Yes, they’d traveled to Vanport in a van, a battered red Chevy van, seating 16, owned by the university, Eli at the helm, but now as they slipped free from the Columbia Slough, it was not simply a van, but a boat disembarking, with skies now lowering, and water now rising, and Eli experienced the familiar tightness in his chest, his breath constricted, his palms moistening. Eli pulled on to North Columbia and headed east toward MLK, passing the water treatment plant, passing County Vector Control, and on, passing the Airgas plant, passing razor-wire lots with piping stacked like cordwood, the road itself ventricular, pulsing industrial heart, ribbed by railway crossings, railways sidings, Columbia River to the north, Portland city to the south, the road itself a boundary, river escarpment rising to the north, small, single-level homes on large land plots dotted with out-buildings, ringed by chain link, squatting to the south, the sky wide and grey to the east, the prospect before him strange and cinematic, setting for a contemporary western, maybe The Last Picture Show or maybe My Own Private Idaho, the passing scene seamlessly transitioning from rural industrial to slapdash residential, and back again, not quite Meth country, but close enough, the road itself a slurry of pickup trucks, dump trucks, 18-wheel trucks, the trucks themselves speaking to Eli of his alien and uncertain status traversing this boundary, in which he did imagine himself pulled into a movie, out of reality and into a dream, but a dream not his, a dream he could not own and could not control.
They passed N.W. Laundry & Dry Cleaning Supply Company, Bob’s Scrap Metals, Columbia Wool Scouring Mills, and then under the Interstate they passed, single drops of rain, fat and slow, now hitting the windshield, and the vibe of the street shifting more definitively from light industry to commercial strip, Clubhouse Cocktail Lounge, Exotica Club for Men on the right, Napa Auto Care and Tire Barn and McDonalds on the left, and here the students roared for Eli to take the right turn, for they were at MLK, and he spun the wheel and careened south, his heart thumping like a drum.
The students had been chattering away, if not exactly merrily, then without the customary edge or anger, Laurel, even, evincing a bit of sarcastic humor about “gang-banging” in the privileged community where she had grown up. The kids had laughed, in the safe confines of the van, leaving Vanport, on North Columbia, they could all identify with that adolescent quest for authenticity, for being more real than one’s peers, to find and display that nut of toughness that would earn respect from others in lieu of respect one could less easily earn for oneself.
As a sapling youth, Eli himself had not concerned himself overmuch with this quest for authenticity, and had in most respects drifted through adolescence in a haze. Obviously he was aware of the zeitgeist, the weirdly disarming cultural atmosphere of the 1970s post-Vietnam and post-Watergate – disco, Jimmy Carter’s cardigan sweater, gas lines, wide lapels and high-waisted pants and long denim skirts – lending itself to an odd experience of dislocation, of not ever knowing what anything meant, or why anything mattered, and perhaps in this regard the decade did represent onset of a kind of creeping relativism connected to the death of God, one of many deity deaths throughout history, to be sure, but this one singularly important because so connected to the world’s simultaneous dematerialization, the claims of quantum technology for the first time superseding the claims of mind and man, and so the gang-banging itself in a way also represented an apotheosis – that I am my own God, order comes from me, with lives measured not in years, but in enemies, not in bytes, but in bullets. Reaffirmation that the world is material, something you can destroy.
The light mood of the students dissipated when the van spun on to MLK, chatter drying up, smiles fading, faces tightening, suddenly aversive, eyes pressed to glass, they careened down MLK, rain drops now spiking the glass like whips. Blade’s normally cheery face transformed to slate grey stone. Flatbush’s leg twitching with anticipation. The Que Dog gazing blankly out the window, not a step, nor a slap, to be seen. Paisley shrunk like a wet leaf into the corner of her seat. Fiske stroking his chin. Laurel scowling. Gary and the Rover Boys variously exchanging looks of trepidation and resolve. Bear being bearlike.
Eli though preoccupied with his own thoughts, still could map their progress toward Albina simply by glancing into his rear-view mirror, and could not help but see on student faces the extreme anxiety young soldiers experience when going into battle for the first time, where the markers of fear shift from landscapes one knows, in which reality possesses an identifiable logic, with dangers one clearly recognizes, to boundary zones where one encounters dangers one cannot identify, but that one can deduce or infer or anticipate from the sightlines of experience. Then there are alien landscapes, in which sightlines resemble nothing one has ever before experienced, and in which anxiety and fear mushroom because one has no way to even conceptualize what form danger might assume, under what circumstances it might erupt, what chronology it may claim, and what pain and destruction it may impose. With this terrifying sense of being entirely unable to map the world, itself a kind of pain and destruction.
* * *
Eli knew this about Albina. Truly no one wanted to live there. Oh Albina itself, Albina as geography, was fine, the particular location toward which they were driving, conjoined neighborhoods officially bounded by MLK on the east, Interurban on the west, Killingsworth to the north, and Broadway to the south. Sitting above the Willamette on a comfortable plateau, verdant, proximate, pleasant enough and promising enough, territorial Albina was just fine. As virtually any neighborhood benefiting from appropriately tender mercies, would be just fine.
