Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"New Jack" Anthology Xcrpt: In Cold Blood (The Baltimore Teen Murders)

In Cold Blood: The Baltimore Teen Murders

By Barry Michael Cooper

(Published in Spin Magazine May 1986)

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 he 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 Yos, 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 Yos, 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... 
Read the entire In Cold Blood: The Baltimore Teen Murders cover story from the May 1986 issue of Spin Magazine, in my new anthology, "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1: New Jack City Eats Its Young," available exclusively on Kindle/Amazon. Amazon/Kindle has a free, downloadable app for all computers and mobile devices. Click here to go to the "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1:New Jack City Eats Its Young" Kindle store site.


krykytt said...

Hey Man. I lived in Baltimore at Pulaski and Lexington and at Stricker and Fayette from spring of 1983 till spring 1986. My family is white and we were lost as could be. I went to Lockerman Bundy Elementary and then to Harlem Park Jr. High. How I survived I can only guess I was blessed. I ran away from home. The world outside my doorstep was just as crazy as you describe in this article that I actually never read until today. I was scared all the time. I actually wrote a memoir about my coming of age experiences. While my book is not all about Baltimore, B-more is certainly a significant piece of the story. Thanks for writing.

Bmc said...

@KryKytt: Thank you for your powerful commentary and insight my Brother. What is the name of your book? It sounds very interesting. I appreciate your feedback and GOD Bless you.