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How not to go bad in Southeast San Diego, part 2

At the corner of poverty and crime

On a Monday morning in midsummer, shortly after 8:30, I went to the office of the city’s Street Youth Program in Southeast San Diego. Ben Tukufu and Richard “Liko” Davis, two of the counselors in the program, were at work at their desks in the office on South Forty-third Street. They invited me to sit down. Since I had last seen Tukufu, tens days before, he had had his hair cut, right down to the scalp. “I’d been talking to some of the guys about their needing to get their hair cut to apply for jobs at Sea World. They said, ‘Well, you wears yours long.’ So I got it cut. ‘Hair comes back,’ I told ’em, ‘an’ I’ll be bald again before God’s through with me anyways.’ ”

Tukufu was upset. Over the weekend, an old “running partner,” his “road dog,” had been shot in a drive-by killing. His assailant was unknown, said Tukufu. Studying my frown and knowing, by then, that it was incomprehension he saw on my face, he added, “Your road dog, he’s the guy, he’s got two dollars when you go to eat, you know you got a buck when the time comes to pay.”

The last time I had been here, Davis had just heard of a friend’s suicide. It seemed somebody here was always dying, and dying young. Tukufu pointed to a stack of black-bordered funeral service programs on his desk. He handed them to me. All had come from Anderson-Ragsdale Mortuary, San Diego’s black-owned funeral home. On the cover of each four-page leaflet, beneath the words “A Service of Love and Sacred Memory,” was a name, and then beneath the name, a photograph of a black male face. They were young faces, and each bore its own peculiar stamp of particular sweetness. One had big, long-lashed eyes. Another had a lopsided grin, a little space between his teeth. I opened each of these bulletins. Obituaries were printed on page two. The young men came from large families. Some had fourteen sisters and brothers, others had eight, six, nine. I calculated ages at which the men had died.

The oldest had been twenty-two, the youngest seventeen. Most had attended Valencia Park or Horton elementary schools, Gompers Junior High, Lincoln High.

In one obituary, I read that “ ‘Bake Nuts,’ as he was affectionately known by his family and friends, enjoyed playing football and basketball in his spare time. He was a loving and caring person. One who had a warm smile and pleasing personality.” Bake Nuts’s death was described as “untimely,” the time and place of death as “Sunday evening at a local hospital.” On the leaflet’s back pages, a poem was printed:

Do not stand at my grave and weep I am not there. I do not sleep.

  • I am a thousand winds that blow.
  • I am the diamond glints on snow.
  • I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
  • I am the gentle autumn rain Do not stand at my grave and cry.
  • I am not there. I did not die.

I asked Davis how Bake Nuts died. “Gang-related violence,” he said.

Tukufu was listed as a pallbearer in several leaflets. “I can’t count anymore how many times I been a pallbearer,” he said, looking up from a stack of paperwork.

Some time passed before I began to ask some of the questions I had written in my notebook. The city-funded Street Youth Program works with gang members in Southeast San Diego, attempting to find jobs for them and, in Tukufu’s words, to “get that gang thing” out of their lives. I wondered, what was their client load? At any given time, Tukufu and Davis each have from twenty-five to thirty clients, in addition to their summer crew of fifteen to twenty teen-agers.

What would the two do after summer was over? “It’s just as busy then as it is now,” said Tukufu, adding, “There’s a whole batch of kids I’m not seeing now, kids that are older, that are high-school dropouts. I try to get them into entry-level employment and back into school. If I hear they’re hiring at Ryan and I have three kids who seem ready to get into that, I will work with them. In the winter time, I do more going to them. I do more one-on-one sessions. I do more pickin’ up guys, puttin’ them in the car and ridin’ them around. You know, ‘C’mon man, what you doin’?’ ‘Aw, I ain’ doin’ nothin’.’ ‘Well, come on,’ I’ll say, ‘I got a little action on some job. Let’s go look at it and then pick us up some lunch.’

