Read an Excerpt
In my last book, Boot Camp, I wrote about a secret prison system for teenagers in the United States. Teens do not have to be found guilty of a crime to be sent to one of these facilities, also known as boot camps. All they have to be is under the age of eighteen and have parents or guardians who want to send them away.
There is yet another system of detention in our country that holds not thousands, but millions, of innocent people against their wills. Unlike boot camps, which are often located in remote parts of the landscape, these social and economic gulags are hidden in plain sight, often in inner cities, but also anywhere that young people are denied the basic social, economic, and educational opportunities necessary to succeed.
Like many Americans, I believe that the United States provides its citizens with some of the greatest educational, social, and financial opportunities on Earth. But those opportunities are not shared equally. Today significant numbers of American citizens—mostly minorities, and many living in impoverished inner-city areas—are doomed to fail before they have the chance to embrace the possibilities for a happy and rewarding life that so many of the rest of us enjoy.
For those of us who live in suburbs, small towns, and in the better parts of urban areas, the impoverished inner cities are portrayed by the media as a cauldron of moral decay and crime that now and then produces a talented athlete or music star. We forget that millions of inner-city denizens are just like us—well-meaning human beings who yearn for the simple and basic privileges our country promises: a decent education, a job with a chance for advancement, and a safe place to raise children.
When those privileges are denied, or are unattainable, young men and women seek other avenues to satisfy their needs and fulfill their dreams. This, many believe, accounts for the steady increase in gang membership that has occurred over the past three decades. It is important to note that gang membership knows no ethnic or racial bounds. In addition to Hispanic, African-American, and Asian gangs, it is currently estimated that close to 30 percent of gang membership in smaller cities and rural communities is Caucasian.
Still, the majority of gang members in this country are minority city dwellers. As Malcolm W. Klein states in his book The American Street Gang: Its Nature, Prevalence, and Control, “Street gangs are an amalgam of racism, of urban underclass poverty, of minority and youth culture, of fatalism in the face of rampant deprivation, of political insensitivity, and the gross ignorance of inner-city . . . America on the part of most of us who do not have to survive there.” (My italics.)
Since the dawn of the human race, we have banded together to improve our chances of survival. It seems to be basic to our nature. Given this, perhaps we can understand why, when faced with hopelessness, racism, and inescapable poverty, young inner-city men are likely to join gangs.
Perhaps the saddest, most sinister, and devastating aspect of gangs is that, in the absence of positive influences, opportunities, and role models, they recruit basically good, constructive, and naturally well-meaning young men (and to a lesser degree, young women) and turn them bad.
This is the story of one of those young men.
TWELVE YEARS OLD
The divisions between black and white, and rich and poor, begin at birth and are reinforced every day of a child’s life.
“Some ask us why we act the way we act
Without lookin’ how long they kept us back.”
—from “Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man)”
by Public Enemy
A Shorty Falls
The shouting and screaming outside started at dinnertime. We were sitting on the living room couch, eating macaroni and cheese, and watching Judge Joe Brown on the TV. Between the banging of the heat pipes and the noise outside, it was one big racket.
“DeShawn, turn up the sound,” Gramma said. I put my tray on the couch and turned up the volume. The TV was old, and no one knew where the clicker was anymore. It was just me and Gramma that night. My big sister, Nia, was out with her boyfriend, LaRue.
Outside the yelling got louder and the police sirens started. Gramma flinched and put down her fork. She shook her gray head wearily, and the skin around her eyes wrinkled. “Noise around here is gonna make me lose my mind.”
I glanced toward the thick green curtains that covered the window. Ever since gangbangers cocktailed the apartment down the hall, Gramma had kept the curtains closed all the time.
“Don’t go near that window,” she warned. “They could start shootin’.”
The curtains already had two bullet holes the size of bottle caps. There were bullet holes in the walls, too. Gramma had put a picture over one of them, and another was blocked by our little Christmas tree decorated with tinsel and candy canes. We would have been safer living on a high floor, but the elevators were always broken and it was hard for Gramma to climb the stairs after cleaning houses all day. In the projects, the older you got, the closer to the ground you wanted to live.
The sirens and shouting grew louder. I gave Gramma a pleading look.
“No,” she said firmly.
“But the police are here,” I argued. “Won’t be any more shooting.”
“I said no,” Gramma repeated, but her words sounded weary and defeated, and I knew I could wear her down.
“Come on, please?” I pestered. Outside the sirens had now stopped, but there was still lots of shouting. “Just let me look.”
“Oh, okay.” Gramma gave in just like I knew she would. “But be quick.”
I hurried over and peeked through the curtains. The window was streaked with dirt, and cold winter air seeped in around the edges. Outside a crowd of people had gathered in the dark. All I could see were the tops of heads and shoulders. “Must be something big going on,” I said. “Let me go see. Please?”
“No! You ain’t allowed out after dark.”
“I’ll stay right by the front, I promise.”
“Nothing bad’s gonna happen with all those people out there.”
“Come on, Gramma, I’ll only be a few minutes. I swear.”
She let out a disheartened sigh. “You ain’t gonna stop botherin’ me till I say yes, are you? Come back quick, hear? And don’t go nowhere else.”
I grabbed my coat, went out into the graffiti-covered hall, down the pee-smelly stairs, across the bare lobby, and through the dented metal doors to the outside. Cold, dark air filled my lungs. The crowd was still growing. Fearful of being trampled, I went behind the mob where it wasn’t packed so tightly. There I found Lightbulb, walking in a circle with his eyes squeezed shut and his fingers in his ears. He wore a black wool cap pulled down over his head, and a ratty, old-man-size coat that dragged on the ground.
“S’up Bulb?” I asked.
Lightbulb opened his eyes but shook his head and kept his fingers in his ears. He’d gotten his nickname because of his light skin and the shape of his head. Sometimes he wasn’t right in the head, either.
“Come on, don’t get all janky on me,” I said.
“A shorty fell.” Lightbulb winced as if just talking about it caused him pain. “Long way down. He’s dead for sure.”
By the age of twelve, seeing dead folks was nothing new. The gangbanger who lay glassy-eyed in a pool of blood in the lobby. The lady who was stabbed and crawled down four flights of stairs, leaving a long, brownish red trail before she bled out. The crusty old wino who froze to death on a bench. But I’d never seen a dead kid before.