There was the place in the imagination of every American city after World War II, the place where “the blacks lived”, the place no one truly wanted to be. There was a locus of experience, which in this particular case, in the case of black Americans who did happen to live in Albina, meant life and existence at the whim of especially meretricious white Americans, citizens and officials, that clumsy, stumbling composite Gulliver, that giant drunken sailor, with its pinched, bloodshot eyes and its blanched, halting, uncertain motions.
Oregon was not the South, but everyone knew the state possessed a yet unredeemed history of racist aversion, with Constitutional proscriptions against Negro habitation drafted into the state’s earliest and most existential legal documents in the middle of the 19th century, and then with a hyperactive version of the Klan during its revival in the 1920s (recrudescing Marx, we can imagine the first Southern Klan of the 1870s as tragedy, while the second National Klan of the 1920s never elevated itself above the status of farce), mostly anti-immigrant, and more political than paramilitary, but happy to apportion its share of Kleagley weirdness in the direction of random black Oregonians who crossed its field of vision.
So when black Americans poured into Portland during the war, two-thirds traveling from Southern states, swelling the city’s black population tenfold in only five years, they discovered subtle, aversive accoutrements of racial discrimination. Not the reactionary, psychologically (and of course also physically) violent, essentially terrorist, ministrations of post-bellum Southern white power structure. But accoutrements nonetheless, and inescapably unwelcoming, albeit in the more genteel, drip-drip water torture fashion in which Portland’s more urbane city fathers effectively cloaked inevitability and fate with irreproachable, and hence infuriating, Psalmic or Talmudic (condensed and distilled finally into Presbyterian) virtue.
To this degree, Albina was a moving target, a state of mind, not a physical location, a simultaneously rac(e)inated / derac(e)inated identity, a condition of perpetual motion, in which Negro removal was always the undertow of any public policy, Albina thus being that realization that one belongs nowhere, that its city will always be dying, that one will always lean closer to death than to life.
Blacks in Portland had always sought integration, assimilation, aspiring to the same comfortable, peaceful existence of their white neighbors, and truly this goal, while never fully realized, had at different moments in the history of the city come tantalizingly close to actuality. But never for long, and never with sufficient traction to inspire confidence about the prospect that durable progress might be achieved over time.
And so, on the afternoon Eli and his students motored down MLK in their red T. State van, the sum of experience for Portland blacks was that they had been sequestered, but only provisionally, with movement and uprooting not of their own choice a constant reminder that they always, and invariably, came last, and were the most dependent variable in the calculations of Portland’s business and government leaders. Which is to say they really were not wanted, and would never be wanted, under any terms, and that true assimilation or integration was simply not an option. They were surplus. And like surplus anywhere, they felt unvalued and were therefore vulnerable to the depredations of social afflictions and diseases suffered by any community that becomes the dumping ground, the last stop.
* * *
While MLK was supposed to be Albina’s commercial backbone, it was virtually empty, far emptier than anyone had any right to expect early on a Thursday afternoon in late April, no longer a riparian source of union but with broken windows mapped to broken dreams, not a backbone but a boneyard, remains of a dying neighborhood, loss of pulse, this the crime, Eli thought. Finding this pulse, the only reparation.
Qualifications. In the early 1990s, by virtue of policies both benign and malignant, Portland like many major American cities had accumulated a sizable population of vagrants, intractables, misbegotten and diseased and discarded human marginalia. Eli and his young charges – now advancing block by block, scene by scene, down the damp and steamy boulevard, expecting to see miscreant black urchins, do-raggedy gangsters, sordid crack dens, furtive suburban clients, mattresses on porches, liquor stores, convenience stores, nail parlors, hair salons – saw little to confirm their bias or their expectations or even their lived experiences (Portland was truly not Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, or St. Louis.). Instead what greeted them as they slid deeper into Albina were handicapped vets huddling in storefronts, stooped old women shuffling down the sidewalk with shawls. They had entered a part of Portland and a part of the mind that was truly closer to nowhere than even to there.
Clearly, there was truth to the fantasy (doesn’t fantasy spotlight the most important truths, important because by definition non-empirical?). Rain-slicked streets, spiked-iron bars on doors and windows, boarded buildings, graffiti. Everyone knew MLK had declined as part of an operatic dance between the local storeowners – older folks, with memories of better times, now struggling to make ends meet, desperately requiring traffic and patrons and business from all parts of the city – and the young kids, seeing no opportunity in their neighborhoods, and essentially taking matters into their own hands – claiming opportunity of their own, as Eli surely would have acknowledged, in drugs, guns, and gangs. An operatic dance, yes, but perhaps less West Side Story than Les Miserables.
A young boy standing lonely sentry by a playground, rain-slicked basketball tucked under his arm. He lifted the ball over his head and shielded his face from the pelting drops. It was dark enough that Eli wondered if they (whoever made those sorts of decisions) shouldn’t turn on the streetlamps. The boy was white. He was waiting, although Eli couldn’t tell if his waiting was for a bus or for redemption. As the van approached, Eli slowed. The boy dipped his knees and flung the ball skyward, with impressive spin velocity the ball rising in a forward arc that carried it 30 or 40 feet into the air, and 20 or 30 feet down the asphalt before it succumbed to gravity, hung momentarily, then plunged earthward, striking the tarmac with enormous backspin that sent the ball, despite its forward momentum, rocketing back over the head of the boy, who pirouetted smartly and sprinted through puddles to retrieve the ball. For the first time in months, really, Eli thought of Lawrence.