“Believe me, when you take one of those youngsters and allow him to be in your car, he feels like you’ve given him something. They go back to their buddies an’ say, ‘’Kufu let me go in the Camino. ’Kufu let me sport the Camino.’ ”

Doors slammed as the crew began to arrive. Young male voices called out “’Kufu, Liko,” and the two counselors returned greetings. The Southeast crew meets each morning and again in the late afternoon in a large back room of the Forty-third Street office. The workday for the crews does not begin until nine-thirty. But by nine o’clock, several of the Southeast crew were sitting down around a long table. The air was hot, still, humid. Several of the boys, decidedly sleepy, rubbed their eyes. They were dressed in jeans, T-shirts, billed caps, running shoes. Their work gloves, more worn looking than they had been ten days earlier, lay on the table.

Tukufu turned to Davis. “Man, did you know where Stevie got that car?” (The names of Stevie and the other youths in the program have been changed.) Tukufu was referring to a beat-up, rusted-out, windowless hulk pulled up into the parking lot off the alley behind the offices.

“He said his older brother gave it to him.”

“Well, we gotta do somethin’ about it,” said Tukufu.

At nine-thirty, when Tukufu walked into the back room, the boys began immediately to compete for his attention. It was “’Kufu, this” and “’Kufu that.” Tukufu asked Stevie about his car. Was it registered? Licensed? Did he have a driver’s license? Stevie did not look up into Tukufu’s eyes as he answered. His answer to each of Tukufu’s questions was in the negative.

“Okay, we’re gonna go over to Thirty-ninth and National, out to that area that we were lookin’ at last week,” Tukufu told the boys. The crew loaded rakes, shovels, brooms, garbage bags into the van provided by the Regional Youth Employment Program. Tukufu and I followed in his El Camino.

Tukufu suggested that this morning perhaps some of the youngsters would feel sufficiently comfortable to talk with me. We agreed to meet later for lunch. Then he would tell me, he laughed, “the story of my life.”

The corner of Thirty-ninth and National is kitty-cornered from New Image House of Curls. The site is a vacant lot. Over summer, weeds had grown up waist-high and turned brown, trash caught in the weeds’ branches. Garbage had been dumped off here, the effluvia of many households — soup cans, beer bottles, old tennis shoes, used paper diapers, instant-coffee jars.

This was the second summer that seventeen-year-old Bennie, the crew leader, had been with the Southeast crew. Each morning he handled sign-in procedure, and during the day he served as supervisor on the sites. Tall, skinny Bennie was not having an easy time with his workers that morning. Everybody was slow getting the rakes and shovels out of the back of the van, slow bringing the garbage bags onto the site. “Spread on out,” Bennie told the group, pointing to a spot for each of the twelve boys to take charge of, and they were slow making their way to where he sent them. “Man, I’m gonna count three — one, two, three — and if you don’t get to work. I’m gonna dock you,” he said. Several boys laughed. Bennie glared. But they got started, and after thirty minutes had passed, everybody was doing something. The weeds were coming down, trash bags getting filled.

Bennie lives in the area claimed by 5/9, a group sometimes called 5/9 Brims or Brimsters. They wear red and call each other “Blood.” Bennie does not call his group a gang. He speaks of it as “the set” or “the family.” He also calls his neighborhood “the set.... It’s like a family,” he said. “I don’t think of it like a gang, but like protecting my neighborhood. We protect older people, make sure nobody hurts the sisters.” Bennie’s older brother claimed 5/9. So he, Bennie, was an OG, an “original gangster.”

Socially, you stick with your set. If an issue comes up between somebody in your set and somebody in another set, you are loyal. Even if you move to another neighborhood, to another “set,” you stay with your own. If Bennie’s family moved to a West Coast Crips neighborhood, Bennie would still claim 5/9 Brims — otherwise he’d be a “hook,” or traitor.

On the set, in the neighborhood, Bennie is known as B. Hog. They put “hog” at the end of the name or initial, I was told, because “we gonna have it all. If we want somethin’, we go get it. We hogs.” Bennie has fallen away from heavy gang activity in the last few years.

“I have better things to do with my life,” he said. “You grow out of it.” Guys that stay in the gang life, said Bennie, “They don’t care for theyself.” It was not necessarily simple to exit gang life. “They come to you, say, ‘Hey, we got things to do.’ An’ you go.” Bennie has one more year of high school. When he graduates, he wants to go into the navy.

