Chapter Excerpt


A plant with dreams to be a tree Placed in a garden A garden unlike the garden of his birth Bitter with the taste of impure water For the garden was poison Bitter water for the times Now is later to become oh so sweet Victory was not the plant's sweet taste Defeated before the start of his growth These marked the signs of the plant's beginning The start of my ending

Death and turmoil are hot on my heels. They pursue me with relentless passion. In their anger and contempt, they torture me -- body and soul -- beating me, wounding me, and robbing me of my ability to value life -- my own or any other. In the darkness of the streets, my childhood is murdered; innocence is shot. Yet, in the dawn of a new nightmare I am resurrected with earned power and respect. I am reborn -- a gangster.

* * *

It's summer, 1990, and without forewarning, my younger brother, Derrick, and I are ordered to pack up and head out by Mama. We are moving across country from New Jersey to Phoenix -- a long way from home, friends, and our mother. I am nine years old and leaving her behind.

Those who have been to Phoenix, or the P-zone as we call it, can relate to my experiences there. If asked before moving to Phoenix of my opinion of its natives, my answer would have been that they are a bunch of funny-talking country bumpkins compared to the fast-talking city slickers back east.

My uncle flies to my aunt Claudette's house in Irvington, New Jersey, just to drive my brother and me to Phoenix. My mother isn't taking the trip with us; she'll fly to Phoenix in the weeks to come. My older brother, David, is already there. Our journey cross-country lasts four days.

Every summer my relatives Abdul, Irshad, Quadir, and Samad visit us in Jersey. This year will be their last; we're going back with them for good. The carpool consists of six kids, with Irshad and me being the oldest of the bunch.

Uncle prepares himself for the drive by making one last prayer. Inside the house, I am getting my last hug from Mama. Uncle is down on all-fours. His forehead is touching the ground. What's he doing?

Our trip takes us through many states, but none longer than Texas. Everything is so different I feel like I'm traveling through a foreign country. The air is so hot and the humidity so thick it's like trying to breathe through cotton stuffed up your nose. There are weird-looking trees and birds I've never seen before. I'm completely out of my element. The only knowledge I have of mountains, deserts, and cactus comes from what I've seen on television when I used to watch old Western movies at my stepfather's house.

We finally arrive in Phoenix. The air is even thicker and heavier than Texas. The trees catch me by surprise. I thought trees like these could only be found on islands. And the streets are in better condition than the potholed roads in Jersey.

Derrick and I move to Aunt Sabrina's house on East Chipman Road between 18th and 19th Streets in Park South Phoenix. The house is crammed. My two older relatives, Belinda and Athena, share a room. In my room, I sleep on the bottom bunk with my older brother, David. On the top are Irshad, Derrick, and Abdul. It's not the most comfortable setup and being separated from my mother makes me unable to relax in this new environment.

A few days later, I receive a phone call from Mama.

"Hey Mommy! Mom, when are you coming? I miss you!"

"Soon baby. I'll be there before you know it. So do you like it down there?"

"I dunno. I wanna come back home, Mommy. Why we gotta all sleep in the same room?"

"Who's in the room with you baby?"

"Mom there's no room. I have to sleep in the bed with David and he always pushes me out."

"Listen baby, please be patient, you gon' have to make do for now. It's all we have right now so tough it out for a few more weeks. Things'll change when I get there, I promise. Okay?"

"Yeah Mommy."

"Let me speak to your brother, I love you -- you hear me?"

"I love you too Mommy."

Park South covers an area from 16th to 24th Streets bounded by Baseline, Broadway, and Roeser Roads. Buckeye Road -- 24th Street and 24th Avenue -- is home to the majority of the city's Black population. It also is the 'hood of Phoenix's most hostile street gangs -- both Bloods and Crips. Hispanic neighborhoods are between Greenway and Bell Roads and 32nd Street and Cave Creek Road. Fifteenth Avenue, 23rd Avenue, Southern Avenue, and Broadway Road belonged to the Lindo Park Crips.

My aunt's house has three bedrooms with four closets. The kitchen counters are tile with specks of Black. There's a stone fireplace with an exposed stone chimney in the living room and a beautiful beamed ceiling. Behind the house is a spacious yard. It's ideal to have BBQs and take full advantage of the Western atmosphere. The front lawn is gigantic with a palm tree in the front that provides remarkable shade in the summer.

Just as I feared, things change in weird ways within days of us moving in. Already, I begin feeling lonely with the absence of my mother. Why did Mommy send us here? Maybe she don't want us no mo'. I know I'm not the best kid, but what did I do for us to get shipped out? Why didn't she send me to my father's house?

Oblivious to the fact that my aunt, uncle, and all my relatives I now live with are Muslim, I have to dramatically change my life. I don't even know what Muslims are let alone how to live as one. They wear these funny outfits, with caps on their heads. Prayer controls their lives because they pray all day.

I thought people only prayed before eating dinner. Back home, I had the luxury of doing what I wanted, going to bed when I wanted, eating what I wanted, and celebrating Christmas and Halloween. Back home I was a wild child, undisciplined, and free from adult supervision. All the things I'm not allowed to do now that I'm under my aunt's supervision merely went unnoticed by my mama in Jersey.

Here, pork is forbidden, and you can forget about seconds at dinner. Rated-R programs are restricted and bedtimes imposed. I never realized the luxuries I had until I was deprived of those very same things.

My aunt Sabrina is a fourth-grade teacher so she believes in year-round schooling. Cs and Ds are not acceptable and she possesses patience to a T as she tutors us on our weakest subjects.

I hate the house rules because everything here is so systematic and I'm not used to all this routine. There's a chart for who'll wash the dishes, who'll take out the garbage, who'll set the table, and even what we'll eat for the entire week.

I wallow in homesickness much of the time. Throughout my stay, my asthma is aggravated by the atmosphere and stifling heat. Sometimes I have to struggle to breathe in the air, which makes my asthma pump sacred.

Unhappy as I am, my stay does have its benefits. The scenery, for one thing, is dope. Across the street from the house looms a stunning yard with colorful flowers and statues. This is a profound contrast to Jersey's poverty-abandoned buildings, pimps, bums, fiends, and junkies. In Phoenix, I don't have to worry about the ghetto landscape of gutter rats, possums, and man-eating cockroaches. Here, there's room to enjoy simple things.

During the summer, I experience new things: water fights, chasing snakes, scorpions, lizards, and horny toads. I've never seen a lizard before, let alone a scorpion. My relatives are comfortable being hands-on with these creatures. In addition, I'm welcomed by my first fierce sandstorm. While everyone else goes into prerehearsed maneuvers, I'm left to feel the wrath. I learn that the storms can hit without warning, and other times you can tell one is coming by the knots of dust devils discoing their way across the wasteland. Once the wind grabs the sand, you can only see a few inches ahead of your face. If you can't find a car or side of a house to take cover when the storm ripens, you best cower down and shut your mouth and eyes.

Adjusting to the Muslim way of life is a whole new challenge and makes me feel like I'm living in someone else's world. Aunt Sabrina is devoted and completely addicted to her religion, allowing no room for clemency in our gradual conversion. I feel imprisoned. Going from an unrestricted lifestyle to an absolute dictatorship is culture shock.