* * *
They crossed Alberta Avenue on MLK and almost immediately saw the gang signs, slashes of color slapped on walls of boarded-up storefronts, claims upon territory that had otherwise been stripped from the control of the people living within its borders. The names crafted in angular, shaded, bounded, dimensional block letters, grey, blue, red, black, artfully enfolded within the dimensions of the buildings, accommodating the priority of antecedent glyphs, but bold, a visible chant.
Shit yo pants at my command.
how I know I’m alive.
how you know I’m alive.
Aside from the white kid on the playground, the streets were still empty, populated only by these glyphs on grey walls crying in the rain. But then Eli saw the boy with the fade, the cocky kid who’d flashed his gun for Eli the previous August. Here he was again, still with his homeboys, sprinting down the middle of the empty streets on their chopped BMX bikes, legs pumping, as if their lives depended on finding egress.
Flatbush pounded the window of the van and laughed. “Ho, I know those little motherfuckers! That’s DeSean and Leon and Little Boo! Shit. They booking. Somebody hot on they little black asses.” Flatbush banged on the window with delight and laughed again.
Fiske shook his head. He disapproved. “Those youngsters. Just looking for trouble. Future gang-bangers.”
“DeSean’s my cousin,” said Flatbush, although even Eli knew that “cousin” was a term used loosely and ambiguously by his black students, an interesting survival, he deduced, of traditional family dynamics in west Africa, which allowed for polygamy, did not revere the monogamous nuclear family, and so created room for uncertainty for youngsters about exactly where they fit within the family tree, with cousin thus becoming a loose umbrella term for anyone from one’s village who was remotely close in age and who might, variously, be a half-sibling, step-sibling, first cousin, second cousin, or conceivably some combination of the above, and more. Eli considered asking Flatbush to elaborate on the cousin claim, particularly given his own experience with DeSean at the beginning of the year, but decided to just keep quiet and keep driving.
“If he’s your cousin, you should steer him toward a more righteous path,” said Fiske, who apparently possessed some prior knowledge of DeSean and his crew. “Those kids are a tribe of wild Indians.”
“DeSean can take care of himself,” said Flatbush, adding thoughtfully, “He got two parents. They be churching.” But then amending this presumably reassuring fact. “He want to gang-bang, though.”
“Shit,” said Blade. “Little motherfucker be churching in a box before too long.”
Flatbush shrugged and said nothing more. A police car headed north on the other side of the median on MLK. “Five-OH” shouted the Rover Boys, truly not much more in love with the police than the black students. As the police car drove slowly by, the BMX gang squirted off MLK and disappeared on to a side street.
* * *
Eli turned right on to Killingsworth, then left on to Williams. If MLK was the Albina’s commercial backbone, then Williams was its energetic center and spiritual heartbeat. For a moment while driving on MLK, Eli had wondered what he’d been thinking when he imagined Albina could serve as the host for his experiment in practical pedagogy. When the van hit Williams, he re-remembered.
The entire premise of Eli’s year-long class with these students had been that nothing was static, that to be human meant the capacity to transcend the present and shape the future, to plan, to exercise wisdom, not cunning, to locate the pulse of the body politic, in whatever neighborhood one might be, for the pulse, when discerned, was the spot, the rhythmic moment, when one’s choices actually mattered, had meaning and significance, and possessed that divine spark of creative agency normally associated merely with the inner, self-consuming flame of the artist.
So in spite of everything he’d experienced and witnessed in his year at T. State, Eli clutched a thread of hope. And he wanted his students to experience first-hand the basis for his hope. Right here, he thought, as he slipped the van into a tight parking space on the street across from Emanuel Hospital, ushered his students several blocks east on Russell, right here, on the intersection of Williams and Russell, at Belle’s Crawfish & Blues, an Albina food mainstay and formerly site of the iconic Citizens Fountain Lunch.
* * *
Eli chose Belle’s because she had taken what the world had given her, and turned it into something more, something that anchored the neighborhood, something her kids could build on, something positive that prevented the negative from taking root, and she had done so while under considerable duress. Her parents had managed the Eastside Social Club through the 1940s and 1950s, a hopping jazz venue in Jumptown with mythologized bootleg, speakeasy origins, which no longer existed because starting in 1960 the city had literally erased its presence, flattening it to build the Memorial Coliseum for the basketball Trail Blazers, to build Interstate 5 where Minnesota Avenue had been, wiping out the livelihoods of scores of resilient small businesses owned by black Portlanders, literally creating a dead zone where there previously had existed a vital, spirited neighborhood music, food, and bar scene, attracting visitors from the city, and beyond, irrespective of race.