The crowd was packed tight. No way someone my size could fight through all those legs and hips to see. Besides, the police were lining the area with yellow crime-scene tape. The ambulance men were in there, crouching down. I figured the best place to see would be from the monkey bars in the middle of the yard.
The bars were cold in my bare hands as I climbed. Around me rose the broad, flat buildings of the Frederick Douglass Project. Lights glowed in some windows and red and green Christmas lights were strung across a few balconies, but many more windows were boarded up and dark.
I was watching the police clear a semicircle of space near the side of my building when behind us on Abernathy Avenue, a car door slammed. A black Mercedes with dark windows stood at the curb, shiny chrome rims still spinning like they were going a hundred miles an hour. A man got out and the crowd began to part as he walked toward the building. He was shorter than some, but stocky and powerfully built. There was only one person who commanded that kind of respect: Marcus Elliot, the leader of the Douglass Disciples.
He wore black slacks and a black leather jacket over a white turtleneck sweater, with a big gold chain hanging in front. An earring glimmered. His brown hair was short and neatly trimmed, and he had a square face and small, deep-set eyes that were almost always in a suspicious squint. The crowd quieted and parted, and even the police stepped aside. Marcus stopped and looked over the shoulders of the ambulance men. He stood there for a long time.
The monkey bars rattled as Lightbulb climbed up. His pants were torn at the knees, and the sleeves of his big coat hung down past his hands. Sitting beside me, he started rocking back and forth. Near us, one of the ambulance men came though the crowd with something long and black.
“What’s that?” Lightbulb whispered.
“Body bag,” I whispered back. “Go find out who fell.”
Lightbulb shook his head.
“For a Snickers bar,” I said.
“It’s upstairs. Give it to you tomorrow.”
Lightbulb climbed down and disappeared. Mean-while the ambulance men lifted the body bag onto a stretcher and rolled it through the crowd. The bag was mostly flat, except for a bump in the middle. Marcus walked behind them. His face was hard and flat. Jaws clenched, lips tight. Not a handsome face, but one that said he wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything.
Lightbulb climbed back up. “It was Darnell.”
Darnell was Marcus’s little nephew. I twisted back toward Abernathy Avenue. They’d opened the rear ambulance door to slide in the stretcher. The light from inside reflected on the men’s faces. You might have expected that Marcus would be looking down at his nephew. But he wasn’t. He was staring back at the project with a look as cold and angry as I’d ever seen.
Darnell’s momma was Laqueta, who was Marcus’s sister and my best friend Terrell’s first cousin. I didn’t know who Darnell’s father was, only that Laqueta’s new boyfriend was Jamar, the Disciples’ second in command, and that they lived up on the fifteenth floor. Everyone said Laqueta was the prettiest girl in the projects, with her big round eyes and straight white teeth and constant smile. At least, until the Gentry Gangstas threw Darnell off the roof.
The next morning, Gramma made me put on a heavy coat, gloves, and a hat before I could take my bike outside. Despite the cold, I liked riding around because the ground was hard and you could go almost anywhere in the project. Not like in the spring when the yard was soft and muddy.
Outside, something lay on the ground about thirty feet from the yellow-taped crime-scene spot where Darnell had fallen, far enough away that it might have been missed by the crowd in the dark the night before. It was a window guard, bent in the middle, as if someone had kicked it out of a window frame.
“This where that little boy fell?” a voice behind me asked. I turned. It was a girl with big, pretty eyes, wearing a clean pink jacket with a hood lined with white fur pulled tightly around her face like an Eskimo.
“Over there.” I pointed toward the yellow tape.
“It’s so sad.”
“They say the Gentry Gangstas did it,” I said, repeating what I’d heard.
The girl scowled. “Who’s that?”
It was hard to believe she didn’t know. “The rival gang,” I said. “From over in the Gentry Project. I heard Jamar, the baby momma’s boyfriend, told the police he saw two men run away wearing green bandanas. That’s a Gangsta color.”
We were in the shadow of the building where it was cold enough to see our breath come out white. A dozen yards away, in the bright sunlight, was a bench. I walked my bike toward it, and the girl and I told each other our names and ages. Hers was Precious, and like me, she was twelve. The wooden seat on the bench was broken, so I hopped up on the top. Precious stood in front of me with her hands in her pockets. The sun was strong and took some of the icy sting out of the air.
“Where’d you get that nice jacket?” I asked.
“My daddy gave it to me for Christmas.” She had a bright smile that reminded me of Laqueta.
“Oh, yeah?” I hardly knew anyone who had a father at home. Much less one who gave gifts. “Only Christmas isn’t till next week.”
“I got it early ’cause it’s cold and I don’t have anything else warm.”
My best friend, Terrell Blake, came out with his bike. He was wearing baggy pants and an extra-large gray hoodie that hung down to his knees. He rode with one hand, the other jammed down into the hoodie’s pocket.
“How come they let you out?” I asked, knowing he was supposed to be inside grieving for Darnell with his family.
“It’s too sad and stuffy up there,” he said, straddling his bike. “Makes my asthma act up.” Terrell was taller than me, with skin a little lighter and a thinner nose. One of his front teeth was chipped from a rock fight we’d had a few months before. Recently he’d started to let his hair grow, and it was almost long enough to braid. He eyed my new friend.
“This is Precious,” I said. “She lives in Number Three.”
Number Three was the building across the yard from ours. Until that year, my friends and I had stayed close to our own building, warned by our families not to venture too far because we might get caught in the cross fire of gangs shooting. But now we were older and more daring.
We were talking to Precious when Marcus’s Mercedes pulled up to the curb on Abernathy Avenue. It was rare to see gangbangers that early in the day. Glancing around warily, the leader of the Disciples started toward us. Marcus’s expression was intense and serious all the time. You never saw him joking or clowning. As he got close, I could see the small tattoo of a tear at the corner of his right eye. For people on the outside, the tear was supposed to mean someone close to you had been killed. But in the projects, we knew differently—that tear really meant you had killed someone.
Terrell straightened up. “Uh, hi, Cousin Marcus.” His voice quavered.
Marcus barely acknowledged the greeting. “Watch my car,” he said. He’d started toward our building when I blocked his path with my bike.
Marcus stopped and scowled at me.
“There’s something you should see. Over here,” I said, and led Marcus to the window guard. Terrell got on his bike and trailed behind until Marcus swung around. “I tell you to come?” he asked sharply.