My aunt is a medium-built woman with a coffee skin tone. She wears blossoming house dresses and sandals. She's strict, religious to the bone, but at times has a wonderful sense of humor.

My uncle signs me up for his Pop Warner football team. He has a full beard that he always combs, and a bald head that makes him look scary. His dark brown eyes see only two possibilities for doing things, his way and the wrong way. His deep, threatening voice commands your attention, and he is adamant about discipline. His face projects a weathered ghetto roughness, yet he looks youthful when he smiles. His facial expression hardly ever changes as he wears a mask of proud distress.

During my first day of football practice, I'm approached as I cross the field.

"Where you from home-bwoy?" a boy taller than me asks. He has on a red shirt and a red pair of Jeepers, which is what they called Chuck Taylors. He speaks with a funny accent.

"New Jerzey." I hold his stare.

"Say what! What set chu from fool?"

Ignorant to his question, I ask him, with a puzzled expression, "What...what I'm from?"

He looks at me like I'm crazy and even laughs.

"What street chu' live on?"

Trying to get hold of the conversation, he makes a weird barking noise as four other boys close in on me. I don't turn. My chest tightens.

"Who you down wit'? Who put you on the set?" demands a shorter boy. Is this a challenge? I feel they are interrogating me, waiting for the wrong answer. I don't know the right one. My heart begins to pound and my mouth gets dry.

I fight off their confusion with an aggressive response. "What set I'm from?"

"Hey Blood," the shorter one says to the taller boy. "I think that's the nu kid from Nu Joisey, Coach's son. Remember he was telling us his son was moving down here and was going to play on the team?"

Sensing some hope, I support their notion. "No no no, he's my uncle."

"Wass yo' name?"


A puzzled look passes their faces simultaneously. "That's what they call you?"

Confused by his concern, I mumble "yeah."

"Homee awright," one of the boys adds. "Listen homee, around here there's a lot of gangs. Y'all don't have gangs in Nu Joisey?"

Gangs, what are you talkin' about?


"You gotta be careful where you go and what you wear." I'm dumbfounded at what he tells me because in Jersey, my friends call themselves GST, Grove Street.

Is that a gang?

For the next twenty minutes, I listen on like an employee in training. Huh? What? Why can't you wear that? This is crazy. The taller boy explains how Bloods and Crips operate. That everything is geographical. Crossing the wrong boundaries can cost you your life. He goes into what the colors mean, red, green, Black, blue, orange, gray, brown, and where not to wear them. He explains that hats, shoes, shoelaces, belts, barrettes, shirts, and flags tell which gang you're with. I learn the names of sets like West Side City Crips, Park South Killer Gangsta Bloods -- 7 Line, Vista Bloods, 79 Swans, and the Broadway Gangsters, and too many Mexican gangs.

The more he talks the more complicated gangs become to me. How can colors stop me from going where I wanna?

A coach's whistle chimes in, momentarily distracting our attention. As the crowd around me begins to disperse, the first boy remains and extends his hand. "I'm Baby Maniak from da Hilltop Bloods." He's friendlier now. When we lock palms, he forces my hand into an awkward grip locking both of our index and thumb fingers together. What the hell was that?

"You need to talk to the set where you live so they can teach you."

Baby Maniak is the first Blood I meet.

In my aunt's neighborhood, males and females wear red or blue shirts, pants, shoes, shoelaces, bandannas, belts, underwear, socks, jackets, and barrettes on their heads. So now, it all makes sense to me why everyone wears these colors, they are BLOODIN' and CRIPPIN'.

While shooting hoops with Irshad, a boy with a red shirt enters our yard. Irshad introduces me to Ammo as his relative from Nu Joisey.

"Wezzz up homee?"

I shoot back with a grin on my face, "Wassup."

Ammo lives at the end of the block.

Ammo is the type of kid that needs little instigation to beat you up. He's respected on the block by virtue of his older brother, Mean D. He speaks with a heavy accent that often leaves me clueless after he finishes his sentence. His dress style is unique, militant, all sharp creases and solid colors.

My friendship with Ammo soon accelerates my acceptance with the other boys in the neighborhood. Ammo is the biggest ten-year-old I've ever seen.

* * *

I spend the next few months adjusting to Phoenix life and culture.

Third grade starts off rocky for me as I endure a few tests. One of many stands out as a worthwhile lesson. In my class, the majority of students are Mexican, followed by a solid force of Blacks.

In the seat next to mine there's a Mexican boy named Ivan who weighs more than I do. For some unknown reason, my ways are insulting to him. It isn't long before, disgruntled with me simply speaking, he advances to open threats.

One morning during class, he whips out a slingshot and aims it directly at me. I leap to safety behind my desk as a rock strikes the other side with a thump. What is he doing? What did I do to him?

What bothers Ivan about me, I think, is not only the implied insult of my untraditional East Coast style, but the fact that I won't acknowledge myself as inferior to him. His posse laughs at all his corny jokes, and puts him on a pedestal. Not me.

Later that day, he makes it a point to sit next to me at lunch, so he can further instigate me. Throughout the meal he criticizes my appearance and the way I speak. "You can't sit at this table homez; you talk like a nerd, all proper." His friends join in the laughter. I pay no attention to them, although inside I feel humiliated. I know I need a comeback but the fear and embarrassment paralyze me.

Finally he threatens, "Boy, I'm a get chu homez!" I am sure he means it.

"I'm a beat chu down punk. Wassup now homez!"

At last, I choose to confront the matter with all the toughness I can muster. "Why you keep messing with me?" I ask.

"Say what? I ain't gotta explain nothing to you punk." At this point, his camp tosses in a few "Ohh's," hyping the situation to guarantee a fight. Wasting no time, my decision is made. I rip into Ivan with all my might, trying to punch his lights out. Gaining leverage and throwing him up against the Blackboard, I connect a jaw-shaking jab after jab to his face nonstop until his three comrades jump in and begin beating me with uncontrollable rage.

"Stooop! Stop! Get off! Stooop!" I shout.

Ivan, panting like a dog, makes them take turns kicking me. I focus on tightening my muscles to minimize the pain of the kicks. As other students cheerfully pack around in a circle cheering them on, I hear a whistle from outside the class. Like trained warriors in a prizefight, they unthinkingly stop ratpacking me and separate.

Ivan and his circle run from the classroom and scatter down the hall, shouting obscenities along the way, promising retribution. Wiping specks of Blood from my mouth and straightening my clothes, I feel humiliated and weak. Although I'm content with my performance until his homees assisted him, the feeling of being a victim hurts.

I want to tell Ammo what happened, but I can't. They gon' think I'm weak; I'm a punk if I tell them I got beat up. They gon' tease me. I keep my rumble to myself.

After this altercation, I realize that surviving in Phoenix means I need my own homees to have my back. Out here on my own, I'm not safe. I don't have much choice; I'm surrounded by gangs and all my friends are down with them.