Albina’s moment of peak vitality occurred in the ten years spanning the end of the war in 1945, when an influx of blacks from Vanport and the shipyards infused the neighborhood with a dense, unconstrained energy, and the 1954 decision of the city’s power brokers, moderate Republican sons of Eisenhower nearly to a man, to extend the spirit of the nation’s emerging interstate highway system into the vital, intimate spaces of the city itself, via interposition of the corporate modernist principles that provided the sustaining, enabling vision for the urban renewal projects of the 1960s and 1970s. Let’s call this decision an implementation of the Cold War ethos of fund the elite by pouring concrete, an urban vision of hardened silos, of civil engineering.
Eli himself had been struck by the timing of the transition, Jumptown the re(al)place/replaced in the span of time that professional basketball integrated its ranks. But this progress in professional sports in the last 1950s and early 1960s (in basketball, signified by the arrival of superstars like Wilt Chamberlin, Bill Russell, and Oscar Robertson) was truly not so much a herald of racial progress in the society, for ordinary black Americans, as it was a mask for the lack of racial progress nationally, and hence itself, again, a mess of pottage, a mere token of progress, representing a dissimulating, prestidigitating bait-and-switch – ceremonial, celebrity Jumping Jack blacks tickling the twine in a Bauhaus-Modern arena at the expense of Jumping Jazz and urban grit and urban grits that had formerly constituted the soul of the black community in Portland and the basis for any meaningful progress toward fulfillment of the American dream available to that community.
No doubt. The Blazers were a stellar team, and in this current season, Eli well knew, arguably the best team in the league, led by the incomparable, high-flying Clyde Drexler and supported by a cast of team-first players. The Blazers were traveling a road to Destiny – and Portlanders adored them because they confirmed Rose City’s own predestination for magnificence. While the Blazers had been the darling of Portland since joining the NBA in 1970, the purchase of the team for $70 million in 1988 by young Seattle software mogul Paul Allen punctuated the decline of the Albina neighborhood through the previous decades, via a logic that also promised to open yet another chapter into the neighborhood’s sad tale of descent.
The Blazers had long been the gleam in the eye of city fathers bent on developing the eastside neighborhoods just across from downtown for entertainment and commercial purposes. The prospect of an NBA team existed – invisibly – as justification for urban renewal machinations through the 1960s. The Blazers moved into Memorial Coliseum in 1970 and when they won the NBA title in 1977, the land on which they played became hallowed ground, and almost no one outside of the black community in Portland even remembered what had existed on the site of the Coliseum prior to the arrival of the Blazers.
* * *
They hurried down Russell toward Belle’s, fleeing a brooding, unnamable menace. Perhaps Emanuel Hospital itself – a yellowing, featureless set of buildings – called forth this hint of decay and collapse. With some relief, Eli settled his students into two packed tables by the front windows Belle had reserved for them. The hospital pretty much dominated their view through the plate glass. An ambulance crawled toward the receiving entrance of the hospital emergency room, attendants wheeling an old black man on a stretcher through gates that silently slid open. Two police cruisers idled further up the drive. A lone cyclist, an exceedingly tall and thin older black man wearing tight ass-high shorts and a tank top, wove his way through the empty street next to Emanuel, his looping path designed not to avoid the puddles, but to find them, each splash eliciting delighted chuckles, deep and resonant.
“Yo, that Praying Mantis?” said Que Dog.
Anthony laughed. “That Praying Mantis. Wearing them fly Wilt Chamberlin shorts running up his ass-crack. He a crazy motherfucker.”
Fiske leaned toward Eli. “Praying Mantis is one of our walking wounded,” he said. “People don’t realize how society’s misfits, its broken dolls, slip and slide and bounce their way down the slope of life until they land in neighborhoods like Albina. In our communities, you see Professor, we don’t judge. We accept.”
Eli didn’t look directly at Fiske, who while a decent fellow, sometimes pecked at Eli a bit too earnestly, and in these moments Eli would suddenly experience a strange sensation of violation, that Fiske had penetrated some private space, and then with some irritation Eli would be aware of Fiske’s warm, slightly acrid breath, and the proximity of his long fingers, gnawed cuticles, a wave of body odor, and then he’d consider how these intimate details were at odds with the Fiskean sweater vests, argyle, tie pins, horn-rimmed glasses. But in this particular moment, Eli thought again of Lawrence, which discomfited him because he generally tried not to think about Lawrence, who in his own Old Testament family drama played Abel to his, Eli’s, Cain. Eli’s progress through life mirroring Lawrence’s regress.
Another police car pulled alongside the first two. A portly cop emerged from the driver’s side, strolling over to the other two cars, standing between them, conferring briefly, a fourth cruiser now pulling up, lights atop this one pulsing red and orange. Suddenly, this cop confab had the attention of Eli’s students. Blade hopped on to the seat of his chair. “The fuck man!” he chirped excitedly. A fifth car joined the group. Then a pair of thick, squat Kawasaki police motorcycles, cops straddling their hot beasts, high black boots planted like black walnut tree trunks, helmet visors up.
Flatbush pressed his face to the window. “I see Chigger,” he said.
“Which one’s Chigger?” asked Que Dog.