Head bowed, Terrell rode back to the bench. In the cold shadow of the building, Marcus picked up the window guard and stared up at the highest floors where Laqueta lived with Jamar and Darnell. Then he looked at me. “DeShawn, right? Raven’s son?”
“Anyone else know about this?”
I shook my head. “No, sir.”
Marcus slowly squeezed the window guard until it doubled over. The skin of his dark hands tightened and his knuckles bulged. The metal creaked until it formed a V, like the V in the furrows of skin between his eyes as he fixed them on me. “Know what happens to kids who snitch to the police?”
“I can trust you?”
I nodded. “What about Darnell?”
“I’ll take care of that,” Marcus said. “Meanwhile this is our secret, understand?”
If I Grow Up
“Who was that?” Precious asked when I returned to the bench where she was talking to Terrell.
Her eyes widened when we told her. “You Disciples?”
“Not yet,” Terrell answered.
Even in the sun, the cold gradually seeped through your clothes. Precious shivered and hugged herself. “You want to come to my place and watch TV?”
It was tempting. Neither Terrell nor I had ever been invited into a girl’s home before.
“Maybe another time,” I said. Terrell scowled at me, and I nodded toward Marcus’s car. The corners of my friend’s mouth turned down.
Precious’s pretty lips pursed. “See you later.” She started across the yard toward her building.
Terrell and I rode around the yard, always keeping Marcus’s car in sight. I asked him how Laqueta was, and he said she’d cried all night.
“Jamar stay with her?” I asked.
Terrell shook his head. He got off his bike and started sliding around on a frozen puddle, leaving white scratches in the dirty, brownish ice. “If I grow up, I’m gonna have a ride like Marcus’s,” he said through chattering teeth. He must’ve been freezing, wearing only that hoodie. “And chains and bling like you wouldn’t believe. You know Rance got a solid gold chain that weighs five pounds?”
“How do you know that?” I asked. Rance Jones was the leader of the Gentry Gangstas. I’d never seen him, and I was pretty sure Terrell hadn’t either.
“I heard from someone,” Terrell said. “And he got a twenty-five-karat diamond pinkie ring. Them Gangstas use kids nine, ten years old.”
“Maybe you should join them Gangstas,” I joked.
Terrell gave me a sour look. “Marcus is my first cousin. He should let me join the Disciples.”
“And get jumped in?” I asked. To prove you’d be loyal to the gang, you had to let yourself be beaten up and burned with cigarettes.
Terrell shrugged. “Everybody else been through it.”
On Abernathy Avenue, a police cruiser stopped behind Marcus’s car. The window went down, and Officer Patterson wagged a thick, brown finger at us. He was the only person I’d ever heard of who’d grown up in Frederick Douglass and become a cop. I slipped off the bench and went to see what he wanted.
“How you doing, DeShawn?” he asked. He had a round face and a thick, bushy mustache. Growing up, he’d known my mother, and he always said hello when he saw me.
“Okay.” I leaned in the open window. The car smelled like coffee. A shotgun and a computer were mounted next to the driver’s seat. Officer Patterson nodded at the Mercedes. “Marcus was that little boy’s uncle, right?”
“Give him my condolences, okay?”
“Tell him I’m sorry about his nephew.”
Officer Patterson took a sip of coffee from a paper cup and brushed his mustache with the back of his hand.
“Gonna join the Disciples someday?”
“No, sir. Gonna stay in school and out of trouble.”
“Good boy.” Officer Patterson reached over and patted me on the shoulder. Then he drove off. I went back to the bench.
“What do you talk to him for?” Terrell asked.
“He knew my momma.”
We huddled on the bench, shivering. The three identical buildings in the Frederick Douglass Project loomed up like dirty tombstones. Half the windows were boarded over with wood. The grounds around the buildings were either cracked concrete walks covered with broken glass, or hard-packed, bare, brown dirt with a few trees and some dead brown weeds.
Benches lined the walks, but they were mostly broken. Same with the playground. There were no swings on the swing set, just rusty chains hanging down from the top. The seesaw was gone. What little sand was left in the sandbox was the color of dark smoke. Only the rusty monkey bars remained. As shorties, we used to play on them for hours and then go home with burnt red palms.
We waited until Marcus came back, then, shivering cold, we hurried inside. The lobby was lit by one long, flickering bulb. The mailboxes in the wall had all been busted open by drug fiends looking for welfare checks. The walls were covered with colorful, loopy graffiti and the black slashes of Disciples’ tags. Here and there someone had hung a small Christmas wreath or a bunch of holly outside a door.
The elevator was broken as usual, so we carried our bikes up the stairs. Some floors smelled of cooking. Others smelled of weed. On some floors you heard loud TV. On others, rap and hip-hop. And always in the winter, the banging of the heat pipes day and night, like a prison gang eternally busting rocks.
Taped on the wall of each landing was a blue sheet of paper saying that Darnell’s funeral would be at one p.m. on Saturday at the First Baptist Church.
Leaving my bike in my apartment, I helped Terrell carry his upstairs. The door to the Blakes’ apartment was open, and inside it was hot and crowded with grown-ups. Even though it was the dead of winter, the windows were partway open and women sat fanning themselves. The few men—there were always way fewer men than women—dabbed their foreheads with handkerchiefs.
On a table in the middle of the living room were plates of food and vases of flowers. It was getting toward the end of the month and, for a lot of people, food was running low. That was especially true around Christmas when there were presents to buy. The sight and smell of those heaping plates made my stomach growl.
Terrell’s cousin Laqueta—Darnell’s mother—was sitting in the middle of the couch, wearing an old, yellow housedress and clutching a tissue. Her eyes were puffy and red from crying. Terrell’s mother, Mrs. Blake, sat on one side of her, and his aunt Rosa sat on the other. Other than Marcus, I’d never heard that Laqueta had any other family.
When Mrs. Blake saw her son, she opened her arms wide. Terrell hesitated and glanced around as if embarrassed to be treated like a little boy. But then he stepped forward and let her hug him. “Terrell,” she said in a sad voice. “You’re the only good man that’s left.”
She was looking over Terrell’s shoulder at Jamar when she said that. Laqueta’s boyfriend sat with his elbows on his knees and his head hanging, a tear tattoo beside each eye. He was tall and rangy, with hair split into cornrows. In his left ear was a big diamond stud, and his hands were covered with gold rings and tattoos. He raised his head and blinked hard, as if trying to squeeze out tears that weren’t there. “If only I hadn’t left him alone,” he said woefully.