Hanging out with Ammo, I learn a lot in a few months. Still feeling like an import, I long for acceptance. Mama's absence increases my participation with the gang. I don't feel comfortable hanging around them, but I can't stand being in the house, and I know protection is needed.

Where is she? She lied to me. She ain't coming. I'm a have to live here forever. I don't care if they tease me today. I don't care what they think about me. Anything is better than staying in that house. I'm tired of cleaning. Sick of doing dishes. I hate being told what to do and getting whipped with switches. I can't take it anymore. Why does Mama even let Auntie hit me? She ain't my mother. Uncle ain't my father. He don't even like me. I need you, Mama. Where are you?

Days pass by before I hear from Mama again. Receiving the phone from Auntie, I sit at the table.

"How are you baby?" What do you care?

"Are you coming now? You told me you were coming a long time ago. When you coming?"

"I know. Mommy is sorry. I wish I could be there. I'm trying. I miss y'all boys. How are y'all doing?"

I shrug one shoulder, wiping away built-up tears.

I mutter, "I don't wanna stay here."

Looking around to make sure the coast is clear; I press the phone closer to my face.

"Mama, Auntie hit me with a stick. Uncle choked me for something I didn't even do. Abdul spilled milk on the floor and...Uncle thought I did it. I told him I didn't do it but he still grabbed my neck. When are you coming? I don't want to live here."

I wipe my tears a second time, careful not to let Auntie hear me crying.

"Just try to stay out of his way. You know how your uncle is. I will be there soon baby, and you won't have to worry about that no more. I'll talk to Auntie about it, okay? I promise you baby, I will be there real soon. Just be a little patient. Let me speak to your brother. I love you." And just like that, we are disconnected again.

Living with my aunt and uncle, I am completely miserable. Every day it becomes harder to deal with being in the house and my spirit is regularly beaten down. Missing my mother and feeling like I have no family, my sadness makes me wonder if I'm worthy of being loved at all.

Most days, to avoid whatever is going on in the house, I force myself to join the neighborhood kids, catching the football, or chasing each other through alleys playing tag. Alleys stretch for blocks at a time, filled with graffiti-written walls sprayed with "BLOOD ZONE -- Bware." My adjustment to the gang is slow and I still don't quite fit in. But if I want to have any sense of family and brothers who are down for me, I have to make this work. At times I want to lock myself within a padded room because of the fear I feel when I'm around them. To Ammo, I'm cool, but the other boys treat me like an outcast.

A few weeks turns into months. No Mama. She still hasn't come. Her arrival is slowly fading from my expectations. Every time we speak, it's the same ol' story. I'll be there real soon. I promise. Mommy got a few more things to take care of here, and then I'll be there. I realize she's not coming. In the meantime, my coping mechanism is to suppress my feelings. I concentrate on fitting in with the gang, changing my outward personality to what is respectable on the streets, and hiding parts of the real me deeper within myself.

Then, during mid-December, out of nowhere, Mama appears. Despite my resentment, I'm glad to see her. I want to tell her about my feelings, but I don't know how. I'm not the same little boy she sent away months ago; this place is changing me.

Nearing Christmas, I anticipate my yearly pleasure. A Christmas tree, toys, maybe a bike, or a remote control car, candy canes, and colorful lights. It's what I wait for all year. Talking to Mama shortly before the big day, I'm hit with a bombshell.

"Dashaun, Auntie being Muslim means she doesn't celebrate Christmas."

"So what does that gotta do wit' us? I'm not getting no toys this year, Mama?"

It's Christmas Eve and I'm beside myself with disappointment. Christmas is my favorite holiday. I count down the days until I can dash into the living room and open my gifts. It's not the myth I'm hypnotized by, but the attention. Christmas is the time I feel most important. In my mama's house, classical Christmas music can be heard everywhere from morning to night. All my relatives enjoy the festivities of gift giving at my uncle Pooch's house. Oh, how I wish I could feast on some of the traditional food: pork, rice, chicken, and sweet potatoes.

However, this Christmas Eve things are different.

When morning arrives Derrick and I race into the living room only to be welcomed by Uncle praying. No tree, no presents, no music. I know this gotta be some kind of joke. Looking at Mama on the couch asleep, I begin to fume. See Ma. See what you did! Why did we have to come here?

Sensing Christmas is lost forever, I add another chip on my shoulder.

Weeks later, a mob of us are playing football in the street, something we love to do. What starts out as a clean, touch-only game can, as the competition intensifies, change into an all-out tackling match. On this day, Ammo catches a pass when BJ blindsides him. Adding insult to injury, BJ then boasts about the big hit like he made the top ten on ESPN's SportsCenter.

"Yeah! Yeah! Don't come 'cross tha middle again."

Lying on the ground, unable to move, Ammo looks up at our faces.

Getting to his feet, full of pain and embarrassment, Ammo curses at BJ. He's irritated because BJ won't back down.

"Why you hit me like dat! It's just a game, buster!"

However, to everyone's surprise, BJ matches Ammo's aggressiveness and charges him with a push to the chest sending him flying backward to the ground again. Everyone looks at each other, thinking, Oh shit, he done messed up. When Ammo stands, he takes off running down the block toward his house while BJ continues taunting.

"You know his brother gon' come out here," someone says.

"Fuck Mean D, I got brothers too." Mean D is cliqued up with the Vistas and he's always with a crowd of his young Bloods. BJ lives on Roeser, which is four blocks away; I don't know where his brothers' house is. Not that it matters because his brothers can't help him now. Mean D makes his way down the block in a slow B-Dawg swagger, body fully decorated with tats, and a red belt with the buckle turned to the back. Behind him, Ammo shadows his every step as do three of his soldiers. Everybody knows Mean D isn't one to fuck with, as he totes guns on a regular basis and has an entourage of riders. When there's gunfire on or around Chipman, best believe Mean D's behind it.

"On Blood, who'da fuck faded my li'l brother Blood?"

I feel ill inside at the sound of the word Blood coming from his mouth.

Knowing BJ's responsible, all eyes turn to him. I figure at this point BJ is going to haul ass, but his posture and answer suggest differently. While standing firm in his position, his voice is squeaky and unsure. "W-w-we was just playing football, an-and I tackled him."

Mean D responds in a grimy tone, "Nah mothafucka, fuck dat," Mean D clearly vexed. "You try'n fade my brother, nigga? Wass happ'nin' Blood?"

Before BJ can answer, Mean D socks him with two blows to the face. Ammo retrieves a mini Louisville Slugger from the back of his pants and repeatedly whacks BJ. Oh my God, stop hitting him, won't somebody help him! At some point, BJ gives up trying to fight back and takes an ass whipping he'll never forget. Everyone's laughing loudly, so I join, but inside I'm crying and my legs and hands are trembling. I'm scared for BJ. I want to run away from what I see, but can't. My feet feel stuck in the cement. I am nauseated, and my head is spinning.

