By Barry Michael Cooper
(Published in Spin Magazine/May 1986. Winner of the 1987 Ball Stae University Prize for Best Magazine Feature, and the 1987 National Association of Black Journalists Prize for Best Magazine Feature)
GOD Almighty, you can get killed in Baltimore—for no reason at all.
Say that to yourself a few times. Gargle it, and choke on the terror. If you look at a kid too long, or the wrong way, you could get killed. For no reason at all. If you bump into a kid on the street, if you only lightly brush up against him, and even if you apologize, it could be the last thing you ever do.
In Baltimore, 14-and15-year-old boys are killing each other on rundown basketball courts, in high school gyms, in poolrooms, on row house porches, in garbage strewn back alleys. In the last 14 months there have been almost 20 murders of young kids by other kids.
Baltimore is known in the tourist trade as Charm City. But do not come down here looking for charm right now, and whatever you do, don’t disrespect the killer children on the corners.
The media in Baltimore have hardly covered this story. True, the TV news reports the murders, but it does so statistically, dispassionately, on its way to the weather; the newscasters appear numbed by it all.
Black congressional leaders, pastors and concerned citizens address the problems by generalizing it and in a sense dismissing it as a black on-black crime situation, by making defensive comparisons to other cities’ crime rates, by covering up, and sometimes by lying.
The Atlanta child murders were a horror—someone was out there kidnapping and killing young kids. But with one arrest, it was over. Here, in Baltimore, the killing never ends. It goes on, a reign of terror. Over the past few months, much of my time has been spent watching these kids. Moving from club to club, hanging out on street corners. I’ve met the killers, and sadly, I think I’ve also met kids who will most likely be victims.
How do I describe for you the real terror, the real horror of all of this? Is it by reams of graphic police reports? Do you need to see block upon block of bloodstained sidewalks, curbs, and stoops? Should I tell you about the mothers who wake up in the middle of the night, hearing what they imagine are the screams of their children being shot down in the street? Or a playground?
When I began several months ago, it was because with a bizarre regularity, I heard the reports of more and more killings. When I began, I heard, saw, and experienced things that I will never be able to overcome. And maybe because of that, and because I needed to understand what was going on, I went out into the streets to meet the Yo Boys, the young killers.
On a Saturday afternoon there are 10 of them on the northeastern corner of Pulaski and North. Their walk is a cross between a hard looping bop and a crippled pigeon’s wobble. When they stand still, they hunch their shoulders and karate-chop the ice-cold air with dramatic gestures that underline the fearlessness they want to portray.
They’re dressed in low-cut black Fila sneakers with two white-red lines around the sole. sweat suits in white, red, green—hard, sharp tones that complement the night, that flash warning signals—and oversized coats and hunting parkas with big pockets on the chest and at the waist that hold bullets, when necessary. On the insides are even larger pockets—”gun pockets”—that can hold several handguns at once, even an Uzi.
They move like vultures on the corners, in a circular death pattern, waiting for something to happen. The thick gold chains around their necks signal success, but at the same time weigh them down. They’re the dogs of war.
Sitting through a Saturday-night movie marathon, they want to live the twisted interpretations of Al Pacino’s Scarface and Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. In the balcony of the dilapidated Hippodrome Theater, absorbed in the moving shadows on screen, sniffing $20 caps of “caine” (cocaine) to bring the images to life, their visions are of blood lust—$5 boys looking for million-dollar manhood in the barrel of a gun. Their dreams are to have it all, like Scarface Montana—”The world and everything in it,” y’aw—even if it means going down, kicking it live, in a barrage of gunfire. These are the Yo Boys.
The situation here reminds me of the Harlem I grew up in during the early ‘70s. King Heroin reigned then.You had to worry about junkies walking up behind you and sticking a gun in your back. It was the era of the street gang: the Black Spades, Savage Skulls, the Glory Stompers.
If you weren’t in any of those, you found alternative routes home from school, stayed upstairs on weekends, and read Iceberg Slim and Richard Wright, and danced to James Brown and B.T. Express, but you didn’t go outside. Those years also birthed the dopeboys, kids who came to school with Elliot Ness shoulder holsters, “strapped,” as we used to say, packing trey-five-sevens under $400 cashmere Cortefiel coats. You felt the fear in Harlem, but you knew the knuckleheads would examine all options before pulling the trigger.
Baltimore is different. There are no options to weigh. I want mine, I want it now, and I’ll get it anyway possible. The boys here live from a whisper to a scream, no middle ground, no gray. Just pull the trigger. And keep on stroking.