People heard him, but no one said anything.
During the day, the cops and housing police came around, but as soon as it got dark, they were gone. Sometimes gangbangers shot at cops at night or dropped broken TVs on patrol cars or threw bottles out the windows at them. If Gramma had her way, I’d be a house boy—allowed outside only to walk to and from school.
That night Gramma watched Sanford and Son and laughed so hard she had to take the tissue out of her sleeve and dab her eyes.
“How can you laugh like that?” I asked. “You’ve seen this episode a hundred times.”
“Something got to make me laugh,” Gramma said, still jiggling. “After what happened to that little boy.”
Pop! Pop! Pop! Outside they started shooting. It sounded more like cap guns than the big bangs you heard on the TV. Next thing I knew, Gramma was down on the floor next to me and I smelled her perfume. She raised her head alertly. “Where’s Nia?” she asked, even though we both knew she was with her boyfriend, LaRue.
Pop! Pop! Crash! More shots, and somewhere nearby a window shattered. Bang. A door slammed downstairs, and we heard rapid steps coming up. A key jiggled in the lock and Nia rushed in. My sister was fourteen and had long, straight brown hair and, almost always, a smile. She was breathing hard, and her face was flushed from running. But her eyes gleamed with excitement.
Gramma propped herself up on her elbows. “Get down!” she commanded.
Still gasping for breath, Nia dropped to one knee.
“You’re gonna get yourself killed someday,” Gramma muttered, even as she relaxed knowing that Nia was safe.
“Those boys shoot all the time,” Nia scoffed.
“You forget how your momma died?” Gramma snapped. “How many times I have to tell you not to run when they shoot? You could run right into the cross fire. You hear shootin’, you drop to the ground and stay there.”
“And get my clothes all dirty?” My sister shook her head.
The shooting stopped. The TV was still on, and Redd Foxx’s gravelly voice and the laugh track lured Gramma back to the couch. Nia flopped down and put her arms around Gramma’s neck and hugged her.
“DeShawn,” my sister said. “Turn the channel to BET.”
“Hey!” Gramma started to protest.
“Oh, come on,” Nia said with a laugh. “You seen Sanford and Son so many times, you know it by heart.”
I grinned at Gramma. “Told you.”
“You two are too smart for your own good,” she grumbled.
Pop! Pop! Pop! The shooting started again, but now it sounded far away. Gramma stiffened but then looked at Nia and me and relaxed. We were safe. At least for tonight.
Gramma’s apartment had one bedroom with one bed, which she and Nia shared. I slept on the living room couch. On most mornings, Gramma left to clean houses before we woke up. After breakfast Nia and I washed the dishes and put them in the rack to dry. On TV, people had kitchens with dishwashers and bathrooms with showers, but all we had were sinks and a bathtub. Sometimes I’d go into the bathroom and find Gramma on her knees, washing clothes in the tub. There’d once been washing machines in the basement of our building, but they’d been broken so often, the city took them out.
Outside, Terrell and Lightbulb were waiting for me in the yard. In the spot where Darnell fell, someone had stuck a small wooden cross in the dirt, with candles and bunches of flowers around it. The yellow crime-scene tape lay twisted and trampled on the ground. The three of us stared at the cross without speaking. Then Lightbulb said, “You got that Snickers bar?”
I gave it to him, and he tore it open while we walked to school. Terrell turned the bill of his cap to the right and stuck in his gold earring. Ahead of us, Nia and her boyfriend, LaRue, waited on the sidewalk. They were in eighth grade. LaRue was slim with light chocolate skin and almond-shaped eyes, as if he had some Asian blood. His thick black hair was long with lots of loose dreadlocks. The bill of his cap was turned to the right and a black bandanna poked out of his back pocket.
“Terrell,” he called. “Com’ere.”
My best friend practically bounded over. He didn’t have those cool, slow moves yet like the older guys. He and LaRue went behind some parked cars. When they came back, Terrell was arranging the front of his hoodie.
“What’d he give you?” I asked when we started walking again.
Terrell told Lightbulb to get lost. Our friend hunched his shoulders like his feelings were hurt, then went off. Terrell opened the pocket of his hoodie just enough for me to see the gray handle of a box cutter inside.
“Are you whack?” I hissed.
“I’m just gonna take it inside and give it back to him,” Terrell said.
“They find it, you’ll get expelled,” I said. “And what do you think LaRue’s gonna do with it in school?”
Terrell shrugged as if he didn’t care. “All I know is he said he’d put in a good word for me to Marcus.” He took out his asthma inhaler. He seemed to need it whenever he got nervous or excited.
Lightbulb joined us again and we continued to school. Washington Carver was on the border between Frederick Douglass and the Gentry Street Project. To the school’s builders, that must’ve made sense, because kids from both projects could go to it. But the location also put the school in the middle of the war zone between the Disciples and the Gangstas.
Like a jail, our school had metal bars on all the doors and windows and a tall metal fence that circled the grounds. The sixth graders went in a different entrance than the seventh and eighth graders, whose bags were scanned and bodies were sometimes searched. The sixth graders were rarely searched.
At the sixth-grade entrance stood Ms. Rodriguez, the assistant principal, as ancient as the history in our history books. Her short hair was completely white, and she was all wrinkled skin and gristle. Her job in the morning was to make sure only kids who went to Washington Carver entered, and not any troublemakers from someplace else.
While we waited to go in, Terrell began wheezing again. He took out his inhaler and breathed in deeply. Then it was our turn. At the doorway, Ms. Rodriguez narrowed her eyes at my friend, whose hands were both jammed into the pockets of his hoodie.
“What have you got there, Terrell?” she asked.
Terrell began trembling, and even though I’d done nothing wrong, I felt nervous and scared too.
My friend sputtered anxiously. “I—”
“Don’t give me explanations,” Ms. Rodriguez snapped. “Just show me what’s in that pocket.”
Still trembling, Terrell slowly drew his hand from his pocket.
In it was his inhaler.
Ms. Rodriguez’s expression softened. “You okay, honey?”
Terrell nodded and she waved us in.
Inside school my friend grinned devilishly. “Thought I was gonna get busted, right?”
“So did you,” I said.
He shook his head. “Nah, I was just foolin’ around.” He went down the hall toward the cafeteria.
“Where’s he going?” Lightbulb asked.
“Nowhere good,” I said.