What's so funny? Are y'all crazy? I want to help BJ but I'm not getting my ass beat. As BJ lies helpless on the concrete, Mean D begins choking him seconds away from his death. I see BJ's eyes; they are lifeless. He's barely moving. I want to cry. That sick feeling enters my stomach. At this point, the tallest of his three comrades grabs Mean D, saving BJ's life. BJ struggles to sit up but can't. He clutches his neck with one hand, his head with the other. His face is beaten to the point of being unrecognizable. Ammo stands over him, just out of kicking range, and spits in his face, a gooey chunk that lands in his eye. He then does a weird-looking dance in celebration of his actions. Why are they doing that to him? My heart thumps out of control in my chest. I'm glad it ain't me. BJ is beaten, bruised, eyes swollen, teeth missing, and hair caked with his own Blood. Blood is coming out of his ears.

This experience shows me the power of the streets, the power of violence, and more important, the respect received from this type of power.

I gain a higher level of respect for Ammo. I admire the power he has. I wish my older brother would do something like that for me. What better form of love can a brother show than for his little brothers' safety? Defending your honor? My older brother, David, doesn't even acknowledge me. He comes and goes without so much as a ruffle of my hair.

Looking at BJ all Bloody and battered strikes a nerve in me. Is this real? What can cause somebody to hurt someone like this? Afterward, I make sure not to speak to Mean D. I don't want to say anything wrong and get the backlash of his anger. Violence equals respect while the weak get trampled. My goal is to fall in line with the former.

At night, when I finally manage to drift off, I dream that I'm being bludgeoned and people just watch. The next morning, I hesitantly feel my body for any bruises. I become afraid, since I can't tell the difference between nightmares and reality.

When we play manhunt, my speed is too much for the rest. The players include Ammo, Baby B, Li'l Twist, and Li'l Cyko. Baby B has a Jheri curl and deep pockets 'cause his parents have money. He always has paper on him and is always fly, rockin' the freshest fashions. Li'l Twist is adopted. I find this out when I see his parents, who are Latino. Li'l Cyko wears his hair in braids and is a rebel, completely out of line. He's wild, always fighting and getting suspended from school. With a slight breeze in the air, the weather is just perfect to make the game better. I have on a red and white shirt with tan khakis. Eluding Ammo, Baby B, and Li'l Cyko, I decide to expand my perimeter to suit the game. I run three blocks, sprint down the alley, hop a fence, and end up on Roeser Road. As Ammo shouts for me to come back, I foolishly run further into enemy territory.

"Wassup wit' you cuz!" an elder demands as he grabs me by the collar.

"Fucc you doin' round here li'l nicca?" one of his homees cuts in.

I'm terrified. Completely shook, I have no response. Tears stream down my face. What I do? With a blue flag around the face of my violator, I know what I've done. I've crossed the color line.

Two more Crips approach, and now they circle around me. Nowhere to run.

"How old iz you cuz?" He removes his flag covering his mouth.

Looking up into his eyes, I search for the words. Wiping my face I whisper, "Ten."

Seeing a gang of Crips spread out on the block dressed down in blue swells my fear. I'm shoved to the ground.

Looking at each other for what I assume is confirmation, one Crip says, "Stall cuz out. Li'l nicca ain't triccin'." With that, Ammo and B now aiding me, I feel safer with them here.

"Don't come 'round here no mo' cuz!" a Crip yells.

We turn and dart off. "West Side Crip Gang!" followed by a loud whistle followed by numerous chirps' echoes in the distance.

Back on Chipman, my tears will not stop. A small meeting is held on the sidewalk in the blazing sun. We're sopped in sweat. Now irritated, they look to vent their anger.

Baby B turns to me, eyes wide. "You can't do that. You can't bring that shit up here."

Ammo chimes in. "We don't go over there. If my brother finds out, he's gonna sock me out. can't do that again."

I wipe my face again. They're right; my guilt silences me. How can I defend myself when I'm wrong? I'm always wrong. They warned me before about going on Roeser, but all the excitement from the game blinded me. Names like Big C from West Side refresh my memory. The neighborhood talks about him a lot; how he's the one who lays Bloods down. He's the shot-caller and a major enemy of the Bloods. Because of his reputation history, he's both a legend and a major target. Standing there, inches from Ammo's face, I'm disappointed in myself. That was close. At least we got away. All these rules, colors, and sets still confuse me.

Twenty minutes later, Ammo, Baby B, Li'l Twist, Li'l Cyko, and Baby Gee lead me to the alley behind Chipman. They show me a wall with names spray-painted on it. Who are they?

"See these names?" Ammo points to the wall. "They are all dead. Some of them was our ages too. My brother says you don't wanna get put on the wall."

I take a few steps back and compress my eyes. BG, Tears, C-Slash, Li'l Munk, Big Fang, Baby Bone, Play Boy, Sal, Packman, Li'l Packman, Killa, Peaches, Al, Big T, and Dre. My eyes scroll the wall in shock. This ain't no game. Looking around I see Baby Gee tearyeyed. Damn, why is he crying, he acts like that's his mom or something. Is the wall personal to him? I don't want to be on that wall. My lack of knowledge doesn't make me exempt from my obligation. My membership means competence. I gotta get my shit together.

Not long after, I'm scrutinized again. Walking to the corner store, we all count our change. The store is a converted house run by an elderly woman. In the living room, all bag and plastic items from potato chips to bread are displayed in a neat, organized fashion. A den off to the side has all pop items, from soda and juice, to water. The back den is a cornucopia of useless items like statues and figurines. In the front of the house, bam! Candy galore.

The owner is terribly thin and desiccated; her face has more wrinkles than a shirt at the bottom of a pile of laundry. After paying for an item, she motions for me to come closer to her while offering change. Unconcerned, I reach out and mid-transaction I feel her hand. I feel her bones under her skin as she croaks, "I'm old lady Chipper." While waiting for the rest of the gang, I take the liberty of quenching my thirst. As I tilt my quarter juice to my mouth, the gang begins to ridicule me.

"Agghh, Blood!" they shout with looming stares. "What chu doing? Don't drink dat!" another voice tag-teams. "Iz you brazy? I know you ain't puttin' dat poison in ya Blood homee." A few more taunts fly my way as I try to figure out why I'm the butt of mockery. As my eyebrows grow closer in confusion, theirs grow wider in surprise. In addition to the distance I see in their eyes, there's an awkward silence. I hold the juice up in front of my face to examine its contents.

"I can't drink this?" I feel like a child who just received an A and gets a beating for it. "Huhh!" More laughter comes as Li'l Cyko snatches my juice and tosses it in the trash can.

"Why you do that for?" I ask puzzled.

"We can't drink that kind'a juice. You gotta get the red one." My eyes flicker. I realize there is a thin line between our friendship and me crossing the line. I struggle to understand them. Inside, my body feels empty. My mind wrestles to make the connection. I feel weak and two steps behind.

Dealing with the gang is like walking on eggshells. Anything can be penalized. Just like in my house, there are rules and restrictions. I'm overwhelmed with the confinement in a free land. I make note to never drink blue juice again. Watching them exiting the store, I feel my status within the group plummet back to zero.