North Avenue, the heart of black Baltimore, is a horizontal stretch of ghetto, rubberbanding from east to west.
It’s not a harsh layout. There are a few sections of burned-out, abandoned buildings that look like postwar Berlin, but some of the tan, red and blue row houses look like Japanese watercolors, soft city pastels. Still, you get a sense from the people that something is missing here, as if the empty rhetoric and fallen heroes of the civil-righteous ‘60s sucker-punched them silly.
On every other block are the obligatory bar-liquor-drugstore combos—which double as dream factories where you can float on a sea of booze and million-dollar lottery fantasies—laundromats, and Korean greasy spoons, known as carryouts. Cheeseburgers, cheesesteaks, crab cakes, french fries; some of the foreigners behind the Plexiglas walls can barely pronounce the menu, let alone understand many of the orders, but as long as the kids are hustling on the corners, the carryouts will be open. Twenty four hours.
Sun Carryout, on Pulaski and North Avenue, is crowded this Friday night, as usual. The odd, lyrical strains of Korean opera are suspended near the ceiling, counterpointing the popping grease from the grill and the conversation below.
“Hey, y’aw, gimme a four-piece wing-ding.”
“Hot saw, kethchuh, sall-peppuh?” asks the blank-faced little man behind the plastic shield.
“Yeah, all that,” mouths the kid in the burgundy acrylic parka. He nudges his partner and goes back to his conversation.
“We don’t have to double-team him, y’aw. I got my shit on me. I’m gonna shoot him in his fuckin’ head.”
Both boys look to be about 13 years old, but I am not surprised. This is one of the hottest corners in the city. I order some french fries, and then I spot Tommy Wilson. Tommy manages the Sun Laundrymat across the street, giving out change, bleach, and soap powder, and sweeping up after closing. He’s an intelligent, honest, hardworking 22-year old. I treat him to some fries and a Coke. It is unusually warm—almost 60 degrees—so we go outside to talk.
“A lot of people think a Yo is a rapper,” he says, “or has something to do with rap music. It’s not about that. Yo is a code word for a young drug dealer. When you want to buy some ‘get high’, you just go on the corner and ask, ‘What you got, y’aw?’ or ‘You got that stuff, y’aw?’ They sell their drugs in vitamin capsules you can buy in any health food store.”
“You can always spot an Yo. Anytime you see a 15-or16-year old boy, like them kids over there”—Tommy points across the street to a swarm of kids lined up in front of Cyrus Israel’s Dayland Records, a video/poolroom—”wearin’ two and three ‘Mr. T’ solid gold chains around their necks—and them chains go for no less than $1500 a piece—you know them boys is sellin’. Anytime you see a boy on a Honda scooter, and his supplier bought the scooter to transport his merchandise. Some of the older Yo’s around 18, 19, drive Mazdas, Cressidas and Maximas.
“A lot of these boys is addicts themselves. You don’t have to sell drugs to make money; some boys become ‘testers’, and rent out their arms and noses to sell product, especially heroin. But that’s dangerous, because if the heroin is too potent, or if a dealer is using rat poison, then it’s over. The boys who use their own product are the ones to watch out for. They are the type who spend all their money on drugs, using product, buying more product, and when they don’t have enough for clothes or whatever, they’ll go an kill somebody, and take what they need.
“About three months ago, two boys tried to take me off, right on the corner. It was about 1 in the mornin’, and I was comin’ from this girl’s house. I had on this brand-new leather coat, which cost me $300. Then these two big boys”—Tommy is about 5'4"—”both of them was over 6 feet and 200 pounds, walked up on me. They looked young, maybe 16, and they had the big ‘dukey’ “—referring to the size of the links on the chain, which look like steel—”rope chains. I knew what was up.
One boy stood in front of me, the other went behind me. The boy in front had real puffy hands, like balloons, and I knew he was an addict. He told me, ‘Gimme your coat.’ I said, ‘You gonna have to kill me and take it.’ I always carry a .22 on me when I’m out late like that. Not that I’m tryin’ to be a gangster or nothin’, but I work too hard for people to be takin’ my stuff. So when this boy made his move, I pointed my coat pocket at his chest and shot him twice, right through the coat pocket. When he dropped, I swung around and shot his boy in the leg once, and he went down screaming. I started to run, but the police car rolled up behind me. Ain’t that a bitch? They had seen the whole thing, but they didn’t try to stop it. I guess they like to see us killing each other.
