New Orleans is a strange place when it comes to keeping up with people. It’s not a really big city but somehow you can go years without seeing people that you know. All it takes is moving to another neighborhood or changing jobs for people to seemingly disappear. There are people I went through school with that I haven’t seen since I graduated high school and I know they haven’t moved anywhere. It’s been like that for a long time and Katrina made it worse. Nevertheless there are those times when you see someone unexpectedly and it surprises you. Sometimes you are just happy to see them because they remind you of the good old days. Then there are those other times where you run into somebody and wonder how they made it this far and appear to be doing so well. One of the byproducts of coming up in the kind of environment we did in the city is that some people have a bad ending written all over them. You are more surprised to see them living a regular life than you would if you saw them on the news for murder.
Thursday I was picking up my baby from school and I ran into one of those cats with the bad ending label. He was there to pick up one of his kids. The sight of him standing there talking with the security guard and wearing work clothes surprised me for a minute but I was glad to see him doing well. This was one of those cats that 20 years ago you just couldn’t imagine holding a job and behaving normal. I don’t know a better way to put this so I will just put it plainly. He was ignorant. He never went to class. If he graduated it wasn’t when he was supposed to. I remember him going to jail. I guess he got it together and decided that kind of life wasn’t the way to go and he changed. There is never anything wrong with that because we hope that people grow over time and calm down. We exchanged greetings and I kept going along with my business. All the way home I thought about seeing him and it bothered me.
I remember that entire group of guys he used to run with. They were all pretty wild for their age. The one person in the group that got in trouble more than the rest of them was a really good friend of mine. I never thought he was a thug or anything but he thrived on the attention that he got from these guys by acting stupid. He would get in a fight or do something crazy and they would all laugh or treat him like their hero. Although they were all supposed to be pretty tough guys I only remember him being in the middle of every conflict. Sometimes they would come and get him to settle things they started and he wouldn’t know what the beef was about. I guess it didn’t matter since he had to be a soldier. I used to think to myself how crazy it was that he was going to war with all these guys that only started coming around once they thought he could give them some extra street credibility. I couldn’t tell him anything. The environment was too intoxicating for a square like me to have any effect on his decisions. All I could do is hope he made it through okay and figured it out on his own. Well, he didn’t have time to figure it out because he was killed at the age of 18 behind one of those street conflicts. All those people he fought for and hustled with so hard to be accepted by moved on and when ahead with their lives without him. All he had to show for his decisions was a grieving family and a t-shirt with his picture on it.
The thing that makes me shake my head is that in the past few years I have run across every one of those guys in the group he hung out with and every one of them is living a pretty normal life. They all have jobs and families and are still fighting through. When we meet I always shake their hands or give them a hug. Then, I whisper really low as if my boy can hear me and say “I knew that foolishness wasn’t going to lead to anything good.” Then I just shake my head in disgust at the whole fantasy that the street life has a future. I haven’t run into many older successful street soldiers that didn’t get out of the game. Even if they don’t die we still end up with a bunch of grown men with no contribution to anything constructive and we have to take care of them. There may be a few cats that managed to live their whole life holding down the block but not enough for all these youngsters to think it’s going to work out for them in the long term. Sadly, even with all the evidence we have about what the future looks like; we still can’t stop it from happening over and over. We have to keep trying though because we have enough stories like the three people I could have written this same story about.