As time passes, graffiti makes itself more evident to me. I still can't understand most of it. I know the kids in the neighborhood write it, spray-painting every space visible, striking up the turf. My union with the neighborhood kids teaches me Bloods don't say or write words starting with c's. This is how Bloods disrespect Crips. They replace all c's with k's or b's and cross out all remaining c's in the word. My first assumption is that these people have spelling and speaking difficulties. They say car with a b, bar, or come here, bome here. I also learn what dissin' down means. Bloods call Crips Crabs or Rickets to disrespect them. Crips call Bloods Slobs or Snoops. I pick up on the dialect and dress code, and mimicking Ammo's gear helps me isolate my color preference: red.

However, I do find the footwear corny as hell because in Jersey, Nikes and Reeboks are the shoes of choice, not to mention the year-round Timberlands. But here, they wear Converse All-Stars. In Jersey, if you wear Jeepers to school, you will be teased, and probably beat up if you aren't popular. Nikes are for the in crowd. Jeepers are considered poor people's shoes. As if we weren't all poor, Jeepers were beneath poor. In addition, here khaki pants or Levi's are perfect with plaid shirts. Only the top two buttons are buttoned, which leaves the remainder of the shirt open to expose the solid color shirt underneath. This is gang attire, dressed down. No matter how hot the weather, everyone still has on freshly creased khakis with long-sleeved plaids.

It's like a brotherhood among the young'stas in the neighborhood. Auntie and Uncle don't even notice me getting deeper into the gang, and wearing red.

Every morning when I leave the house, there they are, on the corner. It feels as though they are waiting for me. We all meet at the corner of Chipman and 18th, and joke on each other while walking.

After school, Ammo, Li'l Cyko, Baby B, and I meet up and start plotting our afternoon activities. Our homee Lazy is with us. This guy is a real character. We call him Lazy because his eyes are real low and for the fact that he's cheap. He can have a pocketful of money, but when we're all together trying to make a dollar out of our fifteen cents to get something from the store to share, he won't tell us he has money, and he won't chip in. So we all make pacts to finish missions from stealing apples out of a neighbor's yard, to stealing bikes from other blocks and shoplifting from old lady Chipper. She's at least seventy years old. It's damn near impossible for her to peep my swift hand movement from the box of candy to my pocket. While she assists one of us, someone else snatches a handful of candy. The gang teaches me this three months into my stay.

Our missions are very competitive. Every time someone completes one, rest assured bragging follows, which encourages another to pull off a craftier stunt. If someone steals a bike, I steal a better one. If someone hops in a yard and steals apples, I sneak around back and steal their laundry.

At age ten, I attend a few of the high school football games. I learn that, in Phoenix, the high schools are segregated by Bloods, Crips, and Mexican gangs. And the gangs are divided by the two main high schools. There's a gang war on the streets between South Mountain and Carl Hayden high schools. David and Belinda go to South Mountain, while Athena goes to Carl Hayden. After a game between the two rivals, the tension escalates. During this game, one side of the stadium is trued up wearing blue, and the other flamed up sporting red. During tackles on the field, brawls take place in the stands. These two teams despise each other. Gang signs are flashed every play throughout the game, along with nonstop taunts.

After the game, the fight jumps off on the field and parking lot. Hours later it moves close to my house, and I remember seeing over a hundred gang members, fighting like cats and dogs. I don't get involved but for some bizarre reason, I like it. The Phoenix Police Department interrupts the festival and the Bloods run westbound up Broadway. The Crips run east. Whoever is left gets cuffed to the paddy wagons. The violence excites me.

In the heart of my second year living in Phoenix, my attitude takes a spin for the worse and because of it, I'm often whipped. Not by Mama though, but by Auntie. Why does Mama let her beat me? I rebel against the house rules: breaking curfew, sneaking out, abandoning my chores, and cussing. I feel invisible inside a house full of people, all engrossed in their own lives. My mood swings aren't pronounced enough for anyone to notice?

In Auntie's house, there's a lot of emphasis put on the dinner table. We all have to help prepare institutional-sized dinners where everybody lines up with a plate and scoops their portions. Not only did you have to eat all of your food, but taking too long will land a switch to your ass.

Auntie will send me into the backyard to retrieve a switch off the tree. I have to remove the leaves and branches myself before handing it over to her. I often try to choose the smallest switch I can find, but will be sent back into the yard to get a bigger one.

In the living room, Auntie waits for me.

Mama sits on the couch and I sense some hope. I search deep in Mama's eyes for security, interference, and protection. Before lying over the couch with my pants down, staring at Mama, the tears materialize before the whipping begins.

"Mama, please, I'm sorry, don't let -- "


I cover my butt and legs with my hands, but Auntie keeps beating me. Mama sees and hears me crying and screaming. She watches as though my pain has nothing to do with her. When Auntie is tired, she stops. Resentment rages through me. I limp into the bedroom to care for myself, as no one else seems interested. I never understand why Mama never saves me.

Living in Phoenix changes me tenfold. Misery loves company. I begin to enjoy the drama of classmates getting beat up, teased, and seeing their money, pencils, book bags, hats, and pride taken. I get a sick thrill out of torturing animals, cussing, and rebelling. My toughness even shoots up a notch hanging around Ammo and the gang. Wearing my red shirts gives me a sense of pride and acceptance -- a feeling I'm missing at home.

In school, violence is becoming more common. During gym class, Hector stabs Javon in the neck over a pair of Chuck Taylors. They both have the same Black pair on but Hector's is clearly older, and in worse condition. Hector, wanting an upgrade in shoes, punches Javon in the face. They argue and tussle while classmates circle around them chanting "Fight! Fight! Fight!" Hector has tattoos on his neck, hands, and arms. Hector is down with the M, Mexican Mafia. He moved to Phoenix from East L.A. I make my way inside the circle to witness the fight that Hector is noticeably losing. Hector pulls out a box cutter, and slices Javon below the ear. Everyone begins shouting, "He's bleeding. Somebody help him!" Javon is rushed to the nurse's office by the late-arriving gym teacher where they treat him until the paramedics arrive. I don't understand why Hector stabbed Javon over some sneaks but realize that in Phoenix, Chuck Ts are the equivalent of money in Jersey.

In 1992, I'm eleven and, at school, Tray is transferred into my class. Sitting behind me, his arrogance is vibrant. "Man why I gotta be in this stupid class with these busters?" Tray says.

"All right now, just settle down. I won't tolerate that," Ms. Robblie demands.

The next week in class, by way of assignment, I'm partnered up with Tray. We connect. We learn we both have an interest in comic books. We begin bringing comics to class to trade. Eventually, Tray and I become good friends. Tray's from 17th Street. He is dark-skinned with an eighties Jheri curl. He has six brothers who are all Bloods. Two of his brothers pick him up from school every day always dressed in red. Seventeenth Street goes by PSKGB-7 Line, which is Park South Killer Gangsta Bloods.

As the months pass, I start hanging at Tray's house after school. There, I see how the Sevens operate. What really intrigues me about Tray is his freedom at home. His father is a typical deadbeat, and his mom can be found getting served on the block. His older brothers take care of the house, and him. His house is a classic ghetto house party: loud music with pounding bass, blunt smoke thick in the air, drinks being passed freely, and wall-to-wall Bloods. It is a daring lifestyle and projects an aura of glamour that I want.