It seemed like everything in Washington Carver was held together with tape. The cracks in the grimy windows, the pages in the tattered old textbooks, the pull-down maps in the front of the room—all held in place with yellowed, peeling tape.
The only things new at school were the teachers. Every year at least half the faces were different. Take Mr. Brand, for example. He had light brown hair, greenish eyes, and copper skin. He spoke proper, not ghetto, and wore button-down shirts, and slacks with cuffs. He was average height but rail thin, because, he said, he ran marathons.
“Settle down, everyone,” he said at the beginning of class. “Open your textbooks to page two hundred and eighty-five. Who can tell me why the pyramids were built?”
There were more than forty kids in the class and not enough desks, so some of us had to share. The chubby Douglass kid we called Bublz raised his hand. “Hey, Mr. Brand, is the reason you like ancient history so much because the Egyptians ran marathons like you do?”
“The Greeks ran marathons, not the Egyptians,” Mr. Brand replied patiently.
“My book ain’t got a page two hundred eighty-five,” complained a girl named Ikea.
“Then share with someone else,” said Mr. Brand.
“Hey!” said a big, tough Gentry boy named Antwan. “I didn’t know them Egyptians were brothers!”
“What’d you think, dummy?” said Bublz. “They come from Africa.”
“No, they don’t,” said Antwan. “They come from Egypt. That’s why they’re called Egyptians, stupid.”
“You’re stupid,” Bublz shot back. “Where you think Egypt is?”
“In Egypt, retard,” said Antwan. “And Africa’s in Africa.”
Bublz shook his head wearily. “If you were any dumber, they’d have to give you a brain transplant.”
Bublz and Antwan were engaged in the daily ritual of clowning. At the beginning of the year, Mr. Brand would tell kids to quiet down, but they would ignore him and continue sassing each other, seeing how far they could push our teacher before he blew. It took a couple of weeks, but Mr. Brand finally exploded, ranting and yelling at the class, which was exactly what they wanted.
After a while, though, Mr. Brand figured out that if he let the class mess around for a time, they might get bored and eventually let him teach. Some days it worked, some days it didn’t. A week like this, before a big vacation like Christmas, was usually a lost cause.
In a moment of quiet, Mr. Brand saw a chance to step in. “Who can tell Antwan the difference between Egypt and Africa?”
A couple of hands went up, including mine.
“DeShawn?” Mr. Brand called.
“Africa’s a continent,” I said. “Egypt’s a country in Africa.”
“Where in Africa?” asked Mr. Brand.
“Like, North Africa.”
“Well, look at the brains on DeShawn,” Antwan said snidely.
“That’s enough, Antwan,” Mr. Brand said.
Antwan ignored him. “Maybe I’ll kick your Douglass butt,” he threatened.
Instead of answering, I gave him the steely look I imagined Marcus would use. Only I wondered if Marcus’s heart ever beat as nervously as mine was.
“What’s that?” Antwan taunted. “You tryin’ to look tough? You about as tough as my baby sister.”
“I said, that’s enough,” demanded Mr. Brand. But it didn’t matter. The class was waiting for my response.
“I’ll see you after school,” I muttered.
Everyone oohed and aahhed.
Antwan narrowed his eyes and nodded, as if he accepted the challenge. Meanwhile Terrell motioned to me with a fist under his desk. As best friends, we had sworn to watch each other’s backs.
When class ended, Mr. Brand asked me to wait until the others left. When they had, he gave me a searching look. “Are you really going to fight him?”
“If I have to.” The truth was, most of the talk was just bluster, to be forgotten as soon as the bell rang.
Mr. Brand shook his head as if it made no sense. “Tell me something, DeShawn. Why do they even bother coming to class?”
“Nothing better to do,” I said.
“What about you?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer. Gramma said I was a good boy, because I did what I was told. But most of the time I only did that because it was easier than not doing it. Even at twelve I had a pretty good notion that school wasn’t the way to succeed. We’d all heard stories about the rich and famous rappers and athletes who’d come from the projects. But you never heard of anyone from the projects who got famous for going to school.
Mr. Brand tapped the eraser of a pencil against his desk. “Have you ever heard of Hewlett Academy?”
“It’s a magnet high school over in Beech Hill,” he said. “You’ll get a better education there.”
“Why can’t I get it here?” I asked.
Mr. Brand’s eyes darted toward the closed door. He lowered his voice. “Just between you and me, DeShawn. This is a dumping ground for teachers who can’t get jobs anywhere else. It’s hard to get a good education from bad teachers.”
“But Beech Hill’s far,” I said a little nervously.
“You could take a bus.” He could probably tell that I wasn’t thrilled by the idea. “Don’t want to leave your friends, right? Don’t want to leave the comfort and familiarity of the hood.”
“DeShawn, what do you think’s going to happen if you stay here?”
“Go to Munson, I guess.” That was the local high school.
“You know that more than half the kids who enter there don’t finish?”
“Doesn’t mean I won’t,” I said.
Mr. Brand’s shoulders sagged as if pulled down by the weight of something he knew that I didn’t. “DeShawn, listen to me. It’s one thing to go to school here with all your friends. But it’s different when your crew’s dropped out and you’re the only one left. It’s harder when you’re still walking to school each day while your peeps drive around in hot whips. You can understand that, right?”
I nodded again. The second bell rang. It was lunchtime and I started inching toward the door.
“Hold on. I’ll write you a pass.” Mr. Brand pulled a pad out of his desk and started to write. “I want you to think about Hewlett, okay?” he said, tearing a sheet off the pad. “You’re still two years away, but you could start to prepare for the entrance exam. There’s a special Saturday program I could help you get into.”
“I’ll think about it.” I reached for the pass, but Mr. Brand held it out of range.
“You’re pretty good at telling people what they want to hear, aren’t you?” He knew he had me. I couldn’t go out into the hall without that pass. I looked into his green eyes.
“You wondering why I even bother?” Mr. Brand asked. “Most of these kids don’t want my help, DeShawn. They’re perfectly happy to waste their days clowning around without a thought about the future. But maybe you’re different. You’re one of the few in this class who reads at grade level. Maybe you’re the one who’ll really do something with his life. But to do that, you’ll need a better education than you’ll get here. So you’ll think about Hewlett, right?”
I nodded. He placed the pass in my hand, and I headed for the door.
Just before the end of school, they announced a delayed dismissal and all sixth graders were sent to the gym. This happened about once a month, usually because there was going to be a gang fight and the school found out and called the police.