Another of the youngsters, Elron, fifteen, is the father of an infant daughter. A good-looking young man, hair permed in the loose California curls that have been popular in the black community for several years, he had seven or eight gold chains glittering at his throat. One of his girlfriends did his hair. I asked where he got the chains. “Baby girl [his girl friend] gets ’em for me.” He showed me pictures in his wallet. Most were of girlfriends. I asked if he saw his daughter often. Yes, he did. But his girlfriend’s mother, she did not much like him, so he didn’t see them often. This was Elron’s second summer with the crew. When Elron got out of high school, he thought he would go into the service.

Terry, also fifteen, had been picked up once for gang-related activity. He was put in a detention center for two days. While he was there, one inmate tried to hang himself and another tried “to choke himself to death” by swallowing a washcloth. Since that time, Terry has stayed away from gang activity. Terry said that he did not yet know what he wanted to do when he got out of high school.

For lunch, Tukufu and I went to a Chinese “all you can eat” restaurant. Several weeks earlier, when I had been a ride-along with Muhammad Ali Abbas-Hassan, a community relations officer with the San Diego Police Department, Hassan had pointed out this restaurant to me as an example of Asians’ ability to come to the United States and make something of themselves. When Tukufu and I sat down on the restaurant’s patio, he echoed Hassan’s observation.

Tukufu, born in 1949 and reared on the west side of Philadelphia, was the youngest of two children, both boys. His father was a mortician, his mother a housewife.

“I was a boy like these boys you were with this morning. I was a hard-core youngster. But my life was much better than theirs.”

Tukufu’s older brother was his parents’ favorite, especially his mother’s. “He played the piano. He sung church songs. I never did any of that by choice. When I did go, it was for the little girls.

“But I had good parenting. My father laid the law down and believed that we would follow that law. He didn’t believe there was any need to reiterate, ‘Don’t lie. Respect adults.’ But there were never reasons for things. He just told you, ‘Do it,’ he didn’t say why. There was a kind of unmitigating strictness, and my mama wasn’t my shade and my refuge, my port in the storm, she just wasn’t.

“My first dream, from grade school on, was to be a professional baseball player, to play shortstop. The older I got, the further the reality of that dream became. I didn’t see guys with whom I could identify making it in baseball. I didn’t know what the steps were. I didn’t know about doing good in high school, going to college, getting exposure, learning to be all right socially. What happened is, I changed my dream. I wrote it off.”

At fourteen, Tukufu had a weekend job hauling groceries.

“That job didn’t have a good work ethic. It provided me with money, but that’s all,” said Tukufu. Until he turned fourteen, Tukufu never got into trouble. Then he began to run with a gang. “At that age, you kinda think what you know is bein’ learned for the first time. I became attracted to guys who didn’t have discipline, who could do what they wanted. I wanted to be like I thought they were. I wanted a life to live of my own.”

At sixteen, Tukufu graduated from high school. It was 1965. “I said to myself, ‘I’m ready to get at the top of the world.’ I went to work at a barber shop. But by then, my goal was to be a numbers runner. It wasn’t runnin’ those numbers that attracted me, it was how the runner was viewed by the neighborhood.

You went to somebody’s house to take some numbers, you got waited on as good as the preacher. Cold lemonade, all that. Maybe you got treated better. You were gonna bring some material gain, whereas at best the preacher was gonna bring some spiritual gain.”

When he was seventeen, Tukufu got into a gang-bang (a gang fight). Someone was knifed. Tukufu did not take part in the knifing, but he was there, he said, “cheering.” He was arrested. When he came before the judge, he was given the choice of the county farm or the service.

He chose the navy.

“The navy system was bad for me in the state I was in at that time. I was a rebellious person, with newfound freedom, and I didn't know what to do with it. I could do what they told me to do, and did. But when it came to governing myself, I didn’t know how. I did things half-assed. My disregard for certain principles helped lead me to goin’ to jail and bangin’ my head for four years and eight months.”

Tukufu came to San Diego in 1966, when he was seventeen, to join his brother in the navy. In 1967, after Tukufu’s navy cruise ended, he was stationed here. “I was fascinated at that point with California guys. They were so country, and I thought they was the bravest things in the world, because they wore some of the craziest shit, shit that we thought was stage clothes. California was the first place I saw a guy outside of a tuxedo wearin’ a ruffle shirt.

