The ambulance driver hit the switch as lights and siren cut through the hot August night. Tattooed and pierced 13-year old girls in shorts shorter than their baby’s diapers stepped back to let the vehicle through. Two older men with white hair leaned on their canes seemingly mesmerized by the red and white swirling lights atop the ambulance. Several men dressed in work boots, jeans and paint-splattered tshirts stood nearby, burly arms folded across their chest, scowls on their faces.
With the exception of the girls and their babies, the work boots and the older men, the crowd gathered near the sidewalk on my front lawn contained mainly boys, around age 10 or younger dressed in huge white t-shirts and baggy jeans. Some of their tennis shoes cost more than a week’s wages of the guys’ dressed in work boots.
One boy stood out immediately. He wore a dirty, green t-shirt. It was ripped down the front across a school name. His cut off jean shorts were frayed and worn. His feet were dusty. The night was warm but and he wore no shoes. His dark brown, almost black hair, was curly, not kinky like most of the other boys; his skin a warm shade of milk chocolate with a touch of vanilla added. He was the kind of kid a mother could love but I could tell his mother didn’t. Big, blue eyes locked with mine for a second before he turned away. Yet he did not leave, not then or when the ambulance pulled away from the curb.
“You kids remember this night,” the police sergeant said looking at each face in the crowd as if memorizing it. “This is the night the Cut Throats claimed your neighborhood. He pointed to the red graffiti painted on a nearby power box.
“They think they have the power now. I don’t have to tell you what this means. All of you are in danger. All of you. It doesn’t matter who you know or what side you think you’re on. Leo thought he was safe. He was a Cut Throat. Even had the red tag on his arm. But it didn’t work. Why? Because this way of life never works.”
No one spoke. Everyone stared at a spot on the ground between their feet. “What can we do, Sarg?” Work Boot asked.
“Keep your eyes open. Report any unusual activity. Know where your kids are. Keep them inside. Send them to Grandma’s farm. It’s going to be a rough month until school starts, I’m afraid.”
I saw the curly haired boy slip to the back of the crowd. I figured he was going to leave before he heard what he needed to. Maybe he didn’t have a home or mom or dad who watched out for him. Maybe most of these kids out here didn’t have a mom, at least one who was home and not on Crack or working Main Street and 6th.
“Look, Guys, take it from a mom, OK?” I said my voice shaking just a little. “You know something, you tell the cops. They are your friends.” Every eye under 13 was looking at that space between their feet again. “I know a bunch of you are into things. Some of you are even wearing colors tonight. What are you thinking? You want to be the next one shot? You care whether you live or die? All of you, all of you have that I don’t care attitude.”
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a bit of green moving away from the crowd. “Except you,” I said pointing to the curly haired boy. “Don’t get mixed up in this.”
The work boots shook their heads. The old men tottered off to their homes. The little mommas shifted screaming babies to their other hips and sashayed through the night. The 10-year olds, put on their ear phones, held their britches on with one hand and dance moved down the road, hitting each other on the shoulder, high-fiving as they parted to their separate spaces. The green shirt had disappeared and took the curly hair with him.
The sergeant looked at me, cocked his finger like a gun and pointed it my direction. “You just killed the green shirt. You can’t just point someone out in a crowd like that. You don’t know enough to get involved. You may have thought you were helping but you didn’t help that boy. I just hope the next call isn’t about him. Stay out of this. That’s an order, Ma’am,” he said as he tipped his police cap. Then shaking his balding head, he plodded slowly, heavily towards his patrol car. I watched him pull out and until I saw the tail lights turn at the corner. He was gone.
Quiet had descended on the neighborhood like a blanket. Even porch lights had been turned off, doors locked and bolted. This happened on my front walk. I didn’t care what the sergeant said. I was involved. I could sit back and be scared. Oh, I’d lock my doors. I would be safe. But there was no turning back now.
Leo was just a boy, not a gang member, just a boy riding his skateboard down the sidewalk. Sure he was wearing a red arm band but that was just to, hopefully, protect him, not make him a target.
What happened? What went wrong? I can’t do anything. But I can’t not do anything. As Gram would have said, “It’s time to fish or cut bait.” Guess I’m going fishing.