“Chigger’s the fat fool who just got out of the cop car,” said Anthony. He laughed. “Hair-Trigger Chigger,” he said. “Now we be getting into it.”
“Who’s this Chigger, again?” Eli whispered to Antoinette.
She shrugged, vaguely irritated by the question. “I don’t know. I’m not from around here.”
Laurel heard Eli. “Chigger’s this cop who gets off going Chuck Norris on kids in the neighborhood.”
Eli then remembered. McSorley and Chigger. Uncle and nephew.
“Chigger the Nigger,” Gary laughed.
Blade turned from his perch on the chair. “He ain’t a nigger, motherfucker. Shut the fuck up. Something’s going on.”
It all unfolded in slow motion from there, at least as Eli subsequently recalled the events of the next 20 minutes. The crowd inside Belle’s had begun to murmur, patrons responding to something unfolding on the television over the bar, as the Blazers were playing the Lakers in a playoff game. But the murmurs carried a darker energy. The street outside Belle’s starting to fill. Eli’s stomach churned.
A touch to his shoulder. Eli turned. Belle, concern written across her face, leaned into him. “You need to get your kids home,” she said.
“What do you mean?” Eli said.
“The jury in LA acquitted the cops. Would be safer to leave now. I can’t predict what will happen. So you go now.”
Eli looked around, calculating how long it would take him to wrangle his students back to the van. He made a move to pull his credit card from his wallet. Belle touched his arm and shook her head. “Don’t worry about that, honey. You can pay me later.”
He herded the students to the door, which was no easy effort. The van was parked at the far end of Russell. They would have to walk past the police in the Emanuel parking lot. Eli’s kids were agitated, and slipping back into type, the conviviality of their interactions through the day now dissipating entirely. A crowd had materialized outside the club, with people pressing through the door, allowing the rain in, and the wind, which had picked up noticeably. Gary and the Rover Boys, Paisley, Mai, and Jezebel clearly wanted to leave. The tone in the club had turned noticeably hostile.
A posse of young men pushed their way into the club, clones of each other, in baseball caps and white t-shirts, chains, baggy jeans, Air Jordans. One of them, a tall, rangy Jheri-curled youth, maybe 19, good-looking, rubber-mouthed, one of those kids who’s always smiling, even when there’s nothing funny, his eyes sliding through the crowd, before settling on Flatbush and Anthony. In three steps, he’d crossed the room and poked Flatbush. “Dog, what you doing here, man?” Then he saw Anthony. “Anthony, homes.” They brushed fingertips, interlocked palms. “Damn, man,” Anthony said. “Y’all going Rick James on us, man.”
Eli guessed this was Nathaniel, whom Flatbush and Anthony sometimes referenced in class. The three of them had come up together, and Nathaniel played basketball with Anthony at Jefferson. Dude was chill, Anthony said. He’d taken a few classes at PCC, but otherwise hung on the streets, considerably, and fallen in with the Eastside Crips. Not hardcore, mind you, but he would party with them, and his girlfriend was the sister of the one of the gang’s head guys in Portland.
Unlike the other gang members surging into the club, Nathaniel wore a cowboy hat high on his head. He pushed it back and leaned forward. “You niggers don’t belong here,” Nathaniel said, still smiling, but his voice earnest. “You best help these white kids leave. This ain’t for you, man.” He looked over shoulder. “See that dude behind me, coming in the door now?” A dark storm muscled through the entry, blue bandanna tied on the side of his head, under his LA Dodgers cap, t-shirt stretched tight across his chest and arms.
“That Maxie?” asked Flatbush.
“Yeah. He just out of prison two weeks ago.” A scar ran nearly sideways across Maxie’s cheek, slicing from the cheekbone to just beneath his right ear. Nathaniel’s girl was Maxie’s younger sister. Nathaniel did his best to look serious. He nodded at Maxie then turned back to Anthony and Flatbush. “Y’all get out of here,” he said again. “If shit gets bad, this is where we make our stand.”
“I guess y’all done hit your limit,” said Anthony.
Nathaniel nodded, then peered past Anthony, a broad grin once again splitting his face. “Yo, Fiske Newton. And Blade T. Damn, you guys got the crew here!”
Fiske Newton was in his own world, whispering to Laurel, then sliding past her toward the rear of the club. Blade didn’t know Nathaniel, but nodded, his eyes narrowing, fists clenching and unclenching, this irruption of his own turf in South Central concentrating his mind, and he scanned the crew pouring into the club. Coming up with Bloods, he needed to parse the reality, like it or not.
Eli saw all of this transpire, even as he wrangled. A rock smashed against the front window, careening away, but sounding loudly.
Eli looked swiftly around once more. He was definitely not in his element, but who would be in this situation? In a second, he was out the door, nearly all of his class in tow. Once outside, he took a quick head count. They’d lost Fiske Newton and now Blade. And Laurel as well, Eli realized. She was trotting down the street, heading east toward MLK, while their van lay west beyond Emanuel Hospital. Eli called to her. She didn’t look back, merely picked up her pace.
