In preschool I remember forming clubs, sometimes girls only and sometimes co-ed, on an almost daily basis. (A certain best friend of mine might be chuckling since she knows I never really grew out of clubs, as evidenced by my first resume out of college.) One morning playtime I was appointed guard of the tree house during an all girls meeting when Jason tried to intrude by climbing the ladder. Faithfully holding my ground I took his bite square in the belly-button. Our meeting was effectively over.
On other occasions we developed sophisticated passwords, secret handshakes, and “scathingly brilliant ideas” that never amounted to anything. I blame the fact that we had to go home every night and start over again the next morning. But what if we had followed through? We might have become a sorority through a variety of rituals and an intricate codification of relationships; we might have become, in essence, a gang. One of the most notorious biker gangs out of Florida developed from less.
I both love and hate the scene in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Tom Sawyer tries to start his gang of thieves, because Mark Twain captures the painful essence of our depravity:
We went along a narrow place and got into a kind of room, all damp and sweaty and cold, and there we stopped. Tom says:
“Now, we’ll start this band of robbers and call it Tom Sawyer’s Gang. Everybody that wants to join has got to take an oath, and write his name in blood.”
…[The Oath] swore every boy to stick to the band, and never tell any of the secrets; and if anybody done anything to any boy in the band, whichever boy was ordered to kill that person and his family must do it, and he mustn’t eat and he mustn’t sleep till he had killed them and hacked a cross in their breasts, which was the sign of the band… And if anybody that belonged to the band told the secrets, he must have his throat cut, and then have his carcass burnt u and the ashes scattered all around, and his name blotted off the list with blood and never mentioned again by the gang, but have a curse put on it and be forgot forever.
Everybody said it was a real beautiful oath… Some thought it would be good to kill the families of boys that told the secrets.
We’re meant to laugh, and I do, but it’s painfully absurd. That’s my point (and Twain’s): gangs illustrate the ridiculous and our love of rituals.
“But Miss,” I can hear one of my offenders say, “people die over these things.” Gangs are not child’s play. I know. I know what happens now when we don’t go home after our meeting in the tree house or other hideout and wash the sandbox from our hair; we kick it at the homies’ cribs and scrounge around to find a shower to cleanse the filth from last night. And that’s a good night.
What is the appeal? An escape. The beginning of the scene from above reminds me of The Dead Poet’s Society where the boys sneak out to their cave in the middle of the night. It too is a covert meeting in a veiled cave like the one Tom Sawyer picked out. In both cases boys are just trying to escape their respective ills, even though, in the case of the young poets, it’s hard to understand the problem with money, prestige, and education. In a few years they will enjoy the advantages of their current difficulties and laugh at their juvenile approaches to wooing women. Not all boys are so fortunate; they have no trust fund to grow into, no responsibilities to assume with their position in society, and so they find themselves stuck in the metaphorical cave with other Tom Sawyers.
As much as I don’t like Tom Sawyer, I can appreciate his puerile adventures. Today, Tom would’ve lost his childhood by the age of seven and become a danger rather than a well-read prankster. You might have found him at a gang-banger BBQ rather than a cave. You see, I can’t help but learn some things about gangs, even though I’m not supposed to. My sources, if you want to call them that, don’t always mean to share anything and others who share details of their life take me by complete surprise. It lends the impression that, although they are tightly bound to secrecy about even the silliest detail, they want to spill their guts.
One surprise occurred in the last couple weeks of the semester when a student suddenly stopped writing a 23 page story about a magical world with mean, talking dogs to tell me about how he joined the gang. Mind you, he has left out a lot of details and probably altered some of the facts, but I think there is a grain of truth behind his essay. I watched him, pen hovering over paper, for three days as he struggled with the words. He shouldn’t have written this at all, certainly not for his teacher-cop.
The first school I attended out of elementary school was —-. I met a boy the same age as me, and my life would soon take a different turn. I had already been through things that some adults have never come across, but this new-found friendship was the icing on the cake. It started off with him influencing me to do little things like smoke in the school bathrooms and treat people very bad for no reason.
I already had no reason to fear the punishments of my actions so it made it that much easier for me to do. Well I started bringing my friend D- around and we started going around the boy’s family. His family was different. Usually my friends didn’t have parents and if they did their parents were good parents and cared about what they did. His family, Mom, aunts, cousins, and brothers, were all bad influences. They were all part of a gang and raised their kids to do the same things they did.
Everyone in the family had hood names (nick names) and they all wore —. At the time, I was so young and didn’t realize it, but his mom, and older brothers slowly tried to recruit me and D-. They would show us that they had power and respect over other people, they purposely left loads of money on the tables so we would see it, and they occasionally bought us small things. One day me and D- went over there after school and the older brother began to ask us if we wanted to be one of them. Seeing as how they had money and respect we both quickly agreed. What kid living the way we did wouldn’t want that? Everybody in the family was outside. They were barbecuing, and it just seemed like a nice day. I heard loud music in the distance and it got louder every second. Then I heard the music stop and a car door shut. Three guys came to the back yard. They were all in the color — and had — flags hanging out their pockets.
Over the next couple of hours the yard was packed with about 85 people. The ages of the people were 12-40. Once everyone was there this older guy stood on the balcony and grabbed everyone’s attention by making this noise. Everyone repeated the noise and it grew silent. He began by saying the new people had to get jumped in before they discussed any business around us.
Everyone got against the fences around the yard and waited. The guy called out my name and told me to come to the middle of the yard. He then called out someone else’s name and he stepped up and came at me ready to fight. When he reached me we began exchanging punches. When we were completely wore out he told the guy I was fighting to get back against the fence. he then called out three other people who came at me charging. The oldest out of them was 23 and I was only 11 or 12. Even though I was exhausted I had to try my hardest to fight. Every time I would hit the ground, they would let me get up and go again. After what seemed like an eternity the guy said stop.
I was beat up pretty bad and they directed me to go on the balcony and get our numbers tattooed on my arms. This was my first tattoo and what I would get was chosen. While I was getting tattooed D-‘s turn came up. The same thing happened to him except different people were involved…
[When business was finished] people started grabbing plates so they can start eating. I was given a name under someone else, and that person approached me while I was sitting in a chair trying to take in everything that happened…
He asked me how I got money and at the time all I was doing was going to school so I told him so. I was given the option to become a stick up kid or a dope dealer. I had been exposed to both of the underground trades, and I wanted to impress him, so I said both… [H]e pulled out a gun and a dope sack and gave them to me. He looked at what I was wearing and drove off. We went to the mall and he bought me several outfits, shoes, and hats. I had never received this kind of treatment from anyone in my life and now this stranger comes and gives me everything.
This made me feel like I had to prove my loyalty to him and never let him down…
… My getting [jumped in to the gang] ruined my whole family of four. [sic]
I asked another offender about the tattoo experience. “Maybe in his gang,” came the reply, “but I had to earn mine.” To the initiated, therefore, his tattoos communicated a certain level of accomplishment and dedication rather than the ceremonial markings in the above description. I sure wasn’t going to ask what he had done to deserve his numbers and the other images underneath his shirt. The significance of tattoos made me feel like I was walking around a bunch of open books written in a foreign language, and I think I’ll maintain my ignorance.
This essay started to make sense of some things I had observed over the past few months; it made me think how juvenile some of the gang culture is. Why wouldn’t it be? Gangs are full of overgrown children. Although I choke back laughter at some of their childish customs, I now see that I once dabbled in their roots.