“There were certain colors we never thought a man would wear, cornin’ out of that East Coast culture. White pin-stripe pants, white shoes to match, a white sweater. I dove off into it, head over heels. ’Cause I loved clothes. I could go down to Davison’s, I could get good credit, ’cause I was in the navy. I could buy top of the line. I wasn’t goin’ down there to that National Dollar Store.

“With some guys I knew in the navy, I got an apartment in Southeast. All the navy guys at that time stayed downtown, up in them locker clubs. Three of us rented an apartment. I got to messin’ with the neighborhood women. People would say to sailors, ‘Leave our girls alone, these are regular girls, girls in high school, church girls. You go downtown where those kind of girls are gravitatin’, ’cause those girls are lookin’ for that.’ I looked around downtown, and I didn’t see nothin’ I liked.”

After the navy, Tukufu got a job at Streicher’s, a shoe store. He became involved with the US organization, a cultural nationalist group. He changed his name to Tukufu. “It was good times.”

The year was 1968, what Tukufu calls his “San Diego year. That’s the year I had one of those rapid rises. I got sophisticated. I learned how to rob. In 1969 I went big time — furniture stores, carpet houses, car lots. I hooked up with some other guys. I didn’t want to rob nobody out of their own money. They might fight too hard for it. I wanted to rob people that had somebody else’s money. I’d hit credit unions, telephone companies, gas and light companies, people who always had cash. In a black neighborhood, there was a lot of cash back then. Black people didn’t have checking accounts. Not in those days. They couldn’t get ’em.” He began dealing drugs. Like Liko Davis, the other black counselor at the Street Youth Program, Tukufu never used heavily. “Drugs I didn’t much care for. Even in my criminal days, I needed to be in good shape. I saw my partners that messed with that heroin, they were physical wrecks, growin’ old before they were supposed to.”

I asked if he was frightened when he was committing robberies. “You don’t have no sense to be scared. I am a serious believer that between seventeen and twenty-one, fear is one of the last things you have. That’s how people get involved in drugs and all. You think you got a guarantee, that you got all these years to do this, and then after twenty-five, you can worry about genin' killed. You tell yourself, ‘Ever’thing is gonna take care of itself. I’m not gonna get shot. If I get caught. I’ll just have to go jail for a while.’ When I went to jail, I was considered an old man. I was twenty years old.”

One of the best things that happened to him in prison, said Tukufu, was learning to play golf. “At Chino, they have a nine-hole course. We used to play for cigarettes. They were rehabilitating us. They were giving us, based on their explanation of things, some exposure of things we hadn’t had. It gave me something to do other than hang with negative guys. An’ I loved it. Still do. It’s challenging. I play ever’ chance I get.”

Liko Davis was a cellmate of Tukufu’s in state prison, and as part of his efforts to rehabilitate himself, he finished high school while incarcerated. I asked Tukufu what his own rehabilitation had entailed. “I thought, ‘Enough is enough.’ Liko’s rehabilitation, he’s a put a lot of schooling in it. All I did to make myself better was to practice the value system I knew was right. I didn’t go to school. I didn’t need a certificate as a way to keep me out of the penitentiary. I was the one that put myself into the penitentiary. I was the one who chose to run with the guys I ran with. It wasn’t a hidden pressure that was snuck in on me and I just gave into it. I made a conscious effort to be with the guys I was with. I chose to do the things I did. I suffered a lot of pain because of it. But I did it.”

He got another plate of food and more iced tea. Tukufu finished his rice and pushed his plate aside. He said, “You know, I would like to write a book that when I got up in the mornin’, Bryant Gumble would be sayin’, ‘Look, for adolescent youth who’s havin’ problems, here’s a guy who’s got some do’s and don’ts. For parents that want to know how to raise their kids, here’s some hints.’ ” I asked for examples of what he would write. “We, black people, have become too hung up on materialistic concerns, too hung up in thinking we have to have so much in order to be somebody. And we start from so far behind, and we need so much before we have anything.

“Even concerned black parents don’t put enough into creating the self-esteem to make a child feel he’s worth something. Instead of child-rearing classes, I think black parents need classes that teach us to give our youth self-esteem, to teach them that in spite of our bein’ here without nothin', they can accomplish somethin'. That’s the difference between Asians who come here to this country with nothing and black folks. These people had that self-esteem.”