“The first boy I shot admitted to the cops that was trying to rob me. He only did that because he thought he was going to die that night, one of the cops told me later. They charges have been dropped.”
Tommy says it’s easy to get a gun, as simple as going to any corner and asking for it.
“I could go down the street right now,” he says, “and get almost any kind of gun I want. A .22 will run you no more than $30. A .357 or .38 automatic, no more than $75. Nine-millimeters and Uzi’s go for about $130.”
I ask him what the parents have to say about their kids selling drugs and killing people.
“You might not believe this,” he says with a half-smirk, “but some of the parents are in on what their kids are doing. A lot of boys come from welfare families, and the parents let the boys sell drugs to fill in for the time the check money is not around. The money is good, up to $300 a day, maybe more. The parents even hook up a special room for the customers and show their kids special knocks on the door to tell the difference between customers and neighbors.
“I know a girl on Division Street whose family got busted in a surprise raid—everybody in her family was selling or helping her two brothers, who are 15 and 18—because the family across the street set them up. They were jealous of all their customers, and they didn’t have any business.”
It is 1:30am, and Tommy and I are standing outside the carryout watching a group of boys outside of Cyrus Israel’s doing a real cool shimmy-and-shake to the gunshot funk of Schoolly-D’s “P.S.K.” I notice a mountain of a teenager, standing by himself on the corner. He’s about 6'4" and can’t weight less than 230 pounds of pure muscle. He is aloof, guarded, unaffected by the music, danger, or the block itself. I exist, therefore, I am. He is dressed in a black leather jacket, black hooded sweat shirt, and black Filas, and he is holding a long white flower box.
“Who is that?,” I ask.
“He owns Pulaski,” says Tommy, “The boy don’t play, neither. He has killed seven or eight people and ain’t been caught yet. Don’t mess with him, he’s the man. He’ll take you out in a minute. That’s FTD.”
…P is for the people
Who can’t understand
How one homeboy became a man
S is for the way
You scream and shout
One by one
I’m knocking you out…
—Schoolly-D, “P.S.K.—What Does It Mean?”
The 8pm sun settles behind Douglass High School, slower than a red-ball jet, faster than a puff of rosy smoke from a Chinese cherry bomb. Jogging on the school’s running track in mid-August is an uphill battle against sticky sweat, choking heat, and terrorist gnats, but the rings of fat hula-hooping my waist force me to fight back. It’s my 31st time around, and just one more lap—that elusive eighth mile—will be my last.
At the halfway point, I notice three boys, no older than 15, rattling the wobbly fence surrounding the track and football field like caged, chubby, pimple-faced adolescent animals trying to escape their own fears, anxiety, boredom. Deep down I can sense that they want to jeer, to try to test me. Chump the sweaty, out-of-breath sucker’s hand, push his buttons, and see if the jack-in-the-hot-box pops up with any static. Just because he’s big don’t mean he can fight. Homeding is probably a toy. Let’s wind him up, y’aw.
“Hey-hey-hey/It’s F-a-a-a-t Albert/And I’m gonna lose some weight too-day-hay…” the “fatboys” sing in unison. I try to ignore them, but they keep it up. A crowd starts to gather from the bus stop nearby. My ignorance and ego take over. I run over to the fence, and we trade a few choice words. Slowly the boys back away from the fence. Sensing the worse, the crowd begins to dissolve.
“Hey, stay right there, Fat Albert,if you think you so bad!” says one of the boys as they walk away. “I’m gonna go home and get my shit, OK? So wait there, OK?”
My heart races and my temple throbs. I know that this kid, barely out of childhood, is talking about getting his gun. Shaken and dizzy, I try to finish the lap, but instead I run upstairs and off the track, all the way to my house.
Later that night, I hear on the 11 o’clock news that there were two more murders on Pulaski and North Avenues a few blocks away from where I’d been running. The victims are black boys, 16 and 17. There are no suspects, but police have a description of a young black, between 15 and 16. I turn off the TV, and the room shrinks into silent darkness.
…Went to the bathroom
to wash up
Put some soap on my face
And put my hand upon a cup
I said “Mirror mirror
On the wall
Who is the top choice of them all?”
The was a rubble dubble
Five minutes it lasted
The mirror said
“You are, you conceited bastid”…
The Yo Boys are standing in front of Cyrus Israel’s video parlor.
