang out more by himself. Pharoah decided he no longer had any friends. Like his brother, he just had associates.
“You don’t have no friends in the projects,” he said. “They’ll turn you down for anything.”
They didn’t listen. They didn’t understand. So if they thought he was a bad guy, if they wanted him to be a bad guy, then he’d be a bad guy. If they wanted to put him away for something he didn’t do, then he’d give them something to put him away with. It was a tangled and tragic life that had got him into trouble. It was his own confused method of seeking justice.
In preparation for the singing of the national anthem, the emcee yelled, “Don’t you love this country?”
“Nooooooo,” the crowd roared, drowning out Pharoah’s meekly spoken “yes.” Only a few in the crowd, including Pharoah, placed their hands on their hearts during the anthem’s singing.
There were some words Pharoah had trouble pronouncing because of his stutter. “I can’t say this right,” he’d cry out in frustration. “No such thing as can’t,” Clarise would remind him, like a mother encouraging her son. And the two would work at sounding out the word, syllable by syllable.
Pharoah realized that something was terribly wrong. He didn’t want to ask. No one seemed to care about his spelling bee triumph. No one wanted to hear what he had to say. Dutt was weeping. Lafeyette, while he had one ear to the conversation, stared vacantly out the window; he didn’t even congratulate Pharoah. LaJoe tucked Pharoah’s red ribbon into her pocketbook.
It was not that they wanted the horrible bloodshed. Nor was it that they wanted to rise up in arms against the police again. It was just that they ached for a time when the community had a collective conscience, when neighbors trusted one another and had enough confidence in their own powers of persuasion to demand a better and more peaceful life. Everyone now seemed timid and afraid.
Memories for Lafeyette became dangerous. He recalled nothing of Bird Leg’s funeral. He couldn’t remember the names of any of the performers at the talent show. He sometimes had trouble recounting what he had done just the day before in school. Shutting out the past was perhaps the only way he could go forward or at least manage the present. Besides, he knew, nothing could bring Craig back.
She had seen Terence change in the year she had known him. He had hardened. The weight lifting made him look older and more menacing. He seemed more defiant. “When I first saw him he was a little kid. He was soft-looking and soft-spoken,” she said. She didn’t think a long sting in jail would do him any good.
The judge looked bewildered. “Did we have a case by that name?” Someone in the courtroom stifled a giggle. Three minutes had passed and he didn’t even remember Lafeyette. LaJoe felt as if no one cared. It was as if they were invisible. No one saw them or heard them or cared enough to treat them like human beings.