Tukufu said he felt that his father was like many parents in that he told him no but failed to give enough “why.... And it’s not so much the amount of why’s, but it’s the why you can understand that they don’t give you.

“There’s a mystique among youngsters about the other-side-of-the-law guy, the guy who hangs out in the pool hall. Those guys don’t have the appearance of having a lot of restrictions on them. They have the appearance of free and easy. I’d see them, think, They go, they shoot pool four, five hours, go home when they please.’ I never saw them in between those times. I just assumed it was mellow. I didn’t know when he wasn’t at the pool hall, he was maybe somewhere bein' rousted at the jail, an’ maybe waitin’ for somebody to come make bail.

“That thing that happens in between the glitter, that’s what youngsters don’ see. Take pimpin’. I used to be fascinated by a guy who could pull up, four women in the car. I mean, he get out and they sit there like trained poodles. He'd send one to go to the store, he’d send one to the rib joint. Just the command he had! I’d say, ‘Oooomph!’

“Every young black wants to be able to command something, because all our life we’re raised to believe we’re command/^. So I said, ‘Ma-an, that’s tough to be able to do that. He’s got it! A tailor-made suit on. He’s got shoes on that my daddy don’ even wear.’

“When you meet a guy in the street that excels your daddy, he has to be an attractive force to you. You aren’t raised to follow the guy who is prudent. In a subtle way, we are raised to follow after these commodities. We are taught that these trinkets, these materialistic things, are the ultimate goal for success — to be able to stack these things up and read them off: new car, new house, new sofa, new icebox, new washer and dryer. Whenever we get around a guy who seems close to that, he captivates us.

“I believe that youngsters today follow negative influences because we’ve made negative influences look glamorous. It looks like a great life — wheel down the street in a pretty car, pretty girls all around you, an’ you got command over them. Ever’body beckons to you. Anybody talks to you, they talk up to you. Nobody talks down to you. You say, ‘Man, I’d like to be that guy.’

“But they didn’t tell you about how you be starvin’, about how your ho’s [whores] get taken from you, they be hungry, they sick, they done got whupped up, a new pimp come to town and catch ’em down on the street and whup ’em up. Because soon as a new guy show up with a new car and a newer-style jewelry and a sharper suit, they gone. Nobody tells you that. They don’t tell you about when your gals don’t make no money. And the bottom line to pimpin’ is, when your girls don’ make no money, you have to make some money. You jus’ can’t say, ‘Well, my girls aren’t workin’ today. I’ll just do without.’ Because you gotta feed ’em.

“We won’t even talk about the maintenance and upkeep of a pimp’s lifestyle. You’ve got to keep your car runnin’ good, you’ve got to be able to pop ten dollars at a car wash, because that’s what’s expected of you. You may be down to your last twenty dollars, but you’ve got to go in there and get that ten-dollar car wash. You coulda washed it yourself, but you won’t dare let someone see you washin’ your own car. Because of the pimp mentality.

“That pimp mentality, it’s the same with the drug-dealer mentality. All you see is the glamour. You don’t see a guy pacin’ the floor all night with a loaded gun because he’s scared some guy is goin’ to come and try to rob him. You don’t see him figurin’ all the security he’s got to go through to move from point A to point B, because he thinks somebody might rip him off.”

Tukufu said that people who work with young males of any color need to be more realistic about the psychology under which boys operate. “Take a boy from a higher economic situation,” said Tukufu. “You go to college, you learn the college system, you graduate, you get into the job world. That’s a challenge. But the guy from low economics, or no economics, the challenge quite necessarily has to be different. But all boys, regardless of color or economic possibility, in one way they’re all the same. They like to do the ‘I dare you’s.’ You know, ‘Walk along the brick wall, balance, can you do this?’

“As resources take over, those challenges begin to differ. If you don’t have a car, getting a car is a challenge. But if you know your daddy is going to buy you a car when you turn sixteen, the challenge becomes, ‘Can I drive it at one hundred miles an hour?’ If you are poor, maybe the challenge becomes to steal a car. When you steal that car, it’s just like you walkin’ the wall. You don’t walk it with the consequence in the back of your head, ‘What if I fall? What if I break my arm and have to have it in a cast?’