“You think that’s why LaRue brought that box cutter?” Terrell asked as we walked down the hall to the gym.
“Shhh!” I pressed my finger to my lips. You never knew who might be listening.
In the gym, kids were standing around in groups or sitting in circles on the floor. Lightbulb sat down with a book and a thick pair of old-man eyeglasses with big brown frames.
“Since when do you need glasses?” I asked.
“They make me look smart,” he said.
“You look dumber than Urkel in those things,” Terrell said. “Ain’t nothing gonna make you look smart.”
“Says you,” said Lightbulb. Some of the teachers said Lightbulb was a genius.
“What’s 145 times 216?” I asked.
Lightbulb closed his eyes and moved his lips. “31,320.”
“That right?” Terrell looked at me.
“How would I know?” I said.
Lightbulb read for a while, then took off the glasses and pressed his fingers into the corners of his eyes. “It’s hard to see through these things. My head hurts.”
“Where’d you get those glasses?” I asked.
“You can’t just wear any old glasses,” I said. “You have to go to a doctor and get them made special.”
“For real?” Lightbulb said. He may have been a genius in school, but in some ways he really was the dumbest kid we knew.
“Hey, DeShawn.” Terrell nudged me with his elbow. “Someone’s checking you out.”
A group of giggling girls sat in a circle across the way. One was taller than the others, with long brown hair and sparkling eyes. We’d been exchanging looks for a few weeks.
“She’s pretty,” said Lightbulb.
Terrell nudged me again. “Go talk to her.”
The truth was, I did want to go. I felt drawn to that tall pretty girl the way Lightbulb was drawn to candy.
“He’s going,” Lightbulb cheered when I started across the gym.
“Go, DeShawn. Go!” Terrell chanted.
The girls around the tall one grew jumpy with excitement and began whispering in her ear. Her eyes widened, and then a faint scowl appeared on her face and she turned and shook her head sharply. Suddenly it seemed as if she was annoyed with their chatter, because she got up and came toward me. We met in the middle of the crowded gym.
“Go on, get closer,” one of her friends called, and the others cackled.
The tall girl turned to them. “Shush! Shut your mouths.” She spoke with authority, and the other girls got quiet. I liked that.
“I’m DeShawn,” I said.
“I know,” she said, tilting her head toward the other girls. “They told me. I’m Tanisha.”
She nodded. Her eyes were glowing.
“Where’re you from?” I asked. My heart was fluttering in my chest, but I knew I had to play it cool.
“Over on the east side of town. We moved over the summer.”
“How come?” I asked.
She lowered her head and stared at the floor. The reasons for moving to the projects were never good.
“Sorry,” I said. “It’s none of my business.”
She raised her head. “How long’ve you been around here?”
“All my life. My gramma moved here about thirty years ago.”
“Your momma go to this school?”
“Bet she had Ms. Rodriguez,” Tanisha said. “She’s so old, everybody must’ve had her.”
I laughed. Ms. Rodriguez had been a teacher before she became assistant principal. Tanisha was funny. I liked that, too. “Where do you live now?”
“Gentry,” she said.
And just like that we went from hot to cold. From hope to no hope. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a Disciple. I was from Frederick Douglass, and if I was seen by Gentry Gangstas on their turf, they would automatically consider me a spy and up to no good. They might not kill me for that, but I was sure to catch a beating.
Sensing that something was wrong, Tanisha frowned.
“Well, nice to meet you,” I said, and turned away.
On Christmas morning, Gramma gave me a tight-fitting, fuzzy blue sweater I knew I’d never wear. I gave her and Nia little bottles of perfume that a man on the street had sold me. Nia gave me a DVD of the Transformers movie. We ate a Christmas lunch. In the afternoon, I went out and found Lightbulb.
“Where’re we going?” he asked as we climbed the piss-smelly stairwell.
“Upstairs,” I said.
He stopped. “You crazy? No one but Disciples are allowed up there.”
“Shh. . . . Quiet. I need a lookout.”
“Who’s gonna look out for me?” Lightbulb asked.
“I got a Snickers bar.”
The top two floors were Disciples territory. Not that they paid rent. They’d broken through the doors and put on their own locks. They used the apartments as places to live and safe houses for anyone who needed to hide. On the fifteenth floor the stairwell and hallway were covered with loopy tags—TAP and Casper and Baby—and also, everywhere, like religious symbols to ward off evil spirits, was the six-pointed-star symbol of the Disciples.
Pressed against a wall was an old chest of drawers. It didn’t make sense for it to be there, and I pushed it aside.
“What’re you doing?” Lightbulb asked in a quavering voice.
“Shh . . . ” Behind the chest was a hole through the cinder-block wall big enough for someone to crawl through. I bent down and peeked into an empty room with a bare mattress lying on the floor. Giving the Snickers bar to Lightbulb, I said, “You hear anyone come up the stairs, you holler into this hole, then go down the other stairs as fast as you can.”
Lightbulb was already tearing open the wrapper. He took a bite and nodded. I crawled through the hole. In the room on the other side, the floor was covered with empty bottles, cigarette butts, magazines, and food wrappers. The bare mattress was stained a dozen different shades of yellow and brown. I crossed the room and stopped at the door to listen. It sounded quiet on the other side, and I slowly opened the door and went down the hall.
About a million cockroaches scattered when I entered the kitchen. It smelled like garbage, and the sink and counters were covered with dirty dishes, empty take-out containers, fried-chicken buckets, and pizza boxes. I opened the cabinet under the sink, and about a million more cockroaches fled. At the back of the cabinet was another hole leading to the next apartment. I’d heard that the holes were so gangbangers could escape if the police raided. In some rooms there were even holes in the floors so they could drop down to another floor and escape that way.
I crawled into the next apartment. This one had a strong chemical smell. In the middle of the living room was a Ping-Pong table with cutting boards, white breathing masks, a couple of small postal scales, and razor blades smudged with yellowish white powder. Hundreds of small Ziploc bags and plastic vials were scattered about.
Piled on the kitchen counter were dozens of empty baking-soda boxes, as well as half a dozen old cooking pots caked with soot—the tools for making crack.
Two apartments later I got to the one where Jamar and Laqueta lived. Terrell said that ever since Darnell died, Laqueta was staying with them on the sixth floor so I knew it would be empty. Unlike the other apartments, this one was clean and had curtains on the windows, nice furniture, and a big TV in the living room. An unfamiliar smell hung in the air, and it took a moment for me to realize it was the pine scent of the Christmas tree in the corner.
