June 15, 1975. I proudly strolled across the waxed hardwood stage of the auditorium at the Fifty-fourth Street elementary school under the beaming stares of my mother, aunt, and Uncle Clarence. Taking my assigned place next to Joe Johnson, as we had rehearsed for a week, I felt very different, older, more “attached” than any of my fellow classmates. This feeling made me stand more erect, made me seem more important than any of my peers on stage—even Joe Johnson, who was the “king of the school.”
Looking back now it’s quite amusing to remember how proud I was and how superior I felt next to Joe Johnson. I first sensed my radical departure from childhood when I was suspended a month before graduation, driven home by Mr. Smotherman, the principal, and not allowed to go on the grad-class outing for flashing a gang sign on the school panorama picture.
Mr. Smotherman was appalled and accused me of destroying a perfectly good picture, not to mention that I was “starting to show signs of moral decay.” Actually, half of the things Mr. Smotherman told me I didn’t catch, because I wasn’t listening, and besides, my mind had been made up weeks prior to my having gotten caught flashing the sign on the panorama picture. How I expected to get away with flashing on a photograph is beyond me! But, too, it points up my serious intent even then. For I was completely sold on becoming a gang member.
As our graduation activities bore on, my disinterest and annoyance at its silliness escalated. I was eager to get home to the “hood” and to meet my “moral obligation” to my new set of friends, who made Joe Johnson look weak. After the seemingly year-long graduation my mom, aunt, and Uncle Clarence congratulated me with lunch at Bob’s Big Boy. I was the second youngest in a family of six. Everyone’s name began with a K: my brothers were Kevin, Kerwin, and Kershaun—the youngest; Kim and Kendis were my sisters. My father and I never got along and I couldn’t overstand why he mistreated me. While returning home I sat transfixed to the side window, looking out into the streets but not seeing anything in particular, just wishing my Uncle Clarence would drive faster. Tonight was to be my initiation night, and I didn’t want to be late or miss out on any activities that might occur during my first night “on duty.” Bending the corner onto our block in my uncle’s Monte Carlo, I sunk down in the back seat to avoid being seen in my white knit suit and tie. Peeking to make sure the coast was clear, I bolted past Moms into the house, down the hall, and into my room for a quick change.
“What’s your damn problem, boy?” bellowed Moms from the hallway. “I know you don’t think you going out anywhere until you have cleaned up that funky room, taken out this trash and . . .”
I never heard the rest. I was out the window and in the wind—steaming toward my destiny and the only thing in this life that has ever held my attention for any serious length of time—the streets.
Stopping once I’d gotten around the block, to collect my coolness, I met up with Tray Ball, who had accepted my membership and agreed to sponsor me in.
“What’s up, cuz?” Tray Ball extends his very dark, muscular, veined hand.
“Ain’t nothin’,” I respond, trying to hide my utter admiration for this cat who is quickly becoming a Ghetto Star. A Ghetto Star is a neighborhood celebrity known for gangbanging, drug dealing, and so on.
“So, what’s up for tonight, am I still on or what?”
“Yeah, you on.”
As we walked to “the shack” in silence, I took full advantage of the stares we were getting from onlookers who couldn’t seem to make the connection between me and Tray Ball, the neighborhood hoodlum. I took their looks as stares of recognition and respect.
At the shack, which was actually a backhouse behind Tray Ball’s house, I met Huckabuck, who was dark, athletic, very physical, and an awesome fighter. He came to California from New York—accent included. For the most part he was quiet. Leprechaun, who we called “Lep,” was there. I had known him prior to this, as he went to school with my older brother. Lep had a missing front tooth and a slight build. Fiercely loyal to Tray Ball, Lep stood to be second in command. Then there was Fly, who dressed cool and with an air of style. Light-complexioned and handsome, he was a ladies’ man, not necessarily vicious, but was gaining a reputation by the company he kept. Next was G.C., which stood for Gangster Cool. G.C. was possibly the most well-off member present, meaning he “had things.” Things our parents could not afford to give us. He gangbanged in Stacy Adams shoes.
“What’s your name, homeboy?” Huckabuck asked from across the room, through a cloud of marijuana smoke.
“Kody, my name is Kody.”
“Kody? There’s already somebody name Kody from the Nineties.”
I already knew this from hearing his name. “Yeah, but my real name is Kody, my mother named me that.”
Everyone looked at me hard and I squirmed under their stares—but I held my ground. To flinch now would possibly mean expulsion.
“What?” Huck said with disbelief. “Your mother named you Kody?”
“Yeah, no shit,” I replied.
“Righteous, fuck it, then we’ll back you with it. But you gotta put work in”—“put in work” means a military mission—“to hold it ’cause that’s a helluva name.”