Israel, a handsome man of medium height with salt and pepper hair and a sandalwood complexion, doesn’t allow them to sell drugs inside, so the Yo’s, congregate in front of the store’s gunmetal gray doors. For months I have been anxious to go inside and look around, but I needed someone to watch my back in case something happened. I had offered to pay to older guys who had grown up on the streets and who were weekend “horse heads” (heroin sniffers) to go in with me, but, perhaps out of fear, they never showed up when it was time to meet.
Around 5 one afternoon I decide to go in alone. The place is dotted with a few boys playing video games. As I hit the door, one boy eyes me coldly, all the while chalking his cue at the pool table. The room is small, and the stench of incense pulls the walls closer together. There is a long, rectangular slice of mirror on onew of the paneled walls, thrown at a crazy slant that gives the place the off-balance feel of a carnival fun house.
The guttural, slurred northern drawl of the boys on the video machines captures my attention. They talk strange in Baltimore: “Ay, Larh-ee (Larry),why you tryin’ to dug (dog) me, boo-ee (boy)? Watchu tryin’ to dew, y’aw?”
It is time to make my move to talk to these Yo’s, get inside their world.
“Hey,” I tough in a voice I hope won’t break into falsetto,”you know a girl named Lee-Lee?” I proceed to describe this fictional character. “She owes me some money.”
As I approach the pool player—this 15-year-old kid with the eyes of a mako shark—his attitude says, “Back off!”
“No, I ain’t seen her. Never heard a’ no Lee-Lee.”
“OK, thanks, cheese.”
I start to turn my back to leave, but this kid is looking at me so hard that that might be foolish. So I back out of the door slowly.
A few days later, SPIN photographer Robin Graubard arrives to take pictures. She wants to take shots at night. So we hire a cab and tell the driver, “North and Pulaski.”
“I don’t know,” the driver hesitates, gripping the wheel more tightly. “I don’t know about this. You know, a black man, a white woman with a camera, taking pictures in a cab at night.”
The cab cruises down Pulaski while Robin adjusts the flash, seemingly impervious to the real and present danger around us. We come to the hot corner and Robin says, “Could you like, uh, slow down some more? Like, to a crawl?”
It’s starting to get scary. And the driver is the first to sense it. “They pay people, spotters, to look out for snoops and things like this!” he says. “They can take the number on this cab and have me killed!”
“Like, nobody is thinking about taking your number,” says Robin.
“How would you know?” I explode. “You’re going to check out Amtrak in a few hours. You don’t have to live here. Hey, we could get killed!”
“Nobody is gonna get killed!” she counters.
“Hey driver, forget it, this is crazy.”
“No! Don’t forget it, I’ve got a job to do! Let’s do it!” protests Robin. This is happening as we ride down Pulaski. Robin places her lens on the edge of the car window and aims. FLASH! FLASH! The camera lights up the corner like an instant sunrise.
“Hey! What the fuck you doin’!” comes a curdling scream from the corner.
“Man, that was nothin’, that was nothin’,” Robin grumbles. “I gotta do it again. Could you almost not move at all? Can you understand that?”
“Can you understand that this is some wild shit?” I scream. “Please driver,” I say reluctantly, “go around once more. I promise, it’s the last time.”
The driver grits his teeth. “I gotta family, you know? I don’t wanna die tonight!”
“Me neither,” I say.
We go around once again. Robin aims. FLASH! FLASH! FLASH!
“Hey, bitch,” yells the same kid. “If you take another picture, I’m gonna shoot you!”
We take off.
Later, halfwitted and bathing in the eerie glow of my TV set, I hear what I don’t need to hear. There was another killing. Two kids, between 17 and 18 years old, were shot on the steps of a house on Ettings Street, a few blocks from where we were tonight. I turn off the set and stare into the darkness. It just wasn’t our time yet. But it was close enough.
…I should shoot you dead
P.S.K., we’re makin’ that green,
People always say
What the hell does that mean…
“You might be a narkah. Maybe we shouldn’t be talkin’ to you, right y’aw?”
The six teenage boys in the Lakewood Community Center gym scrutinize me thoroughly, as if I am fuzzy bacteria under a cheap-grade school microscope. Clad in cut-off sweatpants and faded green intramural tournament shirts, perspiring heavily after a rigorous practice, they shift uneasily in their seats. A warn leather ball smacks and boomerangs off the sandy tiles around us. I tell “Lil’ Anthony” — a 5-foot, 12-year-old with a devastating jump shot — that if I was an undercover cop, or “narkah,” I wouldn’t have given them my real name, nor would I have asked them to use aliases.