The cops walked toward the corner of Williams and Russell, helmets on, visors down, despite the rain, which must have severely limited their ability to see anything. The students who remained with Eli couldn’t help but observe the comedy in the situation. “Dudes need little windshield wipers,” Anthony chuckled.
Hair-Trigger Chigger led the way. Eli could see the resemblance to his uncle at T. State. He owned the same square Nordic face, the same box-like ears and broad flat nose and plump red lips. Chigger was quite a bit smaller, but he walked with more determination, and with less trepidation. Chigger and the other police officers carried side-handle batons, held high in front of their chest, and since these same batons had been used by LA police to beat Rodney King nearly into oblivion, the intimidating intent could not have been communicated more clearly.
Word had leaked out about events transpiring in South Central and Eli could see that the immaterial had now become all too material. The school day had ended at Jefferson High School, only a mile north between Alberta and Killingsworth. Teenage students predominantly black, pouring like a river of coal slurry, down Vancouver, down Williams, the mood anticipatory and opportunistic, not quite Carnivalesque, perhaps closer to Charivari or rough music, energized by an overwhelming sense of historical moment, but not close to being fully in control of itself, except in the sense that high spirits and dark purpose can liberate individuals anonymized within crowds to adjudicate life on their own terms. The streets, previously nearly empty, rapidly filled, to the degree that cars and trucks could no longer easily navigate.
Anthony and Flatbush, both of whom had grown up in Albina and attended Jefferson, could sense what was coming, far more clearly than Eli or any of the other students, with the possible exceptions of Que Dog and Antoinette. Gary and the Rover Boys only knew the moment for jocularity had passed. As they strode down Russell, past Three Stripes Barber Shop, Honest Paul Shoe Repair, Talley Furniture Exchange, Associated Cleaners, the shopkeepers standing in the doorways, faces blanched with concern, because all knew the energy in the streets was suddenly much larger than anything they could contain, or even comprehend, and Eli could see the advancing police phalanx, diminished in only a few minutes by the size of the crowd surrounding them, a tide rising quickly on all sides of a lonely island, and then Eli saw that Anthony and Flatbush, joined with some uncertainty by the Que Dog had formed their own protective phalanx around Eli and the other students.
Anthony and Flatbush were both big guys, and they were known entities in the neighborhood, much looked-up-to by the students coming up through Jefferson, many of whom were shouting their names with friendly greeting as they ran laughing past, but even Anthony and Flatbush were not sure they could maneuver the class back to the van, nor what they might do once they all managed to pile into the van.
Two high school kids – both Jheri-curled like Nathaniel, and with similar loose-limbed strides, lacking only his relaxed smile – angled into one of the Rover Boys, hard enough to tumble him against Eli, who stumbled himself briefly. Eli glanced over at the police line and experienced a familiar sense of deja vu, that here he was again, menaced by young black kids, with cops nearby who were entirely unable to offer him any assistance. Indeed, Eli assumed their presence had actually escalated the risk and danger of the situation.
One of the Jheri-curled boys stepped back and hunched into a fighting posture. “Hey motherfucker, what you doing?” Eli heard glass breaking behind him. Some yelling. The Rover Boy steadied himself, but his eyes were white with fear. The Jheri-curled boy, working himself into a righteous froth, high-stepped toward the Rover Boy. “Who you looking at, motherfucker?” The Rover Boy turned away. “Don’t turn away from me, man!” The Jheri-curled boy laughed, hopping on the balls of his feet, intoxicated by the milling crowd, and by a new feeling of control. He bounced toward the Rover Boy, arms loosely cocked, milling the air, his head darting forward and back, to the right and then to the left, waiting for his moment, which almost immediately arrived when the Rover boy, shoulders still hunched, peered back toward him, as if to ask for absolution. The Jheri-curled boy flew into the Rover Boy, one long arm jabbing him repeatedly in the face and neck, following up with knees and kicks to the Rover Boy’s midsection and groin. The Rover Boy collapsed to the sidewalk like a wet sack of flour. They were still only one block from Belle’s.
Eli knew there was little he could do in this situation that didn’t risk inflaming matters further, so he simply knelt over the Rover Boy and did his best to shield him from the Jheri-curled boy, who had himself been corralled by Flatbush. Flatbush pushed the boy hard on both shoulders. He was furious. “Shit, man, what you doing? These guys are with me. Don’t fuck with them, man!” Flatbush possessed an advantage of years, of bulk, and was evincing a previously undisclosed (to Eli, at least), but quite menacing, energy, his bright eyes flashing such that Jheri-curled boy backed off, smiling tightly, in his mind this the first of many escapades, no need to push matters beyond their natural boundaries, and so, placing an exclamation mark on the matter, he drove one more spirited kick into the Rover Boy’s ribs, and sprinted off, although not with a stab at the last word. “You gots to choose, homes.”
Eli helped the Rover Boy stand. The Rover Boy wiped his face. The girls were crying. “Keep moving, Pro,” Flatbush shouted. “Get past the cops and we might be home free.” Easier said than done. The police phalanx had exited Emanuel and was trying to clear the street. A police helicopter had appeared overhead. Sirens sounded, more cops racing to the scene from the north and west. The rain now let up, and the lightening skies fed more energy to the crowd. The cop next to Chigger was speaking through a megaphone. “Disperse, now,” he said. “We want everyone to keep safe. We want the community to stay safe. We don’t want the city to break.”