“You look at those guys with skateboards. When they first got a board, all they did was get on ’em and ride. Now they get on ’em, they kick ’em in the air, they float, they jump on ’em, they spin, they catch ’em in the air. They ride ’em on their hands.”

I had noticed few young blacks on skateboards. I asked Tukufu if boys in the Southeast community used skateboards. “Some use ’em. But not many, because our neighborhoods aren’t designed for them. You can git your butt run over, goin’ through the ghetto on a damned skateboard. We don’t live in the rolling hills. But basically the thing is, when you talk about going through our community, you have to recognize that our community setup is different. The adults who are sharing the white community with their kids offer more permissibility. With more economics, there comes more permissibility. Less economics means more strain.

“So you’re ridin’ through a black neighborhood, a guy comes along, he’s worrying about gettin’ to his second job on time, he sees ten kids cornin’ at him on skateboards, he’s gonna plow four of ’em over. That’s why you don't see many of our kids on skateboards.”

We drove back past the job site. The boys were loading the van. Filled garbage bags were piled against the curb. Tukufu smiled. “Maybe today,” he said, “there were some young guys who saw these guys out in the street with them rakes and them shovels. And that’s glamorous to a young black kid! ‘Oh, man,’ maybe some young kid will say, lookin’ at somebody on this crew, ‘he’s got a job. he’s gettin’ a check!’ ”

As we pulled into the Street Youth Program parking lot, Tukufu was saying, “I am amazed at these youngsters, at their bein’ able to make it this far. They are more than me. I believe they can excel. I want to make ’em feel, ‘There’s things that I can do other than those which is most prominent in my eyesight.’ I want to make ’em feel that the world is gigantic. Because it is.”

It was almost three. Tukufu went to his desk, looked through the phone messages that had accumulated. He turned to me and said, “When the crew forms for the summer, one rule we make is about profanity in the presence of a woman. It’s forbidden. But one thing I do is to make some time when we’re all around the table together, when they can kinda loosen their language up. An’ this is that time.” Adding that he had to talk to Stevie about his unregistered car, Tukufu invited me to sit at the table.

By three-fifteen, Tukufu had talked with Bennie, the crew supervisor, about the day's work. Several boys had been docked. Tukufu gathered the dozen boys around the long table. They were sleepy, perhaps in part from the swampy heat. One boy put his head down on the table, his hands over his eyes. Several yawned.

“The reason I harp on that no license in the car is because you’re bypassing institutions that are designed to teach you a sense of responsibility. That’s how you learn a sense of responsibility, man.

“An' that makes me warm. I thought about you, Stevie, and that car all night, all night, all night! ’Cause I know how you are right now. You got it runnin'. It’s what we used to call ‘gas on the chest.’ Instead of gas on the stomach, you got gas on the chest. That means you wants to drive. An’ all you guys got that.”

Tukufu spoke loudly and with exuberant expressiveness. Everyone looked up. He addressed the sleepiest looking of the boys. “Get me some ice water, please. An’ get yourself a glass so you can wake up.” The boy complied. And when he returned with Tukufu’s glass, Tukufu thanked him and said, “Did you get yourself a drink?” He hadn’t. “Go git yourself a glass,” Tukufu said. Moments later the boy came back, sipping water from a paper cup. “Tha’s better,” said Tukufu.

“We had a bad day today,” Tukufu continued, turning to the boy next to him, a boy who had been docked. “You know why I’m bein’ patient? Soon we’ll be even-Steven. Then I’m not gonna be patient. You know how you do, you jus’ eatin’ cheap. You'll come aroun', you’ll say, *’Kufu, how can I kinda work some of that time off?’ Don’t make nothin’ to have to work off.”

Addressing himself momentarily to me, Tukufu said, “For some of these guys, graduatin’ from high school means more. But these guys have seen guys that make it in their eyesight and didn’t go to school. So there’s that confusion. Here we are, society, institutions, sayin’ ‘Hey, you gotta go to school to be able to make it,’ and then we find out that is not realistically so, ’cause we see people that can make it.

“Like I tell these guys, I say, ‘Hey, man, I know when you guys look at them guys in them pretty cars, and they’re slangin’ that dope, that looks good.’ But I try to hurry up and let them know the other on that.