I had come to the center at night to get a handle on the mindset of Baltimore’s black teenage male and his need to carry a gun. Why was it necessary for black politicos and clergy to institute a “Stop the Killings” campaign, a point driven home by a bumper-sticker-slogan: “Us Killing Us=Genocide.”
Some of the killings, the boys say, are drug related. Usually when a kid is trying to sell on another kid’s corner, he will die. Or a kid is abusing the supply of heroin or cocaine he is selling, the older supplier will hire another boy, preferably 15-years old or younger, to kill him. If the shooter is caught, eight times out of 10 he won’t be tried as an adult, but will be sent off to some juvenile facility. The dealer keeps his hands clean, and his productivity rolling. Also, if a kid is selling bad drugs, substituting Isotol or Midol — used to relieve menstrual cramps — for real cocaine, or rat poison for heroin, he is asking for a funeral.
The other murders are status killings; murder brings you respect in the street.
“You’re the man when you kill somebody,” says Harrison, a tall and lanky boy who is the de facto leader of this group. “About a year ago, at the Madison Park apartments, a boy named Larry Watkins bumped into another boy named Teddy Rogers, and Teddy had a friend with him. Teddy’s friend said, ‘Don’t let none of these little punks ever disrespect you.’ And then Teddy pulled a gun, shot Larry, and killed him.”
One of the popular rap anthems here is, “Rock The Bells,” by LL Cool J — an icon in Baltimore — whose lyrics include, “…you bring the woodpecker/I’ll bring the wood…” Woodpecker being idolater and copycat, wood or penis, representing the totality of male teenager, personality and emotion. On the streets of Baltimore, manhood is realized as much by knocking out a human life as it is by knocking-up a 14-year-old girl, which is another part of the problem: babies making babies, babies raising babies.
In 1983, Baltimore led the nation in teenage pregnancies, with a whopping 3,000. Most of the teens committing the murders have parents barely 14 or 15-years older than they are. Many of their parents lack employment, direction, and guidance themselves. They are links in an unbroken, two-and three-generation chain of welfare dependency.
I remember a scene I saw one day waiting for the bus downtown. On one of the coldest days in February, 21 degrees, with a wind chill of 6 or 7, a pudgy, chesnut-brown girl, no older than 17, arrived at the bus stop bundled in a three-quarter black-fox coat with matching hat and leather pants. Cradled in her arms was a newborn, swathed in a pink goose-down blanket. Waiting at her side was a 3-year-old boy, dressed in a thin, raggedy coat, mittens with holes in them, and earmuffs. She sat on the bus stop bench, trying futilely to block the ripping wind from the bawling child. Finally she screamed, “Shut the fuck up, you little bastid!” “But Mommie, I’m cold, I’m cold,” he moaned.
She cussed at him again and again. I guess she didn’t know anything about computers — garbage in, garbage out — because every time he whined, she cursed. The kid threw a tantrum and turned on a spigot near the steps of the row house. As we started to board the bus, she screamed at the boy, “Get on the fuckin’ bus!” I couldn’t help wondering if the nearly frostbitten toddler would develop a trigger finger in 12 years.
The accessibility of guns on the street is frightening. “I know a lot of young boys,” continues the tall lanky kid, “like around 15, 16, who carry heavy firepower. Like Uzis. I know a man around my block who tries to sell .45s, M.A.C. 10s, M-16s, and German Lugers. He don’t mess with no six-shooters, just automatic guns. And the young boys on the corners are buying them.”
When I try to find out what the kids on the street corner hold sacred, what is important to them besides selling drugs and killing, I don’t learn much. Clothes are important; Harrison and another boy proudly display $105 Fila basketball shoes, shoes that kids are getting killed for. All say they love rap music with a passion, because of the beat. LL Cool J is everyone’s favorite. Last December — and there is a lot of disagreement between Harrison and the fellas as to what actually happened — during a show at a Baltimore theater.
LL decided to get theatrical. He supposedly pointed to a kid and his girl in the huge crowd and sang, “I’m rhymin’ and designin’ with your girl on my lap.” Reportedly, the kid pulled a gun and began shooting at LL. This triggered a stampede. Smiley disagrees and says LL never went onstage, because the guy started shooting before the show.
As the boys argue, I remember a newscast the night of Christmas Eve, which reported a girl getting shot in the arm and someone getting trampled after a rap concert at a club called 4604. I decided to check out 4604 late tonight. It is 7pm, and I go home and take a short nap before hitting the streets.
