Understanding is a wellspring of life to him who has it.
The tension, thick and palpable, that had made breathing a quickened, gasping effort was finally fading. The men about the dormitory had gathered themselves into clusters of familiarity… and safety. With a lot of gesturing, tongues wagged in excited whispers about the skirmish of a few moments ago. To a man, they were all thinking and talking about one thing: it wasn't over.
I am an Old School, existing on the edge of an environment dominated by young prisoners... Gladiators. They were like wolves, moving about in packs, empowered by the sense of being greater than the sum of their parts.
Adrenaline had my own heart pounding in my breast, although I tried to look unaffected by the fracas. I was perched on the edge of my bunk, staring at, but not seeing, the pages of a novel I held in front of me. Within our dorm I was afforded a fair amount of respect from the young gang-bangers. They perceived in me a wisdom that can come only with having done some living, and that had been honed by a degree of academia. I readily shared with them all that I had come to understand about the vagaries of life. That is why I was not too surprised when Tony, aka Tee Knocker, made his way to my bunk. Tee Knocker had been one of the combatants. He was also a gang member. He'd abandoned his agitated cohorts to join me.
"Say, School, was I wrong?" he asked, taking a seat on my bunk beside me.
I closed the book I'd been clutching and sat it down behind me. I did not know what the scuffle had been about, but to my way of thinking just then, the right or wrong of the matter was inconsequential.
"Who cares?" I told him, and that got me a surprised and bewildered stare. "This is prison, youngster! When two men go at it, the man left standing is right." I relaxed my expression and smiled genially at him.
"The question you really want to ask is did you act like a damn fool?” In every dorm at this prison (as in most), a tenuous truce kept the various gangs from killing each other. But from time to time, fragile egos and the need to lash out, or to measure up in the eyes of peers, brought about conflicts that ranged from a single blow, to death in gruesomely creative ways.
"I couldn't let that mark disrespect me in front of my brothers, School." This with his chest puffed out.
"So, you jumped on the guy, and your buddies had to break it up. What were you trying to prove, Tee Knocker? Tell me this: Did the problem get solved?” I didn’t get. Or expect an answer. “You could've started a war over something that neither clique felt was worth it. If you want my advice, you need to step back, take a serious look at what's got you bugging, and ask yourself if you’re on a Tee Knocker-trip." At his core, Tee Knocker was a simmering cauldron of rage. Around that core was a melange of anxieties that haunted him to no end.
The young man had been watching me. When I stopped talking and looked closer at Tee Knocker, it was then that I saw the core issue; the thing that couldn't be shrugged off. It was fear. Fear that could not…dare not…be acknowledged. How could I tell him that a healthy fear was an emotion that helped us set certain boundaries, that made us human. If I tried, the message he would likely get is that I was, somehow, weak. I could not allow that to happen.
"I can't let him make it, School." In the depths of Tee Knocker's eyes was the over-bright, liquid, haunted look of being trapped. He was miserable, and it was a palpable thing that was shifting its weight onto my shoulders.
"Guess what?" I said.
"You don't have to do anything. Do you understand that? It's your choice, Tee Knocker. That's the power you've got over the situation." Judging from the way he looked at me, I had just proposed an option he had not considered. To do nothing; to treat the matter as a non-issue, and put it to rest right here, right now, was a truly novel idea.
"He's not going to drop it. If I don't do something, man, I'm going to look weak... or scared, and that will just pump him up. I don't need my brothers tripping, wondering if I've turned into a punk. Anyway, we're not worried about no war, School. We can handle ours! And, we're not going to let anybody handle us like suckers."
"That's your trip, son," I told him. I had heard and could not ignore his use of the inclusive "we" throughout his justification for indulging that gang-brand of insanity. "You're making this thing bigger than what it needs to be." I tapped the side of my head with a rigid finger. "Think, young brother! Think! If that guy, or any of his crew meant to do you harm, they would've done it while you two were tangled up. Didn't his partners help break up the fight? Nobody's looking for any more trouble, Tee Knocker."
"Or, they're just waiting for their shot at me. I was the one who set it off, School, when that fool pushed the dominoes off the table." Leaning, so as to glance surreptitiously around me, his gaze tracked to the loose huddle of his would-be adversary and the guy’s buddies in a corner of the dorm. "He's got to try something, just for some get back." Tee Knocker settled back so that he was propped up on his elbows.
The dynamics revolving around issues of self-esteem and ego with these young gang-bangers was a psychological nightmare. The need to measure up in the eyes of fellow gang members seemed a pressure beyond comprehension. They validated each other. Sometimes it seemed to me that none of them had any identity outside of the gang. No sense of their own worth, or even of an individual existence. If a member could actually separate himself…
"Who else has your prison number, Tee Knocker?" I asked. I'd allowed myself to become challenged and psyched up by this conversation, and it took an effort now to maintain at least an impression of objective neutrality.
"My prison number...? Nobody." This confused and disconsolate young thug was looking at me as though I'd lost my mind.
"What other person did your judge sentence to do your time with you?"
"Nobody." Tee Knocker was trying hard to get a handle on where this all might be going.
"So, you're telling me that you… and only you… are responsible for doing your time?" The young man's expression suddenly became care-worn. He believed that he had figured out the track and purpose of my questions, and had heard it all before. He simply nodded his head distractedly. His gaze started to drift.
"Do you want to get out of prison? Do you want to go home?" His curiosity peaked anew, Tee Knocker swung his eyes back to meet my own.
"Yeah, I want to go home." He seemed mildly insulted. Good!