The Sevens' idea of fun is getting drunk off beer and bragging about work put in. They shout Blood slang and connect their hands in duo and trio stacks. I find out Li'l Tray drinks, smokes cigarettes and marijuana. A few times Q-Tip offers me a hit but I refrain because I have a severe case of asthma, and most times being in the presence of smoke irritates my condition. However, it's on the Seven block that I take my first drink, Night Train to be exact.

Sitting in Tray's room we get ready to head outside. His room looks like a typhoon whipped through it. His room is struck up with X7 everywhere. Red flags nailed to the walls. Before we leave, he pulls a pair of tan khakis from underneath his mattress and steps into them.

"Tray, why you put cho pants under yo bed?" I assume he's hiding them.

"We gotta have sharp breases in our pants. So if you sleep on them at night they'll be brispy in da mornin', bee," pointing to the textbook creases.

"Why don't you iron them?"

"I dunno, this how my brothers do it, this how everybody do it."

On our way downstairs, we hear loud laughter in the basement. We eavesdrop on Tray's older brothers and homees, mindful to keep quiet so we don't get caught. "What dey doing? Can you see?" Tray asks.

"Shhh, wait a minute I can't see." Inching the door open some more I see 357s, rifles, and a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun that looks as tall as me littered throughout the room. Picture after picture is being snapped of Soul and the enormous Gauge propped over his shoulder like prey after a successful kill. I can't help but desire to be down.

Leaning on the door, it makes a creaking sound.

"Get cho li'l ass outta here B, befo' I bank you," someone shouts from the group inside. I slam the door shut, pivot, and run back up the stairs with Tray behind me. Before reaching the top, we're called back into the room. Reluctant to go back, we head downstairs. I allow Tray to go in first. I hope they're not mad at me. Entering the room, I find a spot on the couch.

Whatever the Sevens are involved in seems cool. Every day consists of the same things: after school, click up on the block, drink 40s, and score some licks. I learn through their bragging sessions that licks are robberies.

Soul stands up and passes a gun around the room. "Check this out homee. Brand fuckin' new. No work on it. You know we gotta test it out." He proudly passes the loaded piece around the room. Captivated, each person takes turns stroking, and aiming it. A few even stick the pistol down their pants reenacting whipping it out on their enemies. When my turn comes, I cradle it while examining its features. I've never held a real gun before. It's striking. I visualize walking around the streets with it on my waist.

I feel that sense of power later on when Soul shows me how to shoot it. Handing me the gun, pointing it at the streetlight, I hold it tightly with two hands, close my eyes, and squeeze the trigger.

"Pop! Pop!"

I can't describe the exhilaration. Instantly, I understand why Tray's brothers are hooked on guns.

I spend days mimicking handshakes the Sevens do before engaging in conversation. This ritual is quick and intriguing. It's clear anyone not a part of this secret society doesn't matter.

Q-Tip approaches Tray and me as we sit on the porch. He has on red shorts with a red flag hangin' from his pocket. His underwear is made out of red bandannas. He sports red laces in his Black Chucks while dipping with a gangster mask on. Dipping is a Seven block in-house walk that all Sevens master. They arch their right shoulder back as far as it can go, which inflates their pecs, or breast if it's a home girl, and walk stiff as a board. The arched arm is viewed as the number 7 while the left arm hangs straight down by the waist side signifying a number 1. The right thumb hooks to the front of their pants where the pelvic bone is.

I admire the bond between Tray and his brothers. It reminds me of all the things I'm missing. My older brother, David, is wrapped up in his own life. If he loves me, he doesn't show it. Most young boys want to mimic their older brothers, hang out with them and talk about girls.

Tray became much more of a brother to me than David. While leaving a local store in the neighborhood, Tray and I talk about comics.

Out of nowhere, I hear a voice, "Way-Gang mothafucka, Crack!"

Tray gets mauled by a guy accompanied by two friends. The individual who punches Tray has big eyes and an attentiongrabbing scar on his cheek.

This joker has to be all of six feet, 160 pounds, and possesses a manly build. He pounds on Tray, who's barely a hundred pounds soaking wet. His two homees position themselves around me so I can't run.

"What cha'll doing?" I say in a scared voice.

"Shut up li'l mothafucka."

I think twice about saying something, but the sight of Tray getting beaten up in front of me encourages me to be brave, act like a soldier and a friend. Bravery can only be determined when opportunity presents itself. With numbers, age, and size on their side, the other two hoodlums are looking on, fixing their eyes like watching a movie. I scamper past the two, but in mid-stride, bang! They pounce on me. As I roll around in agony, trying to regain the air that is knocked out of me, I'm snatched by the collar, and forced to stand. A solid kick to the chest knocks me back to the ground. Everything is spinning now as I receive another kick to the stomach. Forsaking me, they dive on Tray in unison.

I stagger to my feet and attempt to help again by swinging on the shortest of the three assailants. Connecting to his torso, the punch packs no weight. The attempt makes matters worse for me. The next shot I take to the stomach like the first and has devastating impact. I go crashing into the concrete again. While falling to the pavement, I drift into darkness filled with stars and circles. I begin to lose consciousness. I force my eyes to focus. Dazed, I struggle with all the energy left to stand to my feet.

"Squab fa yo'z cuz."

On one knee now, I am short-jabbed to the jaw by assailant one, folding me up on my back with my knees bent to my chest. While positioned atop of me, he goes through my pockets.

I blurt, "Fuck you!" and receive one final slap to the face.

It hardly seems a fair fight; we are beyond helpless.

Someone in a parked car across the street shouts "Let's go!" in a deep, rough voice. All three predators jog toward the car and make their escape.

Lying there, looking up at the sky, my mind swarms with thoughts. Then I begin going to pieces when I see Blood trickling down the sidewalk. I remember sitting up feeling nauseous. I try to use my arm to hold me up but I am too weak. I hear someone say, "Don't get up, stay down." Although I can't connect a face to the voice, the words resound over and over in my mind.

"Don't get up, stay down."

I lay in the center of a large crowd that materialized in seconds. I hear voices coming from different directions. Whimpering, Tray utters over and over, "Wait till I tell my brothers, just wait." Who can I tell? I think for a moment. My heart is pounding and I feel my Blood thumping in the side of my neck. I start wheezing, trying to catch my breath. As Tray and I lay stretched out on the pavement, a young woman offers us a hand with the look of genuine compassion.

Our attackers have to be fifteen or sixteen years old. Gang banging doesn't discriminate on age, gender, or nationality. I don't know why they jumped on us. I assume it has something to do with Tray's red sneakers, shirt, and hat that display X7. I end up with a deep gash in the back of my head, and a few scrapes here and there, while Tray's wounds consist of speed knots and internal pain from the beating.

Back on the Seven block, a li'l breathless from the rapid jog, we tell everything to Tray's brothers.

"What the...who did this to y'all...ahh fuck Blood...What happened...Yo, yo, nah, what the fuck happened?"