Rap music owns the kids in Baltimore; the thump of the drum computer has them locked in a psychological vise. All of the major radio stations are forced to play rap, even though it conflicts with their mainstream formats. Rap pours out of the boom boxes, out of the cars, out of the mouths of the kids and into the streets like a flood, a tidal wave of power. The big beat makes you weak, knocking down the walls, making the city topsy-turvy.
Rap is so immediate in Baltimore because it’s the voice of the kids, especially the kids on the corners. It’s pontificating soapbox, funky-fresh filibuster, goon-show grandstand, gangster politiks by way of two turntables and a microphone. When Schoolly-D says, Put my pistol up against his head/I said you sucka-ass nigga/I should shoot you dead, he validates the trigger-happy teen. It’s no wonder this is one of the fastest-selling rap records in Baltimore — it’s street simpatichismo, with gusto.
“Sex and horror are the new gods,” was the declaration of Frankie Goes To Hollywood in “Welcome to the Pleasure Dome,” and it’s an apt illustration of the scene tonight in 4604. Mantronix’s “Needle to the Groove” is playing, working the mass hypnosis. Maybe the “e” was left off to buffer the cultural shock, but rap is sometimes rape, even though the violence is seductive. It makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, your circulation accelerate, your mouth dry, your genitals burn. And then it knocks you down and tears your insides out. This is the sex, I mean the sensuality, no I guess I don’t know what I mean, because it has centralized into an erotic blur.
Two 13-year-old boys sandwich an 11-year-old girl, all three humping and shaking out the world around them to a pulse that dominates their young lives. The cold, damp dance floor — which thickens its numbers from 50 to 100 kids in less than 20 minutes — looks like a kiddie porn parade. Then “Needle” segues into “Rock The Bells” — part of rap’s adhesive is the seamless transition, the sense of continuum, eternity, living in the beat forever. The boys dismount from the girl, form a circle with another group of boys, and do the Baltimore version of D.C.’s “Happy Feet.” But instead of shuffling from side to side, they run in place, going nowhere. a pantomime of their own existence. And then in this gaudy, mirrored temple the sex snowballs into a religious ritual, the red stage light flashing like a stop-sign altar: pray — don’t pray, dance — don’t dance.
The priest, the rabbi, the Dalai Lama of this religion is LL Cool J, using mouth and beat box like stone and mortar, reducing these kids to fine powder. The boys are dancing with each other, the girls by themselves, governed by LL’s manifesto. And LL’s music doesn’t stop: “Bells,” “Dear Yvette,” “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” “I Need a Beat.” It warms the crowd in this earthy, cold womb of a dance palace, walks them around like bulldogs on a short leash, until they bark for more.
LL had the same feeling of dread as his male audience. He has the same disdain for women — So all crabby-looking girls/You must get back/Cause there’s a ten-to-one chance/That you might get smacked, from “Bells”; he has the same disdain for authority on “Radio,” turning up his volume way past 10 in the face of a policeman — I woulda got a summons/But I ran away; he feels the same need to provoke the tough guy — I keep suckers in fear/By the looks on my face, also from “Radio.”
This is a cat with sharp verbal claws, and his rhymes are weapons. Like the kid who probably started shooting at the stage at 4604, LL has something to prove, and he will never be disrespected. His rage caricatures the anger of black male teenagers, a rage that makes punk rock’s tantrums look like something from Captain Kangaroo. LL shrinks the airwaves, the disco, the world into this insecure little room of his generation, the room with no exit. The only way out is scratching and clawing and maybe shooting.
Inside the club, I met a kid who I’ve seen on the corner of North and Pulaski. I introduce myself and explain I’m writing an article about the Yo Boys. I tell him I want to meet a killer, a guy who’s never been caught. He seems excited and says he knows just the person. We leave 4604 and jump in a cab. We’re going back to Pulaski. To meet a “Terminator.’
The cab pulls up to Pulaski Street. The action on the corner is kinetic, kids in perpetual motion, voices and action jumping back and forth like great sparks from some powerful electrical current.
We get out of the cab, trying to dodge the swarm of dope-buying customers and merchants that blackens the dark corner. And then we spot FTD. He’s in the same spot, wearing the same clothes, but now he looks even more intense.
“You sure you know him?” I ask.
“Yeah,” insists my connection, whose name I still don’t know. “Come with me.”
“If we don’t, he’s gonna think something is up.”
We run across the street. FTD looks me up and down several times. I know he’s uneasy. His grip tightens on the flower box.
“Who is he, man? A cop?”