But the city had already broken, had been broken, was not getting fixed, so from the perspective of the crowd, as Eli later interpreted their actions when describing what next transpired to Harry, the crowd, independently of any particular individual, saw no benefit to docile obedience, to living inside the lines, hoping things might be better tomorrow, pleasing and appeasing. Each of those actions required a further step toward self-cancellation, and the message of the Rodney King verdict needed no filtering or processing – to wreak havoc, with or without a spirited bonhomie, was the only way to actively reverse agonizing obliteration of self and community.
* * *
“What’s going on?” Paisley asked Eli. She’d been trying to get his attention since they left Belle’s, and he’d been trying just as hard to avoid engaging her. “Fallout from Rodney King police verdict,” he said, taking her elbow and steering her left into a park, which was now filling up with people, as well, and which diverted them away from the van, but at least shielded them from the street. Eli was at this point entirely allowing Flatbush and Anthony to lead the group in whatever manner they thought best. Both boys were deftly protecting their charges, leveraging respect they claimed in their community at the same time they made clear that this was largely a mission of mercy, and no matter what anyone in the neighborhood thought and felt about the Rodney King verdict and the looming police presence, they were drawing the line at threats or harm to anyone in their class. Eli felt relief, and gratitude, as well, that in this moment of chaos, these boys were protecting not only their classmates, but Eli, too.
They approached a berm dividing the park from some backstreets south of Emanuel, a No-Man’s Land between the hospital and Memorial Coliseum. “The hill separates us from this mess. We can get to the van from the other side,” said Anthony. A female voice nearby, a voice familiar to Eli, mentioned the beating of a white truck driver in South Central. “I saw it on TV,” she said to her friend. “Honey, it was brutal. They done yanked that poor white man from the truck by the hair. They was kicking him in the head, smashing him with bricks. Lord it was terrible. Made me ashamed of my race.” The woman clucked anxiously, then saw Eli.
“Eli, honey! What you doing here” It was Jolene, her face wrapped within a head scarf, yet instantly recognizable from voice and body shape. She saw the other students, black and white, standing alongside him. Her eyes widened. “Anthony. You with Eli, baby?”
Anthony shook his head and glanced at Eli. He wanted Eli to handle this one. “Hey Jolene,” Eli said, his voice tense. “Anthony’s my student at T. State. We’re getting my class out before things get worse.”
“I hear you, honey. I’m not sure why you even in this neighborhood to begin with, but you best leave right now. This ain’t no matter to you.” Gesturing to the Rover Boy, whose eye was swelling shut and clucking. “You poor baby.” Jolene pulled the boy to her, wrapping him in her arms, tears filling her eyes. She released him back to Eli. “Chillun just scoot behind me here let my big bootie protect you.” Eli, Anthony, and Flatbush ushered the other students behind Jolene, who had folded her arms, fiercely scanning the rapidly filling park for potential aggressors.
They scrambled atop the escarpment, and from this vantage the scene unfolded in perfect cinematic Surround Sound wholeness, breaking glass, cacophonic shouts, whoop-whoop of police cars and fire trucks. Eli heard someone shout.
SOUTH CENTRAL IS ON FIRE.
Portland officials, nothing if not rational, had obviously determined to avoid this outcome in Portland. The police, joined by another half-dozen cops, now numbered nearly two dozen, and while the policeman with the bullhorn continued to exhort the crowd (which was still trying to decide in what measure to parcel out merriment or mayhem) to peacefully disassemble, Chigger’s defiant, sneering stance belied his darting eyes, communicating to pretty much everyone that the police were at this point buying time, uncertain of their next move, waiting for reinforcements and further instruction from superiors, and focusing in the short term primarily on protecting Emanuel.
The crowd now exceeded 500 people, and if one could not with certainly state it was still growing in numbers, it surely was not diminishing, with a life of its own, spreading now into the park. From their perch, Eli saw the bike posse led by DeSean had rematerialized. The Eastside Crips gang members had also reemerged from Belle’s Catfish Emporium and Blues Club. They roughly forced their way through the crowd toward the park.
The younger boys straddled their BMX bikes not more than 20 feet from the police line, insolent and defiant. DeSean reached down and scooped up a handful of pebbles and rocks. Experimentally drawing his arm back, he mimed tossing the stones at the police. He and his friends laughed. “Hit Chigger!” someone else yelled. “Hit Chigger!” Suddenly, the crowd had taken up the chant, the wall of noise, the rhythm oddly syncopated, emboldened the crowd, which drew closer to the police, and spread further alongside their flanks. DeSean smiled, relishing his spotlight. He unwrapped himself from the bike. Turning his back to the police, he again mimed tossing the stones, this time over his head in the direction of Chigger. His friends hooted, shaking their shoulders and fists. Chigger spoke into his radio. The policeman with the bullhorn continued to tell the crowd to disperse, and, especially, to stay away from the hospital.