I went down the hall to a bedroom with a small bed with brown and green Simba sheets and pillows. Some stuffed animals and toy trucks were on the floor. The window was open, and the blue curtain was half in and half out, so I knew there was no window guard. Carefully pulling the curtain back, I stuck my head outside.
Down in the yard, people were the size of Tic Tacs, and on the street, cars looked like Matchbox toys. Behind Frederick Douglass was a big rail yard with dozens of tracks and all kinds of trains, and I heard the sharp squeak of metal wheels on rails. Between Frederick Douglass and the yard was a double row of tall chain-link fence with coils of razor wire on top.
I looked at the window frame. In the holes that would have held the window guard were broken, rusty brown screws with shiny silver insides, as if they had just recently snapped. To my mind, it would have taken a hard kick to break those screws.
A lock clacked somewhere in the apartment, and I quickly spun around and ducked down behind a chest of drawers. Through the open doorway, I heard footsteps and the rustle of clothes. My heart started beating hard and my breaths became short and shallow. I knew if I got caught, I might be the next kid to fall fifteen floors.
“You got hollow tips?” a voice asked.
“Dollar each,” answered a voice that sounded like Jamar’s.
“A dollar each? That’s robbery!”
“Take it or leave it,” said Jamar.
“Ain’t no other place else to get ’em,” the other voice said angrily. “You got me right where you want me, don’t you? Risking my life to come over here, and you darn well know I can’t go back empty-handed.”
If Jamar answered, I couldn’t hear him. Then the other man said, “I’ll take a hundred. And I won’t be sorry if one of ’em winds up in the back of your skull.”
“Merry Christmas,” said Jamar.
A door slammed, but I heard footsteps in the apartment and knew Jamar was still there. I stayed behind the dresser, my heart racing and body tensed. Darn Lightbulb. He was supposed to warn me. Now I was trapped.
Jamar moved around in the other room, whistling and humming to himself. Then the door creaked and closed. I heard the lock click. It sounded like he’d left.
I took a deep breath and felt light-headed with relief. Still I waited a few more minutes before quietly leaving the bedroom and going out into the apartment. On the living room table was an open black and gold box about the size of a small loaf of bread. Inside were bronze and gray bullets.
I crawled through the holes in the apartment walls and back out into the hall. Lightbulb was gone. He probably heard Jamar and the other guy coming up the stairs, got scared, and ran. If any other kid had done that, I would have been mad. But it was hard to be mad at Lightbulb.
The First Baptist Church was in a storefront on Belmar Street, at the edge of the area called the Flats. It had once been a pet store, but there’d been a fire and now it was a church with rows of pews and an altar. On damp days the rancid smell of old smoke still hung in the corners.
On the day of Darnell’s funeral, the Disciples stood on the sidewalk outside the church, wearing sharp, neatly buttoned gray suits with black shirts and ties. Instead of baseball caps, they wore gray fedoras. Their suits looked new and expensive, and I felt ashamed of the ill-fitting secondhand jacket and slacks Gramma had bought for me at Goodwill. Nia, wearing her frilly, pink Sunday dress, hat, and white gloves, went to LaRue and gave him a kiss, but as I passed the Disciples, I kept my eyes down. The sleeves of my jacket barely reached my wrists, and the bottoms of my gray pants flapped above my ankles. Not knowing how to tie a tie, I’d made up a knot.
At the entrance to the church, a hand came out to stop me. I looked up into the small, hard eyes of Marcus. “Turn around,” he ordered.
I did as I was told and felt him press behind me as he reached over, untied, and retied my tie. The corner of something hard jutted into my back, and I knew at once why all the Disciples had kept their jackets buttoned.
Marcus’s hands were quick and sure as he tightened the tie around my neck until I thought I’d choke. Then he placed his strong hands on my shoulders and pointed me inside.
They’d put Darnell in a small, light blue coffin surrounded by bunches of red and yellow flowers. The coffin was open, and people were going up to look. In the front row Laqueta sat with Mrs. Blake and Terrell, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. She turned her head and looked to the back of the church, and I realized she was looking at Jamar. Maybe she wanted him to sit with her. But Jamar stood with the other Disciples and didn’t move.
Terrell’s mom whispered into his ear, and he scanned the crowd until his eyes caught mine. He jerked his head, and I knew he wanted me to go with him to look in the coffin. Like I said before, I’d seen dead people, but never a shorty and when Terrell and I went up to the front I didn’t want to look at first. But they’d dressed Darnell in a light blue suit with a white shirt and silver tie and his eyes were closed, so he looked like he was asleep.
“My little cousin,” Terrell whispered with watery eyes. I put my hand on his shoulder, and after a moment we went back to our seats.
Minister Franklin had barely begun his sermon when the first shot was fired. Hardly anyone looked up. Maybe we were all so used to hearing gunfire that at first it didn’t mean anything. But louder shots quickly followed. Pop! Pop! Pop! Glass began to shatter and some plaster in the wall exploded. Women started screaming. Minister Franklin ducked down behind the pulpit, and Gramma pushed Nia and me down to the floor between the pews.
The tiles felt cold and gritty. All around us people were on the floor, their eyes squeezed shut and their good clothes getting dirty. Pop! Pop! Pop! We could hear the sharp zings and cracks as bullets whizzed overhead, hitting walls and pews. Cold air started floating in through the broken windows.
Then car tires screeched. Footsteps slapped as some of the men ran outside. I slithered along the floor and stuck my head out into the aisle. All that remained of the windows at the front of the church were jagged shards. Outside on the sidewalk, framed by the doorway, Marcus stood tall, his arm straight out, firing a big black gun with slow deliberateness. Pop! Pop! Pop!
Then his arm went down to his side, and faint wisps of smoke drifted from the gun’s barrel. He looked so powerful in his dark suit. Like some TV hero who wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything. A few other Disciples who’d crouched behind cars and lampposts joined him.
Inside the church people began getting up. Minister Franklin poked his head out from behind the pulpit.
“Damn Gangstas,” Nia grumbled angrily as she smoothed out her pink dress and brushed the dirt off.
“How do you know?” I asked.
My sister looked at me like I was stupid. “It’s Marcus’s nephew in that casket. Besides, who else would shoot up a funeral?”
Marcus came down the aisle, his face squeezed tight with anger. He said something to Minister Franklin and then went outside again.