“No, man, he’s just a friend. He’s a writer.”
“A writer or a snitch?” FTD cracks the rose box, and inside is a sawed-off shotgun.
“Can I ask you some questions, man?” I ask nervously.
“You can’t ask me nothin’.” His eyes look right through me. “This is my muscle relaxer,” he says of the gun. “It’s for people who ask too many questions.”
“Maybe I should leave,” I say.
“Maybe you should.”
“Ay,” pleads my connection, grabbing FTD’s hand as he reaches inside the box. “He ain’t doin’ nothin’.” Things aren’t going the way we planned.
“I don’t trust him, man,” says FTD, growing more and more agitated. “I’ll talk to you, but not to him. I won’t.”
“Wait for me across the street,” says my mediator.
They speak for less than 10 minutes, and then FTD goes back up the block. My connection tells me that FTD says he only committed four murders since 1980, and has newspaper clippings to prove it. But the people on the street know better; it’s common knowledge on the avenue that several more have tried to challenge the ‘D, and they lie in the dirt of the Edmondson Avenue cemetary.
Sittin’ at home one Saturday night
Puffin’ on some cheeba (reefer), feelin’ awright
Then my homee-homee
Called me on the phone
His name is Keith-Keith
But we call him Bone
He told me ‘bout this party
On the south side
Got my pistol
Jumped into my ride
Dark clouds hang low over Baltimore City Jail.
Echoing in the vast courtyard are children’s voices, children behind iron bars and thick concrete, calling out to their parents below.
“Um, could you bring my Sergio Valentes next week, and my green Pumas?”
I’m sorry, hear? When I get out, I’m gonna…”
“I gotta go, baby. I gotta put my lotteries in.”
The waiting room is filled with women in their 30s and 40s and teenage girls. Mothers and daughters, mothers and girlfriends. This place was designed in heartbreak brown. Ugly, depressing wood paneling covers the walls, as does a miserable sepia-dim nicotine mist. Some of the women’s faces tell a long and painful story, their eyebrows and mouths knitted in anger, embarrassment, and despair.
Through the dingy windows in the waiting room, I can see the endless row of cublicles in the visiting area, where the captive and the free talk in slow motion, somehow acknowledging the futility of trying to cram a lifetime in into a flash of 30 minutes.
“Terry Ragin,” the correction officer announces, “booth 15.”
Nervous energy propels me from the hard plastic seat in the visiting area. Terry had been arrested for the murder of 14-year-old Marcus Alston in December. The Alston murder was one of the first killings that caught my attention. It was particularly vicious, and I had followed the case until Terry Ragin turned himself in, after nearly a month on the run. I wanted to get his side of the story.
Terry looks around, curious, hopeful, mixed up, expecting a relative or a friend. When he sees me, he gives me a long, strange, and puzzled look. After I tell him who I am, surprisingly, he agrees to talk.
He is a tall, stringbean 18-year-old. Wearing a corduroy Nike cap and blue plaid shirt, he looks like the average teenage boy, not a Yo. His face is childlike, almost Jackson Five cute, but his eyes show nothing, just X-ray beams, like FTD’s. I can feel them burning up the base of my skull.
“Are you scared?” I ask.
“Kinda,” he mumbles, “but I got a little crew in here, some guys that grew up with me. Ain’t nobody tried anything. Not yet.”
Just once, his ice-man cover melts down, and I can see the fear in his eyes, the little boy trapped inside a creature of his own design. His underarms have a heavy odor. He looks from side to side. Sweat dots his forehead.
“Why did you turn yourself in?” I ask.
“Why not?” he says almost inaudibly, looking away as he speaks. “I ain’t got nothin’ to hide. I didn’t do nothin’.”
“So why did you run?”
“I was scared.”
“Because the boy who got shot, his sister mistook me for somebody else, and she said her family was going to kill me. Take a contract out on me. I didn’t wanna get killed for somethin’ I didn’t do.”
Terry tells me he was thrown out of high school five months ago for fighting, then dropped out of a skills center where he went to get his equivalency diploma. He was rejected for several jobs, so in his abundant free time he hung out at Plato’s and Juggernaut’s, a haven for rap music. He cracks a big smile when I ask if he can rap. He can’t, but loves the beat fo the music, because he is a good dancer. Suddenly, he gets cold again, and the giddy warmth of an 18-year-old freezes over into an iceberg. It is a chilling transformation to behold.