Fly piped up from his relaxed posture in an armchair. “I’m gonna put some work in tonight for the set.”
“We know,” Lep replied, “we know.”
G.C., who was dressed like a gas-station attendant in blue khakis with a matching shirt, and I started out to steal a car. All eyes were on me tonight, but I felt no nervousness, and there was no hesitation in any of my actions. This was my “rite of passage” to manhood, and I took each order as seriously as any Afrikan would in any initiation ritual from childhood to manhood.
G.C. was the “expert” car thief among the set. “Gone in Sixty Seconds” could have very well been patterned after him. He had learned his technique from Marilyn, our older homegirl who always keeps at least two stolen cars on hand. Tonight we were out to get an ordinary car, possibly a ’65 Mustang or ’68 Cougar—these, I learned, could be hot-wired from the engine with as little as a clothes hanger touched on the alternator and then the battery. The only drawbacks here were that the gas gauge, radio, and horn would not work and the car would only run until the alternator burned out.
Nevertheless, we found a Mustang—blue and very sturdy. G.C worked to get the hood up and I kept point with a .38 revolver. I was instructed to fire on any light in the house and anyone attempting to stop us from getting this car. I paced in a tight to-and-fro motion, watching closely for any sign of movement from either the house, the yard, or the shrubbery flanking the house. I was the perfect sentry, for had any movement occurred or any light flashed on, I would have emptied six rounds into the area, if not the person. Actually, I had only fired a real gun once, and that was into the air.
Under the cloak of darkness I heard G.C grunt once and then lift the hood. It took him longer to unlatch the hood than to start the car. The engine turned once, then twice, and finally it caught and roared to life.
“It’s on,” G.C. said, with as much pride as any brand-new father looking for the first time at his newborn child. We slapped hands in a gesture of success and jumped in. Pulling out of the driveway I noticed a light turn on in what I believed to be the kitchen. I reached for the door handle with every intent of shooting into the house, but G.C. grabbed my arm and said, “Don’t sweat it, we got the car now.”
On the way back to the shack, I practiced my “mad dog” stares on the occupants of the cars beside us at stoplights. I guess I wasn’t too convincing, because on more than a few occasions I was laughed at, and I also got a couple of smiles in return. This was definitely an area to be worked on.
At the shack we smoked pot and drank beer and geared up for the mission—which still had not been disclosed to me. But I was confident in my ability to pull it off. I have never, ever felt as secure as I did then in the presence of these cats who were growing fonder of me, it seemed, with each successive level of drunkenness they reached.
“Cuz, you gonna be down, watch,” Lep pronounced, as if telling a son in law school he would be a great lawyer. He stood over me and continued. “I remember your li’l ass used to ride dirt bikes and skateboards, actin’ crazy an’ shit. Now you want to be a gangster, huh? You wanna hang with real muthafuckas and tear shit up, huh?”
His tone was probing, but approving. He was talking with heated passion and the power of a general-father.
“Stand up, get your li’l ass up. How old is you now anyway?”
“Eleven, but I’ll be twelve in November.” Damn, I’d never thought about being too young.
At this time I stood up in front of Lep and never saw the blow to my head come from Huck. Bam! And I was on all fours, struggling for equilibrium. Kicked in the stomach, I was on my back counting stars in the blackness. Grabbed by the collar, I was made to stand again. A solid blow to my chest exploded pain in bold red letters on the blank screen that had now become my mind. Bam! Another, then another. Blows rained on me from every direction. I felt like a pinball. I knew now that if I went down again, I’d be kicked. And from the way that last kick felt I was almost certain that G.C had kicked me with his pointed Stacy Adams.
Up until this point not a word had been spoken. I had heard about being “courted in” (“courted in” means to be accepted through a barrage of tests, usually physical, though this can include shooting people) or “jumped in,” but somehow in my still-childish mind I had envisioned it to be a noble gathering, paperwork and arguments about my worth and my ability in regard to valor. In the heat of desperation I struck out, hitting Fly full in the chest, knocking him back. Then I just started swinging, with no style or finesse, just anger and the instinct to survive.
Of course, this did little to help my physical situation, but it showed the others that I had a will to live. And this in turn reflected my ability to represent the set in hand-to-hand combat. The blows stopped abruptly and the sound of breathing filled the air. My ear was bleeding, and my neck and face were deep red, but I was still standing. When I think about it now, I realize that it wasn’t necessarily my strength that kept me on my feet, but the ways in which I was hit. Before I could sag or slump I was hit and lifted back up to standing.
Tray Ball came in and immediately recognized what had taken place. Looking hard at me, then at the others, he said, “It’s time to handle this shit, they out there.”