“Put dat Chigger in dat hospital” screamed one of the boys on the bike, the one with the Afro, an animated punctuation mark jumping in place. More glass breaking on Russell and Williams. More sirens filling the wet air like goose calls. MLK now Five-Oh alive, DeSean now squinting at Chigger, eying the largest stone in his left hand, freeing the remainder, palming the large stone, hefting it, eying its jagged edges, pecked grey edges, torqueing his back, kicking his right leg high in the air with exaggerated intensity, then swiftly, like a whip, like a striking puffer, arm snapping forward, palm opening, stone releasing, flying forth, perhaps with more action and force than even DeSean intended, carrying some message from beyond his own mind, a collective shriek of agony personally unknown to this young boy, who was directly experiencing only the momentary thrill of conjoining leg, butt, back, shoulder, arm, snapping wrist (snapping turtle sliding into the river), now witnessing the stone cutting through the air in a minor arc, from upper left quadrant, spinning parabolically, jagged edges smoothed out in flight, spinning through the moist air, to Eli’s ear the sound of a grasscutter, universal materialization of every 15-year old American boy’s fantasy, to unleash the dog, the filthy 98 MPH fastball, now dipping slightly, cutting hard and deep into Chigger’s shoulder, dropping in just above the baton, ripping open the fabric of his shirt, gashing a pale star of flesh, driving him to one knee. DeSean and his friends had already mounted their steeds and were angling with synchronized precision back into the crowd, which parted to make passage for them, riding high above their saddles, peddling furiously beyond reach of the police, their war-whoops contrapunt to the police sirens, an antic euphoria.
Beyond the police cordon, in the empty parking lot, shielded from the braying crowd, Praying Mantis rode his bike in circles, oblivious to the chaos on the other side of this thinnest of blue lines. Praying Mantis was trying to pop a wheelie, no mean feat for the battered, heavy bike he was pedaling, and for a man his size and age, but after several abortive attempts, the red frame lifted into the air, and Praying Mantis struggled for several seconds to control his steed, his bucking bronco, caffeinated legs working independently of each other, working at cross-purposes, like asynchronous pistons, dissipating vast amounts of energy in the effort to stay aloft. Finally returning to earth, Praying Mantis, leaned forward, hugging his handlebars, one side of his face flat atop the bell, smiling with pride.
From this sidewise vantage, both legs planted on the pavement, splayed at oblique angles to each other, Praying Mantis quietly observed the activity on Russell. The police line was probably 30 yards away. After a moment of consideration, Praying Mantis saddled up and began pumping the pedals of his bike, heading toward the raucous crowd, picking up steam, swooping to the south end of the police line, adjacent to the park where Eli and his students stood watching. Like a precision aerobat, Praying Mantis sliced cleanly between the heaving mass of protesters, separated from the police line by less than five feet, which was itself now staggering backwards and forwards like a dyspeptic dancer. The BMX boys had just then ridden off. The Eastside Crips boys were muscling into some kind of confrontational position at the opposite end of the police line. Chigger had regained his feet, his eyes reddened by rage.
Eli and his students had been watching Praying Mantis, but when he materialized from the park-side of the protest, pulling hard on his handlebars, front wheel rising into the air, higher and higher, until the bike was nearly vertical, a revelation to police and protesters alike, he elicited diverse responses that, with a crack, split open the earth between the crowd and the cops. The protesters cheered Praying Mantis. They all knew him, after all, and his childlike acrobatics broke the tension. They laughed and clapped and hooted and stomped.
But from the perspective of the police, Praying Mantis had arrived at a difficult moment, exceedingly difficult because they felt control slipping away from them (if indeed they had ever possessed it), and because DeSean’s grasscutter had maximally hair-triggered Chigger himself. When Praying Mantis pedaled between Chigger and the protesters, red bike still nearly vertical, Chigger responded the way a bull in the ring might to the red flag waving in the peripheral corners of his vision. Chigger, a snorting, angry, frightened bull, responded instinctively, truly without awareness of his own movements, much less their consequences, Chigger jammed his baton into the spokes of the front tire of the bicycle, then with the full force of his powerful legs and torso, spokes bending and snapping, Chigger slammed the bike backwards to the pavement. Glued to the frame, hands tightly grasping the taped handlebars, legs pumping the pedals even as he fell, Praying Mantis’s head snapped with a crack on the pavement. The bike lay atop him, wheels spinning aimlessly, Chigger stepping back, less to assess the situation and more to simply reclaim a bit of reality, Praying Mantis’s head now visibly split wide open, red liquid sluicing forth, mixed with brain pulp and brown skull fragments and clumps of matted hair, looking to Eli like nothing so much as a watermelon tumbled to the street from the back of a fruit truck.
Anthony and Flatbush allowed no one to linger. They pushed and shoved Eli and the students off the escarpment, the entire group scrambling down the back-side embankment on their rear ends, feet-first, scuttling forward like crabs, then racing together along the paved pedestrian pathway behind the park, sprinting without heed and without sound to the van, which presented itself to them from a distance as a blessed carriage, the conveyance that could transport them back to arboreal shade and dark-stoned safety.