“OK, I’m gonna tell you what happened that night. Around 9 o’clock, I was hanging out with my boys Greg, Rodney, and Darnell. We went over to Greg’s house to watch some videos. He has one of those VCR’s, and we was checkin’ out Scarface, plus a couple of nasty movies.”
Terry grins after saying this, like a mischievous little kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar, then he summons that arctic restraint.
“We was listening to some music, LL Cool J, Run DMC, and some others. Greg called up some girls to come over and hang out, too. We waited almost an hour for them, but when they didn’t show up, I decided to leave. It was getting late. Greg, Rodney, and Darnell decided to walk me to the bus stop. About halfway up Washington Street, I told them they could go back, ’cause I would be awright. As I was going to the bus stop, I heard this loud bang, and I saw three boys runnin’ across Darley Avenue. It looked like one of the boys had a long gun, like a shotgun. Then I saw this girl Angie that I know. Well, I don’t really know her, but I seen her enough to know who she is.
“I looked down next to her and saw this boy bleeding from his head. She started screamin’ ‘You killed my brother! You killed my brother! Now my family is gonna kill you!
“I didn’t say nothin’ I just started runnin’. I ran back to Greg’s house and told him what happened. Greg got real quiet. I asked him could I stay at his house overnight, just until I could get out of town the next morning, and he said no. Darnell said no, too. Rodney said, ‘Come on, man, you can come up to my house with me. I got an uncle in York, Pennsylvania, and we can stay with him. We’ll take the bus early in the morning.’ I told Greg to call my mother and tell her I would be gone for a while.
“We took a Greyhound at about 7 in the morning, it was real cold, too. When we got up there, Rodney’s uncle, Junior, met us. Rodney didn’t tell him why we was there. He just told him that we wanted to get away for a little vacation.”
A little vacation. I remember the police report of Marcus Alston’s death. According to eyewitnesses, on the night of December 5, 1985, Marcus Alston’s 15-year-old cousin, Melissa Jones, was being pelted with snowballs by a boy named Ronald. When Alston told Ronald to stop, he refused. An argument broke out, then a fight, and Marcus threw Ronald to the ground. When Ronald got up, he cursed Marcus and told him, “You stay right here, ’cause I’ll be back with a friend!”
Ronald soon returned, says the police report, with a boy known in the neighborhood as Troy. His real name was Terry Ragin. From under his coat, said witnesses, Terry pulled a long-barreled gun and pointed it at Marcus. “What are you gonna do now?” he reportedly said. Then he pulled the trigger. Marcus Alston died in the street.
Now I look at “Troy,” Terry Ragin. Is he lying? I can’t tell.
So maybe a killer was on the run — maybe not. Terry’s picture was all over the TV and papers in Baltimore, but in York, he and Rodney were having a good time. Lots of parties, lots of girls. He exercised at a gym. A job fell through at Burger King. Still, he was living it up. But the good times had to end. Terry was getting bored. Finally, Rodney’s father came and took them back to Baltimore.
“When I got home,” says Terry, “my mother told me, since I didn’t do it. to turn myself in. She called the police on New Year’s Eve. My mother is real religious, and she said if you’re tellin’ the truth, the truth will win out, because God is truth, and the truth will set you free. And I’m tellin’ the truth.”
My head is swimming. The kid looks choirboy innocent, but if he is lying, he is a terrifying, manipulative schemer.
“You have a lawyer?” I ask.
“No. My pretrial hearing was January 24, but my legal aid never showed up. My mother went to this one lawyer, but he wants 5 G’s. My mother ain’t got that kind of money.”
Terry pauses and sighs, because the tears in his eyes are almost too strong to hold back.
“Can you get me outta here? I didn’t do it, man, I didn’t.” I tell him I’ll see what I can do and shake his hand, thanking him for his time. Time that was running out, maybe had run out.
On the way home, I notice that the cemetery is right across the street from the jail, and that both structures use the same black bricks, bricks that look as if they were baked in the oven of the most hellish nightmare.
It is 6 that evening, and the local news is on.
One station reports another murder of another black boy on another black street corner. Another station has a hot debate on the issue; two black, two white panelists. After a lot of finger-pointing and flushed faces, the white participants imply that this is the blacks’ problem. But another channel brings the reality into focus. Earlier in the day, a kid at the Kenilworth School — in middle-class Prince Georges County — was suspended for bringing a .357 Magnum to class. The day before, some boys on the bus top school had taken his lunch money. He brought the gun to school to protect himself. Kenilworth is an elementary school. The kid was white. And he was only 10 years old.