The minister continued the service. Only now Marcus and the Disciples stood on the sidewalk in case the Gentry Gangstas came back. Cold air filled the church. We pulled our coats on and shivered while Minister Franklin told us how Darnell was with the angels.
THIRTEEN YEARS OLD
Public schools in the United States are becoming more racially segregated, and the trend is likely to accelerate because of a recent Supreme Court decision forbidding most voluntary local efforts to integrate educational institutions.
“Cuz see The schools ain’t teachin' us nothin'
they ain’t teachin' us nothin'
But how to be slaves and hard workers
For white people to build up they [stuff*].”
—from “They Schools”
by Dead Prez
*lyrics edited for language
Out of the Hood
The projects stayed the same, but I changed. I wouldn’t be caught dead in the pants and shirts Gramma got from the Goodwill store. Now I wore baggy jeans, big hoodies, and chains like the other guys.
I woke early and quietly dressed. It wasn’t even eight o’clock and already the apartment felt hot. In the kitchen the cockroaches scattered from the counters when I turned on the light. After wiping a bowl clean in case roaches had crawled on it during the night, I filled it with Corn Flakes and looked in the refrigerator for milk, but there was none. It was the end of the month. We were out of bread, and there weren’t enough powdered eggs left in the box for a meal. This wouldn’t be the first time I’d eat Corn Flakes with water.
I was heading for the front door when Gramma shuffled out of the bedroom.
“Where you goin’?” she said.
“No, you ain’t. Been too much shootin’ around here lately. Now get away from that door.” She crossed her arms and waited. But why did I have to listen to her? Who was she anyway? Just some gray-haired woman in a ratty old nightie.
I put my hand on the doorknob.
“You’ll be sorry,” Gramma warned.
I started to turn the knob, but something was holding me back—all those years of being a good boy, always doing what I was told. “I won’t go far. I’ll be okay, Gramma, really.”
“You don’t know what you’ll be, child,” Gramma said, the veneer of sternness giving way unexpectedly to something sad and defeated. “But I do.”
“Just because I’m going out doesn’t mean I’ll join the Disciples,” I said, pulling the door open.
“Just because you’re goin’ out don’t guarantee you’ll come back,” Gramma muttered.
I hung my head, unable to look her in the eye, but felt a call from outside that I couldn’t resist.
The sun was bright and a few people were going to church. The men were in shirtsleeves, and some of the women carried umbrellas to shade themselves. Lightbulb was sitting on the back of the bench nearest our building, writing in a book. A little nappy-haired girl of about eight was playing with a doll in front of the bench. She was wearing a stained, green jumper and had a lollipop in her mouth.
“Hi, Lollipop,” I said.
Lightbulb’s sister looked up at me and grinned, some gaps where her baby teeth had fallen out. The lollipop bulged in her cheek.
“You watching her?” I asked Lightbulb.
He nodded. “Till my momma gets back from the store.”
I looked over his shoulder. “What’s that?”
“Sudokus.” He tore a page from the book and gave it to me. The page said easy, but it wasn’t. I worked at it for a while, then got bored and quit. Meanwhile Lightbulb worked on a puzzle in the super hard part of the book. In no time he’d finished it and turned to the puzzle on the next page. Someone who didn’t know him might have thought he was faking, but he wasn’t.
The sun rose higher and the day grew hotter. Women came out with babies in strollers and sat in whatever shade they could find. Some older guys squatted near a wall, playing hip-hop on a boom box while they smoked and shot dice. Lightbulb’s mom returned and took Lollipop.
Terrell came out wearing a sleeveless white T-shirt, his pants so low it was hard to understand why they didn’t slide down to his ankles. He slid his earring into his ear and turned the bill of his cap to the right.
“S’up?” he asked.
“Cooking’s more like it,” Lightbulb said. By now he’d finished all the super hard puzzles and was wearing the book, opened in the middle, on his head to keep the sun off.
A car horn honked. A police cruiser had stopped at the curb, and inside, Officer Patterson wagged his finger at me. But I didn’t move.
“Ain’t gonna talk to your friend?” Terrell asked.
Those days were over. Officer Patterson and I exchanged a long look, then he drove back into traffic.
Terrell bounced from foot to foot, jittery like a dope fiend who can’t find a fix. Only Terrell was no addict. “I got to get out of here,” he said. “Sometimes I just can’t take this place one more minute. Look at it. Everything’s broken and dead. It’s like the last place on Earth.”
I knew what he meant. Except for the weeds, the ground was bare and dusty. Broken glass glittered in the sun, and here and there lay a discarded Pampers. Just a few years ago we’d happily run around and played our games here. It never occurred to us that there was anything wrong. But now it was like we’d grown a new set of eyes.
“Want to take a walk?” I asked.
Terrell shook his head. “Too hot. Wish there was some place air-conditioned to go.”
“The bus,” Lightbulb said.
Terrell grinned. Neither he nor I would have thought of that. “Let’s bounce.”
“Where?” Lightbulb asked nervously.
“Don’t matter,” Terrell said. “We’ll stay on till it comes back.”
We’d spent enough time sitting on the bench watching traffic to know that sooner or later the buses always came back.
“I better not,” Lightbulb said.
“You a momma’s boy?” Terrell taunted him.
“No!” Lightbulb insisted.
Lightbulb looked at me. “You gonna do it, DeShawn?”
I nodded, not letting on that I was probably as nervous as he was. We waited at the bus stop where Gramma stood in the morning when she went to clean houses. When the bus came, Terrell led us through the middle doors, where people usually got off. The three of us squeezed into a seat, and the air-conditioning poured over us like a cool, welcoming breeze.
“Uh-oh.” Lightbulb gulped. The driver was frowning in the rearview mirror.
“He won’t do nothing,” said Terrell. He was right. The bus pulled into traffic, and before long we were in a different world, where the buildings were twice as high as at Douglass and the sidewalks were filled with people jammed so close that it looked like they were brushing shoulders.
Everything looked shiny and new. The stores had sparkling windows without bars, and doors you could simply walk through without being buzzed in. It seemed impossible that all this existed just a dozen blocks from where we lived.
“Man, that’s a lot of white people!” Lightbulb blurted.
A fat man in a seat near us chuckled, and Lightbulb lowered his voice to a whisper. “I never knew there was so many.”
“There’s way more white people than black,” Terrell whispered back. “Look at TV.”