I'm surprised at how his brothers respond to our condition. They question us more than attend to our wounds. Their aggression sends chills of relief down my spine, for our injuries spark their anger. What better form of love can one show than concern for your protection? The best thing about hanging with a gang is that revenge is mandatory, right or wrong. With the gang members, where there's no biological connection except a street sign, they protect me with their lives. Mama just sat on the couch watching Auntie beat me.

Despite the pain from the beat-down, the brothers' plans for revenge feel better. I want to tell Mama, but opt not to. What were you doing around there...? Go to your room...What did you do? Not the response I want to hear. My older brother is no protection; his life is consumed with girls and football. Getting my ass beaten has more meaning than I know. It opens doors for me to be loved, protected, and down -- part of a family.

The aftermath is more important. Broadway and the Seven block been at each other's necks long before I came to Phoenix. So after they get all the information from us, they order a cadre of troops out to Broadway to seek revenge. At school the next day, Tray informs me the Sevens were successful in their attack.

After helping Tray in his squabble, his brothers' attitudes change toward me, but in my favor. Waiting in line for the ice cream truck, Blizzard, Tray's older brother, approaches.

"Hay wut up li'l Blood, you need some paper?"

Another night the Sevens are about to go out to eat. Before leaving, Q-Tip rolls the window down and shouts, "We 'bout to grub, iz you hungry?"

I feel closer to them, more involved, and respected. I earn the title "Li'l Homee."

They take me under their wing, but I still have a lot to learn, to earn, and to prove.

One afternoon, a bunch of us are hanging on 17th Street eating some jellybeans. Me, Li'l Tray, and another local kid are sitting on the sidewalk joking about the events of the day. As Tray's older brother Soul approaches us, I notice something out of place. He had blue laces in his shoes. Why is he wearing those? I thought they didn't like blue. I wanna ask him. I wanna know what it means, but Soul is so aggressive, he might knock me upside the head for asking. I decide not to bother him with my questions. Instead, I ask Tray.

"Why is your brother wearing blue laces?"

"He purified his flag," Tray said.

What the hell does that mean?

Soul walks into our cipher and notices me looking down at the blue laces in his All-Stars. I've nervous now and Tray puts me on the spot.

"D, ask him what you asked me."

Damn, Tray, why you do that? I don't wanna be a buster and ask. I don't wanna seem like a lame. Just then, Soul stares me in my eyes and demands, "What?"

I don't say anything, I just point to his shoes, which is more than enough for him to understand my confusion.

"Ahh, this ain't 'bout nothing, li'l homee, just caught a ricket slippin', now he sleepin'."

At this point I still haven't made the connection. I'm always a step behind, but Soul schools me. "The only time you catch the homees wearing flue strings is when we smoke a rip. We only do it for a day, and then we burn them. Don't trip, homee; you'll get some too."

In school, Tray says he has something to tell me later. All day I wonder what it is. I'm actually nervous. After school, his brothers are not there to pick him up. We head home. Halfway there, Tray opens up.

"My brothers told me if you wanna be my friend and keep coming around, you gotta blaim the set. You know, get down with the turf Park South." Simultaneously he makes a one and a seven on both hands.

"You gon' have to get jumped in or put in work. My brothers will show you how to catch Crabs." Initiation for the Sevens usually means taking a beating from the entire gang and hunting Crabs.

Jumped in? The way I seen the Sevens courting new recruits left me wondering, Why do they want to hang with people who beat the crap out of them?

The beatings look real and scary enough, but it isn't like a typical fight on the street. A recruit will fall to the ground, then be made to stand once again, and then will resume the beat-down. Everything seems rehearsed and staged because it appears so perfect. At a predetermined time, one of the Sevens will shout "Seven up!" ending the beating.

Once over, they will all hug, and congratulate the recruits. Everyone chips in on cleaning the Blood off them. T-shirts soaked with Blood are held high while everyone shouts with praise. Now I know why in Tray's brother's room, they have T-shirts hanging on the walls with similar Blood streaks, the Blood they shed for their turf.

I don't want that. And eating crabs, I don't know if I can do that, I'm allergic. They must really like me though. They want me to hang with them.

I ate crabs once before, but was rushed to the hospital with an allergic reaction. I was given a shot to minimize the swelling along with some big-ass pills I resentfully swallowed.

A week later, it's time. While Tray and I test our range with a football on the Seven block, the Sevens swarm me.

"Ayy Blood, we gotta take a ride. Hop yo' ass in the bawr."

Fear surges through me. My legs begin to shake, and my heart thumps. I weigh my options but realize there's none. When I see Tray's not coming, I ask, "Ay Tray, you coming?" I pray he is.

Before he can respond, Soul chuckles, "Nah he ain't go'n, just you home bwoy."

Q-Tip follows with some convincing words, "We'll be right back. Don't trip." Soul tosses a Black button-up shirt at me. Why do I need this shirt, I have a shirt already.

"Put this on home bwoy, you might need it." I step inside the green and white '64 Pontiac Catalina. Inside is a female driver who I have never met. I ride shotgun while Tray's two older brothers, Soul and Q-Tip, file in the back. Still unaware of their intentions, I let my imagination coast.

* * *

The sun is just beginning to set, and the heat is cooking us like a Thanksgiving turkey. Inside the car, G Len blasts through the speakers and smoke fills every area. At the time, I don't realize that every one of their exhales counts as my hit of the weed. I feel woozy.

While riding, Q-Tip and Soul reduce their voices to almost a whisper. I can't understand them because the bass drowns them out. It gets under my skin because it makes me think of two conspirators scheming on someone, possibly me. During the ride, the unknown female driver never says a word except when she curses at a civilian who almost steps in front of the car.

Our destination is 23rd Avenue. I have never been on this block let alone this neighborhood. "Welcome, Crips cards stay hard" is spray-painted on a wall at the beginning of the block. It is unnerving. Why are we over here? As we continue down the block, the driver lowers the music just in time for me to catch the end of Soul and Q-Tip's conversation. "He ain't ready. If we get caught, don't nobody know nobody," Soul orders. This spins over and over in my head. Get caught for what?

"You ain't spot no C-food yet?" Soul asks the driver a bit frustrated, before taking another drink of beer and another drag from the brown paper bag. Inhale...exhale...inhale...hold it, hold it, hold it, exhale...I want to know what they're thinking, but everyone's too quiet. I don't know how to break the silence.

"Who we lookin' for?"

Q-Tip, without a doubt feeling the effects of the ganja, shoots back, "Don't mad'da." Then Soul hands the brown paper bag to the driver. Putting the bag to her face she takes two deep hits, zoning off.

"Another one bites da dust," Soul chirps while Q-Tip ruffles the top of my head.

Soul instructs the driver to "get that bitch out of the glove box" in a voice a pimp uses to talk to his ho. Without question, she removes a silver-looking object partially covered by a Black bandanna. It is a gun. Then I feel a big solid hand grip my right shoulder.

Soul leans into me and whispers in my ear in a voice I have never heard before. "Bee dem right dere bick'n'it Blood, take this and squeeze bix times. If you wanna be down you gotta get down."

As I try to turn my head, Soul stops me, redirecting my head back to the front, and demands in a low cold voice, "Focus!"