"Then act like it! That should be your number one priority! You need to look at everything you do as being either for you getting out of prison, or against it. You are the wise man, or the fool, making the decisions that affect your getting out of here. If you jam your time by doing something that puts you in lockup, young brother -- you go alone. None of your clique brothers can do a day of that time on lock for you. All of them will go home when their time is done, leaving you right here trying to prove that you're tough and loyal." I reached out and lightly thumped his chest. "At some point, Tee, you've got to start thinking about, and doing, what's best for you."
I lowered my voice and looked steadily at the younger man, trying for empathy, needing him to feel with me.
"The goal we all need to have, son, is to go home. Anything that gets in the way of that goal should be avoided. The one thing that I always… and I do mean always!…try keep in mind is that me and my loyalty should be with my family… my true family. That's the filter I try to run all of my attitudes, thinking, and behaviors through. Nothing comes before my family. And, if I say that my place and loyalty is with my family, but I'm doing things that will keep me in prison, then I'm either a liar or a fool. Understand?" It was, frankly, beyond my perceptive, or intuitive, abilities to discern or define what settled into Tee Knocker's visage at that moment. It was a look, though, that brought a tightness to my chest, along with an aching sadness.
"Yeah, School... I do understand you." Tee Knocker's voice was hoarse with an emotion that I could only wonder at. Had I inadvertently said something that struck a cord of sanity within this young man? Please let it be so.
In prison you learn to react, even while sleeping, to unusual noises, or to anything that impacts your awareness. Angry voices and the sounds of frantic movement should not only bring a person fully awake, but also on point, ready to defend himself. It did me with a sphincter-clinching near panic.
A lot of guys were up and milling about in a kind of erratic frenzy. Quite a few were shouting mindless, disparaging epithets directed at no one in particular. The loudest voices belonged to the guards who were roaming the dorm and yelling directives, while waving batons and threatening the use of pepper gas. The prime directive was for every inmate to return to his bunk. I could see a few guys wearing only their underwear, face-down on the floor of the dorm's common area, their hands cuffed behind their backs. A more concentrated and focused group of guards were gathered around a bunk where a solitary figure lay on the floor.
I was just gathering my wits and sitting up to better assess the situation, when suddenly a team of medical personnel, surrounded by more guards, charged through the open dorm door pushing a gurney. These med techs and guards made their way, never slowing, to the bunk where the other guards hovered over the person sprawled on the floor. I watched, fascinated and horrified, as the medical crew, with guards assisting, lifted an inert body, not from the floor, but from the bunk, and placed it on the gurney. Then, the medical crew raced from the dorm. The person on the gurney appeared to me to be either dead or close to it. The body was blood-soaked.
As I said, a guy in prison comes pretty much fully alert when anything that even hints at calamity rattles his awareness. I knew that the bunk they had taken the unmoving figure from belonged to the gang-banger Tee Knocker had fought with earlier. My gaze tracked across to Tee Knocker's bunk. It was empty. I did not get out of my bunk (as I said, we Ol' Schools practiced passive observation from the relative safety of the fringes, though not out of fear; I’d been there, done that), but waited, and was not in the least surprised when the guards at the bunk hoisted Tee Knocker up from the floor. His hands and feet were in chains. Head bowed, he looked to be disoriented… lost. I could see that a sergeant had a bloodied shank in an evidence baggy. I continued to watch as Tee Knocker, surrounded by a phalanx of guards, was prodded to a shuffling walk across the dorm's common area coming in my direction. Tee Knocker's face was expressionless, almost as though the features were painted on or glued into place. -- Strange.
The procession was just passing me when Tee Knocker looked up suddenly, peering between the guards’ bodies encircling him, until his eyes found me. He raised his cuffed hands to where I could see them and his fingers awkwardly formed the sign of the gang he belonged to. The gesture caused a couple of guards to look my way. I did not really like that, but right then I could not muster any real concern about it, given the circumstances. There was life in his face... thank God. Tee Knocker was calling to me.
"Hey School, I thought about what you said -- you know, about being with my family and owing family my loyalty. My clique is the only family I've got, or dude, and I'll always have family here. Feel me? I just did what I had to do to stay with my family, just like you said. I'm down for life!" Then, he was gone.
For an interminable moment, I was chilled and numb
Dear God! What had I done?
It seems that Tee Knocker had understood me all right. It was my understanding that had been lacking. And it was not that I didn't know, but that I had not bothered to consider the possibility—the probability—that for a lot of these young soldiers, the gang is the closest thing to family they've ever had, or will ever have. There is even something that passes for a kind of love and acceptance shared between them. I've seen it. Their loyalty to the clique is often unshakable and unconditional. And yes, they are often willing to take a life or lay down their own to prove their loyalty and to measure up in the eyes and esteem of their fellow gang members; their family.
In Tee Knocker's case, I'd known that he was a young man who felt things deeply. I'd thought to exploit that aspect of his nature in order to focus him on where he truly needed to place his loyalty and affection: with his family.
I'd grown up in a loving, strongly bonded family. Family always came first. For me and mine, it was still like that. Even knowing as I do that not many of the inmates I've met in prison are as fortunate in matters of family as I am, I'd still wanted to believe that even the most dysfunctional family was still bonded by blood, and that it had to be better than any surrogate crowd a person might fall in with in prison.
I was wrong.
My reasoning, colored by my faulty understanding, had allowed me to inadvertently give Tee Knocker the only reason he needed to commit murder. I would be haunted by this understanding, or the lack thereof, for the rest of my days.