“There’s some in between on that. Like when you get busted and you be up in there in that jailhouse. I done told these guys. Some of these guys go to jail, they get turned out. And I mean quick. Some guys be too nice, too nonaggressive. So they get in one of those kind of environments, and them aggressive people get at you, and they say ‘Homeboy’ [Tukufu snapped his fingers, as if beckoning], and the next thing you know, they have you switchin’ around that tier, making fudge and drawin’ Mother’s Day cards. That’s what they do.

“ ’Cause you’d have a tough time,’’ Tukufu looked at Stevie.

“You know how your folks tell you, ‘Boy, you better quit that ol’ fightin’, cause one day you’re gonna meet somebody who’s gonna tear you up.’ Boy, you learn that so quick in the penitentiary. You know how you look at somebody and you say, ‘Hey, I know I better not mess with that guy there’? Well, you meet them in the pen before you get off the bus. You hadn’t even got off the bus.” Tukufu, laughing harshly, said to one of the boys, “I rode to the penitentiary chained to your uncle. Did you know that?” The boy nodded assent, and then the group talked for a moment about the uncle.

Still on the heels of Stevie’s unregistered car, Tukufu continued talking. “I’m just tellin’ you, you’ll meet your match. All these things I’m talkin’ to you about, you get an immediate course, a cram course in the penitentiary. You don’t have anybody to talk to, to tell you, ‘Hey, man, if you borrow cigarettes, pay them back.’ Nobody tell you that.

“This is what you’d do, some of you. You’d borrow, ’cause y’all are greedy. You’d get to the penitentiary and your money wouldn’t be there yet. You’d say to somebody, ‘Hey, buddy, loan me a pack of cigarettes.’ And he’d say, ‘Sure, man, an’ you want some cookies?’ ‘Yeah, man,’ you’d say. ‘Hey, man, want a little coffee? Some Tang?’ ‘Yeah, man. Yeah.’

“Then the guy’d say, ‘Hey, man, when are you going to pay me back?’ And you’d say, ‘Friday.’ This is Monday when you borrow the stuff. On Wednesday, he come to you, say, ‘Hey, man, let me have that stuff I loaned you.’ And you’d say, ‘I said I wasn’t goin’ to give you the stuff back until Friday.’ And he’d tell you, ‘Hey, man, give me that stuff right now or I’m takin you back to my cell.’

“An’ you guys would fall for that trap, if you had to go at the age you are now. Some of you have poor control about those kind of things. Like when there’s two lunches left, and there’s five of you all. Everybody’s not grabbin’. But there’ll be a certain three or four guys that’s like this here [Tukufu mimed grabbing]. Some of you guys would get killed because you’re too triflin’ not to sit on somebody else’s bed. If you were immediately thrown into a different environment where you had to change your ways, some of you guys are so stubborn and so hard about changin’, you’d violate a serious rule.”

Heat steeped in the room. The only sound was of our breathing. Then Tukufu began to speak again, softly, soothingly, as if he were telling a bedtime story. “But the thing is, goin’ to the pen, it’s almost kinda like watchin’ a guy speedin’ down the street. You know it’s dangerous to do, but if enough time goes by, pretty soon you’ll speed. A lot of these guys, irregardless of what I’ve told them about the pen and how bad it is, just by the nature of being a young man and tryin’ it for yourself, they may go that way.

I think a lot of these guys think that in terms of goin’ to the pen, well, they know guys who went, and it’s just one of the things that kinda makes you be cool.

“I don’t like to be judged all right because I went to the pen.” Tukufu looked around the table, searching one set of eyes after another, resting a bit longer on Stevie’s eyes because this talk about prison was in large part for him. ‘‘I wanta be all right based on the positive things I give you, as opposed to what I have problems with myself.

“We all take after bad examples, and we follow bad influences. We do.” Tukufu paused, lowering his voice; it was barely audible in the hushed room. “Shucks, I looked at them guys pimpin’ and drivin’ those big pretty cars. You couldn’t tell me that wasn’t the life to have. You couldn’t drum it into me. You couldn’t bring a pope to tell me, a pretty girl to tell me, nobody could tell me that was not the life to live.”

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