The hair on the back of my neck stiffens. Focus! A simple nod of the head, as I try to appear indifferent.

What do I do? Is this what Tray meant by huntin'? I fear if I don't follow their plans, I'll be beaten, or worse, left for dead. I'm afraid, Don't be a coward, I scold myself. How will I learn? I can do this. This gyrates over and over in my mind. I take a couple sips of beer and it takes hold as I welcome a bewildering shot of calm and composure. New thoughts arrive: This is my chance to prove myself.

We are now officially in L-Do Crip 'hood.

Scattered around the block, various kids chase each other, while others throw a ball around. They look like they're having fun. I wish I could play with them right now.

"There they go," Q-Tip whispers to Soul. Breaking my stare from the kids, I make contact.

"Look at them busters sleeping. Iz you down or wut nigga, I know you ain't punk'n out? Punk mothafuckin' Brabbz rollin' hella deep...If they only knew dat dem Sevens on da creep." Soul rhymes getting amped. When I connect to the object of Soul's affection, I think CRIPS!

The energy in the car is infectious. I nod my head, picking up on it. As we approach four or five boys hanging out on the corner. I hear a strong click sound behind me.

"Here Blood." Soul passes me the gun.

Before I can finish my thoughts, Soul says, "Yeah mothafucka," in a cocky superior voice that sends chills up my spine.

The gun is chrome with Black electrical tape around the handle. I try to zone off and make them see I'm not bitching up, but my nervousness is still in control. As we approach the corner, doing 5 mph, I form my face into the best mask I can find. Seconds before the showdown, with hand and fingers positioned around the gun, my anxiety thickens. I stick my head out the window, aim, and meet the eyes of the fool closest to the curb. I close my eyes, draw in one last breath. There's no turning back., click...Pulling the trigger gives me a hypnotizing power that surges through my extended arm, up my shoulder, and down my back. My ears ring as my gun pukes its contents. After the initial shot, in the car, egging me on, I hear "Yeah Blood! blast dem mothafuckas!" The first shot is the hardest. Soul and Q-Tip cheer me on from the inside as I continue to fire. Crips start running every which way. Somewhere around my third shot, I feel like I'm playing Duck Hunt on Nintendo. Everything seems to reduce in speed. "Agghhh shit run!" Crips' bodies crumble after each shot. Needless to say, all the practice from Duck Hunt paid off because I am on. I feel a connection that no other feeling can replace, jubilation at its purest and ripest form. It's the utmost penalty man can physically give and receive, and I'm behind it. I now have the power.

"Be out, be out Blood!" Soul shouts as soon as the gun stops, Q-Tip reaches over me, and snatches it away. During the ride back, I try to recollect what just happened. But Q-Tip and Soul keep shouting "Blood was in a fuckin' zone! That's what the fuck I'm talkin' 'bout! Sevens shakin' shit!"

It's hard to digest their praise, for my conscience is condemning me. I feed off their energy with little grins and smirks to show them I'm not fazed. In minutes, we pull up to the Seven block.

I take a moment to ask myself what I have done. I cannot find an answer. Exiting the car, I'm impressed by the welcome I get from everyone. I'm known and recognized now. My name has made a mark here. The Seven block's finest. Sho Nuff, Righteous, Lady Killer, Bam, Li'l Bam, Seven-up, Li'l Seven, B-Boy, She Devil, and Rabbit. Everyone is watching me for any signs of "is he gonna fold on us?" This is my interview, my first impression, my opportunity for acceptance.

They hold a victory celebration for me inside. Drinks, weed, and whatever is in that brown paper bag is available. I feel guilty about what I did, but the exhilaration outweighs my disturbance. Not wanting to appear lame, I take a few more swigs of the beer. I experience pure unadulterated power and it sticks with me from here on out. B-Boy puts $50 in my pocket. Lady Killer continuously praises me, twisting her fingers up in my face in a friendly manner.

"Blood'n ain't easy homee. If you wanna be down you gotta stay down. You gotta earn yo' respect out here, you flow? You flow wit' me?"

I don't get to answer because Soul interrupts. "You gotta fight, shoot, steal, stab, and anything else it takes. We at war with the Rickets." West Side City. "They don't give a fuck how young you iz; they'll smoke yo' ass. So instead, we gon' blast dem up first. If you ain't down to squab for yo's Blood, den you buster like Blood." Processing his speech I, with a wide grin, try to appear unmoved so as to not show weakness.

Tray approaches me after Soul's pep talk. "How was it?" You knew the whole time where I was going. Before leaving the Seven block that night, Soul hustles over to me and tells me 'hood shit stays in the 'hood. Before I turn and walk away, he throws up the 17th Street sign, and waits for me to respond.

Gracious that he acknowledges me, I return the greeting with a one and a seven. He shows me a few signs, and how to diss down other sets.

"Tomorrow, I'm a show you how to strike up the 'hood." Striking up the 'hood, I heard Tray mention a lot. In fact, I was with him a few times he put the spray cans to use. I'm spellbound by Soul's words, actions, and acceptance.

On the way home, my stomach is queasy. But the Seven block's embrace is rewarding. I feel good. Turning off 17th Street onto Chipman, I practice throwing 17th Street up exactly how Soul showed me. Passing an SUV, I spot a glimpse of myself, and the seven I throw up in the window. Backing up to take a better look at my reflection, I extend my pinky and thumb using my right hand, and hold it to my chest. Fuck daddy! I see myself in a different light. A new image. I'm down.

Stepping in the house, I head straight to my room. The adrenaline finally drains from me, leaving me fatigued. It's difficult to get comfortable because David hogs the bed. But I force my eyes closed with hopes of abandoning the horrific images, but they take a liking to the darkness in the back of my lids. Even though the sharp pain in my heart is hard to swallow, the new coat over my stomach tells me I can do it again.

My heart gradually finds its way back to the traditional beat of boom, boom, boom. I'm left with the indescribable flashes of the destruction I caused. I go through every feasible rationalization my ten-year-old mind can conjure up to justify my actions. Nothing surfaces except, Why did I do that? Are those people dead? I remain open-eyed the entire night. My mind shouts back, in an effort to defend myself.

Soul's words resound again in my head, "Focus...Focus...Focus..." The confusion of regret and acceptance gives me a throbbing headache. In time, I realize this night marks my first recorded separation from self. The moment I pulled the trigger, I'm broken and forever changed. After this day, I know violence equals power, and love.

When I wake up the next morning, I am my mother's son again, not the person from yesterday. My stomach is settled but my head is pounding.

At school, Tray appears to be just another kid, but the flag he wears should have been a sign. VII sparked up all over his backpack, notebooks, and sneakers. He always makes reference to the number seven in any and every discussion he has.

"I put it on seven, or word to the sevens."

I always wonder what-all Tray had done for the Seven block. I will never find out. During the end of our fourth-grade year, Tray is caught in crossfire and killed during a drive-by shooting.

We are both eleven years old.

Copyright © 2008 by Dashaun Morris

Excerpted from War of the Bloods in My Veins: A Street Soldier's March Toward Redemption by DaShaun "Jiwe" Morris
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.