In a flash Lep was under the couch retrieving weapons—guns I never knew were there. Two 12-gauge shotguns, both sawed off—one a pump-action, the other a single-shot; a .410 shotgun, also a single-shot; and a .44 magnum that had no trigger guard and broke open to load. G.C was now in possession of the .38 I had held earlier.
“Give Kody the pump.” Tray Ball’s voice echoed over the clanging of steel chambers opening and closing, cylinders turning, and the low hum of music in the background. “Check this out.” Tray Ball spoke with the calm of a football coach. “Kody, you got eight shots, you don’t come back to the car unless they all are gone.”
“Righteous,” I said, eager to show my worth.
“These fools have been hangin’ out for four days now. Hittin’ people up”—“hittin’ people up” means asking where they are from, i.e., which gang are they down with—”flaggin’ and disrespectin’ every Crip in the world.”
I sat straight-backed and hung on every word Tray Ball said.
“Tonight we gonna rock they world.”
Hand slaps were passed around the room and then Lep spoke up.
“If anybody get caught for this, ride the beef, ’cause ain’t no snitchin’ here.”
Head nods and looks of firmness were exchanged, and then the moment of truth.
We piled into the Mustang, Tray Ball driving—and without a gun. Lep sat next to Tray Ball with the old, ugly .44. Huck, directly behind Lep, held the .410 between his legs. Fly, next to him, had the sawed-off single-shot 12 gauge. I sat next to him with the pump, and G.C was on my left with his .38. In silence we drove block after block, north into enemy territory.
“There they go!” Lep said, spotting the gathering of about fifteen people. “Damn, they deep too, look at them fools!”
I looked at my enemy and thought, “Tonight is the night and I’ll never stop until I’ve killed them all.”
After driving down another block, we stopped and got out. Each checking his weapon (mine being the most complicated), we started out on foot. To rid the world of Bloods, Brims in particular, stealthily we crept up to where the gathering had assembled to promote their set’s ideology. Tray Ball sat idle in the car and was to meet us halfway after we had worked over the enemy. Hanging close to buildings, houses, and bushes, we made our way, one after the other, to within spitting distance of the Bloods. Our strategy was to just jump out and shoot, but on the way Lep made the point that the single-shots should go first. Then I would follow suit with eight shots, Lep with five shots in the .44, and G.C. with six in the .38.
Huck and Fly stepped from the shadows simultaneously and were never noticed until it was too late. Boom! Boom! Heavy bodies hitting the ground, confusion, yells of dismay, running, and then the second wave of gunfire. By my sixth shot I had advanced past the first fallen bodies and into the street in pursuit of those who had sought refuge behind cars and trees. Forgetting everything, I completely threw myself into battle.
A Blood who had seemingly gotten away tried to make one last dash from the safe area of a car to, I think, a porch. I remember raising my weapon and him looking back—for a split second it was as if we communicated on another level and I overstood who he was—then I pulled the trigger and laid him down. With one shot left I jogged back to the initial site of contact. Knowing fully that I had explicit orders not to return with any rounds in my weapon, I turned and fired on the house before which they had originally stood. Not twenty paces later, Tray Ball sped to a stop and we all piled in, frightfully amped from the climax of battle.
Back in the shack we smoked more pot and drank more beer. I was the center of attention for my acts of aggression.
“Man, did you see this little muthafucka out there?” Fly said to Huck with an air of disbelief.
“Yeah, I saw him, I knew he was gonna be down, I knew it and—”
“Shut up, man, just shut the fuck up, ’cause he can still tell on all of us.” Silence rang heavy in my ears, and I knew I had to respond to Lep’s reaction.
“If I get caught, I’ll ride the beef, I ain’t no snitch.”
Although my little statement lessened the tension, Lep’s words had a most sobering effect. Tray Ball announced my full membership and congratulations were given from all. It was the proudest moment in my life. Tray Ball told me to stay after the others had left. I milled around, still high from battle, and thought of nothing else but putting in work for the set.
“Check this out,” Tray Ball said. “You got potential, ’cause you eager to learn. Bangin’ ain’t no part-time thang, it’s full-time, it’s a career. It’s bein’ down when ain’t nobody else down with you. It’s gettin’ caught and not tellin’. Killin’ and not caring, and dyin’ without fear. It’s love for your set and hate for the enemy. You hear what I’m sayin’?”
“Yeah, yeah, I hear you,” I said. And I had heard him and never forgot nothing he said from that point on.
Also from that point on Tray Ball became my mentor, friend, confidant, and closest comrade. He allowed me acts of aggression that made my name soar with alarming effects.